Santiago de Compostela, 10-15-17: Suitable for framing



Three floors below my hotel room on the granite paved Calle Acibecheria, pilgrims stream by the hundreds, as many still wobble and limp, into the city hopeful for the long-awaited first glimpse of the Catedral de Santiago. Even though it’s scarcely two blocks away as they pass beneath me, the twin spires of the peregrinos final goal won’t be visible, just to their left and hidden by a small building, until they pass a final souvenir shop. Then, wham, there it is. Finishers swarm everywhere, some plop down with boots and packs off, soaking in the experience as best they can. Still more mill about wondering about lodging and food and the whereabouts of the pilgrim office just so they can wait in line for a couple of hours for their Compostela (2€) with their name neatly written in cursive – and in Latin. But it’s a beautiful piece of paper that many will, including me, frame. 

The first view of the massive church creates a madhouse. Some walkers break into tears, some yell in relief and joy, some embrace their walking partners, some laugh, some look dazed, dirty and tired. But all are done. I fell somewhere in that mix yesterday as I set down my damned pack and loosened my damned boots in the catedral’s Plaza at 12:24 p.m. 

24 hours later and I still don’t know what or how to feel. A German physician I came to know, Tomas, surmises it will be some time before we can absorb and process what this feat has been all about. Hard to disagree with the thoughtful doctor. For the average hiker there’s simply been too much to take in over too long a distance with too many emotional and physical and visual inputs to arrive at instant epiphanies. And one month from start to finish is one helluva long time. They can be forgiven for forgetting the details. It’s the totality that matters. 

In my day here, this Presbyterian has attended two pilgrim masses, took a long tour of the catedral, paid homage to the remains of St. James, bought some scallop shell momentos for my three girls – and sat on a street side chair to people watch and take in the chaotic final scene. That is part of the overall experience. 

But tomorrow the final chapter starts. I’ll lug my pack about six blocks to the train station and figure out where to go from here. As it is, I’ve already been somewhere for sure. 

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Camino de Santiago, 10-13-2017: The final day but not final thoughts



So Saturday is it. The final 23km march from Arca into Santiago followed by a purported two hour wait for the compostela, essentially a (hard earned) certificate of completion. After nearly 800 kilometers or thereabouts on dusty, rocky and uneven paths what’s  another couple of hours of idle time?

Right now, with my bum leg up on a plastic chair as I nurse a cerveza, my bunk made and clothes laundered (rinsed, but likely not really clean) one final time, I’m not quite sure what or how to feel. 

Relief? Why not after a long, long walk. Accomplishment? I suppose but when you see others with far worse physical ailments owing to blisters and injury but pushing ever onward, it creates the proper and fitting kind of Camino context. In no way are the mega-kilometers about the brute physicality or rocket speed or swanky gear. It is, as Tom and Richard and Vince told me time and again, rather in the simple doing. That is truth. Harder to define is the defining charge of the Camino, the spiritual presence. There is no flash of enlightenment, no clap of thunder to announce heavenly intervention. Rather, it is the weight of days applied to your shoulders which overwhelms your thoughts, mind and what you see and how you process what you see. It is the totality of day two piled atop day one and day 30 piled atop every other preceding day. 

I have wished for, and wanted, absolutely nothing in my days in Spain. The U.S. has been completely shunted aside in favor of the task at hand (or at foot). If there was anything I expected or could control it was to stay aware, eyes and mind open. True pilgrims seem to know this before they take their first step. It takes days for some of us laggards to come to a this realization. 

The Camino has exceeded my expectations. I didn’t have many but the ones that I did have have been blown away like so much wind blown dirt and grit along the Spanish trails. Yet with one more day to go there’s no telling what other realizations may come to light. I suppose that’s why any of us are here; to find out what has awaited us from the first day to the last. 

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Camino de Santiago, 10-12-2017: Little things and the delivery of vino



Depending on which mileage marker you believe, there are less than 50km to go in this month-long odyssey. Really, it feels like a year. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning let alone what town I slept in yesterday or the day before that. Or any day or any week before that. 

Every last piece of it blends together. The sights, the sounds, the trail, the towns, the smells. That seems to be the way of the Camino for most folks willing to talk about it. And most are since that spirit of sharing is the Camino way.

Still, there are things I do recall (mind you, some more vividly than others).

Spaniards revere their elderly. Spend an evening in any Plaza and you’ll see daugthers stroll arm-in-arm with their mothers, sons or couples slowly push elderly parents in wheelchairs down the promenade. It really is touching and special to see. 

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Make the Caminoclackfree. I understand why people rely on walking sticks (particularly on steep declines). I do. I have a pair myself (but my carbon fiber poles are purposefully not here). The majority of Caminoers use sticks – which creates a near constant ‘clickity clack’ on any hard surface. Stone. Cement. Asphalt. Uphill, flat, downhill. Doesn’t matter. Clickity clack. It’s like a parade of walking metronomes. It kind of grated on me  in larger cities such as Burgos and Leon when poles aren’t of help on flat calles (streets). Could there be a compromise: rubber tips?

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Suffer or ship your bag? For 5€ you can ship your backpack to your next lodging to save yourself the wear and tear. Yet there rages a great debate among purists (“Shouldering a full pack is part of the experience”) vs. ‘ship ahead’ folks who contend it’s individual choice since everyone walks their own Camino. I’ll admit to being envious of the pack-less crowd that breezes by me and my 17 lb. load like I’m standing still. But I’m not ready to take sides especially if someone is injured or otherwise disabled. 

——–

Small scale farming is the norm. Except for the far-as-the-eye-can-see gigantic wheat fields in the Meseta, agriculture in Spain seems notable for teeny tiny farms and plots, especially by U.S. standards. My guess is the produce and livestock are grown at home – and eaten at home. The Camino literally traipes through and between farm buildings (often bordered by ancient stone walls/fences) so you see – and smell – Spanish agriculture up close and personal. 

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The Spanish do a lot of things right. Perhaps the ‘people’ highlight – among many – of the journey occurred as I ate alone in a cafe in the crowded central plaza in Villafranca. To say Spanish waiters/waitresses move at their own pace is an understatement. But I watched a harried waiter at the very moment he first saw a couple escort a very elderly man – the father of the man or woman, most likely – in a wheelchair toward the restaurant. They were easily 10 – 15 yards away and in no hurry to make forward progress. The waiter instantly set a tray of dishes down and ran – not walked – into the working area of the restaurant. Seconds later he re-emerged and, now at a very fast walk, made a straight line for the elderly man. And in the waiter’s hand: a glass of wine, rose most probably. He delivered the wine to the senor before the trio even reached the cafe and with the delivery was a handshake and hug and some lively chatter I couldn’t understand. What’s more, the threesome never entered the restaurant. They continued their evening loop past the cafe and crossed the Calle as they had undoubtedly done before. The old man had his wine and the waiter had my respect. The waiter went back to his tables and the trio went on their way. 

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 Camino de Santiago, 10-9-17: The 21 lesssons


All this started three weeks ago with, to borrow from Lao Tzu, a single step. The great philosopher referred to a thousand mile journey and while the Camino isn’t that far, to untold thousands of hobbled peregrinos it just feels that way. 

So, what have I learned to this point? More than I could have ever imagined and plenty enough to fill a small book. But as I sit in the lobby of the incredible Leo Albergue in Villafranca savoring spicy chiorza and cold cerveza, I’ve whittled the sum total to one learning/eye opener per day. These are in absolutely no order (but the first one must signal some deep-seated learning disorder). 

  1. My Spanish stinks. Several years of language teachers must still rue the day I showed up in their class. Sure, English is the international language but I’m uneasy that we force Spaniards to speak Ingles in their own nation. 
  2. The Camino is test/challenge in many ways. Being fit is one thing, being able to cope with the emotions and mental demands of the everyday walker (finding a decent room, unfamiliar food, language challenges, staying halfway clean) is another. 
  3. You can buy all sorts of bandages and balms and knee braces in farmacias but simple compression wraps for ankles are nowhere to be found. Damn. 
  4. Spaniards know way, way, way more about our country (politics, Trump, health care, Las Vegas) than we know about theirs. Are you aware they’re having a secession crisis in Catalan? It’s a great big deal to Spaniards. 
  5. Not that the spiritual side of the Camino was lost on me but us heathens are a hard lot to convince. Yet there’s not a day on the trail that some new story surfaces that is testament to the staying power and higher purpose to this walk. It amazes me how deeply people care for what the Camino symbolizes. 
  6. MVP (Most Valuable Purchase): Without question, the three ounce umbrella from Gossamer Gear. It’s been pressed (opened?) into use every day under the unrelenting sun as portable shade. How valuable is it? A Japanese man huddled under sparse shade along the sun-baked Meseta offered me 50€. I kept walking. 
  7. The people here, especially women, are so chic-chic stylish; hair, clothes, shoes. Top to bottom. Very cool. 
  8. Spain needs rain. Torrents of steady rain. Plants are withering. Streams are low. Local papers report of severe drought. There was a smattering of moisture for all of 20 minutes on day three. Otherwise only scattered clouds since then. (Note: what appears a major fire to the east had smoke billowing into the air – and it appears to be smack in the Camino zone. Let’s hope peregrinos are safe.)
  9. Imagine, if you will, people tramping between your and your neighbor’ house along a narrow walkway. Almost every day of the year. That is the Camino. I’ve been close to people in their living rooms and heard their TVs and got a glimpse (not a peeping Tom view) of a woman primping in her bathroom. The path also goes around and through businesses, industrial zones and parking lots. Just today I watched a guy weld something and was feet away from another guy changing oil in a truck. 
  10. Spaniards aren’t overweight by U.S. standards. I’ve not seen many people carry extra poundage (other than in pilgrim packs).
  11. On the flip side, many people smoke, including lots of teens. 
  12. The seasons have changed in my time here. And it’s staying darker longer in the mornings. My trusty headlamp was switched off at 7:30 a few weeks ago but now it stays lit until after 8:00. 
  13. The Camino as a modern enterprise – decent signage, cheap albergues, etc. – is a relatively recent development. Seems there was a priest from the mountaintop town of O Cebreiro (best views of the valleys below) who devised the yellow arrows and – according to lore – replicas of scallop shells that guide pilgrims through towns. He also had a hand in the formation of albergues as pilgrim lodging. 
  14. That said, the guidebooks seem to annoint official start/stop points for a given day. Peregrinos adhere to such advice and measure their progress by it but it shortchanges towns in between. Some of my best and most enriching experiences have been in the small locales. 
  15. Lost or not sure if you’re on the Camino? Not to worry. Look for tissues and TP strewn about the entire length of the route. In fact, pilgrims are kind of a messy bunch. 
  16. As you know, there was plenty of self doubt about being alone for weeks. Those groundless fears dissolved amid new friendships and on-trail ‘time to think.’
  17. Spanish food is … a delight. Yeah, you have to table your American inhibitions and ditch the westernized ‘Peregrino menus’ but holy cow, is it worth it. Blood sausage, chiorzo, beef tongue, tripe (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it), and pulpo (octopus) could be – hey, it already is – a daily staple for me. 
  18. MVP 2: Darn Tough socks. Best. Socks. Ever. A close third: my faultless Osprey Stratos 36 pack. If you have to worry about your pack, you have the wrong pack. 
  19. The oldest hominids – antecessors – were discovered in caves along the Camino. Say ‘hi’ to your one million or more year old forebears. 
  20. If you heard a rooster crow at the corner of Trade and Tryon in Charlotte you’d think the town had gone hayseed. But I heard that very thing in the center of Leon. They must love their pollo here. 
  21. Parts of the walk have resembled western Nebraska (the barren stretches of the Meseta) and I could’ve swore I was in North Carolina as we trudged up the long trail to Valcarce. Uncanny resemblance. 

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Camino de Santiago, 10-6-2017: That damned marathoner instinct


My personal marathon best was 2:24. It could’ve/should’ve been faster but I made some truly lousy decisions on training, race selection and, in brutal honesty, lifestyle choices. 

At any rate my last marathon was in 1982 and, shortly thereafter, went through the motions in my last race, a 20km. It was the last day I ever ran. I haven’t missed it, or the daily pain, for one second in 35 years. Not one damned second. 

But my marathoner instinct – head down, keep moving, monitor body signals – has returned with a vengeance during the dog days of the Camino. Dog days because I’m at the end of almost two weeks of flat, arid – and hot – monotony associated with the Meseta, a high, flat plateau known mostly for rocky fields of wheat, dust, more dust and an endless horizon. 

Although not entirely barren of historical and spiritual significance, this desolate stretch of unforgiving land is where the peregrino can make up some time, i.e. extra kilometers. This is where and when my old – and heretofore dormant – 26.2 mile instinct kicked in. 

Mind you, my ankle has been killing me but once I’m up and about the pain is very manageable if not tolerable. (I should insert a paid Advil testimonial here.) As for the marathoner instinct it’s really quite simple: stay in the moment, monitor body systems and – at all costs – never, never, never allow yourself to ever think, not for one idle moment, how far you have to go. That is the runner’s kiss of death. Just when you think things are fine, such euphoria can implode like a ruptured balloon 10 strides later with a sudden cramp, a misstep in a pothole or some other unexpected fly in the walker’s ointment. 

I’ve stopped to smell the roses more often and am enjoying things immensely (when I say ‘head down’ that’s not literal. It’s staying focused and in the moment.)  And the roses smelled awfully good for two hours the other day in the quaint and vastly underrated yet hyper-interesting hilltop town of Astorga. But when there’s otherwise sparse countryside I’ll keep on a plodding even if it’s snail slow. Head down, stay in the moment. 

The keep-on-keeping-on mentality is a formula that works. Although I’ve slowed down to a point when the majority of walkers pass me (usually with a breezy ‘buen Camino’) it really does boil down to enjoying the high points but breezing by the low ones – while still relishing a chance to sit down and cool my heels in most every town. 

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Camino de Santiago, 10-4-2017: And on the 18th day, I rested my Festus imitation 



Pilgrims theorize about rest days but I don’t see many walkers actually unburden themselves of their packs or dislodge their boots to gingerly kick up their sore, achy feet. 

To beat yourself up on long, rocky, dusty trails day after long day without reprieve isn’t a good recipe for Camino success. If peregrinos listen closely to their bodies they are likely to hear an audible cry for help  – or a veiled warning: ‘Go ahead and push me but I can push back, too.’ My body made good on its veiled warning a few days ago when the interior of my right ankle went kapoof. I limped like Festus on Gunsmoke and if the slightest misstep on a small rock caused the ankle to wobble there was hell to pay. 

I took that learning to heart. And as it happened, the timing was fortuitous. If you divide the length of the Camino into thirds, there are two logical stopping points. The first third features Burgos and the second is Leon. Both are big cities with major catedrals, other attractions and good food – elements desirable to most pilgrims. 

If ever there would be chance to relish a restful down day it would be Leon which lay directly in my path. Right town at the right time. Some friends and I bunked in a C+ albergue (not all albergues are created equal) so, fed up with snorers and crinkly plastic bags that denied me precious ZZZZZs, I donned my Osprey pack and set off to tour the massive catedral. I’d be content to play pilgrim tourist for at least half a day before moving onward. 

That’s when my ‘must rest’ senses came to me. Or, more correctly, where forced upon me. Within seconds of entering the church gates I ran into three familiar hikers – Rachel, Mary and Franky – who took turns lambasting me for not resting, not getting off my bum feet and just plain being dumb enough to not take a full rest day. Franky all but ordered me to another albergue as the women nodded in agreement. Perhaps it was divine intervention in the shadow of the iglesias but I miraculously came to agree with them. So I did as I was told, checked in to a B+ albergue, ditched the pack, cleaned up and enjoyed the sights, friends, food and drink of Leon into the morning hours. 

The latter portion of the prior night’s enjoyment made the next morning come earlier than I cared for but I at least did as I was told and was the better for it. Too bad the rest point of the last third won’t be of much help – because it occurs at our end point, Santiago de Compostela. At least I’ll be able to take these damned boots off for good. 

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Camino de Santiago, 10-3-17: Signs of the Camino


Peregrinos come wanting to find their path but they need to be shown it, too. Literally. 

Without abundant signs and markers and guideposts there might be directionless pilgrims wandering all over Spain, bewildered and lost. I know. I’ve been on the wrong end of the wrong trail a couple of times. 

The official symbol of the Camino is a scallop shell. Most often depicted in yellow on a deep blue background, it is emblazoned into most markers upon which pilgrims rely – and learn to recognize early on – to guide their way. 

A ‘marker’ (my term) can be any of a lot of things such as a short cement post, a sign affixed to a building corner or a freestanding directional at the junction of various crossroads in order to keep pilgrims on the straight and narrow. 

But there are less formal means to point the way. Chief among these is a hand painted yellow arrow. Rule of the road: if you don’t see an ‘official’ marker, look for a yellow arrow. Follow it. The arrows can be seen anywhere and everywhere: sides of buildings, on curbs, on trees, on flat pavement, utility poles, house walls, even individual stones on the path. 

I don’t know who’s wielded a paintbrush to slather these ultra-valuable arrows virtually the entire length of the Camino but their work is much appreciated. I’d be rudderless somewhere, likely roaming Portugal if, at the last possible moment, one of these little pointy things didn’t miraculously appear to point me right. 

It appears that towns along The Way have creative latitude when it comes to herding walkers in their jurisdiction. Many use a variation of the scallop shell (often in brass or carved stone) and typically embed it in the pavement. Many do a great job of combining signs, arrows and localized creativity to help directionally-challenged pilgrims. Others, not so much. Such as Burgos, a major waystop on the Camino. For a wealthy and influential city, it did a mediocre job at best. Many pilgrims were lost and confused (and verbalized as much) as they tried to find the path so I grade Burgos as a D+. 

I’ve just adjusted (i.e. greatly tightened) my dusty Salomon boots in a swank little coffee/pastry shop. There is some haste required in my need to get a move on: the place is filling with locals who are giving this dirty pilgrim the eye, as in ‘you don’t belong.’

And thus my next step: keep an eye open for something yellow and blue. 

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