Feb 7, 2015: Tàrrega to Panadella 28.2 K

Today began with a look at the weather forecast. It showed the current temperature in Tàrrega as 31 F with an expected high of 44. This was much improved over yesterday so I opted to leave my long underwear and vest in my pack for today’s walk. Part of my thinking was we would be doing more climbing today so lighter gear should be okay. We set off and, once clear of the city, we walked through a beautiful narrow valley. Up on many high points, along the way, were villages clustered around medieval fortress ruins. Quite striking in the early morning light. The valley itself felt intimate as the hills drew near about us. This is their first time since the Basque Country where we have seen this kind of terrain. The pleasant and dramatic scenery helped us enjoy the morning as we walked very briskly along trying to keep warm. As it turned out Tàrrega might be at 31, but my backpack thermometer registered 19 in the valley, as we waited for the sun to warm the day. Gotta keep moving. The trail from Tàrrega to Cervera was actually a rural paved road, where we were able to make very good time (remember the 19 degree factor). We climbed up into this hilltop town and pulled over at the only bar we saw open in the plaza in front of the church. It was definitely carajillo time. Orujo or cognac was the question from the lady behind the bar. I thought for a brief moment about a shot of each, but then there would be no room for the coffee. Nothing is easy. We settled on the cognac and soon some heat was flowing through the frozen extremities of our bodies. The sun was climbing higher into the sky, and the bitter cold of our departure was now a thing of the past. We thanked our bar lady who had squeezed us into her very small bar with a very hot heater (It was more like a double wide phone booth than a bar), and started our steep descent from the hilltop. As we were gawking at the view we picked up the distant sounds of drums. It was faint but persistent. Perhaps a local garage band warming up? Not exactly. As we swung around the perimeter of the town we spotted a group of young guys atop a parapet practicing with their drums. It was great. The sound of those drums continued to roll down the valley floor long after we left Cervera.

Climbing was in our profile today, nothing serious but still it had to be done. As it turned out most of the climbing was through left over snow that due to our now higher elevation was still on the ground. So we stomped through some drifts, and back slid along slick patches, and generally had to concentrate to keep moving forward. There were also many icy sections today that reminded us how easy it could be to have an end of Camino fall. We proceeded with caution, and appreciated the few bare spots the afternoon sun offered up. Our destination today was the town of La Panadella 28.2 K from Tàrrega. We hopped a ride cross town from our hostal in Tàrrega so I’m estimating we probably walked 24 K today. As the afternoon wore on and we made our final course change to head for Panadella we found ourselves facing a long moderate climb through snow. This dragged on for about 45 minutes, but felt a lot longer. We topped our hill to see a large sign identifying the town. Day was now done, at least the walking part. We have returned to Cervera to spend the night at a hostal, and will return in the morning to Panadella to walk on to Igualada. We did see a truck stop hostal in Panadella so that would be an option for an overnight. Right now, Robin and I are in our room cozying up to a small space heater for warmth, waiting for our laundry to finish. Three more days to go. St. Ignatius pray for us.

Feb 8, 2015: Panadella to Igualada 21.8 K

It is now just three days to go to Manresa, and Robin and I were anxious to get underway. We caught a lift at 8:30 from our hostal in Cervera to just past Panadella and started walking. It was another very cold morning with gusty winds back in the picture. As I looked at today’s walk on the gps map it just seemed to follow the highway all the way to Igualada. My concerns over this development were put at ease when we came upon a segregated bike path that followed the road. This path led us downhill all day and into the suburbs of Igualada. There wasn’t much to see other than passing cars, but we were safely separated from them, and we were not slogging through snow. All in all not a bad trade off. But, as a consequence of today’s path there are only a couple of photographs to post. Tomorrow we are off to Monserrat, and photo ops should abound as we climb into the mountains. 

Feb 9, 2015: Igualada to Montserrat 26.8 K

Today our goal was the Benedictine monastery at Monserrat. Robin has been doing some reading and discovered that the Basilica has a boy’s choir that sings Monday through Friday at 1:00 pm. That changed everything, and now our arrival time has to be prior to 1:00. We opted for a lift to the outskirts of Castellolí which chopped about 9.5 K off today’s walk. The climb to Montserrat starts here so we still had some work to do. We left our driver and pushed off uphill into the morning cold. We soon found ourselves double checking the gps frequently to make sure we were on the path as the path was not always well defined. It was a steady moderate climb along a trail that had moments of promise, but more frequently moments of frustration. It just seemed to decide to disappear from time to time. This was the only time I have used the compass function on my phone to confirm where we should be going. We were headed for a road, which I knew was close by, but there was no discernible trail to follow. Hence the compass. So we bushwhacked a bit and eventually we found some goat path that had a semblance of use, and followed it. It had a few odd steep descents where you had to sit on rocks to slide down as you could not span the distance by stepping. Anyhow down we went on a trail that didn’t look like a trail, but had some markings, until we spotted the road. We scrambled up, actually side stepped up, to the road, and got our bearings. We were now standing on pavement and this would be our trail for the rest of the 9K into Montserrat.

We simply walked the road (no other option). We enjoyed the fine walking weather, and the views were spectacular, so we just put the road walking issue aside and moved on (cautiously). The iconic view of the serrated rock formations came quickly today and stayed with us as we walked from one side around to the other, where the monastery is. There is no denying the impact that walking into this sanctuary creates. It is a holy place that just grips you as you enter. We swiveled our heads around trying to see every stunning view at once. Very hard on the neck, thank you very much. But, stunning it is. We stopped by the pilgrim office to get our credentials stamped, and they asked if we needed a place to sleep. We explained we had a reservation in the Hotel Abat Cisneros right next door. I mention this as the Benedictines are committed to showing pilgrims true hospitality. I can’t imagine any pilgrim arriving here, asking for lodging, being denied. A bed would be found somewhere.

We walked next door to our hotel, found that the lady who handles check ins was indisposed for a bit so we dropped our gear and headed to the basilica for a look around and, of course, to hear the boy’s choir at 1:00. It was a short program of two songs that were sung beautifully. What a way to walk into town. Returning to the hotel we splurged on an à la carte lunch which was just perfect. After lunch we retreated to our room to unpack and clean up. Pilgrim chores still had to be done. Our next event for the day would be to attend vespers at 6:45 with the monks and the boy’s choir singing the service. And so it went just a gorgeous day filled with splendid scenery, beautiful music, and prayer. Throw in a great meal and the day was as perfect as anyone could hope for. After the vespers we walked the now almost vacant plaza, gazed down (way down I’m telling you) to the lights in the distant villages and towns below, and just drew in the unique peace of this place. What a day!

Feb 10, 2015: Montserrat to Manresa 23.7 K

Our final day on this Camino dawned clear and crisp, with spectacular views unfolding as the dawn pushed back the night. The view from our hotel window captivated us to the point that we just sat and watched as the day came to life. Finally the church bells calling the monks to prayer at 7:00 (I am making a guess here as there was some serious bell ringing going on) got us moving and down to breakfast at 8:00. As we walked about 4 K of today’s walk yesterday coming into Montserrat we opted  to start out this morning from Cristòfol. It was a beautiful day with the rising sun offering promise of a milder day ahead. We walked along rural paths and roads for most of the day, with one exception. This was a guardrail hugging sprint for about 500 meters that caused us to slam our butts into the rail (add a big inhale) when trucks were forced our way by oncoming traffic. We were delivered and released a huge sigh of relief as we turned left onto a gravel road that was mercifully devoid of traffic. This same road led us upward in a prolonged moderate climb that eventually opened up a distant view of Manresa below us. We carried on enjoying the warm early afternoon air, gradually peeling away unnecessary gear as the temperature rose.

We dropped slowly down and into the rural suburbs of Manresa. Here we followed narrow paths through fields and along stone walls until we came upon the Torre Santa Caterina, an old watchtower that overlooks the city. Here we could see Manresa spread out before us and La Cova (The Cave) complex dead ahead. We started a slow steep descent down a tricky and rocky path, crossing the Old Bridge that St. Ignatius would have crossed as well. We had no idea where we were going except to the La Cova complex to find someone who could direct us to the Pilgrim Office. That someone turned out to be the receptionist at the Jesuit Retreat House, the only office we found open. She kindly explained that pilgrim affairs were handled in the church office that would open at 3:00, one hour from now. We opted to find our lodging for the night, and return later. This we did, after a quick bite to eat as well. We did our best pilgrim shuffle back to the church, where you enter to visit The Cave, and presented ourselves to the lady manning a desk in the sacristy. She spoke little English, but we communicated who we were (pilgrims from Loyola) and what we needed (credentials stamped and completion certificates), and she got to work. We shortly had our documents and were officially entered into the database. She did tell us one other person had arrived from Zaragoza a couple of days before us, but we were the first pilgrims to arrive this year from Loyola. We never saw a single pilgrim along this route in 27 days of walking (other than 12 bound for Santiago, on the Camino Frances in Logroño).

Our arrival today was expected to be different from a Santiago arrival simply because there are so few pilgrims that little fanfare is warranted. Once we received our documents we were told that we could not visit The Cave as repairs were currently underway. So, it was a bit of a strange arrival, and yes a bit of a let down. In fairness, after such a such a great experience in Montserrat, it would be hard to improve on that. But, we offered our prayers of thanksgiving in the church and slipped out the door as more construction workers slipped in.

Our plan was to spend two days here, but that has now changed. We will break camp tomorrow and head for Barcelona a day earlier (things could be worse). The train station is just down the road, and our host here in Manresa told us that the trains to Barcelona leave about every 30 minutes (6 euros). For now we are back in our apartment undergoing the transformation from pilgrim to turista. Our work here is done and it is time to start thinking of home and things to come. This Camino has touched Robin and I in a way we did not expect. In many ways we both agree that this was the best Camino we have walked, not because of anything other than how it moved the needle on our faith journey. It just seemed to have a life of its own, that happened to include us (if that makes any sense). But, I think I will let the roots of this journey sink a little deeper before saying anything more. 
Thanks to all of you who shared this remarkable journey with us. Reading encouraging comments, that seem to arrive just when you need them most, is always a blessing. Robin and I will post some follow up comments once we get home. 
Peace and blessings from Manresa,
John and Robin

Feb 13, 2015: Barcelona 0 K

The cathedral bell just tolled 8:00. Robin and I have been awake for perhaps an hour. With some free time on my hands I decided to post a brief update on our travels. We have been both blessed and spoiled since departing Manresa for Barcelona. First of all the train from Manresa could not have been more convenient. On Wednesday we went to mass at the cathedral in Manresa in a beautiful chapel just below the main alter. It was pretty well attended, for a daily mass, with an ancient priest as presider. No early retirement for him. After mass we gathered our gear, and made the short walk to the train station, bought our tickets, and crossed under the tracks to the far side where our train awaited us. Ten minutes later we slipped quietly out of the station. A hour and fifteen minutes later we pulled into the station at Plaza Catalunya. This train was a local and had made several stops on the way into Barcelona. Plaza Catalunya was not the end of the line but was close to our hotel, the Hotel Montecarlo, so off we jumped. We quickly got our bearings and walked down La Rambla two blocks to our hotel. The trip couldn’t have been easier. In we walked and were told that our room had been upgraded to a suite. The young man at the desk, who spoke excellent English, seemed quite happy that we would get to enjoy a larger room. As we opened the door to 308 we we’re shocked to find ourselves dropped into the lap of luxury. We had spent nights on this pilgrimage where our room was not much larger than just our bathroom. Robin loved the huge spa style tub. So, another unexpected gift. Makes me kind of wonder. La Rambla is the main artery through the old part of the city and was surprisingly bustling with tourists even in February. Despite all this activity, and the fact that our hotel was right on this street, we have slept soundly never hearing a thing. Admittedly our room did not face the street. It is a perfect setting for enjoying the city, with all kinds of shops, restaurants, bars, and sights right close at hand.

One of our must see things was the Sagrada Famìlia Basilica. This is a wondrous creation envisioned by native son, Antoni Gaudi. The grounbreaking dates back to 1882, but much work still continues today. I believe I heard that the estimated completion date is now, 2030. The genius of Gaudi is evident throughout this amazing church. His attention to detail, his engineering skills, and his artistic vision has all come to life in a structure unlike anything else in the world (I would guess). If you want to visit it is recommended to purchase your tickets online. You don’t need to print them as they can scan your phone at the entrance. We also took advantage of the local hop on, hop off, bus tour. It was a great way to get a feel for the city. A one day pass is 27 euros per person. Beyond those two things we just roamed through the old part of the city enjoying a coffee here, a glass of wine there, a few tapas, even an actual meal, and then more people watching at night. Barcelona has great tourist infrastructure, and whether you speak Spanish or not is not an issue. It is easy to get what you need. It is a beautiful city with lots to see, and do. We will be catching a taxi at 3:30 am to head for Amsterdam where we will connect to a direct flight to Portland. We should be home by noon on Saturday. We have had a wonderful time in Spain, but it is now time to turn homeward bound, and we are now ready. So, goodnight from Barcelona, another city that seems to do well with little sleep. 


Fort Vancouver near our home

The days, since returning from Spain, have been spent reconnecting to our home life. Although we were only gone for just over a month, returning from a Camino always seems a bit like emerging from a time warp. The way of the pilgrim is so different that it does require a sort of reorientation upon returning home. Having the freedom to get up when you want, do something else other than walking, not obsessing over the weather, eating and drinking what you please are all simple choices that we take for granted. These become distant, but tantalizing, recollections once you are on the Camino trail. The discipline required to cover long distances, in all kinds of weather, does limit certain freedoms, but less familiar freedoms also appear as offsets. In short you adopt a less complicated lifestyle characterized by a tighter focus, with fewer distractions, and an overwhelming desire to stay warm and dry. Whatever lifestyle limitations are necessary to walk a Camino are more than offset by the hope engendered by the Way, and all that you encounter while walking it.

Yes, we all love our comfort, but it can cut a groove in our lives that causes us to get stuck. The willingness to step outside of our comfort zone and put many of our favorite pleasures on hold is not a bad thing. In fact, it is absolutely a good thing, a healthy thing. I guess that in part explains why Robin and I continue to return. Camino life is not always easy but it nurtures the mind, the body, and the soul. It also allows you to experience people in uniquely interesting ways. Robin and I are always warmed by the kindness of strangers, and humbled by their generosity. Every time we walk we add more to our blessings list than we could ever have hoped to imagine. Yes, there is also venality (very little), but so what. Humans will be human after all. It is how you choose to process those disappointments that allows you to grow, and move on. But, that is all part of any Camino.

The Camino Ignaciano captured all the things I have mentioned above, but seemed to be a richer experience than our previous Caminos. It certainly wasn’t anything physical, although the scenery was pretty stunning in parts. It was more metaphysical. Robin is fond of quoting someone who said, “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” I think this lies at the core of why the Ignaciano route touched us the way it did. Our hearts were simply more open to the discoveries of this pilgrimage. It was very much a solitary walk as we counted only 12 Santiago bound pilgrims when we passed, eastbound, through Logroño. We never encountered a single other pilgrim on the Ignaciano route for the 27 days we walked it. We were left with our thoughts, reflections, musings, and prayers for long periods of time. Did this occasion a more open heart? Perhaps, but I find it is always difficult to triangulate the origin of these things. Sometimes you just find yourself in a certain state of mind that is hard to explain (the Spirit blows where it will), but you feel blessed. I think I will just leave it there.

We are continuing to enjoy life at home and the unseasonably mild and dry weather we returned to. We still take daily walks (usually 5 miles instead of 15), Robin is happily back singing with her choir at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Portland, and creating wonderful dinners in our kitchen, our local American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC) Portlandia Chapter continues to grow, and we are actively involved in that. We have also committed to spending a month in Santiago, starting June 12th, volunteering with The Camino Chaplaincy (English language masses) at the cathedral. Please stop by and say hello if you are in Santiago. I feel confident that our Camino journey will continue, but for now Robin and I are simply enjoying the peace of being at peace.

Buen camino to all who are setting out.

I’ll Push You

Justin and Patrick

Last night Robin and I attended a Camino presentation at the University of Portland. The presenters were Justin Skeesuck, and Patrick Gray. Both of these men, close friends from childhood, traveled the Camino Frances last summer. Justin sat in a specially designed wheelchair, and Patrick pushed him. They started in St. Jean Pied de Port, crossed over the Pyrenees on the Route Napoleon, and continued on 500 miles to Santiago. It sounds so easy when it is stated that way, but as you might surmise, it was far from an easy journey.  They were traveling with a small film crew who just did the filming, no pushing. The pushing, and pulling, was left to Patrick. One of the film clips they showed was of Patrick and an enlisted helper trying to get Justin up and over the Pyrenees. The mud was deep and slippery, and the task at hand just seemed utterly impossible. Why even try to go further? How could this possibly be done? These thoughts were crossing their minds when they encountered a local Basque man walking on the mountain. Justin was out of his chair and stretched out on the ground, while the others were trying to catch their breath after carrying Justin in a sling when they could no longer take both him and the chair together. The man walked over to Justin, stood astride of him and started gently slapping him on the face as if trying to revive him. Justin looked up and heard the man saying something like, “Anything is possible, or “Make the possible out of the impossible.” Justin, as if coming out of a dream, then knew something had changed, and together, recommitting to the journey, the small ad hoc team pressed on to Roncesvalles where they arrived 13.5 hours after leaving St. Jean.

Their story is filled with such occurrences. They quickly realized that they would never make it to Santiago without help. Keep in mind that Justin has very little mobility and needed help with all the usual daily chores including bathing, feeding, and going to the bathroom. Patrick was his primary caregiver and happily assisted Justin, but this was after pushing a 250 pound chair (including the weight of Justin) all day long. But, as those of us who have walked the Camino know, help just seems to arrive when you most need it. What they discovered was that as they went along people would just ask to help them. Some would push and pull for an hour or two, and collapse exhausted, unable to help any more. Others would stay with them for days. And so it went day after day as they inched their way towards Santiago. Camino angels arrived and relief was found even in their most desperate moments. At one point a group of 17 fellow pilgrims helped them up to the summit of O’ Cebreiro. Some pushed and pulled while others carried the backpacks of those helping with the wheelchair. It was an amazing expression of love, compassion, and joy. Also, it is important to note how well Justin received this assistance. We can imagine how easy it would be to feel crushing guilt as you sat in a chair watching all these people really struggling to move you along while you literally could not move a finger to help them. But, Justin’s humbleness transcended that guilt. It was his gift of humility to them that helped many others offer their gift of assistance to him. It all just worked. It was never easy, but it just worked.

Yes, they made it to Santiago. One might say it was a miracle, but there they were arriving in front of the cathedral and into the arms of their waiting wives. The impossible had happened. Both Patrick and Justin admit that they discovered that the Camino is not about the destination, not about chasing a goal, but rather it is about the community that is formed around pilgrims traveling together. We seem to be better at accepting people for who they are on the Camino then we do at home. True community must have room for everyone even those who we might, and probably would, shun at home. We are always too quick to select friends based on how they reflect who we are.  It is in our brokenness, that healing and love are found. It is the wounded and marginalized that show us the path to grace. In a loving community, even the least among us, has a place at the table. It is there that we learn to share our humanity, and to joyfully embrace, care for, and nurture all those who find their way to us. When we succeed we are all better for it.

Last summer, two humble pilgrims set out on a seemingly impossible journey and found themselves unexpectedly bathed in the astonishing light of a loving community of fellow travelers who simply said, yes, I’ll help push you. It was with those simple words, from so many people, that the impossible became possible. Those encounters, I feel safe in saying, have transformed both Justin and Patrick, and all those who walked with, and helped them. The reaffirmation of the goodness that dwells within all of us is a powerful reminder that we can create our own “Camino miracles” by opening our hearts and listening for those faint voices that all too frequently get lost in the noise of our busy daily lives. Many are calling out to us, but how frequently do we say, yes, I’ll help (push) you. The day you do, everything changes. Miracles do happen just ask Patrick and Justin.

On a side note, Robin and I were sitting just behind them at the pilgrim mass in Santiago the day that they arrived. We had just recently arrived from Le Puy, and had a chance to say hello and congratulate them. Lot’s of smiling faces at mass that day.

A film of their journey along the Camino Frances entitled “I’ll Push You” is now in development. Please visit their website at, www.illpushyou.com, for more information.

Buen Camino