What Are YOU Waiting For?

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” . . . What then? Shall we sit idly down and say,

The night has come; it is no longer day??

The night hath not yet come; we are not quite

cut off from labor by the failing light.

Something remains for us to do or dare

(Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear) –

Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,

or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode 

out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn –

But other something, would we but begin.

For age is opportunity, no less

than youth itself, though in another dress,

And as the evening twilight fades away

the sky is filled with stars,

invisible by day.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamos”,  1874

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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.

I’m An Idiot But it Turns Out OK – Day 37 – San Mahmed to Ferreiros

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The albergue was deserted by the time I left.

My hand-washed clothes from the night before were still damp so I used the dryer for 20 minutes before I packed out. Most of the people had sent their bags ahead (yes, they transported their bags). A few were waiting for vans to get their bags before they headed out.

The dining room was empty – the hospitaleros were not there. But they left hot pots, toasters and coolers with items for breakfast such as cereal, coffee, and  pastry and pilgrims simply helped themselves. I had a simple breakfast while waiting for my clothes to dry and charging my phone and iPad.

The road was easy and flat and a short 3 kilometers to that final landmark city before the end, Sarria.

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Sarria is a little more than 100 kilometers from Santiago. Since one must have walked at least 100 kilometers from Santiago in order to earn a Campostella, Sarria is the place where you find an influx of pilgrims whose goal it is to get the piece of paper that proves they’ve been on a “pilgrimage.”   They start their Camino in Sarria, getting two stamps each day, and present it to the Pilgrim Office at the Cathedral in Santiago. Then they get their Campostella.

I have my guidebook with me and re-read the words of the author – “. . . remember that many of the new arrivals may be nervous starting out and the last thing such a person needs is aloofness built on a false sense of superiority. A loving pilgrim welcomes all they meet along the path – without judgement.”

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It is early morning and Sarria is just waking up. It is too early for me to stop for breakfast so I easily climb up, up, up, past the mural near the castle at the top. I drink in the sunshine and wish a sincere “Buen Camino” to the new pilgrims huffing their way up to the top of the hill.

And, then, as I gaze down at the city I have just passed through, relishing the view and the early start I had on the day, I get a sick, sinking feeling in my stomach.

I still have no cash. I had to use plastic the night before in order to stay at the albergue. I need to find a cash machine.

I ask a few locals briskly trotting to work where the nearest cash machine is and they point back down into the city.  Down, down.

Which Saint shall I thank for keeping me humble? I want to blame all of them. Couldn’t they have made me think of this 15 minutes earlier? This is going to cost me alot of time.

I have no choice but to head back down into the city. I run into many pilgrims heading up as I head down, some of them people I had briskly passed an hour earlier on the Camino. I have to keep asking locals for the nearest ATM. I feel like an idiot when the cab drivers point across the narrow street we are standing on and the bank is right in front of me. I am one of the first on line. But I am the only one with a backpack and hiking poles.

I fill up with enough cash to last to the next large town and retrace my steps up. This time I pass no one. All the morning pilgrims have gone. I am the last one.

However, I am jubilant to see my Camino companion, Christine, when I stop to get breakfast. She had gone the other way with the boys up the ridge. She said the views were great but the route was challenging. It was shorter than the way I had gone through Samos so they were quite a distance ahead of us, close to a day. The two routes had joined again at San Mahmed. She had slowed down and was now with me.

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If I hadn’t gone back for cash, I wouldn’t have run into her.

Sorry, saints. I should have trusted you.

We walk together the rest of the day. We pass the 100 kilometer marker, an important photo-op for pilgrims.

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A group of new pilgrims pass us as we walk up a wooded trail. They are family and friends from the U.S, Canada and Australia who are doing this as a reunion. They are chatting happily and loudly and rambling up the trail, toting tiny packs with just enough room for the paper map given them by their tour arranger. They carry bottles of water in their hands.

I am slowly going up the trail, which is much steeper to me than to them. I smile and wish them a “Buen Camino.” I realize I may be the first person to give them that particular Camino experience.

“Where did you start?” “How long have you been walking?” “Did you walk the whole way?” I don’t have to ask them these questions because I know what their answers would be. But they ask me and I answer amiably, remembering the author’s words. Their joy at being on the Camino is infectious.

However, they do catch me off guard when they ask, “Wow. Are you carrying everything in your backpack?”

Dear Reader, you have seen the photos. Does this look like a daypack to you?

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God bless them. They sent their “luggage” ahead because, they explained, they “didn’t have time.”

Christine and I get to the albergue, only to find it full. This is not good. We had forgotten that we would be meeting this problem from now on because of all the new pilgrims joining at Sarria.

Fortunately, we are among the first to arrive at the next albergue, which is clean, quiet and one of the ones operated by the municipality. There is no store to buy food, the only store in town having turned itself into a private albergue (the one that was already full). So we go to the bar next door and have a great meal. We catch up on e-mail, I catch up on blogging, and we have a quiet, restful night.

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I Don’t Have Paper But I Do Have Plastic! – Day 36 – Fonfria to San Mahmed

IMGP4313The morning is beautiful and we are rested. The albergue has been comfortable and I have been surrounded by friends.

Nevertheless, the journey is not over. I have miles and miles to go. So the four of us – myself, Christine, Juan Carlos and Andres – rise, have breakfast, and hit the road.

I feed off my companions’ energy and motivation. Dare I admit that I am . . . tired? You’d think that after walking 400 miles, that would be an obvious statement of fact. But I haven’t felt tired before. I am today simply tired of walking.

I don’t want to see any more old churches or old Roman roads. I’m tired of walking through abandoned villages. I’m tired of the endless green paths through the fields which were lovely at first, and now seem beautiful yet redundant.

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As it gets closer to summer, it gets hotter and hotter. Although we are in the wet part of Spain, we will see no more rain, just sunshine and more sunshine. I’m not complaining about the sun, Heaven knows, after all the mud weeks ago, but I am tired of the hot.

I’m still carrying my fleece and my long underwear pajama bottoms. I’m too close to the end to send them ahead and the weight gain wouldn’t be much.

The four of us continue for about eight kilometers. Then, when we hit Triacastela, we split up.

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For me, this is sad. We are very close to the end now, less than a week to Santiago, I expect. The route the boys and Christina will take has great views. That means it goes up to the ridge line. I don’t want to climb any more.

I will walk towards Samos, the town with the famous monastery. I might even  spend the night there.  It is a slightly longer route but stays flatter.

So it is time for a final good-bye to my friends – my Camino family.

We exchange cell phone numbers and promise to keep in touch. We will look for each other in Santiago and celebrate our arrivals, if we meet. We bid each other a “Buen Camino.” I am choked up as I watch them follow the path into the mountains. I doubt I’ll see them again.

Have I made a bad choice?

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I continue onto Samos and the town is just hitting siesta when I arrive so everything is closed. It is hot and blazingly sunny. I have run out of money, again. I check my meager finances and look for an ATM machine. When I find one, no surprise, it doesn’t have any cash. Once again, I’m stuck without euros.

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I go to a bar and the women welcome me as I get the only things I can afford for lunch, a cold beer and some toast. I decide that I shall take a siesta here. I can’t stay at the monastery now because I don’t have any money. I must continue on and hope I can find a place with a cash machine. One with cash.

I am at the bar for about an hour and not a car goes by. Some pilgrim on bicycles come through the town but, not finding anything open, they continue on their way. I decide to do something I’ve seen others do but I haven’t done myself – I call ahead and make a reservation at an albergue.

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I arrive at that albergue late. The albergue is well run by the family and they clearly take pride in their facility and their service. I try to explain that I have run out of euros, that the cash machine was empty, that I don’t have any money for the bed, etc, etc.

No problem, they say.  They take credit cards! So. for the first time on my journey, I pull out plastic and use it. Thank you , St. Julian, the card goes through.

I lay out my sleeping bag on a top bunk. I’m in the shower when the communal meal begins. I’m sorry to miss this multi-course meal since it was the reason I wanted to stay at this albergue. I don’t have any food on me and there’s no pilgrim kitchen. I hand wash my things, knowing that it is so late in the day that my clothes will not be dry in the morning.

Clean, with routine necessities taken care of, I wander and enjoy the sounds of pilgrims who have shared conversation over the communal dinner. I don’t know any of these people, however, and I haven’t eaten. I feel out of place and lonely. The family graciously asks if I’d like a bowl of soup which I gladly accept. For drink, I only need water and I get a pitcher-full.

That night, I climb onto the top bunk. I can hardly wait until the pitcher of water I had with dinner kicks in and I have to climb down in the middle of the night. The sun is going down outside but this is the new normal time to get to sleep. The room I’m in is surprisingly cramped. The family could get rid of one bunk bed and make the room comfortable. But I’m sure it’s a money thing – I can’t begin to imagine their business model.

As I sit up top in my bed, writing in my journal, I see it all. Old men parading around shirtless. People picking at their feet. Guys slapping lotion on their inner thighs. This will be one of the few nights I have trouble falling asleep because of people snoring.

And I still don’t have any money.

Day 35 – Vega de Valcarce to Fonfria

Since Juan Carlos, Andres and I had spent the night in our own house, we slept as late as we wanted and were out on the road when we felt like it – 0830.

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We hung around the village to return the landlady’s house key and thank her for a great stay in a nice home. As we lingered over breakfast, who should wander up but Christine, our Camino family member who had decided to stay someplace else the night before (missed out on those Spanish movie musicals, tsk, tsk).

Then, we were off. Up, up and away.

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The walk to O’Cebreiro was challenging but not impossible. The weather was great – I began to wonder if I had seen the last of my wet Camino and should consider zipping the bottoms off my pants. But I also knew we were entering one of the wettest regions of Spain, so, no.

Juan Carlos kept me laughing as he continually underestimated the distance we had to walk – two kilometers when it was actually four, four kilometers when it was ten!!

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Welcome to Galicia.

The countryside reminded me of weeks earlier when I had been a novice pilgrim, making my way through the rolling hills of Navarra.  Alone, alert to the yellow arrows  along the way, I remembered the vineyards I walked through and the mud.

I remembered looking through rain dripping off the brim of the baseball cap I wore under my rain jacket hood as I tried to keep my glasses dry and fog free.

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I remembered the determination as pilgrims, strangers to each other, encouraged each other to the top of the hill which we promised was just around the bend up ahead, and which never was.

Now I was dry and following the arrows was second nature.

I no longer noticed my backpack anymore than you, dear reader, notice the shirt you are wearing right now.

These strangers whom I was walking with could crack the right jokes to make me laugh out loud. I knew I would be missing them all too soon.

We crossed into Galicia and found the stone markers that would lead us the final kilometers to Santiago. Was it possible? Were there really only that many kilometers to go?? Had I really walked all that distance? I still felt so good!

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O’Cebreiro was beautiful, an unexpectedly active village on the top of a mountain, full of pilgrims and souvenir shops.

I was told that the church, Santa Maria la Real, was said to have held a relic of the original Crucifix. I prayed accordingly, wondering if my Saints had traveled with me all this distance so they could get to this place. I told them I was grateful for all the help they had given me on this journey.

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About 15 minutes later I learned that, um, no, there weren’t any cross relics here.

Wrong legend.

It was the resting place for Don Elias Valina Sampedro, (1929 – 1989). He was the parish priest who gave birth to the modern Camino, as a way to help his tiny little parish.

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He knew his village was on the route of the ancient Camino and wanted to try to bring people back to, or at least through, the village. He brought his idea to the local leaders and they said OK, but you’re on your own. So, he went to the public works guys who were working on the roads and got their leftover paint.

That ubiquitous yellow paint.

With permission, of course, he painted arrows along the way to help pilgrims find their way from one end  of the village to the other. Slowly, the arrows extended to the other towns along the way and, well, here we are today, more than  200,000 pilgrims this year alone.

I was ready to call it a day at O’Cebreiro but the family insisted that we continue so on we went.

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I hadn’t expected Alto de Poio to be the highest point on the Camino Frances – I had thought that was O’Cebreiro. But it is, with 1,330 meters compared to O’Cebreiro puny 1,300 meters. Done on the same day at O’C, it is just as challenging.

We stopped for drinks but all we could find were sodas from vending machines. But where was Juan Carlos? We couldn’t find him anywhere. Christine and I waited outside, cooling off, while Andres went to find his wayward brother. Finally, he found him and ushered us inside the local pilgrim office.

There was Juan Carlos, happily surrounded by dozens of old ledgers. He had looked through many, many of them to find one particular one. Years earlier, on another Camino, he had signed his name in the books kept by many places, and this was one of the few places where he could find that book again if he was lucky. He was, and we gazed at his signature and notes from way back then, his past self giving a note of encouragement to this, his future self.

We found the new book and added our names and notes. Maybe one day our future selves will climb this mountain again and remember this moment in time.

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That day, we didn’t arrive at the albergue until after 7 p.m. We each fended for ourselves for dinner and I ate something at the albergue’s  bar while I blogged.

Our big break, however, was in our accommodations.

Because we had gotten there so late and there were four of us, the bunk beds in the main bunk-bed room were taken. The hospitaleros generously opened the overflow room for us and gave us the pick of the beds. But these were not ordinary beds.

Now, class, if you open you IKEA catalogs to the teenagers’ rooms section, you will see those lovely bunk beds that are double beds on the bottom and twin beds up top. Since the four of us were expected to be  among the last to arrive, we were invited to each have a bottom, double bed, to ourselves!

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My bed is last on the left row, closest to the back wall. Christine has the bed across from me, the boys closer to the camera. One purple mat is in front of the shower, the other in front of the bathroom.

We had our own bathroom and shower in the room. This was lucky because I had gone to the crowded bunk-bed room to take a shower and went to the men’s shower room by mistake. You may use your imagination to figure out how I realized it was the men’s shower room (not by the tiny little man stick figure sign practically hidden away not in the center of the door).

The community room had comfortable chairs and a fireplace. Pilgrims shared a few bottles of wine. There were books about the Camino and about Spain. There were books about Galicia. The boys showed me a coffee table book of  Santander, their home city.

Night fell. I fell asleep in the security of friends and strangers. But sad.

I was so close to Santiago. Was the adventure ending??

Not by a long shot.

When a Stranger Asks You To Come In, Do You Do It? – Day 30 – Mazarife to Astorga

IMGP3985Looking on my map, I realized that this would be one of the hard days. I had to do 32 kilometers and, for me, that’s a hike.

This day would be unimaginative and tedious. A nice way to say boring.

But my saints always jumble things up for me.

More than 17 kilometers into the day, I crossed one of the most impressive medieval bridges on the Camino, the Puente de Orbigo. It is the site of a wonderful chivalric legend.IMGP3973

A knight, Don Suero de Quinones, was scorned by his lady love. In despair, he vowed to challenge all who dared cross this bridge. Knights came from all over Europe to accept his challenge but he defeated them all. He broke 300 lances of 300 challengers, which was his goal.

His mission accomplished, he went to Santiago de Campostella to give thanks to St. James for helping him forget his broken heart.

Every year there is a festival of jousting on the banks of the river crossed by this beautiful bridge. And some say that this story inspired Miguel Cervantes as he prepared to write “Don Quixote.”

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Leaving this town, the Camino became quiet and sultry. There was little breeze and the sun was bright but not hard enough to give me something to focus on. “Boy, the sun is hot.” “Should I put on another hat?” “Convert into shorts?” “Maybe stop for the day?”

None of those ideas crossed my mind. There was no good reason to stop.IMGP3980

Outside the town of Santibanez de Valdeiglesia I met him.  A nice old man, standing in front of the doors to his garage. He stopped me on the street. He waved and spoke to me in Spanish. There was no one else around either in town or walking the Camino. I was at a loss as to what he wanted.

Then I realized he wanted me to go into his house.IMGP3982

What a weird situation. The personal safety factor had long since left my mind on the Camino. I was safe. My things were safe. No one got hurt on the Camino. Well,  if they did, there were people around within minutes to help.

It was time for me to decide whether to trust all that had happened on the Camino so far or to put my street smarts into action. Number one city rule, Never Talk To Strangers. But everyone on the Camino had been a stranger and I had had nothing but good experiences.

I could only rely on my common sense and intuition. I looked him over carefully. He seemed harmless. His eyes seemed normal and friendly with no hint of crazy. What were the chances that Mr. Weirdo would be waiting on the Camino, ready to pounce on unsuspecting pilgrims as they walked along?

The dog at his feet waved his tail in a friendly manner. I checked out how I was feeling. I was taller than him by about half a head. I had two sharp hiking poles in my hand. He was older than me and he walked slightly hunched.

I warily walked through the garage doors, looking around carefully. No one lurking behind the doors. Just the sound of the breeze through the trees. I held my poles firmly and followed him into his back yard, his dog walking between us.

There in the yard was a cherry tree. The man spoke to me in Spanish and the story began to make sense.

It was cherry season in this part of Spain and the trees all along the Camino were fully loaded. This cherry tree was no exception. Rich, ripe cherries hung heavily down, like thousands of dark red waterfalls, reaching to the ground.

And that was the problem.

“Roof,” the dog, loved cherries. He was eating all the cherries he could get his mouth around. All day, every day. Also, the birds took all the fruits from high in the tree. So the gentleman had dogs and birds eating all the cherries on his lovely tree.

He could make a cherry pie every day during the season and still not use all the cherries on this tree. So he invited pilgrims to take all the cherries they wanted, as many as they could carry, from his tree.

We struck up a conversation as best we could – my bad Spanish and his non-existent English. But his smile was friendly and he was sincere as I watched his dog eat from the tree.

I picked cherries from the tree. I put out my hand and the ones that were not over ripe became my property.

I didn’t have a bag or a basket, of course. Where did I put them? In every pocket I had. My pants, my raincoat, my shirt. I thought carefully of the effect smushed cherries would have on my clothing but there was no way I could decline this offer to pick unlimited cherries.

He showed me the antiques in his barn. I know old junk when I see it but I nodded and smiled, impressed with  his collection of . . . um . . . stuff.

He showed me a large spiral notebook he had on the table near the tree. At first I didn’t know what I was reading. But slowly I realized what the handwritten messages in the book were. This notebook was an album, going back years, of messages of thanks from pilgrims who had visited this back yard like I had.

There were thank you notes from people from all over the world. Alaska, Japan, Australia, Germany, South Africa. In all languages, thanking this man for his generosity.

He told me that, when the cherry tree is not in fruit, he offers cold drinks and cookies to the pilgrims. He does this as often as he can. He has a car but doesn’t drive it any longer so he has a neighbor or one of his children drive him into town occasionally.

The pilgrims who pass by his house every day have become a source of delight. He has met people from all over the world this way. His album is a reminder of – what? That he still has a positive impact on the world? That his life still matters to people he doesn’t even know? That kindness is still appreciated and rewarded?

That his world can be bigger than just his dog and the birds?

I had been lost in thought on how many more kilometers I had to go, how boring the walk was and how tired I was. Then, this old man stopped me with his words and hand motions to follow him through the doors.

An hour earlier, I had faced a dilemma – listen to my street smarts or my saints. The  saintly voice in my head had reminded me of my decision to not refuse anything I was offered on the Camino. It had told me that I was strong and confident and could get myself out of any danger. It had told me to let my guard down and that I was always being watched over and was safe.

I signed his book and thanked him. I gave Roof a hug and a good rub all over. The man brought out a package of cookies and I took two. They were giant and sugary. We walked back through his garage and I thanked him again for his kindness.

Did he have any idea how inappropriate it was to invite strangers into his house? Did he think that pilgrims who refused were being rude?

In another place and time, he would be visited by the local police. They would make him stop this crazy, quixotic mission.

And then his world would become a little smaller.

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I’m an Angel Because I Have Duct Tape – Day 10 – Los Arcos to Viana

Usually, the rain has the decency to wait until I have been on the road a few minutes before starting the daily downpour but today it begins before I wake up. 

Yuck.

Trudging through the mud, I wonder for a few moments if my legs are getting stronger because the load on my pack seems normal and my strides are more certain. But the wind starts blowing against me and I begin the daily struggle to make progress on the muddy track.

The Camino never goes around a mountain it can go over. Up and down, sliding down rocky hills, always wet. Repeat, repeat.

Then, up ahead, I see a young man on the side of the road sitting on a rock. As I get closer, I see he is wrapping thin athletic tape around his hiking pole. 

Are you OK? Do you need something? 

Usually the answer is that there is no problem, someone is just adjusting their poncho or tying their shoelaces.

This time, the young man looks at me and says yes, he is having a problem. His hiking pole has stopped telescoping and he can’t use it anymore.

Since you, dear reader, have probably never used a hiking pole, let me give you a short course on the virtues of hiking poles.

They saved my Camino more times than I can count in the first week alone. In Germany, you see them  used  mainly by old people, striding confidently along in a public park. Or on a public trail. occasionally on the sidewalk. But the important phrase here is, “old people.”

Therefore, most young people tend to shy away from these simple sticks (or high-speed high-tech sticks).

They soon learn that not using hiking poles can be a big mistake.

Maximilian, a strapping young man ready to enter the Academy, found out that using poles would reduce the intense pain in his knees caused by going down the endless and slippery paths on the Camino. He was lucky – his knees were recovering because he bought poles shortly after feeling the never-ending ache in his knees.

Now, one of his poles had died on him, too early, and he was trying desperately to give it some new life until he could replace it in the next town.

In the last minute preparation for my Camino, DH had wrapped a length of duct tape around a golf pencil and we had added it to my pack. Now, like my Voltaren, it would be called to serve.

Using my most used accessory, the little baby fingernail scissors, we carefully wrap and cut a length of duct tape which repairs his hiking pole.

He calls me his Camino Angel.

Thank you, DH.