Santiago de Compostela, to me, was just a place on a map that some acquaintance, now forgotten, mentioned as a wonderful place to visit. And so in 2006 my wife and I, looking for a holiday destination, remembered that advice, and booked a flight to Madrid and onward to Santiago. Thus began our fascination with this very special place. Perhaps it was the pilgrim traffic always in circulation about the town, or the magnificent Cathedral brimming with opportunities for a prayerful moment, or the quaintness of the city and its architecture, or the food and wine, the people, or the spectacular coastline an easy day trip away. Perhaps it was all those things softened and shaped by a week of very pleasant spring weather that set the hook. It was clear that we would return, but the thought of returning on pilgrimage just hadn’t gelled. That would come some years later as a consequence of another event similarly unanticipated.
The Columbia-Snake River System will shut down from The Dalles Dam eastward (upriver) on December 10th of this year. This closure will is scheduled to last for three and a half months, and will allow for some much needed navigation lock maintenance. The company I work for provides barge transportation services on this system. This closure has created a need for us to significantly reduce our operating footprint, and that meant “time off.”At first this was a bit of a shock, but once I calculated I could get by I started thinking about what I might do if I could step out of my “world” and into something totally different for this period of time. The fragments of a plan started gathering in my mind. I wonder if we might just… could we… and then, why not.
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Why not do something uniquely different from anything we had done before? Reflecting back on our previous experience in Santiago de Compostela that could only mean walking the Camino, from St. Jean to Santiago. So, only somewhat aware of what we were about to embark on, we set our minds to this purpose, and over the course of more than a year made the necessary preparations of mind, body and purse to allow this to happen. This will be for us our first Camino, and very much an inner journey as well as one between places on a map. How many times have we all heard, about traveling, that it is not about the destination but rather the journey. It is how the time is spent in between departure and arrival that truly creates an opportunity for change, if you allow yourself to be open to change. Yes, we will be traveling during the dead of winter, but that has its advantages as well, fewer distractions, more contemplative time, and less competition for shelter at the end of the day (how’s that for positive spin). We are not minimizing the challenge. We have tried to prepare for it. There is no guarantee we will make it (lot’s of people do, yet some don’t). Many things can happen over the course of walking 500 miles that are absolutely unpredictable (much like life in any place, at any time) but try we must, and try we shall. However this turns out Robin and I are convinced our lives will be forever changed. What follows, over the coming weeks, will be the story of that journey, our Christmas Camino, set to begin on December 15th.
And that is exactly what I am about to do. Sure, I could list a few reasons why I am doing this; why I am leaving the comfort of my own home, those familiar faces with whom I share laughs and sometimes a few tears, and, ah…that endless list of things to do….. What would those reasons be you might ask? I could say as John O’Donohue put it, to explore “the invisible geography” of my inner self or, to walk with silence to taste what it is like to be in profound repose. But in truth, I really don’t know why I am doing this Camino. Perhaps, it isn’t important to know why but I dare to say that it is significant, at least for me, to feel, for the first time in my life, that I am okay with the unknown, I am okay without having any plans, and I am ready to experience what might be, without exerting so much effort so as to understand ‘why’. Of course, one does not have to leave one’s own home and set out a long journey to do a pilgrimage. As J and I have been training for this since last Christmas 2009, I became more aware that the life itself is a pilgrimage. I wonder if this endless list of earthly desires we’ve created, and strive to accomplish, have anything to do with The Destination we hope to reach one day. Yes, you guessed it. The more questions I ask, the more confusion gets on my nerves, yet the more comfortable I become with who I am. So while my body travels through the terrain of Spain for next 54 days (or so), I am mindful of the fact that those questions are blessings and all I have to do is to simply trust, trust what is. It might take the Camino de Santiago to know ‘why’ or, perhaps, it might take multiple life times. But, I do know one thing; my longing has brought me to this point. And for now, I am happy with that simple truth. Okay, I know I am rambling on so I will offer some wisdom from Thomas Merton who has articulated some of these things much better than I ever could in this life or the next.
As one prepares for any Camino the question of what to bring and what to leave behind looms very large. It is all about the weight of your pack and the effects of that weight on your body as you continually walk 15-20 miles per day. Recommendations suggest limiting your pack weight to no more than 10 percent of your body weight. In the end my pack weighed in at just about that but Robin’s was a bit more. This included allowances for food and water. I have linked our pack lists to this post. Robin and I managed to keep to the bare essentials. Mine included two sets of long johns (one capilene 3 and one power stretch fleece), two capilene T shirts, two pairs of underwear (ex officio), three pairs of Smartwool hiking socks with three pairs of liners (Injinji), one pair mid weight softshell pants (Marmot Scree), one pair waterproof softshell pants (REI Taku), and a waterproof shell jacket (Marmot Genesis). What we aren’t wearing along with the usual other odds and ends are going into Aarn (NZ company) Peak Aspiration backpacks with the sport balance pockets. These packs have been on our backs for many months loaded with training weight and fit and carry beautifully. Our sleeping system is a down quilt made by Nunatak called the Back Country Blanket. This has a full length velcro closure instead of a zipper (lighter). It has drawcords that gather the bottom together and the top around your shoulders to form a sleeping bag tube out of the flat quilt. Weighs 1.5 pounds and is good to 20F (so advertised). We will use a Sea to Summit premium silk liner (4.5 ounces) with it for extra warmth and to keep the quilt cleaner. We will also carry the altus rain poncho which seems to be a staple on the Camino. We both will be using Pacer poles. One tip of the hat to technology is my Kindle which has my reading material as well as guide book information on it and weighs less than the print guidebook. Robin will carry her iPhone. On our hands we will wear waterproof Marmot Precip gloves with optional liners. I should also mention we will be using Hikers Wool (an NZ product) as a blister prevention product instead of the frequently recommended vaseline under the liner socks. We have been using the wool for months and love it. But in the end, as with all this gear, the Camino will tell us whether we have made the right choices.
As part of our physical preparation for the Camino Robin and I decided to replicate the crossing of the Pyrenees from St. Jean (France) to Roncesvalles (Spain). As one learns more about the Camino concern seems to grow about that first day, or two, crossing the mountains into Spain. There are a great many posts on a variety of forums where others have recounted their struggles. We wondered just how bad this was going to be. The closest local hike we could find that fit the bill was the Larch Mountain Trail. We drove to the trailhead at Multnomah Falls Lodge, just east of Portland, and set out from there, in fine weather, at 9:30 one Saturday. We returned at 5:10 after a 14 mile hike that gained 4,000 feet in the first 6.8 miles. Surprisingly all went well. We were pretty much done at the end but we carried our Camino packs at 20# and 16# respectively and survived. No blisters, used the Pacer hiking poles (couldn’t have done it without them). I also will confirm that the downhill trip is the worst. It really does affect your knees. I will be looking for some kind of wrap or elastic bandage to help with that. Gorgeous hike through something that looks like a Lost World set. Paths that varied from cushy pine needles to sharp broken rock to boulder fields (yikes). Robin did great. No blisters, but she was a little sore the next morning. We now know we can do the mountain pass crossing from France into Spain (we have done it – sort of). At the end of the hike we celebrated with an icy cold beer at the lodge and then shuffled (did I mention the knees) out to the parking lot for the trip home and more celebrating. Great day.
J and I decided that today is the last day of our training for the Camino. So we walked 11 miles this afternoon and our minds and bodies are ready to pause until our departure on December 13th. I thought how fitting it is to conclude our training on the 1st Sunday of Advent; time to stop and await the new beginning. It sort of feels like that rest note in the music, not a complete stop but a moment of rest and anticipate the next note. It is that quiet emptiness I love the most. My yoga teacher frequently reminds me to learn how to rest in that empty space; the space between what has passed and what is to come, completely independent from what has taken place and what is to anticipate but what is. Oh, did I mention music? I used to spend so much efforts and time for practice, practice and some more practice but only able to sing softly for so many years. I couldn’t bring myself risking the imperfectness of my voice being heard by someone. One day, fueled by utter exhaustion, I finally asked myself the hard question. “Who is singing?” Really, who is singing? Who is walking? Who is breathing? It is my desire that I will have enough presence of the mind to ask myself the same question as I walk the Camino. Because, it always bring me back to that empty space in my heart where I can rest. There, nothing has been changed, completely unaffected by life and my perceptions and burdensome opinions dissolve into nothingness for they are indeed, nothing. I am grateful for the One who has been and will be walking with me. And, as they say, the rest is history.