Raising a baby means we’ll be tied down more to our home, but we want to be sure that messages conveyed by the decoration of our home reminds us of the places in our past that have formed us, and to instill in our baby boy the possibilities of exploration in his future.
Before the current practice of sharing travel experience on blogs and on our social media “walls”, the place where I highlighted my travels was on a physical wall – with printed photographs and maps. After Kim and I married in 2017, I moved into her small home and in the room that became “my room” for my office and over-flow, I had a new opportunity to decorate the walls anew with my photos and artwork. But more than this being a simple task of taking down framed pictures from a wall in one house and hanging them on another wall in a new house, this exercise took on new meaning and relevance in the context of family, marriage and our combined household.
Kim LaViolette and I were married on September 3rd, 2017 in Asheville, NC, our home. We subsequently spent almost 3 weeks in Central Europe: in Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia for our honeymoon. Of course, the purpose of this trip was to just relax together after all the to-do’s and busy-ness culminating up through the wedding. Yet, “relaxing” in a new international destination is not in my skill set. I’m much more experienced at “filling time” with activity rather than quietly enjoying the emptiness of it. So it was an early compromise for both of us to balance simply being together slowly with opportune spurts of chasing our curiosity around the bend and running around capitalizing on ideal photo lighting and angles. This compromise played out each day in one way or another, but to our benefit, we also structured the larger trip to have its slow and fast segments. We started out with five leisurely days in bustling Prague, and also built in three days of near nothingness on a car-less island in Croatia. Getting to and from these “hubs” of leisure, we were on the fast track, navigating public transportation and making shorter stop-overs at in-between cities and destinations.
While I don’t intend to write an extensive review of the places we went, I do want to include this trip among my documented travels, by sharing this highlight video of the honeymoon. And also, to note that when we got back home we learned the “honeymoon is NOT over” for we had unknowingly brought back a souvenir with us.
I first wrote and debuted this song in 2002 at our Mosteller Family Reunion as a reminder of the family roots I cherish in my life as I was trying to find my own place in life. At our most recent Family Reunion in 2017, I performed it again, but it had further significance in that my fiance Kim was with me at this reunion, and this was only two months before our wedding. I’ve also acted as an archivist for our family, collecting and scanning family photos for preservation and sharing. I made the following slideshow to accompany “My Roots Song” to show that a song such as this was not so much written “by” me, but was written “on” me.
As in the previous two years, I took advantage of my final spring student tour group ending in a major airport hub (PHL), to seek out a cheap flight to somewhere new to explore – giving myself a little break at the end of very busy stretch of work tours.
This year I found a $450 round trip to Zurich, Switzerland, and thus I went, arriving in the AM May 27th. The goal of this trip was primarily hiking in the Alps, and fortunately Switzerland has frequent and efficient public transport (train and bus) to get from the cities to the smaller alpine gateway towns. After making stops in Zurich and Berne to walk around for several hours, I made it to Interlaken in time to also check it out. But my main target was Lauterbrunnen, where I went the next day by train. I’d heard of this valley before, how glaciers left behind cliff walls with numerous waterfalls cascading down into the villages and fields of bell-clanking cows. Stepping out of the train station, I was immediately impressed by the setting, and upon checking in to my hostel, set off on walking up the valley floor, passing several tall waterfalls and looping up above to cliff walls through Gimmelwald and Murren. This is a great hike and I highly recommend doing it starting by noon, as there’s a big difference in scenery when the sun shines bright on the white waterfalls on the east-facing cliffs. By mid-afternoon, they are in the shadows.
The next day was a chill day before I began my four day trek on the Via Alpina, so I just relaxed around Lauterbrunnen enjoying the amazing setting. I was inspired to reconsider the “Top-10 list of most beautiful places I’ve seen” that I had created over a decade previous, and so I filmed and compiled this video:
As for the trek I intended to do, I wanted to hike a 4 day stretch Eastward on the Via Alpina, a trail that crossed the whole of Switzerland into Lichtenstein. The section I wanted to do crosses some fairly high alpine passes, but drops down into the valley villages such that sections can be done in daily doses, staying in hotels, hostels, and B&B’s en route. Even though my online research told me that it might be too early in the season to navigate the trail, I went ahead and booked lodging in sequential valleys towns, hoping things would work out. Here’s how it went:
Trek day 1: Left Lauterbrunnen at sunrise, and hiked up to Wengen and on up to Kleine Scheidegg pass. Rain was forecasted for today, but all I saw above me was blue sky, and the massive rock faces of Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. From the pass, I could see that the trail would descend a more sheltered route into Grindelwald, but I wanted to stay higher for the open views, so wrapped around a trail that was actually closed due the snow that still draped it in stretches, up to Manlichen’s peak and overlook, and then descended to Grindelwald from there. I stayed at Hotel Alpenbick (in their basement dorm) and ate a big dinner. I had dressed light, expecting wet weather, but instead got a big sunburn. It was around a 22 mile day.
Trek day 2: One thing I was learning about the trails in Switzerland, is there are MANY and well marked for the most part, directing you from village to village. The Via Alpina is not the only trail, and it is constantly being transected by other worthy trails. So leaving Grindelwald, I decided not to follow the Via Alpina’s gradual ascent up the pass, flanking a paved road, but promptly ascended steeply up to Bort and Schreckfeld to immediately be rewarded with open views over the valley with the snowcaps in the background. From there I could follow a route that stayed fairly level along the mountainside to the pass at Grosse Scheidegg. Like the day before, looking down from the pass toward the next valley, I preferred to take the route less traveled flanking the open mountainsides, then down into the valley rather descending directly by the road and shelter of trees. This was a good call, except that in the process of washing my lunch nectarines from my fingers in a stream, I dropped my camera in water. I dried it off as best I could, but it ceased to work, and the rest of my trip would have to documented with my iPhone. My chosen trail did descend back into the valley, rejoining the main route, and even though it had more tree canopy and roadway development, the views were great and the towering peaks seemed omnipresent. I passed through the main valley hub of Meiringen, and hiked up to the village of Hasliberg-Reuti where I stayed in Pension Alpenbick, where I was the only guest. It was an 18 mile day.
Trek Day 3: By this point I was feeling confident that warnings about the higher elevation trails not being passable in the early season were over-cautious protocols. After all, we’d had 3 straight days of temps in the 80’s. But on this day, when I hiked the long steep route up to Planpatten and saw snow drifts that still blanketed the narrow ridge lines that I was supposed to cross, and clouds seemed to linger on that side of the valley obscuring both sun and visibility, I realized the warnings were legit and I was worried for the first time. Since clouds and views over the hill and beyond the bend prevented me from being able to tell just how covered the trail was, I decided to just proceed, telling myself I’d turn around if encountered anything that I considered life threatening. I grabbed a large wooden stake (pole) to help me keep my footing and balance when I had to cross sloped drifts. Fortunately, it had been warm enough that the snow was fairly melted such that I could create my own footholds by just firmly planting my feet with each step. If it were ice, it would have sent me for a ride. So once I accepted the consequence of wet feet in my tattered running shoes, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. I passed several chair lifts that were shuttered for the season, and only saw other people in the little hamlets at Tannalp and Engstlenalp. I was the only hiker, and by the infrequency of other footprints in the snow, I had probably been the only hiker for some time. When I crossed over Jochpass, the snow was at its worse, but ironically at its easiest. It no longer made sense to even try and follow a trail when the whole slope seemed to be white. I saw that if I just stayed close to the ski lift lines, I’d get to where I needed to be, so I implemented a kind of combination of downhill hiking and sliding and promptly got to where the snow petered out, and I could resume on marked paths. However, at Trubsee, the steep trail down to Engleberg was closed. I was forced to take gondola (the first working one I’d seen all day) down. I did not complain. It had been a long, precarious day. Though a shorter 15 miles, compared to the previous days, this one felt longer.
Trek Day 4: Due to the nature of the previous day, I decided to alter my hiking plans and forgo my intended last leg of the Via Alpina, as it would be passing another high pass of unknown condition. So I slept in a bit, enjoyed a nice breakfast at my Engleberg Trail Hostel, and mapped out an alternate route. I hiked up to Ristis, Brunnihutte, and the panorama at Rosenbold, and wrapped around the mountain side, without having to navigate snow or high passes down into Wolfencheissen. While that ended my alpine trek with a more leisurely 10 miles, I promptly caught a train to Luzern where my walking was not finished. I retired my old trail shoes in a park, and took a nice chilly swim in Lake Luzern, checked into my Backpackers hostel, cleaned up, then went about exploring the town, spending my last Swiss Franks on a donner box, and grocery store bread, cheese and beer to be consumed on the promenade banks of the river while the city transition to night.
The next day, June 3, was all about travel. I took an early morning train to Zurich, and another to the airport. I flew to ATL passing the 9 hours watching four forgettable movies. I retrieved my car that I parked in hotel parking, grabbed a quick dinner with cousin Jeremy, and then drove on to Asheville to happily see my awaiting fiancée Kim and pooch El Guapo.
In summary, this was a great little week-long escape into stunning nature. The Swiss Alps are deserved of their beautiful reputation. The Via Alpina is not like a US long distance trail that takes you away from human activity for days on end, but rather links you to numerous villages that dot the valleys and mountain sides, and connects to many gondolas and lifts to ease your journey if you are so inclined. For the most part, I would say that the human activity and amenities do not detract from the stunning nature around you, but add to it with charm. I particularly enjoyed that these amenities of public transport, frequent food and lodging meant that I could make such a trip, traveling light with a relatively small carry-on backpack, meeting my needs along the way. If you come before mid-June, the trail conditions in the passes over 2,000 meters might be sloshy, but there are plenteous simpler trails to explore at lower elevations (however those may not lead you to the “next valley” if you are planning a point to point thru hike). I had reserved each of the places I stayed in, so I was sort of locked into a route. While I probably could have just shown up without reservations or a set plan to some places as it was still early in the summer season, I get the impression it would be challenging to trek the Via Alpina relying solely on serendipity. Places may fill up, or you will end up staying at a much more expensive place than you wanted. Switzerland is already very expensive for transport, restaurants, and lodging, such that I would be hesitant to do a prolonged, meandering trek. The more frugal way to do it would be to carry camping gear, and you can eat pretty well from the grocery markets in the hub villages; however, the terrain forces you into some grueling steep ascents and descents, and I was so glad I was only carrying my small, lighter pack. Pros and Cons. In any event, make sure you get out of the villages, charming as they are, and away from the busloads of Asian tourists, and put your feet upon the vast network of walking trails in Switzerland. It so often feels like walking through a movie or a painting, idyllic and all around you.
(For an expanded photo look into this trip, feel free to visit my facebook album for Switzerland 2017 )
As the months have passed by since we finished our trek of the Camino de Santiago, I’ve been meaning to write a wrap up about the experience of walking the 500 mile pilgrimage route. I think I wrote plenty during the walk, but much of the experience of the Camino is not just the everyday details of walking the trail, but the impressions and influence that slowly sank in, and are often not realized till after you get back home and try to go back to old routines.
Perhaps one indication of how the Camino “sank in” subconsciously is how much it appeared in Kim’s and my dreams in the weeks after getting back home. I’d dream of places – maybe not specific familiar places, but rather shifting, enticing, unfamiliar places, with a sense of expediency to eat, sleep, and figure your way on to the next. In one dream, I happened upon one of our friends we met on the Camino – someone we had actually only met for a day, and yet in the dream I embraced him and wept on his shoulder.
If dreams were an indication of the Camino somehow playing out in our subconscious, so was waking up. Kim and I both had moments where we’d slowly come to consciousness in the darkness of our own beds and own bedrooms, and feel disorientated and unsure of where we were. Then we’d slowly make out the contours of the walls, the door and the furnishings, and realize we were just home. It took some time for the familiar to feel familiar again.
People of course ask, as they should, “how was it?” but I feel a bit like I did coming back from the Peace Corps. How do you answer that? My typical answer, in its briefest was “It was great, really great” because it was. And I would add, “It was really special to wake up each day and just walk, and let yourself be surprised by what you’ll see, where you’ll eat, and where you’ll stop to sleep.” I loved it, and Kim did too. But many friends already knew to expect that – that it would be a special experience, and so some would ask more directly, “Was it transformative?” “Was it magical?” That has been even harder to answer.
Kim and I talked about it soon after the Camino. While walking it, we were both skeptical of the veteran walkers who said it was “transformative” and that it had changed their life. Our silent response: OK, good for you, but I’m not going to pin that magical expectation on my Camino. We’ll just experience for ourselves. And after we finished the Camino, as positive as it was, we both avoided attaching that kind of lofty language to our experience, especially when talking to people who might consider walking it themselves. We do believe it is transformative, but best to be experienced slowly, and muddled like a dream, or perhaps waking up from one, rather than having it preached upon you. Fortunately, most people we met, and most veterans and hospitaleros (hosts), were not preachy, but meek and quietly aware that to dictate an experience is a sure way to diminish it. And that might have been the most magical of all – that all of us pilgrims crossed each other’s paths – maybe for a moment, for a day, or multiples with heightened awareness, knowing the humble facts: to each their own experience; each person must walk their own path, and the rest of us are background players and scenery. We are fleeting footprints in a thousand other’s stories, but without us as backdrop, there would be no stories. When I think about it, how odd and obvious that I too must make cameos in other people’s dreams. The fleetingness, and yet impactfulness of our interaction was magical.
The intention I wrote out at the start of the Camino: “Savor the Serendipity of Each Day as the Honor of Leaving Sacred Footprints”. This, I am grateful to say, was fulfilled without much effort, or more accurately, the lack of effort and intention opened the door for serendipity. The Camino is a place of structured serendipity. It answers one of the most fundamental questions for you: what path to take, and what direction, so that the rest can be a grand mystery. And this would be my primary recommendation for anyone considering walking the Camino – pack light in what you carry, both in your backpack and in your head. Don’t try to make reservations or plan your days out in advance; make room for mystery. The Camino will take care of you better than all your preparations and schemes.
Within that serendipity, the Camino, rather than taking on a feel of randomness, took on an aura of connectedness. The varying landscapes and the ever revolving carousel of other pilgrims seemed to have its own meaningful flow. Amid the simple task of walking each day, the ups and downs and the changing scenery subtly reflected life’s larger journey, and I found myself quietly learning lessons I didn’t know I was learning. Though I did remind myself of my stated “intention” by repeating it each day, it wasn’t something I concentrated on deliberately like a puzzle or in a prolonged meditative state. I just would speak it briefly, and let is sink in without me paying attention to it. I think sometimes when you take on a challenge like a pilgrimage, it goes so slow that it’s able to sneak up on you. The final destination is ever the focus, but when you finally get there, you somehow realize you already found what you were looking for.
In closing, I’ll share some works I’ve created since being back from the Camino.
Besides the whirlwind highlight video I created at the top of this post, I created a photo album in facebook of my favorite highlight photos: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153977181752201.1073741855.524417200&type=1&l=0c7fbcbf52
And Lastly, I was selected to give a PechaKucha talk in Asheville. This is public speaking / presentation series similar to TED talks, but it is based around a slide show of 20 frames that are shown for 20 seconds each. My talk is entitled “A Pilgrim’s Progress” and below is the text/notes from my talk:
- Imagine we learned of a trip we had both taken, for example, You also hiked the Inka Trail, or lived in Edinburgh during the Fringe festival, and I said, “Hey, let’s get together and talk about it, and let’s invite others who have done it, and let’s meet every week to talk about it!” You’d think, maybe I’m “into” that trip way too much.
- I’m a RPCV and the local chapter has monthly meet up, and that makes sense to have an intentional meet up for such an impactful experience. But there is another Meet Up group in Asheville, based around a travel journey they mutually share. They meet weekly, every Tuesday morning.
- The “trip”, the experience they share is walking the historic pilgrimage route “Camino de Santiago” in Spain. Many of you have probably already heard about it as it has taken on bucket-list fame of late, popularized in books and movies, and friends have done it or want to do it. My goal here is not to focus on the facts of the Camino, nor summarize my own walk.
- That info is easy to find. An online search will instantly produce hundreds of videos of people’s journeys, and blogs, including my own travel blog here “Itchy Foot Prints”. But I want to explore this question: “What is it about walking the Camino, that people are zealous to reconnect with after the journey is over?”
- First some Fast Facts: What is the Camino de Santiago? It is a network of historic pilgrimage routes from the middle ages that lead to Santiago where you find enshrined the supposed bones of St. James, patron saint of Spain. Thousands of people walk it each year. They are referred to as “peregrinos” or pilgrims.
- Fast Facts – My Personal Experience: I walked the Camino with my girl-friend, now fiancée, Kim. We did the Camino Frances across northern Spain. It is the most popular of all the routes. It is 500 miles and we completed it in 26 days, averaging 18.5 miles a day. We did it Sept-Oct. 2016.
- A major aspect that makes the Camino different from a sight-seeing vacation, is that pilgrims typical declare an “intention” for their journey. Most pilgrims today aren’t religious, but this expression of aspiration for what one wants to gain from the journey does give it a spiritual quality. Mine: “Savor the Serendipity of each day, as the honor of leaving sacred footprints.”
- “Serendipity”. In my job as a group travel planner, reservations, appointments and efficiency are the norm. Serendipity is not an option. You can’t just head down the road and see what the sun shines on.
- The Camino allows for a “Structured Serendipity”. Because there is a well marked trail to follow, A vast network of restaurants, bars, and lodging have evolved to meet the needs of hundreds of pilgrims who pass by every day. So you can just take each day as it comes. We didn’t make reservations, nor study online reviews to strategize our trip.
- This was so liberating to start and end each day with a faith in serendipity. The places we slept were especially unique, and the people we dined with, and slept around were a global grab bag. This was a welcome alternative to US chain hotels with cookie cutter cubicles of individual isolation.
- Be an Ambassador. Knowing this would be a highly interactive journey, I did something rather bold. I sewed a US flag on my pack. I did this in defiance to the suggestion some have made that if you fake being Canadian you’ll be treated better. I mean not only is it promoting a lie, but you’re missing the opportunity to be an Ambassador for better impressions of your country.
- But this was also right before the election. So we braced ourselves to deflect questions asking us to give account of the political circus. But to our extreme relief, we were rarely asked about our politics. More people asked us about the Appalachian Trail. So this acceptance of us as “us” felt like an extension of grace rather than grievances.
- And “grace” really is the primary theme I want to highlight. Receiving it, and extending it to others. I’m sure we all have our mantras and creeds we repeat to motivate ourselves toward human good will, but these ideals often run as thin as a “Coexist“ bumper sticker in a traffic jam.
- I once read this phrase “the more I love humanity, the less I like people,” it struck me as sadly true. It’s rooted in a sense that I’ve arrived to some progressive state and “those” people down there need to catch up. How do we reconcile this paradox of idealism and reality?
- The Camino slows and simplifies things, and its daily highs and lows become a metaphor for life’s journey. I may walk faster, and carry less of a burden, but We are ALL pilgrims on that journey. In truth, none of us have “arrived” to our full potential. I found myself liking people better, and liking myself better.
- Cruz de Ferro is where pilgrims place a stone they’ve carried representing their intentions. After placing my own stone, and standing on this mound, I was struck by the universal stories beneath my feet. Aspiration to be loved, to belong, to have purpose. And Desperation when we fall short. These ups and downs are “the way” not a detour from it.
- Example: On the first day, as a conversation starter, Kim and I asked each other “Who (what person from your life) would you walk with today?” Initially we answered the obvious close friends or family, or in practical terms – who could cover the days distance, or spoke Spanish and who would enjoy the cities or the countryside more.
- But on some of our longer and harder days, our thoughts transitioned toward people from our past whom we’ve lost touch with due to a falling out, or a failed relationship. We said we’d walk with them too. The desire was not to rekindle, but more to say “Our paths crossed for a season, and whatever happened between us, that led me to where I am now, and I wish you well.” That was a magical transformation without even trying to be.
- “Magical” was a word we got tired of, being thrown around with “transformative” and “life-changing”. We didn’t want to be “told” what to feel. The end itself in Santiago was rather anti-climactic, and I don’t believe the bones of St. James held some redemptive power. But by then we had already knew the journey is the reward, not the end destination.
- And so, I don’t want to be one of those who hypes the Camino, saying “it’s magical” and go do it. But I do want to say there’s power in purposeful pilgrimage. In slowing down, making space for serendipity, and sharing the road. Those who do it, don’t want it to end. And by the way, it’s magical, go do it.
Post Camino: Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Gliding.
Our goal was to finish the Camino Frances in Santiago in 28 days. Having completed it in 26, we had the luxury of a few extra days of flexibility prior to our flight home of Oct. 12th from Lisbon. So here’s what we did…
One of the things that many pilgrims talk about along the Camino is when and where you will finish. While the center of Santiago and the tomb of Saint James is the pilgrimage’s official end, many pilgrims choose to continue walking toward the ocean to Finisterre “Land’s End” and finish their walk there. I think this is wise. Apart from experiencing more of Galicia’s scenery near the coast, I think walking to the literal end of earth, overlooking an endless ocean, would be a more symbolic and impressionable finish than the anti-climactic feeling we had upon finishing in a crowded plaza amid urban sprawl. With our remaining time, Kim and I did not want to use it up with the 3 days required to walk on to Finisterre, but we did decide to join in a package all-day bus tour to Finisterre, Muxia, and other sites along Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte. It was the first time we had taken any form of transportation, other than our feet, in 27 days. It was a nice tour; just sitting on the bus for the ride felt rather mindless and therapeutic. Off the bus, we had time to explore various sites. Though Finisterre is the more celebrated end, and we had one of our finest seafood lunches in the actual town, we liked Muxia better for scenery. Martin Sheen must have agreed, as the movie “The Way” decided to use Muxia for their final scene at the sea, instead of Finisterre.
Upon returning to Santiago, we grabbed some dinner snacks and boarded a fast train to Ourense, where we were kindly picked up and driven into Portugal by Filinto, the father of Duarte, my Clemson friend, housemate and PRTM colleague (Parks, Recreation, & Tourism Management). Duarte is from Portugal, but has remained in the states, now a professor at NC State. He offered his village home in Sao Lourenco for us to stay in, and arranged for his family to welcome us. We stayed for 3 nights, the first time in 28 days that we had slept in the same place more than one night. Kim and I both looked forward to chillax there as a post-Camino break.
It actually turned out to be not as much down time as we thought, thanks to the hospitality of Duarte’s family. Our very late arrival meant we essentially had 2 full days there. After sleeping in heartily and cooking ourselves a great breakfast the first day, Filinto picked us up and gave us a driving tour of the countryside and then to their amazing family run bed & breakfast “Quinta de Mata”, an old estate house which they now run as a permaculture farm. We had lunch there, then we went into the city of Chaves, where we had coffee, drank some natural thermal waters, and walked around the historic center with its intact castle tower walls and Roman era bridge.
The next day was supposed to be our do nothing day, but Duarte’s brother Luis invited us to join him as he was helping lead a group paragliding off a chapel-topped mountain overlooking Mondim de Basto. Luis is an avid paraglider and instructor, so I felt like it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, but Kim decided to stick with the plan to stay in the village and relax. It turned out to be a high-low day. I was only supposed to be gone half the day, but due to unfavorable winds, the launches were delayed till late afternoon, and I had no way to contact Kim, and we didn’t get back till late at night while she waited around. I did a lot of waiting around myself with Luis monitoring the winds, and when they finally could launch, I just hung out watching. It’s an impressive sport, where you catch rising hot air currents from the valley and you step off the mountainside and ride them up, down, and around. At the end of the day, I got to do it myself, riding tandem with Luis, as the sun set. Rushing down in a spiral, to beat the coming darkness, we actually descended a little beyond our target landing zone, but Luis steered us over the tree tops and expertly “crash” landed us on the edge of the nearby road. It was fun and if there were facilities / conditions to do it around Asheville, I’d probably get into it too. I thought it was more of an adrenaline sport, but upon witnessing it, floating with the thermal winds is one of the most serene things you can do.
Saying good-bye to Duarte’s family, they dropped us off at the Chaves bus station and we took a bus to Porto, about 2 hours away. Kim’s parents wanted to treat us to a fancy hotel while we were on the Camino, but we never really found anything that was “fancy” beyond the pleasures of clean, tidy, and private small hotels. So we targeted Porto for a little bit of indulgement, having heard everything was cheaper there. But arriving on the tail end of the weekend, all the places we checked that looked nice in the lively / scenic part of the city were full. We eventually found a room available, close to things, but nothing special, actually below par with the private rooms we’d enjoyed on the Camino. Still, it was adequate, and we only planned to sleep there, while we spent the day exploring. Porto is quite scenic with steep urban hillside on both sides of the river, spanned by an Eifel-esque steel bridge. We walked around, surprised at the bustling crowds of tourists and others enjoying the outdoor cafes along the streets and the river. On the other side of the river, we got a nice lunch of presunto and other small plates that made for a big meal. We toured a local port winery, watched the sunset over the river / city, and got dinner at an African restaurant in one of the narrow alleys. More time there would have been nice, but we were eager to get to Lisbon, so the next morning we took the express train south.
We arrived Lisbon mid-morning and promptly walked to our Airbnb lodging and dropped off our bags. We stayed in Alfama, a wonderful neighborhood of small homes, cafes and narrow, multi-angled streets on hillsides coming up from the port toward the Castle of St. George. We loved the location as a base to walk around and even get lost in the maze. After walking near our neighborhood, and down into the more modern center and eating a take-away lunch in the plaza, we joined a free (tip only) walking tour. The “chill out” tour was from a local, cultural perspective more than sites, history, and dates. We enjoyed it a lot. It actually ended just a stone’s throw from our lodging, so we went back there for a little break, before heading out for a view of the sunset and dinner in the adjacent neighborhood hill of Graca.
After sleeping in and enjoying a light breakfast on a nearby terrace overlooking the city and Tagas River, we returned to Graca, and went to a big flea market that happens on Tuesdays. It was part touristy and part thrift store. I enjoyed more of the thrift store side of things, getting some cheap used garments (my favorite kind of souvenir). I had already “retired” several garments through the trip, so this was my way of replenishing them on the last day. We got lunch in a small courtyard restaurant back in Alfama, and after dropping our purchases off back at the room, we headed to the Belem part of Lisbon via trolley car and train. It was a bit of a disappointment with its museums and monuments either closing or covered with scaffolding, and not much in the way of nightlife after dark, so we returned to Lisbon and got dinner in Barrio Alto. As we finished eating, it started to rain, a rare thing in Lisbon, and we got wet as we navigated the streets heading back to our place. It was a bit of damper on our final night, amplified by the fact that we couldn’t find any open supermarkets to blow our final euros. We did eventually find a small overpriced shop, and I bought some bottle of port wine to take home. I was also a bit disappointed that we did not make the time to take a day trip to nearby Sintra, but as we returned to our room, all wet, I thought about how this bit of rain was a reminder to be grateful. We really had astounding weather for the duration of our trip. Despite some imperfect days, towns, situations, and our imperfect selves, we really had an amazing trip; better than we could have hoped for or strategically planned for.
I think I was still feeling grateful for our overall experience as we journeyed home the next day. Getting home was not perfect, with misinformation getting to the airport, with our “plain” plane, and then a mechanical delay in PHL caused us to miss our AVL connection in CLT, and spend an additional night in an unoriginal American chain hotel. While we weren’t happy about it, we felt the ire and moans of the other American travelers around who expect things to be efficient and flawless. And I felt mostly gratitude welling inside me and said “Oh well” to myself; we’re coming home from an amazing trip; what a privilege and an honor it is to do what we’ve done. We (humanity) would be a sad lot of pilgrims if everything on our life journey went our way, all the time.
We arrived Asheville in the morning, Oct. 13th, on a cool crisp day, the beginning of fall colors visible in the mountains from the view from the plane. We ubered to my house, where we receive a grand celebration from El Guapo. Kim and I gave a long grateful hug to each other, and she drove on to her house. It was a work day, and I knew there was a lot of things to get back on top of, but I did not want to jump back into that just yet. It could wait a little longer. I drove up the BR Parkway a bit and took El Guapo for a hike on one of my favorite stretches on the Shut-In Trail. I am grateful that in my life, I have had such opportunities to explore and travel, but I am also very grateful that the place I come home to is a wonderful place to be. It felt good to be away. It feels good to be home. How can I not be grateful?
Day 26: Pedrouzo – Santiago de Compestela: 12.5 miles
Wednesday, October 5, 2016: Departed: 7:15am, Arrived 12:15pm
While it was still dark, we quietly left our albergue with breakfast snacks in hand and joined the quiet procession of dark figures moving through the streets and forest lanes toward Santiago. A beautiful sunrise soon greeted us, and we only made a brief breakfast stop after getting further down the Camino. There’s really little to note about the Camino or the towns it passed through during this stretch, for this stage more than any other is about the destination, more so than the journey. Whether you started in Saint Jean Pied de Port, or in some other city nearer or farther, we all felt Santiago getting closer and pressed steadily on. The pace downhill seemed to increase as we entered tidy suburbs and descended into the older section of the city.
We really hadn’t studied the map or photos of Santiago that much, so we really weren’t that sure what we were looking for and how far away it was; we just knew the way marks of the Camino would take us there. We wanted to be surprised by it. And so we were not necessarily prepared, when walked under an arched staircase filled with a busker’s Galician bag-pipe music, and immediately nearly swallowed into a moving tour group, and found ourselves standing in the expansive Plaza Obradoiro with the massive Santiago Cathedral overlooking, half covered with scaffolding. We were indeed surprised, not by awe, but by how unsurprising it was. It’s not that architecture wasn’t grand, nor was it that we weren’t proud of the physical accomplishment, nor did I expect to be greeted by trumpets. It’s just that we weren’t really sure what we were looking at, and found ourselves in the middle of lots of people – tour groups and other people milling about. There were a handful of other pilgrims there taking pictures and quietly celebrating the finish, so we knew we were in the right place, but after taking our own pictures, we just sort of found ourselves standing there saying to ourselves, “OK, now what?”
We did start to orientate ourselves by securing lodging at the Albergue Azabache, one of the few right in the middle of everything, getting two of the last remaining beds – actually in an excellent room with windows overlooking the final stretch of the Camino. There were other tasks to work on. We needed to figure out where the Pilgrim’s Office was (it had since changed locations from our guide book and maps) and to figure out if we could take a bus or tour to Finisterre, and what the train timetables were to get to Portugal. So we spent a good bit of time just wandering about, a little confused about the best way to go about it. After doing some of our research, and a little bit of souvenir shopping (we permitted ourselves none while we were on the Camino for the sake of not carrying anything extra) and hugging the statue of Saint James and viewing his supposed tomb in the Cathedral, we went to the Pilgrim’s Office, where we waited in line for 45 minutes to show our Credencial with all the stamps we’d collected at ablergues, churches, and restaurants along the Way, and have the final official stamp placed upon it, and receive a certificate of completing the Camino. Amid all these errands, we ran into Roxana and Magnus, and we made plans to meet up for dinner after the evening Mass.
We went to the 7:30 Mass, along with hundreds of other pilgrims who filled the main nave and the transepts to standing capacity. While I can’t say that I got a lot out of the service, not being too attentive to the Spanish, I actually was moved by it and so glad to be a part of it. After all the running about on the streets of Santiago during the day, and waiting in lines, and shopping for gifts or food, or getting travel information to plan our next day, we got to finally just sit still, and be among all the other pilgrims who finished that day. It did feel sacred, and a more fitting end to our Camino, inside the Cathedral, rather than the bustling plaza on the outside. We were also fortunate that they got out the huge golden incense “thing” that hangs from the center of the Cathedral and swung it from side to side. They don’t normally do this, but on Fridays. And then the service ended, and we followed the masses outdoors, onto the streets, and to our own journeys elsewhere.
I think later I will write more about this. More about the Camino in general and what it has meant. I’m not sure I can even answer that now. So let it suffice to just say, “We have finished.” On to other journeys. Perhaps it is fitting that today somehow felt anti-climactic, and lacked a sense of closure or awe. Maybe it means that walking the Camino is not in order to complete your journey, but to prepare you for the “next” journey – the pilgrimage of everyday life, wherever that may be.
Day 25: Melide – Pedrouzo: 21 miles
Tuesday, October 4, 2016: Departed: 8:15am, Arrived 4:30pm
The previous night, we treated ourselves to a private room at Hotel Chiquitin. Rather, I should say Kim’s parents “treated” us. Perhaps my accounts of crowded albergues had them wanting us to be pampered a little bit, so they wrote that they wanted us to stay in a fancy hotel on their tab. We took advantage of it in Burgos, and while Melide was not a fancy town, we treated ourselves there. At 40 euro, it’s probably not as fancy or expensive as her parents were hoping for, but a small private room with a private bathroom on the Camino feels like luxury to us. We went out for a simple dinner by ourselves, and supplemented it with supermarket snacks that we took back to our room. We slept a decent night’s sleep, and got started on the Camino a little after sunrise. We knew that this would be our last “full day” on the Camino, and eating our standard “to go” breakfast from the market (chorizo slices, nectarine or peach, and some pastry snacks) it kind of felt like we were still in the middle of the long journey. Even though we enjoyed the private room, we knew that the next night on the Camino, as well as our “finished” night in Santiago would be in the shared albergues. I do not mean this as an annoyance or disappointment, for we had talked about it before, that for our last nights, we wanted to be in the albergues, among the other pilgrims, finishing with them, sharing in their camaraderie. We looked forward to it.
We walked the Camino this morning beneath overcast skies, and misty horizons, passing through more pastoral villages. We stopped in the hub town Arzua for a breakfast a kept moving. We wanted to do a slightly longer day in order to be within closer reach of Santiago for the final stretch. We were delighted en route to come across our “old” friends Roxanna and Magnus, a Romanian-British couple whom we’ve been crossing paths with since day 2. We walked together into our final hub town of Pedrouzo. Lured by the signs entering town, we all four settled on the ultra modern Albergue Cruceiro del Pedrouzo, and agreed to pay the extra for 30 minutes in the on-site Sauna. While we waited for our turn, we grabbed some wine, cava, chips, olives, and grapes from the market and at them. The heat and steam of the sauna felt great on our bodies, and a well-deserved pampering before the final stage. Afterwards, we all went out to dinner for the pilgrim’s menu at a nearby restaurant. I’m not sure if it was the mileage we walked, or the snacking, soaking, and supping that made us feel tired and ready for sleep.
Way back in the early stages of the Camino, I recalled the movie “The Way” how four random people ended up walking together. I also thought of some of the stories I’d heard from solo pilgrims how they ended up befriending others and walking with them. I said to Kim that even though we were sharing this experience together as a couple, and even though we were walking a pace that disqualified most of the people we passed, I desired to have that type of experience – befriending someone, or some other people that become your companions for a stretch of the Camino, whether by default or by agreement. We both agreed that we weren’t going to go around looking for such people to walk with, to force the situation, but that if serendipity should grant it, we would welcome it. After days, scattered over weeks, of crossing paths with Roxanna and Magnus over meals in the same town, and some of the same lodging, it was very nice to walk with them through the afternoon into our overnight town, and to pass the evening together. To me it is the perfect way to spend our last night before walking into Santiago tomorrow. I feel pampered by serendipity.
Day 24: Gonzar – Melide: 19.5 miles
Monday, October 3, 2016: Departed: 8:00am, Arrived 4:15pm
To our surprise, our albergue dorm of 20 bunks, actually did not have a bad snorer in it, nor early risers that make lots of noise getting up and packing their things, such that we slept decently in more so than normal, and got a bit of a later start. Because Gonzar is not a typical hub town for overnighters, we joined our stretch of the Camino at a time of day that was not amid the main bubble of the passing pilgrim procession, so it did not feel nearly as crowded as the previous day. We soon summited a rise that afforded a view to the East where we had come from, and the sun was just cresting the mountain ridges we’d passed a few days before, and in the valley that we had passed through yesterday, there was an ocean of clouds and mist below. I think it was probably the best sunrise vista we’ve had on the Camino. We stopped for an omelet breakfast at another albergue en route, and when we got to the next hub town of Palas de Rei, we elected to eat our lunch by buying a mix of cold edibles to be eaten picnic style in the plaza, before heading toward our anticipated overnight town Melide.
Back on the Camino in the afternoon, we felt our mindset adjusting as we looked at the mileage markers to Santiago, now knowing we are nearing the end, and that we can accurately predict when we will finish. The journey felt long at the start, with unpredictable, intentionally unplanned weeks ahead, but now we’re starting to count the days, and strategize our timing down to our flight home from Lisbon. It seems to have gone by fast, and we find ourselves talking about home – looking forward to October, our favorite month in Asheville, and seeing the change of season. Seeing friends and visiting our favorite haunts, and seeing what “new” things have happened or opened in town. Going to LEAF festival. And of course, receiving the celebratory greeting from El Guapo.
One thing we’re NOT looking forward to going back home is the election. We haven’t watched hardly any TV, or checked social media or news outlets which I’m sure are abuzz back in the states. It’s been such a welcome break, and though I was looking forward to being away from “our” news, I did make a bit of an odd decision before the trip started. I sewed a USA flag patch on my backpack. Let me explain. Soon before leaving, I had a conversation with another traveler friend, where we agreed that we both despised the suggestion that an American should put a Canadian flag on their gear so that they would be better received internationally. Not only is it proclaiming a false identity that would be hard to maintain in friendly circles, but it assumes that a nationality bestows congeniality upon you rather than your own behavior among others. If you are indeed a conscientious and curious traveler, as I like to think of myself, then let it be an opportunity to be an ambassador for your country – to improve its reputation abroad when it needs it most. And so in thinking that I should walk my own talk, I decided to put the flag on my backpack, not as an expression USA #1 patriotic zeal, but to reminding myself to be a humble and positive representative of my country, a powerful and influential country. I hope that is what has happened, despite the fact that most people who see it are those whom I’ve already blown by as I walk a faster pace. But I try to be friendly in doing so, speaking the local language, and when I do talk to people about where they are from, that I express my knowledge of their home and history, or my curiosity in learning more. This I’ve done, but let me say, it hasn’t felt like I needed to “win people over.” It has seemed that whether it be fellow pilgrim or local person, they all seem amiable from the start without knowing me, my nationality, my politics, or my faith.
My biggest hesitancy to putting the flag on my pack was I did not want to invite any conversation about our election. Kim and I both feared we would be asked about it a lot, and someone who had walked the Camino before said to expect people to ask us about our political system and our candidates. We wanted to avoid such conversations as part of our retreat from the American news cycle. But to be honest, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Not many people have asked us about it, and those who have are people who did so out of non-judgmental curiosity after establishing a rapport around other subjects. Some Italians who asked us about it said “Our politics are even worse, but our bad leaders only impact Italy, the American leadership impacts the world.” The world is watching and wondering, but fortunately on the Camino, Kim and I have not had to account for it too much. Just as many people have asked us about the Appalachian Trail as the presidential election. That’s a beautiful surprise.