(Blogger’s Note: This is a podcast interview with Australian pilgrim Dan Mullins on his popular program, My Camino. The interview was October 15, 2018.)
“Have you ever sailed across an ocean Donald … on a sailboat, surrounded by sea with no land in sight, without even the possibility of sighting land for days to come? To stand at the helm of your destiny. I want that, one more time. I want to be in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. To feel the surge as 10 racehorses go thundering by. I want another meal in Paris, at L’Ambroisie, at the Place des Vosges. I want another bottle of wine. And then another. I want the warmth of a woman and a cool set of sheets. One more night of jazz at the Vanguard. I want to stand on the summits and smoke Cubans and feel the sun on my face for as long as I can. Walk on the Wall again. Climb the Tower. Ride the River. Stare at the Frescos. I want to sit in the garden and read one more good book. Most of all I want to sleep. I want to sleep like I slept when I was a boy. Give me that, just one time. That’s why I won’t allow that punk out there to get the best of me, let alone the last of me.” ~ James Spader as Raymond Reddington in “The Blacklist”
If life’s peaks and valleys have taught me nothing else in 50 years, they’ve shown me the importance of recognizing seasons when you should just be still. When you feel like you’re in the wilderness, the best thing you can do is embrace the quiet and listen.
Most of 2015 was such a season for me. And it was, furthermore, a year when I thought a lot about my own mortality.
Entering my sixth year of a career funk, (some would call that more than a short dry spell) I’d spent much of 2014 considering the next major move. There was a strong draw to a six-figure investment for a retail franchise I really liked, then a movie about a successful chef with a food truck brought some surprising inspiration about that notion. Go figure. Needless to say, I was all over the map, and both required money I could probably get, but couldn’t necessarily afford. At this point wounds from closing my beloved publishing business in 2008 were healed, but I still remember how much they hurt. It’s not a pain I want to feel again, and with it all comes a certain sense of caution. When clouds of caution hang like heavy fog over a risk-taking personality, it’s constant inner turmoil. A betting friend of mine says, “Scared money never wins.”
I’d always heard the ages between 45 and 55 were the most productive times of a man’s life – the time when he makes a real contribution. The urge to sink my energies, and invest my time into something real, was, well, real. But this is also an age when you first begin experiencing the loss of important people, many of whom shaped how you are, and what you think and believe.
The unusually high number of friends, mentors and other acquaintances who died that year pulled me in another direction that whispered, “Time is short. Forget a career. Experience your purpose. I’ll take care of the rest. Breathe.”
Cultural change and progressive attitudes over time can be a good thing. Society evolves, and that’s a double-edged sword. The evolution of how we think makes many things better. But it also often moves us in the opposite direction of many things that are true. One of the cute little sayings that’s made its way into society is this notion that “everything happens for a reason.” The idea is based on a dangerously liberal paraphrase from Romans 8:28 which reads:
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
So yes, God’s infinite wisdom and sovereign reign over all creation make everything work in His behalf, and in His time, but the gift of our own free will means we screw a lot of things up along the way. Much of what we do was never in God’s greater plan. The very idea that everything I’ve done in my life was perfectly in line and with the greater good makes me laugh out loud. I know disobedience personally.
Free will means we have the freedom to make mistakes. It’s also a gift, given by the Creator, consistent with his creative nature, that allows us to shape our lives in beautiful ways, learning uniquely, and growing as we go. It requires that we have a certain comfort level with uncertainty.
It requires faith.
With anxiety and a sense of urgency over my career growing inside every cell of my spirit in early 2015, it would’ve been easy to make a bad decision, and a bad decision could’ve been costly in more ways than one. The time wasn’t right to do something big, and I knew it. So I bought myself some time in a crazy, low-risk sort of way. I bought a lawnmower and a trailer, and decided to mow yards for a living until the next move became clear. It’s the best decision/non-decision I’ve made in a long time.
I had about 12 yard-mowing clients in the summer of 2015. It’s really hard work when the temperatures are high. But it was a good way to be my own boss, and gave me much needed time to think about a bigger move, also giving us a bit of bill-paying money. The unexpected benefit is there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in work like mowing yards. At the end of the day, you can look back and see you’ve really done something. It’s important, I think, especially to men.
Once I realized that, and really thought about it, my next move became crystal clear. As much as I’d been patient in recent years, and done my best to listen, on July 4 as I was preparing a backyard barbecue for family and friends, I realized I needed to go away, be even more intentional with my listening, and pursue something I’d been thinking about for nearly three years.
I needed to do something to feel like a man again, and remembered a C.S. Lewis quote I’d first read in John Eldridge’s book, Wild at Heart.
“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
I walked into my office, fired up the computer and booked an October 19 plane ticket to Madrid. A 500-mile walk across Spain might just be the perfect place to figure things out, and even feel like a real man again.
Fourteen kilometers west of Pamplona, pilgrims reach the peak of Alto de Perdón (the high place of forgiveness). It’s a significant stop on the Camino made even more famous in a special scene in Emilio Estevez’s The Way. Like many personal experiences we all encounter, it’s difficult to describe exactly how you feel at this place where the vista seems almost endless, and you can look back nearly 70 kilometers to see how far you’ve come. It’s one of those rare feelings you never want to end.
As I reached the peak of Alto de Perdón my feet were blistered, my back hurt, and my legs were just beginning to sense the effects of a long-distance walk. I looked across the amazing sight of the Spanish countryside and was thankful for every ache and pain. I’d asked for this through the gift of my own free will.
With no idea what tomorrow would bring, it was the first time in years when I felt I was standing at the helm of my destiny. It was a defining moment.
(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of my book draft #PilgrimStrong. It’s a partial account of the most difficult day on the Camino. Pilgrim stories about the Pyrenees are legendary.)
The higher I climbed, the colder it became, and the more harshly the wind blew. The gloves and toboggan came out, and I was thankful for the walking stick I purchased in St. Jean. Heavy moisture now made the rocky path fairly hazardous, and the stick must’ve saved me from a nasty fall a half-dozen times.
Adding to the concern, my only water bottle now had only a few swallows remaining and I was pretty sure there was zilch by way of stores or fountains between me and my destination. Three sips of water and six miles of hard walking ahead. Not good.
A few kilometers short of the summit, a small, modestly constructed shack became visible through the fog. Signage indicated it was an emergency refuge for pilgrim protection in rapidly deteriorating weather. I decided to get off my feet and take a break inside. Maybe there’d even be a water faucet for a refill.
As I opened the door, and to my surprise, four other Argentinian pilgrims were inside with the same idea. It was a little self-assuring to know I wasn’t just imagining these conditions as difficult. There was no water inside, but in the first act of pilgrim kindness I received one young man gave me his half full bottle and said I should keep it. I’ve never been so thankful for a bottle of water.
We visited, sharing a few stories from the day, and in 10 minutes they moved on. I stayed inside another few moments to enjoy the absence of wind, and a rickety, rough wooden bench that felt like the finest sofa at the Ritz-Carlton. It was surreal that I was even in a place, and doing something where an emergency weather shelter was deemed necessary. As exhausted as I was, the thought was kind of cool.
Moving on, I finally reached the summit where a propellered anemometer for wind speed measurement stood some 40 feet tall. The propeller’s movement was so rapid it sounded eerily like a jack hammer in the middle of nowhere. My thrill at reaching the summit was quickly diminished when I could see the rigorous decline that lie just ahead. At the summit, the Camino gives you about 50 yards of level path before it goes from straight up to straight down.
Just as my legs had spoken clearly to me on the beginning incline a few dozen yards outside St. Jean the day before, they spoke even louder now on the first, necessarily short, careful steps downward. It’s painful in a way that makes you close your eyes and grit your teeth, and it must be endured if you’re to move downward beyond the Pyrenees. With a top-heavy 24 pounds on your back, slippery rocks on a decline make for some bad footing. My stride was no more than six inches much of the way down. The stick was a Godsend.
Downward to Roncesvalles the Camino transitions into a mysteriously beautiful forest. As I continued the descent, the wind progressively subsided, and an even heavier still-hanging fog set in. At this point there’s almost no variation in the trail and so the fear of taking a wrong turn diminishes. Eight hours into the day’s trek now I began feeling weak.
Four o’clock passed, then five, then six. I was hungry and now genuinely concerned the kitchens would close before I could get a meal.
At 6:20 p.m., I approached a gate and passed over a small bridge that led into Roncesvalles – the first sign of civilization I’d seen in a long time. I walked straight in the nearest restaurant for a dinner reservation, checked in at the albergue, washed my face, and went back to eat.
I’d been on my feet an incredible 10 hours that day.
I slept off and on that night, but it just felt good to lie down and be off my feet. There were repeated dreams of scenarios from my life where there was no turning back.
By God’s grace, I’d ascended and descended the Pyrenees mountain range. Maybe I’d earn that pilgrim badge after all.
I loved the wilderness as a kid. May be even more drawn to it as an adult.
My father’s love for duck hunting ensured I spent my fair share of time in the
woods. Each cold, dark morning as we’d make the 15-minute boat trip to the duck blind I’d always imagine Curt Gowdy’s voice in the back of my mind as if we were the featured adventure on American Sportsman. Every moment on that river thrilled me.
Other days I enjoyed building stick houses at a small pecan grove near our home. I could take refuge there protecting our homestead from the mammoth creatures that would surely would make their way down County Road 513. Settling into those stick shelters was especially fun on the rare winter days when a deep snow blanketed the countryside and you could hear a pin drop from miles away.
At 49 years old, the television I enjoy most today are any number of shows where a guy gets dropped in the woods with nothing more than a machete and a rusty tin can to survive for a week. The idea of it all obviously appeals to a significant demographic and I think John Eldredge had it right in his 2001 bestseller Wild at Heart where he contended so many men are bored with themselves and fail to pay attention to the deepest desires of their heart that would ultimately make them more valuable to their families and society.
In 35 days I’ll catch a couple of planes and a train en route to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to trek the 550 miles of the ancient pilgrimage Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. And honestly, I’m already feeling the faint call of the Appalachian Trail for the grandaddy of all wilderness adventures. Each year, a few thousand people attempt a thru-hike on the AT from Georgia to Maine, or the reverse. Only a couple of hundred make it. Seriously, how can anyone resist that challenge? Dana wisely reminds me to take these things one at a time and savor the day. Alas, she knows my proclivity to self-sabotage the grandest of plans.
Yes, I love the wildness, and have spent my fair share of time wandering there. Sometimes, it was with intention. Other times, not so much.
It’s the difference in the wilderness that we
(1) Accidentally find ourselves in, and;
(2) the one we intentionally put ourselves in.
I’m betting there was a time in your life when things were going really well. You were climbing the professional/social ladder, your relationships fruitful and abundant, people cared what you thought, said, and did. You enjoyed a series of mountaintop experiences and the view from your vantage point was pretty spectacular.
And just as quickly, something happened. A layoff. A broken relationship. A shortcoming in judgment that violated your moral conscience. And all of a sudden the view from 20,000 feet is much less picturesque. You’re in a valley and the trail leading out seems impenetrable. Mostly, you feel lost and very alone.
A few years ago I had both a friendly and professional relationship with a local church pastor who was doing a great job leading a congregation out of a nasty church split. He was a decent and moral man. I believe he still is.
But somewhere along the way he picked up some bad personal habits that got him into money trouble. For four years, the church withheld payroll taxes from staff paychecks, but the $150,000 in withholdings never made it to the IRS. Then there was a $450,000 bank loan that used the church’s real property as collateral, but it, too, was never directed to the greater good. It all went in the pastor’s pocket.
Months later I sat in a federal courtroom in Little Rock and watched a judge sentence him to 33 months in prison and full restitution. I’ve never seen a man who, more abruptly, found himself in the wilderness.
The wilderness has a way of sifting us down and reducing us to the core of who we are, and to the crux of what we need. Just like the church pastor, I’ve found myself in the deepest of wilderness valleys on a few occasions. They were times God used to teach me things like patience, humility, and a greater understanding for the plight of others.
The consistent thing I’ve found about different times waking up in the wilderness is this: There’s always a cost to leave. You may have to leave some friends behind. Some habits or dependencies. Some things you thought to be your greatest pleasures. But God supplies the strength to do so and he opens up a clear trail to the next mountaintop with an ever greater view. Entering the wilderness is free. There’s a cost to take your leave.
With intention, Jesus put himself in the wilderness for 40 days. While I’m not sure all the reasons are clear for his doing this, I think among them was to show us the fixed, North Star quality of scripture and the way it grounds us in helping to resist temptation. Matthew 4: 1-11 is some really good stuff. Today, as I’ve “evolved” I believe more than ever that the key to life is God’s spoken word revealed in the Bible. I know not everyone believes that, but I surely do.
For almost four years now, Ecuador has been my wilderness. The times I’ve spent there with Dana, and sometimes, alone, have been among the most formative in my life. It’s a quiet place, where I can think, and be, and do, without distraction, and I’ve always believed I returned from Ecuador a better person than when I went.
While the first wilderness costs you something, the second wilderness gives you something. It’s why I’m looking so forward to the Camino. I desire this wilderness experience, and I pursue it with expectation.
Whichever wilderness you may find yourself in, you can come out better on the other side. I promise.
Today marks a milestone day in my preparation for pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. I am six weeks out from departure. From the moment the thought entered my head almost four years ago, I knew this day would be one when I would become even more serious, and begin the most final stage of anticipation for the experience.
For me, it’s not a casual thing to prepare for such a journey, walking daily some 45 days and 550 miles solo across a country where I’ve never been.
The first real stage of my preparation actually began two months ago. As the cliche’ goes, I began preparing my mind, my soul, my heart and my body. For someone like me, the danger has never been lack of preparation. Rather it has always been preparing too vigorously, too soon, and getting burned out instead of peaking at just the right time before the real pilgrimage begins. I’m obsessive-complusive like that. It’s not something that’s going to change.
Today, my legs are comfortable at a daily base of 7-8 miles. That number needs to be at a solid 15 by October 17. So, there remains much work to be done.
I’m reading and studying my bible more aggressively than at any time maybe in the last 10 years. It’s so refreshing. Why I had wondered so far from this important daily time, I may never understand, but I’m thankful to be back in that practice that is now my most important time of day.
I’ve prayed about, and have selected a team of five people I will ask to pray for me along this journey. I’ve yet to contact these folks, but the time is coming soon, and I’m confident they will be pleased to do so. I hope to make these people a special part of my journey.
I’m reading heavily in the secular areas as well, about adventure, and new ways to think, and how men have approached the second half of their lives with different thoughts about intention. I’m really trying to broaden the way I see the world, and have a greater capacity for understanding.
A few times before, I’ve done some things that I considered as pretty big personal challenges. And I’ve always enjoyed the necessary time of preparation that leads up to the actual “thing.” This time is actually as much about the journey, and the learning, as the actual journey itself. Having now experienced two months of that “preparatory training time,” I feel as good about myself as a person as I’ve felt in a long time.
But still, I have so many questions about where this journey is going, and how it will play out.
Big questions. Maybe this journey will shed light on a few of them. Maybe none. Only God knows.
But it’s fun and exciting to contemplate. That’s worth something for sure.
Now, on to less serious things for the day. There’s a Labor Day cookout to conquer.
I’ve always been over-zealously impulsive in an obsessive-compulsive sort of way.
My checkbook over the years would testify to that. In a fit of chronic depression one day, and minus the relatively decent income I’d had pre-depression, I drove a perfectly good Chevy Tahoe to Memphis and bought a Mercedes AND a Rolex. They went well together, I convinced myself. Long-term, it didn’t do much for the depression (or the checkbook), but it sure felt good in the moment. I’ve since dumped the Mercedes for a Toyota Tacoma, and gave the Rolex to my son.
I’ve also been fortunately introspective enough over the years to get acquainted with my eccentric personality to know there are predictable seasons when I really need something to anticipate, to work toward, or to set as a milestone kind of goal. Men live in distinct seasons. We really do.
Impulsive behavior and big dreamer type thinking don’t always complement one another so well. Throw in the other part of my personality that is addictive and self-sabotaging, and oftentimes … well, it’s not pretty. It can be a freaking mess, to be quite honest. Alas, we all live along such broken roads.
In my 39th year, at 250 pounds, I decided I’d run a marathon before I was 40. In the course of 12 months, I dropped 85 pounds, completed the St. Jude Memphis Marathon and ran two more before the end of my 41st year. It was hard. It hurt a lot. It seemed almost impossible. I think that’s what I enjoyed about it so much.
There are other examples of such extreme behavior ad nauseam. Cashing out a six-figure retirement plan to launch a new business in the midst of a recession, building a house on another continent mostly via the internet … Shall I go on?
And so I knew as I approached 50, these almost unmanageable personality traits that I’ve somehow learned to embrace, would manifest again. I just didn’t know exactly when or how, but I knew they would bubble up. I waited, knowing they would slip in undetected, like the morning fog that eerily engulfs and blinds its inhabitants. The desires would come, whatever their extremity. Steve Watkins – sacrificial lamb awaiting the sharpened sword.
I’ve desperately wanted to write again. Would I actually sit down and write the book that I’ve always enjoyed talking about, but never really shown the discipline to actually write it?
Would I launch some kind of new business that is always exciting to a point, but ultimately becomes a drudgeful bore?
Culinary school? I’ve always wanted to do that.
The seed was actually planted a couple of years ago, and I knew it in an instant.
Hard as it is these days, I try not to get caught up in things that aren’t real. Television. Social media. Labels. Most organizations. So many groups.
But as we watched a movie titled The Way, about an American man who traveled to Spain and trekked the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, some 550 miles across Spain, I knew I’d met my match. It was too much to resist. I remember looking at Dana. “I’m gonna do that,” I said. And we both knew it would be so. God bless her soul.
I’ve already begun training for the pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied du Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, the burial place of James the Apostle. I’ll leave in mid-October with nothing but a backpack and a pair of boots, and will return some time in early December.
I’m at my best and my worst preparing for things like this, but am never more alive when doing so. It is both divine and horrific all at once. It’s even inspired me to fire up the old blog with a new look and new feel.
As a part of processing the milestone of 50 (which is still seven months away) I thought it would be beneficial to chronicle the experience of preparing for, and experiencing, the Camino de Santiago (translated The Way of James), and perhaps even throw in a thought or two about the radically changing world we live in today.
My writing is comfortably or uncomfortably transparent, depending on your point of view. I stopped wearing a mask several years ago. I’ve learned, much the hard way over the years, that when you peel all the layers back, and when a man strips himself down to the core of his soul, nothing really matters but Truth. All else is garbage.
Truth does not evolve. It does not have multiple definitions. It is singular. Dogmatic. Insistently authoritative. The North Star’s location may not be altered.
This is the manner in which I’ll write future posts, and it feels oh, so good to write again. This is what I do. It’s who I am. Really, it is.
So. I’ll see you along The Way. Join in the conversation if you like.
(Not an unimportant addendum: None of this would be possible without the amazing love, understanding and support of my wife, Dana. She gets me, and I am ever so lucky that she does. Her love is my greatest blessing).