Thursday, August 11, 2016

I Wish You Buen Camino Dear Friends

Well my fellow travelers, this is where our adventure ends.

In this last post of Mapless Pilgrim 2.0 I'd like to do three things:

1. Fill you in on the final few days of my trip
2. Attempt to summarize my take-aways
3. Offer a closing note to those who have shared in this journey with me

So please do settle in with me for this final post.

We left off the night before I was to walk into Santiago. The Dane and I would set off the next morning a bit later than planned but hitting the trail by 9am left us plenty of time to complete the final 20k of the Camino.

We agreed that we would walk the first 15k to Monte de Gozo together and then part ways so that we could each complete our journey how we began: alone.

The mood was noticeably different than other days. Although we had missed the morning crowds there were still plenty of people making the day's trek, all of whom were friendly and visibly excited. We met Jasper from Amsterdam who came upon us quickly given that he was more than 6'6". Dressed in orange from head to toe he was eager to move beyond the pleasantries and the stats about where we had started and how many days each of us had been walking. He wanted to know about what we had learned and why I would make this trek a second time. He told us that after only a few days of his 10 day trek, he had booked another walk. At age 29 and as a young entrepreneur he has decided that hiking would be his new way of finding more balance in his life. And as quickly as he appeared he passed us, though we would both see him later in the day once we had arrived in Santiago.

We would meet a 73 year old German man who had stopped to take a photo of one of the original way markers which he informed us was more than 100 years old. This was his second Camino. After biking from his home to St. Jean Pied de Port (the traditional "starting point" in France) and then walking to Finisterre, on this Camino he still biked but not quite as far and would complete his journey from St. Jean in Santiago. He asked us where we were both from and our ages and went on to say that he felt "religion and sport are the keys to happiness. They both bring out something 'more' in us". He took a picture of me and The Dane and told me he had never met someone named Jill. I will never forget the warmth of his smile and the happiness in his eyes. They are burned into my memory.

Over the course of the first few hours of the day we took to complete that 15k, The Dane would see several people he met along the way. I on the other hand did not as I was at least 2 days ahead of the people I met early on since I jumped over O'Cebriero. I was a little bummed by this but I needed to focus on my feet. And perhaps no more so than when we reached Mote de Gozo.

Just 5k or so before the Cathedral in Santiago is the last real climb of the Camino. It is the point from which pilgrims get their first glimpse of Santiago and so this mountaintop bears the name Monte de Gozo, of "Mount of Joy". For many it is an emotional place. Each day on the Camino there is a certain amount of relief that comes from spying your destination. Sometimes you see it up on a hill, sometimes down in a valley, and sometimes it suddenly appears in the woods; but there is a rush of satisfaction, of pride, of...comfort.

My first arrival at Monte de Gozo was done in the rain and in such fog that I was unable to see the physical Cathedral. There was however a rainbow that appeared for a fleeting moment. This time there wasn't a cloud in the sky but I'd be lying if I said that I could pinpoint the Cathedral. Santiago is a sprawling city.


At Monte de Gozo there is a large monument erected to commemorate St. (Pope) John Paul II's visit to this place when he came Santiago de Compostela. Three years prior when I arrived that didn't mean too much to me, but this time it meant more given that Lino had just spent two+ weeks in Poland and had taken listeners on pilgrimage in the footsteps of JPII.

While I was there I wanted to recreate a photo I had taken on my first Camino of me jumping (for joy) at Monte de Gozo. I asked The Dane to take the picture and said a prayer that my ankles and feet would survive the jump. If not, The Dane would have to drag me the rest of the way.

My ankles survived (thank God) and The Dane and I proceeded down the hill together but it wasn't long before we decided that it was time to part ways. We would make plans to see each other in the square in Santiago the next day and although we did meet up briefly, the Square was crowded and I needed to get to confession before Mass and so this was really where we said goodbye.

And so I began that final handful of kilometers. A lot of different things ran through my head. Chiefly how grateful I was to God and my husband for getting to come back. For the people I had met both in person on the trail and for you who have traveled with me in my pocket.

That final 5k would go quickly it seemed. Perhaps too quickly. My body eager to press on, to be finished, to begin healing. My heart wanting to stay in this rich place of contemplation.

And just as that thought crossed my mind it hit me. You see, the Camino is a very special place and trying to explain to someone why you'd want to go back is to try to explain what makes it so very special. My husband kept saying to me before I left that he hoped I would "find what [I'm] looking for". I kept insisting that I wasn't in search of anything. Yes there were plenty of things in my life that have changed since my last Camino and plenty of questions I have for God about his plans for me and us, but I wasn't setting out yearning to come back with answers.

So I'm not sure I'll ever forget the moment that it hit me. What I happened to be looking at was my foot stepping up onto a sidewalk. But just like the old man's smile it is seared into my mind.

The Camino is so special to me because it is the place where I become acutely aware of God's presence and power, not just in terms of my salvation but in my every day trials. 

It is where I am forced to actually do what I wish I did in the comfort of my every day life: I walk by faith. I take nothing for granted. I am grateful for the good. I am drawn even closer to Him in the bad. I am tested and I am taught. I am cared for and I care for others.

I have said many times that the Camino is a microcosm of life. Here are just a few reasons why I think so:

* We are all spiritual beings having an acutely human experience. Your value, your experience is not synonymous with that of your physical body or the things you possess. Limitations and challenges are not always visible to the naked eye and they are always changing for each one of us. You know little about the journey the person in front of or behind of you is having. Make no assumptions about the decisions you see others making.

*Humanity is a universal language. Fatigue, pain, exhaustion, frustration, compassion, joy, and laughter -- they look the same on everyone and words are not required to empathize. I will hold certain people and memories in my heart forever and they were often of people with whom I shared a language. But I'll never forget the Spaniard with whom I could not communicate verbally but for days on end we saw each other on the trail (sometimes him passing me, and sometimes me passing him), at rest stops,  and at the end of the day.  I saw him suffering with back pain and offered him my poles. He saw me limping and tending to my wounds and he offered me his supplies. I saw him with the smile of satisfaction when completing his day's journey, and we shared laughter when he stumbled upon me with my feet propped up on a table and a huge smile eating an ice cream in the shade. I yelled for him when he missed a turn and was going down the wrong track. And a few days later he did the same for me. Kindness is universal, too.

*The power of encouragement is truly undeniable. It can numb the pain, lift the fallen, summon strength in the weak, and make time speed by. A few words can go so very far. We need to offer more of it one another and not just when it seems necessary.

*More can be learned by listening than by talking and sometimes slowing down to walk at someone else's pace is the greatest decision you can make, or the highest compliment you can give.

*Too much anticipation is pointless. I freely admit that this is a lesson with which I struggle. I am a type-A worry wart. But perhaps in a way that hasn't resonated with me until this walk, I realized that thinking too much about what is around the bend will only rob you of the here and now.  Sometimes you'll be pleased by what you find and sometimes you'll be disappointed, but either way you must continue on. To steal from Baz Luhrmann (again) "Don't worry about the future, or worry. But know that worrying is about as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday."

These and so many other reminders of how to live life and how to be a better contributor in the lives of others are learned in a unique way on the Camino. So as I walked down the steps into the Cathedral's square and turned to face that grand facade and home to the bones of the Apostle James, I wept. I cried happy tears, and grateful tears. I cried for the memories I had made and the pain I had endured. I cried sad tears for the journey being over and I cried happy tears because it had happened. And as I tried to take a selfie a stranger took this picture for me.

I took off my socks and shoes and hobbled to the pillars of an adjacent building in the back of the square where I dropped my pack, sat down, and took this one which I think tells a much better story:


After sitting there for some time I went to the pilgrim's office and collected my Compostela before I checked myself in at the nearby hotel that I stayed in last time. Its a simple but beautiful place. It is the monastery that St. Francis of Assisi founded when he did his Camino and the convent and adjoining Church still exist, although they had to sell some of the older residential buildings which have been converted to a 4-star hotel. I highly recommend it.

I ordered some room service and went to bed. The next day I would do a little shopping, go to confession and attend the 12pm Pilgrim's Mass, even though the botafumeiro would not make an appearance. (If your not familiar with it you can google it or see it in action in the movie The Way).

I didn't do all of the traditional things for a pilgrim. I didn't visit the crypt of St. James or hug the statue of him above the altar. I didn't take another tour of the Cathedral or the museum, and I didn't do another roof top tour like I did last time. Although I recommend all of these things (I did do them on my first Camino), this time around it felt like enough to just be there, to attend Mass, and to give thanks.

So before I close, please let me attempt to convey my sincere thanks to you for traveling with me. This blog was intended to keep my family aware of my physical health and to share some photos with them. It has turned out to be so much more. I simply do not have words adequate enough to express my gratitude for the love and support which you have shown me. You will never know how deeply your encouragement touched me. Not just in terms of processing the experience or grappling with the physical stresses, but also in a much longer lasting way. You have increased my faith in my fellow man and reassured me of the power of prayer. Please know that I have prayed for you and will continue to do so. I have so enjoyed traveling with you and a piece of you will always travel with me.

I leave you with the following paragraph from the Cathedral's website and the photo I took of what it references.

Buen Camino,

When you have finished, exit the Cathedral through the south door, the Platerías door. 
Look at the facade. 
On the mullion, between the two door arches, there is a Chi Rho, symbol of Christ. 
But the letters are backwards: the Alpha has become Omega, and vice-versa. 
The end becomes beginning. 
The destination of The Way is now the beginning of another journey.

P.S. If you have any questions that you would like me to answer, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below and I will be happy to do so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Coming Soon: Final Post

Hello Dear Fellow Travelers,

I write to you from Santiago!


Since arriving in Santiago yesterday I've tried to soak up the end of my experience but also struggled with some tummy trouble, so I've lacked the focus to write.

My wake up call is set for 5am (let's hope it works because my phone charger has broken and I'm running low on battery already) and by 3pm ET tomorrow I should be home. I plan to take that time to collect my thoughts and fill you in on the conclusion of our journey.

In the meantime, I hope you will accept my sincere thanks for your prayers and support. I can't even begin to articulate how much they have meant to me.

So more from me in the next 36hrs or so. I promise!

Monday, August 8, 2016

WORDS from "Santiago or Bust"

No idea why the last post failed to include copy but here it is. To read older posts from either this Camino or my last one in 2013, please visit


Tomorrow (God-willing) is the big day! 

I failed to write yesterday because I was just so exhausted. I trekked what the book asked of me (27.4km) and it took me ALL day (10hrs) and I walked through hours and hours of 91 degree weather. Up the hills, down the hills, I trekked. The guidebook warned that the daily elevation map was not representative of the actual climbs ...and it was right. 

Yesterday morning I set out late and by myself but
as I took a brief rest on the side of the trail who should walk up the Brits!  They were only going to my halfway point for the day so I walked with them all morning and enjoyed our chat. They were really big on stopping at all the tiny stone churches and so we stopped in the one pictured here. And it turned out that the church was having adoration so I took advantage of the opportunity to spend a few moments in prayer with the Lord and then explained the significance to my non-Catholic companions. 

A little after lunchtime we had arrived at their destination and we said our goodbyes but not before exchanging emails and promising to meet in Santiago to share a glass of champagne. 

(I thought the pilgrim statues which gracefully pointed the way were cute.)

In the afternoon I would see the hippy group that I saw the evening prior. This time we would sit and chat, meeting Ben and Sharon (mother and son) from California, Liam the Canadian who lives in New Zealand, and Jens (pronounced Yinz) from Denmark. 

Most of the crew was staying in that town, but the Dane thought he would press on. I left them all to their octopus burgers (pulpo is a delicacy in this region) and continued on my way in the nasty heat. 

I slogged through another 90m or so before breaking at a small German cafe. And it wasn't long, before up trotted the Dane. We chatted for a little bit and he (21, a total pot enthusiast, a very fast walker, and a funny guy) informed me that he needed to slow down for the rest of the day because his knees were giving him trouble so we walked together a bit before he sped off but we both planned to end in the same village. 

A few hours a later I arrived in that town and we saw each, exchanged hellos and made introductions to a few new people that he knew. They settled in at the albergue and I got a room at the pension across the street. I arrived at 7:30p or so, and after a shower and laundry it was quickly 9:30p and I passed out. 

Today I woke up and was on the road by 8am and walked for about 45m straight uphill into a busy little city with many cafes. I wandered in to one of them to get something to eat since I didn't have dinner the night before and who should I see but the Dane. 

So I sat down and joined him for what would wind up being a full day together. Our dear young Danish friend is quite the talker, a science buff, a boyfriend to his ginger girlfriend and a weed connoisseur. On most occasions I probably would have lost a lot of patience with him but on a long difficult day (24.4k) like today with feet that are in quite a bit of pain (I picked up a new blister on the bottom of my left foot the day before) and pinky toes are hell on wheels, I was quite glad to have him as a distraction. His knees and ankles have been giving him trouble so he was happy to "slow down" to my 4.3k/hr speed. 

So we slogged through today together. We made it to the end of the stage in the book, which leaves us approximately 20k short of Santiago. When we arrived about 4pm, both of the albergues we went to were full. Ugh. But the young man working the second albergue spoke some English and was exceptionally kind. He offered to call a couple more places for us. Full. He tried one last nearby hostel which had 2 beds available and we were set! Jackpot! 

So we arrived and got settled in. I did the customary unveiling of the feet to discover a new blister between my toes which is actually a blood blister. I swear I can't win for losing. All of this intensified by the fact that the skin on my left pinky toe has completely torn off leaving raw skin underneath. It is as painful as you think it is. 

So here I sit, 20k outside of Santiago and again saying "no idea what I'll be able to do tomorrow" and "we'll see what they're like in the morning". But I'll say one thing, even with all of that in mind: tomorrow is Santiago or Bust!  And as the Dane added "it might be both". :)

Friday, August 5, 2016

Long Day, Brief Post

Hello, hello!

I'm going to make this brief because I am exhausted. I trekked 29.2km today, thanks be to God. I got a very late start (9:30am) and it took me all day (arrived at 6:30pm) but I completed what the book assigned for today. Two days in a row of actually feeling like I'm knocking off the kilometers and I am so grateful.

When I arrived at my destination this evening and did the customary collapsing and then the unveiling of the feet. I discovered that my left pinky toe blister has burst. I also developed a small thick blister on the outside (toward the arch) of my right big toe. It won't end I tell you. But I am now less than 70k away from Santiago and God-willing, that means there are only a few more days of suffering. I have thread running through blisters in three places on my feet and all that I can do at this stage is see how they do overnight and figure out where we are in the morning.

Part of the reason today was such a long slog was because this was the first day that I genuinely felt tired. The first 11.4k was almost entirely uphill. Between feeling wiped and wanting to go slow so as to do my best to prevent more foot damage, that 11.4 took me FOUR hours.

So tonight is the first night that all of my legs, from hips to toes, seems to ache unceasingly. Not just when I sit or lean on one side or the other but all the time. The weather was lovely and the views beautiful today but the blisters on my left arm and hand persist. Let's just say that I'm glad that I brought plenty of my tylenolPM to knock me out cold.

Highlights of the day include all of the hydrangeas that evidently THRIVE in this area. They made me so very happy. Plenty of butterflies :) and even bumping into the Swiss guy from my first day in Sahagun!

So I'm settling into my room in a pension in Palas del Rai and getting a kick out of a game show that's on with one of the participants in rocking a pretty sweet mullet.

I try not to watch TV or even check on the news back home too much. But I guess I'm starting to crave those things. I keep thinking about guacamole, and steak, and mashed potatoes...and a day at the spa. Ahh, I better stop. Haha.

I wish I had more stories to report today but the truth is that I put in my earbuds, listened to Lino's shows (I find his voice so comforting right now) and put my nose to the grindstone.

Tomorrow is supposed to be less hilly which is good news, but again we'll just have to see what the feet are willing to do.

Sweet dreams from Espana.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Blisters, Blisters Everywhere

Hello dear fellow travelers!

I write to you from Portomarín, 25.1km west of my post yesterday. And I got here on foot, thanks be to God.

I awoke this morning to many of your comments of encouragement and decided that I was going to take one hour at a time today, and not try too hard to process the totality of my experience thus far.

I'm tired of being a total liar when I tell you that my plans are to start the next day early...and then almost never doing so. I was like a teenager this morning, not wanting to get out of bed. The alarm went off at 5:30a. No. It went off at 6:30a. At 7:30a I made myself get up but only after I could hear everything happening through the walls around me. For a solid hour I heard the muffled alarm clock from the room next door. My room didn't have an alarm clock but I assume their room was nicer...and that they hadn't set the alarm and must have been gone before it went off. I wanted to kill them. But it would turn out that I was to blame. That annoyingly persistent sound I heard was the phone on my own bedside which had apparently been knocked off its cradle when I was fumbling to postpone my own alarms. This was not a good way to start the day.

When I woke up I instinctively examined my feet. Some of the swelling had reduced but only marginally. I'd be trying to walk on these today. The blister on my right pinky toe which I had drained was now quite sensitive while the one of my left pinky toe (which I had not drained) was still swollen with fluid but less sensitive. I wrapped them both entirely in Compeed and would see how they behaved.

Uncharacteristically, I grabbed breakfast before setting out. I was suckered in by corn flakes and white toast. After a small amount of both I was on my way. The guidebook would recommend doing 25.1k but I was taking nothing for granted. There was to be a steady incline all morning and a somewhat rigid descent for the final 4K. Anything would be better than the isolation of sitting in a hotel room all day.

So I set out. The first 9k went slowly but smoothly. Yes, the blisters hurt but they were not unbearable and so long as I kept moving, I could manage. But stop for more than a minute or two and the throbbing began to take over. So I stopped only once in the entirety of the first 18km or so.

I had some special intentions while I walked today, and at one point I was in prayer and sort of wondering if I would be given a sign. Upon completion of my last Camino I had a powerful experience in confession, and my mind wandered if that would happen again...or something like it.

And just as that thought crossed my mind, I saw out of the corner of my eye a four leaf clover on the side of the road. It is worth nothing that we have crossed over into a new province of Spain called Galicia and the Irish say it's just like home. Rolling hills, very green, and often misting and/or raining, and today would not disappoint. After walking in a couple hours of light, rather refreshing mist, I saw the four leaf clover.

My family would tell you that this isn't a surprise. I have a bit of an eye for them it would seem. When I was a little girl my friends and I would often sit amongst the clover patches near my home having a picnic and chatting while sifting through the clover in search of this genetic defect. And very often I would come home proudly boasting a bouquet of them for my parents. And on the trip where Lino and I met I found the biggest four leaf clover of my life, measuring probably close to 2" across. It's pressed and in my fire safe box at home. And yes, I took it as a sign.

Today I stopped dead in my tracks when I thought I saw one. I peered down to the tiny patch of green, and indeed I had spotted one. But then I couldn't believe my eyes. Within a couple inches of this four leaf clover I found another one. And then another. And then another. In total there were 5 that I found all within 18" of each other. I was beside myself and debated whether I should pick one. I looked down the track to see if anyone was coming. A large Spanish family (7 of them) which had been passing me and then falling behind and passing me all morning to my great annoyance, was on my heels. I let them pass. But then I looked again and up walked 2 women I had passed earlier and noticing that they were speaking English, exchanged a "hello" with.

I shouted down the way "you're the Brits, right". "We are the Brits!", they replied. "This is odd, I know but I thought you might appreciate it", I said and began explaining my discovery. After much oohing and ahhing, I wished them well and went on my way.

About 15m later we came upon a tiny village with a bar where I took some rest and collected a stamp. (Pilgrim credentials must have 2 stamps per day from this point forward). They were close behind and just about then the light mist turned to real rain. We sat together in the protection of a picnic table with a large umbrella and began chatting.

Today was their first day on the Camino. One woman is a recent retiree who at 57 is here to knock this trek off of her bucket list. Her friend is a little bit younger and here to make sure that she does in fact get it done. And while they'll answer to being English, they're actually from the Jersey Channel Island off the cost of France, near Normandy. "Have you ever heard of a Jersey cow", the recent retiree asked me. "Yeah, of course", I replied. "They're dairy cows", I add. "Well, they're from where we live", she informed me. What a claim to fame, I thought. But kept that to myself. I would come to learn a lot about Jersey over the next several hours. :)

As the rain began to let up a little, it was obvious that it would persist and require actually gearing up. So they slid ponchos out of their day packs and I pulled my rain coat and rain pants out of my (not day) pack. Once we were all outfitted we set out together. Only 8.6k more to go and they asked if I thought it would take more than 90minutes. I explained why I thought it would take more like 3 hours, given the terrain.

And so for the next 3.5hrs we walked together. Them asking questions about the Camino, and New York, and whether I say "dance" or "dawnce". My feet were killing me but I was exceptionally grateful for the company and their pace was comparable to my own.

We (finally) arrived in Portomarin. They had accommodations already planned as they organized their whole trip through a service. I of course was winging it. But I followed them to their hotel and got a room of my own in a decent 3-star hotel with a restaurant.

By 4:45pm I was in my room and facing the worst part of my day. While I could offer my physical discomfort for my prayer intentions, this was the moment of truth.

Not knowing if the Compeed that I had wrapped my pinky toes in would even come off, I gently tugged at the edges. Given how wet my feet and the bandages were, they released with surprising ease. Both blisters very swollen but not taught. Painful to the touch to be sure but not hellacious. And then I noticed that the left one seemed larger somehow. And then I figured it out. A blister has formed on my left pinky toe but between my toe and the one next to it. AND that blister had merged with the one wrapping around the pad of my toe. So now a solid 80% of the surface area of that entire toe is blister. I don't even know what to say. It is uncomfortable and I don't know if I'll be able to bandage it and walk on it tomorrow but I do know that the fluid which fills it is the body's way of helping heal the tissue underneath it. So if I don't need to drain it, I'll just have to see how it rides.

And then I realized the other blisters. This time they aren't on my feet. They're on my left forearm...from my sunburn. Although there was almost no sun today (which thankfully kept it quite pleasant in terms of temperature) but my burned left arm was now littered with blisters which look like dew drops sitting on my forearm and hand. And then I realized that I have the same phenomenon on the back of my neck. Because why not. At this point, I am one giant human blister.

So after taking a shower and hand washing my laundry in the shower, I laid down for a bit. I caught Lino up on the day and tried not to think of the ballooning fluid-filled parts of my skin. I had agreed to meet the "ladies from Jersey" for dinner at 7:30p. So at 7:26 I pulled myself together and headed down.

I warned them that the English translations of the menus tend to be...optimistic. This one boasted a Waldorf Salad and a Caesar salad. I ordered the Caesar because I was feeling daring and one of the ladies ordered the Waldorf. What we received looked identical except hers had some walnuts in the middle and mine had a gigantic plop of creamy salad dressing that was definitely not Caesar. But we sat and ate and drank (all of us having 1 glass) and chatted over our meal for the next couple hours.

And while I have plenty of anxiety about the current state of my feet, I am grateful. I'm grateful that I was able to complete what the book assigned for the day and in so doing preserving both my chance to get to Santiago and my ability to take another day off if need be. I am grateful for the company and laughter today. I am grateful for the clovers and the time I had in prayer. I am grateful that I'm sleeping tonight in a clean bed where I need not worry about the creepy crawly.

I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, much less the day after that. But for now I will stay focused on the immediate tasks at hand and try to keep putting one foot (however slowly) in front of the other.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Status Report

I'm very grateful for all the words of support and encouragement you've given me over the duration of this trip. They have carried me much of the way.

This morning I took a taxi to Sarria, which is 111km east of Santiago. This is the last point from which a pilgrim can walk to Santiago and receive a Compostella.

I have had to drain the blister on my right pinky toe and it is indeed tender. The left is too tender to drain. Doing so would render me unable to put weight on it at all.

I have just 7 days available to me to walk. The walk from Sarria is typically done in 5 days. I will try to resume my trek tomorrow morning, hopefully at 6am. Rain is expected from 11-3a. I have no expectations as far as what my body will allow or how far it will carry me.

Today has been a hard day mentally.

I will report back tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

It's a Pilgrimage, Not a Martyrdom

As I lay down in my bunk tonight I let out a deep sigh. And then I feel them. In the corner of my eyes, at the corners of my mouth and deep in the back of my throat. I swallow hard. I feel it fall down the left side of my face dripping slowly, following the curvature of my face until it reaches my ear. And then the same on the right. Now both.

You can call defeat many things but when it is laid bare it stings all the same.

I am in the tiny town of Trabedelo. It's not even a town. The street I grew up on is longer that the single strip of asphalt that is populated by 4 or 5 buildings that constitutes this place. It is 35.7km from where I started today at 6am and more than 128 miles from Sahagun where I first began waking.

The first 19k today went well. Smoothly. Joyously even. But over the balance of my day my feet would deteriorate. Not just because of the heat which reached 91 but because my pinky toes met their match in the rolling hills. Although I suffered through Big Bertha, the abrasions on the top of both feet and the blister on the bottom of my foot which had been ripped open, I was grateful because I knew it could be worse. I knew it could be my pinky toes. I've painstakingly taken my time on every downhill desperately hoping to preserve the skin on the bottom of my pinky toes because I know that it is what separates me from pain and excruciating pain.

Have you seen those pain charts in the ER or the doctors office? They pose a range of smiley faces on a scale of 1 to 10. The diagram shows one being a normal yellow happy face with zero pain and ten being the bright red frowny face which is the worst pain imaginable. The doctors ask you to pick the number which describes your pain.

I've been to that ten places a few times in my life. Three exactly, actually. I've had kidney stones...twice, and I've walked the Camino with raw skin on my pinky toes.

And it is this experience that has taught me what comes right before raw skin on pinky toes. It's large fluid filled blisters. Drain them and you're dead in the water. You've sealed your own fate. If the first rule is to listen to your body, mine is begging me for mercy. It's infuriating that a part of the body as small and as insignificant as pinky toes would be able to halt the entire operation but here we are. At a standstill.

Although the last 10k or so I knew I was pushing it, I really felt I had no choice. I had made it to the end of the stage (that I was supposed to complete yesterday), but as I looked as the day ahead I knew I would fall behind. O'Cebriero, a mountain top town was the end of the next stage in order for me to arrive in Santiago by the 10th. With a 3km increase in altitude, the distance would be 37.9km. Even with my pinky toe blisters in nascent stages, I knew I would never make it tomorrow. I would fall short and then be irreparably behind and be forced to take the bus to Sarria. Or I try to knock off 10km, pray that my feet hang tough, recovery well overnight and then make the grueling 27.9k the next day. So I willfully trudged ahead.

Some 2 hours later I met my goal. But my feet had fallen painfully off the wagon, my sunburns (which I have worked SO diligently to avoid) were blistering themselves, and my spirits about as bad as they've ever been.

The last 4.4km I walked with a young Korean man. We had met two towns prior as he arrived to the bar I was at with two other young men who created quite a mismatched trio. I heard them all clearly enjoying each other's company but cobbling together a conversation between all three of them using broken English. I smiled and kept to myself. Then I heard one of them speaking in Italian and explaining in English the pronunciation of an Italian phrase. A phrase I recognized. I must have looked up because the one doing the explaining took notice of me. "Parla Italiano?" he asked me. "No, but I just started to learn Italian and I speak English". All three turned around to look at me at this point. The trio turned out to be a Spaniard, and Italian, and a Korean. After we exchanged pleasantries the Korean man (whose baptismal name I would later learn to be Peter) was clearly enthusiastic to speak English with a native speaker, and his English was quite good. I noted the rosary hanging around his neck. "I'm Catholic", he said. "very Catholic" he emphasized. "Me too," I said with a smile.

So fast forward to the final 4.4 and Peter the Korean decided that he would walk me since we both intended to finish in the next town. Peter did most of the talking. I would learn that he's 24, began is trek in Lourdes, France some 7 weeks ago and was discerning the priesthood. His favorite things had been some "miraculous" experiences that he explained, and the worst were his encounter with bedbugs. He was quite sweet and a pleasant distraction from the happenings inside my shoes.

Once we arrived, we sought out an albergue I stayed out last time in this town. We got checked in and went to one of several small rooms filled with bunkbeds. We both collapsed and began to instinctively check out our feet. I would literally uncover the disaster that I find myself in, and instantly become discouraged. And just minutes after sitting on the bed I noticed two bedbugs on the pillow of the bed. "Peter! come look! Tell me these aren't bedbugs" I barked. He confirmed my observation and suggested that we move rooms. We did and he had a bedding spray that he graciously shared with me.

Deeply discouraged and now grossed out, I didn't want to do anything. Not shower, not laundry, not eat. Nothing. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up at home. At home, in my clean, soft, decadent bed with my husband there to tell me it was all a bad dream.

Surely I hadn't flown half way around the world only to scale back a goal, and then scale it back again, and be looking at scaling it back further. Surely I wasn't actually feeling a deep sense of embarrassment and humiliation because I had been blogging the whole experience. And if it was real, why could I not have sprained an ankle or broken a bone instead of being foiled by less than 2 square inches of skin. My husband was indeed here (on the other end of my screen) consoling me, but the truth is that I was inconsolable.

I took a shower but couldn't bring myself to wash clothes. Having clean clothes for tomorrow already was enough. I have no energy for such none sense when feeling the way I do. After all, I wasn't going anywhere and I'll have plenty of time for laundry In the near future.

Peter told me that he had heard that there was a place in this tiny little village that served Korean food. "Yeah, ok." I thought to myself but didn't have the heart to say out loud. I walked downstairs and out on to the street with him. He went in search of it and I went to the restaurant on the ground floor of my albergue.

As I went in I heard two American voices. We would quickly begin to chat. John and Marlene are from Akron, NY near Buffalo. John is "nearly 80" but the two of them seem to be in pretty good shape for their ages. They asked if I'd like to join them at their table. I thanked them but said I didn't think I could hobble the six feet from my table to theirs. They inquired about my ailments and my travel plans. I said that I must be in Santiago by the 10th and things were looking Unwalkable for tomorrow.
"Yeah," Marlene said. "We decided pretty early in that this was a pilgrimage, not a martyrdom".

I sat with them for the next 2 hours learning about them and their lives and they learning about mine. We laughed, I got goosebumps from their stories, and I answered their questions about my precious Camino experience until we realized that time was growing late. We exchanged contact information and bid each other goodnight.

As I returned back to the albergue, Peter asked if he could see me for a minute, noticing for me to step out into the hallway and away from others in the room. He walked down the hallway to the communal room and motioned for me to take a seat. He said he had a present for me and took out of his pocket a small gold bookmark wrapped in cellophane. It was attached to an explanatory card done in several languages detailing the design which is a typical colorful Korean jacket. "I want you to have this. It is small but I have carried it with me from Lourdes" and handed it to me using both hands to present it. I was dumbstruck. What an incredible gesture and a beautiful gift. I don't think I could have expected it less. We chatted for a few moments and then he asked if I would do him a favor.

He told me that in Sept his parents have a wedding anniversary. That his father is a famous chef in South Korea and that he is assembling a video for them from people he meets on The Way. So after some coaching I was able to parrot "hello. Happy anniversary" in Korean. I explained who I was and said some nice things about Peter. He'll be translating and inserting subtitles he tells me.

And then I got ready for bed. Tomorrow I'll be figuring out how to skip ahead to Sarria. I'm heartbroken but I figure I'll have time to detail that tomorrow too.

All I can do for now is take heed in these words. "Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long, and in the end it is only with yourself".


Sent from my iPhone

Monday, August 1, 2016

Unexpected Faces, Part II

I don't know why it lopped me off but here's the rest:

Told ya. Real castle. 

I sat there taking my sweet time and after she cleared my table, who should appear before my eyes but the father-son duo from Washington, DC!

I didn't mention them in my post yesterday but I've spent the last 2 days playing tag with them. We don't walk together (they're too fast for me) but we've seen each other a nearly every little town along the way, and we enjoy sitting and chatting for a bit over something cold to drink. 

Anyway, I was sure that they were in the wind, and yet there they were standing before me suckered into the promise of a hamburger just like I was! The told me that the downhills yesterday did a number on them both (Dad probably in his late 40s/early 50s, and son is 15). They decided to sleep in until 10:30 and were just arriving saying that that 7k seemed awfully long. Oh, thank God. Maybe I'm not so far gone, I thought. 

I sat with them through a long lunch. The burger was pretty darn good for a Spanish reproduction. The son went back for a second one which was no surprise given that he was saying yesterday how much he longed for food from home after 20+ days of walking. Besides, red meat doesn't seem that easy to come by out here. We see cows...but maybe that's why they aren't on our plates. I digress. 

They decided that they'd do the next 18k and likely stop there. They've got plenty of time and Dad doesn't seem to be in much hurry. I walked with them through town and said farewell as we approached my hotel. 

Yes, dear travelers we are back in the alleged lap of luxury.  For 55 Euros I'm in a 3 star hotel tonight which is actually quite well appointed with a nice little restaurant attached. It's safe to say that purest heart is melting. 

On my last Camino I railed against "tourist pilgrims", those folks who bus each day and walk only with a bottle of water or a day pack, who sleep in fine hotels at the end of each day. (Mind you that's only really possible to do every single day in the final stretch from Sarria onward). As I crammed myself, my pack, my trekking poles and my hotel key into the tiny elevator I had two thoughts. 

First, I looked up and saw a maximum occupancy sign of six. I laughed. Out loud. 

But as I pressed button for the second floor (which is actually the third floor in Europe, lest you think I'm too lazy to walk a single flight of stairs) I thought to myself, "Yep. It's been 3 years and I'm ready to call in every hotel I can get at the age of 32. At 65 I'll do whatever I damn well please." And I say 65 intentionally. That's the average age of someone who completes the Camino in Santiago, collecting a Compostella (the diploma of the Camino). Think about that. That's the average. Weighed down by all the undergrads and twenty-somethings. Because the dirty truth of the Camino is that if you have time you can do it. Yes there are parts that are tough on the knees or the feet, but of the pain comes from doing long stretches at a time, day after day. If you have the time to go slowly each day, or take days off, this is a reasonable little hike. Let's be serious here, this is not the Appalachian Trail. Far from it. But try to do 800k in 30-35 days and yes, it'll chew you up and spit you out. 

Which is where I was this morning. But I settled into my hotel, cranked up that glorious AC, and stayed off my feet binging some horrible show called Lie to Me. (Crime solving by a PhD in behavioral analysis). Guess what? Couldn't be happier. 

After a while I took a BATH (even shaving my legs! WATCH OUT NOW!) and hanging my clothes. I chatted with Lino and then began to scout out dinner. There's an Italian restaurant right next to my hotel called Pizzeria Trastevere which on its name alone sounded promising, as Trastevere is a charming neighborhood in Rome. It would be like seeing a place called Georgetown Tavern. You'd have reason to be hopeful. I found it online and the menu looked legit. I was more hopeful. I could crane my neck out my window and see that at 8pm it was still closed. I checked the website again, and double-checked my translations. Yep, it was supposed to open at 7:30p. No wording about being closed on Mondays but alas it seems to be the case. Classic. Oh well. 

So I moseyed down the street a little in my flips flops SANS bandages. This is significant as it's the first time since the second day that I've attempted this. It wasn't without discomfort but for a short stroll it was doable. I wandered into a grocery store where I picked up the following for 5,20 Euros. A can of Pepsi, a package of turkey lunch meat (I'll shove that in the mini fridge and have them both for breakfast in the morning), a nectarine (for lunch), a 2L bottle of water for my pack, and a small sleeve of cookies that are dark chocolate on shortbread. Oh, and the plastic bag. You have to pay for those here. When you have access to a real grocery store its totally impressive how far a Euro will go! 

So with my groceries in tow I gently, tenderly, slowly walked back to my hotel and it's attached restaurant. It had outside seating on a beautiful patio and looked like a real restaurant at home. And so I sat down for my first nice meal. Filet medallions (let's just say they play a little fast and loose with those descriptions) and some macerated blueberries (?), on some sort of creamy stuff, in a small tart shell for dessert. It was advertised on the English menu as puff pastry with berries. I'll take enough bites so as not to be rude and then go back and have a few of my cookies. 

So on a peaceful evening in the square, the clock strikes 9. I'd really like to think that my feet will carry me tomorrow. But I'm hellbent on leaving early. I keep saying that...and then I don't. But tomorrow I have no excuse and it's going to hit 93, so I really need to get going. No excuses. 

I feel a little lazy just laying around today but I know my feet could not have hacked it. If I am to arrive in Santiago on the 10th, I must follow the book exactly every day from here on out. If I find behind at all, I will be forced in the next couple of days to take a bus to Sarria (the 100k mark) since that's the minimum you must walk to get a Compostella. I'm not here for the document but it feels awfully silly to come all this way and not at least earn that. 

They say no two Caminos are the same. I think that is intended to mean that even two people walking to and from the same places on the same day won't have the same experience. And that's certainly true.  But it's also true of my own Caminos. I never fathomed that this is how I would be doing this right now, but life is full of surprises I guess. I've had some wonderful experiences and met some great people. Thankfully I'm only halfway done because I'm itchy for the wonderful feeling that comes from accomplishing each day's stage on time. 


...and just as I wrapped this post and paid for my bill, up walked the Italian woman I met on my first day. The poor thing has had bedbugs twice since I left her that next day and she says she's heard many reports of them at the albergues. All the more reason to stay somewhere a little more comfortable I suppose. 

Ok, time to get ready for bed. 5am will come early and I have a lot of packing to do when the time comes. 

As always, thank you for accompanying me on this wild ride. I'm so grateful for you. 


Unexpected Faces

Hola Peregrinos!

I wish I could write to tell you that my feet had a miraculous healing overnight and that I crushed it today. The truth is that the Camino made quick work of crushing me, and I surrendered.

I slept until 7:30a and have leaned that my morning routine of packing and bandaging can take a while. I was on The Way by 8:20am...and I could tell from the start that it wasn't going to be pretty. The blister that was ripped open on the bottom of my foot felt better than expected in the morning. Not that it was in great condition. So you'll understand by shock by the intense pain which came from the other side of the same foot. Yes, that's where Big Bertha lived but she has been healing nicely. But today it felt like my foot was deeply bruised. I mean, with every step I could feel the ache and the bones. What should have been an easy 7k through the suburbs of Ponferrada had me in tears. So when I arrived in this charming small city, I knew it was the end of the day. I hated even thinking it but I consulted the guidebook which informed me that the next lodging wasn't for another 18k. There was simply no way.

Ponferrada is not only a charming little city but it has a castle. No, really. A castle. The kind of Medieval looking thing with a moat! It was apparently built by the Knights Templar and it's still standing. Of course, there are now bars and cafe on this side of the moat, but all the more reason to call it charming I'd say.

So a little after 11am (after getting turned around in town, and then getting myself unturned around) I found an eclectic little spot professing to sell hamburgers. This is only the second place I've seen to do but these folks seemed to know what's up. They offered burgers with the options of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and bacon. This sounded promising. So I ordered one up and dared to push my luck and ask if they had Pepsi. They did. Perhaps God was smiling on my decision after all.

So I sat back and enjoyed my meal.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jekyll & Hyde

What a day, y'all. I'm exhausted, and a touch homesick, and when I took off my bandages tonight part of the protective skin on the (now large) blister on the bottom of my foot ripped off leaving it raw, painful, and susceptible to the "blister in blister" phenomenon. 

In a word, I am cranky. 

I do not want to write this post. I don't not want to, Sam I Am. (hey, just being honest) 

Today I walked from Rabanal to Molinaseca. That's 31.6k (19.6 miles) including a lot of uphill and a lot of steep downhill. And it was on hell of a workout. Let me tell you how hard every muscle in your body (or at least the waist down) works to stabilize you. HARD. Know what that means, now? I am firmly in the camp of those unable to ever be comfortable. Everything aches, in every position, after mere seconds. 

What makes me especially grumpy about all of this is that today started SO WELL. I should have known...

I slept so well at the charming little albergue and awoke to my feet feeling the best they have since I started. I didn't wind up leaving early since the weather was in the 50s and it was quite windy. I departed at 7:20am.  For the first 6k of the morning (which was uphill by the way) I had zero foot pain. 

I climbed on to Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the Camino and was there for about 20m. The atmosphere was celebratory. Everyone was taking pictures for one another a top the massive pile of rocks and leaving their own behind. Me included. 

And so I trekked on through a track narrowed by billowy brush which was butterfly haven. So many of them perched on flowers and I was able to get a few pictures to show you. The weather was perfect with the sun now out and a light breeze blowing. And now that my pack was less the bag of rocks I brought, I felt like I was flying. Life was oh so good. I made it a little further down the way and stopped briefly for a granola bar and a few sips of soda. At 10k- and agressive 10k at that- this was a little longer than I usually go before taking my first break to let my feet dry out. But when I stopped this time, I didn't let my feet dry out. (This is where the music changes to something ominous)

The next 7.5k were horrid. I don't know what else to tell you. Steeply downhill (and I mean steep!) my steps were shortened to 6inches since downhills are not only the biggest cause of injuries (think knees and ankles) but also because they are also one of the bigger causes of blisters. All of that downward sliding in your shoes can wreak havoc on your feet. I know from personal experience and I was determined not to repeat my mistakes. The trail was garbage. Rocky and almost never even, causing you to criss-cross aimlessly to find the best footing and adding God knows how many steps in the process. Totally inefficient. It could be worse I kept telling myself. It could be hotter, or worst of all-- it could be WET. Then you have a real potentially-dangerous disaster on your hands. So I took my time. But every muscle from my belly-button down worked overtime to stabilize my steps while my eyes darted in my head constantly searching out the best possible foot placement. It took me nearly three hours to cover 7.5k. 

And at the end of now 17k I knew my feet had long been pruned. You know how your fingers get when you've been in a pool too long? That's how my feet were. Which is an especially bad combination since wet skin stretches and causes friction. When I finally arrived in the next town, I was genuinely scared to remove my socks and bandages, fearful that I had acquired new blisters. Thank God, I had not. Taking my time had paid off. Sort of. 

Only 3.5k to the next town. It was relatively easy going though by now the ache and pain in my feet was setting in pretty good. 

The next town is tiny and I stop and get some more water. I can't drink enough water. Can't ever seem to quench the thirst. CRAP. The guidebook says that the next 6.5k are steeply downhill (again).  Oh hell no. I check the map in my guidebook. I pull up the maps app on my phone. No service. Welp...I'm making an educated guess that this town is connected to the next by one of those smooth black things...called a road. I took out my sandals and slid my bandaged feet into them to see how they would respond. Tinder to be sure but not unbearable. Better than the hiking sandals by a lot. Ok! Showtime! 

The next 6.5k would take 7k by road but I was willing. Honestly it didn't even feel like a choice. I had to do it. But I wouldn't recommend it under normal circumstances. The switchbacks down the mountain created hairpin turns that were dangerous with no shoulder. I managed ok but I did get yelled at by one man. Listen buddy, I realize that this isn't recommended but I'm vigilant and frankly I don't have the ability to do this another way. 

I made it in to town and beelined for the first church. No mass. Beelined it to the second church. No mass. Ugh. If you think mass can be hard to find on the Camino (when you actually need it) good luck finding confession, or someone who will hear it in English. 

One of my other big concerns all day (besides missing mass on a Sunday) was that there wouldn't be a pharmacy in Molinaseca. But again, God provided. They didn't have exactly what I was looking for of some things but they had enough and I'll be able to make do, I think. 

Turns out that Molinaseca is a charming town with a river that you're welcome to swim in and nice grassy banks for sunbathing. How do I know? I think the whole town was out. Really quite fun actually. 

So after running around town to the churches and pharmacy it was time to find a bed. A room overlooking the river would be nice. "Completo" she told me. But she did recommend a hotel at the far end of town. I looked it up and found out it was a 4-star with room service and air conditioning and wifi. Sold. So I walked. Well, hobbled was more like it. I hobbled past restaurants, and grocery stores, and I hobbled past little stores, until I arrived at the edge of town. And there it sat: New, modern, and beautiful. I went inside and inquired about a room. He'd give me a single for 50 Euros (pretty good considering everything I saw for it online started at at least double). And then the kicker: it's Sunday evening so the restaurant is closed. No food. No room service. 

I'm not starved so although this makes me grumpy, I'm glad to have the lesser price and I'll make do with a granola bar or two. Plus that will lighten my load tomorrow. So I make it up the stairs (the elevator is out) to my room, which is nice. I thank the guy and shut the door and do as I usually do: collapse. Unsnap the pack, drop it on to the floor and sit. It really doesn't matter what I sit on, but I usually hope for the ability to sit and then lay back all the way. So this means the bed or the floor but I'm usually so gross that I try to avoid the bed. So I laid there for 10m, not making a sound. Dreading looking at my feet. Dreading already the stinging I know the shower will cause on my blisters. And definitely not enjoying the way I smell. So I get up. 

I undo my bandages and although I seem to have gone without any new additions (thanks be to God), the little incident I told you about causing my worst blister now to be raw and vulnerable occurred. I cry. 

Not out of pain mind you, but out of sheer frustration. COME ON I yell, throwing the bandages. And then I feel them. The tears that slowly begin to drip down my face. I've been sitting here for about 60seconds now and my hips begin aching their slow, painful ache. I topple over sideways, shoulders falling to the floor like a hammer. "That's actually a little better" is what I actually thought...until that position too began hurting. 

I put my body through a meat-grinder today. I know I should be grateful that I didn't sprain an ankle, turn out a knee, get hit by a car, get badly sunburned, or get any new blisters. But I'm still feeling slighted. Why couldn't I just get through today with my blisters healing? Why couldn't I just get the food at the hotel, as advertised? Why doesn't the wifi work?  Why can't I just take something that will completely alleviate the aches?  Why must I miss my husband so badly in this moment? Why the hell did I ever think it was smart to come down this again? 

Today isn't the worst day I've ever had on the Camino, but it wasn't fun. Well those first 10k were. But the rest, those sucked. It was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kinda day y'all. 

So it's 8pm, I've washed my clothes in the sink, taken ibuprofen and tylenolPM on an empty stomach and I just want this day to be over. I'll deal with my feet in the morning and although I have a strategy for how to bandage the bister situation from hell, I'm clueless as to how I'll actually walk on it. 

But that can wait for tomorrow, too. 


Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Upward and Onward

Hola Fellow Travelers,

As I begin the time is 8:00pm and I'm eager to get to bed since the day that lays before me is a difficult one. But let's get caught up!

I left you having arrived in Astorga and the truth is that each day is such a blur that I can hardly remember how that day went. Save for the fact that it was a long one (31.9k) and my husband deserves a medal.

Generally speaking Lino's idea of "roughing it" is a 3-star hotel. This is something I've never given him grief for because, well, I like a comfy bed and room service as much as the next girl. So its what that in mind that I tell you that although I'm pretty sure he thinks I've lost my mind by returning to the Camino, he has been so incredibly supportive. And I made that 30+ day in large part because of his encouragement, especially those final, brutal, rocky, uphill, 11kms.

Since before I even left home he's told me to "enjoy your walk". Before I took off, I kept focusing on the "walk" part. Because let's be clear: "walking" is defined as the act of lifting one foot and putting it in front of the other, always having one foot on the ground. The Camino de Santiago is decidedly NOT a walk. It is in the truest sense a trek. "Trek" is defined as a long, arduous journey, typically on foot. Yes. It is THAT. The latter.

Webster's Dictionary aside he always reminds me to enjoy it, and that sort of hit me as I made my way in to Astorga. At one point I realized how hard my body was working to keep a certain pace, and then asked myself why. Besides the obvious desire to get out of the heat, to be finished for the day, or to avoid inclement weather, why am I not keeping a pace that is one notch down from that? At a speed that is 1km/HR slower that my "trucking it" speed, I'll add an hour or so to my day. Maybe it is indeed time to chill out a bit and enjoy it a little more. Of course sometimes the best way to alleviate the pain from blisters is to stomp them into submission...

And so with a new mindset about enjoyment, I checked myself into a 3-star hotel, ordered room service (don't kid yourself, it wasn't like at home) and streamed Netflix like it was my job.

The next day, which I took off, was mostly more of the same. The video which I took walking through town for some reason can't be posted here. So I understand that if were not Facebook friends you can't see it BUT I'm working on getting a YouTube link for it. So hang tight and I'll be happy to provide it.

With the exception of that little stroll, I mostly stayed off my feet and left them open to the air to heal. Some progress was made...and some of that progress was undone by today's walk. What's a pilgrim to do?

My night in Astorga ended with my hotel room (which overlooked a charming square) actually giving me a front-row seat to a parade and festival that was happening in town. Astorga, it turns out, has a rich Roman history which is being celebrated this weekend.

When I waked in late Aug through early October in 2013 I came across several town festivals with a similar vibe. In the summe you've got your Watermelon Queens and the Spanish have their festas, too.

So after 24-hours off, I got back in the saddle. And I've got to be honest, it wasn't fun. I chose not to stay at the hotel in Astorga which had a spa because I figured that if I treated myself to that extent I probably wouldn't go back out on the Camino at all. That thought was confirmed for me during the first 5k this morning. I felt rusty in almost every way. I think there's something about the centripetal motion they propels you down the Camino. Like a shark, keep moving or die.

Today there was quite a bit of elevation change as we entered the mountains but it happened so slowly over the 24k that there was never a climb I would have described as steep. That's my kinda climbing!

At the first town of the day I met a father and son pair from the Washington, DC area. We chatted and strategized together given that the forecast threatened rain right about the time that we would reach the final town for the day, as suggested by the guidebook. I kept a pace a little slower than theirs but one that brought me into the subsequent villages only about 10-15m behind them. So we caught up a long the way.

What was nice was that today was the first time it felt like there was a pack of us. I wouldn't call it a herd because there surely wasnt enough of us to use that term. But there was clearly a group of about 15-20 different pilgrims starting and stopping at the same places today and so we all saw each other throughout the day. It was really nice to have that kind of ability to recognize a friendly face, smile and wave even if you couldn't share a conversation because of language differences. It was the knowing smile of enduring the experience together. And THAT feeling, that experience, which I loved so much about my last Camino, and which has been lacking until now, made my day.

While my hope had been to push on beyond Rabanal to the next town, which I know to be a very steep climb, the weather had me thinking better of it and my body subtly told me that it wasn't prudent. Better to start at that climb tomorrow morning with fresh legs.

And honestly, I'm glad I stayed. My research told me that the Albergue Guacelmo in Rabanal was well liked and so I sought it out. I am not disappointed. It's an albergue run by the British national association of pilgrims and it is a charming mountain cottage with unrivaled hospitality. They warmly welcomed everyone as they arrived, sat you down (!), and then ran you through their drill.

They informed us straight away that they have 2 buildings and they group pilgrims by the time they plan to depart. The "early risers" and the "not", so that either way your morning in unimpeded by the other group. BRILLIANT, I tell you. They informed us that they're an all volunteer organization, identified who was working so that we knew who to approach, and told us that there was no fee, just a donation box. They said that one of their workers was a medic and that if you have any ailments you need him to look at that he'd be happy to do so. They asked about bedbugs. "This is a delicate subject", she said in a hushed tone. "Do you have any reason to believe that you've been bitten by bedbugs? We make it a point to stop them at the door, so we can help you out if you have any reason to think you might have an issue". She went on to inform us that there was a kitchen available for our use and that it's well supplied with pots and pans, olive oil, spices and the like. All you have to do it go to one of the little shops in town and get the main ingredients. (At this point I am already more than impressed). Finally she said "oh, and there's tea at 4:30". The woman next to me looked a little confused and the woman (Anne is her name) said "you know. English tea. Biscuits (cookies) and the like. Nothing big but if you'd like to join us out here, we'd love to have you. Otherwise do make yourself at home".

I don't even know what to tell you guys. SHUT THE FRONT DOOR. This place is amazing. I put what I thought was a generous donation in the box after she got us all checked in, but I think I'll be going back to make another contribution. They've been so friendly and accommodating, I'm just beside myself. What a wonderful pilgrim experience. (So if you're planning your Camino, do take note of this place. You'll be thrilled that you did).

So I settled in, took a hot shower, hand-washed my laundry and then put it in the "spin dryer". It's basically a salad spinner for clothes and I was shocked and what a remarkable job it did getting everything nearly dry. Which is especially wonderful given that it's threatened to rain all afternoon (but hasn't except for the light sprinkle I walked in for about 15 minutes).

I never cook on the Camino. I love to cook at home but it's just not worth the hassle especially since kitchens are typically so poorly equipped. But since this wasn't and I really was made to feel so at home, I wound up making a red sauce and pasta. And even though I made so much more food that I needed, it was a nice treat.

So now I'm getting ready for bed and mentally preparing for tomorrow. Cruz de Ferro (the highest point of the Camino) is about 10k from here, but it's a steep climb. I've chosen to stay with the early risers. My thinking is that even if I'm not a 5:30am starter tomorrow, I'll be woken up and be on my way earlier. Which will be a good thing.

It is cooler at this altitude of course and tomorrow morning I made need to start the day wearing my rain jacket as an extra layer. The high is forecasted to be 75. So if the rain holds off we should really be in business. Plus, I'll be reducing my pack weight by leaving the rocks I've been carrying at Cruz de Ferro. I'm really looking forward to that.

Blisters still suck, body hurts, but the mind and heart are strong. And so we carry on.


Allllright....(eye roll)

I have tried and failed twice today to post a complete update along with a little walking tour (video) along The Way within the city of Astorga. 

I am...annoyed. Doubly so because while I have soaked up every moment of my 24-hours off, there is a threat of rain tomorrow which means I need to start early. 5:30amearly. Yuk! 

My feet seem to have appreciated the opportunity to chill out but they're still tender and I'm under no illusion that I'll be walking on air tomorrow. My mind on the other hand has gone a bit stir crazy and even a touch homesick without a full day's "work" to do on the Camino. It hasn't been without some cool stuff though including a huge festival with parade right in the square my hotel room has overlooked. I can't wait to catch you up, and I apologize for the seeming radio silence. It has not been for lack of effort. 

Right now though I'm beat. Kinda like when you go on vacation and then need a vacation once you've returned. Either that or I'm still just tired. Haha. Maybe a bit of both. 

Before I sign off on this "proof of life" post, let me ask you about something. I know a lot of folks who read Camino blogs are people who are considering or planning to do it. Would be if of interest to you to do a Q&A post? Periscope and Facebook Live have their limitations, namely that I never know exactly when I'll have service and the time change makes it difficult to find a feasible. But would you be interested in posting questions in the comments section and my answering them? 

I'm just so exceptionally grateful for all of the support and prayers you've given me. There have been a LOT of butterflies (in new colors, too!) and they really have lifted my spirits along the way. And I'd like to give something back, if it's at all of interest. If not, no biggie. 

For now, it's time to say goodnight and wish you a very happy weekend! This weekend includes a lot of climbing and Cruz de Ferro, which you're definitely going to want to hear about, so stay tuned! 


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Typical...For a Pilgrim

As I sit in a very nice albergue (read: sanitary) which I happened to stay in on my last Camino, I'm trying to think about the theme that sums up the last 24 hours. I have settled on "typical...for a pilgrim". 

Picking up where we left last night, it turned out that the woman who ran the place did in fact cook for me, her lone pilgrim. God love her for it. When I inquired about dinner she asked if "insalada mista con pollo" would be acceptable. I nodded, grateful for anything at all. So when the mixed salad (oh so typical on the Camino) arrived and had a hunk of canned chicken (instead of the usual tuna) plopped in the center, I figured this is what she meant. It was...less than ideal but I was grateful for it and proceeded to eat as much of it as I could, which was nearly all of it, even if I did gulp down the slimy canned chicken like a pelican swallowing a fish whole. So you can imagine my surprise when an entire piece of baked chicken and fries appeared. "Oh God. Now I'm full on slimy stuff and need to eat this thing so as not to offend her", I thought. So I sat and did my best to eat most of the chicken (San skin-- slimy seemed to be a theme) before I politely begged off. 10 Euros poorer I headed to bed. Maybe it was the full stomach, maybe it was the willful desire not to think about the bedbugs, but I was out cold w the assistance of some TylenolPM and the eye mask from the plane that I arbitrarily saved. 

At 6:00am I was sleeping so soundly that I did the math on how long it would take me to get to Leon (I figured 3-3.5 hrs) and opted to go back to sleep until 7am

As I walked out of my albergue I uncharacteristically began chugging water (from my Platypus) and realized almost immediately that I was out. Good thing I figured this out now as there wasn't much between me and Leon at that point. So I stopped into a bar where I picked up a couple bottles of water and had a typical breakfast for non-coffee drinkers, called ColaCao. It's hot chocolate and the only hot chocolate I've ever had that's better than ColaCao is Ghirardelli. And for 1Euro it even came with a small elephants ear! 

So with a liter of water now in tow and a small sugar rush to boost me, off I went to Leon. And what an impression Leon made today. She's the last big city on the Camino. There are some small cities left but Leon is grand. The hike in however, is described as "a slog" in the guidebook. Until you reach the outer city limits its a rough, rolling terrain. When I got to the top of the toughest hill, what would I find but a donativo table. These don't appear frequently enough to call them common, but you do see them every now and then. And maybe it was that it caught me off guard, but seeing it, and reading the note (posted in English and Spanish) made me emotional. The spirit that drove someone to lug these things to the top of a remote hill, and to make an effort to keep these items fresh and cold (!)...THIS is typical Camino. 

Paralleling the Way for much of this climb, was fencing. For about a mile stretch, people had stopped to make crosses out of twigs and whatever was laying around. You see a lot of these from Sarria in to Santiago. (I have to believe it's all the religious groups that make the final 100k trek and collect a Compostella). Regardless of who put them there or why, they are touching. 

Less touching, more funny is the fact that when you enter big cities you begin to see not only the commercialization, but the *western* commercialization that lives there. Case in point...

I would also pass a "KFC Auto" (drive-thru) and a McDonalds but I wasn't tempted. I had other plans...

As I reached the actual city limit of Leon, I was greeted by the Civil Protection Unit. This group of *volunteers* is there to help tourists (but mostly pilgrims) with anything they might need. They are celebrating their 50th year and they couldn't have been any more kind. The young woman on the left (I gathered them for this photo) saw me coming and got up and came to me. She spoke English and began to ask if I needed a map, directions, medical treatment, etc. I was (again) deeply moved. THIS (spirit) is so very typical on the Camino. 

On the other side of the bridge behind them I switched into flip flops since I knew it would be all city sidewalks on my way to....the cathedral! Burgos wins the prize for best cathedral on the Camino, but Leon comes in a close second. It's glorious. 

I arrived early. Too early. By 10:45am I was in the city and going to give my old plans a try (of waiting out for a little while until walking my final 5-10k for the day). 

Once I reached the cathedral I went in search of a restaurant I ate at in Leon which brought me such joy: Peggy Sue's American Food. It's a 1950s diner that is exceptionally well done. It doesn't feel like it's trying too hard, it just hits the mark. So I searched "American food" on my Maps application and found something called "Taste of America". Oh boy, I had to see this. The logo bared an apple pie and this was the first thing I saw j side the door. 

That's right! Jif peanut butter, Oreos, Aunt Jemima, Duncan just went on and on. 

I've never met an American who actually eats Squeeze Cheese, but there it was in four flavors no less! And then there was this:

That's a snickers milkshake in a squirt bottle. And they came in Twix, and Mars varieties too. Not that I've ever seen such a thing at home. And then there was the beer. Plenty of American beers including this gem which reminded me of home. 

So what did I buy? I bought water (not American, strictly speaking), a pack of small snickers bars, and BEN AND JERRY'S! Heck yes "Taste of America" I will gladly buy your overpriced American goods. I applaud you, sir. Uncle Sam would be proud. 

The only shade around was in front of this gorgeous building. Gaudi's masterpiece actually. Check out my Facebook page for a bubble image (you can use your phone to have a complete 360+ degree interaction of this place, seeing exactly what I saw in every direction). 

This got me to 11:45a and so I decided to see if there was a noon mass. Oh, of course there was! So me, and about a dozen older locals attended the fastest mass on the planet. How long was it? I'm not sure exactly but after it was over and I sat praying for a few minutes I looked at my phone. It was 12:22. I report. You decide. 

Peggy Sue's American Food wouldn't open until 1:30p, so I found some shade in a side street that had a nice view of the Cathedral and began to examine my feet. For those of you who can't stomach feet, this is the part where you need to turn away. But fair warning: feet are the biggest topic of conversation on the Camino. They are the necessary evils which get us where we are going and Camino foot surgery is done in the open and without second thought. 

So I sat down to give me feet a good once over. The blister on the side of my left foot that I picked up yesterday, while down this morning (pre-departure) was back with vengeance. I decided to draw a line around it with a pen to see if I could keep track of its growth. I'd also discover several small blisters on the edge of my toes (from toes rubbing together) AND some deep blisters on the bottom of my feet (Ball-of-the-foot area) presumably from wearing my flip flops for the 4K or so into the city. Damned if you do, damned if you don't I tell ya...
So I bandaged myself up and headed for Peggy Sue's. 

Did it open on time? This is Spain. (Asked and answered) But it wasn't too long before the glorious smell of hamburgers and chicken fingers was wafting through an open front door. And there I sat, with decent onion rings, mediocre chicken fingers, and wondering what the hell a New Mexico burger was. I texted my friend Heather (who is from New Mexico). She tells me that unless it has Hatch green chile on it, she calls BS. 

Either way, I was happy to have some grease in my system before heading out. It was 2k to get out of town. My feet were hurting and I had 6k more to 85 degree heat. To say I wasn't looking forward to it was an understatement.  But Leon would give me one last smile before I went on my way. 

This is San Marco square and it is home to the most authentic artistic depiction of a pilgrim on the Camino. At least in my opinion. There is a LOT of art of the Camino, which is wonderful. And there are plenty of statues of pilgrims, but in my estimation none beat this peregrino. 

This is the real deal. He sits at the base of a cross. In its shade. Sandals off. Bandaged feet. Admiring the beautiful building in front of him with a look of contentment and exhaustion. He makes me cry. THIS is the typical pilgrim. 

So as I left town, out to my hot, uphill, slog, I began to thank God. I try to thank God all day every day on the Camino but this time for the ability to get on a plane and go home. The pilgrims in the day of this statue would have been walking from their front door to Santiago. But perhaps what's more impressive is that once they arrived and sufficiently rested they would have had to walk back. Just gnaw on that a while...

Some 2.5hrs later, with a few stops to mend my wounds, I arrived at my albergue for the night. The Big Bertha blistered on the side of my left foot now so filled with fluid that it threatened to burst. And why is that such a bad thing? Aside from the pain, losing that outermost layer of skin is damning because the raw skin underneath will then be exposed and entirely without protection. So Camino surgery was indeed in order. 

I'll spare you the details but ALL of my blisters have been drained and Big Bertha now has thread running through it. (This prevents the blister from closing and refilling and also serves to help wick moisture out.) 

At present I have 7 blisters in total. Oh, and 2 abrasions from the straps on my flip flops. And although this is typical for a pilgrim, it could be worse. But don't kid yourself, I am DREADING the very special kind of pain that comes bandaging up blisters and then stomping on them for hours on end. 

But it has left me thinking a lot about whether I need to be a typical pilgrim this time around. I had hoped to keep myself "pure" by Camino standards. On my previous Camino I walked for 33 days, often in excruciating pain. I never took a bus, a taxi or a train. I never sent my bag ahead. I never stayed at a hotel. There's no "wrong" way to do the Camino. But for me, not doing those things would have felt wrong. 

My plans have been to maximize the distance I could cover in 17 days of walking. That entailed rushing to Santiago since I was starting little more than a day behind the guidebook (which keeps an aggressive schedule) AND to walk an extra 3 days to Muxia (the other coastal town besides Finisterre). 

As of tonight, I'm beginning to reconsider. Maybe I need to slow down and focus only on Santiago. I can already tell you that there are some hotels in my future. Maybe even a day off here or there. And if I have time, I could always take the bus to Muxia. It's only 2hrs away from Santiago. There's part of me that gets emotional by just the thought of this adaptation, but it is tempered by knowing I didn't start "at the beginning" in St. Jean anyway. 

There's part of me that wonders if letting go is itself a challenge from God. Can I relent? Can I accept something less than my own idea of perfection? Can I take the time to slow down, and just be with Him (but don't forget the burning of calories...that's important). Would that help me find a new kind of maturity? Perhaps one that's overdue. 

And regardless of the answer, I know that seeking out the answers to these kinds of questions, is so very typical...for a pilgrim.