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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Exploring our roots

We returned home last week after a month-long journey rich in family, history and family roots. We visited all our children and grandchildren in Houston, Mobile, Jacksonville Beach and Chesterfield (VA). In the spaces between those places, we explored a lot of Colonial American and Civil War locales, National Forests and places of interest for our family history.

So this trip was also a pilgrimage for me.  Over the past several years Sandy and I have taken up an active interest in our family genealogies.  From an early age Sandy knew that she was descended from one of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower (Francis Cooke).  Four years ago, we spent a week in Boston exploring early American history sites and her roots.  We didn’t know until just before we went to Virginia that our visit would include walking in my ancestor’s footsteps.

Years ago, I had learned that one of my great-grandfathers had died in what is now West Virginia in 1795.  Sandy was able to uncover that fact that his family had lived in Virginia and that his great-grandfather was married in St. Peter’s Parish in New Kent, VA.  Since we were in the area, we drove to the church (thanks to the magic of Garmin and GPS!).

When we drove up, a man was walking toward the church and asked us whether we would like to look inside. He was there to fix the AC.  As he unlocked the door, he said, “You know, this is the church where George and Martha Washington were married in 1759.”

“More important to me,” I responded, “My 6th great-grandfather, Henry Strange, and Mary Liptrot were married here in 1733.”

After exploring the church and visiting with the church secretary, I sat in under a big tree for a long time, contemplating notion that a couple of my ancestors were married at this place 279 years ago.  It was a powerful moment of connection for me and a chance to ponder how the family migrated across the country over the ensuing years.  It was also a moving spiritual experience to reflect on the clouds of ancestors whose lives and experiences led to my turn to wander the Earth.

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Old men ought to be explorers

The title for this post is a line in the poem, East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  Eliot writes,

 “Old men ought to be explorers.

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

through the dark cold and empty desolation.

I’m sure I had an assignment in college to read the Four Quartets; but wise and true words about a “deeper communion through the dark cold and empty desolation” are wasted on the young.  Young men don’t want to explore dark cold and empty desolation.  Young men want to read business-like prose about change and corporate growth, structure and achievement.  When we are young men building our little personal empires, we are devout students of the process for controlling change and mastering our future.  We think about a gold-plated retirement in which we get to do all the things we don’t do now because of our commitment to our careers and the accumulation of capital.  In our culture, old men are not expected to be explorers; they are expected to become supernumeraries who no longer have lines to speak on the stage play of life.  It’s best if they retire to a warm place and wear pastel colors on the golf courses.

But there is another way for men; one in which they become valuable voices in the community, echoing back the deeper communion we all share.  So as I entered into “retirement,”  I decided I did not want to end my passage through life slumped over in an easy chair while talking heads on the cable news network blathered on about some reality show star’s impending divorce.  I wanted to do something to take a measure of my life and how I was going to play out the fourth quarter.

As one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says so well:

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice—

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop. (from “The Journey”)

I learned that we humans are ancient beings. Our lives mean more than 30 years of commuting in closed-up cars to work in piled-up blocks of concrete.  So I am putting my feet to the earth, walking 500 miles in whatever conditions nature brings me, staying at places for which I have made no reservations, eating in places not found on Zagat or Trip Advisor.  And beyond my primary destination of Santiago de Compostela, there is the final three-day walk to Finisterre (the end of the earth) on the Galician coast.  My ego is afraid of what I may find; my soul seems to be enjoying the prospects of finally leading me into a deeper communion.

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Take the long way home


I first heard about El Camino de Santiago in 1977 when I attended a Cursillo Retreat in northern Idaho. (I’m sure some professor mentioned pilgrimages when I was in college, maybe when I was wallowing through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in Middle English; but who would know?)  When I heard about young men walking on a pilgrimage while getting their “short course” in Christianity, the idea appealed to me.  Not the catechism; the actual walking.

From early in my life, whenever I went somewhere, I came back by a different route.  To retrace the same path raised in me a sense of restlessness.  By the time I entered the Army, the habit of finding a different way home was engrained in me.  I discovered that when our morning conditioning runs took us along new routes, I did not feel as tired. 

About 8 years ago, I found a DVD online about a couple’s preparation and trek along The Way.  I ordered a copy and watched it all the way through.  After a few months, Sandy sat down with me and we watched it together.  But it was clear that her level of enthusiasm for the journey was far lower than my own.  At the time, she was enjoying her job at our parish and was heavily involved in the project of building a new church.  So I let the idea of pilgrimage fade away.

As I wrote earlier, I had laid out several trips to celebrate my “real” retirement from the workplace, including a road trip to Alaska.  I could see how part of the journey would not be a return on the same road; but much of it would be.  And I noticed myself losing interest in an experience that I had wanted to have for decades.

During my last several years of work, I had been logging about 13-15 hours of windshield time every week, traveling to work with clients all over south central Texas and the coastal bend along the Gulf of Mexico. My back hurt, my knees ached, my waistline blew up; I was a mess.  When I retired I gained back all the time I used to spend driving, so I started walking. We live about a half-mile from the Scooter Store headquarters, and I was determined to not be a future customer.  The more I walked, the better I felt; and it began to occur to me that as long as I was walking so much, I might want to be going somewhere.

Then three things happened in quick succession; and the pilgrimage took root in my soul.  First, we received a delayed Christmas letter from a dear friend in Kansas.  His wife had died a few years ago, and he could not get used to being without her.  He described in his letter how he walked the Camino and how it changed his view of life.  Then a DVD of the Emilio Estevez’ movie, The Way, was delivered to the door.  I had pre-ordered it on Amazon when it was realeased.  Sandy and I watched it twice; and we watched it a third time with my best friend.  Finally, the new issue of National Geographic came in the mail.  Sandy opened it to a photo and description of El Camino.

I was already thinking that I wanted to return to Europe and visit places at the macro level.  I wanted to walk into small villages, eat at local cafes, and stay wherever I found myself at the end of the day.  After a few days, Sandy said, “I think I want to walk the Camino.”  For the past four months, we have been immersed in the preparations for the journey: trying new hiking boots; planning extensive walks/hikes as we travel this summer; reading about other people’s experiences along The Way. 

Thoreau wrote that “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”  I believe I approached travel that way. I loved to go places and see new things; but I didn’t really experience them.  That’s why I intend this to be an inner journey. I have no particular devotion to St. James. I have no religious sentiment about the pilgrimage. But I do have a deep desire to allow the pilgrimage to “walk me” as I go.

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Were there any witnesses?

A wonderful news story in the Irish Times reported that Michael Flannery was on trial for causing a motor vehicle collision while under the influence.  In response to the judge’s question, Mr. Flannery said, “Well, to be sure, your honor, there were a great many observers at the scene, but I don’t think there were any witnesses.”

His comment fits how people approach their own lives and experiences. They observe them; but they don’t absorb the details, the atmosphere or their own reactions well enough to be able to report on them later.  I know that has often been the pattern in my life.  I visit some impressive art museum or historical site and afterwards I can’t describe to myself or anyone else what I really saw or felt.  That sense of detachment shows up when we go to a movie and someone asks us the next day, “How was it?”  My response is usually something like, “It was okay,” or “It was pretty good.”  Perhaps a short, neutral response is polite, not wanting to burden the listener with details. But what I think is at play, at least for me, is a failure to internalize my own experiences.

That’s why this blog is about following the inner journey.  Having decided to walk 500 miles to get to a place I’ve never seen before, it would feel natural and proper to dive into all the preparations that have to be made, for there are many.  But I want to pull my attention back from an uncertain future experience to the present moment.  I was reading a forum question about El Camino online today and an inquirer asked, “What will I feel like on the 16th day of my pilgrimage?”  I connected immediately with the question because that is how my thinking mind operates. But it is the wrong question aimed at the wrong time of the journey.

My ponderings are about what is happening to me today; about what I notice in myself and the world around me as I walk along the roadway.  To get to that point, I will share with you next time how this intention to walk the Camino of St. James took over my life this year.


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¿a dónde vas, peregrino?

True to my wish to control life, I approached my third retirement with a laundry list of things I wanted to do in 2012 and 2013.  This year’s travel includes the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Disney World (all done—check those blocks!); and trips to Williamsburg, Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (May-June), Michigan and Mackinac Island (August).  Then for 2013 I had gently persuaded Sandy (she might say “cajoled”) into traveling from Texas to Alaska on what I imagined would be the ultimate road trip, the “Alcan Highway.”

When I was in college, some of my classmates from Alaska would catch a bus to Seattle when school was over for the year.  They would go to luxury vehicle dealerships and contract to drive new Cadillacs, Lincolns and Chryslers to Anchorage or Fairbanks.  It was much cheaper for the buyer to have the car driven up than to have it shipped in those days.  The following September, they would regale us with their adventures of taping thick cardboard panels onto the rocker panels to protect the cars from the gravel kicked up on the road.  They described how they were able to drive all “night” without headlights because of the long days.  I longed to have that adventure, seeing all the bears, moose and other wild things along the way.

That trip is not going to happen—at least not in 2013.  Instead we will switch from being tourists to being travelers.  There’s an odd feeling I sometimes get when driving a long distance.  Our cars are as comfortable as sitting at home on sofa; and we are just as isolated from the passing countryside as we would be watching a travelogue on TV.

So what will we be doing for travel?  About a year from today, we will fly from Houston to Paris. The next day we will take a train to the Bayonne/Biarritz area. After a day of adjusting to the time zone change, we will travel by train to St. Jean Pied-de-Port.  The next day we will go through the Porte D’Espagne on the SW side of town and start our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on foot.

We are walking one of the great pilgrim paths of the world, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James.  It is a 500-mile journey along a path traveled by Charlemagne, St. Francis of Assisi, Napoleon, John XXIII (when he was still called Roncalli), and millions of other pilgrims.  We plan to walk the journey in about 37 or 38 days. (That’s 15 miles per walking day and several days for rest.)

That’s the reason for this blog, to describe the journey, our preparation for it and the things we learn about ourselves and our lives along the way.  If you do a search on Amazon.com, you will find about 1500 books about El Camino de Santiago. So I’m not trying to write a travel guide or how-to book.  What draws me is the inner journey, how the ground itself is a metaphor for life: steep climbs, steep descents, cold and rain, heat and dust, long and lonely stretches through the flatlands, refreshing mountain spring water and no water at all.  Then, after we achieve that which we seek—in this case the supposed location of the remains of the Apostle, James the Greater—there is a short pilgrimage to Finisterre (the end of the world) on the Atlantic coast.

You are probably thinking, “Are you nuts? You’re fat and lame, not to mention that you will be 69 years’ old when you start out.”  Believe me, I thought about, and still think about those things too.  But I will be 69 if I sit on my butt all year, so that’s just a number.  Since responding to this inner calling (I can’t even claim it as my decision), I’ve lost 1.5 bowling balls. That’s twenty-four pounds, but it’s such a better image when I imagine carrying around extra bowling balls all day long.  Sandy and I are walking 3 to 6+ miles 5 or 6 days of the week.  The physical part of this journey is simple, measurable work. What I will focus on in my writing is the inner journey.

It was very helpful for me to re-learn the other day that the word travel comes from the word, travail.

So, off we go.

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We all remember momentous days

My last blog ended with the comment, “Next time­, where the pilgrim’s way is leading and the reason for the blog.”  Don’t you just hate being led along?  At the time I wrote it, I intended to describe where the story is leading; but I have something else to share before the “announcement.”  This blog fills in a few more details at the foundation.

We remember momentous days.  We know our birth date from annual celebrations and the anticipation of gifts. We remember our anniversary date if we are married (at least we better remember it!).  When an American of a certain age is asked what happened on November 22, 1963, he can tell you where he was, what he was doing and precisely how he learned that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  And now most Americans have the morning of September 11, 2001, etched in their memories.


A date seared in my mind is October 24, 1962.  I had been in college for just over a month. I was struggling with my decision to be a thousand miles away from everyone I had known growing up.  That October evening was cloudy, cool and foggy in Spokane.  I was sitting on the dorm’s fourth floor fire escape landing listening to a portable transistor radio.  The news reported that American warships were in position to intercept Soviet Union ships approaching Cuba.  The President had just declared something called DEFCON 2, which I understood as being one step from all-out nuclear war.

Ironically, the week before I had read an article by John Hersey about the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima for a Composition 101 writing assignment.  Thus on one hand, I wanted to keep my eyes closed so that the flash of the bombs wouldn’t blind me. On the other hand, I was eighteen years-old and would probably end up dying in the war anyway—unless I was already blind. (There is no accounting for the irrationality of fear, especially when we are carefully taught that we must live in terror of the things over which we have no control.) The Soviet ships reversed course and within days the news was on other topics.  But I vowed that night that I would never have anything to do with the military or war.

 Eight years and three weeks later, as an Army infantry lieutenant, I was riding in a helicopter headed toward a “hot LZ” in Vietnam and feeling certain that I would not survive the rest of the day. I could not integrate any meaning for my life from these “dates” until I had lived another four decades; but what occurs to me now is that crossing over thresholds of this magnitude stirs the soul from its slumber. 

 What I learned is that when you can’t see the other side of the chasm that opens before you, you can’t rely on your own knowledge and life skills to pass through.  And, there’s no point trying to “push the river.” The dark passage takes as long as it takes.  I’m glad the Soviet ships turned around in 1962. I’m thrilled every day that I came home from Vietnam 366 days after I arrived there.  But I know that I wasn’t in control; and that’s a hard lesson to learn for almost every man I have ever known.

 All through the years, even though I say I knew better, I thought I was in control.  I would “pray about” what I was supposed to do.  Then I would decide and ask God to “baptize my project.” If my plans went well, it was because I was clever, confident and capable.  If things did not go well, I told myself it was because of someone else’s lack of cooperation or some outside circumstance.

 So what happens when the summons really does come from outside my own mind? What does it feel like when the idea is born in my soul rather than in my imagination?  Stay tuned; the answer comes tomorrow (seriously!)

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You are going to college WHERE!?

While completing one of the college placement tests when I was a high school senior, we were allowed to send our scores to three colleges or universities for free. Since Nevada had one four-year college at the time, I selected the University of Nevada (Reno) as one choice. Second, I chose Utah State, because it was closest, I suppose. In my heart, though, I didn’t want to go to either of those schools. I felt that if I went where all my friends were headed, I would mess around and flunk out. (Turns out I almost did that anyway!) The more important reason was that, after 18 years growing up in a county of 9000 square miles with a 1960 population of 9808 people, I wanted to go somewhere new and different. By the way, the county has a population of less than 11,000 people today!

As I scanned down the list of universities, looking for my 3rd choice, I came to the name, Gonzaga; and I thought to myself, this sounds more like a disease than a school. I checked the block, knowing nothing about Gonzaga, including where it was.

Several weeks later I received a recruiting brochure from Gonzaga and learned that it was in Spokane, Washington. Bingo! More than 1,000 miles from home! I applied and somehow was accepted. Gonzaga had just become a university, so I suspect they wanted to have students from as many states as possible, and I became the token kid from eastern Nevada. And I learned, of course, that Gonzaga was a Jesuit university, which led to humorous encounter at our kitchen table.

Soon after I was accepted and the word spread around town, the pastor of Sacred Heart parish came to the house and told my mother that I could not attend GU. “Margaret,” the Pallotine monsignor said in his best Irish brogue, “You cannot let Bobby attend that school. He will lose his faith!” (Turns out that almost happened, too; but that’s a different story.)

Something in me longed to be on new pathways. In September 1962, my mother and oldest sister deposited me at the entrance to DeSmet Hall and drove away. I didn’t know what it meant to cross a threshold into liminal space at that time; but I felt the sense of panic that was to come back several times in my life. It took several experiences of stepping across new thresholds to learn to hold the tension of being no longer “here,” but not yet “there” either.

Looking back on the long walk taken (previous blog post) and the college chosen, I realize now that I was choosing the path of the pilgrim.

Next time, where the pilgrim’s way is leading and the reason for this blog.

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A Long Walk Taken

When I was a senior in high school, living in eastern Nevada, I went deer hunting alone on a late November day in 1961. It was a wet, cloudy day and the first snow of the year was melting. Driving up toward the mountains on a little-used road that was just two parallel ruts with water seeping down them, I saw several deer get up and pass over a ridgeline to the south. I stopped the pickup and hurried down through a gully and up the far slope to the top of the ridge. When I got there, I could not spot the deer.

I came back to the pickup about fifteen minutes later and found it sunk into the ruts so far that the running boards on both sides were resting on the ground. I tried to free the truck from the muddy ruts; but the more things I tried, the more mired it became. The afternoon was quickly draining away, and as I rested I looked up toward the mountains to see a storm rolling down toward me. About ten minutes later thick, heavy snow was falling. As the light faded, the intensity of the storm increased.

I knew that if I stayed in place, I would be snowed in. At this point of the year, deep snow could be on the ground for a long time. My only option was to strike out on foot down to the ranch road and to head toward Ely. I took with me only my father’s rifle, mostly because he would not want me to leave it and not because I thought I needed it for protection.

Within half an hour, the darkness was almost complete, and the driving snowstorm made everything disappear. The only way I could navigate was to feel for the brush rubbing against my jeans on the right side. When I did feel it, I would angle to the left until I felt the brush in the center brushing my left boot. I had walked for over an hour when I sensed something in front of me. I couldn’t see anything, but I had that feeling that comes when we come near something in the dark. I slowed down and, inching forward with my free hand in front of me, I bumped into a cow. I don’t know which of us was more startled; but the cow moved off the road and I passed by.

After walking for another hour or so, I came to the ranch road and turned north toward home. The snow did not let up but, as happens when everything turns white with snow, there seemed to be a bit more light by which to navigate. For the next hour I could feel the gravel crunching under my boots. Then everything was muffled as the snow continued to fall.
Looking back over all these decades, I don’t know what I might have been thinking about as I trudged along that road. To this day, however, I can feel the almost perfect stillness that surrounded me. It was the first time I experienced a true sense of detachment, almost as though I were watching myself walking mile after mile. I lost track of how much time passed and just kept putting one foot in front of the other.

As I walked I eventually came to the road that turned right off the ranch road and went to the old charcoal ovens that had been used in the late 1800s for charcoal production. I knew that from this point I had about two more hours of walking until I came to the paved highway that led to town. I had not eaten for several hours so I was growing tired; but the hope of catching a ride home on Highway 93 kept me moving.

After a few minutes, I heard a distant sound to my rear. Soon I recognized it as a large truck. My sense of relief grew as I heard it coming closer. Soon I could sense the headlights illuminating everything in front of me. Since the snow had been coming against my back from the south, I did not bother turning around. The cattle truck rumbled right past me, and I watched the tail lights disappearing in the storm ahead. Just as it occurred to me to fire the rifle at the truck’s tires, it stopped. I trudged up to the passenger side and opened the door. The old rancher stared at me and said, “Jesus Christ, son. I thought you was a ghost.”

I don’t know who that good Samaritan was, but he gave me a ride into town, dropping me off on the main street just a few doors from our house. I arrived home after 2:00 a.m., to find my parents and oldest sister anxiously waiting to hear from me. Once I told my story, my father said that we couldn’t leave the pickup out there all winter. He called my brother-in-law, who had a Toyota Land Cruiser and headed back into the country within an hour. I was exhausted, but since I was the only one who knew exactly where the pickup was, I had to go along. I don’t know what time it was when we arrived where the pickup was stuck, but by the time we got it pulled out and turned around, the sky was beginning to lighten.
I had the presence of mind to ask my father to clock the mileage from that spot to the coke ovens. He asked me several times, “You sure you walked this far?” Passing the turnoff, he announced that we had come just over 21 miles.

Maybe I should have realized then that the long walk taken would lead to a life of travel and long walks along paths and roadways. That experience as a teenager of seventeen seems to have marked my life—and set up what now lies ahead for me.

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