Returning Home

For some time, I supposed that once the Camino experience was finished and I had returned home, I would have all manner of wisdom and insight to share in this blog.  What I have discovered is that I’m nearly speechless after having completed the pilgrimage.  It is easy enough to talk about the tourist itinerary of walking through northern Spain; but searching for words to explain the mystical nature of the experience seems beyond both my mind and my imagination.

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I had this same experience of the insufficiency of words as we walked each day.  We walked in silence much of the time. When Sandy would ask me what I was thinking about, I could seldom really explain myself.  One day, about halfway through the region of Rioja, I said that it seemed to me that all the important lessons or insights about life and pilgrimage could be stated in six words or less.  After some reflection and musing over several days, these are the insights that came to me:

  • Appreciate those who walk with you.
  • One people; many paths; one destination.
  • Don’t judge others’ motivation or behavior.
  • My certain knowledge is usually wrong.
  • The world is full of angels.
  • Most angels look just like you.
  • Sometimes, you find your own way.

Someday I plan to write about these insights and what they mean for me; but for now, I am off to a week in Colorado with my second-oldest grandson for his male initiation rites. Keep Roland in your prayers and thoughts.

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A song along the Camino

Today we were walking from Santo Domingo de Calzada, headed west–always west, always it seems uphill.  After about 4 hours we came to a wonderful casa rural that had a bar/cafe.  We went in for lunch and–as we sat down, a song burst forth from the stereo: “On a midnight train to Georgia.”  I told Sandy, “I don´t think we are going to catch that train today.”

The cafe was full of locals and pilgrims, everyone talking, sharing and laughing their way through lunch. I was drinking an Estrella beer and eating the obligatory bocadillo con jamon i queso.  Suddenly I had what I can only describe as an epiphany.  The Camino de Santiago is a long and sometimes very difficult walk. But it isn´t about the walking, It is about the long contemplative experience in which the soul has awakened.  My body often feels tired and beat down; but my soul is rejoicing in the wide vistas, snowy mountains, vast vineyards coming to life again after a long winter, fields of blooming rape that paint the hills bright yellow.

My soul seems to say, “Look, you ignored me for almost 70 years; so just keep moving. I want to feel the freedom and joy in traveling through these great expanses of natural beauty. You can rest after another 350 miles.”

So, here we are in the village of Viloria de Rioja, birthplace of Saint Dominic. Tomorrow we go as far as our souls want us to go.  The journey is not about getting somewhere; it´s about being somewhere.

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On the road, end of week 1

Today we left Pamplona and crossed over the alto de perdon (and the really wonderful iron cut-out sculptures of pilgrims.  A long climb up, and a long descent.  We have both decided we like the climbing better than the descents.  The boulders and stones are just killers on the downslopes.  Sandy pulled her distal cruciate ligament a bit, so we had to move slowly for a few days.  She is doing much better now and wearing a compression band on her right knee. 
As we moved along the Camino, we started referring to ourselves as the dos tortugas (two turtles). At the albergue we stayed in last night, I told the owner our nicknames and she said, ¨Yes, and like the turtle you carry your house on your back!
Right now, we are too deep into the experience to say much about it.  But I can tell you that the scenery is beyond description with words.
We did have one of those ´¨unbelievable¨ experiences coming over the Pyrennes on the second day. Think SNOW, wind, cold, can´t see the trail except for a few faint footprints that the drifts were filling.  I was thinking, Oh, OH…..The Way, Part II.
Praying for all your needs every day. Nothing else to do but walk, anyway.
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We are never ready

Looking back, I see that I wrote the first blog about this pilgrimage one year ago next Monday.  By happenstance, we land in Paris on the anniversary date.  When I wrote that first post, this moment seemed to be far in the future. Yet here we are.

The thought comes to me that so many people express on the cusp of some important event: I’m not ready!  Although I would not have admitted it at the time, I wasn’t ready to graduate high school and head off to college. My freshmen transcript memorializes that unpreparedness. I felt somewhat unprepared to spend my junior year in Florence, Italy.  I wasn’t ready to be finished with college and facing down a regular full-time job teaching school. Two years later I was looking forward to getting married; but I wasn’t ready for it when it happened.  I became a father while going through Ranger School, so I didn’t experience being a father until I returned from Vietnam.  And I definitely wasn’t ready to go to Vietnam as an infantry lieutenant.  In the past years, as I have sat with friends and neighbors who are dying, each of them mentioned not being ready to die.

And now, several things keep me from feeling “ready” for the pilgrimage. I wish I had lost a few more pounds that I will now have to carry.  I could have taken a few more hikes with a loaded backpack.  I am a little concerned about a sore knee that acts up for the first mile each morning.  But, as I reflect on it, there is no way to be ready for life’s adventures. They happen when they happen; sometimes unexpected and usually with great impact on our lives.

 I’m as ready as I ever will be. I never imagined taking this journey, but I have felt led to set off on it. I’m thrilled to be able to do it at the age of 69; and I’m excited to meet all our fellow travelers.

We’re off then…..

I will try to post our status on Facebook once in a while, when I find an internet cafe,   Keep us in mind. We will be thinking of you along the way.

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What would you carry for 500 miles?

Two weeks from today we will be in Bayonne, continuing on to St. Jean Pied-de-Port to begin our pilgrimage across Spain.  When we started talking and training for this journey a year ago, it seemed so far in the future. Now it seems that we are already drawn into the mystery.  In one of the many books I read on El Camino de Santiago, I came across a comment by an old traveler telling a novice who was suffering from the walk, “You carry all your fears in your backpack.”

I believe he spoke the truth. As I have practiced carrying a loaded backpack, I find myself thinking about whether I really need some of the items I have packed.  The first aid kit weighed just over a pound when I first prepared it; now it’s down to four ounces.  I keep unloading the “might need” items. It’s okay to take some nice-to-have things when I am packing them in the car trunk; but to ponder carrying them on my back for 500 miles everything has to be necessary, if not critical, to have along.

The same is true for our emotional loading also: What about my life or other people in my life do I continue to carry, adding to the total burden?  I am still discovering answers for that question.  To my delight, I have found that it is getting easier to let people out of the “prison” I have had them locked in.  I have encountered people who live their lives differently from my own.  I would put them in a box (stereotype) and carry them along as my concern.  Lots and lots of boxes to unload from that cargo hold!

And there remains a great deal of “load management” in the next couple of weeks.  I am looking forward to what I still carry when we reach the end of the journey.

Since I have unloaded all tech devices except for a small European phone and a camera, the posts to this blog over the next several weeks may be few and far between.  I don’t plan to record all my aches, pains and blisters. Those are the externals of the experience. However, I will work to record the internal experience.

 

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What you can’t see in the middle….

Over the past several days I have tried to write something about our upcoming pilgrimage along The Way of St. James.  The result has been some frustration about what to write.  Slowly the realization dawns that I am already in the experience of walking the pilgrimage.  Yesterday we walked nearly seven miles with our loaded backpacks; and three-quarters of the trek was uphill against a quite vigorous wind.  We had driven the pickup to the end of the planned hike, and then returned in the car to our start point.  So the whole way along, we had no idea where the halfway mark was located.  It was such a change from our normal walking away from the house and then walking back.

What it brought to mind is an important icon on our mantle.  My last employer before I fully retired was a consulting company that had a contract with General Motors.  Maritz, Inc., started out as a clock and watch-making company.  When one reaches an employment milestone with the organization, he is given a time-keeping device.  For five years’ service, the award is an hourglass.

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I think everyone should receive an hourglass as an employment reward.  It has taught me a great lesson.  Life is about being inside that “pinch point,” the narrow neck between the upper and lower sand globes.  The sand of each moment is all we can experience.  There is no sense in trying to calculate how much sand remains to pass around us.  It is even less practical to try to do anything about the sand that piles up below us–yet so many people spend time and emotional energy trying to arrange a better past.

I believe the best we can do is stand in the middle of life as it happens each moment.  So, because I am already in the clutches of this grand adventure, I can’t see what I might be learning from it.  My task–and my goal–for the next two months is to stay awake to each moment.  When I have passed all the way through, I will be able to reflect on the journey.  If I try doing that now, I will miss the unfolding.

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Yeah, I noticed that….

The old preacher stood in front of the assembly, extolling the virtues of a more simple way of life. He asked, “Have you ever noticed that there is never a U-Haul trailer hooked behind a hearse?”

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At this point in our preparations, the Camino has become the complete metaphor for life. At times, I’m not sure why I am doing it. At times, my legs seem to be sending a message to my brain: “Are you nuts?  Why not go to Costa del Sol and sit on the beach?”

But a profound awakening at this point has been setting aside what I will carry on the pilgrimage. I cleaned out one drawer of my 5-drawer chest so that I could put all my Camino clothing and supplies in that drawer.  When I finished, it was less than half full.  So, all the clothing, first aid and toiletries I need for a 38-day trek fit easily into one dresser drawer?

Standing back, I looked at what else I wouldn’t be taking other than what was in the one drawer: four other drawers filled with clothing; a seven-foot wide closet with enough clothing for several other men.  I have been through that closet three times since I retired 14 months ago. I gave away and donated suits, sweaters, dress shoes, pants. ties and shirts. I filled bag after bag of things I wouldn’t need anymore. And still, there is more and more.  I’m reminded of the saying that we can never get enough of what won’t make us happy.

A few weeks ago I read the comment that if we pack too much with us, there won’t be room to pick up new experiences. In this manner the Camino presents this metaphorical message: The first half of our spiritual life is about addition; but the second half is about subtraction.  I’m learning more and more that I actually need less and less.

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Sixty Days

Sesenta dias.  No matter what language is used, the number sixty sends chills through my body.  We have been planning and training for this pilgrim’s journey for a year now. Today, only sixty days remain until we leave home for Europe.

I have tried to plan everything: bought the right equipment and clothing; round trip tickets from Houston to Paris; hotel room in Paris; high speed train to Bayonne; local train to St. Jean Pied-de-Port; overnight accommodations in St. Jean; and a flight from Santiago, Spain, back to Paris.

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But between St. Jean and Santiago lies a 500-mile long path that will not yield to being arranged or planned. The path is set; it is ours to walk. . How far will we walk in a day?  What obstacles and hindrances lay in our path? I can look at pictures of El Camino de Santiago all day long on the web, but I can’t actually see my hand beyond my face for the first ten steps of the journey.

I have often talked with others about the concept of being in liminal space, that in-between space and time when we haven’t quite left where we were–and we have not yet seen where we are going.  For example, you experience liminal space when you lose a job and don’t yet have another one to support your needs. Dante expresses liminal space best, I think, in The Inferno

“Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark wood, for the right way had been lost.”

The way will not be lost (I hope!) because it is well marked. Once I take the first steps, I will likely feel the comfort of being “on the road again.”  Let me know how you want me to keep you in mind for those 36 days of walking.

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Of things visible and invisible

A long trip last summer became another pilgrimage for me, in a way I could not have anticipated.  We helped our younger daughter and her husband move to Duluth, where Adam had landed a teaching position with the U of MN at Duluth.  So, along with their dog (my traveling companion in the U-Haul truck) and two other vehicles, we drove from south Texas to the northern terminus of Intersate 35 in Duluth. 

The drive up to Duluth took three days. Adam and Sally’s dog lay with her ears near the speakers so I kept the radio turned off.  What I noticed driving along was that I really wasn’t noticing much.  When we travel along our high-speed highways we don’t notice that they are laid out along uninteresting paths.  From time to time, I would glimpse a possibly beautiful or compelling sight; but by the time I noticed it, I had already put it in the rear- view mirror.  So all the unexamined “now” moments became “then” moments before I even pondered them.  What a metaphor for modern life in America!

Thus, when Sandy and I left Duluth to return home, we took the long way. On our first day we spent the entire day driving the southern reach of Lake Superior.  We stopped at a wayside and walked down to the lake and enjoyed being in the setting rather than seeing it pass by.  Crossing the Upper Peninsula (the UP) of Michigan, we took time to soak in the scenery.  In mid-afternoon we stopped at a roadside cafe named “UP Chucks” (how could you pass THAT one up?) and had great burgers next to some Harley tourists.  That night we camped in the Sault Ste. Marie Forest area.

Over the next several days we poked along through the small towns and little-traveled roadways of middle America. We ate lunch in the City Cafe in Alma, MI, where the waitress hollered across the dining area to a couple of men: “How is George gonna pay for that new truck when he don’t even have a job?”  I’ll never know the answer to that one.

Our trip home lasted 11 days. We slept in state parks and motels. We drove on freeways only when we couldn’t find an interesting side route.  We explored a small section of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which was hardly marked. Driving along the dirt road, we watched white-tailed deer bounding through the cornfields and saw 15 or so wild young turkeys scurry across the road.  We sat and observed them for as long as we could see them moving through the brush. We learned again that breakfast is better in the only cafe in Black Rock, Arkansas, than it is in a “big box” restaurant along the freeway.  We reveled in the little flowers blooming beside a farm-to-market road, which we would never have noticed driving by at 70 MPH.

In the Nicene creed, we Christians acknowledge that God created “all things visible and invisible.”  The invisible is not only the universe beyond our senses; it is also all the places and people and things we miss as we hurry to get somewhere that we often don’t even want to be.

Maybe that’s the most compelling reason to walk El Camino.

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What did you bring back from your trip?

The most frequent response to my telling someone that I am going to walk a 500-mile pilgrimage (other than the raised eyebrows) is, “Why would you want to do that?”  Follow-on questions are about food, weight to carry, places to stay, dangers along the way and so on.

I would be relieved to find a pat answer for my commitment to this journey, but I don’t have one.  Reflecting on my last blog, I believe it has to do with the statement that “old men ought to be explorers.”  Being an explorer is not the same as being an adventurer.  Explorers record what they see and experience; then they bring back to the community a story of their travels and, usually, a map.

Adventurers, on the other hand, go to exciting or unusual places; but they don’t bring back much beyond 500 pictures they want to show everyone who wasn’t there to see what they saw.  I have had many adventures: growing up in the high mountain desert country of eastern Nevada, going off to college a good distance from home, spending a school year in Florence, Italy, a combat tour in Vietnam and living in many states and communities. All of those things happened to me–or at least I walked through them.

But the pilgrimage along the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela is my response to a calling voiced by one of my favorite teachers/authors, the famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote that we all have a mythic calling to go on a journey and  “report back” to the community. And the community seems to long for the stories.  Homer’s Odyssey, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and even Star Wars draw so much attention and so many followers partly because they tell the great stories of mythic journeying.

I’m not planning to climb Mount Mordor with some hobbits to drop a ring in the molten lava. I am seeking a truth about the story of life to pass on to my children and grandchildren.  Besides, as our good friend, JoAnn said the other day, “Someday your grandkids are going to be saying, ‘Let me tell you what my grandparernts did’.”

We are not bringing back a t-shirt!

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