My Trekking Poles, My Self – Boadilla to Carrión de Los Condes

Trekking poles are a big part of my existence these days. You will see these things all over the Camino. But, of course, not everyone carries them. Many young people choose to do without. Some people just carry one pole. Some carry a single wooden staff, in the tradition of peregrinos long past. Some carry a branch they picked up along the way and fashioned into a walking stick. All I know is that I couldn’t do without them.

Next to my boots, my trekking poles are the single most important item I brought with me. They have saved me walking down steep, slippery slopes. They have helped me when I was tired and would have tripped if I was depending on just my two legs and feet. They help me establish a walking rhythm as I move along. A 1999 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine found that trekking poles can reduce compressive force on the knees by up to 25 percent. Because of the rhythm you establish, they can often increase your average speed. To be honest, I feel a bit naked when I am not using my walking poles. They are a real help on this journey.

Most profoundly, trekking poles remind me that I cannot do this walk (or my life) by myself. I need help. That is the most difficult thing for me to admit in my life. I want to be able to do it alone. I want to be able to utilize only my own resources. I don’t want to admit that I can lose my balance and fall (literally and metaphorically). Taking walking/trekking poles is an acknowledgement of my weakness. Luckily, I can still look cool with these light, sleek, collapsible, foldable aluminum sticks.

Today was one of those days of weakness. We chose an alternativo route and things ended up taking longer than I had hoped. My ankles hurt. The wind was cold. We were alone on much of the alternative path. What was to be a short day turned our a bit longer (somewhere around 15 to 17 miles). Along the path there was a sign painted with some graffiti that read, “think of 10 things you are grateful for.” I was too frustrated at the time to take a picture of the sign, but I did heed its advice. The first thing I thought of was having Lena as a partner to do this with. But I assure you that among the things I was most grateful for was my trekking poles—and what they teach me about life.

One more thing. This morning, We were given a rainbow. Draw your own conclusions.

A Precious Gift

While we walk the Camino, the world goes on. And for us, it goes on in very important ways. On October 6th, 2018, Owen Nicholas Zazzera came into the world. We already love him. Rachel and Aaron are celebrating and welcoming this new being into their lives. What could be better? As grandparents, we couldn’t be happier. Our only sadness is that we are not able to be with Owen, Rachel and Aaron today. But you can trust that the first trip we make after returning from the Camino will be to San Diego to see this little boy. We can’t wait to be with Owen and his mom and dad!

Not Flat or Empty – Castrojeriz to Boadilla

I keep waiting for the dreaded boring nature and emptiness of the meseta, but I have not experienced it. After our third day in this middle section (about 13 miles today) we are really enjoying the walk. Getting up early and walking in the dark has been a great pleasure. I have never seen the stars so bright. (Did you know that miles go faster in the dark?) I am also shocked that we haven’t found this area to be flat. There are lots of rolling hills – and today outside of Castrojeriz we climbed up at 12% grade (18% coming down the other side). While I never understand this measurement, I can tell you that it is steep.

The meseta may be fairly empty of towns, but it is a rich agricultural area – kind of the “breadbasket” of Spain with all its grain. It is interesting to look ahead and see mile after mile stretch way out before us. We might see a church bell tower in a town but not arrive there for another 5 miles. It feels vast but not imposing.

Another thing we have seen is lots of wind turbines. They are everywhere we have been, but are especially prevalent in the meseta. Perhaps that is because the wind is so frequent here. By finishing up each day before late afternoon, it seems like we have avoided much of the wind – but it is stiff and cold in the afternoon today. I do think about this method of power generation, and wonder if we could do more of it in the United States. While dozens of wind turbines are not the most beautiful sight, it just seems such a clean and sensible way of creating the power we need.

In fact, as I think about it, it seems like as a rule there is more attention to conservation here in Spain than I see in the United States. Bathroom lights that shut off and on depending on the presence of someone in the room. (Admittedly, I have been in the dark in more than one bathroom.) Showers that will only run for a certain period before cutting off. Limited use of paper and ice in restaurants. Far more reusable cups and plates, even in the fastest of the food places. I’m not sure Europeans are more enlightened, perhaps they have just had to face the reality of limitations more readily than Americans.

We ended today at a wonderful albergue in Boadilla and shared a lunch table with four young men. They all started this journey on their own and are now walking together. I don’t know many details, but each had an interesting story. One was French, and as a vegetarian he was finding it challenging on the Camino. One was Italian, and he will be veering off the Camino Frances to connect with the Camino Primitivo, a more mountainous route to Santiago through northern Spain. One was from the Czech Republic, started in Finland, and has been walking for many months carrying the ashes of someone he loves. At the end of his journey he will cast the ashes into the ocean. I am not sure where the fourth young man was from – all I know is that he just finished a hot shower (this is what Camino conversation is like). What I appreciated about the conversation was the easy camaraderie that these young men had developed with one another. As Lena remarked, walking the Camino can really be an antidote to the demonizing and cynicism we see in our world today.

Klaus, Faith, and Croissant Advice – Hornillos to Castrojeriz

Last night we had dinner at our albergue and there were five of us who enjoyed paella, salad, pudding, and wine for our pilgrim dinner. There was one woman from Brazil (a dance professor at university), one woman from Australia who teaches French and is on an extended sabbatical, Lena, me, and Klaus. Klaus is an older German man (I would say he is in his mid 70s – but he could be older) who is walking the Camino for the seventh time. He is very slow when he speaks, but he is incredibly speedy when he walks. I doubt he stops for anyone. He was a teacher and now a kind of conservator for an “older” man,—but his real life is centered on walking. We left an hour an a half before him today, but when we got to the town we are staying in tonight, he was already here. How did that happen? He, of course, is going further than we are – I doubt we will see him again on the Camino. Below you can see a picture of our dinner fivesome – including Klaus.

Last night we also attended the Pilgrim mass in town. It was in Spanish and hard to follow, but I could make out parts of the Eucharistic prayer (“Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”) I could also understand the Lord’s Prayer and the passing of the peace.

After the service, the priest asked all of us who were pilgrims to come to the front pews and then asked where we were from. From that, we read a kind of pilgrim’s blessing and intention in a variety of languages. Finally, he tried to get folks from each country to sing a song from their nation. I enjoyed the community of it all – and it did bring me out of my funk a bit.

Today, as we walked, we stopped in a church in Hontanas where there was a very interesting “prayer center” that included pictures of “witnesses” from many nations, faiths, and places in life. I found it quite moving and it gave me a different window on this journey, land, and my own faith. At the front of the prayer corner were reproductions of ancient orthodox icons. We lit a candle in anticipation of the coming of the new Baby Boy Zazzera in the next day or so.

Finally, today we had another chocolate croissant as part of our second breakfast. Believe me, I think a lot about chocolate croissants. Today’s was not necessarily the best, but was a wonderful treat after 7 miles or so. Here are some tips about eating them:

  1. Wait until after you’ve had a good morning walk, it tastes better.
  2. If you can get it heated up – that is always a bonus. However, don’t let the lack of a microwave prevent you from eating one.
  3. Avoid the pre-wrapped croissants unless nothing else is available.
  4. Choose a good liquid accompaniment – usually café con leché or fresh squeezed orange juice is best.
  5. Always use a fork and knife – it will last longer that way (and the Spanish have nice small forks).
  6. Allow your partner to choose which croissant she wants, sometimes you will end up with the bigger one.
  7. Remind yourself that you are just eating the way that Europeans do.
  8. Whatever you do, take pleasure in eating this amazing creation!

Irritation, Little Things, and Mary – Burgos to Hornillos

I’m having a hard time being in a good space today. This morning we had a nice walk, I feel rested, and there is nothing pressing. The first day on the meseta was actually quite nice. But I am finding the flies and the smoking and even the conversation and laughter of the people around me irritating. In my life some days are just that way. I am hoping I have the energy and spirit to attend the Pilgrim Mass later – but I am not sure.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about all the decoration in the cathedral yesterday and I realize what I like to to is just focus on one little item – to let everything else drift away. It is more enjoyable, even spiritual, if I do that. Maybe it is the portrayal of a face, maybe it is a particular design, maybe it is something that seems out of place or unique. I’ve put some pictures of some of those things below. See if something stands out to you.

As we were walking along today Lena and I stopped at a humble little chapel dedicated to Mary. In the chapel were two nuns, one stamping pilgrim’s credentiales and the other offering small medallions to them. As the one sister came first to Lena and then to me she placed a medallion around our necks and said words (in Spanish) that can be translated something like, “May Mary be your protector on your Camino to Santiago and may she protect you from danger along the way (Camino) of life.” Now even when I was a Roman Catholic, I was not one with a great devotion to Mary, yet I never found that kind of devotion to be a problem. We often ask people around us to be our protectors and guides. So why not ask those saints who have passed on from this life to offer that same protection, to pray for us, to care for us in whatever ways that are available to them? In any case – I was moved and encouraged by this offering from this sister, this fellow pilgrim in life. May we all be guided and protected by mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, and friends—living or dead.

Horror Vacui – Atapuerca to Burgos

After a 12 mile walk we got to Burgos relatively easily today, and so we had lunch and spent some time in the Burgos Cathedral, officially the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos. It is a beautiful, over the top structure inside and out. Begun in 1221, it reflects French Gothic style and patterns and has had major additions well into the 16th Century. What this means when you see it is that (at least in my mind) it is full of elaborate and excessive design and decoration. Plenty of gold, lots of figures (biblical and otherwise), and the feel of wealth poured out. One fellow pilgrim remarked to us that the interior of the cathedral communicated a “fear of empty space.” There is so little unadorned or unfilled space in this structure. She said she thought there was a word for this concept, and I seemed to remember it from art history class. So I looked it up—and you guessed it—horror vacui—Latin for “fear of empty space.” Gothic architects and artists didn’t invent this idea – you can see this approach in all sorts of art and design, from ancient to contemporary. As a person who values a bit more simplicity (a small candle on a central table, please…), I wonder what this says about the spirituality of the people who built these structures and worshipped in them over the centuries? I wonder if a church like this captures any of our current experience of God or if it is best kept as an art gallery?

Which takes me to my second and related thought. We are now on the verge of beginning to walk the meseta, the vast interior plateau in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, fully one-third of our Camino walk. We start tomorrow and walk this region for about 10 days. Because it is so empty, some people choose to skip the meseta and take a bus from Burgos to Leon. Others bicycle through it because it is so flat and one can do it quickly. I heard one young woman, the first day of her Camino, wonder whether she should avoid the meseta because it is so “boring.” As I think about these responses to the meseta, I wonder if this isn’t also a form of horror vacui? Is this not another type of fear of emptiness? How would you feel about many, many hours of walking flat and straight with very little on the horizon? How would you feel about traveling through land without many buildings, people, or cities?

It is said by some that “the first third of the Camino is for the body, the second third (the meseta) is for the mind, and the last third is for the spirit.” To walk the middle third it helps to be a person who is willing to do some interior work. To reflect. To contemplate. To be open. I really wonder how that will go for us.

Canadians, Common Objects, and Comments – Belorado to Atapuerca

Today was our longest day yet—and though we are feeling it—we must be physically stronger because it doesn’t feel as hard to us as some of the days. My Health App says 21.5 miles. There were not a lot of little towns along the way to capture our attention today, and it was a bit of a forested walk, some up and some downhill. Sunny, dry, but cool. The morning was even cold. I am planning on getting some gloves as my hands felt frostbitten.

Last night we had a pleasant dinner with a Canadian couple, both retired. The husband in the couple retired about as recently as I did. They were delightful – she had been part of an academic program at a school near Vancouver that prepares people for careers in the wine industry. He was a recreational parks planner and consultant with various governmental agencies. As we began to talk to them we thought that surely this was the first big trip for them, but these folks have been traveling for years! They spent months driving an RV around Australia, and eight weeks in Southeast Asia (including bike rides though big cities and motorcycle touring). It was fun to hear tales of all they had done. But even more endearing was their kindness and listening hearts. I’ve seen it in more than one person from north of the border. Maybe people are like this everywhere, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for Canadians.

Some of you know that I am interested in design. I have never been smart or dedicated enough to study and work in industrial design or fields like it, but I am fascinated by how different cultures take on design issues. It is especially fun to see it in common objects. The kind of cup that is used for cafe con leche. The care given to even the most utilitarian fabrics. European plumbing and toilet fixtures. (Ask my brother Joe about this.) How a Spanish dumpster compares to ours. Next time you go to some place totally different, don’t complain that what you see is not like what you are used to, but imagine why a certain culture has solved a design problem in the way they have. It can be fun – even toilets!

Many of you have uploaded comments to this blog, and I want to thank you for that. You can’t imagine the encouragement they are to us. However, if you have paid attention, you know that I am not responding to your comments. That is intentional. I am really trying to stay in the moment and in this experience, so I am trying not to get into conversations that take me away from what I am seeing. I want to offer my thoughts to you as a gift (Lena is also doing so on Facebook), but I am trying to keep away from any dialogue at this point. Think of all we will have to discuss when we are together again…Please know that I really appreciate your encouragement and insights!

Finally, one thought from our walk yesterday…

May you have peace on yourself.

Mileage, iPhone, and la jubilación – Santo Domingo to Belorado

I haven’t listed each day’s mileage on this trip, not that it is not important, but just because other things are more important. However, be assured we talk a lot about “miles” every day. To satisfy curiosity, here is a list of each day’s mileage so far based on my iPhone’s Health App. (Please know that this is not the most accurate measure, but certainly enough to give you a pretty close idea.)

  • Day 1 – September 22 – 5 miles
  • Day 2 – September 23 – 12.2 miles
  • Day 3 – September 24 – 17.4 miles
  • Day 4 – September 25 – 19 miles
  • Day 5 – September 26 – 16.4 miles
  • Day 6 – September 27 – 14.2 miles
  • Day 7 – September 28 – 18.9 miles
  • Day 8 – September 29 – 21.1 miles
  • Day 9 – September 30 – 20.4 miles
  • Day 10 – October 1 – 15.9 miles
  • Day 11 – October 2 – 16.8 miles

Each day has it’s own challenges, so not each mile can really be valued the same. Some miles are uphill, some in the rain, some in the dark, some in the heat. Today we are ALMOST a third of the way through the Camino. It is actually shocking for me to think that. It feels like we have just begun. But I am sure our feet would tell you otherwise.

Like the peregrinos of ancient times, we do use iPhones. Trust me, having a smart phone is a blessing and a curse. When we weren’t sure where the route was this morning in the dark, we were glad to have our phones help with directions. When we needed to make reservations at albergues in the next few towns, we relied on our digital devices to help us. When our new grandson is born later next week, we will be sure to have a FaceTime call with Aaron and Rachel (and the new baby)! Every photo we have taken is taken with our phones. But one of my promises to myself in retirement is to wean myself away from some of the conveniences of my iPhone. For now I am taking a few simple steps. I am not reading or responding to email until after each day’s walk is completed. I am committed to not randomly surfing the net. I am avoiding as much news as I can. It would be a shame to do this walk and only experience it through a digital device. (Of course, I am very aware that this blog would not be possible without my little technological companion.)

It is not lost on me that many people made the point to me that the word “retirement” does not appear in the Bible. That much of God’s work is done through people we consider aged. I fully expect God to use me in new and powerful ways, it just won’t happen in a traditional employment context. It may only be able to happen because of the freedom I now have. In light of all this, I just have to share something a French pilgrim shared with us today. After I told him that Lena and I were able to make this Camino because we are recently retired, he asked us this question: “Do you know what the Spanish word for retirement is?” Of course, we said, “no.” He then told us that the word was “jubilación.” I didn’t really believe him, and thought he was just playing with a gullible American. But, sure enough, he was telling the truth. Retirement is jubilación! Jubilation! I intend to take this quite seriously! (I suspect Lena will recount this story as well – but it was too good to pass up.)

Spec Cities, Anthropology, and Holy Chickens – Nájera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada

Today we continued to walk through the La Rioja region of Spain – vineyards as far as the eye can see. I even managed to have some red wine from the region with my lunch today.

One area we travelled through was especially fascinating. Back before the recession of 2008, Spaniards were as crazy about building housing as we were. Golf courses, homes and vacation areas were built “on spec,” in the hope that people would buy these properties at high prices and that the builders would make a good profit. As you might guess, in many places that never happened. We walked through a kind of ghost city today, called Cirueña. The town was designed for 10,000 people but today there are only a bit more than 100 residents. Lots of condo type buildings are totally complete yet empty. The area is still home to an 18 hole golf course. Sadly, the whole complex stands as a witness to a bygone era and hopes that never materialized.

We continue to meet many fascinating people along the way. Today Lena and I walked about 40 minutes with two young women friends, one from New Zealand, the other from Australia. The one I talked to had just graduated university in anthropology. She is “between commitments” and is making the most of her time. After a bit of a fun trek through Europe with her Australian friend, she and her comrade are taking on the Camino. (After the Camino she is off to teach English in Vietnam with a government sponsored program.) She had wonderful observations about her experiences along the way through Spain. She called the Camino a “liminal,” in-between space, where people make discoveries about what is coming next for them in life. We also had some great conversations about our respective cultures, especially how the majority population in each country has treated its native peoples. I was somewhat surprised to see the many connections between the issues faced in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. So much to learn.

Ending up in Santo Domingo, we learned that there is a particular legend connected with this area. I will let you read about it here if you are interested. Suffice it to say that it has to do with unrequited love, hanging, hens and roosters, and a bit of a resurrection. What that means in the present is that in the beautiful cathedral in town, there is a kind of Gothic chicken coop. When you visit you will see that inside the cathedral there is an area that houses a hen and a rooster as witness to this miracle tale. One local made sure we knew that “they change out the rooster and hen every 15 days!”

Finally, because it makes me smile, here is a picture me eyeing our Spanish hot chocolate and churros. Enjoy!

Boots, Blisters (no photos), and Albergues – Longronõ to Nájera

I love my boots. Or, more properly, I should call them “trail running shoes.” (LaSportiva Wildcats to be exact.) They were comfortable from the moment I put them on. They are light, they breathe, and they look cool (although it is hard to tell that when they are covered with dust). You can see all kinds of shoes on the Camino. In fact you WILL see them stacked somewhere near the entrance of each place you stay because you are not allowed to wear them in your room. You will see big heavy boots that fit above the ankle. Light, low cut shoes. Outdoor sandals. Simple running shoes. Being the most important item of clothing on the Camino, it is a critical choice that each pilgrim makes. Some find they have made the wrong choice, and boots can at times be seen cast aside along the trail. The existence of outdoor stores in this region of the country is evidence that pilgrims often need to make a new choice. Some of us put little identifying objects on the shoes so as to avoid another pilgrim taking our shoes. There is more than one story about a “shoe switch” and about the affect it had on a pilgrim’s walk. What is interesting though is that when all the dusty, smelly, worn boots are all piled up at the end of the day,—they all look about the same

Boots, of course, can lead to blisters. I have heard tales of some who walked the Camino and never had a blister. I don’t believe them. Both Lena and I have experienced various kids of foot issues. Blisters are a big part of that. And everybody has their remedies. Special European bandages called Compeed. Duct tape. Vaseline. Clean socks every few hours. Toe tubes. Wearing two pairs of socks at a time. Cooling off one’s feet in the stream. I’m sure each remedy works for someone. Before we left, a few of you even offered some suggestions and gave me little gifts for my feet. Thank you. I promise a full report on our return.

I’ve already talked some about albergues, the pilgrim hostels we stay at every night. While there is much to say in describing these, I just want to highlight how much they vary. Last night in the town of Longronõ, we stayed in an albergue with 18 people in one room. There was no breakfast provided, and though the place was clean, and the hospitalera was kind – I felt like I wanted to spend as little time there as possible. Tonight’s albergue is a bit of an old house or hotel, along the river park in the town of Nájera. We were able to get a private room (even though we had shared toilets and showers as is typical) and facilities were available for washing and drying clothes. Frankly here there is a homier feel compared with the institutional setting of last night (bunk beds are not my favorite thing). Though there is no breakfast here either, a few riverside cafés are just a few steps away and open early. To be sure, each albergue has its own feel and culture. Mostly, I guess, we’re just glad to have a bed at night.