Sunday, June 19, 2011

MY Camino Becomes OUR Camino

Pilgrims on El Camino frequently speak of "my camino."  As in, "I made my first camino two years ago."  Or, explaining a decision, such as taking a bus or taxi because of time or injury or just tiredness, "this is how I need to do my camino."  Or, "every one has to do their camino in their own way."

I have come to the end of MY camino.  In less than 48 hours (not that I´m counting or anything) my husband Rick will be joining me to walk the last 117 kilometers from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela.  So MY camino is about to become OUR camino.  I am so looking forward to sharing this amazing experience with Rick, but am also aware that the experience, while I know it will be deeply enriched by sharing it with the person I love most in the world, will likely be different in ways that I cannot immediately predict.

So I thought I would offer some thoughts at this point about what my camino has been like.

Simplicity -  Life is simple on El Camino.  Walk.  Eat.  Sleep.  Almost everyone who walks comments on the simplicity of life.  You get up.  You walk.  You eat.  You find a place to sleep.  And the next day you get up and do it again.  There are rich variations and challenages each day, of course. But at heart, the agenda is pretty much the same. Walk. Eat. Sleep. 

No complicated problems to solve.  No meetings to attend.  No checkbooks to balance or stock reports to worry about.  No home repairs.  You are detached, indeed usually unaware, of world problems.  Just Walk. Eat. Sleep. 

I know that in terms of comfort and safety, my walk is immensely easier than all those pilgrims who have preceded me on the way.  But at heart our day´s agenda is the same, the simplest imaginable.  Walk. Eat. Sleep.

Community - It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of community on El Camino.  About 3 weeks ago I found a little El Camino family.  Two Canadian sisters, Pam and Donna.  Donna´s husband Fabio.  Maureen, a Canadian born in Scotland.  Lola, a South African.  Rita, from Italy.  Except for Pam, Donna, and Fabio, we all met on El Camino. The others had been together for a while when I attached myself to them.  After 2 1/2 weeks of walking alone, I was suddenly lonely, and these lovely people welcomed me into their circle.  Because there was only Fabio with six women, we often teased him about being Mormon, with six sister wives.  He put up with all of us with terrific grace.

El Camino friendships are a little like church camp--intense but limited.  You walk together for hours a day, often eat together, sleep together--certainly you laugh together, and look after each other, commiserating over blisters and other injuries.  You share the challenges of sleeping in crowded albergues and toiling over steep climbs. 

I am deeply grateful for the time I walked alone, and I am equally grateful for the time I walked in community.  Both experiences enriched me. 

But it is not just these friendships that make up one´s community.  You find that you see the same faces day after day--in the albergues, in the restaurants, in the mercados, on the trail.  You know some of their quirks, like the French group that got up early (always by 5:30) and had no compunction about turning on the lights even if everyone else was still sleeping.  Or the Germans who were always friendly and helpful.  The college group from Michigan.  The lovely couple from Australia who always seemed to figure out the best place to stay, and at 70, could walk most of us into the ground. The Buddhist nun who walked in her brown robes, and her mysterious woman companion who was sometimes less than gracious.  The attractive French woman who, true to stereotype, always looked fabulous when the rest of us were just struggling to be clean. (Her pack was the same size as mine, but she seemed to have an endless supply of attractive outfits.)

And there were friends that I made who kept reappearing, like Anna from South Africa or Jennifer from Australia or Claire from Belgium or Sandy from Seattle.  Seeing them was always a joyful reunion.

Of all the wonderful memories I take with me from El Camino, I can imagine none more important than these dear, dear friends.

Gratitude - One of my favorite praise choruses is "Give Thanks"--Give thanks with a grateful heart, Give thanks to the Holy One, Give thanks because s/he´s given Jesus Christ his/her Son.  And now let the weak say I am strong, let the poor say I am weak because of what the Lord has done for me...Give thanks."

I sing this almost every day, usually over and over again.  I was and am so full of thanks for this opportunity, and for the small graces that fill each day.  For the songs of birds in the morning.  For sunlight glinting through birch trees.  For the sound of rushing water.  For tumbledown Spanish villages with little cafes where I can rest and revive.  For church bells through the day.  For the taste of cold water on a hot day, and cafe con leche on a cold one. For my body which has (mostly) unfailingly carried me nearly 700 kilometers. 

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."  For me each days has been charged with the grandeur of God, not just in mountain vistas and gorgeous sunrises, but in the small beauties of a field of poppies, or passing through a Spanish village and seeing window after window full of flowering plants, the soft benediction of¨"Buen Camino" from a Spanish farmer toiling in his field. 

How can I not give thanks?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What were they thinking??

I've been disgracefully negligent about writing in my blog lately.  Partly it has been spotty internet access, and when there was access there was a line waiting to use it, which sort of inhibits blogging.

Part was that I have been walking with what I call my El Camino family--two Canadian sisters--Pam and Donna, Donna´s husband Fabio, another Canadia Maureen, Lola from South Africa and Rita from Italy.  Instead of having all this time on my hands from walking alone, suddenly someone was always saying, "Let´s get some sangria" or "We're going to the supermercado, do you want to come?"  Community cuts into your blogging time.

El Camino friendships are like church camp--limited but intense.  Sadly, I said good-bye this morning.  Their schedule meant they needed to hurry on, and mine meant that I needed to slow down.

I´m drawing near the end of my walk, and will soon post some serious reflections on what I´ve learned, but in the meantime, after nearly 5 weeks on El Camino, I've become a conneisseur (spelling??) of albergues and some of their oddities.

Albergues are the hostel-like lodgings especially for peregrinos.  Some are private, and are usually smaller and often a little bit nicer, also slightly more expensive.  Others are large municipal albergues.  Albergues cost between 5 & 10 euros a night, so one doesn´t expect plush, but sometimes you have to scratch your head and ask, ¨What were they thinking?"  This is especially true of the shower and toilet facilities.  Apparently the Spanish don´t go to the toilet often, because it is not unusual to find only 1 toilet per 20 or 30 or more.  The brand new beautiful albergue in Burgos had 8 showers on our floor, but only 2 toilets! (I´m guessing there were at least 80 people for those two toilets)

Other weirdness--

The scarcity of hooks, which means you have to throw your clothes over the shower door and end up putting on wet clothes.  Since you also need to have your money, passport, etc. with you at all times, it is always challenging figuring out how to keep these valuables dry.  Plus, the hooks are often WAY up high, which means shorties like me have trouble reaching them.

The unisex showers with GLASS doors in Navarette.  Nothing like exposing yourself to 20 strangers.  Almost as bad as finding out way too much about your new roommates.  These were also the showers raised about 4 inches above the bathroom floor so the water ran down all over the floor, meaning that once you had exposed yourself to the world, you risked breaking a leg.

In Ponferrada, the unisex showers were across from the men´s urinals. Really--who thought that was a good idea?

In O´Cebreiro, the women´s showers had no shower curtains.  Even worse, there was a window in the changing area with a SIDEWALK outside.

Several perfectly nice albergues had showers with lots of hooks outside the shower door.  Unfortunately, the shower door opened inward so you had to expose yourself to grab your clean clothes.

Then there was the albergue that proudly boasted showers "heated" by solar power--we were among the first to shower and there was a trickle of ice cold water at best.

On the whole, the albergues have been nicer and cleaner than I expected.  Joyce Rupp, in her book Walk in a Relaxed Manner, was quite graphic about the state of some showers, but I have found most of them to be at least acceptably clean.  Many of the hospiteleros (the people who run the albergues) are volunteers who put in long hours and care very much about what they do.  Some of the private albergues are clearly only a business, but for others it is a genuine calling.  I have been greeted graciously and kindly in almost every place.

But there are times I can´t help but shake my head and ask, "What were they thinking?"

Saturday, May 28, 2011


When you walk 5 or 6 hours a day, your equipment is, of course, very important.  Even more, I find that it as I go along, my equipment is becoming part of me.

My pack--When I started my pack, which weighs 14 pounds without food or water, felt like an alien being that had taken up residence on my back.  I had to struggle into it and out of it--sort of like putting on a tight pair of Spanx.  When I was wearing my pack and had to bend over to pick something up, I felt as if I would end up like a turtle that´s been turned over on its back--I would be stranded on the road, arms and legs waving helplessly in the air.

Now I throw my pack on with nonchalant ease.  Unlike in the beginning, when I was essentially clueless, I know when a strap is too tight or too loose and know how to adjust it so that I´m comfortable again.  It might be going a tad to far to say I hardly know it´s there, but it certainly no longer feels alien.  It´s just a part of me--not necessarily my favorite part of me--but a needed and appreciated part.

My trekking poles- On El Camino forums whether or not to use trekking poles is a hotly debated question but just let me say this--I LOVE MY TREKKING POLES!!!  I cannot imagine doing El Camino without them.  They are a great help going up hills and a literal life-saver (or at least a literal knee saver) going down.  There are descents I cannot imagine making without the poles especially since you are already off-balance from your pack.  On the flat places I think they really do increase my efficiency in walking, plus more than once when I´ve been tired they´ve kept me from falling when I tripped on a stone.  Did I mention I LOVE MY TREKKING POLES!

My feet- I probably should say my boots, but really, I feel like my feet are my most important piece of equipment.  The boots are just an adjunct.  I had fretted about blisters and hoped I would be one of the lucky few who didn´t get any blisters at all, but I´ve not been that lucky.  On the other hand, I haven´t (so far at least) gotten any blisters that have been too debilitating.

The first and worst blister I got was on the big toe of my left foot.  A few days later a blister popped up on the heel of that same foot.  So I named the blister on my toe Esau and the blister on my heel Jacob, because when these twin brothers were born Jacob was holding on to Esau´s heel.  In the morning when I started walking I would ask, ¨How are you today, Jacob and Esau?¨ And if they gave me no twinges, I would lavish praise upon them.  Just as they were healing, a blister popped on a toe of the same foot, so I named it Joseph, Jacob´s son.  Like its namesake, Joseph is a whiny little punk.  I have been lecturing him about it.

Writing this it occurs to me that it sounds very weird, but being so utterly reliant on my feet means I have a very different relationship with them.  They are my friends and companions, and I am asking a lot of them.

The Apostle Paul urges us to put on the whole armor of God, but for El Camino, I´m relying on my pack, my poles, and my feet.

Snapshots along the way
In the marvelous albergue of GraƱon we sang happy birthday to a young Irish woman celebrating her 22nd birthday.  Every nationality there took turns singing in their own language--Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, English, Korean, Finnish.  And at worship that evening, it was a Pentecost moment again when all languages were represented in worship.

Along the way into Burgos on a windswept hill, there is a spiral that previous pilgrims have created from rocks.  I walked it with Anna from South Africa on a windy morning as the mists swirled around us.  It was extraordinarily mystical.

(Ooops times up and I´m out of euros--more later!)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


On the last Sunday before I left for Europe, I got all weepy at communion because I suddenly realized that traveling in heavily Catholic Spain meant that I probably wouldn´t be having communion for more than 2 months.

There is a saying among pilgrims that El Camino gives you what you need, not what you want.  What I wanted, I suppose, was a Protestant church to pop up along The Way about every 7 days or so, serving the Lord´s Supper just like home.

Instead I got what I needed, a very different sort of communion.  I realized this yesterday morning, as I sat in the little cafe in Azofra, eating my meager Spanish breakfast of bread and butter and jelly.  Just as I finished, the daily supply of pan chocolate (they call it Napoleonti here) was delivered.  Now I consider pan chocolate one of the great culinary inventions.  But I had just finished eating, wasn´t really hungry, and couldn´t quite justify splurging on this delicious treat.

As I was sitting at the counter, another pilgrim came in.  His name was Bent, from Denmark.  Apparently I was visibly salivating over the pan chocolate, because he said, ¨Would you like to share one?¨ That sounded perfect, and as Bent cut the pastry in two and handed me half, I thought, ¨Communion!¨  We had broken bread (delicious flaky chocolate bread) together in a moment of shared community and humanity.

And suddenly I could identify all kinds of moments of communion.  Sitting the night before with 3 other women pilgrims as we shared a bottle of wine and our calling to walk alone on El Camino for a while.  We toasted one another as strong, independent women--and it was communion.

Sitting around an albergue kitchen, a Korean, a Dane, a German, and two Americans, pooling our dinner resources and reaching across language divisions to share something of our story--and it was communion.

A pilgrim meal in a restaurant, where we started as six strangers.  An Italian, a Basque (NOT Spanish she emphatically told us), a Finn, 2 Germans and an American.  Except for the Finnish woman Kristina, who spoke several languages, we could barely communicate.  The silences were long and awkward, and yet as the meal progressed and the wine was poured, we agreed that the best thing about El Camino was the opportunity to drink wine and break bread together--and it was communion.

There have been so many moments of communion.  Communion with the community of pilgrims, ever shifting, extraordinarily diverse, yet sharing so much in common. After all, the root of communion and community is the same.  Communion with the nature--a walking pace means you are very in tune with the world around you.  Communion with God--so much time for prayer and meditation as I walk along, one of the greatest blessings of walking alone. 

So while it may indeed be weeks before I once again have the joy of sharing in a formal way in the Lord´s Supper, I have experiences of communion every day.  I am reminded that one of the ancient names for communion is Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.  I give thanks.  I give thanks.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Trail Mantras

I am mainly walking alone these days, which I find I really like.  I go at my own pace, stop when I am tired, take pictures when I feel like it, get a drink in a cafe when I feel like it, poke around a village or not, as I feel like it.  This is the first time in my life that, for any extended period of time, I am accountable only to me.  I don´t know when I´ll get tired of walking on my own, but for now I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Walking alone means LOTS of time in your head, so I have developed trail mantras to fill up the empty space in my head.

The first and my favorite, is singing ¨We Are Walking in the Light of God,¨ the wonderful South African hymn that my church sang to me on my last Sunday.  It is the perfect mantra--I sing it over and over and over, all the verses.  We are walking, singing, praying, dancing in the light of God.  I will sing this for hours while I´m walking.

It is also quite adaptable.  Today I nearly missed a yellow arrow because I was in a sort of zen state of walking.  Luckily the peregrinos walking behind me yelled and pointed out my mistake, so I started singing, ¨We are watching in the light of God, we are watching in the light of God.¨

This is also my climbing song.  When I hit a hill I start singing, ¨We are climbing in the light of God, we are climbing in the light of God.¨ But if the hill goes on too long, or is too steep, I bring out the big guns, the Jesus Prayer.  ¨Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of David, have mercy upon us.¨ Between the singing and the praying, I´ve always made it so far.

In the afternoon, when the sun gets hot and my feet get tired, I find I need more concrete encouragement than the spiritual, so I switch mantras.  I adapted this one from something that my friend Kari came up with.  It´s sung to the tune of ¨Going to the Chapel.¨

Walking El Camino and I´m gonna drink cervezas*
Walking El Camino and I´m gonna eat some tapas
Yes, my feet are tired but my heart is glad
´cause I´m walking El Camino today.

(*cervezas is Spanish for beer)

This song is also very adaptable--you can insert vino for cervezas, and whatever body part is currently hurting the most for feet.  It gets a little weird, though, when I find myself singing, ¨Walking El Camino and I´m gonna get married...¨ But whatever fills the time and my head.

Snapshots from The Way
Spening a wonderful evening at an albergue run by a group of gentle Dutch Christians who offered wonderful hospitality, a great dinner, and a lovely contemplative prayer service.

The fabulous view from that same albergue of the spire of the village church and beyond a rolling valley of Spanish farmland

Walking for 6 miles through that lovely farmland, with all shades of green from palest green gold to dark hunter green, then pausing to watch a farmer bail hay--just like home in Nebraska!

Stopping at the famous ¨wine fountain¨ outside Los Arcos, which dispenses free wine to all pilgrims, and hearing the custodian of the fountain scold two non-pilgrims for filling their water bottles.  Personally, I find I don´t have a taste for wine at 10 in the morning.

Walking and walking and walking through sun with the village of Sansol glimmering on the horizon, never seeming to come any closer not matter how far I walked.  I had become fixated on having a bottle of cold sparkling water there and was convinced it was like some mythical enchanted city.  I finally made it--only then I couldn´t find a cafe.

Stepping into the lovely 12th century church in Torres del Rio--a tiny octagonal shaped space that soars to a perfect dome.  Two pilgrims, a husband and wife, suddenly began to sing Gregorian chants, there in that place where pilgrims have sung praises to God for a thousand years.  It was just incredibly, absolutely perfect.  I sat with tears in my eyes thinking how incredibly blessed I am.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Day on El Camino

After a week of walking, I have almost gotten a routine down.  It goes something like this--

The albergue begins to stir around 5:30 as the early birds leave to start walking.  I have heard stories of these early risers being rude and inconsiderate, but all the ones I have shared accomodations with have been as quiet as possible, but their rustlings stir me from sleep to wakefulness.

I like to get up around 6 so I can get going around 7, especially now that it is getting warmer.  I get up and get dressed quickly--no meandering around in your undies, which is what I am now sleeping in because the dorm rooms are warm.  There are lots of scrawny European men who don´t share my qualms.  I wouldn´t mind if they were young and buff, but there´s something offputting about seeing a man´s rear end with his underwear crawling up first thing in the morning.

If the albergue serves breakfast, I eat there.  The Spanish breakfasts are quite different from what most Americans are used to--a baguette with butter and jam (a slice of cheese and/or ham if you are lucky), tea, and perhaps juice.  If the albergue doesn´t provide breakfast, sometimes I have bought fruit and yogurt the night before and eat quickly.  

But if there is no breakfast, I pack my bag, which still seems to take me a long time as I keep trying to figure out the most efficient way to get everything in, while at the same time having what needs to be readily available (rain gear, first aid, food, water) in someplace accessible. 

Then I start walking.  If I haven´t had breakfast, the first item is to find a place to buy something to eat.  So far this hasn´t been a problem, though in some small villages you have to ask where the cafe is.  It is a cultural difference that in Spain cafes and restaurants in villages that have a captive audience in the thousands of pilgrims traipsing through them every year don´t go out of their way to make their presence known.  In the states we would have signs everywhere--GET YOUR PILGRIM BREAKFAST HERE!!! BUY ONE GET ONE FREE!!!  But the Spanish seem much more laid back about it all.

Then I walk.  I have walked alone the last two days, which is curiously freeing.  I walk until I am tired, and then I rest.  One of the downsides to walking alone is that I get in a sort of Zen state of walking and don´t rest as often as I should.  Today I suddenly felt exhausted and looked at my watch to discover that I had been walking steadily for more than 3 hours.  I probably need to monitor this more.

Right now there are lots of little villages to buy lunch, which is what I do, but lots of peregrinos buy a sandwich and picnic, or even buy just cheese and bread.  But I like to stop in a cafe because then I can use the toilets and avoid a trail-side pitstop (I think I mooned a Spanish farmer on a tractor today, but when a girl´s gotta go, a girl´s gotta go!)

I get to where I´m staying by about 2, check in, show my pilgrim credentials, and pay the 5 to 10 euros the albergues charge.  Off come the boots--many albergues make you take them off in the entry way--a blessed relief!  And off comes the pack--even better.  By now your feet hurt, your back hurts, your legs hurt.  When I look around the albergue I see that almost everyone is doing what I call ¨the sore feet shuffle--gingerly shuffling along, slightly bent over, walking not unlike that old man character Tim Conway used to do on the Carol Burnett show.

A shower is next, which is heaven (though every shower presents unique challenges.  it is amazing how plumbing can vary). Then I do laundry. When you have only 3 shirts, 2 pairs of socks, and 2 pairs of pants, you can´t postpone laundry.  Whatever I´ve worn that day is hand laundred, unless you have the incredible luxury of staying in an albergue with a washing machine.  This happened in Pamplona, and I happily stuffed my dirty clothes in the washing machine only to discover there was no detergent for purchase.  I said screw it, and washed them in water only.  Probably just as clean as with my inept hand washing.

Then I check my feet.  Any new blisters?  How are the old ones doing?  Peregrinos, for obvious reasons, are obsessed with their feet.  I´ve had one rather ugly blister, and few small ones, but nothing debilitating and nothing new for a couple of days, so I hope my feet are toughening up.

It´s now about 4.  I blog, do email, read, nap, and think about dinner.  Many places offer pilgrim menus, which are a great value.  3 courses with wine--we are in Spain--for 10 euros.  It is great to make connections with other pilgrims.  Last night I sat next to  a  man from Denmark, across from a woman from Australia, and down from a couple from Italy.  

Nine seems the earliest I can respectably go to bed, and I usually have my earplugs in and my eyemask on so I can fall into a good-kind-of-tired deep sleep.  

The next morning I wake up at 6 and even though 12 hours ago I hurt all over, I bounce out of bed refreshed and eager to do it all over again.

Snapshots from today´s walk
Today was a bit shorter--12 miles from Puenta la Reina to Villapuerte.  I´m staying in a lovely albergue that is in a medieval building but has all the modern conveniences plus an incredibly gracious hostess in Simone.

Lovely encounters--
walking into a small village behind 4 young Spaniards who were laughing and taking pictures of their shadows falling on the road before them.  One young man grabbed my arm and pulled me into the groups, taking a picture of our 5 shadows as he shouted, ¨Cinco amigos!

walking through fields of poppies accompanied by the sounds of cuckoos calling softly from the trees

walking on an incredibly preseved Roman road that bisects a modern highway

greeting an elderly Spanish gentleman who then stopped, motioned me closer, and reached into his pocket to give me a handful of cherries.  Then he chucked my under my chin and bid me, ¨Buen Camino!¨ (I´m quite sure i have not been chucked under my chin since I got out of diapers!)

Seeing a medieval hilltop village suddenly appear, rising above the olive groves and vineyards that characterized the landscape of today´s walk

eating dinner which a couple of pilgrims prepared in the albergue´s kitchen, a meal which became communion for me.  A big salad of things purchased from the local market, with contributions from women from Denmark, South Korea, Germany, and the two Americans. Both body and spirit were filled to overflowing.



Monday, May 16, 2011

Life needs more yellow arrows

Yellow arrows mark the way on El Camino.  Each crossroad is marked with an arrow--and sometimes a scallop shell--but the yellow arrows are ubiquitous.  Spray painted on rocks, scrawled on sign posts, written on walls and fences.  When you come to a crossroads and can´t decide which way to go, all you have to do is look for the yellow arrow and go where it points.

I´ve been thinking real life needs more yellow arrows.  Have a major decision to make?  Look for the yellow arrow.  Not sure about what to have for dinner? Look for the yellow arrow.  Uncertain about which life path to take? Look for the yellow arrow.

Of course, prayer and meditation and listening to God SHOULD help with some of those decisions--though maybe not the what to have for dinner one.  But I´m not so good at hearing God´s prompting.  Sometimes I get an inkling, but more often I go blundering off on my own.

But there´s another sign I look for on El Camino, one that I find even more comforting than the yellow arrow.  It´s other pilgrims.  Today I walked on my own, and there´s something incredibly comforting about seeing the backs of other pilgrims ahead of me.  They reassure me that I´m on the right path.  In fact, today when I entered Puenta la Reina, where I am spending the night I totally lost the yellow arrows. It was only following other pilgrims that got me where I needed to be.

So even if life doesn´t come with easy to read yellow arrows that infallibly point us in the direction we need to go, we do have tradition and role models and mentors and friends and family and those who have gone before us to guide and direct us.  We do not make our life journey alone.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On The Way

I´ve just finished my fourth day of walking and write this from Pamplona.  The physical part is challenging but (thankfully!) nothing I can´t handle.   I´m pacing myself and not trying to push too hard or too fast. 

The community spirit is incredible.  At pilgrim meals (restaurants often offer special ´pilgrim menus´) you hear Spanish, Italian, French, German, Korean, Japanese, as well as English in the accents of Brits, Australians, and Americans, though Americans are definitely a minority.  Yet every pilgrim offers the one phrase we all share, ¨Buen Camino!¨ When you run into someone you met at a meal or in one of the refugios or walked with, you light up like you just met your long lost brother or sister. 

I bonded instantly with Kari from North Carolina, who is walking to mark her 50th birthday.  Sadly, we will be splitting up tomorrow because she has a much tighter schedule than I do.  But it has been a delight to walk with her for the last 3 days, and we are sharing a hotel room in Pamplona tonight.

I wish I could upload photos, but since I don´t have that capacity, I will just offer some verbal snapshots--

  • the sound of the bells that the Basques tie around their horses necks as we climbed out of Orisson the second morning
  • the fat black slugs that crawl across the path every few feet, as well as the snails with their shells of translucent amber which are rarer but very beautiful
  • wildflowers blooming along the path--scarlet poppies, pale pink primroses, violet foxglove, and others that are white and yellow and blue whose names I don´t know
  • the cheery greeting of ¨Buen Camino¨from a woman in the window of a house in one of the many small villages we pass through
  • crowding into a cafe after a couple of hours of walking to order breakfast or a snack
  • sitting around a table in village bar drinking the local wine or beer and sharing stories of our walk that day, or why we are doing this crazy thing at all
  • the blessing of the peregrinos at the pilgrim mass in Roncesvalles the second night, in an ancient church where pilgrims have been blessed on their way for hundreds of years
  • walking through forest mists, where pilgrims emerge and then disappear in an eerie fog
  • being greeted by a horse that crossed the path, its bell gently clanging, and paused a moment to nuzzle my hand
  • sheep clustering on a hillside of impossible greenness
  • the windowboxes and pots of geraniums and tulips in the windows of houses 
  • the smell of garlic frying as we wind our way through a small village

Just four days in and it is rich beyond measure.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Tribe

I travelled today from Bayonne to St Jean Pied de Port, the traditional starting point for El Camino Frances.  Standing in line to buy my ticket for the bus to St Jean I could identify pilgrims in line with me.  Then when I loaded my pack onto the luggage compartment of the bus, I could see it was full of packs, as the bus was full of pilgrims.

And I had this sudden sense of recognition--this is my tribe. For the next few weeks, anyway, these are my people.  It was a profoundly moving moment for me.  The American woman in front of me on the bus, traveling with her husband to celebrate their 40th anniversary, asked in concern and some admiration, youre travelling alone?  And I looked around and said, Oh no, I travel with all of you!

Monday, May 9, 2011


I am in Bayonne, not only navigating around this French town, but around this French keyboard.  (Can NOT find the apostrophe and for some reason you have to hit shift for the period)

I had a lovely time with my friend Diane--4 days in Amsterdam and 2 days in Bruges, Belgium, a lovely little medieval city.  I totally fell in love with Bruges, but all the time we were there I was so conscious that the time to start El Camino was drawing closer.  I felt nervous (still do!) but I also felt God kept sending me reassuring messages.

Diane lit a candle and said a prayer in a lovely Catholic church, which so moved me. Then in that same church there was a plaque that welcomed pilgrims from faraway. It seemed to be just for me!  The next day we met a Canadian couple that had walked just a little of El Camino and raved about what a great experience it had been and how they were planning to return in the fall to walk more.  Sunday night we worshipped in a tiny English speaking Anglican church.  The text was the road to Emmaus, and the lovely prayer offered by one of the members used the refrain Lord Jesus, walk with us.

So with these divine encouragements lifting me up, I am anxious to start.  Tomorrow I travel by train to St Jean Pied de Port and Wednesday I begin.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I'm off

I leave to catch the first of the 3 planes that will take me to Amsterdam in just a little while.  Bags are packed and I'm ready to go.  Nervous, excited, thrilled, terrified, disbelieving, but ready.

I spend a week in Amsterdam and Bruges with my dear friend Diane before making my way down to St. Jean Pied-de-Port to begin El Camino.  I think the word "surreal" is wretchedly overused, but it does capture something of my incredulous disbelief that I am going to walk 500 miles in Spain!  My daughter described me in her blog as "awesome with a side of crazy."  I don't know about the awesome, but I plead guilty to the crazy.

So at the moment "What was I thinking?" is competing with "I am so lucky!"  In the end I am confident that "I am so lucky" will come out victorious, but for the moment I have butterflies the size of 747's!  

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Making Every Ounce Count

I leave in a week and a day.  After planning, dreaming, fretting, hoping, reading for nearly five years, it's down to a week and a day.  All the important stuff is (I hope!) figured out, but there are many small decisions yet to be made.

I'm in the process of packing my bag, trying to figure out what to take and what to leave behind.  The maximum weight for my backpack is 14 pounds, not including food and water.

 This is not very much, and I will quite literally be weighing EVERYTHING that goes in.  I bought a postal scale and every single item that goes in is evaluated on the basis of how much it weighs.  Shorts for sleeping--what pair is the lightest?  Book for journaling--what weighs the least?  Deodorant and toothpaste--smallest possible size.   Guidebook--will razor out the pertinent pages and leave the historical/preparation/spiritual parts behind (the book love in me is appalled, but it will save several ounces.)  Solid bar soap that can be used to wash hair, clothes and body, so only have one thing instead of three to carry.

The thought of going seven weeks without anything to read made my eyes cross, so I bought an e-book reader.  After agonizing for weeks over Kindle vs. Nook, I decided on the Kindle largely because it is lighter than the Nook.  I am taking (not ugly) Crocs instead of Teva sandals to wear in the evening because they are lighter.

These are my not-ugly Crocs, which can also double as shower shoes.

 I've already decided to take only two pairs of pants, one of which I will be wearing.  Now I need to decide if I can take three short-sleeved shirts or just two.  Two tank tops or three? The extras only weight 3 or 4 ounces each, but you take 4 things that weigh 4 ounces each, and you have an extra pound.

All this agonizing over every ounce makes me thing about the unnecessary stuff I carry around.  Petty grievances.  Old wounds.  Prideful assumptions.  Impatient arrogance.  All of these weigh a lot, and need to be left behind.

Father Edward Hays offers this wise poem about packing for a pilgrimage.  I  hope I am wise enough to take its guidance to heart.

A Pilgrim’s Suitcase Psalm
Edward Hays

O God of departures, Holy One of the Exodus,
Spirit Guardian of all roads and routes,
I am about to depart on a new adventure in life,
and my bags are packed with both dread and delight.
The old is known, comfortable, safe and secure;
the unknown is threatening and danger-filled.
O God of travelers and holy emigrants, help me:
Besides anticipation and appreciation,
What else should I pack?

Comfortable clothes of change—nothing starched—
Yes, I understand, and a change of shoes.
Comfortable hiking shoes for exploring with ease
the strange, unknown, wild lands ahead.
Yes, and also my dancing shoes so that with delight,
I can celebrate the feasts I come upon…

One dream vision as my map, and the compass of prayer
when fog hides the stars or eclipses the sun.
One medicine kit with patience tablets for delays,
dried memories for snacks along the way
and bandages for a sprained spirit after a fall.

God of departures and homecomings, may I go forth with
the adventure-hungry spirit of an explorer,
the faith of one homeward bound to you
and with you, Beloved Companion,
as my navigator and my guide.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Giving My Inner Control Freak a Vacation

I'm pretty much a control freak. I go around double-checking on details and making sure all the i's are dotted and all the t's are crossed. 

But when I travel, my control freak really takes over.  I plan EVERYTHING when I travel.  I don't go from here to North Platte without making reservations.  Heck, I don't go from here to Lincoln without reservations.  I know when I'm leaving, where I'm going, how I'm going to get there, and my ETA.
Whenever I hear someone say that their idea of the perfect vacation and just drive with no idea of a destination or where they will spend the night, it literally gives me the shivers.  It sounds like a nightmare to me!

But I'm giving my control freak a vacation while I'm on El Camino.  I have a reservation for the first night, at Orisson, which is necessary because it is the only place to stay if you don't plan to do the Pyrenees in one day (and I don't!) The next night I'm meeting an internet friend in Roncesvalles for dinner.   But beyond that--no plans.  I have to meet my husband in Sarria, Spain, on June 21, but from May 13 to June 21, nothing planned except to get up each morning and walk until I'm tired, then stop walking and rest.

A couple of weeks ago I got out my El Camino guide book and started making plans, thinking about where I could stay each night, how far I could reasonably walk, where the pilgrim refugios were located and what were the sights along the way.  Then I realized what I was doing.  So I closed up the book.  I'll take the guidebook, of course, and look at it each day, so that I know what my options are, but I am not going to plan any further ahead than a day at a time.
This is a deliberate spiritual decision for me--to open myself to the gifts and challenges each day will bring.  To just be in the moment.  I think it will either be transformative--or it will drive me absolutely around the bend!
(By the way, every day up to starting El Camino is carefully planned, as is every day after we finish.  I can only take so much lack of structure!)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

13 Miles!

I walked 13 miles today!  I walked with a pack holding about 3/4 of the weight I will carry on El Camino. 

Since I will need to average 12-13 miles this was a significant milestone in my training.  I was ridiculously anxious--the furthest I had previously walked was 8.6 miles.  What would 13 miles feel like?  What would I feel like?  I was pretty sure I could make it, but I still felt anxious.

But I MADE IT!  Not too speedy--4 hours and 30 minutes, including breaks. My feet ache (but no blisters!), my legs ache,  and since I burned 2400 calories, I'm famished. But I MADE IT!
If I weren't so tired I would do a Rocky fist pump.



Saturday, March 26, 2011


As I was getting ready for Sunday's sermon about confronting fears that keep us from moving forward in faith, I remembered a thread on one of the El Camino forums.  It was started by a young woman named Hilda who started to walk El Camino in 2008 and only got 3 miles down the 500 mile pilgrim way before she gave up.  Nevertheless she continued to feel the pull to walk, even though she continued to be frightened of it.  Hilda's honest sharing of her fears and her failure sparked a very honest, supportive, often moving discussion.  For more information, see the link below.

In the responses, a number of people shared their own fears.  While I don't think I am really frightened, re-reading this thread has made me reflect about the things I am anxious about.
So I thought I would write them down and see if I find that process helps me get some perspective.  So here is my anxiety list.

I am anxious about getting blisters.

 Actual Camino Blister.  Scary!
I am anxious about getting some sort of injury.

I am anxious about getting sick.

I am anxious about getting lost (even though the trail is well-marked, I can get lost ANYWHERE)
 Follow the yellow arrows.This doesn't seem so scary.
I am anxious about sleeping in pilgrim refugios with lots of snoring, farting strangers who come in too late or leave too early and disturb my sleep.
 Definitely scary.
I am anxious about sharing a bathroom and shower with those same strangers

I am anxious about bedbugs.
 Really, really scary
And, most of all, I am anxious about going all that way, walking all those miles, and not really experiencing anything spiritual or meaningful. 
 Is that all there is?  Scariest of all.

If any of my first anxieties come to pass, I trust this will happen--

If I get blisters, I will take care of them.

If I get injured, someone will help me.

If I get sick, someone will take care of me.

If I get lost, someone will help me find my way.

If I end up sharing sleeping and bathroom arrangements with rude or snoring pilgrims, I will put on my big girl panties and deal with it.

Hopefully, pre-treating my sleeping bag and sensible precautions will deal with the actual bedbug problem, if not the anxiety.

As for the final anxiety, the one that I won't have some sort of spiritual experience, this I leave to God.  I trust that all I have to do is pack an open heart.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I go to Body Pump three mornings a week.  Body Pump is group weight lifting set to high energy music.  

Since I've been really lazy about pushing myself when it comes to strength training, it's been very helpful to have a class to challenge me.  What I can I say--I thrive on structure.


At some point during the class, the instructor will yell out, "Don't forget to breathe!"    Now you would think when you are grunting and sweating and struggling to lift a big old weight off your chest that the last thing you need to be reminded of is to breathe.  But invariably I discover that I've been holding my breath from the exertion.  So I let go, take in deep breath, and as the needed oxygen floods my body, the weight doesn't seem nearly so heavy.
I find the same thing true in my spiritual life. It is no accident that in the Bible the Greek and Hebrew words for Spirit are the same as the words of breath.  In Hebrew, the word is ruah--so Genesis 1:2 tells us that at the dawn of creation the breath of God moved across the face of the waters of chaos.  The Greek word is pneuma.

God's Spirit is our life breath, but often in the midst of difficulties I just put my head down, grunt and sweat and struggle along all by myself.  I get too busy to pray in more than perfunctory snatches.   I go around all knotted up with anxiety and tension.  But if I take just a few minutes and BREATHE....literally.  My favorite form of meditative prayer is centering prayer, which includes deep, reflective, intentional breathing.  When I pray this way, when I take the time to center and rest myself in the One who is the Breath of Life, suddenly things don't seem so overwhelming.

That's why an intentional daily practice of prayer is so important.  This came home to me earlier this week.  Lent is always harried, but between losing our associate pastor and getting ready for my big walk (plus a few other things) this Lenten season has seems especially demanding.  Luckily, our Lenten study, The Open Door by the always wise Joyce Rupp, requires an intentional daily practice of meditation and prayer.  

On Tuesday I plunged into the required meditation time with some irritation.  One more thing to check off my to do list before I could get on to the "important" things that required my attention.  I was knotted and harried and grouchy.  But after a few moments of silence, of deep, contemplative breathing, I found my body suffused with life-giving oxygen and my spirit suffused with God's life-giving ruah.  God's breath, God's ruah moved across the waters of chaos that was my life at that moment and created peace.  My body unknotted, my spirit quieted.  The do list was as long as ever, but the knots of anxiety in both body and spirit had been replaced with a feeling of calm.

Just as I need my Body Pump instructor to call out reminders to "Breath!"  so an intentional daily practice of prayer and meditation calls us to us to breathe in the Breath of Life.
 The words of one of my favorite hymns speak to me in new ways:

Come and find the quiet center
In the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes so we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace and simply be.

I suppose that is one of the major hopes I take with my to El Camino. To clear away the chaos and the clutter, to re-discover all the things that really matter, to simply be.  And to have time to breathe...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shoe-bedo or Shoe-bedon't

Pergrinos are obsessed with their feet.  There are long discussions on El Camino forums about footwear--hiking boots vs. hiking shoes vs. trainers.  Goretex vs. leather.  1000 mile socks vs. smart wool socks.  Should you slather your feet with vaseline each day?  Toughen them by soaking them in tea?  All this discussion is about preventing the scourge of all long-distance walkers, the dreaded blisters.
I have read accounts of blisters the size of bagels.  Getting blisters can be extremely debilitating. They are not to be taken lightly.  And since you have only your feet to take you up to 500 miles or more, figuring out the best possible footwear is a very important decision.

As the date of for my pilgrimage drew near (less than 2 months now!) I  started to fret about my footwear.  The last couple of weeks my fretting grew into a fullblown footwear crisis.

Most experienced walkers recommend well-broken in boots, so almost a year ago, I bought a pair of Keen hiking boots to wear on our hiking vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park.  They worked out pretty well--no blisters!--but were maybe just a wee bit snug.  (I have since found out that Keens run small). But I had successfully hiked over some pretty rigorous terrain, so I put my fears aside and decided the Keens were fine.

But the other consistent bit of advice about footwear is that you should get your boots a little large because your feet will swell. There was definitely no room for swollen feet in these boots.

Thus my footwear angst.  Should I stick with my old hiking boots that had worked out pretty well last summer?  Was my nagging concern about my boots being too small a legitimate concern or just a product of my anxiety about my upcoming trek?  

Good weather and my schedule finally coincided a couple of weeks ago and I was able to get out for a 7-mile hike with my backpack loaded up with about 11 pounds of canned goods (about 3/4 of the weight I will be carrying on El Camino).  The pack made a big difference--the boots were definitely too small.

So I was off on a shoe shopping venture--and I wasn't looking for cute strappy sandals or an adorable pair of red high heels.  I was looking for sturdy, comfortable, waterproof boots.  (Waterproof is very important--no telling when you will be walking in an all day rainstorm.)

I tried on a pair of Merrells that felt great, but a little research on the internet revealed that the waterproofing didn't hold up.  I actually bought a pair of Vasque boots that felt great in the store and had gotten great internet reviews, but just wearing them around the house resulted in hotspots on my feet, the precursor of the dreaded blisters.  Those went back to the store and I went back to square one.

After some more checking, I ended up with another pair of Keens, identical to my old pair, only a size larger and in a different color.  I went out for a 8.8 mile walk today with another loaded pack and they were great!  So meet my 
new best friends. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news..."  I don't think my feet will be beautiful in these boots.  Let's face it--they're pretty darn ugly.  But if my feet are dry, comfortable, and BLISTER-FREE, that will be good news indeed.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I know nothing about sports, especially soccer, but I have to say, I do like the way Latin American soccer announcers get all excited when their team scores and scream, "GOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!"
I've been thinking a lot about goals lately.  For perhaps the first time since I graduated from seminary in (God save us!) 1984, I have a very concrete goal.  Walk 500 miles on El Camino.  I've been astonished at how having a specific, measurable goal has transformed my workout routine.  As I've said before, I've been working out more or less regularly for 11 years now.  No real goal except not to fall apart, not to gain (too much) weight, and not to die young (like my parents) of a massive heart attack.  

But now I have this clear, definite, highly defined goal.  Suddenly I'm at the Y one or two hours a day instead of 30 or 45 minutes.  Now that the weather is warming up, I make it a priority to find time to go out for a long walk with a loaded backpack, even if it means working longer hours the rest of the week.  

Having a goal has transformed my workout routine. I'm more much intentional and focused.  What I'm doing counts for something.  All of this has made me wonder how this can translate into other parts of my life.  But first I have to figure out what are the goals of my life.  As I enter the seventh decade of my life, what is my goal for the time I have left? 

I don't feel called to make any big changes--I love my life.  I have an amazing husband who puts up with me far more than I deserve, I have work I love and that I find meaningful if sometimes exhausting, I have 2 terrific children, and 2 fabulous grandchildren.
But I want to be as intentional about my spiritual preparation for El Camino as I am about my physical preparation.  So I have spent quite a little time meditating on what, within the framework of what I know is an extraordinarily fortunate life, is my goal, my calling in the last third of so of my life.

Really, the question as I keep coming back to it, is what is my calling as a Christian?  What is my calling, my goal, not as a pastor, not as a "professional" Christian, but as a profoundly imperfect, deeply flawed, frankly sinful follower of Jesus?

I thought, perhaps I should stop thinking about writing a book and actually DO it.  And maybe that will happen--I swear half the people who walk El Camino end up writing a book about it.  But writing a book didn't feel big enough, or at least not long-term enough. 

Then I thought, maybe I should be more active in social justice issues.  I feel strongly about children's issues--maybe I should become an activist and a volunteer.  Good start, important to me, but it felt like a piece of the puzzle, not the whole answer.

What I keep returning to is the idea that my goal, my calling, as a Christian is to be like Jesus.  Liberals like to make fun of the WWJD (What would Jesus do?) trend as overly simplistic, and I suppose it is.  But it is its very simplicity that I find it profoundly wise.  It's a pretty simple question that can keep you up at night.  And it is a question I am asking myself more and more.  

There's an old joke where a husband says, "I make all the important decisions in our marriage.  Who should win the World Series.  The way to fix Washington.  How to achieve world peace.  My wife makes the little decisions--how we spend our money, how to raise our kids, what house we should buy."

I've been conscious of Christian values in big ways--my overarching values as a voter, as a citizen, as a pastor.  But now in all kinds of little ways, I have started to judge my actions by the  question "What would Jesus do?"  Would Jesus would make snarky remarks about people, which I am all too prone to do.  How would Jesus treat the transient that just interrupted my very busy day and needs help? What would Jesus do with that person who is clearly an idiot but is nevertheless a child of God? 
How can I be more like Jesus?  This is one of the big questions I will be taking with me on my pilgrimage. Don't know if I will come home with any answers...This may be one of those times when, as the German poet Rilke says, you just have to learn to love the question.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Discovering my inner jock

I have never been a jock.  Growing up, I was the nerdy little girl whose nose was always stuck in a book--you know, the annoying one who sat on the front row, always knew the answer to any question the teacher asked, and never,ever turned her homework in late.  Looking back, I'm astonished that I had any friends at all.

 Not too surprisingly, I was ALWAYS the last person chosen for any team sport.  I can still see the athletic kid the PE teacher had named as a team captain sighing and saying, "I guessthat means we get Rene'."  I can't say I blame them.  I couldn't hit, I couldn't throw, and I screamed in panic if I was supposed to catch a ball.  

In 12 years of public education, in 4 years of college, in 3 1/2 years of seminary, I received exactly one C--spring semester of my sophomore year in college, in physical education.  The class was Basketball and Softball.  I signed up for it because it fit into my schedule and I had to have a PE credit.  No one told me that the class doubled as practice time for the girls' basketball and softball teams--and that little ole non-jock me would be judged by their jock standards.  I'm probably lucky that I didn't fail--it was a mercy C.

So I've never thought of myself as athletic.  Despite working out pretty consistently over the last 11 years and hiking vacations in Rocky Mountain National Park, inside I was still that awkward girl that nobody wanted on their team.   

But training for El Camino is putting me in touch with my inner jock.  I still don't think of myself as athletic and probably never will, but I am beginning to think of myself as  I feel fit.  I still can't catch a ball or make a basket, I still would justifiably be chosen last in any sport that involved coordination, but I  It's a new feeling, one I am still getting used to, but I have to say I like it.  I like feeling that I can ask my body to do something challenging (like walk 500 miles!) and trusting my body to rise to the challenge.  

Feeling fit doesn't have much to do with weight loss.  The scale remains stubbornly stuck where it was 3 weeks ago, though I do think everything jiggly is a little less jiggly.  But I'm discovering that feeling fit isn't about a number on a scale or my pants size.  It's about how I feel in my body.  No, that's not exactly right.  It's about feeling like my body and I are no longer uneasy companions occupying the same physcial space--that we really are a team.  So I guess there is one team I can be a member of, even captain of.  Team Me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Helpful video about El Camino

This is a helpful explanatory video about El Camino, put together by a pilgrim who walked it this past year.

Hold hands and stick together

I've always loved the wise advice of Robert Fulghum's "All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" since a clipping of it landed on my desk more than 20 years ago.  (Remember the olden days when you got a clipping instead of an email forward?)  Lately I've been thinking about thinking a lot about this bit of wisdom from the essay:  No matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, hold hands and stick together.  I keep coming back to this thought because in so many ways I am holding onto others' hands as I prepare for El Camino.
 I've been "holding hands" with my friend Kimberly as we work out together each weekday morning, stumbling into the Y for our 5:30 am classes.  On mornings when I'm tempted to go back to sleep, my commitment to Kimberly gets me out of bed.  And now that I'm a part of Shape Up Omaha, I also have a team that I'm accountable to.  

I've been "holding hands" with the cyber community of the two El Camino forums that I'm a member of.  The wisdom of experienced peregrinos is invaluable.  How do you get from Santiago to Sarria?  What kind of pack should I get?  How do you train during a Nebraska winter?  What's a special "extra" that you took along that you were glad to had?  Discussions on the spirituality of walking El Camino, best and worst pilgrim refugios, and endless threads on foot care, boots and socks (peregrinos are obsessed with their feet!).  Through these forums I have been holding hands with folks from across North America, Europe, and from as far away as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  I don't know their real names or what they look like, but they have become an important community to me. I have never reached out with a question or concern that someone (often many someones) didn't reach back.

This blog itself is a way of "holding hands" with friends and family, sharing with those I care about and who care about me, my hopes and dreams and fear.  Your comments, both online and in person, remind me that I am part of a caring community who is rooting me on.
 This is what communities do.  They help, they support, they hold one another accountable, they root us on and hold us up.  How blessed I am to have so many hands to hold!

While the need to hold hands is true every day, I think a heightened awareness and appreciation of it is important spiritual preparation for El Camino.  On my trek, I will be meeting new people everyday, looking to them for help and advice and companionship.  And some may be looking to me for the same things.  We will all be stronger if we remember to hold hands and stick together.