Into the woods and then some

Mt. Hood greets us on the trail

One of the ongoing gifts of walking the camino is the joy one finds in simply being afoot in nature. Busy lives and bustling communities make modern day life stressful, but fortunately help is often nearby. Most of us can find a bit of solace and quietude in some nearby park or less traveled part of whatever town or city we live in. We who live in the Pacific Northwest are truly blessed to have an abundance of places of great natural beauty, close at hand, where our weary bodies can go to find peace and renewal. Yes, it takes a bit of effort and there is some physical challenge, but the feeling one finds after a day in the mountains is worth every calorie burned to get there.

Yesterday, was a perfect early fall day with clear skies over the Cascade Mountains in western Oregon. A friend of mine emailed me and suggested a trip up to Mt. Hood to hike the McNeil Point trail. I have never hiked this particular trail and with the weather being so perfect I quickly agreed to join him. We met up, I shifted my gear into Hal’s Suburu, and off we went. We chugged along freeways and then secondary roads and then after the little town of Zig Zag (Named after a local river), we turned onto Lolo Pass road and headed off to where we thought we would easily find the trailhead. We ambled along and as luck would have it we drove past our turn off and spent another 40 minutes or so probing the flanks of Mt. Hood looking for our destination. Eventually, we came to our senses when we chatted with two young ladies who were wandering around, as we were, looking for the same trailhead. They mentioned an unmarked road that they had briefly followed before abandoning it because it just didn’t seem like it was taking them where there wanted to go. They read off the road number from their GPS and we compared that to our very sparse notes and sure enough that was the road we were looking for. As it turns out it was just before where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses Lolo Pass road. We backtracked together and after a few miles we found ourselves snaking into a parking pass alongside a narrow road filled with many other cars. This had to be the place, and it was. A few minutes later, with backpacks snugged up, off we went into the woods and started climbing. This is what unfolded as we ascended the mountain. Quite a day.

The trail begins

Hal, my hiking partner

Mt. Adams to the North

Mt. Rainier with lenticular cloud over it

Mt. Hood

Mt. St. Helens missing its pointed top due to its major eruption in 1980

Lunch break

The Sandy River which originates at Mt. Hood

Raven looking for lunch as we ate ours

Ridges in the distance

That’s me
Hal at our lunch break

Mt. Adams again

Mt. Hood

Where we diverge from the Timberline trail that circles the mountain

Last view of Mt. Hood before descending into the forest

Finding our sea legs again

At the trailhead

It is always a challenge to try and stay camino ready. Life tends to get in the way of the best laid plans for  good nutrition and exercise. But, as always, the lure of another camino helps to recapture our resolve to get our minds and bodies ready for another walk. This coming January we will be returning to the Basque Country, Euskadi, to walk the Camino Vasco from Irun to Santo Domingo. This is a short camino of about 8 days. We then are hoping to move on to Porto and walk the Portuguese Camino as well. There are always many options but these two shorter routes seem right for us at this point. So, God willing, we will be getting underway mid January and should be away for about a month. Weather is always an issue when walking in the winter especially in the Basque mountains, but we will be cautious, and roads can be walked when passes are not open. So, now Robin and I must dust off our fitness goals and get ready to face the new year in fine camino trim. To that end we already have been doing some hiking in the local mountains. Today, was another exceptionally fine early fall day and we decided to challenge ourselves with a difficult hike in the Columbia River Gorge, Dog Mountain. This is a great training hike which we have done before. It is a steep climb all the way up to the summit at 2800 feet. What makes it particularly exhausting is that it is accomplished in 3.5 miles. It took us 2 hours to reach the summit, and then after a quick lunch break, another 1.5 hours to descend. We were pretty tired but the gorgeous weather and cool temperatures made for a perfect day in the Gorge. But, I’ll let you be the judge. Have a look.

The steeper trail is to the left. Guess where we went.

Looking back early on

The one reasonably flat spot on the whole mountain

Columbia River

Robin pushing towards the summit


Mt. Hood beyond the ridge

Summit lunch break spot

View from the top

Robin holding onto her hat (25 mph wind)

Call a taxi!

Trail heading down

Mind your step

Oh God, please heal me.

Robin and I were at mass the other day and the presiding priest made a point of leaving the congregation with a simple prayer for the week ahead. It was focused on the brokenness of humanity and how each of us has something that needs healing in our lives. It was short and focused and made good sense. It was simply this, “Oh God, please heal me.” So off we went with this bit of encouragement tucked away not knowing exactly how this healing would actually play out. How could we.

Port Angeles, WA

As it turns out we decided to visit one of America’s great National Parks, Olympic National Park. It is a remarkable place for its variety of climate zones, flora and fauna, and 600 miles of hiking trails. We drove 4.5 hours up to Port Angeles and set out the following morning to go up to Hurricane Ridge to see if we could find a suitable trail to hike. It is about a 45 minute drive to get to the visitor station. The day was brilliantly clear and cool. We decided to make the additional 8 mile drive out to Obstruction Point and then hike out along Elk Ridge and back. It was a wise choice. There were only a few other cars at the Obstruction Point parking area so this was not going to be a crowd scene by any stretch of the imagination. We laced up our hiking boots and set off. Now the healing part slowly started to happen. Our faith journey has seldom been punctuated by lightning strikes. More often it is like a mist burning off in the rising sun. A gradual clarity emerges and it becomes a form of guidance. Such was this day. Virtually alone, high upon this striking ridge, it started to dawn on us how much we depend on these moments alone in nature to sort things out and and give thanks for all God’s many gifts. We always seem to discover a better sense of who we are, and why we are, and how all things are connected, as we move through the natural beauty of this amazing planet Earth. At the turn around point as we looked down on the waters below and the mountain peaks in the distance we were sure that our simple prayer had been answered. What a day.

Departure from Obstruction Point

Up we go.

Mt. Baker in the foreground.

Port Angeles harbor way below.

Robin enjoying the glorious clear weather.

That’s me.

Heading back.

Yes, that is a trail.

The trailhead is just behind the ridge on the right.

Hanging out in Hondarribia

Robin and I finally arrived in Hondarribia last night at 8:30 pm. We were bone tired and desperately in need of a decent meal and sleep. On the positive side we made all of our connections, even our checked hiking pokes arrived. On the negative side the number of connections made for a very tiring day. But, we treated ourselves to a room at the Parador Hotel in Hondarribia and soon thereafter salvation was at hand. We dumped our camino gear in the room and shuffled across the plaza to a nearby bar that showed signs of life and in we went. A nice crowd was scattered about, but we managed to find a table. We ordered lamb chops, pimentos pardon, crepes, jamon Iberico, pulpo and a very nice Rioja reserva. All of that went down the hatch in record time as the bar owner (with a raised eyebrow) kept the food flowing to match our pace. It turned out to be a bit of an eclectic meal, but it definitely kept the wolf from the door. Settling up we made our way back across the plaza to the hotel, albeit at a slightly more stately pace, and were comatose a half hour later. 
We arose about 6:30 this morning and felt as though we just might make it. Food, a nice shower, and a great night’s sleep worked their combined magic and gave us a new lease on life. The day proved to be chilly, but clear, as we set out to pick up some SIM cards and do a bit of sightseeing. Today was meant to be a recovery day and that was how it played out. Everything happened at a leisurely pace as we ran our errands and strolled around the Casco Viejo. We are now heading off to mass to be followed by another healing dinner, and then bed. We start walking the Camino Vasco tomorrow, and we are anxious to get underway. The weather forecast looks promising and our camino spirit is high. Another trip through the Basque countryside is about to begin and that, for us, is great news.

Two days later

Robin and I are now two days into the Camino Vasco. We arrived this afternoon in the town of Tolosa and have checked into the Hotel Oria. But, let me back up to our first day from Irún to Astigarraga. We set out in cool and dry weather mustering a measured pace as our legs sought to reach an accommodation with the backpacks they were now having to carry. So off we went and made our first wrong turn about 100 feet later. As it turns out a sign had been damaged and we missed it, but as I also was running a GPS app on my phone we quickly caught the error and backtracked. We followed a mix of paved rural roads and dirt tracks over the many hills and valleys that added to our growing fatigue as we ambled along. We believe it is always wise to ease into any Camino by walking a bit more slowly and covering shorter distances for the first few days. The walking slowly part took care of itself as we just didn’t seem to any more throttle left. As for the distance we wound up walking about 22 kms. A little shorter distance might have been better for by the time we reached Astigarraga we were both running on little but fumes. The terrain was challenging, but quite scenic. All the twists and turns of the trail forced us to pay attention to our navigation and that helped to pass the time that otherwise would have been marked by increasing levels of knee pain. Arriving in any town in Spain on a Sunday is always challenging as shops and bars will often be closed. Our funky hotel, the Pension Astigarraga, is right on the Camino, but in an industrial area. The owner directed us to the one bar that was open, and we managed to stay awake long enough for the kitchen to open so we could have something more substantial than potato chips to eat, but it was close. So that was day one. It was a good challenging walk that got us back in the groove and refocused on the work required to move along this pilgrim road. We are coming around in spirit, now our bodies just have to catch up. 

This morning, after the usual toast and coffee Camino breakfast, we plunged Ito the half light of another cold and thankfully dry day. Looking at our guide we saw the elevation profile for today was pretty flat. As it turns out that was because we followed the main road from Astigarraga to Tolosa. A few times we were shunted off to dedicated pedestrian/bike paths, and that added a much appreciated additional layer of safety, but still the entire day was spent pounding the pavement. Upon arriving in Tolosa we looked back at our guide and saw there was an alternate route that went out through the the countryside, and at the cost of some extra distance and the lack of intermediate towns all the roadwork could be avoided. Some food for thought if we come this way again. But for now we are in the maintenance and recovery mode of daily pilgrim life. There is washing to be done, dinner to be sorted and aches and pains attended to. So we are two days into this journey and are bearing up, gaining strength in our knees, and settling into a daily routine that should carry us to Santo Domingo de la Calzada in another week’s time. But, in the short term, there is still quite a bit of hill scrambling ahead, particularly as we make our way up to the San Adrian tunnel in three day’s time. More on that later as the journey unfolds. Let’s call this a wrap for now, as I sign off tired, a bit achey, but so happy to be back on the pilgrim road. Good night to all from Tolosa.
Day one

The hermitage of San Juan
San Sebastián in the distance
Pension Astigarraga 
Starting day two

Andoain, San Martine de Tours




Our stay at the Hotel Oria in Tolosa was restful and quite pleasant. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful and the cafeteria produced some exquisite meals. But, the pilgrim road was calling so it was out of the warmth of our room and into a 35 F morning. We knew we would have another day of mostly pounding the pavement, but due to the many nice pedestrian paths it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. We felt stronger today and stepped along, in the cold morning air, at what for us was a sprightly pace. We climbed gently but steadily overhauling one village after another as we made our way to Besain where would wave goodbye to the pavement and head off into the hills to tonight’s destination, the village of Olaberria. The weather warmed gradually until at mid afternoon my little backpack thermometer read 60 F. We found our way out of Besain and over the N1 on a nice pedestrian bridge. Immediately after stepping off the bridge we should have turned left but there were no arrows and the left turn looked like it was just heading into a car park, so we went right. Looking at my GPS map I could see that there was a road around to the left but by that time we were invested in our turn to the right and as both roads seemed to meet we just carried on. 

What became clear shortly thereafter was that the road we were following did meet up with the road we wanted, but it was all fenced in. We could not get from where we were to where we needed to be without performing some circus act to vault over the intervening barbed wire fence. Big problem, as we really did not want to retrace our steps back to the pedestrian bridge and start over. We found a section of fence that was down so we crossed over a field and walked towards the road we wanted to join. What we discovered after a little barnyard reconnoitering was that the owner had a more secure perimeter than Alcatraz. So with hat in hand we approached the farmhouse with a dozen dogs freaking out and straining at their chains and greeted the owner who stepped out to see what all the fuss was about. We explained our error and he graciously directed us around his house and out onto the road that we were so desperately seeking. We were underway again and finally heading in the right direction. We survived with no fang marks and minimal baggage from the dung pile we had to waltz around. All in all let’s call it a victory for the home team. The good news is that once on this upward gravel path we started to see the most spectacular landscape appearing. As we inched our way uphill every step gradually opened an incredible mountain vista. After a couple of days of comparing industrial estates this was mana from heaven. Just spectacular. So with this lift to our hearts we continued along truly energized and dropped into the very tidy village of Olaberria. We have booked into the Pension Zizilionea, and couldn’t be more pleased. We gave a nice warm room, and have just indulged ourselves in a delicious lunch. So, things have taken a turn for the better now that we are back in the countryside. Another beautiful day, and all our aches and pains are improving. Much to be thankful for. 

Morning in Tolosa
The path out of Tolosa

Pedestrian path

The right path to Olaberria 

Our pension just ahead to the left

The local church