Reflections on a Half Camino – Absolute Truths – Part 1

September 14, 2013

It’s now been seventeen days since I returned home from Spain. During that time I’ve tried to hang onto my experience as the the usual bombardment of modern culture continues unabated. My focus has been on relaxation characterized by the avoidance of scheduled activity.

During this 17-day period, I’ve relaxed at home for a few days, spent the long Labor Day weekend on Balboa Island, launched our son into the 11th grade and took four days to go fishing in the Sierra mountains. After that, a few days focused on our oldest son’s upcoming wedding and then back to Balboa Island where I now attempt to share my oft-promised deep thoughts about my experience traveling around the world in 30 days.

Absolute Truth #1 – Everything you need in life can be carried on your back

Or in your heart. Or in your head.

This thought has been shared by many folks before me and I think is common to almost all Camino experiences. The accumulation of “stuff” over time is not the way to happiness, it is an obstacle to happiness. I actually prefer to use the word contentment because it connotes a peaceful acceptance of wherever and whatever you are in life right now. It’s the feeling that you have enough, you do enough and you are enough.

Being an avid backpacker for many years, I’ve learned this lesson slowly. In the early days, I carried a lot of extra equipment “just in case” and tolerated the extra burden because I was a younger man. As I’ve aged, I’ve cut my pack weight slowly but steadily. It’s the only thing that has allowed me to continue my trips.

The Camino experience magnified what I learned backpacking. Instead of 30 lbs. you’re carrying 15 lbs. You can do this, of course, because more of what you need is provided along the way by others. Food and shelter don’t need to be carried, you purchase them as you go along. If you get hurt, you’re usually within a few hours of a hospital so you don’t need to carry a lot of first aid gear.

All you really need is a medium-sized backpack, an open mind, and an open heart. Which leads us to Deep Thought #2.

Absolute Truth #2 – God is present in all people and all things

Right about now you’re thinking: is Michael going to have an original thought anywhere in this post? The answer is: I’m not sure so stay tuned.

I’m reading a book right now entitled “Fly Fishing – the Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice.” It’s written by a Christian minister/MD named Michael Attas and a rabbi named Eric Eisenkramer. The book combines some basic fly-fishing instruction with thoughts about the wonder of the natural world, the benefits of solitude, the blessing of community and the search for the Divine.

Sounds just like my Camino experience.

One of the concepts discussed in the book is panentheism, which “makes the claim that God is in all matter and all of creation. All humans have this spark of divinity within us, as does all matter – earth, waters, fish, birds, forests, and trees.” It’s easier to recognize this on the Camino because everyone and everything is carrying less stuff.

Walking the Camino, you meet people from all over the world and you never know who is rich and who is poor. They’ve left their stuff behind and chosen to carry their possessions on their back. It’s a great equalizer. When you meet someone on the Camino, the spark of the Divine is usually apparent immediately. It’s like whoa! This guy is the most amazing person I’ve ever met! Until you meet the next person, of course. If you don’t notice their spark, it’s usually because you’re not paying attention. Not that that ever happened to me.

Once you start noticing the Divine in everyone, it’s easy to notice the Divine in everything around you. Fields of sunflowers, hunting dogs, purple stuffed animals, bicycles, beer. You don’t need to search for the Divine. Get rid of your stuff and the Divine fills the void.

to be continued..

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Reflections on a Half Camino – The Practical

September 2, 2013

It’s been five days since I returned home from my round-the-world adventure. Having walked and cycled about 280 miles of the Camino de Santiago, it’s an appropriate time to share a few thoughts about what I’ve learned from the experience.

#1 – Proper Training is Important but Unachievable

Unless you’re walking the distance you plan to walk each day, and then repeat that for the number of days you plan to walk without a break, you have not trained properly. Add to that the need to replicate the terrain, trail surfaces and weather conditions of the Camino, and the ability to prepare yourself adequately becomes impossible. You may be a stud or studette on your home turf, but the Camino experience is different.

I believe the best way to train is 6 days of walking a variety of conditions and distances followed by a rest day. Most pilgrims, of course, do not have the time to do this (I surely didn’t) so that leads us to observation #2.

#2 – Take It Slowly for the First Week

My hiking/walking experience is primarily in the mountains/canyons of the western US. I typically carry 35-40 lbs and hike 5-10 miles a day. My trips typically last 3-5 days. I have been to the top of Mt. Whitney at 14,500 feet and the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I provide this information as background for probably the most important lesson I learned: start slowly and build speed gradually.

If you review my blog posts, you’ll see that my average daily speed including all rest stops started around 3.5 km/hr for the first five days. After that, it dropped steadily until it bottomed out around 2.8 km/hr by day #10. Now, you may think that 3.5 km/hr isn’t very fast but the fact is, it was too fast for me to sustain for ten days.

Like the disclaimer says, your mileage may vary, but the lesson I learned is to really go slowly for the first week or so. This lesson leads us to #3.

#3 – Do Not Pre-Plan Your Camino

You’ll have to have some sort of plan for travel to/from your start/stop points, but other than that, allow your physical and emotional state to dictate your experience. My buddy Nancy summarized it best: “I’ll get there when I get there.” Easy to say but tough to live by, especially for me. Other than my start and stop dates, I had an intermediate deadline to meet my wife in Burgos on a certain date. That required me to average 13.5 miles/day for 10 days. That mileage was too much for me and I paid the price. Next time I’ll allow at least one flex day per week so that I can rest before I injure myself.

The last night in Mansilla de las Mulas, we met a woman who had pre-planned every hotel, breakfast and dinner on her entire camino. I think that worked well for her but I would have been out big money if I had done that. Start each day with a general objective and then adapt to your body, head and heart speaking to you along the way.

#4 – Beware of the Odd’s and End’s

I carried a Osprey Talon 33 liter pack which had plenty of space for my stuff. In fact, my clothes and sleeping system only filled half of the pack. What filled the rest was the odd’s and end’s – the little stuff that doesn’t weigh much by itself but adds a lot of weight when taken together. I’m talking about toiletries, first aid, laundry soap, power cords, converters/adapters, etc.. A lot of these items are carried “just in case.”

I ended up wearing every item of clothing and all of my sleeping system at various times during my camino. I probably only used about 20% of the “just in case” stuff. When my camino continues, that’s where I’ll focus my weight saving efforts.

I also added water and food items to my pack weight every day. Having bonked during a hike in the Grand Canyon, I tend to carry too much water rather than not enough. That said, is there anywhere I found that I need to carry more than two liters? The answer is no. Regarding food, you can save money by shopping at a supermercado rather than buying food at a roadside bar/restaurant but you’ll have to carry your groceries until you consume them. Consider the weight vs. cost tradeoff.

Adding the odd’s and end’s with food and water will quickly take your carefully planned 15 lb. pack to 20+ lbs.

#5 – Bring the Mayo and Mustard!

Don’t get me wrong. I love sandwiches as much as anyone. But most of the sandwiches you buy in Spain will be dry. That is, devoid of mustard, mayo or other sauces. (Some places will put olive oil and vinegar on theirs.) So before you leave home, pack some individual servings or Grey Poupon (like in the movie), mayo, hot sauce or whatever you slather on two pieces of bread. You’ll thank me for it.

So that’s the practical lessons learned after a half-camino. My next blog will focus on the more abstract things I learned along the way.

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Home

September 1, 2013

It’s been a few days since Kathryn and I returned home from Spain and I’ve had some time time to reflect on my round-the-world adventure. Before I get into that, however, here’s a wrap up of our last night in Madrid.

After we arrived at our hotel (Preciados), Kathryn went out to wander the streets and do some shopping while I relaxed and posted on my blog. Since we had to carry whatever we purchased along the way, we had kept our new acquisitions to a bare minimum. Now that we were converting to air travel, we could add a few items to our backpacks.

When she returned, we decided to take a tour of the city on an open air double decker bus. We walked over to the bus stop around 8 pm. It was a perfect summer evening – the night was warm and Madrid’s streets and parks were filled with people walking, relaxing on the grass and benches, and talking with friends.

The tour eventually wound its way to the western part of the downtown area where a large crowd had gathered to watch the sunset. Kathryn and I jumped off the bus to enjoy the show. The setting was a group of government buildings perched on the edge of a 100-foot bluff which allowed a broad view toward the west. The sunset spectacular lasted about an hour which allowed us to grab a some wine and tapas from a streetside cafe.

We got back on another tour bus as it was completing its run for the night but soon jumped off again to check out the Plaza Mayor. First thing I learned in Spain: when in doubt, go to the Plaza Mayor. Every village, town and city has one. Before we got to the plaza, however, we saw a cool-looking glass building and found a high-end food court inside. The place was packed with people tasting food and drink from all over Spain and the world – wine, cheese, olives, sushi, chocolates, coffee, tapas, English beers. We tasted some Sangria (first of the trip) and got the secret recipe for our future use.

We finally cruised through the Plaza Mayor but didn’t feel the magic of any restaurants so headed back toward our hotel. Just before we got there, we noticed a Cuban restaurant down a small side street, It was a small family-run place and it provided a perfect setting for our last dinner in Spain.

The next morning was all business as we packed our bags, had breakfast and took the light rail to the airport. We checked into our flight easily and took off around 1 pm. We had some great seats in the economy plus section and settled in for the 10-hour flight to Dallas.

On the plane, we struck up a conversation with Brady, who was on his way home after a few months sailing with his family. They had bought a boat a few years ago in Thailand and were slowly sailing it around the world. Brady was 18 years old and finishing his high school education online. As he shared his stories of adventure, I realized that my “around the world” journey paled in comparison. I was really only stopping in two countries, while he was experiencing the day-by-day progression. I was reminded of my experience on the camino. It’s not the destination…

My next post will provide some thoughts on my experience.

Notes from today:

Left Madrid at 1300 local time
Arrived Los Angeles at 1900 local time
Total time 15 hours
Total distance 9950 km
Average speed 660 km/hr (a new Camino world record!)

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