....To Santiago

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

We are all pilgrims

On October 30th, late in the afternoon, we staggered up the Mount of Joy overlooking Santiago, filled with disappointment that all we could see were sprawling modern buildings with the great cathedral completely obscured from our gaze.  We had envisioned arriving at the crest and seeing the original medieval city in all its splendor, cathedral spires flashing like a beacon, laying invitingly before us in the valley.  Not the case.  Nonetheless, we wended our way down the final two kilometers of a thirty-two kilometer day through the suburban scree which jumbles around the outskirts of modern Santiago.

Finally, we found the great cathedral in view and we made our way immediately, not to the Pilgrim's Office to get our Compostelas, but directly to our new hostel quarters at the Seminario Mayor de Hospedaria, an arm's length from the cathedral.  This is a massive two-city-block building housing several hundred simple rooms for dead-tired pilgrims at reasonable cost.  It was a wonderful place to decompress and debrief with other pilgrims.  We collapsed in a heap of dirty clothes in our tiny cell, which, though it be small and spartan, had a private bathroom with a hot shower--bliss!

Stuart made himself at home immediately in pilgrim-style:

The next day, All Hallows Eve, we made our way to the Pilgrim's Office, and stood for the obligatory photo in front of the Cathedral:

With great joy we met up with our loosely affiliated camino family as they one-by-one entered the city through the square in front of the Seminario Mayor...What a great location with the Camino wending its way right past us so that we were privileged to witness every pilgrim arriving in the city for the first time, heading doggedly to the Pilgrim's Office!

We spent the next two days exploring Santiago and
meeting up with our camino friends for a farewell dinner.  Many of them were planning their walk to Finisterre or Muxia in the following days, but we had decided to forgo those final kilometers leading to the Atlantic Ocean in favor of returning home a few days early. Somehow we knew that we were done with our walking, and Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast of the U.S. made our return home more urgent since everyone we knew and loved was being affected by the storm.

"We are all pilgrims -- grateful for the harvest and yet longing for home."
                                                                        --Margaret Scott

Lastly, we attended the All Saint's Day Mass at  Santiago Cathedral, a very grand service full of processions with pilgrims flowing in and filling the aisles with their mochillas as they arrived, the Archbishop of Santiago presiding, and the famous butofumeiro which was swung through the transepts right above our heads.

On a journey filled with rituals--pilgrim Masses, leaving stones on pilgrim-built cairns and memorials along the Way, embracing the statue of St. James in the cathedral, the foot-preparation rituals for each day's walk--I think the rituals that touched me most deeply were the ones I shared with the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have come before me as well as those who will come after.  I am thinking of the most profound ritual of standing with pilgrims in the dark corner of the Cathedral at the Gate of Glory below the column depicting the Tree of Jesse, where atop St. James sits serenely holding a scroll, with each of us silently holding out our hand to "touch" the column in that place where the impression of a million pilgrims' hands has worn a one-inch deep impression of a human hand on the Tree of Jesse.  Pilgrims are no longer allowed to touch the column; it is surrounded by scaffolding to keep us at a distance, but every pilgrim stands near it, and instinctively holds out their hand in the air to line up with that impression as if to touch that place, that place of arrival.  It is, I think, a pilgrim ritual with great power; the sense of solidarity with so many other souls in marking the moment of the end of a pilgrimage is inexpressible in words.

Buen Camino!

Stuart and I walked 600 km of the total distance of 800 km from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France  to Santiago, Spain.  We skipped a 200 km section in the Meseta region.  We are happy to report that we had a blister-free Camino!

For anyone interested in how we progressed daily, here is the data:

September 27    7.50 km   St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France  >>> Orrison Albergue, France
September 28   20.0 km   Orrison  >>>  Monastery at Roncevalles, Spain

September 29   21.0 km   Roncevalles   >>>  Zubiri, El Palo de Avellano Albergue

September 30   15.0 km     Zubiri  >>>  Pamplona (Villava) Trinidad de Arre Monastery

October 1        9.7 km      Pamplona   >>>  Cizur Menor, Albergue Roncal

October 2       18.0 km     Cizur Menor  >>>  Eunate Church, Eunate Albergue

October 3       23.0 km     Eunate  >>>  Villatuarte, Casa de Magica Albergue

October 4        4.5  km    Villatuarte  >>>  Estella,  San Miguel Albergue

October 5       21.0 km     Estella  >>>  Los Arcos, Casa de Austria II Albergue

October 6       19.5 km     Los Arcos  >>>  Viana,  Monastery (municipal) Albergue

October 7      21.5 km     Viana  >>> Logrono  >>>  Navarette, La Casa del Peregrino Albergue

October 8      16.5 km     Navarette  >>>  Najera, La Juderia Albergue

October 9      21.0 km     Najera  >>>  Santo Domingo de Calzada, Monastery (municipal) Albergue

October 10    17.9 km     Santo Domingo  >>> Villamayor del Rio (Burgos) El Camino eres Tu Alb.

October 11      5.0 km     Villamayor del Rio  >>>  Belorado

October 11      45 km      Belorado  >>>  Burgos (by bus),  Municipal Albergue

October 12    180 km      Burgos  >>>>  Leon (by bus), Monastery (municipal) Albergue

October 13    28.0 km     Leon  >>>  Villar de Mazarife,  Tio Pepe Albergue

October 14   15.5 km      Mazarife  >>> Hospital de Orbigo, Albergue Verde

October 15   18.0 km      Hospital de Orbigo  >>>  Astorga, Plaza Azur Hotel

October 18   22.0 km      Astorga  >>>  Rabanal, Confraternity of St. James Albergue

October 19   16.5 km      Rabanal  >>>  Acebo  (Monte Irago), La Trucha del Arco Iris casa rural

October 20   15.0 km      Acebo  >>>  Ponferrada,  Bierzo Plaza Hotel

October 21   21.0 km      Ponferrada  >>>  Villafranca del Bierzo, De La Piedra Albergue

October 22   19.5 km      Villafranca  >>>  Herrerias, Casa do Ferreiro Albergue

October 23   16.3 km      Herrerias  >>>  Alto de Poio (O'Cebreiro), Santa Maria Albergue

October 24   24.0 km      Alto de Poio  >>>  Samos, (monastic city) Hostal Victoria

October 25    15.6 km     Samos  >>>  Sarria, Escalinata Hostal

October 26    23.9 km      Sarria  >>>  Portomarin,  Posada del Camino Hostal

October 27    15.5 km      Portomarin  >>>  Ventas de Naron,  Albergue Turistico

October 28    27.5 km      Ventas de Naron  >>>  Melide, O Apalpador Albergue

October 29    26.0 km      Melide  >>>  Salcade, Pousade de Salcade  (municipal) Albergue

October 30   32.0 km       Salcade  >>>  Santiago, Seminario Mayor Hospederia (Hostal)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Video Clips

It is difficult to share the experience of a pilgrimage with others, so when I found this video, I thought I should post it here: it expresses so beautifully the Camino experience!

And this ancient pilgrim song:


Tous les matins nous prenons le chemin

tous les matins nous allons plus loin.

Jour après jour la route nous appelle

c'est la voix de Compostelle

Ultreia, ultreia
Et suseia
Deus adjuva nos!

Chemin de terre et chemin de foi,

voie millénaire de l'Europe,

la voie lactée de Charlemagne, ces le chemin de tous les jacquets.


Et tout là-bas au bout du continent,

messire Jacques nous attend

depuis toujours son sourire fixe

le soleil qui meurt au Finistère.

(letra y música: Jean Claude Bénazet)


Every morning we take the Camino,

Every morning we go farther,

Day after day the road calls us,

It’s the voice of Compostela!

Onward! Onward!
And upward!
God assist us!

Way of earth and way of faith,

Ancient road of Europe,

The Milky Way of Charlemagne,

It’s the Chemin of all the Santiago pilgrims!


And over there at the end of the continent,

Santiago waits for us,

His smile always fixed

On the sun that dies at Finisterre.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pilgrim, Who Calls You?

This poem is written on a wall outside of Najera on the Camino Frances.
I have spent quite a lot of time at the end of my walks trying to
 translate it as gracefully as I can.  
I thank Roberto, Manuel, and Irene for their input 
over the course of a late afternoon in front of a hostel 
as they pored over this poem with me.  

Dust, mud, sun and rain
are the Camino de Santiago.
Thousands of pilgrims
and more than a thousand years.

Pilgrim, Who calls you?
What mysterious force draws you here?
Not the Field of Stars
nor the great cathedrals.

Not the bravado of Navarra,
nor the wine of Rioja
not the bounty of the seas of Gallego,
 nor the Castilian plateau.

Pilgrim, Who calls you?
What mysterioius force draws you here?
Not the folk of the Way
nor the ways of the country folk.
It is not the history and the culture, 
nor the cocky Calzada rooster
not the palace of Gaudi,
nor the Castle of Ponferrada.
All these things I see in passing,
and they are all a great joy,
but the voice that calls me
fills me with an even greater feeling.

The force that compels me,
the force that draws me here
I cannot explain:
Only the Most High knows!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Day 28: The Galician Portal

Walking through the mountainous regions of the Bierzo region and entering Galicia marks the final stage of our pilgrimage to the city of Santiago, which is now about 125 km away.  Climbing to the village of O´Cebreiro, scaling a mountain in a straight vertical climb to its summit at 1,500 meters, gave a great sense of accomplishment to every pilgrim who surfaced in the lovely town at the top.  At the summit, the westerly winds from the Atlantic are suddenly tangible, and the climate shifts into a maritime brew of breezy, wet seaborn air as we enter Galicia, the fourth and final region through which we will pass.

Two days earlier, we scaled Monte Irago where the Cruz de Ferro stands as a solemn monument for pilgrims who have left their momentos, carried from home or picked up along the Way, at its base for centuries.  The foundation of the soaring wood and iron cross is covered with an extraordinary pile of stones, tokens, messages, and a multitude of pilgrim prayers.  Stuart and I also left our tokens there.

Tonight, after following a grueling 24 km detour through what seemed like endless up and down switchbacks, mud and scree, we are in Samos, a grey-stoned monastic city perched in a Galician mountain valley, lost in a quiet murmur of waterfalls and mossy verdure.  The contrast with the sunny Meseta of just two weeks ago is reflected in what we now wear as we hike:  the rain poncho rarely comes off now as the weather in Galicia is wildly changeable from minute to minute with wind, rain and sun mixed up in this crazy patchwork climate.  We attended Vespers and Mass this evening in the monastery and a cheery priest sang a sweet blessing over the pilgrims in attendance. 

Having come this far along the Camino, many pilgrims we have met along the way are reappearing in these last days, some of whom we have not seen since Pamplona or Burgos.  They all co-mingle in  loose Camino families who travel together in bands.  Some of these pilgrims have shared with me their more personal reasons for being on the Camino and I have been deepened and humbled by their stories.  So now we travel together in twos and threes, sometimes talking, often silent, often fatigued, but eager to reach the end of our journey in Santiago.  Some of us will go on to Finisterre, but that is up in the air for most.  Our walk together, one way or another, is coming to an end.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fuentes Espirituales

Camino Photos here

Astorga is still home today as Stuart is not strong enough to continue on just yet.  We don´t know if he got infected with bad water, food or other pilgrims, but gastroenteritis is a common ailment among pilgrims.  We will probably be very cautious about our water sources going forward because the feuentes in the villages and towns, refreshing as they seem to be, may be suspect.

But what about the spiritual founts that spring up on the Way?

A visit to Astorga Cathedral yesterday evening gave us a taste of local life as Mass was underway, with incense and a booming cantor, and dozens of seminarians in white albs seated at the front of the nave.  We could not enter but we took in the ambience of reverence, sitting in a sweet chapel dedicated to Mary, and finding a compelling statue of St. James, who stood fast with a world-weary, yet compasssionate gaze in his pilgrim garb of cape, shells, staff, gourd and bare feet.  In the Camino Pilgrim museum next door in the Gaudi Palacio, there were several such images of St. James, each one a contemplative masterpiece, and each one speaking to an aspect of the pilgrim soul.  At this point in our journey, we are more and more thirsty for such reassurances from Santiago that calm perserverance on the Way will bear fruit within our beings.

The outer landscape may be challenging for each of us, but it is more a reflection of the inner landscape, which is even more challenging and magnified as we steel ourselves for the hardships of the Path.
I found a poignant piece of French graffiti in a small hermit´s beehive hut--my rough translation:
The important thing is not to arrive;
The important thing is who arrives.

And there is also this anonymous poem from Navarre:

Alone with others 
Thou thyself thy rivals
Thou thyself finding thy companions
Thou thyself seeing thy enemies
Thou thyself making thy brothers

Thy head knows not where thy feet take thy heart

Pilgrim of the world


Thou art born for the Way

Thou hast an appointment
Where? With whom?

Thy steps thy words
The road, thy son

The fatigue, thy prayer
And thy silence, finally thy speech.

Thou art born for the way
That of pilgrimage
That other way leading to thyself
and thy quest

So that thou may find
at the shrine at the end of the world
Thy peace
Thy joy

Already, God walks with thee.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rest in Astorga

I must first apologize for lack of communication from the Camino.  I can´t even check my email without intense frustration, and am giving up, so if you need to reach me, do so by comment here or message me on Facebook.  I am on free wifi for the first time in three weeks, which is allowing me the questionable luxury of catching up on things electronically.  I am finding myself cursing aloud in this hotel lobby, so I think it best to blog quietly, more befitting of my pilgrim status.

Today, we rest in Astorga before heading into the mountains for the next few days, as we enter the final 300 km of our pilgrimage to Santiago.  We have walked over 300 km to date, so are taking a much needed respite from the albergues at a hotel here in Astorga with hot baths!!!!  We are both exhausted from weather exposure, the weather having taken a decided turn towards the autumnal, with chill and rain and wind.
Stuart fell ill two days ago, so we limped into Astorga yesterday to collapse.

Astorga is our last chance to kit ourselves out before heading into the mountains of the Maragatos region:
I caved in and purchased gloves since the use of socks on our hands is becoming inadequate against the cold winds.  The wind was blowing so strongly from the mountains ahead two days ago that we were forced to turn back to Hospital de Orbigos in the foot hills where we stayed in a hippie-communal albergue with a vegetarian meal, rousing Spanish song on guitars, and some yoga to boot!  It was a center of Buddhist peace, and the hospitaleros there were fresh-faced and full of what I can only term camino caritas.

The Spaniards like their pork dishes, much to the dismay of any veggie-inclined pilgrim.  I hate to say it, but Spanish cuisine is a hardship for me, as there is only variation in the styles of pork available:  each region has specialities in how it cuts and cures its pork, and so the variety of pork dishes is absolutely bewildering!  Even more bewildering is the fact that we have not seen one pig farm, but only multitudes of cattle, sheep, chickens and dogs and feral cats.  The pigs must be in the south of Spain with the orange groves.  The cuisine for the peregrinos menu is predominantly pork, potatoes, eggs, cheese, bread and tomatoes--basically the warm reds, oranges and yellows of the Spanish flag.  In all fairness, though, the seafood is also wonderful in the larger towns.  As we near the Atlantic,  we are now entering ¨pulpo¨ territory, the specialty of the region which I am greatly anticipating!  I don´t think I will ever tire of the variety of octopus served here!  There are pulpo-terias in Galicia!  I can´t wait!

Have I mentioned the vinto tinto?  The peregrino menu may be humble, but it usually comes with a bottle of lovely red wine, which here runs as cheaply and freely as water from the village fuentes.  It is very good for restoring the muscles and is very low in alcohol content,so pilgrims live on it.  In the middle ages, when the water was questionable in every village (til the 1980's, actually!), the only thing pilgrims drank was vino tinto!
The vino tinto is young wine imbibed at every meal, and the vineyards in the Rioja region are resplendent with ripe grapes--we have walked through miles and miles of vineyards and curious earthen bodegas built on the outskirts of every hamlet and town.  At first, we thought they were low-income housing for the very poor, who were squatting on the outskirts, as the bodegas look like they might be inhabited by hobbits!  Silly, naive Americanos!
Today, we will visit the Camino Pilgrim museum here in Astorga inside the Gaudi Palacio.  The history of the various camino routes is fascinating and complex with the interplay of ancient tribal, feudal, and religious fealties forging the identities of these regions.  The Camino Frances, I am learning, developed as the northern front-line border of Christendom, forging a path of commerce, feudal alliances and religious infrastructure, with heavy and equal investment from both the kingdoms of France and Spain (Castile, Navarra, Aragon) creating a great display of fortified towns and cathedrals which were hastily built in the 12th century to fend off the Moorish expansion from the south. 

In a couple of days, we will reach the Cruz de Ferro, a pilgrim landmark on the peak of Monte Irago...
I will report in as soon as the bandwidth and the skies clear...

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Bonds of Song

Before these experiences fade into the mists of the road behind me, I want to recount a couple of moments on the camino which have been extraordinary.  They have been moments where music was the medium of
fellowship:  On a most dreary pre-dawn morning in the albergue at Viana, as I was packing to leave,  I heard the sound of a rousing  men´s chorus of voices singing in harmony from what sounded like somewhere in the building.  I thought, Wow!  What energetic pilgrims to sing like that before a cafe con leche!  Soon I realized that these men, probably part of a church choir on their way to Mass that Sunday, were outside the refugio standing on the street singing a rallying pilgrim anthem for us, simply to cheer us on our way!  It was such a gift!

Each time we enter a town or hamlet, Stuart makes a beeline to the first church he sees and tries the doors to enter.  We have had the most luck with the smaller town churches, and in a couple of them, I have managed to offer up some chants and hymns into the empty stone naves with their fabulous acoustic. In a tiny hamlet near Santo Domingo de Calzada, in a church called Our Lady of the Street (!) I was singing away in the cool interior of the nave when I sensed another person entering at the back of the church.  I fell silent but did not turn around at the end of the chant, and in a few moments a sweet soprano voice began to sing a hymn in Latin.  She sang for only a short time and I entreated her to continue. She sang another delicate hymn verse in what I think was French.  For a few more minutes, she and I traded off singing chants and hymns, and then she sang a lovely descant over my Dona Nobis Pacem.  Then she left, an anonymous pilgrim, and I only saw her back pack as she made her way up the street out of the village.  Stuart said she came out of the church beaming!
So these are wonderful moments on the camino, which just arise and disappear with each passing day.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Day 15: Big City Burgos

Tonight we are in the municipal albergue of Burgos,
which is a fast-paced burg with seemingly endless
affluent corridors and plazas of commercial offerings.
Not to mention the home of one of the most elaborate
Gothic cathedrals in the world,  where many illustrious
sepulchres of notables, including El Cid, are interred
in great splendor.  What a feast of Gothic, Baroque,
Renaissance and Rococco architecture and art we had
this afternoon, walking around in our rather strange garb...
all our clothes were drenched last night in a freak thunder
storm out in the dark countryside casa rural where we lodged,
so all we had to wear were some long underwear and odd
matching anoraks. 
What a contrast to last night in Villamayor del Rio where
the smell of cow dung wafted in the windows all night
in the deep darkness.
I have been told by a kind senor in the albergue
that I must retire promptly in ten minutes....
There are kind senors everywhere who usher us to and
fro in every town....caritas Spanish style. Signing off for now!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Day 10: Somewhere near Logrono

At the city gate of  Puenta de la Reina
The days are becoming a blur, a slog from albergue to albergue.  We are learning what it feels like to be a homeless person, with everything you own carried in one bag.  It takes so much effort to hold onto your "stuff"; your socks try to leave you and fall on the stairways of the albergue, your hat lies on the road for an hour before being picked up by someone walking behind you, your toiletry bag is a mess and washing clothes everyday becomes a serious drag.  Living from meal to meal, the desire to take off your pack and collapse in a chair, the effort to make conversation in several different languages, usually all mixed together in some horrible Franken-speak, is taxing after long stretches schlepping through sun-parched landscapes.

I have inched up many a hillside singing an ancient and effective pilgrim marching song called Stella Splendens, dating from the 12th century.  It is amazing how effective a strong beat can be in keeping one foot moving steadily and rhythmically in front of the other.  I walk quite slowly, leaning on my staff heavily, and have learned this is the best way to avoid blisters.

 There are many, many blistered feet on pilgrims at this point, and Logrono Hospital is filled with crippled pilgrims.  Blessedly, I have only one hot spot I am nursing, and Stuart´s feet are in great shape.  Blisters are the physical manifestation of suffering on the camino, but many pilgrims are walking with painful back-stories too, and while most are willing to talk about their foot injuries, they are much more guarded when it comes to talking about their inner pain.  And so, we all walk, haltingly or briskly, or some speed in between, knowing that this walking in itself is salutary on many levels. 
My bastone

Many of us attend pilgrim masses when we can, but for the most part the churches are closed to us, which is a little sad, for it feels symbolic of the times.  Only one of the several monasteries we have stayed in has been active--all are abandoned and refurbished to house pilgrims, but no religious population lives there anymore, save a handful.  The church Masses, I must say, are perfunctory and not satisfying, in spite of the richly decorated churches where they are held.  The quiet, empty Templar chapels are still very holy places, though and the natural landscape is the temple for the wanderers here. 

Tonight we are in a dreary, windowless municipal albergue, hoping to sleep in our three-tiered bunk beds.
Again, it is a monastery, next to a church damaged in the Carlist War and demolished int eh 18th century.  In its time, it was a formidably beautiful church fortress.

Tomorrow, we try to make our way quickly through Logrono to Navarette, about 20 odd more km onward.  The larger cities hold little appeal, and are in fact jarring to the psyche after the tranquility of the countryside.   The sun does not rise before 8 am and days are becoming shorter, so we walk the entire time it is light. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Day 7: Eunate and Puente La Reina

Day 7....
Today we are starting out slowly, having trudged for 23 km yesterday from Eunate to Villahuerte across fields and through groves and up and down massive hills.  It is quite warm in the heat of the day.
Beginning to harden off physically, and now the inner landscape begins to change as I log in mile after mile with only myself for company.  I lost Stuart yesterday and walked for five hours without seeing him.  He caught up with me later at the albergue we had luckily discussed settling into.
Many people on the camino seem to be here for the "motif sportif", and it has been surprisingly secular in tone.  Surprising to us, but as someone told me, the camino has its way of transforming the pilgrim´s motives as they move deeper into the experience of this long walk.

We stayed at a very special place two days ago, a detour off the camino called Eunate.
Eunate is a Romanesque church from the 15th century, allegedly built by the Templars, and housed pilgrims who were suffering from the hardships of the road.  It rises out of nowhere in the fields like a mirage.

The hospitaleros at the simple albergue, Marie Rose and Girard, put us and seven others up on the mattresses on the floor.  Girard took us into Eunate church after dinner for a pilgrim prayer in three languages, and we sang a chant and a Frenchman sang an ancient pilgrim anthem.   We all held hands and laid candles on the altar.  Eunate is a very special place of hospitality and serenity.  Two young pilgrims arrived on horseback, and the horses were lovingly tended by all.
I´ve been unable to post pictures, but will keep trying.
Today, we move further into the lovely vineyards.  Ultreia!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Day 3 on the Camino: Zubiri etape

 This morning I woke up at 5 am to the sound of rain pounding on the roof of this huge Abbey dormitory.
For the first time I sensed pilgrims were not eager to jump out of their sleeping bags to gear up this morning, and so most slept on until 6:30 am when the lights flickered on.  Time to don the vast array of raingear which makes the pilgrim´s rucksack so heavy:  rain pants, Altus ponchos, goretex jackets and gaiters.  I have only a cheap poncho and some plastic bags which I slip over my inner socks and fold over my boots.  Hey, they worked as well as gaiters!  My best piece of equipment for maneuvering through morning mists and squalls was a trekking umbrella which was my stalwart shield against some high winds in the morning passes.
We finally arrived at the first village with a food market in over 26 kilometers of schlepping.  I loaded up on cheese, apples, sausage and a huge baguette for lunch.  Stuart made a noise about the extra weight and I agreed to carry it all with the understanding that as soon as he nibbled on the chorizo, he´d have to tote it.
Five nagging cats shared our lunch with us outside a cafe in a hamlet. Stuart decided we had to pay the "cat tax" in Spain.
The forests  are filled with moss covered beeches and boxwoods and we nibble on the remainders of blackberries which escaped the ravishing hoards of passing pilgrims who feasted on them all summer.
We pass many poignant monuments which memorialize pilgrims who have died on the Way of St. James. 

All in all, we traveled another 20 km today and staggered into Zubiri and collapsed in a lovely albergue; a heavenly oasis for a few precious hours.  I ache all over, especially my right shoulder which I wrenched yesterday in a tumble on some scree, but I know how restorative a good night´s rest  can be.  Everyone who knows me knows I am a night owl--not anymore. I am up and dressed by 6 am, booted up and fueled by cafe con leche before dawn and ready to walk on...

Dinners in the albergue are communal affairs with plenty of vino tinto to stimulate conversation.  I was at the French table this evening and tried my best to keep up with the gist of the conversation, but found myself mentally flagging when dinner dragged on way past the hour mark.  The French folk kindly tried to engage me with my rusty French, and they were so patient when I stopped to grope for a word;it was a good to make the effort to share their language.  I was definitely sitting outside my comfort zone tonight!
Tomorrow we will walk through Pamplona, where we departed four days ago by bus, and I hope to make it to Cizur Menor a few km beyond the city.

So far the nationalities I have encountered on the Camino are French, German, Spanish, British, Australian, Canadian, South Africa, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Swedish, Belgian, Dutch....and Americans are well represented!  "The Yanks have arrived!" said one Englishman as he passed me on the Way.

Tomorrow we will walk through Pamplona through to Cizur Menor a few km beyond the city.
I hope to upload some photos soon.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Roncevalles at Last!

General Strike in Pamplona
Pamplona was our first encounter with Spanish soil.
There was a general strike going on across Spain
which brought what seemed to be all of the 200,000
citizens of Pamplona into the city streets for a march and demonstration.
Stuart and I wove our way into the marchers heading for
the bus station, and things were just beginning to get a bit
So we quietly boarded our bus to St. Jean Pied de Port,
and watched the Pyrenees loom around us.  I began to
ask myself what we were getting into, but I also knew that
all pilgrims feel this way on this part of the journey.
The Pilgrim´s Office where all would-be pilgrims must
register, was extremely busy and we just managed to get
two of the last beds in the municipal auberge up the street.
(Our notion of carrying a tent flew out the window as soon
as we tried to heft our full packs, so we are at the mercy of
the refuges, which is as it should be, since part of this
experience is to get out of our comfort zone, and privacy is
just that--a comfort.)
The walk ahead in view
So we got a bed and a simple pilgrim meal and tried to sleep!
Excitement and restlessness were high, but the through
hikers in the bunks around us were dead asleep by 9 pm.
Some had already walked the La Puy route of some 740 km,
so they already had a walking, sleeping, eating rhythm.
The next day at the crack of dawn, we are out of the auberge
and forlornly looking for an open shop to purchase any kind
of bread or food to carry with us.  Not one shop was open,
so we girded our loins and began our upward march.
First day, 8 km, straight up into the gently undulating
Pyrenees.  The vistas grew more and more spectacular with
each switch back in the road.  Pretty soon, the only sound
was the clanging of cowbells and sheep bleating on the hilllsides.
I leaned heavily on my tall wooden staff to help me up the
steep incline.  It was the most grueling hike I have ever
undertaken.  We were regularly outpaced by the experienced
alpine wakers who clack-clacked past us with their trekking poles.  Ah, well, we are pilgrims, not hikers!  One more night in a refuge in France, and again at dawn we  were off  after a cup of coffee and some bread and jam.

Today was a steady climb up to almost 2000 meters across16 km, then a treacherous downhill slide at the end descending to the Abbey at Roncevalles, where 200 other pilgrims were already milling about trying to get bunks.  Roncevalles is the traditional starting point in Spain for El Camino de Santiago.
I have my bunk and I have rubbed my sore muscles with balm and hand washed my clothes.  There will be Pilgrim´s Mass tonight in the great Abbey church.  I look forward  to the official imprimateur of the church´s blessing on this journey.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Essential Packing List for an Autumn Camino

I know that other pilgrims who are preparing to walk the Camino really love to read other pilgrim's packing lists.  I know because I read so many packing lists on the Camino de Santiago Forum that I practically had the essential items memorized by the time we stuffed our backpacks to leave for our pilgrimage.

So here is our post-Camino list for a September to November walk, meaning the final culled list of essentials which were not ditched along the Way.  I will add that most of these items, down to the long underwear, were treated with permethrin to ward off bed bugs and that really did the trick.  Pack weight, approximately 8 kg without food or water, 9 kg fully loaded.

Tall wooden walking staff
Keene hiking boots two sizes larger than my feet, no blisters
Orthotic insoles off-the-shelf
60-liter Gregory backpack
XX Large ziplock bag as waterproof inner liner for pack
Lightweight down sleeping bag rated to 45 degrees  F  (765 g)
Silk sleeping bag liner  (121 g)
Thinsulate gloves
Coleman poncho  (many uses)  (Stuart used an Altus poncho)
Go-lite trekker umbrella (227 g)  multi-use and worth its weight
Fleece hat
Hi-visibility vest
Water and wind resistant anorak
2 tech t-shirts
1 tech long-sleeve base layer shirt
1 tech long-sleeve button down shirt
1 Fleece top
2 silk underwear tops
2 silk underwear long johns
2 thermal runner's tights
1 pair convertible pants
1 pair microfiber tights
Travel skirt
Passport neck wallet
3 underpants
2 pairs silk liner socks
2 pairs hiking socks (medium and heavy-weight)
1 pair Injinji toe socks
Buff  microfiber
1 pair Crocs
Camp towel
First Aid kit
Blister and foot care first aid kit  (lambswool, toe gel caps, and moleskin essential)
Shower caddy bag
Lush shampoo cake and light cloth for wrapping
Leggetts travel soap
Travel toothbrush and tooth paste
Ear plugs  (several pairs)
Lip balm
Dental floss
Tissues and plastic bags for disposal
Essential oil fragrance 2 oz.
Contact lens case and fluid 1 oz.
Nail clippers and emery board
Hair ties
Nivea cream in small tin
Sports gel
Supplements:  Emergen-C, magnesium caps 400 mg, probiotics, Immodium, theanine, naturopathic sleep aid, electrolyte drops, Arni-Sport tabs, ibuprofen, allergy pills
Camp towel
Head lamp
Rubber braided clothesline
Brierly guidebook
Safety pins/S Hooks
Small journal with fine point pen
Small plastic bags
2 liter Platypus hydration pack
Duct tape on pencil
Needle and thread
Cable ties
Waterproof matches
Small length paracord
Hand sanitizer
Camera and memory stick
iPod and charge cable
Sunglasses and prescription glasses in case
Small stone for Cruz de Ferro
Nysil daypack

Friday, September 21, 2012

Stowing our Demons and Muses

When packing for a day hike, a small rucksack with a few things thrown in will suffice--a water bottle, a sweater, a picnic lunch, sunscreen, maybe a camera and a hat if you remembered to grab them on the way out the door.  It's easy to keep your pack light and carefree for a day hike.

Well, what if you are planning to walk 35 day hikes back-to-back?
Would you pack any differently?
Some pilgrims who have walked the entire 500+ mile Camino Frances insist no, you would pack virtually the same items, with the addition of, say, perhaps, an extra set of underwear and socks.
That's it!  You're done!  Off you go now!

For some prepping pilgrims, myself included, this short list strikes an arrow of fear directly into the heart of their sense of material security; the "what-ifs" immediately descend like a penetrating, cold rain to flood the peregrino's mind.  What if....
I get a blister?  I sprain my ankle or my wrist? My pack gets wet?  I get bitten by mozzies, ticks, or worse?  I get chased by a mean dog?  I need extra meds,  electrolytes, allergy pills, my teddy bear?   My clients/boss/patients have a crisis in my absence which only I can solve?   (Ahhh, so this is how the lesser demons begin to gather and mumble to themselves.  They think they are going to be stowaways on your journey to Santiago!)

Those are just some of the fear factors that one will try to guard against should the looming Camino become too challenging to bear.

And what, too, about the little enthusiasms we'd like to tote along to magnify, enrich, or commemorate our journey?  What if I want to....
Take pictures?  Call my family and friends?  Sleep outside in a tent under the Milky Way?  Have an entire bottle of vino tinto to myself for a picnic lunch?  Play my guitar in the evenings?  Write in my journal or sketch the scenery?  (Our personal muses dance in our heads, joyfully begging to be carried along the Way!)

So I am coming up against some hard decisions!  And while I am in the final throes of packing for the Camino, they are also reality checks, particularly since I have experimented with hauling some of my tidy but tangible fears and joys on my person in the form of the ubiquitous backpack during a practice hike or two.  I have begun to understand viscerally and precisely what those fears and joys weigh....in kilograms!

 Many of us may not be able to bear to shed these things which weigh us down like so many inessential appendages....that is, until we have dragged them on our backs halfway up into the Pyrenees mountains.  I imagine that after that first long day of slogging ascent one might begin to balance the desire for security very harshly against a quickly growing desire for freedom.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Surprise Ball

Certainly, you are called, and just as certainly you are answering this call.  What awaits you, what beckons to you, what makes this an extraordinary adventure is still in the process of unravelling, revealing treasures as they surface in the very process of the unravelling, much like the crepe "surprise ball" party favors which so delighted you as a child.   Do you remember your delight when the trinkets emerged one by one, the crepe paper falling away in great colorful heaps?  Such fun!  Getting to the center of the ball of surprises was not so important--the journey to the center was all!  Just so, this journey will unfold its treasures to you along the Way as the road unravels like a crepe paper band behind and before you.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Camino Bear

2012-07-07 18.39.59 by Alice Despard
2012-07-07 18.39.59, a photo by Alice Despard on Flickr.
When we made the decision to walk the Camino de Santiago six months ago, it came to me that we needed a bank to save our pennies for this venture.  At the time, Stuart was working on a papier mache project which was becoming this bear head.  It had an egg carton mouth, tennis balls for a snout and ears, and a post-modern color scheme festooning him in muted stripes.  I loved it and requested that he make it into a bank with slots for us to deposit money. So he put holes in the ears and the mouth, and secured the bottom with a base and perforated hatch, and we began to roll up bills and put them in his ears.
I found a purple velvet box upon which to display him, and placed Camino Bear prominently in our dining room; a shrine representing our aspirations toward pilgrimage.
Small objects come and go at this shrine--a small empty journal, a scalloped book mark, a shiny blue carabiner--each endowed with a meaning.   Shrines are amazing portals into the imaginal realms, and this shrine is helping me to wrap my spirit around what lies ahead in Spain.  Here, through this bear, there is communication with the hidden realms and the powers of manifestation run strong through the symbolic intention of penny-gathering.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Pilgrim Profile

There are some souls who have traveled the Way more than once,
who are drawn to pilgrimage regularly in their lives,
and who are rich with wisdom gathered from their conscious journeying.
Margaret is one of these souls, a woman I know only virtually
through one of the several Camino forums on the net.
Margaret is in her seventies now and has walked the
Camino Frances seven times, the first time in her mid-sixties
fulfilling a life-long dream.
She is preparing to begin her eighth Camino
later this year and she is an inspiration to many on the forum,
where she offers well-thought-out nuggets of advice and directs
pilgrims to her extensive blog entries on her seven journeys.
I am a fortunate pilgrim because Margaret has taken me
under her wing and regularly checks on my progress
with regard to preparations, both physical and spiritual,
for the Camino.

Here are a couple of the many wonderful quotes
which Margaret has found inspiring and which
she freely shares to those aspiring to the way of the pilgrim:

This reflection on the art of walking has become a favorite:

Few people know how to take a walk.
The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes,
old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity,
good speech, good silence and nothing too much.        
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Margaret also shared this with me today:

As Sir Walter Raleigh wrote in the 16th century in His Pilgrimage
GIVE me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gauge;
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage....

And my favorite from Margaret herself is this:
Each pilgrim creates their own pattern as they move along.
After all my Caminos I know my strength;
'slow, but dependable’ could be my motto.
Trusting my gear, tenacity and ability to endure
I try to take it as it comes enjoying the good and bearing the bad.
After all this is life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Heatwaves and Hikes

Training hikes are so problematic when it is 40 C outside, with 80% humidity;
a typical July in the Washington, D.C. swamplands.  Late in the day on July 4th, when the temps had dropped to 35 C, we heaved on our 60L packs fully loaded with  8kg and set off to hike on the C & O Canal for a practice run.
Two hours and 5.5 sweaty km later, we returned, wrung our clothes out and threw ourselves into the wading pool on our deck to cool down.
This is going to be a long, hot summer, and while I don't expect it to be quite that hot on the Iberian peninsula in late September, well, you never know, and we need to practice no matter what conditions prevail here.
The recent four day grid failure over July 4th week due to the derecho which hammered half of the continent gave us a chance to try out our tent in the backyard since the house was stifling by the fourth night of the heatwave.  The tent is ultralight at 1.25 kg including the footprint which makes it a justifiable item to carry if it will allow us some freedom on the camino.  I want to sleep out under the Milky Way as much as possible, though I know that most nights we will be staying in the albergues with other pilgrims.
Because of the camping gear, our packs will not be in the optimal weight range for this long walk on hard surfaces (90% of the camino is paved or hard gravel road), and we may end up having to make some tough decisions about heaving off ballast.  Pilgrims are fanatical about keeping their pack weight as low as possible because of the punishing conditions a heavy pack can wreak on the body, especially the feet.   Finally, there is one's true actual weight, with loaded pack and all your clothes and accessories, known as your FTSO weight (From The Skin Out).  You should ideally carry no more than 10% of your body weight in your pack. I find all this detail fascinating (Stuart not so much!) and I predict that I will be obsessing over every gram as soon as I get my postage scale in the mail!  Yes, I will be weighing everything I carry down to the smallest comb.  And one might observe that it is well nigh impossible to measure the weight of the fears that I will carry on the camino, for they say that the pilgrim carries her fears in her rucksack. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Starting this blog is part of my preparations for a pilgrimage to Spain to walk the famous, ancient Way of St. James, known as El Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  There are many caminos, actually, and I will begin my unique camino the moment I step out my front door with my backpack and with my intention.

The camino that most people are familiar with is the Camino Frances, the French Way, which is the road that my pilgrimage companion, Stuart, and I will be taking in late September of this year.  Pilgrims on the Camino Frances traditionally begin the Way from the  small picaresque village of St. Jean Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees in France.  The first day out is a trial by fire, walking straight up into
the mountains.  But most of the 800 km path to the city of Santiago is flat and wide and, happily, filled with pilgrims.  We expect to reach Santiago by the beginning of November, hopefully in time for All Saints Day.  From there, if we are able, we may walk on to Finisterre, the 'edge of the world' where Spain meets the Atlantic Ocean.