Category Archives: Writing to adult children

Camino de Santiago 9-25-17:  A minority of one when the real question is: Que? Warum? Pourquoi? Why?

It’s the question everyone asks. It bisects language and cultural barriers. In no way is it rhetorical; the asker nearly demands an answer from the peregrino. Any pilgrim in their right mind ought to expect it and most have walked in enough reflective solitude to form a considered answer. 

Why do you do this? Why endure the pain? Why?

It’s not altogether a simple, off-the-cuff response. Nor should it be. Just a bit ago, an Aussie and I asked a German woman, Uta, over a beer, ‘Why?’ It seems a year ago her husband jilted her for another woman. In tears, she related how she’s now saddled with a house and two children, and a demanding job. 

The six weeks of introspection and reflection, Uta said, was for her. Not friends, not others. Her. 

Kirsty, the middle aged Australian, recently quit her job – she described her manager as a ditz – and although she denied a spiritual side, she too is looking for resolution to internal conflicts. 

Then there’s Steve, a lanky retired flooring contractor from San Diego who has put up with my rants for 35-40 kilometers. Earlier this year his prostate was removed – after 35 painful cobalt treatments at $5,000 per. It left him incontinent and, distraught, he delayed his Camino until it was under control. 

I asked Steve about his most moving moment this early in his nearly 800 kilometer trek. He didn’t hesitate. On his first morning, he entered a medieval catedral and sat in the dark in the first pew, hoping for that first sign that his Camino would commence in the right way. As dawn emerged through the narrow windows, rays of the sun shown directly upon him. It was, he said, due “to the hand of God.”

And then there’s Nora, a fit young Belgian who’s putting the pedal to the metal to reach the end point, Santiago de Compostela, in 25 days. That’s seven below the norm. 

As we talked, she confessed to suffering from depression for years and her hopes were for learnings she might apply to keep depression at bay. The Camino is, she said, “what I needed to do.”

And the same question has been asked of me. My answer is in flux: what began as a mere adventure is slowly becoming what Uta, Kirsty, Steve and the others learned well before me: what you think of the Camino and what it thinks of you are two entirely different things. My spiritual tilting aside, I am definitely in the minority. Perhaps I’ll move over to the other side in the next 23 days. 


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Camino de Santiago 9-23-17: Of young people and, oh yeah, the pain

I’m sitting in the common area of a 100 bunk albregue in Najera, Spain at 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. 

To my right are young Spaniards. To my left appear young Italians, one of whom has nursed a sore knee for several days and now he offers me potato chips, which I gladly accept since I crave the salt. Being around these young folk, in their 20s and 30s is energizing even though I don’t understand a word they’re saying. It’s just downright fun. 

Although the young Italian (I don’t know his name) has labored for at least three days, he’s in good spirits. On his right knee is a Coke bottle containing frozen agua. Even though we are dense on each other’s language, he points to the sore spot and continues his ice regiment. 

His is the tip of the injury iceberg – and we’re not one-third of the way through the Camino. There are many, many, many people with knee wraps, braces and compression bandages to manage various aches and pains. 

But it’s hiker feet that are in crisis. A guesstimate is at least one-in-four peregrinos sport bandages or mole skin or or braces or other remedies on toes, heels and other pain zones on their feet and legs. 

Yet they persevere. They push on. It’s these people I admire. They are, by and large, overwhelmingly positive about the 549 daunting kilograms they have left. An Aussie laughs out loud when I photograph his horribly blistered heel. A Canadian couple doesn’t blink when I want to shoot their feet covered in duct tape. “It works wonders,” the husband says. Another woman balks at revealing her blood blister although the enlarged redness through her sandle is for all too see. Some seek, I think, a liquid remedy – and the comfort of other you folk. 

The term for pharmacy in Spanish is farmacia – duh – and they do a land office business as they prey on the medicinal needs of passing peregrinos.  

But my needs aren’t medicinal, per say. I merely ache. That viewable with Advil and Motrin. Even as I speak their triage efforts are in full swing. They hope for the miracle of medical engineering. Me, I hope a few glasses of vinto tinto are enough lubricant/pain allever to do the job.  

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Camino de Santiago, 9-22-17: An early start and the wisdom of Paul

Okay, here are but two of the rules, customs – and – downsides – to albergues, the 10 or 20 to a room hostels for adults:

Snoring. So, you expect anything different in a room full of older adults? Earplugs are standard equipment. Deal with it. 

Sorta clean but creaky bunks. Deal with it II. You get what amounts to a paper mattress and pillow cover to ward off bed bugs. And when the peregrino above you rolls over (or passes gas), you feel and hear it. So just go back to sleep. 

Today’s 28km jaunt from was more of the same. Which is to say amazing, gorgeous and inspiring. Look down and you miss the ruins of an Iglesia to your right. Fumble with your water bottle and you miss a castle on your left. 

We cut through wheat fields, walked within feet of untold vineyards (after all we are in the arid wine region of Espana) and touched olive trees as we plodded mile after mile. 

Dragging me along in the predawn darkness was Paul, a 46-year-old from Boston. A great guy who was walking for a week then heading home to his job with Pfizer. 

Whereas I go unknowledgably with the flow, Paul is a reader and apparent historian. Why is this decrepit stone structure in the middle of that hill? “Oh, that looks like a hospital for pilgrims,” he said. That castle up on that ridge? “That was likely an outpost to fend off the Moors in the 14th century.” I learned of Barbary pirates enslaving Christian’s captured along the coast, and how European businessmen were reluctant to interfere with rampant warfare as long as trading lanes stayed open. I needed to be around a guy like Paul. 

Alas, we parted ways in one of the coolest medevil towns we’ve encountered, Viana. He wanted to learn more about a 13th century church. I wanted to buy pan and chocolate for lunch. That’s why he knows stuff and I merely walk along in wonderment. 

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Camino de Santiago 9-20-17: “That’s the plan”

Already I’ve lost count of the languages overheard on the walk. There are the easy ones (at least to recognize): Spanish, French, German, Japanese. I’m a bit sketchy in the Slavic tongues but there are 26 more days of hoofing it to make acquaintance. 

Regardless of nationality, these peregrinos are an interesting bunch. 

They’re all trying to make it work, all trying to figure out where to stay, where to eat, how to put one foot in front of another. How to keep on keeping on. 

If they share one other commonality, it’s a stock response to perhaps the most benign of questions – ‘Are you going all the way to Santiago?’ And invariably their answer: “That’s the plan.” I’ve heard that who knows how many times, most recently from Larry, a jovial Canadian. 

I guess there is one other trait that is a dead giveaway of the weary walker. Everyone is sore. 

It’s a given no matter their pace. You can instantly spot an aching pilgrim especially after they shower and make their way – slowly – to the central plaza for the obligatory menu de peregrino (a fixed item meal for usually 10€) and something to ease their suffering. They are the ones who limp or shuffle along at a snail’s pace, sometimes with bandaged feet and toes visible through their sandals. They seem to feel they’ve earned their cerveza or vino tinto. Come to think of it, that’s what I’m doing right now. I share their pain. 

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Camino de Santiago 9/20/17: of things lost and the real Camino

It wouldn’t be a major trip without the loss of things either misplaced, absentmindedly set down or just plain left behind. For example, my Spanish-to-English dictionary that rests on a table outside St. Jean or a bag of chocolates and my guidebook left in a stall in the bano de hombres of Pamplona’s major catedral. Honestly the tasty chocolates were the bigger loss; I wasn’t too enamored with the jumbled and confusing guidebook. Both were quickly replaced. 

Replaced, too, is the temporary gaiety influenced by cervezas and vino; those mask the real and true meaning – a spiritual quest – that has driven pereginos in their thousands to walk through Spain for nearly 1,000 years.

Pilgrims such as Gibert, a young Brazilian, and an unnamed 20-year-old from Arizona, both of whom are overt about the answers to life questions they hope their Camino journeys may provide. Others, like me, walk for lesser reasons, as Hillary said of Everest, “… because it’s there.” This heathen is under no illusions otherwise. 

But there is no overlooking the religious, spiritual element; it is present in virtually every step. Iglesias dot the route in close proximity to the route dictated by tradition and history. Religious symbols, either ancient or newly fashioned by pilgrims, are visible within feet of the path. It is why the Giberts and others trod for nearly 600 miles. They expect to discover an internal or external influence to manifest itself for their benefit. 

The brief backstory. St. James is the patron Saint of Spain. Although James never walked the physical path, nevertheless the Camino honors him via roadways from several directions – from Belgium, Germany and Russia, et al – that converge at a common start point, St. Jean Pied de Port, France. 

So my quest differs marginally from that taken by the faithful. I suppose the best others like me can hope for is for the same result Gibert and others so earnestly believe will happen to them. 

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Camino de Santiago … The unchecked liberation of cervezas

So, this post is not written under duress but under the influence of muchos cervezas – and laughter – with my friends Jane and Dave at a bistro near the main square in Pamplona. Cervezas hold some sort of unchecked power that liberates (addles?) the minds,  reasonings and words of travelers. 

The 21.1km walk today from Urdaniz was mercifully downhill for the most part. As per usual, long legged Jane left Dave and I in the dust (mud, actually, since we started in light rain). We wouldn’t see her again until Plaza del Castillo in Pampalona. 

The countryside remains a marvel. The trail was particularly narrow and unsuspecting souls could snag easily against brambles and black raspberries. But while the views weren’t in the vista class of the Pyrenees, the buildings were. How something built in the 12th or 13th century with rudimentary tools and bare hands can still stand, let alone be still in use, is amazing (American builders, take note).  

We breezed triumphant into Pamplona, found Jane (90 minutes ahead of us) and made a beeline to Cafe Iruna, a favored haunt of Hemingway. I don’t know if we replicated his consumption of spirits, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. 

To honor the spiritual nature of the Camino, we toured the beyond-belief main cathedral then retreated to another Hemingway-esque bar for yet more-more-more cervezas. We hugged and parted ways for the last time as they jet off early Tuesday to Italy. 

I traipsed off to my meager  peregrino lodgings. Pamplonians are just out of siesta and are ready to go as they sit along building walls and on cobblestone calles to talk and laugh and imbibe as we did. 

My albrugue is only 17 Euros, and while there’s a vocal, pompous Brit bunked next to me, his snobbery is of no concern. I’ll be up and at ‘Em early for a side trip to San Sabastian on the northern coast. He can pontificate at someone else. 

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Day 4 … oh, those hills

Among my first discoveries is that all my Camino materials – the guidebook and maps – were terribly mismarked. At least for the first couple of days anyway. 

Rather than show the first official day’s hike from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Roncesvalles, Spain as a 24km ascent over the ‘Pyrenees,’ it should have read the ‘Himalayas.’  

Because that’s what the incredibly steep uphill route resembled. It was as tough a slog as can be imagined. Up, up, up. Then up some more. 

But no self respecting hiker would have it any other way. 

It is spectacular countryside. The Pyrenees are completely different than I imagined. Rolling green (really large, largely treeless hills) with a twisty, single lane asphalt road that accommodated both sporadic local traffic and many dozens of peregrinos. There are so many walkers you’re never out of sight of others strung out ahead of you in small groups. 

But we finished in good order – a shade under five horas. There was muchos cervezas and vino tinto at the end, which eased some of the sting. Roncesvalles was fun, with lots of chatter among the weary pilgrims. 

By contrast, today’s 24km jaunt to Urdaniz was a walk in the park. Sure, it was still up and down as bells clanged around the necks of sheep, cows and horses in distant hillside meadows. On occasion the Camino intersected with la calles in quaint small towns. 

So tomorrow it’s on to Pamplona where Jane and Dave and I will have a ceremonial ‘goodbye’ meal (and vino) before they head for an Italian holiday. After that, it’s all on me, the solo hiker for another 30 days. 

Buen Camino. 

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