Tag: mindfulness

I’ll Know I’m Home When

Somewhere along the way, once I got the rhythm down pat, I began to note somewhat tongue-in-cheek differences between daily life on the Camino and home. But the more I listed the more I realized it’s an intimate glimpse of common pilgrim experiences you normally wouldn’t be aware of unless you’d undertaken the journey. I also began to have insights, reminders and resolutions related to some of them that I’ve included at the end.

I’ll know I’m home when…
   … I’m no longer looking for markers every few minutes to tell me where to go, except perhaps subliminally.
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   … I’ll no longer be walking continually for 4-8 hours on a daily basis, with the exception of a brief rest or rest day.
   … I’ll no longer be so consistently in nature.
   … I’ll no longer hear the continual click-click click-click of walking sticks telling me that a pilgrim is coming along the trail.
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   … I’ll no longer hear the well wishes Buen Camino spoken to me by nearly every pilgrim and so many locals, or say it myself, as we pass each other.
   … I’ll have a cat in my lap not observing one from a distance.
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   … I’ll no longer sit people watching, daily, at an outdoor café while having café and croissant, or a glass of wine and tapas.
   … I’ll have more than one change of clothing.
   … I’ll have more choices to wear on my feet than hiking shoes or flip flops.
   … I’ll keep my belongings in a closet or chest of drawers rather than a backpack.
   … I’ll no longer do my laundry on a daily basis rather than weekly.
   … I’ll no longer be required to vacate my lodging each day by 0800, or be restricted in any movement or slight noises between 2200-0630.
   … I’ll know on a consistent basis where I’ll lay my head each night.
   … I’ll no longer wear ear plugs.
   … If I’m sleeping in a roomful of people, I’ll know them all ahead and never in numbers between 12-100 in one room.
   … I’ll have as much privacy as I choose.
   … I’ll be able to sit upright in my bed without bumping my head on the bunk above me.
   … I’ll be sleeping between sheets, not in my sleeping bag.
   … I’ll take a shower for as long as I like without pushing a button every ten seconds to keep the water flowing.
   … I’ll no longer speak three languages, daily, sometimes all within one sentence—the latter because my brain isn’t adequately sorting.
   … I’ll no longer hear five or more languages around me or engage with so many different nationalities at once at any given point, daily.
   … I’ll be drinking French roast—strong and black—in the morning rather than café con leche.
   … I’ll return to my normal diet, rather than the “pilgrims menu” offered in restaurants.
This statement probably needs some explanation. Nearly every restaurant on the Camino offers a lower priced 3-course meal, limited options for each course, with bread, wine, coffee, or water included, typically between 9-12 euros. While offering benefit to pilgrims in the amount of food for a lower cost, they’re high carb, meat and potato meals, nearly devoid of vegetables, no fruit. Lots of gluten. Also typical of the entire other-than-pilgrim menu in Spain. I consumed more gluten, dairy, potatoes and meat in these two months than I’ve eaten in at least five years, maybe more.
My Take-Aways…
   1. It’s important to be alert to the lay of the land to avoid becoming lost or overlooking tell-tale signals that things are off track or hidden. I resolve to sharpen my peripheral and x-ray vision.
   2. Flexibility is a virtue. It’s also important to set your limits and abide by them. I resolve to identify with even more depth and breadth what is true for me.
   3. A simple life in the best sense is a pure one, devoid of clutter in the mind or unnecessary material goods, anything that weighs down the spirit. I resolve to uplevel my sorting and pitching process.
   4. Nature is a great gift, healer and stress reliever. I’m fortunate to live where I do. Nature—miles of it—is just outside my door. I resolve to do these things more: hike, take breaks, sit on the deck, notice the wildflowers—however small—and watch the lizards, birds and other wildlife. Absorb energy given by the moon, sun, stars, wind and rain with intent to return it in ways that are life-giving.
   5. Diverse encounters—people, places, new ways of doing things—make life rich and support intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth. I thrive on diversity and already seek it out but miss it at home. I resolve to discover more opportunities to insert myself in such foreign lands locally.
   6. I undertook this journey through willing choice. If you look at the list, you may notice there are aspects that are similar to those whose lives often aren’t through choice but circumstance. In a certain way, I had a light taste of what it’s like to be homeless, to experience restriction. The more days I walked the more this awareness settled on me. It increased my compassion toward anyone who finds themselves in such a place and has difficulty finding a way through. There’s always a way across a threshold. It also deepened the great gratitude I hold for having the life I do, and the capability of coming up with strategies to navigate the tricky times.
   7. The pilgrims I met on the Camino came from different walks of life, ages, cultures, circumstances, personalities but all held one thing in common: an intent to deepen their lives in some way. That’s the Spirit of the Camino…or any challenging spiritual journey really. It’s an initiation process, one so worth undertaking. You meet yourself coming and going resident in the land you travel and those you meet. You discover who you are. Then the grandest part of the journey is taking it all home to shape your daily living from that point on. I resolve to do so…as gracefully as possible and forgive myself when I stumble.
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   This may seem like quite a list of resolutions, maybe overwhelming. But…for me…it boils down to something core. Being present. When I think about it, that’s what the Camino reinforced to me overall. Be awake—fully. Then all starts to fall into place bit by bit: small adjustments build upon themselves and create alignment. That’s absolutely doable. It’s something I know.

The Unknown World Or…Days 38-40: June 17-19

Finisterre

   When I was still in preparation for this pilgrimage, I wrote a post entitled “Momentum” about the phases of the journey and the idea of sliding my own footsteps into those of pilgrims many centuries old once I began. Now I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like after, in some cases, many months depending on where they started…finally arriving in Santiago de Compostela–the Field of Stars–and the cathedral with all its opulence, pomp and circumstance. But even more so, for those who elected to make the further journey to Finisterre, Land’s End, all the way to the sea. For some, seeing such a large body of water for the first time.
   What it must have been like…gazing out from the End of the World, as it was known at the time. Anything beyond the horizon was unknown and, for all they knew, could have been The Great Abyss. From the Field of Stars to the End of the World, the two seem linked in some way.
   This is where I went to more reflect on my Camino and where it has brought me. Finisterre is a small town, but I elected to stay out of town away from the crowds, overlooking the sea and a short walk away from the lesser frequented beach on the western side called Praia Foro do Mar. I spent most of my time there gazing out at the view and walking the beach. Indeed the ocean seemed to stretch into oblivion. Depending on the time of day, it shimmered, not much differentiation from water to sky, and could have been easily taken in those old times for a pathway continuing to the heavens.
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   I have been sheltered on this journey in a way pilgrims weren’t back then, or for so many people today. Life has been simple. You get up. You walk. Although I had some challenges, I was not attacked or robbed. I had food and water. I had a bed to sleep in. I was not isolated. The outside world was kept at bay. Life has been simple.
   I made the mistake of turning on TV for the first time since I began the Camino and watched the news on Al Jazeera, known for not candy coating the facts. I saw the reports from home on the latest acts of racism and violence. Having been sheltered from these increasingly regular occurrences for the last two months, I can’t describe the level of horror and sadness with which I took this in.
   Somewhere on this pilgrimage, I read where–I believe it was the Dalai Lama–was quoted, “We see bad news because it is news.” Essentially saying, so much good is in the world it’s not news of difference but the bad is. Perhaps seeing that statement was preparing me for the moment I mentioned above.  It’s something to sit with. About halfway through the Camino, a woman from Greece asked me if I thought evil exists. I answered yes. You can’t have light without the dark. Somehow there’s a way to integrate the two and/or accept what is. I know Indigenous traditions that do, the Maya being one. I don’t know much about Buddhism but think something similar is true within that belief system.
   Although I never really left this world, there was a buffer. Now I’m faced with being reminded to provide my own buffer, while still acknowledging these things are there. It’s the world I’m re-entering. To deny otherwise is fooling myself.
   I started this walk asking to learn how to be most present, and continue doing what I love and care deeply about…but with more grace and ease…and give care to myself much more. I come back to this intent, this question.
   When I bought the bus ticket back to Santiago, the agent said, “It’s good for any day. There are no assigned seats.” To my ears I heard a deeper message: This must be the threshold I spoke of at that communal meal back in St Jean when answering why I chose to undertake this pilgrimage.
   I’m at a choice point. There’s no prescribed path but the one I choose. There never is. I’m disengaging from the footsteps of pilgrims past and landing firmly back into my own–although I never left them.
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   In “Momentum” I spoke of the small (but mighty) Singing Bowl my dear friend Hilary Bee had entrusted me to carry on the Camino. I sounded it during key points for me along the way, the most recent standing, facing the sea, at the End of the World. The vibrations of the Camino live within its shape as much as its pronouncements are sent ahead. With gratitude I’ll send it back across the ocean to Hilary in the UK once I’m back home where I’ll sound it to introduce those vibrations to the larger bowl she made, her community supported, and she gave to me. Full circle.
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***
In Finisterre I booked a place through airbnb.com with Rosa Trabo Martinez for a room listed as Einzelzimmer Cape Finisterre. It’s actually a modern three-story home with other bedrooms available and common rooms, bathrooms and kitchen. I had the good fortune to be the only guest while there at a very reasonable rate. Rosa lives next door and was so accommodating to me. And you can’t top the quiet or view. If you’re thinking of going to Finisterre, I highly recommend.

When the Spirit Catches You Or…Days 28-32: June 7-11

Sarria-Ferreiras-Gonzar-Palais de Rei-Melide-Arzua

This is the way it happened. I was sitting in a small but lively Italian restaurant in Sarria at a table to myself. A woman with long whitish hair walked in. I thought to myself, she looks familiar. She came over to my table and asked if she could join me, introducing herself as Lydia. I realized I had not seen her before. We quickly fell into conversation. She said she was from the Netherlands. I mentioned two Dutch sisters who introduced themselves during the communal meal at the albergue the night before Day One on the Camino in St Jean. I ran into them off and on as time went on. They’d begun to travel with three new friends from the U.S. also present that first night. I hadn’t seen them for a long time but ran into them all in Sahagun, the last night they were all together. One of the Dutch sisters had to go home as scheduled, the rest also ending their Camino time for other adventures. I shared a train seat to Leon with the remaining sister, and we then went our separate ways.
Lydia laughed and asked, “Did the sisters mention a friend who was traveling ahead?” I vaguely remembered a mention at the first communal meal. She said, “I’m that friend!” We talked until 10 PM, the latest I’d stayed up to date, finding a number of things in common. Now what are the chances we would end up at a table together in this particular restaurant…when there were many to choose from and in this particular village?
Some time that night I told her about a Swiss man I’d met very early who started the Camino by walking out his front door…in Switzerland. We both marveled. I hadn’t seen him since that brief passing. But the next morning there in Sarria? I met him again just leaving town.
I took both of these synchronous occurrences as a good sign. There existed a sense of excitement in the air. This is where a number of pilgrims begin walking the Camino, perhaps because they have limited time…and you can still get the completion certificate if you walk these last 111 km. There were a number of fresh, hopeful faces–probably exactly the way I looked on Day One–and carousing by young ones. The anticipation was catching…and I took it on.
Sarria
Sarria
Plus the realization that I was actually nearing the end. I was like a horse headed to the barn.
And I was falling in love…in a way I hadn’t for a very long time…with this region of Spain called Galicia. image
The next night I spent in Ferreiras, a place so small I almost missed it. If I hadn’t looked up at just the right time I would have passed the albergue on by where I’d made a reservation. I awoke quite early the next morning, having to wait for enough light to set out. That’s when the true magic of the region became apparent to me through the morning mist. Forest, wildflowers,  fields and tiny villages that probably hadn’t changed much in seventy or more years. My footsteps became quite light. My heart was full. My mind was quite still.
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I realized that somewhere along the way I’d stopped conscious wazifa practice. I wouldn’t presume to say I’d embodied the Beautiful Names I was working with. But I would say they were working me beneath the surface. Hard to describe. But I could feel it.
This morning along the trail through the forest I actually came upon someone walking more slowly than I was. Not due to an injury but because it was evident she was just as enchanted as I was. She’d stop and look. Just like I did. She began singing a soft song in German. It added to my day. I finally passed her by. She may be out there singing still.
Traditional corn crib.
Traditional corn crib.
Tonight I’m staying in Arzua in O Albergue de Selmo, a wonderful place. Not because it’s fancy. It’s not. This little slice of heaven has no more than two bunk beds in an actual cubicle–with a curtain sliding across the entrance for privacy, something quite scarce–a bedside locker for valuables, separate men’s and women’s bathrooms and showers–an adequate number for a change–and a super helpful owner. And because I was the first to arrive and check in, she gave me a cubicle with only one bunk bed, at the farthest end. It’s now late for check-ins. No one is in the top bunk. I must be well loved.
I topped off my day with Caldo Gallego, a bowl of hearty traditional Galician soup–their specialty with cabbage, beans, a little bit of sausage and the ever-present potato–thick crusty bread and vino tinto.
Santiago de Compostela is now within my sight. Only 40 km away to the 0 km marker.

The Kindness of Strangers or…Days 11-14: May 20-23

Ventos-Najera

The opera Carmen is filling the room as I sit in a comfortable chair documenting these past few days. I feel uplifted by the music and hospitality that permeates the Hostal Hispano here in Najera, the welcoming atmosphere distinctly put in place by Anna who runs it. I can testify to her warm-heartedness, and she carries this quality readily on her Spanish face.

Anna

 

This wayward pilgrim is in a very different place today than on Day 11, specifically due to the kindness of strangers. If you track on the graffiti map below, you’ll see I haven’t made it very far in distance miles since I left Logrono after two days of resting my resistant foot. It’s hard to tell what the map is tracking since there are 20 possible villages or towns to lodge between Logrono and the city of Burgos, not one-fifth that’s shown. I’m likely at point 18 shown on the map now.

Camino map

 

Unless a pilgrim wants to sleep in a field, the amount of foot travel each day is gauged by the distances to be undertaken between places where there’s lodging. On Day 11 I left Logrono and walked 20 km to Ventos, my right foot speaking ever more loudly as the miles went by. I’d been fooled by its silence when I’d embarked that morning. I arrived at the only Ventos albergue in early afternoon run by an Austrian woman with lockstep efficiency. I pled for a lower bunk. It was evident I was having trouble. Her partner showed me to the 3rd floor (American). No elevators in these places. The women’s bathroom and showers were on the 2nd. But I was happy to have a ground bunk. I was also happy when another woman was shown a bunk later. Otherwise, I would have been the only female bunking with 8 men. No problem really. I just would have felt under-represented.

I knew by nightfall that I was in real trouble. I could put no weight on my foot without significant pain. Some of these albergues have stringent rules about leaving your walking sticks at the door, along with hiking boots. (The latter I understand.) Consequently, I had no support in getting around. Still no swelling on the foot and no injury done. A sign was clearly posted that pilgrims must leave by 8 AM and the albergue would close. The next morning I waited in the lobby, other pilgrims departing. A few I’d met in earlier days expressed empathy at my predicament. I intended to prevail upon the Austrian manager to help get me to a doc, unlikely there was one in this tiny village.

She finally showed up. I placed my petition before her. She confirmed I’d have to travel to Najera via taxi to the health clinic, gave me a map and called a taxi which would arrive in 20 minutes. Then she told me I’d have to wait at the bar down the street because she was closing. I said nothing, but perhaps I looked resigned because she relented. When the taxi came she told the driver where to take me even though I told her I could handle it. As I settled myself in the back seat, she reached out and laid a hand on my shoulder and told me all would be okay. That light touch of acknowledgment finally filled my eyes with tears when nothing else had.

No one at the health clinic admissions spoke English. French was rolling easily off my tongue but no one spoke that either. My Spanish was hiding. Times of stress, I suppose. Finally, the admissions tech sat down in front of a computer and accessed Google translate or similar. He typed out questions. I circled the answers. He set me up for an appointment with a doctor within the hour, never exploring how I would pay.

The doc opened his door to me 30 minutes early. How often does that happen? Gentle demeanor. He had no English, no French. But by then my Spanish wasn’t quite so shy. I was able to tell him it was all a mystery. He pushed around on the foot, not finding much either. He sent me to x-ray. No stress fracture. Thanks to the gods…nothing. He asked did I want to continue the Camino to which I said, “Of course.” He replied that there was nothing to be done but take the high dosage ibuprofen I already had…and stay off my feet for 3 days. I thanked him and asked how I pay for services. He waved me down to admissions. To which, I asked the admissions tech the same question. He asked if the doc gave me a paper. He didn’t. “Then there’s no charge,” the tech said.

Really? Anyone reading this from the U.S. knows that would never–repeat never–happen at home. And I would have had to fill out multi-paged forms with medical history and insurance. Not 3 strips of paper each holding 1 question with a circled answer. I felt like a person in need…not a commodity.

Then I found Anna. She somehow pulled a room out of her hat when they were full, apologizing it was on the 3rd floor, toted my pack up for me and gave me ice for my foot. I like it up here under the eaves. It’s quiet. The window opens to the sky and pigeons cooing.

I’m one to find metaphors in what presents itself externally. It’s the way my mind works and has served me well as learnings for my inner life. I can’t ignore the mystery issue is with my right foot–the one that represents moving out in the world. I also find it interesting that there’s an empty, derelict apartment building immediately next door that looks like it’s been that way for years. Quite an unusual thing here, I’d say. It got my immediate attention. I spent some time shooting images of it last night when I ventured out for food.

 

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Sometimes there are things we need to leave behind, that we’ve grown beyond. And we may not even know they’re still hanging out in the psyche until we’re presented with such…or slow down to consider.

This morning I went out to get some info at the tourist office. Afterward, I passed by the Santa Maria la Real Monastery and stopped to read the sign by the door. A man appeared out of nowhere, opened the heavy door to the church and motioned for me to go inside. He didn’t do so himself.

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I was the only one there and sat down in a pew to gaze around. No sooner had I done so than silent tears began to stream, going on for awhile. This used to happen to me off and on in my early days of meditation 30 years ago. I never knew why then. Nor was it revealed to me today.

I can thank my foot for this slower walk that brought me to this unexpected place specifically…and receiving the kindness of strangers. I also have a further recognition of whatever surrounds me and keeps me protected.

Why the Journey or…Days 8-10: May 17-19

Estelle-Logrono

A couple of hours into my walk the morning from Maneru I was well into the countryside. Somewhere in memory are steep climbs. I’d just pulled myself up one of those when an older Spaniard with a white goatee slowed down alongside, speaking to me in Spanish. I got about half and cocked my head. He said it again, “A woman walking the Camino alone. You have much courage.”
I didn’t start out meaning to walk alone. It’s happened that way. I didn’t think I would walk so slowly. At first it was the Pyrenees and the pack. But the Pyrenees are past and the landscape more even. The pack on my back now seems almost a part of me. Still, the paths are often arduous, the rocks being most problematic for me. Imagine angled uneven trails with cobblestones but not human-made…off and on for miles. Most everyone passed me up. I didn’t care about that. From the beginning I was never in a race or on a schedule. I wanted to get to Santiago in one piece, enjoy the scenery, collect material for later artwork and any new revelations the way may bring.
Oscar was always well ahead. I had no problem with that. I was often with my own thoughts and practice anyway. And he’s more prone to strike up conversations with other pilgrims. He’d stop around lunch to wait for me or we’d meet at the closest 20 km point to find an albergue for the night.
By the time the Spaniard came upon me I was starting to have problems. My pace had slowed to that of a snail rather than the tortoise. A tendon on the top of my right foot was straining and my left knee was also talking to me. I’d felt the foot the night before but thought I could walk it out as I’d done a number of different aches and pains since we started. I couldn’t. Both were more and more insistent. I hadn’t twisted anything. I’d been very mindful of how I placed my feet. I think all the big rocks just finally had their way with them.
The trail was pretty much empty. I just toddled on. Another older gentleman, this one French, checked on me in passing, “Ca va?” In the middle of nowhere there’s nothing to do but go on. He must have taken a break somewhere because later he whispered as he passed again, “Courage!”
Wazifas were my steady companion and likely what got me through. I finally entered the town of Estelle. Luckily, the municipal albergue was the first thing I saw and checked myself in. Oh luxury, I was assigned a room that probably had 16 bunk beds but I was the first there. I went horizontal, shoes off. Soon the room was filled with chattering, mostly French and Italian. Later I was able to find a farmacia to get some high dosage ibuprofen. I could barely walk.
Why am I telling you all this? People tend to romanticize things. The Camino de Santiago is not romantic or airy-fairy. But it is a choice. As I walked I imagined medieval pilgrims with heavy robes and inadequate shoes, maybe no shoes, little food. Accommodations not what they are today. The paths were much less than they are now. None of the present-day pilgrims I’ve thus far seen are having an easy physical time. I’d say most better than me and some I’ve encountered are having more difficult times.
And with all that, there’s a reason people undertake this challenging journey…any such journey…with many returning to do it again. After all is said and done…it does something to us.
That’s why I made the choice. I don’t know where this will take me any more than I’ve known the outcome with all the similar choices I’ve made in the last 20 years…after I woke up. But I know it to be true and right for me.
Back to the storyline…. I never saw Oscar that day but we did reconnect via email. He was in the same town in a different albergue.
I decided the smart thing for me to do was bus ahead to Logrono, equivalent to a couple days’ walk, find a pension with a room to myself (ah, bliss) and stay off my feet a couple of days. I have done that. A quiet (more bliss) clean place across from the Catedral La Redonda. Below you’ll see the scene directly eye level out my window. It’s my first attempt at sketching using Art Set Pro, an art app I downloaded to my iPad. It’s tricky using a stylus on a screen. The mark doesn’t always go where I attempt. Learning curve. Probably a lesson in that, too.
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Last night I went into the cathedral for a short time and found strong energy. This morning I returned for a couple of hours and took my prayer beads. Wazifa practice was extraordinary there for me. From some depth two wazifas that I’d forgotten came swimming up … Ya Shafi! (O Healer) Ya Kafi! (O Remedy)…
I now feel ready to continue on tomorrow.

Readiness

I’ve had a dawning recognition for the last several days. I’m ready for the Camino. I’m not talking about being packed. I’m not. The things I’m taking are still in a pile that I add to bit-by-bit as I think about it or refer to the necessities list I’ve researched.

I’m talking about an internal readiness—a solid one. I’m beginning to understand I’ve been preparing for this journey for a very long time. Understand: I don’t exactly know what that means. Maybe I won’t until long after this year’s journey is complete. Maybe never anything concrete that I could point to specifically. The meaning may remain elusive but integrate itself into my life.

It’s not as though I haven’t undertaken intensive experiences before. I do so a few times every year through my spiritual travel programs. Inasmuch as I do have my own initiations on those journeys, it’s different. I’m holding intent for others. There’s entrainment.

This is a space and time I’ve carved out solely for myself. Of course, Oscar is my partner on this trek. He’ll have his own journey, which will often overlap with mine. But it’s different.

One of the immediate questions I had when I considered the Camino is: Could I actually do it? I mean physically. I’m not an athlete, far from it. And this is a 500-mile path. If we go past Santiago de Compostela, all the way to Finisterre—the edge of the world—it adds about another 100 miles. I’ll have to admit that I hadn’t hiked as much as I used to in years. Somehow I got off track.

So a few months ago I started “training.” What that means for me is that I get out there as much as I can for as long distances as I can manage. I’m truly blessed to live in an area where there are endless options for beautiful hikes, aside from straight out my front door. Here are just a couple when I’ve had my camera along.

Peavine
Peavine Trail alongside Watson Lake. Granite Mountain in the distance. Photo: Carla Woody
Brownlow
Brownlow Trail. Photo: Carla Woody.

The “training” is returning a practice that I’d let go and sorely missed. Most of the time I’ve hiked alone. Just a couple of times my friend Ruth went with me. I’ve varied the mileage between 6-10 miles with a 13-pound pack without breaks. I realize Oscar and I will average around 15 per day but we’ll be doing so with breaks, probably at a café or two. And time on the trail will be interspersed with talk and silence. We plan to take our time and enjoy. We’re not on a sprint. That would disengage the intent for us.

Something that has surprised me: I’d never hiked more than 6 miles at one time in my life until now … but I’ve not been sore. Tired? Yes. I’ve had the best sleep I’ve had in a long time. But sore? No.

A thing that doesn’t surprise me: The practice of walking in nature clears away anything that troubles the mind … distractions… unsettling emotions. Clarity and peace arrive. I’ve been reminded to add it to my daily sitting meditation—at least a few times a week.

I told Ruth I feel like my body and I are in a relationship, and it’s conveying how intensely it desires this level of activity by supporting me so well.

It’s also clear that my mind is enjoying the rest… and my spirit is flying. We will literally be flying to France on May 1. It’s now so close. My physical training hasn’t translated to as often as I planned or as far due to practicalities of available time.

But still … I’m ready.

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To read more on the meaning of readiness posted on The Lifepath Dialogues, go here.

The Quandary

Ever since deciding I would walk the Camino, I’ve been thinking about the backpack. Everything I take I’ll be carrying on my back…for 500 miles give or take. My immediate thoughts zipped back to the only other time I went on a backpacking trip. That was nearly 15 years ago and just a short distance. I’m talking about 5 miles! It made such an impression on me that I wrote about it in my second book Standing Stark. Here’s an excerpt.

…Every item that went into the pack, or hung from it, involved a mindful decision on my part toward my later comfort. Even so, when we arrived at the place where we finally left the car and I put the full weight of the pack on my back for the first time, I wondered how I would ever make it with the load. I nearly fell over backwards. It took many adjustments before I felt I could carry the weight of my baggage.

            Descending the long and rocky, twisting trail, I found I had to be very focused on placing my feet to keep myself upright. After what seemed like an age, we finally reached relatively flat ground and trudged along a path. But it had been a couple of years since my companion had been in the area. Since that time, something natural, or not so natural, had caused the trail he knew so well to disappear. It had been rerouted. He wasn’t exactly sure where we were, although he thought we were going the right way. I had been blindly following him — trusting, if you will — while the majority of my attention was taken up with the increasingly uncomfortable burden on my back. I was becoming slightly on edge at the lack of clear direction. Then I became alarmed!

            When we rounded what passed for the trail, I realized that if we were to go farther we would have to cross what looked to me like a river with nothing more than irregularly placed stones to step on to the other side…I tried to calculate my path, one stone to the other. All looked perilous to me. I took a step and felt myself becoming even more unbalanced, the heaviness of my burden wanting me to fall backwards and be “swept” away. In the middle of the “river,” I couldn’t move…

            This lesser traveled path being what it was, we actually had to cross waters like that two additional times before we came to the campsite he had in mind. Over a particularly dicey crossing, my companion took both of our packs with him at once so that I could make my way in slightly less fear. Needless to say, I felt enormous relief to reach our resting place of a few days…

…Eventually, we had to leave and head home. This time, though, the pack seemed lighter to me and somehow more stable. While the food we had carried in was indeed absent, there was something else that had not been present that made the pack seem more a part of me — confidence…

 That experience became a metaphor to me about overcoming fear and beginning to trust in my body’s intelligence. So when I’m thinking about the backpack now—after that first thought—it’s not related to fear. But it’s certainly about what is to go into the pack. That earlier time we were carrying things I won’t have to carry this time: food, tent and other camping accessories. Still, we’ll be walking every day for over a month, aside from a few breaks. And the recommendations I’ve read say: Don’t carry more than 10% of your body weight.

I am taking the pint-sized sleeping bag I take on my Mexico journeys. It weighs 3 pounds. Add an extra pair of hiking shoes, the weight goes up. (It hadn’t occurred to me that my shoes would wear out with daily use until Oscar, my Camino companion, mentioned it.) That doesn’t leave much more if I abide by the recommendations. Every ounce counts. Or pay the consequences.

I started doing online research and entered foreign territory. All the gadgets and high tech gear. Then Janet Harvey, a dedicated hiker and traveler in my programs, told me about Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail in the mid-1950s. She carried a denim bag over her shoulder, wore sneakers, brought a shower curtain in case of rain and slept on piles of leaves if there wasn’t other shelter… for 2050 miles. And we’re only doing 500.

I told Oscar we should just forget all the stuff retailers are lobbying hikers to buy and strike out like Grandma Gatewood, an inspiring role model to me. However, I did remember the main issue I had before was an ill-fitting backpack and invested in one that feels quite light and comfortable. The same with shoes. After switching brands and styles a few times, I’m very happy with my Ahnus. I did decide my iPad Air and slip-in-the-pocket camera were necessities to document the journey in words and images, keep in touch periodically, consult the Camino guidebook and read for relaxation.

The big quandary was about rain gear: poncho with built-in pack cover or rain jacket with separate pack cover. Everyone has an opinion on that controversy. The online forums are full of them, just about split down the middle. We’re likely to run into every sort of weather this time of year. Checking the weather today for St-Jean-Pied-de-Port where we’ll start showed storms to partly cloudy over the next week at least with temps between 60-74F.

I wasn’t going to bring a shower curtain like Grandma Gatewood did, and these specialized ponchos can be quite expensive. I bought into the arguments for the poncho and finally found one from Canada that didn’t break the bank. However, it weighs 4 pounds. Something I didn’t pay attention to when I bought it. With it, my pack is at 13 pounds. That’s with no clothing or toiletries. So after—again—going back and forth, I’m jettisoning that poncho and will use the rain jacket that has served me just fine in all my other travels. And the Deuter backpack comes with a rain cover, which I thought was considerate of the maker.

I’m only telling you all this to convey the level of research and decision-making that has gone into this packing process for me this time. I travel quite frequently but not like this. If I take things I don’t really need, they normally just languish in my suitcase.

This is an exercise in what truly matters to me and basic necessities. Anything else I can do without…and that can go anywhere. It’s good to be reminded.

First lesson of the Camino.