A Pilgrim’s Progress: Reflections After the Camino

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”
  8. “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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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?
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. “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.
  20. 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: To the Sea, To Portugal

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…

img_5143One 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.

img_5159Upon 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.

img_5187It 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.

img_5237The 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.  img_5282We 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.

img_5326We 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.

img_5410After 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.

img_5444I 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?img_5457

El Camino, Day 26: to Santiago de Compostela

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.  img_4994A 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.

img_5045We 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?”

img_5049We 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.

img_5067We 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.img_5030

El Camino, Day 25: to Pedrouzo

Day 25: Melide – Pedrouzo:  21 miles

Tuesday,  October 4, 2016:  Departed:  8:15am,  Arrived 4:30pm

img_4969The 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.

img_4975Way 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.

El Camino, Day 24: to Melide

Day 24: Gonzar – Melide:  19.5 miles

Monday,  October 3, 2016:  Departed:  8:00am,  Arrived 4:15pm

img_4936To 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.

img_4938Back 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.  img_4955And 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.

img_4962My 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.

El Camino, Day 23: to Gonzar

Day 23: Sarria – Gonzar:  19 miles

Sunday,  October 2, 2016:  Departed:  8:45am,  Arrived 4:45pm

Kim read our guide book out loud last night, warning us about the stage ahead.  The warning was not one about the conditions of the Camino, but the condition of our attitudes.  It warned us not to be condescending nor snobby about “our” Camino as we walked alongside the increased numbers of weeklong pilgrims and package groups who start the Camino in Sarria to complete the minimal requisite 100k.  It was a fair warning.  Since we had the private room, and a breakfast included, we slept comfortably in, ate, and were on our way later than normal.  This meant we were behind the surge of pilgrims, and upon rejoining the Camino, and walking at our quick pace (we estimate around 3 mph) we were promptly passing them in droves.  img_4906We’d get ahead of a cluster of them, thinking we might be in the clear, only to find more clusters of them.  When I needed to pee, it was a challenge to find a private gap in the procession to do so.  On most other parts of the Camino outside of towns, I just look ahead and behind to make sure there’s a comfortable distance, and step off to the side and do my business.  There was really nothing wrong with this new swarm of pilgrims; they chatted pleasantly among each other or kept respectful in the silent procession, so I commend them for making this their vacation, but the increased number of them, along with some of the villages pandering to them in more touristy ways, did make it feel like we were on a different Camino.  I scanned the faces, hoping to see a familiar one in the crowd, to help link us to where we’d come from, but there were none.

At least the Camino in this stretch was very scenic, not so much in distant views, but how it wound along stone walls and ancient trees through pastoral villages.  A sense of mystery was added by a lingering mist all morning.  img_4916We hopped off the Camino to go get lunch Portomarin.  Nearly every day, we’ve gotten for dinner the “pilgrim’s menu” or “menu del dia” – A set price meal that comes with a choice of first course, second course, desert, and bread and wine, for usually around 10 euro.  Feeling hungry, we did the menu for lunch.  Most other days we had only gotten tapas, snacks or small quick plates for our lunch, so we can keep moving, and save dinner for our big meal.  But feeling that we, particularly me, were not nourishing ourselves properly during the day, we’ve been trying to eat more solid lunches lately.  So today we did the “menu” for lunch.  Portomarin is pilgrim hub town where many stop walking and stay the night.  We got back on the Camino to continue to an intermediate town and cover more miles.  This 5 mile stretch in the afternoon had much less pilgrims on it, which was refreshing.

img_4922We arrived to Gonzar and promptly secured bunk beds in a large, but very clean, rustic dorm at Casa Garcia.  We promptly showered and did a load of laundry and hung them on the line to dry in the remaining sunlight.  It felt kind of good to be back in an albergue – while it’s full of pilgrims, I wouldn’t call it the impersonal pilgrim factory, and the pilgrims staying there were of the type we’ve seen before – individuals, couples and friends doing the Camino, more self-sufficiently, not part of a packaged group.  We were also pleased to finally see a familiar face – a young German guy who we met only a few days ago, but who started the same day we did in Saint Jean.  And then to our even greater pleasure, we found our friends Magnus and Roxanna in this same small town (staying at the Municipal Albergue) and for the third night in a row, had dinner together (another “pilgrim’s menu”).  We laughed about the oddness of the day among the hordes – we were probably only minutes apart the whole day.  They also started in Saint Jean the day we did, but first met them the 2nd day, and overlapped with them since.  It looks like we’ll be finishing in Santiago the same day as us, so we look forward to crossing paths again and hopefully seeing them among the even greater bustle at the end.

El Camino, Day 22: to Sarria

Day 22: O’Cebreiro – Sarria:  24.5 miles

Saturday,  October 1, 2016:  Departed:  7:00am,  Arrived 5:00pm

img_4834 My morning started with discovering a fresh round of bedbug bites on my shoulder and forehead (I think the albergue pillow was the culprit).  Just when I felt like the blisters and sore spots on my feet were healed, and I was getting over my cold, this pest has turned up again.  It seems you can count on some ailment or physical nuisance every day.  Despite that, our journey on the Camino today, in terms of weather and scenery was my favorite thus far, after the beautiful trek over the Pyrenees on Day 1.  We started in the dark, and in a mist, from the high mountain ridge, and as we hiked progressively down, a mix of ups and downs, the sun came out and started to clear the mist away, but left it in valley pockets through mid-morning.  It made for spectacular views.  If I’m not mistaken, this region Galicia has a name derived from the Gauls, much like the Gaelic (Scotch – Irish) driven to the further reaches of the Roman Empire.  The region does feel “Irish” not just in the abundant use of stone in the architecture, but in the landscape which is much greener and moister than previous Camino regions.  We descended into the valleys below throughout the morning, bottoming out at Triacastela, and enjoying a very nice sit-down lunch stop, something we haven’t done much of since we’ve often done short stops or grab and go snacks.

img_4880We continued in the afternoon up and around some tributary valleys with a mix a fields devoted to either cattle or crops.  While the villages were nothing spectacular, apart from the extensive use of natural stone, I enjoyed that they felt much more “lived in” than some of seemingly vacated villages we passed earlier in the Camino.  Locals were about various chores; the streets scattered with fresh manure, tractors were running.  This was a nice stretch of the Camino that was largely quiet backroads and entrenched dirt roads, sheltered from direct sun by a canopy of flanking trees and stone walls, so it made for a tranquil walk, made even more tranquil by the absence of other pilgrims doing our longer than average walk.  We actually hadn’t planned on going so far today.  We had our sights set on an albergue that a friend had recommended in the country, but when we showed up, it was closed / booked up for private wedding party.  So we were forced to walk another several miles to Sarria to find lodging.  So we ended up doing 2 of the guide book stages back to back in one day.

img_4888On the way into Sarria, we ran into our friends Magnus and Roxanna and walked into town together and ended up getting lodging in the same Hostal Escalinata, and going out to dinner on the main street for the Pilgrim’s menu.  We ended up getting a private room (shared bath) as we’re both ready for a solid night’s sleep without the distractions of other pilgrims, who we both delight in and distance ourselves from, depending what quantity you find them in.  One of the reasons we favored the private room tonight is Sarria is the last place on the Camino that you can walk it and still get the Credencial certificate of doing the Camino (it’s just over 100 kilometeres away from Santiago).  So Sarria is where many of the “one week” pilgrims come and start the Camino, and where you’re more apt to see package tour groups doing the Camino.  We’re reminding ourselves not to become Camino snobs who look down on other pilgrims who aren’t doing “our” Camino, or walking slower, in big groups, staying in hotels and having their bags shuttle to each stop.  We should appreciate each person’s Camino they are able to do, but for tonight, a little bit of privacy is nice before we get mixed into their masses.

While we’ve encountered a few bus groups on segments of the Camino, so far it has been almost exclusively an independent endeavor of individuals, couples, or small groups of friends and family.  I’m very happy to be doing it with Kim, to have someone to share the experience with, and to continue to reflect on it together once it’s over.  Although, if I were single, it would still be very fun and perhaps even more of an adventure meeting people.  Last night over dinner, several of us were recounting when we had seen couples showing public displays of affection (holding hands, cuddling).  The initial assumption was they were an established couple, but upon talking with them, we learn they from different countries and met on the Camino, and maybe aren’t even walking the same pace from day to day.  So we figured, “new love” is more public than old love.  Around the table, we were asked how we met our significant other, and when Kim and I said we’d been together for a year and half, they said we were still “new” enough to show love on the Camino.  We have held hands while walking a number of times, often initiated by Kim.  But for the last weeks, she has watched me pee on the side of the trail and innumerable times do the “farmer’s blow” and fling snot from my nose with my bare fingers, with nowhere to wash them.  So she hasn’t been so keen on holding hands lately.  But we try to remind ourselves to show affection and touch, which actually has not been that natural thing on the Camino:  We’re walking all day in public, maintaining each other’s personal space, pace, and bodily emissions.  Navigating that together is probably a greater expression of love than outward public affections.img_4854

El Camino, Day 21: into Galicia

Day 21: Villafranca del Bierzo – O’Cebreiro:  18 miles

Friday,  September 30, 2016:  Departed:  7:30am,  Arrived 3:00pm

img_4745 We crossed the tall bridge over the Rio Burbia along with a steady stream of pilgrims in the pre-dawn darkness, all of our minds set on the long uphill stage ahead.  Most of today’s stage stayed along a local highway flanking the Rio Pereje, heading gradually uphill, but we knew that the latter third of the stage, departed the highway for more local roads, often dirt, that climbed more steeply toward high ridgeline pass.  So we stopped several times for two breakfasts and a lunch in some of the villages to fortify ourselves for the final climb.  The scenery along the way often looked very similar to Western North Carolina – mountain valleys covered with hardwood forests and split by clear tumbling streams.

img_4818When we reached the “difficult” ups, it wasn’t actually too bad since the steepness and openness of the higher elevation afforded increasingly spectacular views.  We hammered it out, officially crossing the border into the region of Galicia, and were rewarded with our overnight destination when we reached the pass:  O’Cebreiro.  It is a beautiful town of natural hard stones, and it straddles a high mountain pass such that you can look for miles over valleys in both directions:  Where we came from and where we are headed.  While the town is one of the more scenic we’ve stayed in, it has more of a manicured tourist feel.  All of the buildings are either lodging, restaurants, or gift shops – often a mix of all of the above.  I have to wonder who the locals actually are, if any.  Many of the towns we pass through have pilgrim themed tourist shops, but this is the first one where I actually felt like I was in Camino Disneyland.

img_4808Still, the town was genuinely beautiful, and our large municipal albergue sits just at the edge of town with a picnic hill above.  We arrived early enough and secured beds, that after a shower, we had time to just chill, so I walked up to the hill above to enjoy the views and take a nap in the grass.  The albergue sleeps over a 100 people, so it’s more of the type that we like to call “pilgrim factory” where everything is more professional and efficient, but less communal.  Despite the big impersonal tendency of such large albergues, there was a kind of camaraderie among the pilgrims since they had all come up from below on a long stage.  On the way up, we encountered many of the friends we’ve made along the way, and the town being so small, we found each other and agreed to go get the pilgrim’s menu together at one of the restaurants.  So we were able to create our own “community vibe” over a very fun dinner.  Joining Kim and I were, Magnus & Roxanna, Eric the Dutchman, and ? the chatty Canadian.  I hope we continue to cross paths.  When we left the restaurant for the short walk back to the albergue, we got an amazing sunset through the rain clouds to the west.  There are rumors of rain tomorrow.  We’ve been so fortunate with weather thus far, after a few drizzly days the first week, we’ve not had a lick of rain the last two weeks, and the days and nights have been a moderate balance.  I suppose we’re due for some rain, considering we’ve hiked into a much greener part of the country.img_4820

El Camino, Day 20: to Villafranca

Day 20: Molinaseca – Villafranca del Bierzo:  19 miles

Thursday,  September 29, 2016:  Departed:  7:30am,  Arrived 4:00pm

img_4710  Today is perhaps the first day that we’ve followed the guide books recommended start and end towns.  This is the same guide book that nearly every other pilgrim has, and it averages between 13-17 miles a day, so typically we’ve been doing longer days, and staying in alternate towns, and mixing up our pilgrim mingling beyond the book’s breakdown.  But since the book’s “day” was a big 19 mile stage, we stuck with the “plan”.  The book actually had the smaller town of Molinaseca as its overnight hub, but a much larger city was just up ahead, and we walked in to Ponferrada a little after sunrise.  The Camino largely avoided the city bustle, but did pass by an impressive 13th Century castle above the junction of two rivers, built by the Knights Templar who protected the Camino early on.

img_4723We got breakfast and later a snack in the outlying towns as the Camino slowly crept up hill, approaching the next range of mountains.  We’ve officially re-entered wine country, I’m happy to say, as the hillsides are cultivated and covered with vineyards and bodegas.  It is a scenery that we’ve been missing since the earlier stages of the Camino.  But something is different this time.  Earlier we were struck my how quiet and vacant the landscape and villages were.  The fields were obviously cultivated, but there were no farm workers, tractors, nor even farm houses.  It was as if the whole land were in a siesta.  We heard when we passed through the region of Rioja, that it was the start of a week of wine festivals.  I guess now the festivals are over, because now the wine harvest is beginning.  This time there are workers in the vineyards, and the villages show the life of people moving and working about.

img_4730Our overnight town is Villafranca, a very beautiful town of sloped streets along a hillside leading down to a river.  We secured two bunk beds at the Albergue Leo, one of the better we’ve seen – extremely clean, organized, with attentive family member managers, former pilgrims, who helped us treat our sore feet and ongoing ailments.  I also like that they have a family dog on site, and there’s a couple of guitars sitting in the lounge.  Although one of the downsides of the Camino is while there’s a fairly natural camaraderie among pilgrims, most of them just use the albergues as places to rest up, clean up and move on.  There’s not much creative time “hanging out” or socializing that happens, unless there’s a communal dinner on site, and everyone is generally in bed by 10pm with lights out.  Granted, Kim and I have been doing long days, so like today, we got in with just enough time to shower, hand wash and sun dry laundry, take a nap, check emails, before it’s time to eat and go to bed.  Even writing this blog is pushing me beyond bedtime.  We did at least, when we went out to dinner, see another couple from the albergue in the plaza, so I invited them to join us for dinner, so we had a good conversation.  But beyond that, we didn’t have a lot of hang out time, and though I’ve fantasized about it, there’s been no impromptu gathering of pilgrims in the lounge passing the guitar around singing songs from their home countries.  I’ve got a few Appalachian songs ready when the time comes.

El Camino, Day 19: to Molinaseca

Day 19: El Ganso – Molinaseca:  20 miles

Wednesday,  September 28, 2016:  Departed:  7:30am,  Arrived 4:15pm

img_4632Upon waking up, we had some tea and biscuits for more of a “snack” breakfast, so when we reached Foncebadón, we sat down for a more hearty breakfast, and I changed from my Chacos to my hiking shoes for the trail ahead.  Today was our return to the mountains proper; the climbs increasing through the morning.  It made for perhaps a tougher day on the trail, but our spirits were aptly compensated by the scenery.  In addition the pattern of increasingly charming villages seemed to increase with mountains.

img_4638We soon summited at Iron Cross, a place we had been anticipating for a long time, but it caught us off guard because we did not know when we would come upon it, and we were not expecting it so soon.  It is a pole, with a small iron cross atop, and a base of stones like a little hill.  This is the place where every pilgrim leaves a stone, and perhaps a note or other memento to commemorate their own journey, or perhaps in honor of a loved one.  While such an “everybody does it” place could feel campy, I was actually moved by it, seeing other pilgrims praying or crying atop the mound.  I thought about how beneath my feet, were thousands of stones, that got there by way of someone’s personal story and journey.  The mound was perhaps 20 feet high, but it was literally a Denali of individual aspirations, burdens, and love.

img_4634Kim and I came with our own stones from home.  She places several small stones in honor of her family members.  I had brought a single stone.  Prior to the trip, I had selected it from the soil on my property in Asheville.  When I moved to Asheville 10 years ago, it was a priority for me to own land – I’m not talking a ranch, but a few acres.  I’m not sure why since I didn’t have any ambitions toward farming or land development.  I guess “land” more so than a house represented “possibility” in my mind.  For the record, I ended up with 2.8 acres where I live now.  While I’ve done some landscaping and projects on the property and my house, I still feel like I’m meant to do more – something creative and an extension and enhancement of community in Asheville.  I’ve talked about it a lot, but have been in a bog in terms of action.  Anyway, as it relates to the Camino, I did not want to walk with my “intention” being one burdened by deeds and obligations.  My intention is to “savor serendipity”, so I have not given much meditative thought to responsibilities back home, but at the same time, when I say that it is an “honor to leave sacred footprints” I did not merely mean footprints on the Camino, I mean throughout life.  In terms of environmental and resource usage, the term “footprint” refers to impacts that should be minimized.  But when I think about my home and property as something that will outlive me, I think I should look to “enlarge” my footprint, in terms of how it will impact community.  I trust that serendipity and the pilgrimage of life will guide me in what this will look like.  And so I have carried a stone, a little piece of my own Smoky Mountain earth, with me in this journey till now, and now I have left it at the mound of a million aspirations at the Iron Cross.

After continuing a bit over the mountain range, and reaching nearly 5,000 feet, the tougher part of the Camino was the long descent, often steep an over rocky and lose trail.  Despite the elevation, it felt like one of the hottest days we’ve been walking.  A cold beer, and some chairs in the shade at Acebo, helped us complete the rest of the day.  I barreled ahead of Kim for much of this stretch since I like to make bounding strides on such terrain, and she, like most females, likes to take more careful deliberate steps, especially with a sensitive ankle.  Upon bottoming out in the broad valley, we were rewarded with one of the finest village towns we’ve stayed at on the Camino.  img_4695Molinaseca is accessed via an old stone bridge over a cold and clear river into a grid of narrow charming streets.  While not listed in our book or papers, we found the new Albergue Compostela.  After securing beds and dropping off our stuff, I went for a cold, but refreshing swim in the river.  After drying off in the sun, we got a jar of sangria and sat by the river, where we were happy to cross paths with our friends Mangus and Roxanna, probably the people we’ve overlapped with the most on the Camino – first meeting them on our 2nd day.  We had a nice paella dinner with other pilgrims at our albergue, and after a blue light stroll of the town, retreated to our beds.  It’s been a long and rewarding day.