Needs and knees: Camino training hike #5

The deep need for the Camino experience

Every pilgrim I’ve ever met longs to reconnect with the Camino experience after they return. Sometimes you feel it so deeply, it’s like a physical ache—yet it goes mysteriously unnamed. What is this? Why do I miss it so much? What can I do to make this uncomfortable feeling go away?

This feeling reminds me of the springtime buds about to pop where I live. How uncomfortable to be a swelling flower, furled up and encased in a husk. The Camino revitalizes the soul after years-long winter. Post-pilgrimage longing is an urge to burst into bloom, to be radiantly alive every day, the way we were as pilgrims.

Out of that feeling, at least for me, comes a desire to connect meaningfully with other pilgrims. Nothing nourishes me more than connecting with other souls who willingly challenge themselves and ponder life’s deep questions.

Walking is a kind of meditation. To intentionally walk with others can be a sacred, moving ritual.

Training Hike #5

Distance: 5.5 mi
Elevation gain/loss: 25? ft.
Pack weight: 8lbs

Although the easiest, most obvious choice would be to participate in the monthly event hosted by my closest APOC chapter, the idea of gathering with friends to do longer walks held more appeal.

So, for training hike number five, I met up with two aspiring peregrinas and a veteran. Together, we walked along the interconnected paths and parks of Salem. The weather was astonishingly beautiful for early February.

The walk was full of happy accidents. One in our group realized she needed a hat just as we approached Salem’s independent camping gear store. From a hilltop in one park, a guy practicing his trombone, giving us a free, quarter-mile performance. When we stopped for a restroom break, we broke metaphorical bread by sharing chocolate (maybe that’s even better).

Along the way, we compared the merits of gear options for long-distance walking. The aspiring pilgrims asked wonderful questions about the Camino, probing especially for the meaning, the significance, and the moments that made it so much more than just a walk, but a life-changing, soul-healing experience.


Addressing my arthritis diagnosis is still a relatively new thing for me. I mean, how can I be old enough to have arthritis in the first place??

After finishing the previous training hike with Nancy, it was clear my knee had had too much. Within a few hours, it tingled, felt mildly warm, and was a bit puffy. I suspect that the combination of a ten-pound pack and almost 1000 feet elevation loss and gain over 2.5 miles had been too big a change from all the mostly-flat walking I’ve done so far.

On training hike number five, I was glad for the flat walking, but my knee was still uncomfortable. A few times, it even hurt a bit. This was new and unnerved me. I can’t be messing with this in Spain. I can’t just walk the way I did last time with only meager training. I’ve got to be ready.

Writing it will make me accountable, so I’m recommitting here to doing my daily physical therapy exercises and taking all of my physician-prescribed supplements. Doing yoga was really helping me too, but I just got bust. So I’m going to do that at least every three days.

I do not want to be caught by surprise while walking the Camino. I want my body to be in great shape before I get there.

On the up-side, I’ve lost seven pounds so far. This is helping lighten the literal load on my joints. I would like to lose another seven before I leave (10 weeks left!), so I might have to forego the chocolate I love so much—at least until I’m walking on the Camino!

Simulating the Camino at home

I loved walking with these ladies and talking about life, our respective journeys, and the Camino.

peregrinas on the train bridge in Salem

The need to connect, to gather, to share unstructured time in community is a deep human need. As hard as it can be to find, all we need is a clear intention to create it. Although not everyone can walk (or return to) the Camino for various reasons, the experience can be simulated or recreated to similar effect.

After the walk, we gathered at my home to share a potluck meal—a cozy end to a beautiful day—all vowing to walk again soon.

Angels unaware: Camino training hike #4

With almost no advance planning, Nancy messages me to ask if we’re going for a hike tomorrow. A hike. Did we talk about a hike?

Nancy and I bonded a year ago as she was planning for her September 2015 Camino. Now that I’m planning my return, we regularly walk and talk about Spain and Camino memories, and ponder life’s deep questions together.

“Yes,” I reply, “of course we’re going on a hike!”

Training Hike #4

Distance: 2.47mi
Elevation gain/loss: 974/978 ft.
Pack weight: 10lbs

The cold weather inversion is making the valley smoggy, so we bee-line up to our favorite park up in the Cascade foothills, Silver Falls State Park, like we’d just skipped class without getting caught.

The seven-mile loop in this stunning park features no less than ten waterfalls. Its trails are excellent training—with steep climbs and descents that thread through a deep, river-cut gorge.

Silver Creek Falls

On our initial descent into the canyon, the largest of the falls, Winter, is roaring with the power of water as it cascades 134 feet onto basalt rocks below. We pose to take a quick photo.

Although we can manage an arm-stretch selfie, instead I ask a couple nearby if they’d take our photo. Asking this is a small, but conscious effort on my part to meet other humans and get out of my comfort zone.

Jen and Nancy at Silver Falls


Further down this trail, I’d discover why I’m glad I observed this practice on this particular day.

“I’ll take two,” the woman smiled, turning my phone to show vertical and horizontal. I grin back. On the second shot, she says playfully, “Change your pose!” Be playful! Do something different! Those words are ones to live by. I give Nancy bunny ears.

After thanking them, we go on our way, descending deeper into the gorge. The river gurgles gaily beside us as we talk about footwear, catch up on mutual friends and family matters, and share about our dreams and aspirations. With a Camino under our respective belts, there’s always lots to talk about.

One of the things I love about Nancy is how she gets death. She’s one of the few people I know who can talk about the reality of one’s eventual demise. Comfort with mortality isn’t morbid; it’s actually a way of celebrating the precious time we have on the planet. It’s a reminder to live fully today.

Mud! True Camino training!
Mud! True Camino training!

After several miles, we slowly ascend a steep hill and come to a fork in the woods with benches for resting. Under a tree there’s a heart made of fir cones. How lovely. I’ve come to trust in signs like these.

a heart made of fir cones at the base of a tree
photo thanks to Nancy!

While we nosh on chocolate, the couple who took our photo shows up. In their mid-thirties, the man is sweating in his well-tailored navy blue peacoat. The woman, our funny photgrapher is in a white jacket, white hijab, and white knit newsboy cap. We greet them as they approach, smiling.

As the man sets down their pack on the bench near us, the woman looks at me and asks, “Would you like some coffee?”

I’m flabbergasted by the question. Coffee?  Out here in the middle of nowhere?  I don’t know what to say. I look at Nancy. (Nancy loves coffee.)

“Suuure,” we both say in unison.

“It’s . . . Arabic coffee. Do you know it?”

I shake my head, but the combination of her accent and the offer of a new kind of food delights me. I’m excited to try it, still stunned by her offer.

“It’s not like—how do you say—dark coffee. It is lighter. It has cardamom and other spices maybe you’ve never heard of.” She pulls out two paper cups—certainly they were intended for her and her husband—and sets them on the bench.

“Why don’t we share a cup?” Nancy suggests. Perfect! That way they still have their own.

From the pack, she pulls a large white carafe.

“You carried that all the way out here!” Nancy exclaims with a smile. The woman laughs, and doesn’t seem to mind the playful teasing. She pours out the steaming orange-brown liquid.

Though scalding hot, the coffee is amazing. Milky with a flavor is reminiscent of chai, it tastes of cardamom and a hint of flowers. “Mmmm! Wow!” I hand Nancy the cup.

“It’s my mother’s recipe,” she offers.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t ask your names,” I say apologetically.

“This is Ali, my husband,” the woman says, “And I am Fauzia.” Nancy and I introduce ourselves.

I want to know this couple’s whole story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What to they think of the US? How did they come to learn English? None of these seem polite, and I don’t want to assume anything.

“We are from Saudi Arabia,” Fauzia volunteers.

“Oh! What part?” I ask. I regret I don’t know this country’s geography at all, but have found this question handy for learning all kind of tidbits someone’s homeland. It keeps people talking about things they like and what features are nearby and spares me from looking like an ignorant oaf.

“We are from the south, where it is cold. But we also lived in Riyadh before coming here.” I’ve heard of the city, and am certain the country borders the Red Sea. I resolve to look a map later to see what is there. (When I get home, I learn that Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. Mecca is there. It is mostly unforested, but has several wildlife preserves.)

As we sip the coffee, the warmth and kindness grow as Ali shares about the English language program he’s attending at a university. Fauzia teases him laughingly about practicing more.

“Would you like a date?” she asks, pulling a Tupperware container from the bag.

She opens it and extends them to us. “Thank you!” They’re almost round, taupe-colored, and have an almond inside. Heaven. Pure, sweet heaven.

“Did you bring them from home,” Nancy asks. Fauzia nods proudly.

I offer them some chocolate, and Fauzia grabs her stomach and says, “I am too fat!” This isn’t true, but I wonder about cultural rules about offering gifts. In Ireland, you are expected to take a cup of tea on a visit, whether you want one or not. To do otherwise is highly offensive. In one Native American tribe, Nancy shared later, if you compliment something belonging to a person, they must give it to you. In some cultures, an offer must be declined at least three times or you risk appearing greedy (even if you want it!).

I offered again a few moments later, but they both turn down the chocolate.

Before we go, we thank them profusely for the coffee and treats, wish them luck in their studies, and joke about pacing themselves with that big carafe in their pack.

The hill back to the car is staggeringly, gaspingly steep, but I feel like I’m floating on sunbeams of happiness, a bounce in my step. The exchange with Ali and Fauzia touched something within me.

“I can’t seem to name it,” I tell Nancy, “But something really good and beautiful happened back there.”

After a pause, she says thoughtfully, “Maybe it’s because they showed us hospitality in our own country.”

That’s it. That’s exactly it, Nancy. They had no reason to be kind, to reach out to us, and yet they did.”

“I really wanted to ask them about how they’re being received here in the US with all the anti-Muslim sentiment lately. I wanted to know if people are treating them well.”

“Me too,” I say. “On the other hand, maybe it’s enough, or even better, that we met heart to heart and shared laughter with them.”

In Hebrews, it says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

My lesson on this training hike is that Camino angels are everywhere. Look for them. And, miraculously, sometimes it’s the angels themselves who offer the hospitality. Stay open.

Maybe it’s a lesson our whole world needs.

angels unawares


What will it be like walking backwards to Saint Jean Pied de Port?

For all the certainty I feel about my call to walk the Camino in reverse, it feels strange not to be walking toward something. Saint Jean Pied de Port is a lovely Basque town, but it lacks Santiago’s saint and the epic coastline of Fistera and Muxia.

If I were European doing this trip, I might literally be walking home. Though few modern pilgrims do, ancient peregrinos left a cozy bed—and voila!—their pilgrimage began. All they did was step out the front door and go to their closest cathedral, where pilgrims united with guards in tow. Once the whole band walked to Santiago, they turned around and walked home again. The closest I can come to simulating that experience is to return to the beginning of my original journey (SJPP) and hope to get a bed at the albergue where I spent my first night.

In reality, my walk is not a return to a location, but to a place within. To walk the Camino backwards and arrive in the Pyreneen foothills is to revisit who I was on April 18, 2013. It is an practice in noticing how the Camino has changed me and how I’ve used the experience to grow in the time since.

Oh, I was so adorably naive!

That day, I was so tired and jetlagged when I arrived—and so clueless. Where do I go? Why is the pilgrim office so far from the train station? Did they really have to put everything at the top of a hill? Why do the welcome center volunteers seem so gruff?

That newly-arrived pilgrim was so eager to have other people like her. So willing to put her own needs in second place to get along. There was no way this journey wouldn’t change her, make her more resilient, but it would have to break her first. It would have to challenge her so profoundly, that her old ways of being would break under the weight of their ineffectiveness.

Pretending nothing was wrong would stop working when her feet hurt so badly, she could barely walk. And later when she got a fever and an ear infection. Denial stopped working. Her body’s needs forced her to wake up and take action.

The pattern of trying to get other people’s approval would break when she repeatedly ignored her own needs to keep her Camino family together. Then, when they were all gone, she would face loneliness head on and discover what it would teach her.

Pushing down her emotions would stop working when she experienced a profound and magnetic attraction to another pilgrim. The feelings couldn’t be banished. This unfamiliar situation would push her to the edge.

At the beginning, I had no idea how the Camino would test me. Maybe it’s better I didn’t, but I’m glad angels showed up.

Camino angels

On that first day in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I met a man who told us how he left his wife and four children for a Camino romance. Even now, I marvel at how irrationally angry I felt about his story. (Chicken shit, I believe, were my inner words of choice. Not a very nice thing to call an angel.)

As I sat in judgment of him, I was blissfully unaware. I couldn’t have known I would meet someone who’d take my breath away 500 miles from that very place. I would face the very same dilemma.

Now, having lived that dilemma, I understand how human it is to want the more exciting path over the harder one. I’d been emotionally absent in my own marriage long before I left for the Camino. When I returned home, I faced a decision: to be as open with my wife as I’d been with Meg—or leave. There were really no other alternatives.

Would I have chosen the same if that Camino angel hadn’t crossed my path and given me fair warning? Had I not been so furious at his choice, would I have been as informed about making my own? In the end, I opted for integrating the Camino’s lessons. I chose to transform myself and re-choose my marriage with an undivided heart. That’s not the right choice for everyone, but for me, it was a path toward wholeness, of living an undivided life.

The power of intention

As I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I didn’t know any of this awaited me. My stated hope had been “to be changed” by the Camino, and I was. Or, more accurately, the Camino shaped me. And then I used the experience to change my life.

Looking ahead, retracing my steps will give me time to consider the soul-ground I’ve trod the three years since, and invite completion.

At least, that’s my intention for this return trip. Who knows what else it has in store for me?

And for you too…

If you’ve already walked the Camino, reflecting on the journey, its angels, and lessons invites profound spiritual and personal insights. You don’t even have to walk it backwards for this to happen! It’s enough journal, share, reminisce, and connect with others who’ve walked similar paths. What’s important is to make the conscious choice to apply these insights to your life and live them.

The rewards are worth the trip. ❤

Camino training hike 3 and Altus poncho review

Everyone has been asking me when I see them—at work, socially, my family—how’s the training going?

It’s going!

Training hike 3

Distance: 5.55 miles
Pack weight: 5lbs

A peregrina friend sent me her Altus poncho to borrow for my upcoming Camino. The morning of my third training hike, I saw the threatening clouds and drizzle and was excited to test it out! (Only in Oregon are we excited about this kind of weather!)

Honestly, I’ve been kicking myself since April 2013, when I passed up the opportunity to purchase an Altus in Saint Jean Pied de Port. They’re part-poncho, part-raincoat with sleeves, but not sold outside of Europe. In fact, today they’re not available at all because they’re not made anymore. When my peregrina friend offered to lend me hers to use in Spain, I was tickled!

As soon as I arrived at the park, got my pack on, and the poncho situated, this happened.

Keizer Rapids Park

The sky cleared.

Even with only a slight mist, the wind was strong. Ponchos are notoriously billowy, so I was curious to see how it responded in the wind.

2016-01-29 08.50.20

The hood has tiny clips allowing for adjustment of fit. The wrist sleeves are elastic. The zipper was surprisingly tiny–maybe to keep out water? There’s a protective flap over the zipper with velcro closure to keep out the rain. My favorite part is the back which works like a wedding-gown bustle. Snap it up, and it’s short when you’re around town. Unsnap the three fasteners, and it’s longer and pouchy to fit over your backpack.

Like a floating bright blue cloud, I passed three women with five small dogs. One quipped, “The rain won’t get you today!”

The earthworm game

After a night of rain, the paved footpath had thousands of tiny earthworms all over it. They reminded me of the little snails on the Camino path every morning. I hated stepping on them, so I turned it into a game. At my walking speed, I stared at the ground as they “sped” by placing my foot so I wouldn’t squish one.

This nightcrawler was so huge (I wear a size 11 shoe), he insisted we take a selfie together.

2016-01-29 08.59.56

It’s amazing how your mind can wander as you walk. Seeing this sign along the road into the park made me recall my early driving days in high school.

bump ahead sign

“Bump ahead!” yelled my impish, slightly younger-than-me brother.

The yell was followed by a shove to my forehead, bumping the back of my skull into the car’s headrest. “Hey!!” I replied in protest.

“Sign says ‘Bump a head,’ so I did!”

A grin. Do all siblings mildly torture each other this way?

Back to the poncho again

After 20 minutes, I was hot. I was afraid that would happen. The Altus has no side or pocket vents, no tiny armpit holes to let out the warmth the body produces while exercising. After 40 minutes, I took a short rest. When I took off the Altus, I discovered the chest and shoulder area drenched with condensation.

My first reaction was disappointment. I really wanted to use this poncho, so lovingly shared by a friend. There’s just no way to hike for hours with this much moisture inside. My next reaction was profound remorse: I had steered my friend toward purchasing this jacket for her own Camino. (I’m so sorry, Sarah!)

The danger in non-ventilating rain gear is hypothermia. All that condensation makes your clothes wet, makes you wet, and can lower your body temperature—especially if the air is cool, if it’s windy, or if you need to rest, sodden, for any reason. Wet and cold are not a good combination.

The problem is that the better your rain gear vents body heat and dampness, the chances of getting rain under the protective barrier increase.

So, I’m back to the drawing board. I do have my original Camino poncho, the model that leaked and is on the heavy side. If I can tape the leaky seams, it could work. It’s not ideal, though.

The other idea I keep tossing around came from a convincing article I read about hiking with a lightweight umbrella. A reflective parsol takes the place of rain gear, eliminates the need for a hat, allows for complete ventilation, and protects against sun (portable shade!). The average price is about the same as a decent lightweight poncho or rain suit. The down side is that legs can get wet, but that’s true with ponchos too.

So rain gear is on the agenda again.

In the meantime, I walked my longest training distance yet five and a half miles, and felt really good. No funky knees, no soreness the day after, just a touch of stiffness in my right foot toward the end. I’m averaging fifteen minutes per mile too, which is about right for me.

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More hikes are in the plans!

Do you have a good rain gear solution? I’d love to hear about it!