Chapter 14 Excerpt: The Meseta – A Long Walk Across Nothing

 

“There is something else I am after out here in the wild. I am searching for an even more elusive prey … something that can only be found through the help of the wilderness. I am looking for my heart.” – John Eldredge, Wild at Heart

If the Pyrenees are where you test your body, and if Galicia is where you test your resolve, the Meseta is where you test your spirit on the Way of St. James. The mask comes off and you look yourself squarely in the mirror along the Meseta. You are completely exposed here both physically and emotionally. There’s nowhere to hide.

Beginning of the Meseta, just west of Castrojeriz.

The Meseta is to the Camino what miles ten through twenty are to the ancient marathon. It’s not as exciting as the beginning, or as dramatic as the end, but it’s there, and it must be done.

This geographic expanse is one, big, wide-open space. It’s the home of the Old Roman Road used 2000 years ago for transporting gold across the heart of the empire. Everything about it sounds so deceivingly romantic.

I cursed the Old Roman Road on a day that seemed it would never end. You don’t realize the importance of reference points until you’re in a place completely without them. It’s a place much more defined by the skyscape than the landscape. There’s an occasional tree every few miles, and the openness of the region means you bear the brunt of searing sun, howling wind, or whatever element Mother Nature offers up that day.

The Meseta is where you understand that your mind isn’t quite set up to comprehend the enormity of distance. If it did, few of us would ever set out on such expeditions. Your mind just doesn’t compute what your feet or your soul will experience across 500 miles. It escapes imagination. Every day, you get out of bed, and you just keep walking.

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Chapter 16: Becoming Tim (excerpt)

“My brokenness is a better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was.” ~ Sheila Walsh

 

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

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

Carried further, his data show 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 have evolved to fenced-in burgs where families don’t know their next-door neighbors, and everyone looks at one another with panicked anxiety when the doorbell rings. We’ve personally disengaged with society to the point, Putnam diagnoses, where we are less healthy, less happy.

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

***

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

***

Certain stories resonate more than others along the Camino, and among the family herds. 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 Leon’s iconic Parador Plaza. It’s the kind of sharing that’s a Camino trademark, the antithesis of Bowling Alone’s conclusion. The Camino fosters a genuine transparency you find in almost no other setting. That’s the very lesson Heinrich shared with me three weeks back in Pamplona.

Visiting with Tim in the Parador Plaza in Leon.

I knew from conversations with other pilgrims that Tim had come to Spain to heal from the unexpected loss of his wife, but I wasn’t completely prepared for the clear picture he painted so soon about the loss.

A self-described Alaska couch potato who’s always enjoyed 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 him why he’d come so far.

Right away, 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 drowned in a six-inch puddle. Instantly, 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 for her. She would have enjoyed every step,” he said.

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

I understand better as time goes on: Pain doesn’t have to be private. 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 help someone else. One of my goals is that, each day, I become a little more like Tim.

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Chapter 25: Proving Ground – I Could Have Just Walked to Pensacola

It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

“At every stage of life, it’s important to be a rookie at something.” ~ Unknown

 

My youngest daughter, Sophie, (right) with two of her friends on a recent Spring Break trip to near Pensacola.

With only days remaining to the end, it occurred to me I’d jumped through a lot of logistical hoops and come an awfully long way just for a long walk.

For more than twenty years, a favorite annual vacation spot has been the sugar-white sandy beaches near Pensacola, Florida. It’s 501 miles from my front door in Jonesboro, Arkansas to the condo where we always stay. I wondered whether walking those miles would have created the same experience as those produced on the Camino. It would have been an experience, indeed. But not the same.

Just as the fixed nature of the North Star has guided voyagers for years, we all need static points of reference to recall who we are, and find where we’re going. It seems those reference points come most clearly to those go away for a time and think purposely about them. This purpose lies at the heart of pilgrimage. It’s what Eugene Peterson referred to in his classic work A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. History is filled with examples of people who used an intentional escape to find their deepest identities.

John Muir went away for months before finding his calling to advocacy for a national park system. Henry David Thoreau secluded himself in a remote cabin in the woods for more than two years to write and “live deliberately.” Jesus spent forty days in the desert in preparation for a ministry that took the gospel message to the ends of the earth. In fact, so much of the gospel’s foundational message can be reduced to two words.

Come and go.

When you’re away and alone, it paves the way for so many things that normally elude us. My senses, both physical and spiritual, come to life when I go out and far away.

A favorite sunset photo from Puerto Cayo.

The modest home we maintain in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador is as much a missional outpost for my wife and me as anything. It’s there where we have an especially unique opportunity to give and share. But just as important are the uncommon learning experiences we enjoy in a far-away place. Everything’s different—language, the weather, customs, transportation, even a lack of certain things we believe, back home, are necessities. It’s also a place where we’ve felt alone at times. As a result, many of our experiences there serve as reference points for a broader, deeper, more far-reaching life.

When I experience certain difficulties, I think back to moments in Latin America—those when we’ve been completely lost, without access to what we think of as the basics, and become dependent on God and one another to make it to the next day. And when I think back to those moments, I remember what sustains us.

In the height of my depression, I’d call my mom at random times through the day. I’m not sure why, but I suppose she was the most familiar thing I had—the one person who’d always had my back. When I’d lament hopelessly about circumstances and the inability to see ahead, she’d often say something I hated acutely every single time she said it. “Son, you’ve forgotten who you are.”

It’s not broken toilets, flat tires, the impending cost of a new roof, or even some ominous medical diagnosis that’s our biggest battle. The most challenging conflict we face every single day is the one we have with self. Some days it’s packed with guilt, regret, shame, and feelings of unworthiness. Other days are more about pride or arrogance. The most difficult days I have, by far, are those when I lose my sense of worth in the fog of depression.

Everything I knew about the Camino told me it was the right place at the right time to take stock of my own integrity. And how, as well, to think through going about what was now most important to me, summed up succinctly in the Gospel of John: He must increase, but I must decrease.

For me, the Camino de Santiago was a Proving Ground, where I rediscovered and reclaimed God’s calling on my life as a storyteller.

SIDETRAIL
Go Away

As he entered the early days of literary success in 2000, novelist John Grisham served as the spring commencement speaker at Arkansas State University, where I worked for six years. I was assigned as Grisham’s “body man,” mostly responsible for getting him safely into and out of town.

Grisham, who grew up just twenty miles from the ASU campus, offered graduates a message that raised eyebrows, and still holds the record as the shortest commencement address (seven minutes) in university history. In a loose paraphrase, he said this:

“Get out of here. Go away. Plant yourself somewhere else for a while. This is home, and it’s always been home, and it’s a good place, but it’s a place to which you can always return. You need to go out, and you need to experience the world. Leave.”

It was bold, and the last thing everyone in the room expected to hear. When it was over I remember looking at parents’ dumbfounded faces across the building. They didn’t know whether to applaud or throw things.

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The WHY Behind the WHAT

A couple of things happened over the weekend reinforcing my belief that Pilgrim Strong has a relevant message for the times.
Chasing the Great American Eclipse, Dana and I enjoyed some quality time with fellow pilgrims, in, and around, Kansas City, MO. During this time a few people asked about my book’s message.
Explaining it’s not the typical “camino” book, I shared with them my personal desire to understand not only WHAT I believed as core truth, but WHY I believed it.
Some people asked immediately, “Why is the WHAT not enough? Why can’t we just know WHAT we believe?”
After an exhausting trip home through horrendous traffic and two days of flooding storms, Dana and I just wanted to relax Tuesday night, and we turned to a Netflix documentary I’d saved several weeks ago about self-help guru Tony Robbins. Interestingly, the documentary is titled, “I’m Not Your Guru.”
It’s a fascinating film featuring a behind-the-scenes look at Robbins’ week-long annual event called Date With Destiny.  In it, Robbins gets up close and very personal with participants who pay $5,000 a head in hope of life-changing revelation.
Watching, I was reminded of these lines in the Pilgrim Strong afterword:
“It’s in the best interest of some of the world’s most prominent public figures that you buy into their truth.
What in the world are we to do? As the apostle Peter begged … Lord, to whom shall we go?
Without anchor points and a truth that has a fixed North Star quality, we’ll be as subject to alter our idea of the truth as often as the next convincing guru comes along. This much is true: whether you’re running for public office, or selling books, or preaching a sermon, or organizing and leading groups you may do it either of two ways—appeal to the worst in people, or speak to the best in them. Both methods work, but count the cost.
For all the years leading up to my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, I knew what I believed. But the what was no longer enough. I needed the why in the equation.”
Let me just reinforce a quick line from that text: “Without anchor points and a truth that has a fixed North Star quality, we’ll be a subject to alter our idea of the truth as often as the next convincing guru comes along.”
Never has it been more important to understand deep, down inside ourselves WHY we believe WHAT we believe.

The Letter Every Man Should Get

The writing is done, the editing complete, just wrapping up a few details now, then it’s off to production on Tuesday.  We move from writing a book to creating one. Things are well on track for a week-of-Thanksgiving Pilgrim Strong release.

(This is purely by accident, but I just this moment realized how appropriate it is to release a book called Pilgrim Strong a few days before Thanksgiving. No one will ever believe it, but I swear, the idea never entered into the marketing plan. I’ll take the lucky break and run with it anyway.)

I wept many times yesterday applying some of the final finishing touches. So many memories, so many things learned. This has been a long walk, indeed, and in many ways everything about my life is somehow now relative to the experience of walking and telling the story.

Last week I made acquaintance with an author/speaker/entrepreneur who I’ll work with in securing book reviews later this year. I asked her to read the manuscript and offer a blurb if the story so compelled her.

One of the many comments she offered was regarding a short color sidebar story about a letter Dana wrote the night before my departure. She commented about the beautiful language Dana used and the depth of thought in her last sentence.

She’s so right. Not only was it an encouraging letter. It was magnified by her self sacrifice.

I don’t know what it’s like to live as a woman. But I have 51 years experience now at being a man, and am pretty good at it. Every man should know the peace and comfort that comes from a letter like this when it’s penned from the person he loves most in the world. I’m a lucky man.

Dear Steve,

There is a flood of emotions right now. I am so proud of you. Anxious. Excited. Curious. Every feeling you can imagine. You are sleeping now as you prepare to go.

Thank you for scheduling your trip around our anniversary. It was all so special.

I know you can hardly contain your excitement. Do me a favor as you walk. Enjoy. Smile. Laugh. Be amazed. You deserve this, darling. God is excited, too. He will enjoy this time with you.

Love,
Your basherte for eternity.
Dana

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Photos from the Book Trailer Shoot – Indefinably Changed

The first Pilgrim Strong book trailer titled, Indefinably Changed is almost complete. We’ll distribute via social media on July 4. These are a few photos from last week’s shoot.

 

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Recording voiceover.

 

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My journal and setting the light.

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Master producer Raney Rogers. Pharmacist by day, cinematic guru the rest of the time.

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A collection of books that guided and inspired the pilgrimage.