Monthly Archives: October 2017

Habitaciones, por favor?


The kids got one final wrap up once I got my feet back under me. I haven’t written today’s letter yet and there’s a strong likelihood there will be a few touch-up items here and there; the uneasy Catalan situation, other overlooked high points – and more details on newly-hatched intentions to go back in the autumn of 2018.


October 25, 2017

Ellen/Reid: It’s good to be home. The hard part is believing the whole shebang is already over and done with. The walk is a blur; it feels like a year ago even though scarcely six weeks has passed by. A part of me would go back to Spain in a heartbeat but the reality is my right ankle is still sore and that would have to heal up first.

It was really everything friends told me it would be, and more. Part of it was just being in France and Spain at all, the other was the entirety of the experience. Reid, you’ve traveled so much more than your old man so you know none of this is exactly new news; and Ellen, your time will come for such an adventure. What I do know is that the Camino de Santiago was fascinating in all respects. The history, the buildings, the people (both Spaniards and other walkers), the scenery, the vistas, the food, the sleeping arrangements, the everything.

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Spain has its own set of domestic and economic issues right now but on the whole, it is one helluva country. There’s so much good about it, so much to like.

Imagine, Ellen, people – many dozens if not hundreds of them every day – walking between your house and the little home just to the west of your deck. What is that? 15 feet at most? What I wasn’t prepared for was the vagaries of the route itself. Not just the open trail through quaint small towns and the countryside but how hikers would cut between a farmer’s barn and his house or through an industrial park with warehouses and car repair shops just a few feet away on either side or the paved shoulder of a busy highway. Bizarre but interesting. Some of the path was dirt, still more was pavement, some was cobblestones, some was crushed rock.

Every night I opted to sleep in albergues, Some slept 10 in a common room filled with bunk beds, while others squeezed in 50 or more. The incessant snoring threw me off the first few nights as it filtered through my ear plugs but as the trip went along it became so much white noise. Some albergues were okay, others not so much and some surprisingly nice. You paid your money and took your chances (5 – 12 Euros. All that got you was a paper fitted bed sheet and a common shower). Lots of folks called ahead to book space but it was fine with me to simply walk in to ask (‘Habitaciones, por favor?’) if they had a spare bunk. There was always room for one more. That approach was easier for me since, for the most part, I walked alone. I plodded on some stretches with people but it was fine enough to truck alone.

What took a little getting used to was how Europeans – women and men – were so blithely casual about walking around in little if any clothing. I’d wake up to a woman standing in a thong next to my bunk or a man in some skimpy underwear and nothing else. But hey, I eventually went with the flow although I limited any showmanship to dress pretty quickly and be on my way. Most mornings I’d hit the road before dawn with my headlamp (‘torch’ in European lingo) to light the way. Once I was limbered up and motoring I’d find a place in the next town with stiff black coffee and some rustic bread toasted with butter and jam. That was divine.

I still scratch my head at how/when my ankle went south only 10 days in. I have no clue what went wrong but for a terrible moment it crossed my mind that there would be no way to finish. Honestly, I’d hobble out of the sack (the ‘Camino Shuffle’ an Australian friend named Cam called it) and the first few kilometers were excruciating. But on I’d limp until the pain subsided. It always did.

But what impressed me most were the highly civilized Spanish. Not that they were overtly friendly, but they weren’t overweight, were family oriented – adult children typically accompanied parents on strolls through central plazas – and you almost never heard car horns honk. In fact, they aren’t nearly as car-centric and impatient as Americans are. I’ll find out next fall if the Portuguese are the same way; the plan is to walk another variant of the Camino through Portugal. I’ve got the bug, I guess.

Love, Dad

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Before and after: Back to BAU …


The Camino de Santiago has come and gone. Damn. I’d go back tomorrow. Or later today if a reasonably priced flight was available.

So after 20-some posts on and about the walk, it’s BAU. Ellen and Reid got one final letter before the trip to France and Spain. 

Here it is. (I put a post-hike wrap-up in yesterday’s mail.)


September 11, 2017

Ellen/Reid: Irma is here. The first drops of rain are falling and the wind is up. Somehow we’ve managed to dodge the Big One when she inexplicably turned to the west. All the panicked shelf-clearing raids on the grocery stores for water and provisions appear to be for naught although the forecasters say we’ll get heavier and possibly damaging winds and 2 – 4 inches of rain as the day moves on. I hear planes overhead so the airport is still open for business.

That’s what I was really sweating bullets over; that the Charlotte and Miami airports would be shut down and there would be no way to get out of here on Wednesday. I saw the projected path of Irma  when I got off the water in Charleston and it was to make a beeline for the Carolinas. I got American Airlines on the horn to see if I could change my flight to Thursday or Friday of last week – but got turned down flat. Without a ‘weather alert’ being issued, they wouldn’t change my flight without a $300 change fee plus the difference in the price of a new ticket. I thought that was kind of short sighted since if they dealt with me at that moment, they wouldn’t have to deal with me – and thousands of other panicked travelers – this week if the hurricane had raised holy hell. So that was disappointing. But as of now – knock on wood – things look relatively normal for a Wednesday departure. My friend Andrea will give me a ride to the airport.

She and two others, Mickie and Anita, helped with my final 11 (mile) test walk last Friday. Those ladies can just step on the gas so it was a good shakedown cruise to get me ready. Everything I’ll need is literally in the pack right now. I could travel at a moments notice. The Osprey is just such a great and comfortable pack. It really is. Absolutely no issues with it.

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My friends Tom and Sondra laughed at something at a soiree at a fun joint on the South End. It was great to kick out the jambs before The Walk.

Once the Atlantic is reached (the traditional end point is Santiago de Compostela in western Spain) I’ve given myself about a week’s cushion to visit Madrid for a couple of days then take the train on to Barcelona for four or five days. Part of me wonders how antsy I’ll be to make the return trip home since my nerves have not quieted as of yet. Almost seven weeks away is a long, long time, especially when you’ve never made such an extended trip, at least of the vacation variety, before. Sondra was nice enough to host a going away dinner on Friday night at some hip joint in Charlotte’s South End, and I was lamenting my lack of day-to-day planning to my friend Dave Wallace. He dismissed that altogether and said just throw a pin at the map and see where it sticks. So that made me feel a little better in terms of not being so rigid in carving out a hard-and-fast agenda or itinerary.

I’m struggling with the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had. It’s traversed all over my body and has been tough to contact. Remedies have included IvaRest and other balms or simply rubbing salt on the open, liguidy blotches. I hope this damn stuff subsides by Wednesday. Geez, it’s been way bad.

Ellen, that deck looks so cool. In nice weather you will live out there. That you and Tim chose composite planks will eliminate any worries about splinters with the girls. I would, however, get plastic inserts for the metal furniture since it will scratch the decking. What a nice addition to the house. You just bumped the value considerably. I dunno. By $10,000 at least.

Sounds like things are moving ahead nicely on the freelance/contractor front, Reid. It’s all about marketing yourself, getting referrals and plugging away at building a little business so you don’t have to depend on one or two clients.

Alright, enough for now. WhatsApp has been downloaded and Verizon sold me a $40/month overseas plan. Not sure how often I’ll be in touch, but I will be at some point. Buen Camino.

Love, Dad

 

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Camino de Santiago, 10-21-17: Postscript – mis nuevos amigos Kris, Franky, Georgio, et al


 

My Italian buddy, Georgio, takes in the scene above the central plaza just outside and above the west doors of the catedral in Santiago.

There’s a tendency for neophyte peregrinos, at least in the planning stage, to get swallowed up or at least preoccupied in the prospect of the physical, religious and historical manifestations of the Camino de Santiago. The stone and dirt and rock path. The Roman roads. The buildings of hand-hewn stone dating to antiquity; churches, battlements and any other medieval – or older – structures. 

Yet there’s another side of the Camino that becomes all too evident soon into anyone’s first steps: it becomes a traveling society of people much like themselves. The thread of hikers may stretch out by hundreds of miles but it weaves individuals into the tight cloth of a shared objective and a commonality of purpose. The many become a community of oneness.

My journey may have started for its own reasons but that singular quest was hardly removed from that of every other soul I encountered. That so many share the similarities of goal and direction and ‘why’ creates an instant bond that transcends language and race and nationality. There is a real and distinct sense amongst peregrinos that says, with a glance, ‘I am here with you and for you.’

And so conversations begin. Friendships form. Stories and ‘whys’ are shared. Bands of walkers take to the trail together. To me this was the essence of the Camino. That transcendence of differences that in another circumstance might not draw anyone together anywhere else. Except on the Camino.

In that regard I was no different. I am amazed at how the slightest eye contact, a few spare words or the simplest gesture could create a bond that could last days or, in most instances, the entirety of the walk. I can’t accurately count how many I walked with having met, often in the most happenstance of ways.

Paul from Boston was looking for a power outlet to charge his iPhone. Nora from Amsterdam was in queue for morning coffee. Kris, the retired Spanish teacher from Texas who happened to stand up from a perch on a roadside railing at the instant I passed her on the trail (and to her credit tried in vain to improve my poor Spanish but also orated a fascinating history of Spain that went on for 10 to 15kms). Kathy, now living in Denver, who somehow knew Kris. Nancy, a Chicagoan, shared a seat next to me at a wine festival in Logorno. The sibling trio of Sandra, Diane and Tom from Canada. I detected their English as we passed by each other on the road. Jonathan, from Wales, said ‘hi’ in his marvelous accent. Franky, a truly generous Spaniard, kindly shared the light from his headlamp with me on a dark morning even though it forced him to throttle back his much faster clip to my doddering pace. We rarely walked together but would rendezvous at an albergue at the end of 14 – 16 consecutive days. Tomas, a German doctor, nodded with me in agreement at a way too long line (at a tiny town coffee shop hogged by too-loud American bicyclists). Georgio (pictured above), an incredibly kind hearted Italian, who merely stepped out of a taxi in Villafranca looking for Albergue Leo – the same lodging were I stayed. We walked and dined and laughed together the rest of the trip – even though he spoke little English and me no Italian. And Tommaso, a 27-year-old Italian who gave Georgio some language relief from the long spells of silence that doomed Georgio with his sidekick language dunce.

This was my Camino. Good people who walked for themselves but along the way discovered the company and community of kindred spirits that in any other time or place likely wouldn’t exist. (Their stories? How much time do you have?)

They say ‘The Camino provides.’ And indeed it did in virtually every conceivable way. Spiritually, historically and emotionally. But the footnote or exclamation point to this otherworldly adventure might be the unplanned for intangibles – the chance meeting between former strangers – now friends – that many, if not most, pilgrims will remember long after their aches and pains and blisters have faded away.

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Camino de Santiago, 10-18-17: My tent is beginning to fold



I’m low on gas. This long trip has consumed outsized quantities of my physical, mental and emotional reserves. Those resources were focused squarely on the big goal and with it done, what now? I’m not running on fumes – not yet anyway. Cranky can’t be far behind, either. 

But it’s not all about running out of external juice. There are imternal factors that add to fatigue and for that there’s only one person to blame. It’s time to pile on myself a little bit. 

Travel organization is apparently not a personal strength. I keep proving that to myself in very hard, painful and energy-sapping ways. Book easy plane connections? Nah. Lock down advance lodging on the Camino (causing me to sweat bullets on occasion about finding a bed)? Uh uh. Then the real zinger came Monday. 

I don’t know why I thought I could just show up at the train station and grab a seat. It had been a solid two days since setting foot in Santiago and you’d think 10 seconds of foresight/planning could’ve been spared to secure a seat. But no. Instead I waffled between a bus to Finisterre (Lands End) with my Italian friend, Georgio, a train to San Sebastián or eastward to Madrid. Options one and two were my top picks with a full seven days to spare. 

My delay cost me dearly. Imagine showing up early on Monday morning to find every seat on every train to every destination was already sold. And for most of Tuesday, too. All that was left: 5:15 a.m. on Tuesday to Madrid, the Spanish version of a red eye. And the penalty: one entire day wasted. I can walk 791 kilometers but can’t make a damn phone call? My play-it-by-ear and wing it approach backfired. Again. 

But five hours later I was in Madrid, found my way to centre cuidad, spent four hours at the Prado and slept in a dumpy hostel. Tomorrow it’s on to a few days in Barcelona before heading home. Oh, as for the Madrid – Barcelona ticket that was Job 1 after I stepped off the train. Maybe it’s not too late to turn over a new travel leaf.  

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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. 

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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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