Me, hiking in the Garden of the Gods
in preparation for hiking the Camino de Santiago
As a goal oriented person, I have been fascinated for a long time by the idea of walking the eight hundred kilometer long, one thousand year old Camino Frances (French) pilgrim Way from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees of southern France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain. By mid 2015 the idea transitioned from being a fascination to becoming an obsession.
As with many pilgrims contemplating this walk, certainly the movie "The Way" provided me with inspiration and enough details to make me believe that not only was the walk feasible, but it was something I had to do. As an extrovert I looked forward to bonding with complete strangers just like Martin Sheen's character Tom experienced, although with considerable resistance on his part. Sheen's character was grieving over the death of his son, who on the first day of his walk over the Pyrenees had a fatal accident. So Sheen decides to finish the walk for his son. leaving his son's ashes along the Way. I loved the three characters who became his friends, and the reasons each had for walking to Santiago...Joost from Amsterdam to loose weight, but really problems with his
marriage; Sarah from Canada to give up smoking, but really to deal with a former abusive relationship and an aborted daughter; and Jack from Ireland to overcome writers block and find inspiration to write his novel in the vein of James Joyce, which Tom's story provided, eventually with his permission.
The spiritual dimension comes through strongly in the movie, which is what attracted me most. After all, if I wanted to walk 800 kilometers I could just start walking east from my front door (which is how pilgrimages started before there were planes, trains, and automobiles) until I reached the invisible 800 kilometer mark somewhere in eastern Kansas. But the Camino is different. People from all over the world and from many different religions or non-religious walk the Way looking for some deeper meaning to their lives and thus are uniquely open to spiritual answers. Also, Jesus Christ only walked from place to place. Emulating his form of transportation, with its slow pace and simplicity, totally disconnected from the fast pace and stressful concerns of everyday life, is probably what I need to gain the benefits of a True Pilgrim.
But there were also other influences. As a
Travelblogger I have the benefit of reading the very personal and sometimes humorous blogs of fellow Travelbloggers who have walked the Way, or at least part of the Way. These include those who walked Why Walk
, ten toes
, Walking Woman
, and all the world came tumbling in
, and subman starting with blog Camino de Santiago de Compostela - The Way - Underway!
, or biked Outdoorsie206
the Camino. Some bloggers only posted a single blog, but provided much information such as Buen Camino! on the Camino de Santiago
and Fountain of Wine! Buen Camino!
I also searched for books about those who have walked the Way, downloading about a dozen or more to my Kindle; the best of which were "The Way, My Way" by Bill Bennett, "A Million Steps" by Kurt Koontz, "To the Field of Stars" by Kevin Codd, "I'm Off Then" by Hape Kerkeling and "Off the Road" by Jack Hitt, which was the basis for the movie "The Way." I also subscribed to various websites dedicated to the Camino including Leslie Gilmour's Caminoadventures.com, and I joined the Facebook sites American Pilgrims on the Camino and Slow Strollers on the Camino, both with lots of advice and support! One website that was particularly useful for planning is http://wisepilgrim.com/. It provides for each Camino the distances between towns, and lists
Linda and Bonnie, my hiking companions
at Rampart Reservoir on Rampart Range south of Woodland Park, CO
(hostel...the favored sleeping arrangement for True Pilgrims) and interesting sites. And then there are numerous videos of personal Camino experiences on YouTube.
My daughter Rosanna's reaction upon hearing of this pending adventure was "I want to go, too." And she bought me the guidebook "Hiking the Camino de Santiago" by Anna Dintaman and husband David Landis (both of whom became Facebook friends since then!) for my birthday. This is now a well thumbed book with many highlighted passages of things not to be missed along the Way and a list of albergues.
It didn't take too long for my wife, Linda, to sense that with all my reading about the Camino de Santiago I was becoming obsessed. Her initial reaction was "Don't even think about it!"
So with all this input, and ignoring Linda's reaction, I developed a Plan A
, which was to walk the entire 800 kilometer distance from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. In making plans I violated perhaps the first rule of the Camino...NEVER PLAN, JUST LET IT HAPPEN TO YOU
. I always make plans, but with the intention of changing them. Some people are wedded to
Plan A...not me. After reading about the physical damage that many pilgrims sustain on their first day hiking over the Pyrenees, the most difficult day of the entire walk, thus making the rest of their walk painful if not impossible, I thought "Why set myself up for failure on the first day with pain on the rest of the walk?" I know what my limits are! Besides, I had time constraints as negotiated with Linda. Linda softened up and agreed I could be away for 5 weeks or 35 days. She told me that if I have a fatal accident along The Way, do not expect her to come for my ashes and complete the Camino for me. I can accept that.
So Plan B
was to start at Roncesvalles at the base of the Pyrenees in Spain and walk the rest of the Way, missing the first 26 kilometers. Next I started looking for flights to Spain, and considering which airport I would fly into and then take the train and/or bus to Roncesvalles. I have passed through Barcelona before, but never spent any time there. I really wanted to rectify this huge oversight. So on 21 November
2015 I booked my flights using frequent flyer miles departing Colorado Springs (COS) on Sunday, 4 September, transiting Houston and Frankfurt on the way to Barcelona. I would spend two days touring Barcelona and getting over jet lag, and then rent a car to drive to Andorra (country #85 towards my goal of 100), St Jean Pied de Port, Roncesvalles, Burguete (where Hemingway went fishing in "The Sun Also Rises...another book I read for additional background...where Hemingway was cold at the end of June), and return the rental car in Pamplona. I would then take the bus to Roncesvalles and start from there. However, there are several unbreakable rules of the Way. One is NEVER GO BACKWARDS
, even if you've left your son's ashes at the last albergue...ok maybe that one exception...ok two exceptions: if you've been to Santiago and are now walking home. I decided not to catch the bus back to Roncesvalles, but begin in Pamplona.
So Plan C
was to start in Pamplona and walk the rest of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, only missing the first 70 kilometers of the 800 kilometer Way. I decided to take the train from Barcelona to Pamplona...country #85
will have wait for another day. Meanwhile I read that the first third to Burgos stretches the physical, the second third from Burgos to Léon across the meseta challenges the mental, and the last third from Léon to Santiago causes the pilgrim to look inward to the spiritual. Then I read about the absolute boredom of walking across the meseta, the high plain with a straight road stretching many kilometers from horizon to horizon without shade or any visual relief...think Kansas again. Pilgrims say that in the springtime the flowers are beautiful, but I'm not going in the Spring. I can forgo the mental! Many bloggers I followed also skipped the meseta part, and took the bus or train from Burgos to Léon. I'm taking the train...I like to walk around.
So Plan D
was to skip the meseta between Burgos and Léon, cutting another 180 kilometers off the trip. This would also help by reducing the time as I want to complete the walk to about 28 days; all that could fit in the 35 days Linda agree to my being absent. Even 28 days is a stretch so I was tempted to cut out a few more
So Plan E
, acting upon the temptation to cut out some of the steeper mountains and industrial outskirts and arrive at an absolute minimum walk which I could expand upon as I actually walk the Way, has me taking a bus from Leon to Hospital de Orbigo (thus avoiding industrial suburbs) and then walking from there to Astorga and Rabanal. I would take a taxi from Rabanal to El Acebo, thereby avoiding a steep climb up and down a mountain, and from there I would walk to Ponferada. I thought about stopping just beyond Rabanal at the Cruz Ferro, where pilgrims place a rock as a symbol of leaving their burdens at the Cross, but thought jumping from a taxi, dropping my rock, and then jumping back into the taxi, I felt would be dishonest. I would only stop at the Cruz de Ferro if I walked the steep climb from Rabanal, so dropped that idea of stopping.
From Ponferada, I would take a bus to its western suburbs (again avoiding industrial area) and then walk to Villafranca del Beirzo. I will take a bus from there to O Cebriero (at the top of the next mountain
range) and walk from there for the rest of the Camino. Plan E has me walking over 426 kilometers or about 264 miles in 28 days. However, at the end of April 2016 I discovered Lugo, which has the only intact Roman city wall in the world. Lugo is just a short train ride north of Sarria. I initially planned to take a day trip to Lugo and back to Sarria to continue the Camino Frances. Then I discovered that the Camino Primitivo, the original pilgrim route to Santiago, passes through Lugo.
So Plan F
is to skip walking from Astorga to Rabanal, and instead take the train from Astorga to Ponferada. The plan described in Plan E starting in Ponferada remains the same, but once in Sarria, I will take the train to Lugo and walk from there to Melide, where the Camino Primitivo rejoins the Camino Frances. The walk from Lugo to Santiago is 105 km; more than the 100 km minimum distance I must walk to receive the Compostela, a certificate in Latin that confirms the pilgrim has completed the pilgrimage to Santiago. Us goal oriented people like certificates!
I hope to follow the rule THE CAMINO PROVIDES
...not only the distance one travels each day, but also the companions with whom I'm meant to become lifelong friends, the lodging when all albergues are full, medical assistance in times of distress (the pilgrim next to you will likely be an orthopedic surgeon or nurse), and whatever need arises. Proverbs 3:5-6 says "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lead not on your own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths." I'm counting on it! So let me caveat the preceding plans by stating that I will try hard to go with the flow. As you can see, even before the trip starts I change plans very easily, and I expect I will have many more changes as I walk the Way.
After walking 28 days, I will arrive in Santiago de Compostela on 4 October 2016. I'm meeting up with fellow Travelblogger's Harlan and Karen subman
and perhaps Rachel, a friend of theirs for dinner on the next evening. Coincidentally they are finishing the Portuguese Way at the same time as I finish the Camino Frances/Primitivo. I will tour the town on October 5th and Finesterre and
Muxia on October 6th. I fly out of Santiago de Compostela late afternoon on 7 October and arrive early evening in Madrid where I will stay at an airport hotel. I have an early on October 8th to Brussels and then a late morning flight to ORD, and then arrive in COS late afternoon the same day. United is upgrading me to business class from BRU to ORD in compensation for having cancelled my flight from Santiago to Istanbul (where I was going to meet up with a friend from my NATO days) and from there to LAX to COS. I'm having to pay for Santiago to Madrid separately. Given recent events, it's probably for the better that I skip Istanbul!
Another rule of the Camino is MY CAMINO IS MY CAMINO
. So I will...
- walk at my pace and not overdo it to keep up with faster paced friends as we can always meet at an albergue further along the Way...friends always seem to cross paths along the Camino until they gather for a final celebration in Santiago.
- take breaks when ill or otherwise physically incapable of continuing the next day, or the weather
is terrible, or just to sightsee as there are many things to see.
- skip some stages, which I do not have to justify to others to be classified as a True Pilgrim.
- use the Spanish postal service CORREOS backpack transport service if I don't have the strength or will to carry my backpack for the next 20+ kilometers up a steep mountain.
- upgrade my accommodations from an albergue (with as many as 60 loudly snoring pilgrims in a room) to a single room in a hotel every seven days (my Day of Rest) to recuperate from blisters, shin splints, and sore hips, knees and muscles, to catch up on sleep, to take a long hot bath, to get a massage, and as an addicted blogger to use their business center computer to blog about the previous seven days of walking, which coincidentally align with the regions I will pass through.
- and most importantly, I will share with others as we seek meaning in our lives and experience the spiritual significance of being a Pilgrim.
I mentioned the term True Pilgrim several times above. The conversation about what constitutes a True Pilgrim
is found in "The Way," but comes from the book "Off the Road" by Jack Hitt. A True Pilgrim is supposedly one who emulates the conditions of the original pilgrims. Primarily, a True Pilgrim is meant to suffer. I don't agree. One reason I've chosen the Camino Frances (French) route to Santiago instead of another Way is the logistics. There are at least eight other Caminos in Spain converging on Santiago...hence the scallop shell symbol that every pilgrim attaches to their backpack. I've chosen the Camino Frances featured in "The Way," the most popular and probably the best supported logistically. The Camino Frances is marked with yellow arrows or scallop shell symbols, so it's hard to get lost. Albergues and hotels and bars and cafes are found every 10 kilometers or so, making it easier to find shelter, beds with mattresses and blankets, and food and water (and restrooms). Carrying a tent and heavy sleeping bag and food other than a snack and water is unnecessary. This is not the Appalachian Trail by any means so the amount one carries in a backpack can be minimal!
My backpack and contents weight 7 kilos (15 pounds) with two pairs of
The Fleche amarillo indicating the Way for the Pilgrim
Also painted by utility workers along the road that I train to Walk the Camino accompanied by my dog Bonnie.
clothing and three pairs of underwear/socks, alternating between them each day; and for weather protection a poncho, a windbreaker/rain jacket,and a fleece jacket which can serve as a pillow...multiple purposes for items is highly desirable; a very light sleeping sack; minimal toiletries; a microfiber towel and flip flops (thongs for you Aussies) for shower and evenings; pills (pain killers, sleeping, and prescription); moleskin and athletic tape to prevent blisters; KT strips for knee and ankle support; ear plugs to drown out the snorers and eye mask to block any light when trying to sleep; a hat, sunglasses, buff, and sunscreen as protection from the sun; a camera to visually document my pilgrimage; a journal for taking notes, which I will transcribe to a weekly blog; a walking stick, which I will buy in Pamplona; and most importantly, a broken in pair of waterproof ventilator hiking boots for the rough muddy trails. Linda gave me a Gregory 35 liter backpack for Christmas, and my kids gave me much of my kit. So by selecting the Camino Frances route, one has to work pretty hard to avoid these conveniences to become a True Pilgrim. As for me, walking many kilometers in all weather conditions will be enough suffering without having to flagellate my back and walk barefooted.
Which brings me to that physical challenge. To get ready physically I trained by walking with increasing distances, and towards the end carrying my backpack to prepare to walk a distance of ten miles on average per day, to which the pictures can attest. I also joined a gym so that I could exercise over the winter. I lost about 10 pounds from training before I departed for Spain.
Part of the planning process also involved listening to the Lord. On 21 February 2016 my Mom passed away. She was cremated. I immediately thought of the movie "...The Way" where Tom (Martin Sheen) spread the ashes of his son (Emilio Estevez) along the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostelo and then to Muxia. But this just didn't feel right or appropriate. Mom, having loved the mountains of Colorado, Tibet, and the Alps, wanted her ashes scattered on a mountain top. Colorado, with Pikes Peak hovering over my home, would be easy but illegal. I had been wrestling with where...even thinking of the Alto de Perdon...the Mount of Pardon...on the Camino, since Pardon from sins was the message of her life as a missionary. When Linda and I watched the movie "Risen" and I knew the answer immediately. Jesus says just before his ascension, "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world
." My Mom went to all nations (China and Thailand), teaching and baptizing, so I decided that I would go to Finisterre, Latin for the end of the world, and fling a small bottle with some of her ashes into the Atlantic Ocean. That's appropriate!
Pilgrims often have a theme for their Camino. I've thought and prayed long and hard as to what mine might be. Then in a two week period at the end of May and beginning of June 2016, both my daughters experienced life threatening situations (see Do you believe in miracles?
) that absent miracles could have taken their lives. Through much prayer, God performed the miracles. So the theme of my trip is Thanks to God. Then last night, just five days before my departure, one of my favorite songs as a child came to mind. The words are "Out in the highways and byways of life, many are weary and sad. Carry the sunshine where darkness is rife, making the sorrowing glad. Out of my life may Jesus shine. Make me a blessing to someone today." That's why I'm walking the Camino!
As mention before, the Camino is marked with yellow arrows showing pilgrims which Way to go. Serendipitously, utility workers painted yellow arrows on my road so I am already walking the Way with my dog Bonnie...as noted by my daughter Rosanna she has a mind of her own and wants to go the other way!
So Plan G starts with Barcelona, on the Way to the Camino de Santiago
. To see the rest, just click on Next Entry at the top of each page. Thanks for joining me on my pilgrimage!
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