This Time Last Year

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My DH and I were a few months away from celebrating 38 wonderful years of marriage. The children were grown and our lives had taken us to many places around the world, places I had never dreamed I would see, much less live in. We had recently moved to another country and were enjoying the adventure of getting settled. We were working on where to store Christmas items in our new apartment.

But I had other plans also and I knew they wouldn’t include him. I was going to walk the Camino Frances soon.

I didn’t know exactly when or how. I didn’t know exactly where. I especially didn’t know why.

I hadn’t made any transportation arrangements because I had no clue how to get from where I was to where I thought I might need to be. I didn’t believe in hiking poles – too dorky. I was a good (what’s good about it?) twenty pounds overweight and I’m being kind. I didn’t have hiking boots.

The only thing I had going for me was that I liked walking although I sometimes found it boring.

I had decided to walk the Camino Frances and I had broken the news to my DH just after Thanksgiving. Would he be OK with it? It would cost us money and time. Lots of time but I had no clue  how much.

Not even my children really knew what I was up to.

“Mom’s thinking about going for a long walk.” What did that mean???

You don’t choose the Camino. It chooses you. And I had been chosen. But try to explain that to people who want to know why you want to walk across the top of Spain.

The ancestry of the Camino Frances sits squarely on a pilgrimage. But I’d never been religious enough to feel drawn to religious sites. I’d never felt compelled to visit places noted for miracles. And my life was relatively happy – no need to do penance or suffer to set things straight.

I was an older woman, inactive for many, many years, suddenly possessed by an idea that no one I knew had ever done before or even heard of.

It was time to give this some serious thought.

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Sacred Ground or Hell Hole? – Day 15 – Belorado to San Juan de Ortega

Who insults a Saint to their face?

I met a delightful Canadian named Greg who was a great companion. Funny, slightly limping, he was just what I needed for the day. We stopped at a truck stop and had the best bocadillo of the Camino, huge tuna and tomato on ciabatta style bread. Delicious beyond words.

We looked back from the top of a challenging climb and saw the snow-capped mountains we had been walking around. It was sobering to see how far we had walked and note that, although it was hot where we were, the snow still had a stronghold in the heights we had passed.

Tiring of limping, Greg invented the latest thing for pilgrim comfort – one piece socks and sandals.

I know socks and sandals are the plague of beaches everywhere, where fat old men insist that they must wear socks with their sandals and shorts on beaches and boardwalks around the world.

On the Camino, socks and sandals are the height of fashion and blister relief.

How low can your fashion sense go? Roll up your pants, hang your sweat-filled socks off your backpack, and  balance a hiking boot off each of your hiking poles. 

This was how we happily trudged into San Juan de Ortega. We even did a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” while climbing up one pathway.

We were in great spirits as we made our way in the tiny town of San Juan de Ortega. The entire town consisted of the Church, the albergue, and the cafe. Nothing more.

Stone and wood, a typical albergue, I made the final climb to the second floor, found a bottom bunk and dropped my stuff. I washed my clothes and put them to dry on the stone wall, using solar energy once again to speed up the drying process.

Greg and I were enjoying the warming rays of the sun as another companion came up and asked what I thought of this “hell hole.”

I was surprised. 

My standards had, admittedly, sunk quite low. But I hadn’t found this albergue to be much worse than other places I had enjoyed, so I had been pretty comfortable.

And the Church at the end of the plaza contained the actual remains of the Saint, San Juan de Ortega.

The are many legends and stories along the Camino and each town has its own special story of the Saint whom their Church is lovingly named after. A relic, a miracle, the stories are part of the fabric of the community.

But here there was no legend. It was fact.

San Juan de Ortega was a disciple of Santo Domingo and, in this very isolated and difficult setting, brought comfort and safety to peregrinos making their way to Santiago. He was the driving force behind the building of bridges, roads, and buildings for pilgrims on this part of the Camino. Many pilgrims would not have been able to make their way to the end without his dedication to them.

His remains are in the Church in a simple stone sepulchre, tended gracefully by the local parish priest, who gave a moving blessing to the pilgrims who gathered for the pilgrim Mass.

Yes, the albergue was run down and could use many improvements. The bathrooms needed an overhaul. There was no store (there is no town) so all had to eat in the small cafe next to the albergue, a cafe which only held about 20 at a time and many pilgrims had to wait to be fed. The rooms were crowded and dark, the bunk beds rusty metal.

Yet, the mattress was soft and clean, a blanket available to those who needed. The floor was swept and we all made due with the limited space of an albergue. The price of bed and shelter from the elements was ridiculously low.

I suggested to this person that her assessment was a little harsh but she told me that she was going to brush her teeth outside with bottled water because her friend told her the bathroom was so dirty.

Greg and I looked at each other and shrugged, found dinner companions, and had a good evening.

But I continued to feel bad because this person had, in a way, insulted the hospitality of the Saint, a saint who was resting right across the plaza in the Church and who had made it his mission to provide for pilgrims.

He was dead. It wasn’t his fault time had not been kind to his life’s work.
“Hell hole” was harsh.

Where is the pilgrim confraternity which will take up this cross?

Day 2 – Roncevalles to Zubiri

Another rainy, muddy, cold day.

The albergue in Roncevalles was wonderful and so welcome after such a difficult day. Clean and modern, it is a converted monastery and holds more than 100 pilgrims. No bunk beds this time, and lockers for your stuff. 

Wisely, they have a well used room where pilgrims put their boots rather than stomping all through their beautiful albergue (hostel).

A few people are becoming my Camino family. The are the German ladies, Honey (American spelling of a German name) and Casidy (ditto). There is Juan Carlos from Honduras. There is SoMin and her mother and father. And many more people whom I recognize from either their faces or their backpacks.

Still rainy and slick, especially in the mountains. Some who blasted past me yesterday have been brought low by their own exuberance.

Within one kilometer of the start of the day, a pilgrim fell face first on the trail avoiding mud. He got up, laughing, and his friends good-naturedly joked with him, but I decided that I would take it very carefully.

I had packed some medication for tendonitis in my first aid kit. Like an umbrella, I figured that if I had it with me, I wouldn’t need it. On this day, I was right. Along the trail, a group of walkers gathered around a young Italian who had hurt his Achilles and was in much pain. I was able to share some of the gel before the others created a temporary bandage for him. He continued on his way but was very slow and in much pain.

The Camino continues to be a different kind of spiritual experience. I thought I’d be thinking about My relationship with God and with the universe. Instead. I find myself thinking about how cold it is, how there is no place dry enough to sit and rest, and about how to not fall on my ass in the mud.

The rain has turned all the minor streams into rushing rivers. But I’m almost tempted to walk through them in order to get the mud off my boots.

The last part of the trail leading into Zubiri was one of the most treacherous paths I’ve ever been on. It was steeply downhill and mud and rock covered. Very slow and dangerous.

Finally arriving in Zubiri before the town ran out of available beds, I tried to find a place to buy a comb (which I had already lost after one day), some food and some magic blister repair lotion.

I ended up buying a loaf of bread, some ham, some cheese, and a bottle of wine for dinner.  

I joined the others at the hostel in the community eating room. I found myself in a United Nations of new friends with one thing in common – the Camino. 

German, Italian, French, Spanish, no English, conversations all around.

Camino minus 17 – Half Full? Half Empty?

Inside the Cathedral, there is a grating where worshippers and visitors drop coins, which can be seen glistening from above.

Inside the Cathedral, there is a grating where worshippers and visitors drop coins, which can be seen glistening from above.

The sun came out, the birds sang, and the dishes were put back in their places. Yesterday’s rain morphed into today’s sunshine. We recovered from Saturday night’s party and everyone looked good in the photos I had taken. Success!

I’m running out of time. The guilt is starting to hit. What guilt? The guilt of leaving DH behind for weeks on end while I’m walking. He’s going to be the Gary Sinise to my Tom Hanks on Apollo 13 (without the failure!!). I’m looking forward to the challenge and what this Camino will bring me. But DH gets to stay behind and work.

I’ve asked if he wants to join me for at least part of the trip and he gracefully declines. He really isn’t into that kind of thing (anymore). So I should not feel guilty.

But I do.

This week I will begin my final packing for the trip. Pack, weigh, delete. Pack, weigh, delete. Pack, weigh, delete. I can already see the pattern ahead of me and I’m dreading it yet, I’m excited.

Saying goodbye will be not so exciting.

Today we decided to go to Strasbourg, France. It is close by, about two hours. I needed to try out the credit union debit card I’ve mentioned. I had to make sure it worked in a foreign country. It did.

The front of the Cathedral in Strasbourg.
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But I also wanted to take DH away for a visit , a mini-vacation, before we went our temporarily seperate ways.  We got lost looking for a place to park, spent hours walking around the beautiful little city, had coffee, hot chocolate, and pie in a little restaurant. We were back home in time for dinner.

I wore my no-longer-new boots and forgot that I had them on. I declined climbing the 300+ steps to the top of the Cathedral for fear that I wouldn’t make it to the top and I don’t need that kind of stress this close to my big event.  I said “Bonjour” instead of “Merci” when leaving the tourist information center. What a dweeb I am!!

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I’m not worried. My language skills improve dramatically once I get started. I used my French to order at the cafe and I understood why what I wanted was not available (hint: now I remember the French word for breakfast).

I’m excited about packing, yet worried that I’m still missing things I can’t afford.

I’m looking forward to the new experiences and the people whom I’ll encounter on the Camino, yet I’ll miss my family and friends.

I’m chomping at the bit like a race horse at the Kentucky Derby, yet can’t answer the simple question,  “Why are you going?”

Like the wineglass next to me as I write this, I am half full and half empty.

Camino minus 30 Days – Am I Bigfoot?

I spent an hour and a half on the phone with my mother, catching up on news. It’s not surprising how much you miss when you’re 3,000 miles from home. She has heard about my Camino trip from the children. She doesn’t know much about it, but she has always been my most fervent supporter of any adventurous inclination I have displayed, justified or not. My Camino is no exception.

Tell me all about it, she asks enthusiastically. But how can I tell her about an adventure I haven’t been on yet? I struggle to describe what I’ve heard of other people’s experiences, but I know I’m being false and I quickly surrender.

Go to the library and get this movie, “The Way,” I tell her. We’ll talk about it next week.  That way, I commit myself to calling next week, which I want to do but too often get caught up in other things. Really, what’s more important than talking to your mother????

I ordered new boots last night. My old faithful ones, the ones I had planned on using for the Camino, had suddenly, inexplicably, given me the dreaded “black toe” last week while on a routine 11 km hike. I was totally dumbfounded. This was a walk I have done, same boots, same socks, same backpacks, numerous times in the past two months. Yet, this time, I found myself consciously pulling my right foot back at each footfall in order to not have the toe press against the front of the boot. What’s going on here?

I’ve had the Black Toe before from shoes that didn’t fit correctly and even from simple overuse in fairly well-fitting shoes, but I thought I had these boots well broken in. Now, with only 30 days to go, I have to hope and pray that the shoes I ordered would a) arrive on time, and b) fit.

For days before hitting the “submit order” button on the Zappos website, I had spent time in local sporting goods stores trying the shoes of my choice, based on internet recommendations – a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilators. My feet had perversely decided to change sizes on me at the last minute, just to mess with my mind, so I couldn’t just order shoes of the same size as I had worn for the past year. I never wear the same size twice.

I’m glad I did because it turns out that I don’t wear a size 41, the size I have been wearing – comfortably – until last week. Now, I need a size 43.

Men’s!

Until I tried on these new shoes and enjoyed the comfort, I had been feeling so good about my physical condition. Weight holding steady, blood pressure down dramatically, able to climb gentle hills without huffing and puffing, no longer dreading the uphill walk to the apartment and the accompanying three flights of stairs. But now, realizing the delight my toes are signalling to my brain in these new shoes at the store, I suspect that blood, bone, and excess fat had simply slithered down to my feet, providing a false sense of cushy, soft, marshmallowy security. Now, I realize where all the weight has shifted to – into my big, fat, magically-mutated-into-a-man’s foot.

Only one foot, though, the right one. The left one still feels feminine at a dainty size 41.

*Sigh* I’m so not ready for this trip. In so many ways.