Day 2: Up and Over

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(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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.59.37 PMA 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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 1.00.15 PMMoving 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.

-30-

The Most Unpleasant Pilgrim in Weeks

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(Blogger’s Note: This is a sidebar exerpt from my book draft #PilgrimStrong, an account of my 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.)

 

Tired. Hurting. Cold. Eventually, even pilgrims with the most agreeable tendencies can wear down and get a little out of sorts.

Day 30 was such a day for me.

With 100 kilometers to go from Sarria, our destination for the day was Portomarin. It was cool, and a heavy dampness hung in the air (yet again), but the winds were favorably calm. Severe tendinitis was a huge aggravation slowing my pace considerably, and I encouraged Naomi and Aida to go on without me knowing I’d catch up to them by the end of the day at our designated albergue. It was a point in the journey where I’d tell myself regularly, “…just keep moving.”

Just two kilometers short of Portomarin I passed through the tiny village of Vilachá, where 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 before the day’s final steps. I really just wanted to sit, and that’s exactly what I did. I slipped off my pack and set my walking stick aside. The fruit looked good, 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. Peaceful solitude.

You know how sometimes, two people inadvertently get off on the wrong foot from the first moment they meet? That’s what unfortunately happened here … and it was completely my fault, the combined result of exhaustion, pain, frustration, and very bad timing.

From nowhere, a thin woman with long 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.

“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 misunderstanding. 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.

I responded in a way that I shouldn’t have.

“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. Very bad habit.

“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 after that. I get it.

“Lady, I’m just sitting here, not really bothering 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 I could get 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.

And I just laughed my way off into the distance. She told me – and good.. And I pretty much deserved it.

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

Did I Just Do That?

 

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(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book in the works, #PilgrimStrong, based on my experience of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.)

Chapter 1: Did I Just Do That?

It wasn’t until a three-hour, winding bus trip back from Fisterra to Santiago that my head cleared enough to realize the full-blown state of exhaustive delirium with which I’d entered the square at St. James’ Cathedral two days earlier.

Somehow, it already seemed an eternity past, and was yet so predictably consistent with every other single day of my camino experience where time repudiates the notion it must somehow quickly pass.

On the Camino de Santiago, time actually decompresses. Camino time stretches on endlessly as the Old Roman Road leads trudgingly westward through the infinitely skyscape-defined Meseta. Camino time is unbounded. Without constraint. It lives.

With the first leg of the three-day journey home now well under way, it was a peaceful, restful sensation heading southward through the coastal Galician villages, and there was the bonus of a warm, Mediterranean, crystal clear azure day. It was gorgeous. Truman Capote loved writing here. I understood why.

I kept thinking I should feel differently. I should feel victorious – the triumphant, conquering pilgrim having claimed his prize at the zero marker once believed the End of the World. Far less than a fraction of 1 percent of everyone who’s ever lived experienced the magnitude of what I’d just done. But as we made the turn from the coast eastward through the twisting mountain valleys en route to Santiago, and as I sat watching the kilometers click effortlessly past the window, all I could honestly think about was how completely relieved I was that the walk was over. I kept telling myself I should be on my knees thanking God for granting me this experience. All I could truly do from my heart was thank Him the 500 miles was finished, that I wasn’t completely cold for the first time in nearly three weeks, and that with massive amounts of fabric softener, my clothes might take on at least the smell of neutrality by the weekend.

So after two days of transitioning from weary pilgrim to recovering tourist, it was as if my mind finally gave my body, now 29 pounds lighter, permission to know the degree to which it had taken over, masking the pain of an inflamed, hemorrhaging shin that dictated my gait every single, aching step of the final 100 kilometers from Portomarin to Santiago de Compostela.

The original “plan” to arrive on Thanksgiving Day was clearly blown a week earlier. And by that time, any preconceived goals of time or state of being no longer mattered. I just wanted to make it, and finish strong, even if I had to fake it. And then, I wanted to go home.

My wife and mother were sending me consistent messages to listen to my body. “Nothing is worth hurting so much,” they said, as wives and mothers do.

I remember laughing about the reply I wanted to send them, but didn’t:

“My body says it wants a queen-sized bed with clean sheets, fluffy blankets and a western omelette with wheat toast around 7 a.m., por favor. I stopped listening to my body two weeks ago. If I hadn’t, I’d already be home, y’all.”

The leg honestly hurt like hell, I was beyond exhaustion and my camino sleep pattern never allowed much more than five broken hours a night (which could’ve had something to do with other stinking, snoring pilgrims less than two feet away from my head).

But the very suggestion of not finishing what I’d come to do was completely hateful. I can think of no other word. I abhorred the mention of anything other than a respectable finish on two legs. I’m the one who had to live with how this turned out. No one else, so don’t tell me how to finish – just pray God will carry me a bit further. I already knew He would. We’d had that talk.

From Portamarin on, I would’ve crawled 100 kilometers through the cold, sticky Spanish mud before I’d have given up on planting my walking stick at the foot of the resting place of St. James, Son of Thunder, apostle of Jesus. I’m so glad my mind took over to mask how much those last miles hurt. I just wish I could remember more about it, and have enjoyed more of it. Arriving in the square wasn’t the glorious moment I’d imagined.

Alas, that’s what happens when a certain, special instinct takes over on the Camino.

Maybe you already know it, or maybe you will one day.

I call it – #PilgrimStrong.

-30-

Post Camino: What Now???

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on a plane. My #1 fan and the woman I love.

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on two planes. My #1 fan and the woman I love. My Lord, I’m happy to be home with her.

 

Home (T +2 days). 3:30 a.m., and my body still thinks it’s 10:30 a.m. and time to stop for a papa tortilla and a cold San Miguel. Oh the humanity. Anyway … now what???

First, a final, yet sincere thank you to all who followed virtually on my pilgrimage. A special thanks to my family, my prayer team, and members of the American Pilgrims on Camino (APOC) forum. Many, many of you who aren’t already, became family. I’d love to name names, but there are just too many, and I think you know who you are anyway. Thank you for walking with me, and for your encouragement that meant so much on many hard days. From my heart … thank you.

For 99% of the pilgrim population, staying wired to the internet is a BAD idea. DON’T do it. Leave the clutter behind. These opportunities to unwire don’t come along often.

I decided to ignore my own advice early on for three reasons: (1) My livelihood is through story-telling and I wanted to reclaim that important part of my life. It would be more difficult for me NOT to tell the story. I’d have been miserable NOT telling it. It’s just who I am; (2) Documenting the story in real time was therapeutic for me. I carry my own baggage just like everyone else. Every time I shared a photo, video or thought … well, it was a part of my healing, and; (3) APOC is a hugely diverse focus group I wanted to utilize in testing ideas for the future, and as my pilgrimage continues. It was a planned part of my “what next?” from the beginning.

As have many of you on APOC, I’ve read a ton about the camino. I’ve read a few good things, and a lot of not so quality things. I’ve seen video documentaries that touched my soul … others that were, eh … pretty meh.

So I felt from the beginning as though there were room in the marketplace for a new, well-written piece. And subsequently just a few weeks before leaving for Spain, my wife convinced me I was capable of gathering good material for a nice documentary. In October I came to believe those things just might possibly align for a new chapter in my career as a missions-focused journalist. Post-camino, I believe it even more.

There were preconceived notions about the focus of my future book and documentary. The weighty topic of “truth,” and how people across the world view truth was my original mission. As many of you understand, and might expect, the camino has a way of altering, even radically simplifying your perspective on so many things. It did so to my preconceived notions about my post-camino journalism.

Throughout my 40-day walk two simple thoughts recurred in my mind again and again.

(1) This is really hard. (it’s okay if you want to nominate that for understatement of the year.)

(2) What a pleasure it is to be in a place where so very few people cry, complain or make excuses while undertaking something so ridiculously hard. The absence of whining was a breath of fresh air to my soul, honestly. As one man suggested in a post early on, the complainers do exist, but they are pushed to the margins quickly by the majority of pilgrims who will have no part of it.

Life is tough. You know that, and so do I. Yet we walk on, don’t we? We just keep walking. We’re not quitters, you and I. We won’t lay down to defeat. We’re made of something special. There’s a certain “toughness” to us, and yet it’s not something we wear proudly, or with hubris. We’re genuinely thankful for the gift. And we ideally use it to the glory of the one who bestowed it upon us.

Early on in my posts, I began using the hashtag #pilgrimstrong and didn’t think so much about it. It just seemed appropriate as I walked through endless rains, bone-chilling cold and an all-day snowstorm. Some of those days just weren’t for crybabies. I remember walking the first two hours through that snowstorm from Ocebreiro until we came to the first small, open bar with heat and food at Hospital. I bet 30 soaking wet, numb pilgrims were gathered in that small space to dry out, warm up and replenish. And we all knew there was at least another five hours to walk through it to reach Triacastela in the haven of the lower elevations.

It was a situation tailor-made for despair, but do you know what the prevailing mood was in that bar at that moment? Pure joy. Not a complainer in the house. NOT ONE. It was #pilgrimstrong if I’ve ever seen it. At that moment, I was proud to be part of something so special. It really was special.

I’ve purchased the domain pilgrimstrong.com. Don’t bother looking as nothing’s there yet, but it’s the title for both a book and documentary I intend to publish next year, God willing.

The working title is actually, “Pilgrim Strong: Unfiltered Reality on the Camino de Santiago.”

My current thinking is to write this as a complimentary guide to the traditional guidebooks, yet one with less technical and geographic information … just an account of what this experience is really like … absent all the false images.

What I think I discovered though my social media posts on APOC is that in a world that’s so completely driven in our pursuit to create a false image of who, and what we are, simple transparency, mixed with a bit of humor, a willingness to laugh at yourself, and a pinch of occasional sarcasm, works well.

I hope you’ll enjoy the eventual book with some of its working chapter titles including:

The Day I Stopped Being a Pilgrim and Started Being Myself

I Thought I was Supposed to Cry a Lot?

The Pyrenees: That ‘What Have I Done Moment’

40 Nights. 40 Beds.

I Could’ve Just Walked to Pensacola

Know Your Municipal Albergue Tolerance Level (MATL)

I Walked Until My Legs Bled. Really.

Body Management and the One Thing Nobody Talks About

Cold and Damp. Damp and Cold.

Vegan Tom: Little Man, Huge Superiority Complex

I’m Not Changed. I’m Much More of Who I Was.

Naomi & Aida: My Camino  Sisters

Coming Home. Nobody Really Cares

Snowstorm at 4,000 Feet

The Three Phases of Buen Camino

Leaving Cleanliness Behind

Just Keep Walking…

That’s just a working sample of title chapters.

I’ll continue to test, not all, but a lot of this writing here on the blog, and hope to publish in late summer or early fall.

Thanks again to everyone who came on this journey with me. We took quite a ride didn’t we?

Vaya con Dios for now.

-30-

It’s Go Time

A PILGRIM’S PRAYER

Dear Lord,

Give us the courage to set off on pilgrimage.

May we travel unhindered by wordly possessions, simply trusting in You for all we need.

Sometimes, our hearts will be heavy as we plod along. And our feet will ache, and feel dirty.

Other times, we will rejoice as the sun shines on the footpath stretching before us.

May we ponder Truth … that the pilgrim’s journey is never finished until they reach home.

Amen.

The Way of St. James

Video Journal #1 T-21 Days

This is my first video journal recorded last week, and published via Facebook that day. Just wanted to get it on the blog for the archives. I’ll produce a second video this afternoon and will publish it when it’s complete. From now on, each video will go directly to the blogsite. These clips help chronicle my preparation for, and the actual pilgrimage of, the Camino de Santiago beginning on October 19.