Home is the sailor home from the sea, and the hunter (pilgrim) home from the hill

Where Robin and I like to hang out when not on the camino

A tip of the hat to Robert Louis Stevenson’s epitaph, and apologies for the bit of editorial license taken. This post is about home, and homecoming, and RLS’s epitaph just seemed to fit. Robin and I have now been back for 13 days. We left our home in Vancouver, Washington on April 23rd, walked for 63 days, took 17 days for travel and rest, and returned home on July 11th. If my math is correct we were away for 80 days. This is the longest I have been away from home since I stopped going to sea. We have walked other caminos, where we were away for half of this time, and always re-entered our home lives without any issues. This trip was different. Walking as part of a pilgrim community for over 2 months seems to have allowed just enough time for me to get comfortable with a very satisfying, and unique, environment, which has made leaving it all the more difficult. Obviously, this is very specific to me. Even Robin seems to be integrating easier than I am. Don’t misread me. I am not ready for therapy. But, the pace of the life we dropped back into just seems faster, more frantic, and surprisingly less pleasant. I am sure, in time, the sharp distinctions I now harbor will blur so that what I first saw as odd will, sadly, seem quite ordinary. It is curious that we have only been away for just short of 3 months, and yet this distinction has appeared. This sort of taps the hornets nest, and begs the question of what makes us happy. Robin and I have a comfortable life. But, our camino experiences have thankfully skewed the math so that less (stuff) actually equals more (happiness). Yes, we are happy to be back in our home, but the lure of the simplicity of the camino is always present. Off again? Time will tell. For now, our camino gear has been cleaned, and stowed (yet always at hand), and we are simply enjoying the beautiful summer weather here in the Pacific Northwest. Memories are fresh with many remarkable moments of our recent time in France and Spain. These will continue to warm our hearts even as summer fades, and the arrival of the first chill of winter reminds us that change is always in the air.

What we think of when on the camino

St. James icon
Glass transom over our front door
What we think of when we are home

In retrospect: The Chemin St. Jacques

Now that Robin and I have been home for a bit more than two weeks it is time to look back on our latest camino and reflect on the routes walked, and the gear we walked with. First, with regard to the route we walked. We left Le Puy en Velay, and followed the Chemin St. Jacques (GR 65) to St.Jean Pied de Port. At St. Jean we took a bus to Bayonne, and then trains to Hendaye, and Irun, in Spain. We left Irun, and followed the Camino Norte for a bit over two weeks until it intersected with the route to Oviedo, and then we walked from Oviedo along the Camino Primitivo to the Camino Frances, at Melide, and then onward along the Camino Frances into Santiago. We walked for 63 days through a wide range of scenery and weather, and eventually found ourselves being swept along the Camino Frances into Santiago along with a horde of other pilgrims and adventurers.

It was simply a wonderful journey. Not always easy, or at times pleasant, but wonderful nonetheless. Many people ask would you return (a second bite at the apple), and I am always hesitant to affirm what I might do. A pilgrimage is based in the present so to zip forward into the future seems, at the least, a bit reckless. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, nor should we. Just try to be ready as best you can. But, from a pure like or dislike point of view I can say the following. The first couple of weeks along the Le Puy route are, in my opinion, the best of it. The terrain approaching the Aubrac Plateau, walking along it, and descending down from it are just beautiful. I noticed many people walking as far as Conques, or Figeac or even Moissac, but beyond that it is only the through walkers bound for St. Jean, or more likely Santiago, that push through the Gironde valley and the flatlands associated with it. Just a quick word about the Célé Valley variant from Figeac. We walked this route and thoroughly enjoyed it. My only criticism would be the hype associated with visiting St. Cirq Lapopie. France has many pretty little villages and St. Cirq is just another one. It is a little touristy for my tastes, and it simply isn’t that special. But, to each his own. Rocamadour was another diversion we took (by train from Figeac) and enjoyed the cliff hanging town for the day we spent there. It has a touristy feel to it as well, but there is a lot of history, both religious and secular, underpinning the town that helps mute the roar of the throngs descending from the tour buses.

If this is your first time walking the Le Puy route then by all means do its entirety. You will not be disappointed, but if it was a second time through I am not sure I would walk the second half as the scenery, while pleasant, isn’t stunning, and the amount of road walking is significant. On behalf of all French citizens, I apologize for the stereotypes forced on you by unknowing Americans (and others). My experiences were quite to the contrary. The French people we encountered were kind, helpful, and fun to be with. They have a beautiful country, and they seem to know how to enjoy it as I noticed (and learned) how many holiday makers seem to spend their time just walking through the countryside (time and time again).

France has a system of hostels (gîtes) that are mostly privately operated. Unlike the municipal albergues in Spain, where reservations are not permitted, the gîte system in France recommends it. We found this particular true in the month of May where a few national holidays (Google national holidays in France before you go) allow people to tag on personal vacation days, and enjoy a nice long holiday. In our experience, many of those people were walking the GR 65 just for the fun of it. This puts a bit of strain on the available accommodations so reserving a bed (especially in May) is essential. I read much about shop closures on weekends and Mondays, but we always found something to eat or drink, and did not notice much inconvenience. Admittedly, the smaller the town the more likely you might find the one market closed. In those situations the demi-pension (bed, dinner, and breakfast) selection would be prudent.

The Le Puy route has a bit more concentration of hills early on and this can come as a surprise to those who set out not quite as fit as they should be. We encountered many people who had leg and foot problems due to the early demands of the journey. They simply overused parts of their bodies that were not yet adapted to the terrain. The trails can be steeper, narrower, and rockier than what people see on the Camino Frances. In many cases the words goat path come to mind as I try to describe some of the trails. But, with reasonable preparation, the route is very doable, and I highly recommend it. We also had the benefit of unusually pleasant weather. Many of the trails would be much more challenging in a steady downpour. We, for the most part, were spared that experience. As the Camino Frances becomes increasingly more crowded I foresee many more people walking the Chemin St. Jacques. My guess is that they will not be disappointed. Next the Camino Norte.

In retrospect: The Camino Norte

We had never intended to walk the entirety of the Camino Norte. The Camino Primitivo was always our first choice for getting to Santiago. That being said the Norte had some surprises for us. First, it has some gorgeous scenery to enjoy. The terrain starts out quite varied, and includes many climbs and descents as you walk into and out of coastal towns. Having joined this route after walking from Le Puy the climbs were not a problem. Robin had some leg problems back on the Le Puy route so we were cautious about how much strain was put on her legs, but she was always able to handle the terrain. Many people single out the elevation gains both on the Chemin St. Jacques, and the Camino Norte for special caution. There certainly are many hills to go up and down, but the Camino Frances has them as well. One could argue that on any given day there are more on one route versus the other, but what’s the point. If you are in reasonable shape you will complete any of these routes. You certainly can up your happiness quotient by training a bit more, and watching your pack weight, but these are universally true whenever, and wherever you set out to walk. The first day’s walk from Irun takes you up a hill that has a low route, and a high route (Purgatorio Route). The high route offers expansive views of the sea, as long as the weather is fair. I would not recommend the high route, if the view isn’t there. The trail is quite narrow and follows a ridge where you are exposed to the weather. If the weather is bad, you have no view, you are being blown around, and your happiness quotient just took a dive. The lower route is a sheltered path with interior mountain views. Your choice.

The numbers of pilgrims on the Norte seemed manageable. Typically we were seeing 15-24 people in a day. But, there were days when the crowds thickened, and that was usually associated with arriving in a town with more beds. Makes sense. The most I ever heard of was a crowd of about 80 at Guemes. We were with about 35 (or so) other pilgrims when we stayed there. The Norte runs through many tourist areas, and those towns typically have a large variety of lodging (if you have some extra cash). The albergue beds can go quickly in some towns, so allowing for a bit more in your travel budget might be prudent. But, the Norte is definitely a lot quieter than Camino Frances, even in peak season. We stayed in a few albergues, but mostly we chose private accommodation. Just a personal choice. We never had any lodging problems.

The weather, much like the time we spent on the Chemin St. Jacques, was mostly fair and dry. However we did have some rain, and that caused a bit of a problem as we departed the monastery just outside of Bolibar. The trail you follow is an old logging road, with huge tractor ruts. Once this softens up it is a slog. The descent down is also tricky as the trail becomes steep, rocky, and slippery. If it was a wet day I would avoid that trip through the woods, and find alternate transpiration to Guernica. We did skip the stage from Guernica to Bilbao due to the trail conditions we experienced en route to Guenica. We just decided to give the camino a day to dry out. However, after that, we never had a problem. Just a quick word about whether to abandon the trail or not. Walking a long distance requires continuous assessment of the trail you are following. If that trail becomes unsafe due to the prevailing weather, then by all means find safer ground. It will do you no good to get injured just trying to tough it out. Be sensible, and evaluate the risks you are exposed to before deciding when, and where to walk. Enough said.

Another discovery was the amount of road walking we experienced on the Norte. It seemed like after the first week we were hitting the pavement with increasing regularity. In many cases that meant walking most of the day (6-7 hours) on paved roads. Normally, I don’t mind the occasional road, but when you walk roads all day long, and then repeat that time, and time again, it becomes hard on your feet, and your body. Heavy traffic, with little or no shoulder, was also a problem on some of the roads. Not good.  One surprise that caught me was the feeling that this route was more like a hike than a pilgrimage. I suppose some people think, what’s the problem? Robin and I walk as pilgrims,  not as tourists. Yes, we can become tourists for day when we are enjoying some time off, but our journey always involves our faith, and its strengthening. For us this route just had a different feel to it in that regard. Maybe that is unfair, and it was just the place where we were, as individuals, that caused this feeling. Perhaps the second half (which we did not walk) is different. I’ll probably never know. The Norte does not disappoint on the scenery, but in the end we were looking for something more than that. The Primitivo, which I’ll talk about next, filled that void.

In retrospect: The Camino Primitivo

The Camino Primitivo arrived just when we needed it. After weeks of walking we finally moved back into the peace and quiet of what felt, for us, like a pilgrimage. If there were two bookends to this journey, then they would have to be the first half of the Chemin St. Jacques (the Aubrac plateau and its environs) and the Camino Primitivo. Both of these parts of our pilgrimage were “off road” if you will. That means they were more remote, quieter, very scenic, little road walking, and more physically challenging. All those elements combine to yield a more contemplative atmosphere with fewer distractions. It was a great relief to finally get underway from Oviedo. It is a nice city, but Robin and I were hungry for the backcountry, and the Primitivo delivered. I guess my only complaint would be that it is too short. I would have loved to walk through the Cordillera Cantabrica for another two weeks. I suppose I could have just turned around and walked back to Oviedo. Perhaps that is an idea for another day.

Once again the weather was perfect, the numbers of fellow pilgrims was light, the terrain was challenging enough to make it interesting, and the scenery was some of the best we encountered. I highly recommend walking this route whatever your motivation might be. We had no problems finding accommodation in either albergues or in other private settings. The big challenge that gets a lot of press is the stage from Campiello to Berducedo. This is the stage where you have to decide (again) whether to walk either an upper route (Hospitales) or a lower route (via Pola de Allende). Again, much talk centers on the climbs up to, and along the upper route. Yes, there are some steep pitches (where you definitely will be short stepping), but not that many. Much of the climb is moderate (you are not short stepping, but that does not mean easy). However, a slow and steady pace will win the day, and the scenery is spectacular. If the weather allows a good view don’t hesitate to take the Hospitales route. A second stage (the next day) that drops you down to the reservoir at Grandas also gets a lot of press for the long descent. I did not find this to be much of a problem. Robin’s previous leg problem reawakened during this decent, but she managed surprisingly well once we descended at a slower pace.

The only sizable city you pass through, after Oviedo, is Lugo, and that suits me fine. I prefer to be out in the country rather than trudging through cities, and their suburbs. The camino after Lugo, and all the way to Melide, is quiet and pleasant. It is a mix of roads and paths, and is a wonderful walk. At Melide you join the Camino Frances, and all that changes. There you become part of the flowing stream of folks all trying to get to Santiago now only 2-3 days away (depending on your pace). As you might expect, after covering the distance we had already covered, these last 2-3 days were not going to be a problem, and they weren’t. It was actually kind of fun to see the Camino Frances at this time of year as our two previous trips down the Frances had both been in the depth of winter.

So, that was our pilgrimage. It was a journey filled with all the challenges, joys, disappointments, and surprises that make life interesting. I am not sure whether I am ready for another 1000 miler, but I feel confident enough to say the Camino is not done with us, nor are we with it. I’ll post something about our equipment shortly.

The things we wore and carried

This, our most recent camino, was one in which we truly embraced the notion of walking ultralight. We have never fallen victim to the “what if” justification for stuffing our backpacks with needless items, but we did use some pretty heavy backpacks on our previous caminos. This time around we looked for some much lighter gear (see my packing list, and Robin’s). Our biggest improvement in weight savings was found by switching our Aarn Peak Aspiration packs (5 pounds with balance pockets) for Zpacks 45L Arc Blast packs (1.28 pounds with extra pouches, and chest pack). The Arc Blast material (cuben fiber) is very light, and waterproof (tested and true), but we used Granite Gear ultralight dry sacks to sort our gear in the pack just in case we had a tear (which we did not). The extra pouches we purchased to fit the Arc Blast were needed to carry small items externally. We also found that the chest pack we purchased was perfect. It comes with a water resistant zipper, but when it was wet I always put my iPad in a plastic bag just in case. I carried my iPad mini, pilgrim documents, passports, cash and credit cards, guide book and maps, and occasionally my camera, and it all fit, and stayed dry. The nice thing with this chest pack is that you can unclip it from the backpack and rig it as a shoulder bag for walking around town. We did not need 45L for this trip but that was the smallest we could get. 35L would have been sufficient. I cannot recommend Zpacks equipment highly enough. It is a great company with excellent customer service.

We then researched lighter rain gear so we could get rid of our heavy Altus ponchos (1 pound). We went to Montbell’s Versalite line for both rain jacket and pants (.65 pounds). That saved some weight, but then we added a trekking umbrella from Golite and that added .5 pounds back on. So, in the end we carried 1.15 pounds of rain protection instead of 1 pound, but we had much greater flexibility. The rain jacket could be worn as a light windbreaker. The rain pants could be used as hiking pants in muddy conditions (they wash off easily and dry quickly), and the umbrella could be used on warmer rainy days, or for sun protection. It turned out to be a perfect solution. I was skeptical about the umbrella at first, but now would not leave home without it. The number of times I saw people sweating in heavy rain gear, because that was all they had, and us walking in t shirts under an umbrella told the whole story. The Golite Chrome Dome trekking umbrella worked great. It was occasionally bent in some weird ways in heavy winds, but it never broke (surprisingly).

Chest pack can also be worn around stomach

Montbell also came to the rescue with their Nano 1000 down jacket (.29 pounds), and their Thermal Sheet (.9 pounds). Both Robin and I wore the down jacket at night almost all the way to Santiago. It was perfect. The Thermal Sheet is a lightweight sleeping bag rated for 50 F. While we did not stay in a lot of gîtes or albergues when we did this bag worked great. If we had planned to stay mostly in private lodging I would not have carried it. But, if you intend to stay in places where you have to provide your own bedding, then this is a great solution. There were times when just a sleep sack wouldn’t have been warm enough for me.

Now, a word about footwear. I changed boots for this trip as my Solomon Quest boots were just too heavy, and warm for this route, and season. I found that the Teva Kimtah mid height mesh boot fit me well, and they were about .6 pounds lighter (unfortunately I think the mesh mid height model is now out of production). They were also Goretex, but in the future I would not use Gortex boots. Your feet are always going to get wet in certain conditions, so just accept that, and look for a boot that dries quickly. My feet got pretty wet in a couple of storms, and I just walked all day with wet feet. I always used Nok cream (shea butter) on my feet, and even when they were wet I never got a blister. I also use hikers wool (purchase online from NZ or AarnUSA). This wool is a must have item for me. I use it in between my liner, and outer socks whenever I feel anything rubbing. This, for me, is usually the outer sides of my big, and little toes. I use adhesive (sports) tape, and hikers wool religiously, and for a 1,000 miles never had a blister. Prevention is the key. I also used a nice big pad of it under the balls of both feet (still in between my inner and outer socks) once my Superfeet insoles started to run out of life. Very nice indeed. I also elected to switch from Smartwool mid weight outer hiking socks to Icebreaker mid weight hiking socks, as they were lighter, and I felt would be better in warmer weather. They were just fine as were the Injinji liner socks. It was a great combination. An added bonus is that the Icebreaker socks dried more quickly than the Smartwool socks, which Robin chose to wear.

We also used our Pacer poles which, once again, proved invaluable. I see many people using hiking poles improperly. They just use them as outriggers to maintain balance. They don’t seem to understand how they can also convert arm swing to thrust as you walk. Pacer has some excellent videos describing their use. We use them all day long whether on the flat, climbing or descending. They work. Another plug for using the rubber tip covers that come with your poles. Why some people pound the pavement with a metal pole tip (which does absolutely nothing) just amazes me. It also is pretty annoying especially if you find yourself surrounded by a cluster of like minded pilgrims.
Now a quick word about walking in pants or shorts. Many people seem to prefer shorts when the temperatures allow, but I wore long pants all the way. I found there were just too many narrow trails with too much interfering vegetation (thorns, rough plant stalks, stinging nettles, etc.) to walk in shorts. I saw one guy’s legs after he came through a narrow section of trail, and his legs were carved up pretty badly. I found it simpler to just go with long pants, and be done with it, rather than try to second guess what the trail would be like on any given day. Robin tried a skirt, for awhile but gave that up in favor of long pants as well.

All in all, I could not imagine a better set up for gear then what we carried. Innovation continues, and additional ways to save weight, while maintaining durability, will certainly be found, but for now I cannot fathom how I would improve over what we used on this pilgrimage. As always, the real way to save weight is simply not to carry much. I was always amazed at the mountainous backpacks people would struggle with. Most of the burden came from too much stuff, not from heavier materials. Hope this helps as you plan your next trip.

If the light within you is darkness how great that darkness will be

The morning after we finished our camino Robin and I walked up from Plaza Obradoiro, through the archway up (past the musician) to the Plaza Inmaculada. It was a beautiful clear crisp morning with temperatures in the low 60’s F. We both were wearing light down jackets against the morning chill. We stepped down to the door of the cathedral, and entered. Our purpose was to attend the 10:30 English mass sponsored by the Camino Chaplaincy. We found our way to the Chapel of our Lady of Loneliness, located in one of the oldest parts of the cathedral (800 years old). As we stepped into the small chapel we were warmly greeted by an Irish nun, who was part of the volunteer staff, and made to feel at home. Good things were happening. We just felt it. Before the mass started the priest, a Venezuelan, who spoke English, introduced himself, as we all did. He welcomed us with a smile that lit up the chapel. His name is Fr. Juan Carlos. After we introduced ourselves and gave a brief synopsis of where we were from, where we started, and the route we walked, the mass began. Robin and I had no idea what we were about to experience as the liturgy began. But, once we reached the point where the priest gave his homily it became apparent that this priest was gifted in his ability to preach. He purposefully made his remarks short, but was able to say all that needed to be said in just a few minutes. He spoke of the longing many have for God to speak to them. How our prayers seem to go unanswered, and disillusionment sets in. We close our hearts to God’s words because we just cannot fathom how all this is supposed to work. Fr. Juan Carlos offered that God is waiting for all of us, waiting with unbounded joy, if only we can find a way to open our hearts, and respond to the love God showers upon us. Simply offering prayers without a heart that truly believes God is present in our lives, does nothing. We must learn to trust the very small voice that is trying to reach us amidst the clamor of many worldly distractions, and reflect the love God gifts to us. In short, it is up to us to take action if our faith journey is to go forward. This was a very simple, but profound message. God loves us, and our peace is only found in us being able to love God in return. Sounds easy enough. But is it? Obviously not, but it was the message of hope we needed to hear. After so many days of walking it started to dawn on us the magnitude of the journey we are truly involved in. Ours was not a journey that could be measured in kilometers, but only in prayers. We were at once both humbled, and encouraged that all that we have done, and will do, in this life serves only one purpose, to complete the journey Home. As we sat in that ancient chapel we paused to reflect on the gift of faith, its joy, and what that calls us to do.

A further discussion with Fr. Juan Carlos led me to the Gospel According to Matthew. He suggested a series of readings in chapters 5, 6 and 7. In these parts of Matthew’s gospel many key teaching’s of Jesus can be found. He suggested that I should read small portions daily, and then allow myself time to to reflect, to listen carefully for the faint voice of God that always guides us. Above all be patient, and hopeful. He assured me that God’s grace abounds, and what you seek will be found.

As I read through the suggested parts of Matthew’s gospel several things started to come together to reinforce what Fr. Juan Carlos had told me. His suggested readings opened a portal that had always been there. Concise instructions on how a true disciple of Jesus must live to enter the kingdom of heaven. There are challenges aplenty as Jesus calls us to behave in ways we are not always able to do.  But, when we fail he always encourages us to place our trust in God’s abundant love, and find comfort in the hope found in the journey home to God, the Father. He reminds us to depend only on God for all that we need. All our earthly worries will not advance us one step in our journey of faith, only opening ourselves to God’s love, and mercy accomplishes that. He reminds us that “the lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound your whole body will be filled with light: but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”

Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the Golden Rule, cautions us about being judgmental. After all, who are we to judge. Pray unceasingly, for it is to those who knock that door eventually opens, and it is those who seek that eventually find (yes, action on our part is required). Challenge yourself to “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. How narrow the gate, and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” The true disciple, is one who does the will of the Father, not the one who offers lip service in place of righteous deeds. Finally, Jesus pulls it all together by warning that those who follow his teachings will be like a wise man who builds his house on rock, not sand. The house built on rock (His teachings) will be able to withstand all the calamities that life will throw at it. The one built on sand will be ruined.

As Robin and I walk the camino we try to embrace our hiddenness, our smallness, and use these moments to listen for that faintest of voices that fills us with hope that our lives are on the right path. So, it was not surprising that the true joy of our most recent camino was not found among the many splendid hills and valleys we traversed, but in the dark confines of the musty stonework of a small cathedral chapel where, once again, the faintest whisper was present, and we listened.

2014 Le Puy to Santiago Slideshow

This slideshow starts in Le Puy on April 26, 2014, and continues on to St. Jean Pied de Port, then along the Camino Norte, and then the Camino Primitivo, and finally a few days on the Camino Frances to Santiago where we arrived on July 6, 2014. Hope you enjoy the show.