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Thank You!

I’ll try this again since most of my last post got cut off:)

I wanted to take a moment and thank all of you for the support and encouragement while Ive been on this adventure. Knowing that you were all behind me made the difficult days much easier! Thank you to those who posted and thank you if you just read. Either way, I hope I was able to give you a decent sense of the experience, keep it somewhat entertaining and possibly encourage some of you to do your own Camino. Im really looking forward to sharing some of the stories in person after all of this time away.

Id like to leave you with a few lessons that became more apparent to me as I was walking that I jotted down in my journal along the way. Feel free to apply any of them in your life or ignore all of them..

1) Just because you can fit 10lbs of shit in a 5lb bag doesnt mean that you should. In most cases, less is more.

2) When you have nothing to do, do nothing. Try it.

3) If you want to be more present start listening to everything but yourself.

4) The best things in life happen unexpectedly – typically when you are lost or dont know where you are going. Letting this happen is difficult.

5) Play many games in your life. Only the rules that you make up matter. Remember, the best games typically require others to play, so choose the rules wisely. Everything is a game.

6) If you want to slow down time and live a richer life, make things in your life more difficult. If you want to die sooner, work hard to make everything in your life easier.

7) The difference between a pilgrimage and a walking holiday is simply a mindset. Its very difficult to be on a pilgrimage if you are constantly on holiday.

8) Just when you think you have something licked it will be sure to lick you!

9) When ordering mixed drinks ask the bartender a perplexing question mid pour for the best results.

10) When you have nothing left in the tank to give, give more. The other options have far less appealing results.

Im now in Muxia after 3 days of amazing weather in Finisterre. Today is overcast and rainy, and today is the first day since I started that I know I dont have to walk anymore – at least for now. I guess its a suitable ending and a good reminder that the sun shines more brightly when you are walking.

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Camino de Santiago, Primitivo Route, Test

Santiago!?

I finally made it into Santiago last week just in time for the annual celebration that takes place in honor of Saint James the apostle. All of the cafes and restaurants on the narrow streets of the old city were teeming with people – many were weary pilgrims with big smiles celebrating their achievement and rejoicing in the fact that they didnt have to wake up and walk anymore…at least until next time. So many pilgrims that I met were repeat offenders that seemed to need a regular serving of soul soup that the challenge of the Camino delivers. Rookies and veterans alike converge daily at Santiagio from the various caminos, which gives the city a strange feeling of some mix between a typical european old village tourist trap, a holy finish line on a list of sacred places next to Rome and Jerusalem and a mass retreat where pilgrims can once again enjoy some of the luxuries that they have foregone for the course of their journey.

Approximately 50 kms east of Santiago in a small city called Melide, the Primitivo route merges with the Camino Frances – the most travelled camino that starts in France at St. Jean Pied de Port. Once I arrived in Melide and made my way into one of the local pulperias for some of the regions renowned octopus, I immediately felt like I had joined a march for breast cancer awareness. A mass of hundreds of pilgrims sporting their bright yellow tee shirts and scallop shells in high spirits toasting the fact that they only had 2 more days to go.

I walked out of Melide the next day with some friends from Spain, Eduardo and Tanya. Along with our friend Mike from the UK, we got a few days ahead of the others that we were walking with on the Primitivo and could smell the “finish” line. Eduardo stopped in to the doctors office before Melide where the doctor told him his Camino was over on account of his knee, so he limped into Santiago a bit slower. Mike and a German pilgrim, Bernard, stayed out after 12 bottles of wine that the group polished off in the pulperia and ended up climbing in the window of the albergue at 3am. Needless to say, they started a bit later the next day. The idea of walking with hundreds of people was not appealing to me in the least, so I found another gear and tried to keep up with Tanya for the 34 kms that we covered that day. Tanya, a waitress from the south of Spain weighing in at 100lbs and all of 5’0″, is on her feet all day when she’s not at the gym. After a steady pace of 6-7kms/hour for 20kms and every article of clothing on my body completely saturated, we stopped for a drink to rest our feet. Our conversation was mostly limited to charades as she only speaks Spanish, but I was able to understand as she explained, not surprisingly, that everything in her life is fast. We finished the last 14 kms at the same pace. I quickly smiled every time she looked back to see if I was still there; then I resumed the same bedraggled wince that I had on my face for the first 2 weeks of this winding adventure.

Here’s Eduardo and Mike in Santiago, and Eduardo and Tanya on the trail.

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When I arrived in Santiago there was a mixture of emotions…joy, relief, melancholy and a small twinge of a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach…what now? The prevailing thought that I had with these feelings was a sense of how anticlimactic it was to arrive in Santiago after all of this time. Dont get me wrong, getting my credential stamped with the final Santiago de Compestela seal and getting my certificate of a complete pilgrimage was a nice feeling. Experiencing all of the things that I did along the way was immeasurably nicer. The best thing about Santiago was seeing many of the people that I had walked with over the previous several months walk into the central square – some of which I hadnt seen for over a month. In the 3 days that I spent in Santiago I got to catch up with many of them, laugh and tell stories of our best and worst days. Meanwhile, a festival was going on around us complete with live music, a fair and fireworks at night. It was pretty special.

Im writing this post from Finisterre…the end of the world. A week or two before Santiago, I had this nagging feeling in my gut about skipping that 100 km in a hot pine forest in the south of France. I was frustrated, my feet hurt and I wasnt even halfway done on what seemed like a never ending journey. In taking on any challenge, you inherently know that every day cant be a paradise. Its usually the most difficult days that teach you the most, and I was annoyed with myself for not being present enough to recognize that in this moment in France. I didnt have any intention of walking past Santiago when I started this adventure, but Im glad I have both to fulfill on the distance that I had planned to walk and to take in the rustic beauty of this part of the coast.

Tomorrow I will walk to Muxia and at that point I will declare this game complete. Its very difficult, if not impossible, to describe what I got out of this journey. All I will say is that if you have any inkling of a desire to do your own “Camino,” make the time and go in the very near future. Im certain you wont be disappointed.

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Primitivo

The last 5 days on the Primitivo (I’ll assume you all have the translation down now:)) have been nothing short of spectacular. Beginning in a town called Salas at 200 meters, I began a series of steep uphill treks followed by both gradual and sharp descents. Up and down, up and down reaching over 1200 meters at Puerto Palo and now back down to 500 meters in Castroverde where I am today — exactly 2 months of hiking in the books! The last 5 days have been both the most difficult and the most beautiful that Ive experienced the entire trip.

I watched a documentary on the Camino Frances before I left that talked about a physical hurdle, a mental hurdle and finally a spiritual awakening that pilgrims experience on their journey. My body took a while to adjust, particularly my feet, but the last five days have been pain free going over 30 kms on some days on difficult terrain. Somewhere around one month into this in a hot pine forest in France with a bad stomach, a bloody toe and 90° heat, mentally I was so over walking that I think the only thing that kept me going was knowing that all of you would know that I had quit if I did. Without a doubt, walking this many days on top of the solitude and the boredom at times required a different perspective to endure. Ive never had a spiritual experience in my life. Whenever someone has described their spiritual experience to me – talking with God, out of body or other – Ive always chalked it up as pure hyperbole. The last 5 days have been as close to spiritual as I can let myself believe. The pain disappeared, I didnt have many thoughts of where I was going, I didnt care so much about how fast I got there and as the terrain got more difficult I became happier. Long distance runners describe a high that they get. This is how Ive felt walking for the last five days. I will call it spiritual when I can completely ignore the flies here!

Here are a few pictures to help you understand.
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Walking in Spain has been a very different experience vs. walking in France. Both good, but different. After I passed through the difficult Basque region, there were many more people on the trail – some going all the way to Santiago and others on a 3 week holiday doing a section. Ive been walking with the same group of people for just over a week now. We all get up in the morning at different times, we usually walk alone, we see eachother briefly on the trail for a cup of coffee or a bocadillo at times and eventually end up at the same albergue 20-30 kms down the road. Sometimes we cook up some dinner at the albergue and share it. Other times the albergue host cooks a communal dinner for us. Needless to say its been more social of late.

There’s Johnny from Barcelona, Andre from Montreal, Gonzolo from the Canary Islands, Priscilia from Switzerland, Keith and Kerrie from Kansas via their 4 year stint teaching in the Dominican Republic, Tim from San Francisco but grew up in nowhere North Carolina and is as much a Californian as I am a Spaniard, Gregory from somewhere in British Columbia, Heleane from Belgium and finally some friends from Wyoming – Shane and Elizabeth.

Its a younger crowd with the exception of Gonzolo and myself, but neither of us has a problem acting less than our age. Nevertheless, we’ve tended to stick a little closer within the group along with Priscilia. Gonzolo doesnt speak English and I dont speak Spanish, so we speak to eachother in some form of Frengspish. We are both equally proficient in French – they give the same degree to kindergarteners. In Switzerland, they speak French, German, Italian and Romanch. Priscilia is going to be a French teacher when she returns to Switzerland. The three of us walked together on the way out of Oviedo. I cant really explain how much was lost in translation between Gonzolo and me because it was lost, but Priscilia was laughing at us most of the day which tells me a lot. It was a primer for her class for the students with special needs. Nevertheless, Gonzolo and I have continued to try and communicate with varying degrees of success and intervention from Priscilia and Andre. If nothing else its been entertaining.

Andre’s french is a much more strident version from provincial french. If I didnt know any better Id think he was speaking german at times. Johnny, a young 21 yr. old student from Barcelona speaks some english but no French. Johnny has been carrying his ukulele with him since Irun. Andre has his recorder – thats right, the instrument that you played in 4th grade music class. Each night they play a rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ I think its the only song Johnny knows. The girls usually sing along to drown out the instruments. Andre and Johnny have bonded with their music and the english between them is about on par with my dialogue avec Gonzolo. That hasnt stopped them from talking to eachother in the least, and its provided endless entertainment to the rest of us listening to two innocent, wide eyed kids discuss favorite music artists, girls and life lessons from the trail (Im aware of how old that makes me sound but thats how Ive felt around the two of them). A few nights ago Johnny and Gonzolo were headed to the market to pick some things up for dinner. I asked Johnny to grab me some vegetables to go along with the pasta that I was making that night for everyone – some mushrooms, zucchini or squash and some queso por favor. An hour later he returned with one pablano pepper and some manchego. I said, “Johnny, who buys ONE pepper?” He turns a little red and starts laughing like a stoned surfer and says, “Oh man, Im sorry..I wasnt thinking…Gonzolo told me to just get a pepper.” Maybe this is one of those moments where you just had to be there. All I could do was laugh and throw the pepper into the sauce I was making to dress it up a bit. Here’s a picture of One Pepper Johnny and his ukulele.

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After hearing the story, Tim made sure everyone in the albergue knew about Johnny’s one pepper snafu. Whenever anyone has a question about how many water fountains are on the trail that day, how many albergues in the next town, how many beds in each albergue, how many cafes along the way or any other basic fact that most guidebooks provide they go to Tim. Invariably, he has already informed everyone in the albergue of these fast facts and more before asking is necessary. Before Keith from Kansas knew Tim’s name he just referred to him as “Guidebook.” Being from Philadelphia, I tend not to show much compassion for the “competition,” and I find humor in the mild suffering of others. Its the blue collar, underdog, misery loves company mentality that keeps Philadelphia exactly where it is on a highly coveted list of cities that everyone wants to visit..right next to Detroit. Tim’s North Carolina southern hospitality / we’re all in this together personality reminds me of a less charismatic Bill Cinton speech at times. My knee jerk reaction is to fill his hiking boots with shaving cream, but then I quickly stop myself and am reminded that Ive purposely taken a 3 month holiday from the city of brotherly love. I guess even walking 1500kms cant remove all of the cynicism!:) Here’s Tim….and Johnny wearing Tims hat.

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Then there is the couple from Kansas, Keith and Kerrie, and the friends from Wyoming, Elizabeth and Shane. West of the Mississippi and East of California has always struck me as a bit strange. Keith and Kerrie got married straight out of college and moved to the Dominican Republic to teach in a Catholic school. They like to have “extreme anniversaries,” so this one is walking a long distance. Next year they said they’re going to learn to cook and buy an extreme amount of expensive food to celebrate. They’re moving back to the suburbs of Kansas City after this trip to continue teaching. They’re cute in a Wally Cleaver kind of way:). Conversely, if you dropped off Elizabeth and Shane at Woodstock 40 years ago they’d fit right in…at least initially. Shane likes to sport his tie dyed robe at night after a long days hike. Elizabeth apparently prefers a more natural look according to Gonzolo who ran into her in the middle of the night on his way to the bathroom. As he was telling me the story in broken french he points his index finger at his head, moves it in a circle, exhales shaking his head and says “Kansas and Wyoming is loco.” I couldnt argue.

Heleane burned out of her job working for a minister in Brussels. Im not sure if Gregory has ever had a job. He’s admittedly suffered from a bit of failure to launch syndrome, but Heleane has taken to his middle school charm. They’re both actually quite smart and funny. Gregory just hasnt yet figured out how to use it. He started walking the Camino after deciding to do it a week prior when he was getting tired of couch surfing in Europe. I asked him how long he’d planned on being in Europe and he said until he’s out of money. Whatever works right.

I made it out of Lugo this morning and walked most of the day in rain. Its only been the 3rd day in 2+ months of walking that Ive had to pull out my poncho. In the middle of the walk the rain stopped briefly and the sun peaked through. Straight in front of the trail was a full rainbow, and a few minutes later a double rainbow waiting for me to walk straight through. The last time I saw a rainbow was 4 days into my journey in France. Now Im 4 days out from Santiago. Its a strange symmetry that some people might say was a sign or someone looking over me. Anything is possible, but I just think I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. ..twice:). Buene Camino as they say..

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The North Coast

Ive now walked over 450 kms on the north coast of Spain, and Im currently in a town called Villaviciosa where I will begin my journey inland towards Santiago. Im sure some of the pictures that Ive posted previously give you a sense for the beauty of the coast. As Ive moved west Ive gotten to see a little bit of everything here – the mountainous terrain of the Basque region to the relatively more tame rolling green hills of Cantabria and Asturius (along the coast); the change in language from Basque to Spanish; the cuisine – delicious bean/meat stews, fresh fish, chorizo and jambone, octopus and prawns,…; Roman walls and bridges, Mediaeval and Gothic buildings, small hamlet villages with crumbling houses and endless terra cotta; fishing villages and beach resorts; flowering cactus, eucalyptus, pine forests with fern floors and even transplanted palm trees; slugs, snails, fox, deer, horses, bulls, donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens, , dogs, dogs and more dogs…happy to report no wolves..yet!

The pilgrimage has a much different feel in Spain vs. France. In France you feel like you’re mostly on a journey by yourself. You run into other pilgrims occasionally, but there are days where its just you and the cows..or the green bean fields..or a hot, sandy, never ending pine forest. In Spain there are usually anywhere from 10 to 30 pilgrims in the albergue each night. Less in the Basque region where the terrain is more difficult and its a longer haul to Santiago, more as Santiago approaches and summer is in full swing. Ive met people from the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Canada, South Korea, the US and of course France and Spain. I would say 75% are retired and the rest are split between early 20s and the 30/40s group. Some walk for 2-3 weeks on holiday from work, others walk for 6 months. I met a German guy in France who started near Cologne, Germany, walked to Vezelay (where I started), was continuing down to St. Jean Pied de Port at the base of the French Pyrenees, over the Pyrenees on the Camino Frances to Santiago and then Finisterre, and then planned to walk back to Germany starting on the Camino del Norte in reverse. He was 47 and smoked 20 cigarettes a day..rolled them happily as he walked. He’d do up to 45 kilometers in a day and look unphased. Another guy I met recently was walking all the way from the Czech Republic. He was on day 95 when I met him – camped out in a tent every single night and was carrying 50lbs in his backpack (for reference Im carrying 15-20lbs as is most everyone else). He was a vegetarian, so he kept me company by drinking a bottle of wine while I ate something similar to a hanger steak. Everyone has their own definition of a pilgrimage. Each person has their own reason for walking even if its no reason at all. Each country has their own way of toasting at dinner…salut, sante, na zdravi (russian and czech), prost, salve and my favorite…terviseks in Estonia, which the guy from the state of Washington heard as “dirtysex.” That was the clear winner and we had to have a few extra drinks that night to honor the newest toast.

The Way in Spain has supplied the full range of feelings and emotions. Joy, fear, frustration, a great sense of accomplishment, peace, boredom, exhaustion, pain and appreciation to name a few. On my first day in Basque country I took the advice of the proprietor of my first Spanish albergue and decided to head off the historic route to take a more scenic route along the coastline of Guadalupe. “Its a little more challenging, but the scenery is spectacular,” he said. Up the mountain I went the next day straight past the left turn to stay on the trail and down the backside of the mountain towards the coast. I hopped over a gated fenceline, through a field of sheep and before I knew it I was walking along the jagged cliffs watching the waves crash with the morning sun shining warm on the back of my neck. He was right! – green hills like Id imagine Ireland, steep cliffs dropping into the ocean, dramatic mountain riding the coastline as far as i could see and not another soul. I was making steady progress for the first 5 kilometers – the trail was narrow, but when you have ocean on one side and mountains on another there is only one way to go…..If I follow the coast I have to run into the next fishing village at some point…… Traverse a few mountain streams that had carved deep gorges in the rock over time, scale some switchbacks up to higher ground and slalom the downhills quickly while breathing in the fresh ocean air. If only Bear Grylls could see me now! (can that really be his name?!). And then the trail ended – a sheer cliffwall staring me in the face. Backwards wasnt an option. Nothing suitable to use to build a raft:). Following the stream inland to try and get around the cliff was my only option. In I walked following what seemed to be previously trodden trails..its amazing what you can rationalize as a trail when you really need to find one! Thicker grass now, thorn bushes, the slope increasing and the sun getting more intense into the late morning. I think I see a trail leading up a pretty steep portion of the backside of the cliffwall. I start to climb it. Halfway up Im certain its not a trail. Drenched in sweat, moving in 5ft increments in high grass and thorn bushes before I have to stop to catch my breath. The cliffwall is straight up at the very top, but I should be able to traverse sideways once I get up there to get around. ..right?. I finally reach the base of the sheer rock surrounded by thick brush, thorns and high grass. Im completely blocked and who knows whats hiding in the grass or under a rock. My only option is back down. Moral is low and the sun is getting hotter. Back down I go…thank GOD for my trekking poles! 2 hours wasted with no progress and I have to stop and take my backpack off to rest. I sit on a rock next to the stream and contemplate my options as I drink some of the runoff to hydrate myself. Its fresh water right?..clean enough right?..one thing I lucked out on that day. My only option was to keep heading inland and find another route around. It reminded me of the mindset that I had when I was 14 and my hockey coach was pissed off at me making me skate suicides half the practice and army crawl around the rink the rest….you can quit and spend the time taking more piano lessons or study Torah. 8 hours later of what should have been a 4 hour hike (had i stuck to the historic route) I made it halfway to my destination that day. It was the one time on this trip that Ive truly been nervous. Now I have the fortune of laughing about it and sharing the story, but I wasnt laughing that day. Lesson learned: follow the yellow arrows and tune into the Discovery Channel for Bear Grylls.

As difficult of a start to my Camino del Norte as this was, it has been an epic experience. The physical test has been great, the mental challenge of fighting the monotony of walking every freakin day has been rewarding and getting to see so much of two countries that most tourists would never get to see is hard to beat.

Tomorrow Im starting the Camino Primitivo..translated as the Primitive Route…how perfect. The trail will take me through a more mountainous region of Asturius through the city of Oviedo and then eventually into Galicia. Assuming I follow the yellow arrows I should be in Santiago around the 25th of July. Kind of hard to believe and at the same time still a long way to go. Im looking forward to getting into the mountains and off the coast now for the final stretch. It will be quieter until the trail merges with the Camino Frances in Arzua, at which point I will join hundreds of pilgrims for the last 2 days into Santiago. My boots have started to lose their profile, but so far my mind is in tact. Terviseks!

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