An itch to be scratched

Le Puy en Velay
Robin and I have been casting about trying to decide where our next camino journey will take us. We have twice been down the Camino Frances in winter, and have enjoyed both of those pilgrimages immensely. However, one hitch has always been Robin’s choir schedule. She sings with St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir in Portland, and has been there for close to ten years. We have tried to accommodate her choir schedule by nestling our caminos in between Christmas and Easter. Having said that, on our first pilgrimage, we did spend Christmas on the camino. This coming year Robin would like to sing straight through Easter Sunday. So, for the moment, our plan is to leave for Europe a couple of days after Easter, and head to Le Puy en Velay. We have conjured up an itinerary that has great appeal as it will take us through both France and Spain with lots of varied terrain, beautiful scenery, and will lead us back to Santiago. The route we are planning will take us from Le Puy to St. Jean Pied de Port, then via the GR 10 hiking trail to Irun where we will walk the Camino Norte until it intersects with the Camino Primitivo which we will then follow to the Camino Frances, then on to Santiago. This is, for us, an ambitious undertaking. The main concern, at the moment, is adapting to walking in hot weather. Robin definitely prefers cool weather to hot weather. In truth I do as well, but I know I can walk in warmer (even hot) weather. Robin is less sure. We will be leaving Le Puy late in April so that bit is okay. We will be walking the Norte, and Primitivo in June, and July. Our hope is that both of those routes will be a bit cooler due to proximity to the coast, and the higher elevations of the mountain passes. We will see. All pilgrimages have challenges to be embraced. I feel certain this one will be no different. The month of May on the Le Puy route will certainly be crowded (this will be new to us). The Norte and Primitivo routes are gaining popularity so there might be more pilgrims there as well. The heat, the rain, the cold (in the early days), even the crowds are all things that can lead to one of those “why am I doing this” moments. We all have them at some point in a pilgrimage. The trick is to acknowledge them for just what they are, then offer up a tip of the hat, and move on. Easier said then done? Of course, but still doable. That is the practice (learning to follow your heart, not your ego) of being on pilgrimage. 

Getting our act together

Robin and I at Tidewater Cove, Columbia River

We have been casually watching our camino departure date move up on the calendar for many months now with a kind of detached indifference. It has just been too far away to get lathered up. But now it has dawned on us that will be leaving next month and so a flurry of camino related activity has  now descended on our household. Travel plans, researching and booking accommodations along the Le Puy route, watching the weather on the Aubrac plateau, fine tuning our gear selections, figuring out what we need to do to walk away from our home for 3 months are all competing for our time. While the Lenten season calls us to a quieter time our building excitement to set out on our longest camino yet, is palpable.

This trip has its unique challenges. We will have to carry clothes and gear to accommodate winter like weather early on and mid summer heat towards the middle and end. There will also be a lot of other people walking the Le Puy to St. Jean Pied de Port section competing for lodging. But it is all good. We have spent a lot of time trying to lighten our backpacks and have had some reasonable success.  The biggest game changer has been switching from our Aarn Peak Aspiration packs to the ZPacks Arc Blast 45, an almost 4 pound savings. Leaving my sleeping bag at home will also save me close to another 2 pounds. A more versatile and much lighter rain gear solution was found in the Montbell Versalite jacket and pants, rather than the Altus poncho. Robin and I will both be carrying Golite trekking umbrellas for rain and sun protection. I have also switched from my Salomon Quest 4D boots to Teva Kimtah’s. They also have a wide toe box, fit well, and shave off another pound. My second shoes are New Balance Minimus trail shoes. These weigh 1 pound for size 13, and should be great once the weather heats up.

Maybe a bit too much black??

Robin and I have both been out in the local weather (lots of rain) and have been quite pleased with our selections. Our ZPacks Cuben fiber packs have not leaked (they are seam sealed) but we do have Granite Gear Uberlight EVent dry sacks for everything we are carrying, just in case. I am also going to carry and try out a rain kilt from ZPack. This seems like a great rain solution for warmer weather. The kilt keeps your shorts dry and the umbrella takes care of the upper part. It is quick to put on and take off, plus you are not roasting in a poncho or rain suit. My whole pack list is here. Robin’s pack list is here. There will always be things we choose to carry that are beyond our basic needs. For me these are my camera and iPad. But, I must admit it is tantalizing to consider the weight savings if they stayed home. Maybe next time (but I doubt it).

Who knows where they come from

For the past couple of years I have been involved with American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC). I am now the Chapter Coordinator for the Portlandia (Portland, OR and SW Washington) Chapter. APOC is a wonderful organization that supports the dreams of pilgrims to be while providing financial support for camino infrastructure improvements in Spain. Please see the link above to read all about the extent to which this organization is committed to the health of the camino, and to those who wish to walk it. Member dues pay for it all. So, if you are so inclined, please visit their website ( and see how you can become a member. I personally have witnessed a stunning growth in the number of people responding to their individual calls to the camino. Our chapter has grown from just a bit over a dozen members to about 225 in just two years. They come from all walks of life and backgrounds, but find common ground both in their desire (some say burning desire) to walk the camino, and to share their passion with others bound for the camino. This is a great group of interesting folks. Somehow our lives have intersected for this purpose (perhaps others??) and we have have all benefited from it. So, if you feel the call to the camino, get involved with like minded people, nurture a bold vision of what you can do, and keep your camino dream alive until your time arrives (and it will). On behalf of the APOC Portlandia Chapter good luck, and buen camino to all. It is a journey you will surely remember.

Trying to gather the group during a chapter Sunday walk

Up through the Fort Vancouver Historical Reserve, Vancouver, WA

Debriefing at day’s end

Some of the lucky one’s who got a table

Route of travel

John and Robin’s 2014 Camino Route Map (click map to enlarge)

I put together a rough map of how Robin and I will be walking to Santiago. Starting in Le Puy we will walk to St. Jean Pied de Port, and then on to Roncesvalles via the Route Napoleon. We had to walk the Valcarlos route to Roncesvalles (due to winter weather concerns) on our two previous caminos, so this year we will try for the (more?) scenic route. Although, I must admit we have always enjoyed walking up the valley. Once we get to Roncesvalles then it will most likely be a return to St. Jean (bus or taxi), and then surface transportation to Irun, where we will start the Camino Norte. Our plan is to follow the Camino Norte until Sebrayu, and then veer off onto the Camino Primitivo. The Primitivo will take us to Melide on the Camino Frances, and then its just a couple of days on into Santiago. This camino is approximately 1600 kms, or 1,000 miles. We have time on our side (90 days Schengen visa requirements) and will not be setting any land speed records for this route. Our intention is to savor every step of the way (and there will plenty of them). We will be looking for good spots to lay over as our bodies or spirits require, and plan on taking occasional diversions as well. At this point side trips (in France) to Rocamadour and down through the Célé Valley are already scheduled. I am sure others will emerge once we get underway. This will be a fantastic camino. God willing we will see it through. Regardless of how it works out we plan on having a lot of fun simply trying.

Finding our joy

Smile for the camera (best he could do)!

The days are passing quickly by as our departure for Le Puy draws ever closer (less than a month now). We have done all the usual preparation, but at a somewhat less frantic pace this time around. There just isn’t the same sense of urgency that we felt on previous camino departures. The desire to return to the pilgrim community, and walk, remains very strong, but we seem willing to accept that we cannot control many things, and if some of those things don’t work out the way we had hoped, so what. That should not cause us any distress. We have adopted the attitude that all will be well, regardless of any surprises, or inconveniences encountered. It’s all good. That’s our goal. Now we shall just have to wait and see how we do (please feel free to remind us at some point down the track if we start grumbling). Perhaps this change in attitude stems from a growing familiarity with pilgrimage, and its attendant challenges. In the past we certainly have had moments on the camino when missed expectations unfortunately crowded out our joy. But, we learned from those experiences, and hope not to repeat them again. Our joy is found simply in being present, and accepting the gift of this camino with open hearts and minds. So, regardless of miserable weather, wet and sore feet, bed bug bites, or whatever other host of potential ailments might beset us we are determined to remain thankful for the opportunity to shoulder our packs once again and set out (à pied) for Santiago. This is going to be a remarkable journey. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Just a quick sidebar to explain the picture. A few days ago, I was out walking along the Columbia River, and saw this bald eagle sitting rather low in a tree on the riverbank. These birds are not uncommon in this area, but they are not usually seen this close to urban areas. This one remained calm as a cucumber seemingly indifferent to the restive crowd that had gathered to admire him. I (fortunately) was part of the crowd.

As light as it is going to get

I started to organize my pack so that I could find what I wanted without digging through multiple stuff sacks to get the job done. I like to be able to sort things so that I know just what sack to reach for to get what I need. The photo to the right shows all that I will be bringing with me (see pack list). Everything goes into the 4 uberlight Granite Gear dry sacks, shown at the bottom of the photo, plus one stuff sack (non waterproof) for all my rain gear. I made one compromise to my original pack list and that was to replace the silk sleep sack with a Montbell down Thermal Sheet. It weighs 15 ounces (425 grams), and unzips so it lays flat. Later in the trip, when it is warmer, it will probably just get used as a sheet rather than a blanket or sleeping bag. The clear zip lock bags contain toiletries, first aid kit, daily foot care items (wool, tape, Nok cream), and a partial roll of toilet paper. I have kept clothing items to the minimum. I am carrying 2 Icebreaker short sleeve t shirts, 1 Icebreaker long sleeve (150 weight) 1/4 zip shirt for daily walking, and 1 long sleeve t shirt for the end of the day. I will wear merino wool runners tights under my rain pants for cold wet days, Patagonia Rock Craft hiking pants or Columbia Silver Ridge hiking shorts depending on the weather. Whatever I wear during the day I will wear the other at night. I can always wear the runners tights under my hiking shorts, at day’s end, if need be. My Montbell Versalite rain jacket will suffice for a windbreaker when necessary, same goes for the Versalite rain pants. I have included a Montbell Thermawrap synthetic insulated vest for chilly mornings or evenings, and a Montbell Plasma 1000 down jacket as a cold weather layering piece. I also have switched my outer socks to Icebreaker mid weight hiking socks as opposed to Smartwool that I think will be just a bit too warm for the expected hot weather. I will still use the Injinji toe socks as liners. Due to the expected mud on the Le Puy route Robin and I will both be using a very light weight gaiter made by Mountain Laurel Designs.

This is what it all looks like when stowed away.

Zpack Arc Blast 45 L backpack

The only thing I haven’t shown is the Golite Chrome Dome trekking umbrella. It will stow underneath the compression straps and sit in the side pouch shown in the pack photo above. All our documents, cash, iPad, camera, and guidebook will be carried in a waterproof chest pouch (shown propping up the pack, bottom left). Robin and I have opted not to use ponchos as rain gear and a pack cover for this trip as the back pack material is waterproof (and seam taped), and everything inside will be in in dry sacks. The Cuben fiber back pack material does not absorb water so the straps and rigging will not pick up any additional water weight. In warmer wet weather we will break out the umbrellas and not put on the rain gear. Also I have the Zpack rain kilt that I can through on if I need something more than just the umbrella. I am actually looking forward to trying out some of these wet weather combinations to see what works best, under exertion, during periods of varying temperatures and wind strength. More on that later from the “chemin.”

Singing for your supper

Holy Week culminating in the great Easter liturgy is now behind us. Robin had especially wanted to be home for the Lenten and Easter liturgical seasons. She loves singing (in her beautiful soprano voice) the wonderful music of these very holy seasons. Her voice along with those of her fellow singers in the St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir (Portland, OR) filled the cathedral with a sound that brought tears to many eyes. It was breathtaking. The final mass Easter morning was their true triumph. The entire choir seemed to sense something special was happening and somehow poured even more heart and emotion into the music. The results were spectacular, and quite honestly the choir saved the day as the presider’s homily was a bit off message especially for a day so filled with a sense of renewal and hope. But, that’s a story for another day. As we walked out of the cathedral, with the echoes of the Hallelujah Chorus still lingering in the nave, I just felt we were in a good place ready to set out on our pilgrimage. In the spirit of light and fast (well maybe not so fast) backpacking we settled on an Easter meal of champagne and oysters, with a few other goodies thrown in for good measure. The menu del dia will come soon enough. Alleluia!

Departure Day

St. James the Pilgrim

What can be said about those pilgrims who are now moving towards the door, getting ready to leave all that is familiar and comfortable behind. Heading off into a foreign land and unfamiliar terrain. This is the true sense of pilgrimage. Moving out of your comfort zone, finding and embracing truth wherever it lies, strengthening your faith, and above all being good to those many in need that you will encounter. There are blessings and prayers a plenty to give pilgrims a sense of peace and place. What is needed is for pilgrims to shoulder the burden of the path that stretches out before them. Let them promise to themselves that each step of every day will be a recommitment to the virtues of love and peace that will bind them to the way they are walking.

Isaiah the prophet encourages us to….

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near. Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”

It is with this renewed sense of being that we set out upon the pilgrim road, once again, cloaked in the hope of enlightenment, searching for the light even on the dimmest of days. Alleluia!

Peace be with you

Enroute to Le Puy

We are one hour from Amsterdam. The Delta/KLM ten hour non-stop from Portland was a great choice. Neither Robin or I got any sleep but the time passed quickly, and the flight was smooth. We are catching a connecting flight to Lyon and then we go by train/bus to Le Puy. If we make the connections I planned we should arrive in Le Puy about 7 pm. We have booked a room at Logis Meymard which is quite close to the cathedral and the historic town center. I just felt the power being pulled back signaling our descent into Amsterdam has begun. More later…on the ground at Amsterdam awaiting our connection to Lyon (3 hours). We are a bit bleary eyed and travel weary, but are keeping our cool even with an incessant electronic voice reminding all within earshot to “mind your step.” Okay! We got it. Thank you very much.

The flight to Lyon was short and uneventful. In Lyon we followed the signs for Rhône Express (the tram that takes you from the airport to the Part Dieu railway station) and purchased a ticket at a vending machine just before you go out the door to go down to the tram station (31.4 euros for two). A half hour later we were walking across the street and into the Gare Part Dieu. We purchased two tickets one way (allez simple) and hustled up to Voie (track) K to jump aboard just as it was getting ready to pull out. Two tickets, second class, were 48.40 Euros. The train left at 2:54 pm and arrived in Firminy at 4:04 pm where we transferred to a bus to get to Le Puy. The bus left at 4:47 pm and arrived in Le Puy at 6:44 pm. The train ticket included the bus (autocar) portion as well. The bus ride was quite scenic when the heavy rain showers allowed a view. We were starting to get a feel for terrain (lots of hills) and weather (wet) and both looked challenging. Looking forward to food (not airline) and a bed. All. Is well.



One of my crusty eyes managed to a offer the barest slit to the dim light of our room in Logis Meymard. I just realized that I wasn’t home. Funny the tricks the mind plays. It is now day two, and 6:00 am, and we are well ensconced in Le Puy. Yesterday evening, our ever thoughtful hostess, Madeleine Déchaux, had greeted Robin and I, two road weary pilgrims, with a bottle of Chateaux Neuf de Pape that we all shared on her little deck overlooking her garden. We got acquainted, and were enjoying the wine when Madeleine, in the midst of demonstrating how to use some old measuring tool she had on a shelf, managed to puncture her thumb. We hit the pause button on the wine reception, and bandaged up her thumb. No serious damage was done, thankfully. Interestingly, she asked if we were in the medical profession. I guess she was happy with our treatment. Madeleine had someplace to be and we needed a decent meal so accepting her recommendation for a restaurant just down the street from her home, we said goodnight and headed of to what was to become a wonderful dining experience at the cozy restaurant, 5’eme Saison.
Back to today….while Robin slept I decided to make my way to the cathedral, go to mass, and pick up our pilgrim credentials. So at 6:30 I stepped out into the early morning half light, popped my trekking umbrella, and chugged uphill to make the 7:00 am pilgrim mass. There were about twenty pilgrims gathered for the mass, including one Korean. There was a definite focus on departing pilgrims with a special benediction after mass in front of a statue of St. James. The cathedral’s sacristy doubles as a gift shop and is where departing pilgrims can pick up their credentials. I picked up the credentials, and managed to be back at our lodging at 8:30 to join Robin, Madeleine, and a husband and wife (Gardara and Klara) from Iceland for breakfast. They are both going all the way to Santiago so we expect to see them along the way. They left today, and we will depart tomorrow. They are very nice people, and we were very pleased to get to know them. Robin and I puttered around with our packs for a bit, and then headed off to do some some tourist stuff. We climbed up to the chapel of St. Michael on the “big lentil” , wandered the streets in the old quarter, went back to the cathedral, and included a visit to the cloister (stunning). Le Puy is a beautiful and interesting city that deserves at least an extra day to wander around. It was now pushing into the late afternoon so after purchasing some food and water for tomorrow we headed off to find a pub with WiFi. That is where we are now catching up on all things requiring internet access (including this post).