Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom (And Whimsy)

Posted on July 12, 2023 under Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom with 2 comments


Warming up after a walk in the rain


“Reflections of my life,

Oh, how they fill my eyes.”

Reflections of my Life – Marmalade

It’s a natural thing to be reflective. While we are repeatedly told to “live in the moment”, it’s hard not to look back from time to time and review our life in the rear-view mirror. It’s just a normal part of the aging process. The key is not to dwell too much on the past. As Chad and Jeremy once crooned, “But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone”. And then there’s tomorrow. Anticipating what’s coming next can evoke a lot of emotions.

I have been in a reflective mood for the past two weeks after returning home from my second walk across Spain. It’s hard to replicate a first experience. First love. First car. First job. Sometimes a first experience is one that you never want to go through again while others are magical. My first Camino in 2019 would be in that magical category. I had never tackled a long walk before. I loved everything about it, minus the blisters. I met many extraordinary people from all over the world and wrote about them in my 6th book called “Eat, Sleep and Walk: Stories From the Camino”.

Many of my readers are not on Facebook and as a result did not get to see my twice daily posts from my recent Camino walk. Each day, morning and afternoon, I posted pictures of things I saw along the route along with a brief commentary. Now, I certainly don’t plan to use this space trying to re-create my walk in its entirety – all 800 kilometres, but I’ll give you a few of the highlights.

The Camino Frances (The French Way) begins in the city of St.Jean Pied de Port in southern France and the first leg of the journey, one has to navigate the Pyrenees mountains before arriving in Spain. Having travelled the previous day from Canada, I decided to take it easy on Day 1and only walked 8 kilometres to Orrison. This turned out to be a smart move as that initial phase of the Camino is straight up the side of the mountains. I was in reasonably good shape arriving in France, but I must admit that I was huffing and puffing by the time I arrived in Orrison. The vistas were spectacular until I reached my destination and then the fog and rain arrived. On that very first night, I met Biljana from Slovenia and Casper from The Netherlands and they would be constant companions for the next two weeks.

Prior to doing this walk, I had done a lot of research to see if I could avoid the blister curse. Walking 25-30 kilometres a day wreaks havoc with one’s feet and blisters are as common as poppies on the Camino. The first three days were incredibly challenging, especially navigating the sides of rock-strewn mountains. Miraculously, after three days, I didn’t have a single blister. I was giddy at the prospect of walking pain free. That illusion was swept away on Day 4 as several nasty blisters appeared out of nowhere. From that point on, it was like “whack-a-mole”. No sooner would I get one blister under control than another would pop up. Things got so bad that on Day 9, I had to stop and take a rest day as it was too painful to walk. At that point, I wasn’t discouraged but I felt that my Camino was in jeopardy.

On Day 20, I spent two days in the city of Leon and received some excellent footcare from a first-class podiatrist. Even though my feet were a mess, she said that I could continue on my quest without incurring any risk.

Prior to Leon, Casper had to return home and Biljana had time constraints and was going to be doing some long days. As a result, I was on my own once again. It didn’t take very long to inherit a new “Camino family”. While we rarely walked together (everyone walks at their own pace), we planned our days so that we would end up in the same villages or towns at the end of the day. Veasna, Jannis, Silke, Sarah and Di became fast friends. We would all end up at the finish in Santiago de Compostela within 24 hours of each other.

Of course, food and drink are important aspects of the Camino. Tapas and red wine are staples on the Camino… and very tasty and inexpensive, I might add. Wine is so cheap and plentiful in Spain that at most restaurants, they offer guests a bottle of water or bottle of wine as a beverage! In the city of Melide, I tried a local favourite – octopus or pulpo as it is known in Spain. We went to a famous restaurant in the city which is known for their pulpo. The octopus is cooked in huge pots, similar to what we might use in Nova Scotia to cook lobsters. The pulpo was lightly seasoned and I must admit that despite the look and texture of a cooked octopus, I found it quite tasty.

The focal point of my walk was to disperse my brother Tom’s ashes at the highest point of the Camino. In 2018, Tom walked the Camino and scattered the ashes of his great friend, Mark. When they were young men, they vowed that in their old age, they would do a simple walk (!) like the Camino. Sadly, neither Tom nor Mark grew old. Tom passed away from cancer in 2019 and I wanted them to be reunited. The weather was absolutely stunning on Day 24 when my small Camino family gathered with me to reunite two buddies.

After scattering Tom’s ashes, the rest of that day’s walk was enormously difficult. Ask anyone who has done the Camino and they will likely concur that the 18 kilometres from the highest point on the Camino to Molinaseca is the most demanding. It is all downhill and the terrain is very rocky and uneven. One has to pay attention to every step. The only saving grace is that it wasn’t raining. I had visions of me sliding down the side of the mountain on my bum. It might have been difficult to explain blisters on one’s arse!

The day ended on a high note as me and my friends celebrated Tom’s life with a magnificent feast in the city of Ponferrada.

And speaking of rain. Overall, the weather was just about perfect. The mornings were cool and clear, especially on those days when I headed out at 5:00 a.m. I’m sure that not everyone would be keen to walk through a forest in total darkness, save for the headlamp that I was wearing. I found these mornings profoundly peaceful. The further west we walked, the hotter the afternoons became and almost every day around 4:00 there was a violent thunder and lightning storm. Because I was an early riser and was only walking 26 kilometres a day, I was off the road long before the storms arrived.

One of my favourite memories was the day that Billie, Casper and yours truly arrived in the small village of Luquin. From time to time, a pilgrim has the option of taking an alternate route. On this particular day, we took a mountain trail which was spectacular. I was the first to arrive in Luquin. I sat in the local bar having some food and beverage. There was only one alburgue in the village and as fate would have it, the owner was also at the bar. She told me that the alburgue was open and unattended and that I could just go over whenever I felt like it. There was no formal check-in and an hour later, Billie and Casper arrived. We had the alburgue to ourselves. The most violent storm erupted with pounding rain and hail. After supper, we sat around, and I played tunes while the storm raged. This was one of my best moments on the Camino.

In all honesty, I never checked the weather once the entire time I was on the Camino. On one memorable day, (Day 12) the buzz around the alburgue early in the morning was that there was a 0% chance of rain that day. I had just passed through the town of St.Juan and entered some deep woods when I heard a rumbling off in the distance. My first thought was that it was a train but as I got further into the woods, it got very dark. I felt a few raindrops and immediately got out my foul weather gear. A few kilometres later, I exited the forest and now I was completely out in the open, exposed to the elements. It turned into a terrific thunder and lightning storm including torrential rain and hail. Now, standing out in the open, with a pair of walking poles, in a thunder and lightning storm is probably not the smartest thing but I had nowhere to go so I decided to embrace the situation. I actually quite enjoyed it and when I arrived at my alburgue in Atapuerca, looking like a drowned rat, a group of us gathered around a table to exchange stories… and wine! Early that evening, I went to a local pub and enjoyed a wonderful dinner in front of a roaring fire with a new Camino friend, Steffi. That night was the only time in 33 days that I was relegated to a top bunk bed. Realizing that getting out of a bunk bed at 3:00 a.m. to pee was going to be a major pain in the butt, I simply hauled my mattress down to the floor where I slept comfortably!

So much for 0% chance of rain.

It didn’t happen very often but whenever I arrived at my accommodation, and there was a guitar nearby, I played tunes. This was always a lot of fun.

I am pleased to report that the last five days on the Camino, I walked pain free as my blisters started to toughen up.

I must admit that I didn’t feel the same excitement walking into Santiago de Compostela on the final day of my walk as I did in 2019. It was more of a relief to get off my feet. When the others arrived, we went out for a final dinner and the next day we went our separate ways. Parting in these situations is difficult as a strong bond had formed over the weeks.

I spent my last few days in Portugal, first in Porto (a great city) and then Lisbon. I was told that if I was in Lisbon, that a must see was Sintra, a Portuguese town featuring many historic buildings, including the famous multi-colored Palacio Nacional da Pena, one of Europe’s finest palaces. This is a major tourist attraction and an UNESCO World Heritage site. In other words, this city is crawling with tourists.

Now, there is the small matter of getting to the palace and various castles on this large acreage. They are high up in the mountains. The vast majority of sensible people take a bus, taxi, tuktuk or private vehicle to get to the top. The remaining .5% walk up the mountain. I decided to go to the tourist information centre to check out my options. The young woman who chatted with me, strongly advised me to take public transportation to the top of the mountain. She said that it was an arduous climb and would take me at least 90 minutes. Having climbed a lot of difficult mountains in the previous five weeks, I was not daunted by this prospect. However, had I known that I would have been climbing a very steep mountain, I would have brought along my hiking boots and poles. I had no poles and was wearing flip flops!

Early on in my ascent, I came across a husband and wife and their two young, teenage children. I tucked in behind them and while the going was tough (I even walked barefoot for a while as the flip flops were a serious impediment to climbing), we made it to the top in 45 minutes. As one would expect with a major tourist attraction, coupled with the end of school, it was chaos at the entrance to the royal grounds. Had I done my homework, I would not have been surprised to find out that one had to reserve tickets to gain entry. I queued up to purchase a ticket and realized that I would have to wait nearly 4 hours before I could get in. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind. I took a tuktuk down the mountain and went to a restaurant where I had the most delicious sardine sandwich and a monster piece of apple pie.

And now, I am home and reflecting on my second Camino. After any major experience, there is bound to be a letdown. There’s an emptiness that creeps in and I’m feeling this like most of my Camino friends. However, there are more roads to walk and mountains to climb.

Just days after returning home, my brother sent me a link to another walk. This one starts at Land’s End in southern England and ends in John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland. It is 1200 miles long (1900 kilometres) or more than twice as long as the Camino.

Who knows?

“These boots were made for walking…”

Have a great weekend.

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