Relax. You’re on Beach Time.

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-2-09-26-pm

 

The photo above shows a sign I keep on the pantry door of our little Casa Azul in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador. It has a purpose. Probably not the one you think.

On the exterior, I can be just about whatever you need at the moment. Extrovert? It’s not my natural style, but I can play it well enough just about any time if that’s what you need. I made a good part of my livelihood as an adjusted-style extrovert. Curmudgeonly hermit-like introvert? Yes, it comes quite naturally, thank you. Business guy in suit and Johnson and Murphys? Sure, no problem. Country farmer with dirt underneath his fingernails. Even easier.

On a positive note, my bougainvillea is looking pretty good for such dry conditions.

On a positive note, my bougainvillea is looking pretty good for such dry conditions.

But my comfort zone is being my own boss making enough money to pay bills and travel a couple of times a year, and focusing on whatever my limited attention span is interested in for the next few months. I don’t mean that in an egotistical or sarcastic way. In fact, up until not so long ago my proclivity to boredom was the think I disliked most about myself. But during the last year it’s a simple truth truth I’ve accepted – even embraced – and knowing who I truly am, supercedes most, but not quite all, things these days.

I’m no longer caught up in things like image, public opinion, social status, or chamber of commerce award banquets. I just kind of like to be my own guy. Is that so wrong?

It’s easier some places than others. If nothing else, Ecuador has taught how to chill every expectation.

There’s a radical and immediate shift in time somewhere between Arkansas and Ecuador. I’m a high-strung traveler, anxious on airplanes, exhaustively pro-active in heading off unwanted potential surprises, hyper conscious of where everything is all the time. Travel Mode begins the night before a trip and doesn’t end until wheels down at whatever destination. It took me a while to learn that wheels down in Ecuador means time moves sideways into a different dimension.

High-strung doesn’t work here. And you’d better lose the attitude fast if you don’t want to drive yourself and everyone around you nuts.

I recall the time a carpenter finally showed up at the house a week after the initial appointment. He came in, surveyed the work, and immediately left because he didn’t bring his hammer. “Back in an hour,” he said. It’s always, “back in a hour, or tomorrow, maybe.”

The time three guys made an emergency call to save us from raw sewage overflowing a septic tank onto our back yard? You don’t even wanna know.

We have a water shortage here. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get it through a municipal line. Other times, you call a tanker to fill your cistern. Need a shower desperately? The tanker guy will be there when he gets there.

Sometimes I’ll hear people talk with a wistful romanticism about their travels to exotic locations such as Cancun, Fiji, Madrid or maybe Puerto Vallarta. “Time stands still,” they say, dreamily imagining a life with so many umbrella drinks.

Maybe so, but in Ecuador, time gets turned upside down and “beach time” isn’t always the most romantic thing in the world. The key word in the sign on my pantry is “Relax.”

Tranquillo.

It isn’t perfect, but life is good in Ecuador.

-30-

 

Camino 2016: Some Fave Photos

Dana celebrating at the end of the world

Dana celebrating at the end of the world

Near Finisterre in the last 2k.

Near Finisterre in the last 2k.

Our friend, Kathy McLeskey from Florida who followed me last year and went for her own Camino this year. We met for the first time in Santiago. She's a great pilgrim.

Our friend, Kathy McLeskey from Florida who followed me last year and went for her own Camino this year. We met for the first time in Santiago. She’s a great pilgrim.

Andrew Suzuki producer of Beyond the Way and Don't Stop Walking. I've always been a fan, and we bumped into one another for coffee in Santiago, then had dinner that night. A real creative talent and super nice guy. Such a pleasure to meet him.

Andrew Suzuki producer of Beyond the Way and Don’t Stop Walking. I’ve always been a fan, and we bumped into one another for coffee in Santiago, then had dinner that night. A real creative talent and super nice guy. Such a pleasure to meet him.

We made it!

We made it!

You'll find "monument art" like this all along the Way. This is my very favorite as you enter the final kilometers to Santiago. It really speaks to me as in, "We have arrived!"

You’ll find “monument art” like this all along the Way. This is my very favorite as you enter the final kilometers to Santiago. It really speaks to me as in, “We have arrived!”

Entering Arca.

Entering Arca.

Dana on the famous (sometimes infamous) rock bridge on the stage near Arzua.

Dana on the famous (sometimes infamous) rock bridge on the stage near Arzua.

Not sure where this is.

Not sure where this is.

Jesus said: I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.

Jesus said: I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.

Very typical November morning.

Very typical November morning.

I got 2 or 3 shots this trip where the light was perfect. This is one.

Sometimes you shoot a photo simply because the light is perfect, regardless of the content or composition. I got 2 or 3 shots this trip where there was perfect light. This is one.

Leaving Portomarin and the beginning of one of the final ascents on the Way. I love this photo. It says so many things to me.

Leaving Portomarin and the beginning of one of the final ascents on the Way. I love this photo. It says so many things to me, and reminds me of a prayer by Thomas Merton.

After a really long 16-mile day, this awaits in Portomarin. Ugh.

After a really long 16-mile day, this awaits in Portomarin. Ugh.

I believe this is my #1 favorite photo from our trip. Dana walking with Darla from Minnesota as we descend from O Cebreiro and enter Triacastela. It was a long hard walk and we were really tired and hungry about this time.

I believe this is my #1 favorite photo from our trip. Dana walking with Darla from Minnesota as we descend from O Cebreiro and enter Triacastela. It was a long hard walk and we were really tired and hungry about this time.

Also near Triacastela. Somehow on this trip I got into the habit of shooting photos where it appeared we were talking through a tunnel. This is one.

Also near Triacastela. Somehow on this trip I got into the habit of shooting photos where it appeared we were talking through a tunnel. This is one.

Us with Steve and Darla, friends from Minnesota.

Us with Steve and Darla, friends from Minnesota.

Another favorite in the church at O Cebreiro, the oldest church on the Way.

Another favorite in the church at O Cebreiro, the oldest church on the Way.

A beauty of a day in Galicia. The snow wasn't far behind.

A beauty of a day in Galicia. The snow wasn’t far behind.

A toast to ourselves at a little bar in Ponferrada at the Castle of the Knights Templar.

A toast to ourselves at a little bar in Ponferrada at the Castle of the Knights Templar.

More beer. Ha. You'd think we drink all the time. Not true, but a cold beer sure does taste good after a long day of walking.

More beer. Ha. You’d think we drink all the time. Not true, but a cold beer sure does taste good after a long day of walking. Actually this is a cerveza de limón, half beer, half lemon juice.

Dana at daybreak at Cruz de Ferro. It was amazing to watch the sun bring the morning light and I was lucky to get this shot. The light at this elevation is amazing. If I were in charge of Foncebadon I'd rename it Fuego del Cielo (fire from heaven).

Dana at daybreak at Cruz de Ferro. It was amazing to watch the sun bring the morning light and I was lucky to get this shot. The light at this elevation is amazing. If I were in charge of Foncebadon I’d rename it Fuego del Cielo (fire from heaven). The iron cross has been in this location since 1530.

The tokens we left behind at Cruz.

The tokens we left behind at Cruz.

Leaving Foncebadon for Cruz de Ferro. Early and cold, but it was worth it.

Leaving Foncebadon for Cruz de Ferro. Early and cold, but it was worth it.

The final Ks of the stage entering Foncebadon. Another long day.

The final Ks of the stage entering Foncebadon. Another long day.

Enjoying time in the square at Astorga. We got a hotel that night. So nice to have clean sheets and towels. Plus, I'm sporting gentleman's cap I couldn't resist in Burgos. My one big splurge for 60 euros.

Enjoying time in the square at Astorga. We got a hotel that night. So nice to have clean sheets and towels. Plus, I’m sporting gentleman’s cap I couldn’t resist in Burgos. My one big splurge for 60 euros.

Another top five favorite photo entering Astorga. This one framed up nicely.

Another top five favorite photo entering Astorga. This one framed up nicely.

I trail named her, "Rookie." It stuck.

I trail named her, “Rookie.” It stuck.

Stamping the pilgrim's credencial, proof of the journey for your compostela upon arrival in Santiago.

Stamping the pilgrim’s credencial, proof of the journey for your compostela upon arrival in Santiago.

Another tunnel.

Another tunnel.

Ahhh ... Burgos. The 200-mile mark for those walking the full Camino Frances.

Ahhh … Burgos. The 200-mile mark for those walking the full Camino Frances.

More beer. More perfect light. HA!

More beer. More perfect light. HA! But seriously, look at that frosty mug.

Fuente de Irache, where the wine flows from the tap.

Fuente de Irache, where the wine flows from the tap.

November really is a lovely time on the Camino.

November really is a lovely time on the Camino.

We did have some bad weather days, but for 30 days of walking the conditions were extraordinarily good.

We did have some bad weather days, but for 30 days of walking the conditions were extraordinarily good.

Tapas in Pamplona. Buen provecho!

Tapas in Pamplona. Buen provecho!

A pilgrim walking through a tunnel not far outside Uterga. Another photo that makes me think about a lot of things.

A pilgrim walking through a tunnel not far outside Uterga. Another photo that makes me think about a lot of things.

 

Together We Are #PilgrimStronger

At the Memphis airport last December 3 as I arrived home from pilgrimage after 45 days. Little did we know at that moment we'd head back to the Camino together in 10 months.

At the Memphis airport last December 3 as I arrived home from pilgrimage after 45 days. Little did we know at that moment we’d head back to the Camino together in 10 months.

Managing my propensity to occasional depression has pretty much been the same for more than 40 years. I’m just more aware of the management process now, and have become more proactive than reactive about it. Today it’s no longer a subconscious coping tool, but a need of which I’m aware that’s become as much a part of my life as opening the pool for the season, or the annual termite inspection.

The best prescription I’ve found is pursuing something difficult that requires long, disciplined preparation – something intense enough that it brings a focused distraction to the hopelessness many of us privately know in depression. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s found a way to turn sadness into gladness.

I wasn’t a natural athlete as a kid, but found myself working obsessively harder than average to become a decent high school ball player. Spent most of my 20s laying the career groundwork for landing my political communication dream job at 32. Just a few years later invested 36 months completely dedicated to marathon training and made the distance three times. The cycle never ends, and reflecting on those efforts is exhausting. Not to have pursued them might have been deadly.

Early in our marriage and as the recession wrecked our livelihood I experienced a depression that took me so far into myself that I wasn’t sure I’d come back. Dana may have wondered the same. Part of the healing process involved watching late night adventure shows about far-away places. They were shows that kept us dreaming.  However you do it, and wherever you must search, depression requires that you cling to hope. My hope has always been in Christ Jesus, but depression will sometimes trick and rob you of that hope. Another topic, another time. One night, a part of my worldly hope was found in a movie called The Way.

***

In October 2015, I set out for a 500-mile walk across Spain on the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago as both preventive depression therapy, and a celebration for overcoming that hard time years earlier. I would’ve never made it through that time, or to the Camino, without Dana. Though 5,000 miles across an ocean, she was with me every step. A man can find no adequate measurement for the value of a supportive, committed, loving wife. There is no standard to which I can point. I value it above all things, save my identity in Christ.

It took four days and about 60 miles of walking last year to realize one of the most valuable lessons I’d learn on the Camino. Pilgrimage was best experienced and more profoundly understood when I approached it as a story. When I became free to experience the Camino in such a familiar way, everything changed. I’d found “my Camino.”

Unconventionally, and to the dismay of pilgrimage purists, I conveyed the stories in real time, up and over the Pyrenees, through the Meseta, eight hours through a Galician blizzard, and to the end of the world. Mostly through meeting new friends along the way there were stories about relationships, hardship, loss, determination, and hope. I found the stories refreshingly rich and real, and the experience of telling them helped me reclaim things I didn’t even know I’d lost. I hate the cliché, but yes, the Camino provided exactly what I needed.

I came home, wrote a book about it, and wondered what would come next, because I knew the story wasn’t finished. A wise French companion once told me “a pilgrim never stops walking the path.”

***

“An excellent wife who can find?  She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” ~ Proverbs 31:10-12

When the unexpected opportunity presented itself last week for Dana and I both to return to the Camino this fall, we booked the tickets without much thought to all the things one should think about when it comes to getting off the grid for a month. I’ve lost enough friends during the last two years to know that when you’re 70 percent sure about something that may seem far-fetched at the moment, you try your best to say “yes,” and figure the rest out as you go. After a flurried exchange of text messages about the chance to go as a couple, we said “yes.”

Not only am I excited to walk again, meet new friends, and see new places, I’m excitedScreen Shot 2016-07-27 at 6.29.04 AM to tell a new story. And I think I’m as eager as anything to watch the experience unfold for Dana. That’s the story I want to tell you. This time I want to share the experience through her eyes.

For 31 days I’ll be Dana’s walking documentary journalist, sharing a few of my perspectives about her pilgrimage, but mostly telling it as she sees things through photos, text and video.

This wasn’t her idea. She’s not even comfortable with it yet.

But the world needs more stories about good people. Not the ones who pretend to be good, or those who shout from the mountaintops that they’re good, but rather the ones who are good.

I’ve never known a better, more selfless, more compassionate, humble person than my wife.  I thank God that I get to walk with her every single day.

Dana made me #PilgrimStrong.

But together we are #PilgrimStronger.

I can’t wait to tell you her story.

PS: We’re going to need a trail name for her. If you have ideas, please leave a comment.

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panick Attack in Terminal 5

“Some journeys can only be traveled alone.” ~ Ken Poirot

 

Saying "goodbye for now" to Finisterre, probably my favorite overnight on camino.

Saying “goodbye for now” to Finisterre, my favorite town on camino. One day, I’d like to spend a summer there.

Every traveler has a subconscious switch that flips when it’s time to go home. It’s the least enjoyable part of any journey. My switch now flipped, I was in the zone and homeward bound.

As we re-entered Santiago the bus driver was kind enough to drop me near the train station where he said I’d find plenty of overnight accommodations. I wanted to be within walking distance of tomorrow’s early-morning train back to Madrid. Now running low on money and wanting to keep things flexible, I’d play it by ear in Madrid, even if it meant rolling out a sleeping back on the airport floor the night before departure. If there’s one quality you acquire on camino, it’s flexibility.

Essentially a fast-forward camino in reverse, the train trip to Madrid was nostalgic as I’d catch the occasional glimpse of places where I’d passed through on foot weeks ago. It already seemed surreal that I’d actually done it.

Even if meant there’d be no rest, I was determined to make the logistics simple and minimize any likelihood of missing an 11 a.m., flight departing Madrid on Thursday morning. The best way to facilitate the plan was to wake up at the airport that day rather dealing with big-city transportation issues from a hotel early in the morning. My spirit was oddly anxious about any possibility of missing that plane and I’d dialed up travel mode to intense.

It was a relief just arriving at the airport. However uncomfortable the night ahead might be, I’d make tomorrow’s plane and head for home. Assurance trumps discomfort in my personal travel guide most days.

***

Early-morning train station departure in Santiago, headed for Madrid.

Early-morning train station departure in Santiago, headed for Madrid.

Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is huge, and geographically the largest travel facility in Europe. With five terminals spread across 3,050 square hectares, Madrid-Barajas is as big as a city and accommodates 50 million travelers a year. Manevering the airport expanse is a challenge in itself.

Though I’d heard about a hotel somewhere on the airport grounds, no one in my departure Terminal 2 seemed to know about it. I dismissed the idea as bad travel information and after a stale 10 euro sandwich and a soft drink made my way to an area outside all the foot traffic and tried out the floor using my backpack as a pillow. It was so uncomfortable I laughed out loud. The thought of alternating positions between the concrete floor and a plastic chair for the next 15 hours was less than ideal. It was there where a janitor with a mop bucket became my savior.

As he mopped the floor nearby, I could tell he felt sorry for me. He kept looking my way, and so I walked over in hopes that he might have advice about a better plan.

“Usted tiene camas en el aeropuerto? I asked.

“Si, si, terminal de cinco en autobús,” he said, so happy to help. I thanked the kind man, and with the new promise of a good night’s sleep made my way outside to find the airport bus. It was hard not to think about the prospect for a final blessing of camino magic.

It’s almost a 20-minute bus ride from Terminal 2 to Terminal 5, and I used the time for making mental notes about getting back early the next morning. I was surprised how uptight I remained about making that plane.

Air Rooms Madrid is tucked away deep in the basement bowels of Terminal 5. It features simple, no-frills rooms with clean beds and hot, private showers for a $135 credit card slide. Underground, absent a single window and with close proximity to multiple bus stops and the airport train station, the dark, noisy environment never varies. Inside the basement hotel it’s virtually impossible to know whether it’s day or night.

A final airport gift for the wife.

A final airport gift for the wife.

I was thrilled with the simple accommodations, knowing I’d step onto tomorrow’s 10-hour flight home clean and rested. My plan for not making plans came together in a way that seemed almost too good to be true. After a long, hot shower, I climbed into bed, turned on the television and passed out around 6 p.m. The next hours indulged a sleep so hard that I lost track of every sensibility – including time.

The simple recollection of what happened next makes my heart race all over again.

Groggy and momentarily unaware of the environment, a passing train roused my attention and I instinctively reached for the phone to note the time. My bleary eyes saw the numbers 10:17. It’s surpising how something as simple as the absence of a window can completely throw your sense of time. I thought I’d slept the clock around and immediately envisioned fellow passengers boarding the flight home. I was a logistical hour away from being anywhere close to that plane, and went from zombie-like sleep to full-blown panic in less than 10 seconds. Heart attacks are the products of more subtle transitions.

With heart pounding, I almost couldn’t breathe, and surely couldn’t think. But instinct had me throwing clothes on my body and into my backpack even though I knew making the plane was hopeless. Then it occurred to me. Maybe it was p.m. rather than a.m. In this dungeon without a view there was no way to know. The only thought I could fathom was the need to look outside.

The desk manager must have thought I was a lunatic. With sagging unbelted shorts, an unbuttoned shirt and bare feet I ran past her to the door looking for sunshine. Looking out to the lower-level driving tunnel toward the train stop offered still no indication. We were underground.

I turned back toward the manager. “Is it day or night?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, sir?” she replied.

“Is it day time or night time? I think I slept through and missed my plane.”

“It’s evening, sir. You’ve only been here a few hours. Would you like to receive a wakeup call in the morning?” she asked, never breaking professional stride.

“Yes. Yes, I would please for 6 a.m. Thank you.”

Clutching my shorts, now three inches too big, I returned to the room and fell on the bed waiting for the heart palpitations to cease. It was the most negative rush of adrenaline I’ve experienced, and it took hours for a return to any normal feeling.

A wake up call. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

-30-

Monotony’s Glory

We all try to camouflage the monotony, but it takes a lot of energy – to insist on being special all the time, when we’re so much alike one another anyway. Our triumphs are the same. Our pain. Try for a moment to feel what relief there is in the ordinary. ~ Peter Høeg, The Quiet Girl

 

100K to go. Truly a welcome sight.

100K to go. Truly a welcome sight.

In Sarria, we marked a milestone.

One hundred kilometers to go. It’s the westernmost origination point where a pilgrim may begin her walk on Camino Frances and receive a compostela. It stands to reason foot traffic picks up here. Though I knew I’d reached a point where a finish was within grasp, my shin hurt at new levels and I wondered frequently to myself if this was an exercise in permanent physical damage. It’s never good when you feel your heart beating in your leg.

Departing town, I took Naomi up on an offer to buy bandage supplies in a local

Getting wrapped. I told myself this made me feel better. Not sure it really did, but I pretended anyway.

Getting wrapped. I told myself this made me feel better. Not sure it really did, but I pretended anyway.

farmacia and let her create a support wrap for me. Even if a placebo effect, I welcomed the chance to pretend it felt better.

Thirty-five days in, the farmacia also gave me the first opportunity to step on a scale. Now cinching a belt up four notches from where it all began in St. Jean, I knew I’d lost weight and Naomi told me she’d watched my face shrink even during the last 10 days. But the actual number bewildered me. The 105 kilo figure meant nothing until I did a quick calculation. In 35 days, I’d lost 28 pounds. Three additional pounds fell off by the time I entered Cathedral Square.

As we moved out of town, I encouraged my partners to walk on without concern. I’d be along slowly. We’d catch up in Portomarin at the end of what I already knew would be a long, lagging, grueling trudge.

***

Most of our life gets lived in a monotonous zone between two extreme margins. We mark our time with lesser milestones along the way, but real life plays out mostly by way of routine.

It’s between these two margins – life’s peaks and valleys – where we learn just exactly who we are and the stuff of which we’re made. If you can handle the monotony of everyday life, and learn humility, you can handle the next big thing. In time, God will bring that thing to you. You can’t become someone, until you’ve been someone, and that often means that you wait, listen and learn. And it’s here where you grow.

As a beat newspaper reporter for 10 years, I’d wager my authorship of at least 5,000 obituaries. I could write an obit without turning on a single brain cell. My job required tediously checking the federal court filings every single day, a task I would have gladly deducted money from my meager paycheck for someone else to do. And if I’d been required to write just one more summary about the local gathering of the Craighead County Extension Homemakers Club – well, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

There were other times when my byline was on the front page for weeks at a stretch. I covered presidents, governors and led months of daily coverage about one of the most bizarre cases in higher education’s national history.

But it was the time between obits and EHC clubs – that monotonous daily grind – when I discovered my gifts and talents, and ultimately started thinking how they might one day be used for a higher, greater purpose. Once I understood my giftedness for interviewing others and telling readers their stories, and my own, in relatable, transparent fashion, everything changed. A calling was born in the messiness between the margins.

That’s exactly how I felt about walking to Portomarin on Day 35. There was nothing really sexy about it, and I was tired and felt awful, but it had to be done. The kilometers were down to double digits and the finish was in sight.

***

In Vilachá, just two kilometers short of Portomarin, I stopped for a rest before the day’s final steps. The pain and monotony of the day was not a good setup for the next exchange.

***

Above: It pains me to listen to this video, remembering how much my leg hurt.

It was a point in the journey where I’d tell myself regularly, “…just keep moving.”

A few meters into Vilachá, a small, but well-organized donativo stand with fresh fruits, cookies and two plastic chairs was more than I could resist for a moment’s rest. Mostly, I wanted to sit. I slipped off my pack and set my walking stick aside. The fruit was enticing, but I was too tired and grumpy to eat, instead just taking an occasional sip from my water bottle. It was quiet, and there was no indication of a soul anywhere around.

My next encounter was about to get off to a bad start very fast, and it was completely my fault, the combined result of exhaustion, pain, frustration, and bad timing. I’d really mismanaged my monotony that day.

From nowhere, a thin woman with long, unkempt, dull gray hair, passed through a door into the common area where I sat, and she greeted me in Spanish, asking my primary language. “English,” I said, not really looking up.

“Bound for Portomarin?” she inquired, clearly indicating a heavy English accent.

“Yes, ma’am. I just need to sit here a moment,” I replied.

“Do you have a booking?” she asked, the accent seemingly heavier, and pressing for conversation.

“A what?”

“A booking.”

I lifted my guidebook to show her. “Yes, I have a guidebook,” I responded, knowing she was trying to help, yet not wanting help. I didn’t realize I’d misunderstood.

“NO. A booking!” she raised her voice, frustrated with my misreckoning.

She was asking if I had a reservation ahead. I didn’t. I never made reservations, and just took things as they came. We were in a cultural misunderstanding with escalated tensions before I knew what happened. My response was not a good one.

“No, I never make reservations ahead. I don’t plan things. I have friends ahead and I need to find them wherever they are. I’m very tired, hurting and just wanted to sit here a moment.” It’s that tone I get when I’ve already turned someone off – a bad habit, indeed.

“Well, you’re not being very sociable, I can tell you that. I’m only trying to help, and I can save you some steps on those weary feet if you’d only be agreeable.”

“Am I really in this conversation?” I wondered to myself, head hung low.

It’s never good when you begin a sentence with “Lady…” As in, lady this, or lady that. The addressee never hears anything subsequent. Understood.

“Lady, I’m just sitting here, not really troubling anyone, but I’m going to move on down the path now and get out of your way. I’m sorry to be such a bother,” I said.

I threw my pack over one shoulder and scurried away, but before getting too far, she got the best of me on our unfortunate exchange. She threw the last knockout punch.

“Well, you’re the most unpleasant pilgrim I’ve come across in weeks!” And she slammed the door bidding me good riddance.

Sometimes you fail in the midst of monotony. I’d embarrassed myself and walked off ashamed. She told me – and good. And I pretty much deserved it.

***

A tall staircase on the eastern outskirts of Portomarin adds insult to injury for every pilrim at the end of a long day. If you want to gain entry to town, the stairs must be climbed, surely a hundred, if one.

Finding the albergue where I believed Naomi and Aida had set up for the night, I checked in knowing I’d see them sooner or later. Jeannick was there. So was an Aussie friend and others with whom I’d walked from Sarria. I found a lower bunk, tossed my belongings there, and went for a drink just as Naomi called.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I think I’m where you are.”

“No, you’re definitely not here.”

I described my location and she said she was on her way.

When she came in the bar, Naomi could tell I’d had a bad day. She told me about the albergue where they’d settled and described it as a quaint, homelike bed and breakfast with one of the nicest hospitaleras on the Way. She’d even placed a portable heater in their private bathroom and encouraged them with much tranquillo.

To top it off, no one else was there. They had the place to themselves.

“You need to come join us. You’ll never believe this place.”

I told her I was just too tired to take another step.

Naomi’s a Spanish teacher by profession, but she writes for pleasure and has a descriptive, unforced way with words that comes natural to people who travel the world. In another 10 minutes, she’d sold me on their location. I grabbed my things and walked that way. I think she had me at “portable heater,” actually.

The heated bathroom was ecstasy. It was one of the longest, hottest showers on my Camino, and the hospitalera, was in fact, a Camino angel if there ever was one.

Naomi prepared a fruit and cheese tray for us that night, and Aida washed all the dirty clothes. We set up in a separate room with a real fireplace and had a virtual smorgasbord. We were clean, satisfied and almost deliriously happy with the accommodations.

The end of an extraordinarily monotonous day, ended in glory, albeit with ups and downs. It goes that way sometimes.

Most times.

-30-

My Top 40 Pilgrim Playlist

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 8.53.43 AM

  1. Let it Rain                                                             Michael W. Smith
  2. Oh Happy Day                                                   The Edwin Hawkins Singers
  3. Uptown Funk                                                      Bruno Mars
  4. Overcomer                                                           Mandisa
  5. Walking in Memphis                                      Marc Cohn
  6. Bad Day                                                                 Daniel Powter
  7. How Do You Like Me Now?                       Toby Keith
  8. I Can See Clearly Now                                   Jimmy Cliff
  9. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me       George Michael & Elton John
  10. East to West                                                       Casting Crowns
  11. Take a Back Road                                            Rodney Atkins
  12. Walking Man                                                     James Taylor
  13. Go Rest High on that Mountain             Vince Gill
  14. Heads Carolina, Tails California             Jo Dee Messina
  15. Take This Job and Shove It                         Johnny Paycheck
  16. I Then Shall Live                                               Gaither Vocal Band
  17. When Mercy Found Me                              Rhett Walker Band
  18. If Everyone Cared                                           Nickelback
  19. When I Rose This Morning                        Mississippi Mass Choir
  20. It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere                   Alan Jackson & Jimmy Buffett
  21. Just a Little Talk With Jesus                     The Statler Brothers
  22. September                                                          Earth Wind & Fire
  23. King of the Road                                              Roger Miller
  24. New Attitude                                                     Patti LaBelle
  25. As Good as I Once Was                                Toby Keith
  26. Over the Rainbow                                           Ray Charles & Johnny Mathis
  27. Revelation Song                                                Phillips, Craig & Dean
  28. Sundown                                                               Gordon Lightfoot
  29. A Little Less Conversation                          Elvis Presley
  30. Tennessee Whiskey                                        Chris Stapleton
  31. Cool Change                                                        Little River Band
  32. Die a Happy Man                                              Thomas Rhett
  33. I Am a Pilgrim                                                      J.D. Sumner
  34. Time for Me to Fly                                            REO Speedwagon
  35. Troubadour                                                           George Strait
  36. When I Get Where I’m Going                     Brad Paisley
  37. When the Going Gets Tough                       Billy Ocean
  38. Mandolin Rain                                                      Bruce Hornsby & The Range
  39. Already Gone                                                       The Eagles
  40. Here I Go Again                                                   Casting Crowns

Cold and Sick. Sick and Cold.

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” ~ John Ruskin

 

Naomi, Aida and me making our way into beautiful Galicia.

Naomi, Aida and me making our way into beautiful Galicia.

Certain personality types, of which I’m one, carry an exceptionally low tolerance for complaint. If you’re unhappy within your circumstances, change is within your power, and is no one else’s responsibility. I’d be friends with a man who got knocked to the floor trying every day before I’d cozy up with a successful grumbler. And the Camino, I’d decided, early on, was a No Crybaby Zone. For me, that was among its greatest attractions.

But as our family now trekked on to Villafranca, I was increasingly tested by my own No Crybaby philosophy.

***

The weather’s a great unknown just about wherever you are, but especially in a place that’s unfamiliar, and one with so many variables that affect it. Mountain elevations, nearby ocean currents, and during November, a rapid transition in the season affects weather moving across Galicia. It was only a few hundred miles back when I observed a general sense of frenzied activity as families throughout the Basque country prepared firewood for winter’s onset. People were splitting and stacking cords of firewood everywhere. You could only imagine how brutally cold the weeks ahead might become. But you could sense it in the feverish exertion at almost every business and home.

My Camino weather experience was marked by consistent, extended weather cycles. It was basically two weeks of wet, damp, cool, followed by two weeks of brilliantly clear, sunshiny skies, followed by a final two weeks of wet, damp, frigid cold. Numbing as it was, it apparently wasn’t cold enough yet for most albergues to flip the heat switch for the night. You never really got warm. I returned home with an all-new appreciation for heated blankets.

As we approached Villafranca, I’d already been cold for four days. Aida walked ahead with our friend Sebastian, and Naomi and I kept a slower pace behind. It didn’t help that my left shin now hurt so much it literally felt as if the bone was bruised, and I could actually see the hemorrhaging more each day. I now felt the onset of a fever but kept it to myself. In the silence, Naomi knew something wasn’t right. She knew about the leg pain, but not the fever. As was her tendency, and with Camino wisdom, she attempted to distract the aggravation with some new, philosophical conversation.

“So, tell me what you’re proud of,” she said from nowhere.

“What?” I answered, knowing exactly what she was doing, but purposefully not acknowledging it was a decent idea.

“What you’re proud of. Talk about it,” she said.

It was one of those Camino moments when I really stopped to think. Proud? The answer would’ve been different in a different time.

I’d held several “dream jobs,” run my own business, understood what it took to make money, and even wielded some influence at times, but it all seemed so irrelevant now. When it all fell apart one day, I’d literally experienced the end of myself. Complete brokenness. And I thought about a bible verse I’d studied a few days earlier.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

It’s easily misunderstood. Jesus’ words from His sermon on the mount aren’t necessarily about the poor, per se, but the poor in spirit. The broken. The ones who’ve realized that we, ourselves, just aren’t enough and never will be. It’s not about us. And so after walking another half mile or so, I had Naomi’s answer.

“I’m proud that after all this time I’ve found peace in the belief that what God most sees, is the heart, not my good intentions or even my failures, but what’s in my heart. Because I know what’s in my heart, and I’m good with that, and I think He is, too,” I said. “In fact, that’s my only hope. I’m proud to know that kind of peace.”

I’d never really thought about that until Naomi asked. I think it was an unexpected defining moment that shaped how I’d consider my Camino experience after it was all over, and for the months ahead.

***

We caught Aida and Sebastian at the entrance to Ave Fenix, a donativo albergue run by Camino legend Jesús Jato in Villafranca del Bierzo. Jesús is a long-time hospitalero, artist, poet, builder and healer. He’s known for his genuine concern and care for pilgrims on the Path.

(A video from the morning after. I was so thankful to be okay.)

As we arrived, it was the worst I’d felt since leaving home.

I could now strangely feel my heartbeat pulsing through a twisted, discolored knot in my left shin. Every step was painful. In the moment, though, it was easier not to think about it because of the fever. The achy feeling a fever brings was coming on fast, and for the first time on this trip I was worried about tomorrow. I’m well-acquainted enough with how my body works to know it was going to be a long night.

Jesús sent Naomi and Aida to one housing area, me to another. All I could think about was bed, and the unlikely hope that hours of rest would make a big difference in how I felt. Without radical change I’d go nowhere tomorrow. Since I was a kid, fevers have always wiped me out.

I couldn’t bear the thought of expending another ounce of energy, but knew I’d rest better clean. It was the first time on Camino I’d encountered a shower in an outdoor facility – and there was no door – and it was cold outside – and I was miserable. This was going to be bad.

Organizing my clean clothes and towel for a quick transition, I dropped my dirty clothes and turned on the only faucet that worked. Moments passed, to what seemed five minutes and the water never warmed. An ice-cold shower, in a cold, exposed room with no heat and a fever. Pure misery.

Still mostly wet in a pair of boxers and a t-shirt, I gathered my things and walked quickly back outside to our bunked quarters, threw my sleeping bag over me and took the fetal position. An hour passed, maybe two, chills set in, and I was shivering non-stop praying someone would eventually come check on me.

Saying goodbye to legendary hospitalero Jesús Jato.

Saying goodbye to legendary hospitalero Jesús Jato.

About that time, Naomi came in wondering if I was joining everyone for dinner. I told her I was in bed for the night and asked if she’d grab a blanket and throw across me. When she realized the severity of how bad I felt, she got several blankets and pressed them down on me tight to create some warmth. I told her I was sorry to be such a baby and so much trouble, but thanked her for being so nice. She said a prayer and asked God to take care of me, and the chills eventually subsided. After dinner, I’m sure she came back to check on me, but if she did, I never knew it. What a miserable night. By God’s grace, I had a friend who cared.

Thirteen hours later I awoke and couldn’t believe how much better I felt. It wasn’t a complete transformation by any stretch, but comparatively, I was much improved. I dressed and walked through the courtyard to the kitchen area where Jesús was preparing coffee with fruits, breads and jams. He was concerned for me. Apparently there was dinner discussion among the group about the Estados Unidos pilgrim who’d been so sick.

I was moving slow, but moving, and it was so much more than I expected. It’s hard to remember when I’ve been so thankful.

We organized for the day, bound for the long climb to O Cebreiro and our official passage into Galicia. There was a heavy snow warning ahead. We had no idea what adventure lie ahead during the next two days.

-30-

Becoming Tim

“The friend is the man who knows all about you, and still likes you.” ~Elbert Hubbard

 

In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote and conveyed one of the most significant social phenomenons of our time. His book, Bowling Alone, demonstrated statistically how over just a few years American society moved increasingly further away from so many of the social constructs on which it was founded.

A simple research illustration in Putnam’s work showed while the number of people who bowled during the last 20 years increased, the number who actually bowled in leagues decreased. They were bowling alone.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 8.57.11 AMCarried further, his data indicated fairly dramatic decreases in group social affiliations that were once important to us – Parent-Teacher Associations, church, political parties, evening dinner parties. Neighborhoods where children once roamed freely and without care evolved to burgs where families don’t know their next-door neighbors, and everyone looks at one another with shocking anxiety when the doorbell rings.

We’ve personally disengaged with society to the point, Putnam diagnosed, where we are less healthy, and less happy.

Simply stated, Putnam’s book addressed the truth that no one really talks to anyone anymore. We self-seclude. I understand it in an acute way.

***

I stayed in a mostly dark bedroom for the better part of two years, and went to even further extremes looking for healing in places where it simply can’t be found. In the wake of a failed 19-year marriage followed shortly by a shuttered business where I’d invested everything I knew, and all that I had, I woke up one day completely lost and blaming myself for everything. In fact, I wasn’t at fault for everything, but that’s what chronic depression tells you. And it tells you to give up.

With Dana, my new wife, her help, and time, I healed painfully slowly, and walked gradually, one step at a time, into the light. Our slow persistence to bring me back, didn’t prevent missteps, or lessons from some of the more extreme directions we took. But I think it was our most extreme undertaking that brought the greatest lesson.

***

When an only son loses his father a new sense of responsibility is born. Whether it’s true or not that he becomes the head of the family is debatable, but inevitably, he feels the call of a new role. My dad’s death early that year woke me to some new realities and forced an incomplete, but new phase of my healing. In fact, I think it paved the way for what I needed to learn most.

The windfall of a small early inheritance my mother graciously shared opened up the new possibility of a financial reset. It could’ve been seed money for a new business startup, an investment in our retirement or any other traditional pursuit within reason. I opted for an extreme idea outside all good reason, but that’s really nothing new.

Throughout my secluded depression I’d get lost in re-living the far-fetched notion I’d had since exchanging childhood notes with a Venezuelan pen pal. South America seemed so distantly different to all I knew about life. Late at night Dana and I watched travel show re-runs about people who dropped everything to expatriate to the unknown challenges of a new life abroad and start fresh with the possibilities only new landscapes can bring.

The short-story version is that we took an exploratory trip to Ecuador, and at the end of 10 days bought a small parcel of land near the beach. Three months later we began construction on a small house, and six months after that we took two plane tickets and five suitcases on an adventure from which we didn’t know if we’d honestly ever return. We had an open-ended ticket to a life of new possibilities.

It was the adventure of a lifetime. Our marriage relationship as friends and partners strengthened beyond everything either of us ever dreamed. We made new friends, watched amazingly spectacular Pacific sunsets from our rooftop every night and were like two kids learning all new things in a Latin culture we now love.

It was a new phase of real healing for my depression, but only the beginning and not the cure-all so many of us think we can find by running away. What I realized several months after our transition was this: Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

It’s exhaustingly painful to hide behind a mask every day. Thank goodness I’m becoming more like Tim.

***

Certain stories resonate more than others along the Camino, and among Camino family herds. Because of their magnitude, they take on a certain lore. I’d heard Tim’s story weeks before I met him and he was gracious enough to share it with me in detail only a few moments after we met in the iconic Parador Plaza in Leon. It’s the kind of sharing that’s a Camino trademark, and is the anti-thesis of Bowling Alone’s conclusion. The Camino fosters a genuine transparency you find in almost no other environment. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is.

(Above, my interview with Tim in Leon. Such a good man.)

I knew from conversations with other pilgrims that Tim came to Spain as part of a healing process from the unexpected loss of his wife, but wasn’t completely prepared for the clear picture he painted so quickly about the loss.

A self-described Alaska slug and goof-off who’s always enjoyed lying on the couch watching football, Tim was in good spirits from a 40-kilometer walk the day before (the equivalent of a full marathon) when he stepped on a scale to realize he’d lost 20 pounds. I asked if he minded sharing why he’d come so far.

In the first 30 seconds of our impromptu interview, Tim said he’d come as a tribute to his wife who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground and drown in six inches of water. In an instant, Tim and his family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was his best friend. It didn’t bother Tim one bit to let me, a complete stranger, know how much it hurt.

“She loved long walks. This is kind of for her. She would’ve enjoyed every step,” he said.

The following day Tim placed a few of his wife’s ashes at Cruz Ferro, the place where, for a millenia, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind.

Our conversation that day was part of an ongoing process I gradually understand more each day.

We don’t have to pretend. No matter how much things hurt, it’s okay to be you. And by being the real you, you might actually help someone else.

My goal is that each day, I become a little more like Tim.

-30-