Initial Thoughts on Finishing the Camino

Jason, Gabe and I walked into the outskirts of Santiago yesterday around 11:30. We were rushing to make the pilgrim mass at noon, but didn’t quite arrive on time. Actually, we did, but the guard would not let us into the cathedral with our backpacks on and trying to find the “storage” service for them would have taken too long. We plunked down on a stone bench, panting, sweating. We had practically jogged the final 1 km. I almost cried.

Thankfully, Jason reserved 2 nights for us in Santiago. The hurry into the city and the stress of wondering whether or not we were going to be on time reminded me of my life in America. Hmm…probably not the best way to enter into a worship service.

We attended mass today instead (the cathedral was packed, so I understand why they say no to backpacks. We were able to get to church early and prepare ourselves. We arrived 45 minutes before noon and barely found seats.

I’ve never attended a cathedral mass like this. This was a large space and full of expectant people. The eager faces inspired me. We all shared a very particular experience and this service for me and others represented the finale. It was obvious there were many Catholics, but I also viewed observers/non churched people happily watching and participating. I suppose that should come as no surprise. The sermon, in Spanish of course, was a welcoming word, an invitation to continue on a Camino of faith. I hope those who didn’t understand the Spanish felt the vibe of the priest.

Hundreds of folks walk the Camino in some form…It’s amazing. I’m not sure I had a sense of this while on the Norte or the Primitivo. We didn’t see many pilgrims on the way. On the Norte, we probably saw 20 to 30 folks per day, often we ran into the same 20 or 30 each day. On the Primitivo, it was a slightly different crowd, more intense and athletic…folks who walked 30 km per day pretty easily (so it seemed). Again…20-30 people per day. Once we joined the end of the Frances route, we encountered 200 to 300 pilgrims each day. The numbers were almost overwhelming and made me grateful we chose the less traveled road for our Camino.

Overall, I know I have grown stronger physically and emotionally. I have gained speed and endurance. My back is stronger, it hurts less than it did in the beginning of our trek. I also have learned to live with more pain. My hips ache each night, impacting my ability to sleep. I take a full dosage of ibuprofen and that helps a bit, but not enough to completely give relief. The pain upset me at first, but I have come to accept it. I also had hope that the pain would go away or get better as we kept walking. It has not really…at least I don’t think it has changed, but my attitude about the pain changed. I do eventually get to sleep, but it takes a couple of hours. I’m no longer stressed about that.

I also have accepted that I have great difficulty (even with no pack on my back) walking more than 25 km per day. If I were to keep walking 20 km for another 3 weeks, would my body change and would I grow even stronger? The body is amazingly adaptable. Would I become one of those people who can trek the 30 km, no problema?

Cafe con leche. A teeny tiny cup.

I’m not sure. I’d like to think so, but for right now, my body revolts, similar to the early days of walking the Norte. The pain I have been feeling is something I can live with. Maybe I need to learn to live with more? That conversation will have to wait for another Camino or backpacking trip. Tomorrow, Jason and Gabe continue their Camino to Finisterre, the “Ends of the Earth” reached by the Apostle James in the first century. It was the end of the Earth as he knew it.

They will hike for 3 intense days. I will bus to the coast and try to find an albergue where I can serve by cooking my special lentil soup while I wait for Gabe and Jason. Some of you are familiar with my recipe. I’m excited to feed pilgrims, for a change of pace. (I miss cooking).

For any concerned, I do not think my hip issue is causing permanent damage. I feel confident about this, though I cannot explain why.

For me and Jason, the Camino has been a unique way to spend time together and good for our relationship as we navigated challenges together. Some of our most dynamic growth moments over the years have come in cross cultural situations where we have had little control over our environment. That pretty much defines the Camino.

The moments with Gabe have also been precious. He is a wonderful travel companion and fun person (non complaining) all around. He also will walk along and encourage me, telling me how well I am walking. It’s a kindness that I will always treasure, the way he has postured himself in traveling with us, asking for very little and giving much of himself in companionship and carrying extra weight in his pack when needed (again without complaint).

Jason and I are trying to figure out how we can walk more once we’re home…whether that is regular hiking days or walking to church, walking to various appointments. My dog park walks are definitely short…compared to what we have done here. It’s possible I can increase that mileage. Lots to ponder.

Andar es pasear el alma

I don’t want to give that up.

Slowing Down for Sickness, Finding Gabe and Anticipating Santiago

Gabe and Jason walking toward San Roman
We’re celebrating this week. First, Gabe, our son successfully navigated the Spainish airport and train station in Madrid, enough to get himself on a train and to us in Lugo. We began walking together yesterday.

Second, Jason and I are celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary today, enjoying a shorter mileage day, in part because of Jason’s health and part because of Gabe’s blisters. This time, it’s not me slowing the crew down.

After my last post, Jason did fall ill with some kind of virus. We had been walking in extreme heat and humidity and as you know from my previous post, I took a day off. Jason did not. We don’t think the exertion caused Jason to get sick, but it might have affected his immune system. He’s spent 36 hours with fever/chills and aches and some stomach upset. Yesterday he was able to walk despite not feeling 100 percent. The weather was cooler. That helped.

Jason’s sickness also conveniently struck when we were already planning to stay put for an extra 24 hours in Lugo as we waited for Gabe. That meant I was able to enjoy a lot of sightseeing while Jason slept. So, this is day 4 of Jason feeling not himself and he just told me, “I think the sickness has passed.”

We’re staying in an albergue with about 16 others, so less romantic than some anniversaries, except that this experience has brought us closer together. In fact, we’ve walked at least one day for every year of marriage this summer and most of those hours have been spent together, in conversation, in prayer or in quiet together. We also have loved interacting with the various pilgrims along the way as a couple.

Today we walked on a Roman Road, with Caesar’s mile marker to prove it
Our walking stages will probably come with a bit more ease in the next section as we near Santiago. We won’t climb any extreme hills and the weather report indicates more cooling. Two nights ago in our very hot pension room in Lugo, I was sleeping with a wet cloth across my face to endure the heat. Tonight, it’s supposed to get down into the 50s.

It has been wonderful to walk with our son. Gabe is a great athlete and an able Spanish speaker. He has terrible blisters behind his heels. This is a long story, but he needed to buy hiking boots right before this trip. This is a worst case scenario for walking the Camino, as you might imagine. We’re nursing his feet and many older Camino walkers are sharing wisdom about how to treat blisters for the longer road ahead (which actually isn’t that long anymore).

Today, Gabe hiked the 15 km in Jason’s flip flops. Not ideal! In the next big town, we might purchase a pair of running shoes for him.

Flip flops and socks are better than hard boots against the heels
We’re all in good spirits and enjoying the luxury of so much time hanging out and in a culture we love. A cow who loves pilgrims for example, makes us happy along the way. Every other corner we round on the Camino surprises us. Simple pleasures fill up the moments, time expands for quiet or conversation and that has brought us a great deal of joy. In a way, our celebration has been as continuous as the journey.

This cow loves pilgrims and waits on this spot each day, ready to pose for a photo…so a local told us.

Marriage, Compromising and the Camino

Three What’s App messages I’ve received from Jason today:

1. I’m very happy (he says this and includes the following photo)

2. I’m climbing a big hill (with the following photo)

3. Thanks for the Father’s Day greetings, kids. I’m happily exhausted, climbing a big hill.

And where am I? I took the bus today. I’m neither exhausted nor hot. I’m at our next stop, sitting in a cafe and I know this was the right decision for both of us today!

Galicia is experiencing a heat wave. It comes at an interesting time on the Camino. Yesterday, we hiked through the mountains across the border into Galicia. I was carrying my pack, walking well until we hit 20 km (about mile 13). The sun was high and the temperatures had reached into the low 90s. We came over a hill and saw the pueblo where our hostel was waiting. When I say we “saw” the pueblo, I mean…it still seemed so far away. In order to reach our resting place, we had to walk through a valley. That meant we would have to follow the trail down and then up again. That last hill turned out to be a steep, long one. (Or maybe it just felt that way). That was a tough finish to a pretty decent walking day for me. My back gets tight on the left side after 10 miles or so, but my hip was feeling okay, thanks to my new walking style, which I’ll talk about in a later paragraph.

The forecast for the next stage of walking: hotter weather and 30 km. I pretty much knew yesterday afternoon that this feat was not doable for me. So, this morning, I took the bus with a couple of other pilgrims.

Jason wanted to do this walk. Despite feeling dizzy yesterday after the heat exposure, he felt no desire to take the bus. He is loving pretty much every aspect of this wilderness. There are fewer small towns/bars/resting places on this Camino than on the Frances, so it is more like wilderness walking. For this reason, Jason is carrying his lunch today and double the water he normally takes. I was able to take some weight for him, but still, this will be a challenging day.

Over the past week, as the Primitivo has unfolded before us, Jason and I have tried to figure out how we can do this walk together. We seem to be finding our way, but it’s sort of day by day. In the end, it still feels like we’re doing it together and for that I’m grateful.

I believe my capacity to walk further and more quickly is growing, but at too slow a rate to match Jason’s pace. He has such speed, endurance and will. No one who knows him would doubt this, of course.

I happily (with challenge, of course) walk 20 km, even 25 km in most weather. I can enjoy the pace and appreciate the scenery. Regarding my hip, I have tried a strategy of forcing my gait a bit. Every step, I consciously lift my left leg higher and straight up. I minimize swiveling my hips. This way of walking has actually worked well to help my hips tolerate the mileage. I can feel my left “glute” getting stronger.

My typical walking style is right body dominant. I know this about myself, but have not run into too many issues regarding this fact. It’s lazy, but I’ve felt no need to address it. I’ve made it this far as an athlete and a regular runner/walker/hiker in the Bay Area for many years. However, walking day after day and going the distances we have to accomplish on the Primitivo has forced me to deal, so to speak.

I attribute the strength of my right side (and relative weakness of my left) to many years of playing right-handed baseball and just favoring that side in every area of my life. Even violin is a right-arm dominated instrument (and many years of playing has exacerbated a slightly crooked body).

My closest friends notice it periodically when they see me walk. I worked an office job for a physical therapist after graduating from Stanford years ago. He was convinced that one of my legs was longer than the other and that I would eventually have problems with my back or other parts of my body as a result. In measuring my legs though, the difference was not as much as he thought.

The Camino has revealed this particular weakness and it’s good for me to see the problem without denial and finally address it.

As my friend Daniel told me the other day. “Your camino is your camino.” Likewise, Jason’s is his. The way we’re walking does feel like one of those marriage compromises, where each person tries to honor the other and bend over backward to not be a pain in the ass to the other. For example, Jason walks slower when we walk together, without complaining. And when I bus to a sweet little cafe in the next town…I don’t send photos of my cafe con leche to rub in the fact that I’m sitting in a cool enough room to drink a hot coffee at 11 AM.


Walking as Sacrament

(Another guest post from Jason here… along with a note about Susi after her last post about walking through pain.  She is walking well and getting stronger along the way!  You will hear from her again soon.)

I was hiking up our biggest ascent on the Camino so far, about 1000 meters climb over a few kilometers – next to D, a Spanish twenty-something who left an excellent job in order to discern his true calling.  That is already an awesome day for me:  mountain climbing while having a conversation in Spanish with a young adult interested in eternally significant things.  I love every part of that.  But it got better, because D gave me my new favorite Spanish saying:  “Andar es pasear el alma.” It means something like, “to walk is to let your soul take a stroll,” or, “to walk is to process your soul in a peaceful way.”  I think it is the best description to date, of my sense that walking is sacramental.

Now a disclaimer and some context.  I realize that using the language of sacrament is dangerous, as it means different things in different traditions, and is VERY important.  Please forgive any offense or let me make it right.  In the meantime, this is what I mean right now, in this post, by sacrament. Sacraments are concrete physical actions that allow people to experience the real presence of God, especially when practiced with expectant faith.  I suppose that even if you don’t believe in God, there are actions that draw you to something deeper, more transcendent. I often live my life too much on the surface, concerned with many small details, and yet miss the expectation of the Divine. Sacraments help people like me connect with God.

I like what N.T. Wright says in The Way of the Lord.  He offers a:  “reminder… of the fact that all of life is, so to speak, sacramental; that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, and that what we do with water, bread and wine in the official sacraments of the Church is simply the tell-tale sign of reality in a world where God’s glory will flame out unexpectedly.  Thus, too, a rebuke:  that we so often content ourselves with going through the motions of a pattern of Christian discipleship that stays on the surface, that doesn’t get too excited or exciting, when not far away there are levels of reality, of God’s reality, waiting to be discovered, if we will take time and care…”

Last year, a fire moved through this part of the Cordillera Cantabrican forest. The forest is coming back, but it is still a bit creepy, giving us this view to the lake below

Walking helps me experience the presence of God.  It allows me to relax and process what is going on in my soul, but also in the world around me.  Walking slows me down enough to actually pray about what has just passed and what is coming.  It allows me to notice, to expect, to remember, and to hope.  When I walk, I see the world from a different perspective, and I notice and appreciate God’s voice.  There is something about the physical experience combined with a slower pace that puts my soul aright.  When I walk with others, I find that conversations take surprising and deep turns.  Caminar es pasear el alma.

These are the kinds of reflections that come when you take a 500 mile walk across Spain, I suppose. But I am resolving to do more walking even when I return, and to practice it as a sacrament, full of expectant faith.

Primitivo Route and Walking Through Pain

The Yellow line on this map marks the Primitivo route on the Camino. This route diverges from the coast and heads into the mountains. We are currently staying in La Espina. We’re still in Austurias, the province famous for their special alcoholic cider. We have passed a number of apple orchards…so it makes sense the locals would create a beverage delicious and potent from their own farms.

Jason walking ahead of me. Poppies line this stretch of road.

The landscape here is more hilly/mountainous. The area receives a lot of rain and some snow in the Winter.

Jason very much wanted to walk this route. He loves the mountains, but our challenge now is to help me finish.

I have been experiencing hip pain after walking more than 18 km…somewhere around that mark, my body seems to revolt. I feel disappointed that while my feet are not hurting and my body is stronger, the excessive walking is not getting easier, but harder. It comes at a bad time because the Primitivo is more demanding, with fewer services/cities where we can stop and rest or eat or sleep. I need to be able to walk 25 km on more than a few days, starting tomorrow. Two days ago Jason and I walked separately. I took a bus ahead of him and then walked to La Espina. I have stayed here for two days to rest my body. Jason arrived this afternoon. Tomorrow, we hope to tackle 25 km, but I will use a service to take my backpack ahead of us. The following day, we will walk about 30 km.

I hope to figure out how to accomplish this walk without too many more bus rides! I love the quiet, the beauty and the way I encounter the people and culture as a pilgrim. I also want to figure out how to manage the pain for future. I’m going to assume as a 50-year-old person that this experience of pain won’t be my last! I don’t want to be foolish, but I also don’t want to be a wimp.

I am looking forward overall to the coming weeks, our final weeks of pilgrimage. We meet up with our son, Gabe in eight days in the city of Lugo. The timing of being in this relatively big city as he arrives in Spain will make connecting easy, we hope!

Drizzly walking yesterday. Visibility was about 50 feet.
This odd bloom caught my attention…from some kind of an aloe type plant?
Here’s the bloom a bit closer up.

In the end, I know that struggle is a part of a life journey. This bit of challenge is a mirror into my way of dealing or not dealing with possible failure, disappointment or overcoming adversity. Stay tuned…I don’t know how the story will end.

Who Gets To Be A Pilgrim?

Jason and the original Santiago.

This was James, the brother of John, one of Jesus’ original followers. He was chosen by the early church to evangelize  Spain, so he walked and preached, making it to the place which now bears his name. He was starting a church when word reached him that Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem Church had been martyred. He returned to Jerusalem,  where he was also captured and martyred. His little band of church members in Spain (when he left, there is evidence that the church was about ten members strong!) stayed faithful and eventually received James’ remains and entombed him in a spot on which they built a church, later a cathedral. Thus, a pilgrimage was born. Continue reading Who Gets To Be A Pilgrim?

Snails, Horses, and Perspective

The experience of living mostly outdoors, and walking every day, is slowly soaking into me with a sense of scale, frame of reference, and perspective.  It seems good for my soul.  Walking near the sea and in the mountains allows me to sense how small I am with reference to all of God’s creation.  Disconnecting from my beloved work for a while calms my over-inflated sense of anxiety and importance.  And walking, for me is sacramental.  (Another post to come on that subject.)

Here’s how I noticed last week, that a sense of perspective was soaking into me: I found myself loving a horse and identifying with a snail.  We had walked a long day full of hills and were still far from our destination, so we stopped at the side of a rural road, sat down and peeled an orange.  Immediately a huge horse head appeared over the wall above us.  Evidently, horses have a strong sense of smell and love orange peels as a snack – who knew?  I threw one of the peels over the wall, and then TWO horse heads appeared.  One of them wagged back and forth, begging shamelessly.  Of course we fed them the rest of the peels.  Reflecting at the end of the day, I realized that tremendous joy invaded my day through the horses.  The horses were the highlight of a beautiful day.  I really cared about how those creatures felt, and I felt love for them.  Now I regularly carry orange peels or apple cores for MILES in order to brighten the day of livestock. Continue reading Snails, Horses, and Perspective