The Road Ahead

St. Jean Pied de Port

The Pilgrim spirit remains our constant companion. Each day echoes of footfalls past join with the footfalls of our daily local walks as we joyfully recall our time on the Camino Frances. We find ourselves being nourished both in body, and spirit during these regular periods of quiet reflection and physical exertion, and are pleasantly surprised at the many Camino moments that find their way into our thoughts. If there were such a thing as a happiness meter, that could be rigged to read Camino emotion, then surely (for us) it would always be spinning the dial. The hunger to walk the Camino again has become a palpable thing that transcends a simple yearning to revisit a pleasant experience. In fact, the past two years since our departure from the Camino have proven to be a remarkable extended pilgrimage as the Spirit continues to strengthen our faith, and guide our life’s journey. A little added bonus, one might say, that just surprises and amazes us.

As I reflect on this blessing a passage from Isaiah (God’s poet) comes to mind, “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths…come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” It is just this sense of climbing God’s holy mountain to learn his ways, and discover his paths that fuels our pilgrim journey. We are urged forward, warmly cloaked with a comforting sense of peace and purpose, ready for the road ahead that now is leading us back to France where this all began (or did it).

Preparations

Robin on a late afternoon training walk
Robin and I have purchased our air tickets and made all other travel arrangements to get from Vancouver, WA, to St. Jean Pied de Port by Dec 30th. God willing we will start our second trip down the Camino Frances on Dec 31st. We have been preparing for this upcoming Camino since the day we returned from our first one, two years ago. In those many months in between much has transpired that has made us ever more aware of our call to, and appreciation of, the Camino. Suffice it to say this is where we want to be. This is where we need to be. As for the rest that is in God’s hands. For our part, we have stayed in shape, reassessed our gear, avoided the burden of expectations, and made promises to be better pilgrims in all that that means.
A stretch at Tidewater Cove, Columbia River

The simple bliss of going on pilgrimage overshadows all the conjured images of problems trying in vain to gain traction in our minds. No travelers anywhere are sheltered from adversity, but we have come to believe that although pain (adversity, discomfort, etc.) may be present suffering is optional. It is our hope, and intention, to practice this as we inch our way westward through the wintery landscape. As always, it is the understanding of the unique opportunity found in this journey that cautions us to be worthy travelers ready to compassionately share the pilgrim road, with its bounty and its bumps, with all fellow pilgrims that we encounter. The blessing of this growing pilgrim community is a shared willingness to embrace, encourage, comfort, and support all those encountered as we continue the journey. Each of us has a special role to play to make this happen. The challenge is to move along the Camino (and make our way through life) in such a manner that our inherent selfishness does not prevent us from recognizing and responding to the needs of others. I find that walking with a humble heart, open to God’s grace, helps that process along nicely. But, hey, that’s just me. Or, is that you, too?

Fall foliage along our walking route

 

Lengthening shadows at Fort Vancouver Park

 

A chilly (but dry) afternoon upper 40’s

 

 

Columbia River Interstate 5 crossing between Washington and Oregon
Camino thoughts

Pilgrimage Pose

So I was in my yoga class and at one point our teacher prompted us to go into the Child’s pose so we went. I saw my fellow students gathering a few props, knowing that we will be in this pose for a good 5 minutes or so, we all wanted to make sure we can give (everything) into the floor. About a minute into the pose our teacher tells us that this pose is also known for a pilgrimage pose; tightly folded body resembling a fetus in the womb, journeying back to where we came from, slowly counting our own breathing to fend off temptations from the ever fleeing mind. I was struck with awe about the timing of hearing this, and the invitation for me to once again, remind myself that our upcoming 2nd pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago has indeed, very little to do with physical experience but everything to do with inner awakening if we seek it. We have a guidebook, we have a wealth of information about the terrain we will be walking, the weather and places to stay….. But, in truth, we will be walking what Meister Eckhart called “a way-less way”, the inner journey. This is not about counting mileposts, but exploring the inner landscape. I suddenly remembered a verse from John’s Gospel; “My sheep know my voice. I know them and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

So, there I was, my head deeply bowed to the earth, shoulders heavily draped from my spine and onto  profoundly folded knees, my hands resting alongside my feet, and I was silently weeping.
Will I? Will I be able to hear you, Lord? In the winds of Meseta, in the refuge of a deserted hermitage, in the chant of a wind driven stand of Eucalyptus trees, in the sound of church bells from a distant village, and perhaps in the sound of my own breathing and foot steps, will I have inner ears to hear Your Voice, O Lord?

Robin

 

Into the Silence

As our departure for the Camino draws ever closer, I am drawn to thoughts of solitude and silence and the gift of this respite. It is rare indeed when we allow ourselves to hit the pause button and interrupt our busy lives, and just reflect. I have come to realize just how much of my past life has been lived in a state of hyper activity where silence was shunned, perhaps even feared. When we are convinced that all manner of good things emanate from our ability to control our lives through hard work, knowledge, good judgement, and commitment to following an upward path to success, our peace is at greatest risk. It is the overwhelming sense of our own greatness (self-importance) that blinds our way forward, and locks away the humbleness so necessary for spiritual growth. There is nothing in this material world that has permanence either in substance or in its ability to please and pleasure us. Yet, we remain in thrall with its glitter, mesmerized by the siren’s song of mind numbing sales pitches that pound our ears and crush our souls. We remain defenseless until we reach that point where the search for truth turns us away from these ever present distractions and towards the light of God’s peace.

I continue to read Thomas Merton, and find his guidance to be an invaluable companion on my journey of faith. In his book, No Man is an Island, he illuminates the path to peace which is awakening to God’s love, and loving God in return.

He tells us, “If our lives are poured out in useless words we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts, where Christ lives and speaks in silence.” 

“There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he has ever prayed: when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom; distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of the hill.”


“In silence we learn to make distinctions. Those who flee silence, flee also from distinctions. They do not want to see too clearly. They prefer confusion.”


“A man who loves God…avoids the unending movement that blurs all beings together into a crowd of indistinguishable things.”


“Those who do not know there is another life after this one resist fruitful silence…Even when their own tongues are still, their minds chatter without end and without meaning, or they plunge themselves into the protective noise of machines…”


“How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark, where there is no enemy.”


“If the spirit that kept the flame of physical life burning in our bodies took care to nourish itself with the oil that is found only in the silence of God’s charity, then when the body dies, the spirit itself goes on burning the same oil, with its own flame. But if the spirit has burned all along with the base oils of passion, or egoism, or pride, then when death comes the flame of the spirit goes out with the light of the body because there is no more oil in the lamp.”


“If at the moment of our death, death comes as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has been an unwelcome stranger.”

Embracing the solitude of a Camino, and using that to offer our love to God is always a compelling part of being on pilgrimage. Any journey can offer the allure of excitement, but the essence of our pilgrimage is not to be found in the charms of the physical world, as pleasant and intriguing as they might be.

We shall walk, as we live, in the hope and joy of God’s grace and mercy, ever thankful for the gift of being called to do so. Oh, and BTW, we plan a hell of a lot of fun as well.

Packing day

Today our schedule was pretty much cleared so Robin and I decided to get an early start on packing our Camino gear. We are leaving next Friday, but  what the heck its just one less thing to do as Christmas approaches. As you can see we made it. Both packs weigh around 18 pounds. A good portion of that weight is the pack itself  (about 5 pounds). That is a bit on the heavy side for a Camino pack, but it includes the front pouches, which are very handy, and waterproof liners for both the pack and the pouches.

We are using the Aarn Peak Aspiration model which delivers about 40L in the main pack and 12L for the front pouches (combined). We are not carrying a lot of gear, but as you can see the packs are pretty full. I don’t think we could get by with a 30L pack that many use at other times of the year. Part of the weight comes from a small camera, and an iPad mini (for blogging). Those two items with the cases, and cables add close to two pounds. The test for me is how the pack carries. Our experience with this pack system has been very positive. We carried basically the same weight last Camino (2010), and had no problems. These packs are very comfortable in this weight range (my only experience), but I believe they would also do quite well with weights up into the 35-40 pound range for through hiking. They have an internal aluminum frame that is light, but not ultra light. The frame transfers the weight effectively to the hip belt. We never feel any shoulder pain, and the hip belt is quite comfortable. Our kit rounds out with Pacer poles, Salomon boots for me (nice wide toe box), and a pair of Merrell mids for Robin. Both pairs of boots are Gore Tex lined.

We always are concerned about lost or delayed baggage, but have decided to accept potential delays for the convenience of checking our gear. We use an inexpensive REI pack duffel that holds everything in the top photo with just a pinch of room left over. The duffel, loaded out, weighs 45 pounds (packs, boots, poles, and clothing we will walk in). We will carry two small daypacks on the plane. These we will mail to Santiago once we get to St. Jean. So with the exception of a few small items related to walking away from our home for 7 weeks we are ready to go. Yes!

Companions on the journey

Every Camino is a gift and a blessing. Robin and I try to remain mindful of this throughout the journey. There is a wonderful Catholic song that I hear occasionally at mass called The Servant’s Song. The words always strike me as appropriate as we prepare for pilgrimage. “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.”  Those words speak not just to the rigors of the road ahead, but also remind us of the importance of walking with humbleness and charity as our own personal Camino companions. This journey is long and complex enough to ensure we will need the help of others, at some point, for something. Being open to, and thankful for, the charity and kindness of strangers can, oddly enough, sometimes fall outside our comfort zone. Some might see an offer of help as an unpleasant reminder of a personal failure of some sort (inadequate planning, lack of foresight, who knows what). It is essential to approach the Camino free from those kinds of recriminations. Shedding the burden of self importance gifts us with a transcending grace that allows us to find joy both in receiving help from, and giving help to, those who unexpectedly enter our lives.

We walk by faith, not by sight, trying to be free from that all too human need to be in control of everything. The need to be masters of our destiny (good luck with that) is just one of many superfluous burdens we willingly leave behind. Externally, successfully walking the Camino requires careful attention to the weight of one’s pack. Internally, that same accounting holds true for those many other burdens that can (and usually do) impede one’s progress. The Camino teaches us about minimalism, about how to discern wants from needs. When we make poor choices our bodies suffer under an unnecessary physical burden. At all times, not just on the Camino, we have the opportunity to review the things we choose to “carry” and assess their burden. A wise person quickly learns what has value and what must be left behind. As we all walk our own pilgrim journeys we hopefully discover that the quality of our peace is actually measured in the quantity of unfulfilling wants left scattered behind us.

Less than two days to departure.

A Pilgrim Prayer


While I was packing the other day, I found a small rock in my backpack. I remembered that I picked this up a few weeks ago at Tidewater Cove, the turn-around point for our usual 10 mile walk. It was a clear day. John and I took off our backpacks to rest for a few minutes before heading back home. I decided to look for a rock to bring with me as an offering at Cruz del Ferro (the Iron Cross which is the highest point on the Camino). So I was looking at this small, pinkish rock and decided that I will write a short prayer, wrap it around the rock and store it in my backpack. But, as soon as I sat down in front of my laptop, immediately a surge of emotions came over me and I started to weep. I couldn’t continue so I sat there until it subsided.

I always knew that I had this longing in my heart for the Unknown, God, something much more than this life, some being who knows all and accepts all. But I was surprised how this longing visits me when I least expect it, and with every opportunity it can seize. I guess this is the reason why I walk the Camino. I offer myself to myself by leaving the comfort of my own home, all the amenities that I have acquired to make my life easier, and step into a place where I am rather ‘vulnerable’. In that place I no longer own more than my backpack. I even leave behind those carefully crafted stories of mine. I am willing to experience the freedom that comes from not knowing.

I did manage to write a short prayer….

“Lord, I have come here, once again, to Cruz del Ferro. I have come to lay down, all that is not me, and reclaim all that You have bestowed within me. May this prayer guide me onward from this point and throughout my life. For I desire to be love, joy, happiness and be ever closer to You. Amen.”

Robin

Dec 31, 2012 Taking it easy to Valcarlos

After a mostly restful night at the municipal albergue in St. Jean we said goodbye to Madame Jenine, our hospitalera, and walked out into a chilly, partly cloudy, morning. Our number has grown by one with the addition of Harry, a young software engineer from Korea. One thing of note is the increased numbers of winter pilgrims. Antoine, at the pilgrim office, showed us his ledger. The pages for the previous two days were full (maybe 15 entries per page). But for today it is just the three of us. Robin and I headed for the post office and Harry headed out of town. We all are walking the valley route. Antoine emphasized taking the valley route and accordingly placed red x’s all along the Route Napoleon on the route map he gave us. We got the point. We walked through the Port d’Espagne about 9:30 and after a moment to contemplate our journey, tighten our packs, and hug one another, we set out. Our second Camino was officially underway.
Harry and Robin

 

The day was perfect for walking. The temperature at departure was close to 40 F and the weather was dry. It always takes time to adjust to carrying our packs regardless of how much training we do. This trip was no different. The packs carried well, but the weight was there nonetheless. 7-10 days from now we will not even be thinking about them but for now it is time to get reacquainted. We enjoyed the climb but I must admit that two more years on my body (since our last Camino) have surfaced a few new aches and pains. The Advil is at the ready. We arrived a Valcarlos about 1:00, got the pass code for the albergue door at a local bar, had a couple of beers and headed for the shower. We have rejoined with Harry at the albergue and are currently having some soup to hold us until dinner. Robin is making pasta tonight from what we could cobble together from the local store. I am not sure what sort of New Year’s celebration to expect here in Valcarlos, but whatever it is it is unlikely we will hear the stroke of midnight. Colder temps expected tomorrow. At one point today, as the sun found a chink in the cloud cover, the temperature climbed into the upper 50’s (too hot for this crew). All is well on Day1. Happy new year to all.

 

Jan 1, 2013 Valcarlos: Day begins

Valcarlos greeting the new year

I awoke to the new year about 5:30 this morning and wandered out to the kitchen to make some coffee. Harry and Robin have yet to stir, but should be following the smell of the coffee shortly. Our new year’s celebration was a pleasant discussion over a couple of bottles of wine. No funny hats or party favors, just the pleasure of one another’s company as we contemplated what lies ahead both in the near term for our pilgrimage and for the ensuing months of 2013. Prayers for peace and a safe passage to Santiago are needed and welcomed. This albergue is a blessed retreat. The heaters work wonderfully and have kept us warm and snug all night. Robin has just joined me and said she slept less than an hour last night! Not good as we face a fairly strenuous climb today. But the body does what it will do and I am sure she will sleep well in Roncesvalles tonight. I cracked open the front door to do a weather check. The early morning mountain silhouettes are barely visible against the still indigo sky. The ground is damp from passing light rain showers. It is cool, but not cold. All in all, a good day is in the offing, and I can’t imagine any place I would rather be.

Peace be with you.