Planning Our Camino

Preparing for our Camino

Preparing for our Camino

Our plan was to start the Camino in mid-September. This allowed us to take advantage of the decline in the tourist season (school starts) and the cooler weather.  We’ve heard that the summer months in Spain can be uncomfortably hot and the thought of being packed into a un-airconditioned albergue with 50 of our fellow pilgrims did not appeal to either one of us. We expected the trip take between 5 and 6 weeks, depending on the weather and how well our feet, legs, backs and spirits hold out. Our planning was proportional to the anxiety we were feeling in attempting such a trek. As you ‘ll see on this page, we are trying to cover all the bases, both physically and emotionally.  Enjoy!

PictureHow Are We Getting There?

Joe: One of our first planning steps is figuring out how to get to our starting point, St Jean-Pied-De-Port, a small french town at the base of the Pyrenees in southern France.  I’d saved up enough Delta frequent flyer miles to get us over to Europe but I had also been playing around with the idea of trying out Space A, a program where military retirees (Elaine) can hop onto military flights for free when there is space available.  I happened to be over at my brother Steve’s house today (last night was poker night) and decided to drive over to Westover Air Force Base which is one of about six Space-A terminals on the east coast.  I walked into the terminal and quickly met Dan, a laid back and talkative Space-A representative. Dan immediately started giving me all the details of using Space-A. How to sign up, where to go and when, best times to travel without getting bumped by high priority passengers. Most of the Westover C5 flights go to Rota, Spain which is just perfect for our purpose. When he began to explain all the cool things we could do once we get to southern Spain I mentioned to him that we were not planning to stay long, that we’re going to travel immediately north for a hike in northern Spain.  Dan’s eyes lit up and with a smile he said “Oh, are you doing the Camino de Santiago”? I said “yes” and he quickly replied “I did it last year”! We immediately became friends and for the next two hours he told me everything there was to know about the Camino. What to expect, what to bring, where to go. The most important part of our conversation and the reason we are going in the first place was reflected in Dan’s words.  “The Camino was an amazing, life changing experience for me”.  These are words I have repeatedly seen in the blogs, in the books and now face-to-face. We have no idea what specific changes we are going to see in ourselves or in each other but it appears pretty certain, there will be change……

So, how are we getting there? Well, here is our “planned” itinerary but, as we all now by now, it will surely not be our eventual path:
1) Board C5 at Westover AFB and fly to Dover (11 Sept 2012)
2) Fly on C5 from Dover to Naval Station Rota, Spain
3) Get passports stamped, buy sim card for iPad, exchange $ for Euros, make Ryan Air reservations and find a place to sleep
4) Catch bus to Seville, explore Seville for 2 days
5) Fly Ryan Air to Bordeaux, France
6) Catch train to Bayonne, France
7) Catch train to St Jean-Pied-de-Port
8) Get our official Camino Passports to certify we are “pilgrims” and then a good nights rest
9) We are off and on The Way

For those of you who are active or retired military here are some Space-A links and even an app to help you learn the ropes and be on your Way also:

Should “Trekking Poles” be Part of Our Camino Luggage?


Elaine: When you plan to walk an average of 20 km (12 miles) per day, with a backpack over your torso like some human snail, every ounce of weight is critical.  As we cut the ends off our toothbrushes, cut the extra length of straps on our backpacks and verbally jousted over who would carry the luxury items like the iPad, the idea of adding trekking poles seemed pretty wasteful.  After all, you can find sticks in any wooded area, and they are free and biodegradable.  I tested both aluminum and wooden walking sticks as part of my preparation for the Camino and despite the increased problem of weight, in this case 13 ounces, I decided it was worth it.  Why?

First, the trekking poles are lighter than wood which means I can walk much farther with them without my arms getting tired.  The poles have uniform handle grips, and the height can be set using telescoping extension to suit my individual needs (for straight walking, they should be about two inches below your arm pits.)  The uniformity in weight and height allow me to walk more freely, keeping a steady pace because it makes my stride more predictable. A more predictable and uniform stride feels more effortless and takes advantage of the momentum I seem to naturally build as I walk freely.

I have tried walking over rocks, creeks, and logs piled so high I could barely climb over them.  In each case, my walking poles allowed me to maintain my balance and even gave me a “leg up” when I had trouble lifting my backpack-laden body over these obstacles.

The grips provide a non-slip surface and grooves for my fingers and with the little straps I keep around my hands, I know they won’t fall should I suddenly let go.  Also, I know this sounds crazy but the little strap makes me feel like the pole is holding my hand and providing a little boost when I use it to raise myself.

Today, there was a time I noticed a sharp pain in my knee that seemed to come out of no where when I was climbing some rocks.  You know, that kind of stabbing “whoa what was that?” kind of pain that makes you stop dead in your tracks and wonder if you’re going to feel it again.  Well, of course I did feel another ice pick stab under my knee cap and it was enough to make me concerned about being able to finish the hike.  I used my hiking pole as a makeshift crutch, and I was able to walk it out after a few minutes.  The walking stick took the pressure off my knees, and my mind long enough to keep me on course.  It was an unexpected benefit.

Walking down steep declines can be scary, especially when you are a desk-jockey like me and have poor balance.  I don’t mean the kind of disequilibrium that comes from cerebellar damage or too much alcohol, but its enough as I have gotten older that I tend to step more gingerly than I would have as a kid.  Back then, falling down just meant doing a quick scan checking for blood on my knees.  Now, I start to wonder if my blatant disregard for calcium is going to come back to haunt me with some broken bone or hip fracture.  The walking poles help me to put the brakes on these otherwise rapid descents, and it makes walking down feel safer because I remain stable by setting one pole below me before stepping down.

I have to be honest and say that walking with my trekking poles reminds me of the days when I owned a Nordic Trak and felt like I was getting a good work out for  both my arms and legs with the cross-country skiing action.  I imagine my arms getting thinner and more muscular with each stride.  The truth is it will probably take a lot more than the million or so strides I will take as I walk the camino to get my arms “ripped” with muscle, but whenever I get these negative thoughts, I think about my old physical trainer who said “low weight and high reps may not build as much muscle, but it will help tone you.”  So, toning it is.

For me, preparing for the walk of my life means I am open to trying new ways of interacting with my environment, testing the design of my body and finding new and novel ways to improve the things I have control over.  Trekking poles make me feel a little bit like a cyborg with two extra appendages which help propel me forward as I grow fatigued during my journey.  I welcome anything that helps increase my endurance and raises my confidence.

A trekking pole can range anywhere from 25 to 250 dollars.  Mine cost $40, Joe’s cost $100.  Here is a good link that provides more details:

Whether you choose to buy trekking poles, to pick one up for free in the woods or to go “stick-less” think about your particular situation, needs,  and goals.  Set aside any fears about how others will perceive your choice, and walk YOUR walk as you see fit.

As always, “BUEN CAMINO”

Fitting 10 Kilos of Crap in a 5 Pound Bag


 Joe: We have been struggling for the last two weeks to get our packs down to an acceptable weight for carrying 800 kilometers on our back.  We had not realized that going in October would have an effect on our “luggage”.  October is the rainiest month of the year in northern Spain and it has a very wide variety of weather conditions from hot to freezing. This requires us to be well stocked on warm weather clothing, rain gear and a sleeping bag.  The books say that our packs should never exceed 10% of our body weight or 10 kilos (22 lbs) max.  During my Appalachian Trail hikes I was carrying anywhere from 35 to 40 lbs.  Luckily, for the Camino we can expect a bed every night to sleep in, dinner (and a bottle of wine) on a table every evening and every day fountains, cafes and coffee shops in the villages we pass through.  Still, Elaine has amazingly gotten her backpack down to 15 lbs while I’ve been struggling every night to get mine below 25 lbs.  We’ve made numerous trips to REI for lighter gear and we’ve spent way too much money (why is price inversely proportional to weight, you would think less material = less cost!!). Elaine keeps saying “but darling, think of all the money we’ll save by flying in the belly of a C5 transport”.  I’ve cut off every loose strap I can find, replaced my Leatherman with a mini version, and bought a lightweight down sleeping bag. The whole time Elaine is smiling at me with her minimalist backpack and clothing making comments like “this is suppose to be a spiritual experience, let go of your possessions”. Today, I finally throw my backpack into the back of the car and headed for Westover AFB.  An hour and a half later I walked into the Space-A terminal and found Dan sitting behind his desk.  He laughed when I threw my backpack on the luggage scale and it showed 23.5 lbs. “Joe, you shouldn’t have more than 18 lbs on your back”.  We then spent the next hour going through each and every item.  I ditched my coffee cup, my 4th and 5th pair of socks, my foil space blanket, my matches, my extra 110/220 wall adapter, my backup ear buds (I’m not giving up my Bose), my pillow and my fleece jacket (have to replace it with a ultralight down jacket).  We did it, got it below the 22 lbs max!  I’ll never make the 18 lbs (10%).  Elaine says with a smirk “You should just diet and lose the 4 lbs to make up the difference.”  I decided I’ll just get to my 10% by gaining 40 lbs eating lots of pasta before we step out on the trail.  Much easier and enjoyable!

Here is a link to the Camino discussion forum about backpacks and weight:

BTW, my (John’s) empty backpack actually does weigh 5 lbs but I’ll never give it up!

Elaine: As we think about the physical objects/possessions we want to eliminate, I can’t help but think that this is the easy part, which is hard to believe since we take at least 20 minutes each day obsessing about our backpacks.  The much more challenging question is what we want to remove from our minds as we prepare for the Camino.  I want to leave out the belief that I must have creature comforts in order to be happy.  I read about a psychological study recently that said that individuals who value experiences express greater levels of happiness than those who value tangible things.  It makes sense.  Think of all the literature and movies with characters who lose sight of life’s real treasures because they sell their dreams for gold and silver.  I’ve been thinking about the book by Coelho, The Alchemist, where he says something like, “where your treasure is, there is your heart.”  The reason this quote has had such an impact as I prepare for this adventure is because I realize these things we carry are meaningless. The intangibles–like love, a higher purpose, the desire to follow our dreams rather than sell out for more money in order to “buy” our sense of security is what this camino represents to me.  My treasures are my husband and the people I love who I call family and friends.  When I think of how I want to plant seeds to grow as I walk this grand path, no matter how far I eventually go, I want the trail to abound with love, compassion, talk of dreams and how to make them come true.  I want to show Joe how much he means to me by spending time with him and listening to his dreams and how to realize them through my support.  Our relationship is the treasure, more than gold, stocks, or any precious metals. So this is the time in our lives to count our steps together rather than our dollars, and I believe it will bring so much more wealth to our lives and spirits than any monetary riches or material possessions.  So with all this said,

Why Am I Bringing This Freaking iPad?!!!

Elaine: It is not a topic I take lightly.  After all, it adds weight and it can be a type of tether to the world we are trying to leave behind in search of a simpler, less demanding lifestyle.  All day long, we are bombarded by emails, phone calls, stock alerts, google searches, streaming this and that, apps of all sorts.  Aren’t we trying to experience each other and our surroundings?  Not only that but an iPad (and the Bose) makes me more worried about being robbed during the long Camino.  Why would I want to do that to myself.  So tell me if my answer is a copout.  First, I can use it as a camera to include videos.  When, my storage space for pix is used up, I can email them to myself and family.  I have apps on the ipad which will help me like a currency converter, a language translator, a train schedule for Spain.  I even have a Camino app! I plan to put some good books on it before I leave so that I can read on the plane, in the airport and anywhere I have time. Am I trying to control the experience and flying in the face of the tried and true axiom, “Let go and let God.”  I am not sure I have the best answer to this question.

Joe: I think it’s all in how we look at the possessions around us, how we use them, how important they are to us. Are they tools that help us or burdens that hurt us?  We could be using the computer and the internet tonight to watch mind numbing movies, randomly browse news articles or shop for the latest and greatest useless gadget.  Instead, we are using the computer and the internet to explore our thoughts and feelings, to be a little creative in our writing and to plan our direction down the next path.  We have complete control over our actions and thoughts……if we choose.  My plan is to use the iPad  for keeping in touch with our friends and family and to write about our experiences.  If our link to the outer world gets stolen or smashed along the Way than I’ll just assume it was in Gods hands and HE chose to let go.

Reading List


Joe: Reading is a big part of our planning and our enjoyment in anticipating the big adventure.  Saint James Way is not just a hike through pretty country, it’s a pilgrimage, so we are being careful on what we “anticipate” about the journey.  From all accounts this is suppose to be a very spiritual and life-altering experience but it’s going to be different for each individual person. That said, we’ve done some research into what to expect physically along the way and we’ve read a couple of books into the more spiritual side of it.

Physically, this is going to be a very grueling hike at times, we’ll be climbing (and descending) mountains up to 1500 meters (4500 feet) and there will be a wide variety of weather conditions to expect so we had better be prepared, making sure we have the right equipment and the right attitude to complete the journey. I’m not going to go into too much detail here because there are some excellent websights out there as well as guide books. For a guide book we decided on John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Santiago (2013 edition). Here are some helpful links to the The Confraternity of Saint James website and for ordering the guide book:

Spiritually, Elaine narrowed in on two books for us to read: To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela, by Kevin Codd, and The Pilgramage, by Paulo Coelho. To the Field of Stars is the Camino journey seen through the eyes of a Catholic priest who is very respectful of the spirituality and religious views of others while at the same time being very objective about his own faith (or lack there of). The Pilgrimage is a more metaphorical story that is a mix between The Knights Templar and Don Quiote but in modern times.  Here is an excerpt from the book that hit home for me.  It reinforces my motivation for doing these types of trips.

 When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. From The Pilgramage, by Paulo Coelho

The Check List

Elaine’s Backpack


1) Backpack, Lightweight, 52 liter
2) Trekking Poles, Aluminum
3) Sleeping Bag, Down, 45+F, 27oz., w/stuff sack
4) Sleeping Bag Liner, Silk, 7 oz, adds 9F
5) Crocks
6) Poncho, light weight
7) Socks, 2 pair, smart wool
8) Sock Liners, Injinji, with toes
9) Gloves, All Season, Tech Friendly10) Carmex
11) Band Aides, Blister
12) Mole Skin
13) Dental Floss
14) Benadryl
15) Naproxen
16) Pain Killers, high strength
17) Ambien (for sleeping in snore-filled rooms)
18) Vaseline (for feet)
19) Ace Bandage
20) Head Lamp, LED, Black Diamond
21) Toilet Paper and seat covers
22) Jacket, OmniHeat Technology, Waterproof
23) Sarong
24) Thermal Underwear, polyester
25) Pants, L.L.Bean, Hiking
26) Underwear, Exofficio, nylon/lycra 2 ea
27) Sun Block, 45
28) Cream, moisturizing, in small container
29) Shampoo, Hilton Hotel
30) Towel, camping, fast drying
31) Toothbrush
32) Toothpaste
33) EmergenC, powdered drink additive
34) Headset, Bose, noise canceling, for the C5 and snorers
35) iPad w/caseWearing
Hiking Pants
Keen Hiking Sneakers w/ Dr. Scholl’s inserts
Columbia Long Sleeve Shirt w UV protection
Wool Hat
Credit/Debit Card

Joe’s Backpack


1) Backpack, Kelty, 5 lbs, 82 liter
2) Trekking Poles, Carbon Fiber
3) Pants, Hiking, North Face
4) Shirt, Hiking, SilverBack
5) Underwear, 2 ea, polypropylene
6) Socks, Smart Wool, 2 ea
7) Sock Liners, Injinji
8) Hat, roll up, bush
9) Down Jacket , North Face
10) Shirt, Short Sleeve, UnderArmor
11) Shoes, Crocs, Ultralight
12) Rain Jacket, Patagonia, Ultralight
13) Rain Pants, North Face, Ultralight
14) Rain Cover for Backpack
15) Rain Chaps for Shoes
16) Gloves, Flight
17) Knee Brace
18) Sleeping Bag, REI, 20+, down, ultralight
19) Head Lamp, LED, Black Diamond
20) Whistle
21) Adapter, 2 ea w/ cords
22) iPhone
23) Pocketknife, Mini, Leatherman
24) Towel, Camp, Fast Drying
25) Headset, Bose, Noise Canceling
26) Snacks, Granola Bars, 4 ea
27) Vaseline, for Feet
28) Toothbrush
29) Toothpaste
30) Dental Floss
31) Razor
32) Guide Book: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago (2013 edition), by John BrierleyWearing
Hiking Pants
North Face Trail Sneakers, Boas
Fox Hiking Shirt
UnderArmor T-Shirt
Credit/Debit Card
Reading glasses