Serendipity, songs, and pre-Camino angels

I knew my blue mood wasn’t permanent

Ever since my Camino, I’ve come to believe that invisible spirits look out for me, guide me, support my path. Yours too. Although my logical side wants to deny this, sometimes the coincidences are too numerous to ignore.

The key is being open. It’s about remaining unattached to How Things Will Turn Out. A few days ago, I surrendered the need to know.

Not surprisingly, signs started showing up. My blue mood lifted. Hope and excitement began bubbling up in its place. By doing my part and letting go, I started hearing the messages that were there all along.

Song angels

When I was on the Camino, song angels would come and whisper lyrics of a long-forgotten melody into my ears. Receiving these songs was a profound spiritual experience. When Desperado came to me, for example, I remembered to come down from my fences and open the gate of my heart. Each song that arrived carried with it a message my soul needed to hear.

Styx and Sparks

Now they’re showing up before I leave. One song came in the grocery store last week. Two days ago, it was Show Me the Way by Styx—a tune I haven’t heard in years. Its message of surrender and trust reminded me not to worry and to trust that the Way is there for me to find.

Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Please, show me the way

The next day, a more contemporary song—One Step at a Time by Jordin Sparks—came to me like a silver thread. The drum beats are actual footsteps, and its message is about taking your time, making one choice, taking one breath, and focusing on what you can do.

When you can’t wait any longer
But there’s no end in sight
It’s your faith that makes you stronger
The only way we get there
Is one step at a time

I needed to hear these words. We all do.

People angels

The Divine uses people as messengers too.

Three songs and then a day later, dear Meg, the original Camino archangel, called me out of the blue.

As we caught up, it became clear that both Meg and I are walking at life’s edges, challenged by conflicting choices. We talked about the difference between thinking and knowing. How to make everything more complicated with cruel self-judgment. How hard it is to really change your life.

We also reminisced about our Camino when the topic of gear came up. Meg told me about a sweet woman she met who was carrying a third of her own weight on her back. When Meg eventually helped lighten this woman’s load, she revealed she was carrying no fewer than a half-dozen knives from well-meaning friends.

Meg contagious laughter got me going. “Why would anyone need six knives?” she asked.

“It’s not like the Camino is in the wilderness!” I said. “No hacksaw necessary!”

Meg cracked up. “Right! Do you even really need one? I mean, if you have cheese, you can just bite some off with your teeth! And the lightweight sporks, Jen! What the fuck?”

Our laughter was cathartic.

You can pack your bag full for every contingency, and it will physically hurt you—even end your Camino early. In the same way, you can fill your mind with every worry, doubt, and fear—and ruin a perfectly lovely walk. That mental mess makes you miss the blessings, the serendipity, and life-changing messages.

Wake up

As we discussed Meg’s current big decision, I suggested the best way to get the outcome she’s looking for is to get really clear about what she wants.

“I have to disagree,” she said, surprising me. “I fuck up everything I try to influence. I really think the point is to let go of control.”

As a lifelong control freak, this got my attention.

She continued, “Someone asked me once why I should set the bar myself, when I have no idea how happy I’m capable of being. If you try to control everything, you limit the outcomes of what’s possible. Your ideas of what you can create are too small, too limited. Let go instead and see what shows up. It could be even better than you can imagine.”

Wow. Just whack that nail on its shiny little head.

Stay open and let go

These words, from exactly the right person, were just what I needed to hear. Her humor lightened my worries, and our conversation reminded me to open my heart to the wonder and miracles everywhere.

When we were just about to hang up, she said, “If I don’t talk to you before you go, have an amazing time, Jen. Don’t pack too much.”

“In more ways than one, right?” We both laughed.

“Yeah,” she said. “Try to keep it to just one knife.”

What’s the point of pilgrimage? No, really.

Photo credit

Lately, as I wake in the morning, I can feel the realization dawn over my body like a wave of prickles cascading from head to toes: Jesus. Seven weeks. In seven weeks, I’ll be in Spain. In seven weeks, I’ll be walking every day.

I haven’t been blogging because I’m feeling pretty discouraged at the moment. Not with my body or my training, but with what’s happening in my country. On one hand, I want to stay informed. On the other, everything I see about the presidential race shocks me, appalls me, and scares me. What are we doing? Most candidates are sleeping with Big Money (or want to) and another is talking about the size of his sexual organ. What on earth is happening?

It feels as though the very fabric of this country–one with so many kind and generous souls–is being stretched and torn. Is it race? Is it sexuality? Gender? A growing millennial generation with wholly different values than the old, dying guard? I have no answers, but a growing dread of September elections.

With all of this going on, I’m deeply in doubt about the usefulness and relevance of pilgrimage in a modern, connected age. What’s the point of unplugging and walking? Why spend all that money, time, and energy? What does it accomplish, and how does it solve anything?

I am having a dark night of the soul. It’s not permanent, but it is real: Part of me truly and earnestly does not want to walk another five hundred miles. It feels like such an interruption of my life that, in many ways, I haven’t learned to live since my Camino three years ago. Yes, despite the fact that I’ve assented to this calling, I am not thrilled with it. I’m resisting it still because I don’t see the point.

Maybe that’s the way a calling works. A yes is required before anything will be revealed about the journey or its purpose. The messages I heard over a year ago were clear and unequivocal, “You will walk again. You will return to the beginning.”

I assented. I will go.

It’s then I remember that the Camino is life. There is nothing we can do that isn’t part of the journey. I can walk in Spain, or I can walk through my own neighborhood. I can open my heart to other pilgrims as we share a meal, or I can open my heart to the person behind me in the coffee drive through or give a five bucks and banana to the homeless guy with the cardboard sign. It’s all part of the same journey. There is nothing outside it. Everything is included.

This helps me remember that my country is on its own journey—of which I am a part. We are called to create a more perfect union. That is our purpose. We said yes to this over two hundred years ago, but we don’t know where that will lead. Our country’s journey is a camino.

So with all of this swirling around in my mind this morning, I walked into the grocery store to pick up a few things, and I received another message. A confirmation. A benediction: The song playing on the PA system was a Camino anthem, “I will walk five hundred miles, and I will walk five hundred more…”

I get it. This path I walk is blessed. All our paths are.

Buen camino, peregrinos. Keep walking.

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.

Knees

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.

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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.

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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!

Camino training hikes 1 and 2

At a bent elbow of the Willamette river sits a quirky little park with just enough trail for training. Since my current goal is to increase distance (elevation comes later), paved trails on a riverbed are perfect.

Training hike 1

Distance: 4.12 miles
Pack weight: 4lbs

Late in the afternoon, Mary and I decided to go together to take advantage of the sun. While she bee-lined to the river’s edge to hunt for agates, jasper, and petrified wood, I did a full two loops of the park.

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We’ve had a lot of el niño-related storms, so the water was unbelievably high and running fast.

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At the end, we walked back to the car, and this spray-painted arrow appeared on our path. Whenever I see these somewhere random, they remind me of the Camino’s yellow arrows that direct pilgrims to Santiago. This particular arrow pointed us back the way we’d just come—just the way all my upcoming Camino arrows will be.

 

Training hike 2

Distance: 4.54 miles
Pack weight: 4lbs

Same park, different day—this time solo in early morning. I had the park practically to myself.

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It was lovely not having anyone around to stare at my backpack-and-walking-sticks getup. I swear I am going to train in the rain (especially if I ever get my Camino rain gear figured out), but I was so grateful for the mid-winter sun.

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The river is high again, but not nearly as swollen as before. As I walked along the path, I heard the croak of a great blue heron (AKA pterodactyl) protesting my presence and a number of songbirds testing out their songs (yellow-rumped warbler, winter wren, Anna’s hummingbird, among others).

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I spied a flock of small waterfowl bobbing in a back current, but I couldn’t identify them. As I stood there, breathing in the quiet, a pair of Canada geese aloft called to each other, their wingtips almost touching. It’s hard to believe nesting might already be in progress in late January.

This forested half-mile along the water is my favorite part of the park. The rest of my loop is through open field that runs beside an old hazelnut orchard. Although I resist taking my camera at all, I loved the sunlight, mist, and trees full of fuzzy catkins. Spring is coming!

 

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Most of all, I’m grateful this sweet little park is so close to home. It means I can get my early training and mileage doing without having to drive very far to a trail.

At the moment, I’m working on a training calendar that will help me get up to fifteen miles and will post about it soon. My hope is to feel strong before I leave for Spain. With these two first hikes in, I know I can do it!

Meeting Meg again

After two years of almost-silence, Meg emails me to say she’s thinking about leaving London to relocate to the US and planning a cross-country tour of organic farms. She asks, “Do you think I could see you while I’m in Oregon?”

Meg was a Camino archangel to me. Meeting her changed the course of my life as we walked together from Santiago to Finisterre. For many reasons, I was afraid to tell her at the time what she meant to me or how instrumental her example was in making major changes in my life.

Because of this, you can imagine the excitement I feel when she parks her truck in our driveway a few months later and walks up to the house. I can hardly believe it. It’s the real Meg. Not the woman I conjured up for so many months after we walked together, nor the one I pined for and missed, but the living, breathing soul on a new adventure. She is every bit as beautiful as I remembered, but I’m more grounded now. Content. Happy.

Meg stays with us for four days, meeting Mary, our friends, and hanging out. She’s been on the road for weeks and seems grateful for the warm hospitality. To me, her visit feels like an opportunity to bring things to completion somehow. Instead of the hike I planned, we decide to take a mini road trip together to my favorite wilderness retreat center whose main attraction are its hot spring-fed soaking pools.

*   *   *

On the drive up, we pass scenic gorges, rivers, and thick forests and reminisce about our shared journey and talk about what we learned on the Camino.

“I discovered my best self in Spain,” I tell her. “I felt strong and confident and happy. Walking with the guys was amazing because I realized how simple life could be. How easy. It was so liberating for me, ever the control freak.”

She laughs. There’s more I want to say, but I hesitate. Can I? 

“And then I met you. I had so much fun walking with you out of Atapuerca into Burgos, but didn’t think I’d ever see you again. One of the things that impressed me was your clear desire to walk alone. So, when we met again in Santiago, and you said you wanted to walk with me, I was shocked—and thrilled.”

“I’m sure,” she says, smiling.

“I was! Meg. . .” If I learned anything from my time with Meg, it was the importance of telling the truth. Keeping silent nearly destroyed me. I want her to know how much she changed my life, and this might be my only chance to say it. “Look. Here’s the whole story. . .” My mouth is dry. “I felt so attracted to you.”

From the corner of my eye, I see her look out the window. We’re driving over rutted road in the wilderness, and the truck bounces around suddenly. “Is this where you drive us off the cliff?” she asks. “Like Thelma and Louise?” We both burst out laughing.

“It’s nothing like that. It’s just. . .” How can I say this so she can hear it? “I met this woman on the Camino, and in all my life I have never been so powerfully attracted to another person—physically or energetically. I walked with her for five days and the feeling just got stronger. I was awakened by her. That woman was you.”

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, as if digesting my words. “But. . . wait. . . but you’ve been with other people.”

“I know. I know it doesn’t make sense. I can’t explain it. It’s like I woke up for the first time.” I need to slow down, so I take a breath. “What I felt for you was physical, but it was also energetic, like a soul connection. It shocked me awake. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. And at the same time, I was also terrified. Of acting on it, of upsetting you, of hurting Mary. So I did everything I could to push it down, not let it show.”

“I had no idea.”

“You really didn’t?” I believe her, but I’m surprised.

“No.” She shakes her head earnestly.

“Wow, I guess I’m better at hiding my feelings than I thought.”

She laughs. “When I like someone, I’m always convinced they know.” I grin back. Isn’t that the way?

“When I came back home, nothing in my life felt the same. It took a long time to understand, but I had to figure out how to make myself happy. I didn’t know what was going on for you, but even if you felt the same, it isn’t fair to put the responsibility of my happiness on you. That’s not healthy or even right. I had to do the work myself. In the last year or so, I’ve gotten a lot clearer about my path . . . I learned so much from you, Meg. I’ll always be grateful.”

Now we’re parked at the retreat center office. We can check in at any time and go soak, but she’s still sitting here with me, listening intently.

“I’ve always wanted to ask you.” In for a penny, in for a pound. “I was kind of confused . . . when we were watching the sunset at Finisterre, you said ‘this is romantic,’ and I’ve always wondered . . .”

“Oh,” she interrupts. “Oh, yeah,” a grin spreads across her face. “I was just saying, you know, it was so beautiful there, and that guy came over and gave us wine. I was just thinking it would be a great thing to do on a date.”

“Well, that’s what I thought!” I laugh. “But then you started asking about whether Mary and I ever watched the sun set and how far we lived from the ocean. I was all like, ‘What does she mean? Is she saying what I think?'” At the time, I wanted to believe she was hinting we should be together.

“Oh, man.” We’re both smiling.

“I have to tell you, Meg, it took every ounce of effort I had not to kiss you just then. I forced myself to stare straight out at the ocean and not look at you. I couldn’t. If I had—I mean, I wasn’t sure how you felt, but I also didn’t want to hurt Mary.”

She looks at me. “Does she know about all this?”

“Yes.”

“God, she must hate me.”

“No. She doesn’t, actually. You didn’t do anything.” She laughs. “In fact, Mary and I had some good talks when you said you might be coming to visit. She said, ‘What kind of relationship would this be if I kept you from spending time with someone? Meg was a really important person on your Camino. I won’t interfere with that.’”

“Wow.”

“I know.”

“I wonder what I would have done if you had kissed me.”

Her idle musing makes me pause, but I know with all my heart that things happened as they were meant to. “I didn’t really know what was happening for you. I couldn’t risk it. I guess the dolphins were a good distraction.”

“Oh, my God! The goats!” Meg lets out a joyous laugh, remembering how I had heard a sound I mistook for dolphins in the ocean. They were actually bleating wild goats on the cliff below us. “That was so crazy!”

I’m grinning from the memory, but also with the pure and utter relief of having told the truth and requesting hers. I’m at peace. Now I know.

“So, I’ve shared a lot,” I say. “I can’t tell you how thankful I am for you listening. I’m curious how you feel about what I’ve said.”

Something about her demeanor changes, becomes softer. Is she touched that I ask her this? “I just had no idea that was going on for you. No idea. You hid it well!”

“That’s not necessarily a good thing.” I smile. That was part of the lesson too. I can’t hide anymore. I have to be myself.

“So, now you’re over it.” I can’t tell if her words are a question or a statement.

“Well. . .” It won’t help anything to tell her how I thought about her every day for more than a year. It won’t change anything to tell her how I forced myself to stop playing the “what if” game because I might literally have gone crazy. A soul mate shows up to wake you up; use the lessons and you’ll transform, but try to trap the lesson-giver, and you’ll both be miserable.  “I will always think you’re amazing,” I say from the heart. These aren’t the right words, but they’re enough. “Wanna go check in?”

“Sure,” she says. So we do.

 *   *   *

After six weeks of walking the Camino, my heart broke wide open. Only then, when Meg showed up, was I ready for the unflinching message she brought me: Are you living the life you want? And if not, what are you going to do about it?

Meg was a smart, curious, and witty messenger. The lessons she transmitted were powerful: speak your truth, be who you are without apology, be adventurous, and listen deeply. So deep was my need to hear these that I confused the message with messenger. I couldn’t see a way to live the lessons without her in my life. I was very lost for a long time before I came to understand this: Meg showed up on my path to awaken me, but she was not the awakening itself.

The attraction I felt for Meg almost destroyed my marriage. Keeping it a secret made it worse. In the year that followed my Camino, I discovered my wife is made of far stronger stuff than I ever imagined. Mary’s love for me and her belief in our relationship carried us through many painful, distant days. She waited me out as I unearthed the Camino’s insights and finally found the courage to live daily what I learned from Meg: speak the truth, laugh, be passionate, and most of all, live!

Through that difficult process, we didn’t just save our marriage, I reclaimed my life.

*   *   *

Seeing Meg again somehow brings everything full circle.

It’s early autumn and a perfect blue-sky day. We spend it eating delicious meals, soaking in natural hot springs, and talking about Meg’s current adventures. Later, we sit in silence under scented cedars and breathe the cool air by the river. As the day of laughter and conversation draws to a close, I ask her if she wants me to make good on the back rub offer I’d mentioned a few days before.

“Yeah!” she says, almost scoffing.

“I just want to assure you my intention is totally clean.” This is true.

“I know.”

I crouch behind her, resting my hands above her scapulas when I learn her secret. Though she doesn’t say a word, her body tells me: it’s been years since someone has touched her lovingly. Her shoulders feel like a tortoise shell, impenetrable.

“Do you tend to carry your tension in your shoulders?” I ask.

She exhales abruptly, “Yeah.”

“It feels like you’re carrying a lot.”

We barely talk, but for those fifteen minutes I get to give her something she’s actually willing to receive. Her body gradually loosens, but this tension seems at odds with the openness, playfulness, and spontaneity I see in her.

And it makes me wonder: do we ever really know anything about a person beyond what we project onto them? For all the time Meg and I spent together in Spain, and the countless hours I’ve thought about her since we were last together, I don’t really know who she is. I feel sad for her unspoken struggle. And more so because I’m not the one who can heal her. Maybe only she can.

When I’m done, her muscles are softer, though not fully released. As I rest my palms on her back behind her heart, a prayer comes to me so forcefully, tears spring to my eyes:

Bless this magnificent woman.

Bless her on her journey into the world.

Help her know how precious she is.

Amen.

In the silence, we both take a deep breath. For the first time since I met Meg, I am finally letting her go.

Doing a Slow Camino

A slow down sign

Back in 1980s Italy, the land of homemade pastas, sauces, and delicious wines, where food is an art and a way of expressing love, Rome’s citizens protested plans for a McDonalds restaurant. Can you blame them? What an affront to la dolce vita, a proud way of life!

From that protest sprang a celebration of preparing food intentionally using locally-sourced ingredients. The movement was dubbed Slow Food (in contrast to fast food) and has since grown a following around the world. Some of Slow Food’s offspring are Slow Cities, Slow Talk, and Slow Travel—with the common theme being consciously stopping the hurry and choosing to be present with what you are doing. It’s called the Slow Movement.

A crash course in slow

When I was on Molokai for three weeks this summer, I got a front-row seat to slow living. I’m one wound-up chica most of the time and don’t even realize it. The daily, relentless slowness of the island made me downshift and truly relax. It made a difference for the whole experience. Had I whisked in to Teri’s bookstore like a selfish haole (literally without breath), I would never have been invited to sit with locals talking story or learn of the island’s sacred places.

The idea of intentional slowness on my next Camino has been coming up a lot.

What does a slow Camino look like?

I can only give you my version. Perhaps my reflections will give you a chance to think about what a Slow Camino is to you.

Deeply appreciating my environment

My journal from 2013 has numerous sketches of the birds and wildflowers I saw. A walking pace makes it easy to take note of the rocks underfoot, observe geological formations, and the changing terrain. Noticing my environment often leaves me in a state of wonder about my smallness in creation and gratitude for being alive. As I move through towns and open spaces, I want to be present enough to look gently and appreciatively into the faces of the people I pass.

Eating what the locals eat

No matter how desperately I may long for peanut butter or oatmeal, allowing myself to hunger for these familiar foods is a powerful spiritual practice. Sitting with longing can invite gratitude or show me how to be satisfied with what I have. Eating how the locals do invites delight in tasting foods grown nearby and prepared by hand, even if unfamiliar.

Being open to spontaneous connection

Some of the most profound moments of my first Camino came from a smile that led to a conversation and unexpected generosity. Locals gave me gifts, wine, invitations to dinner, good directions, tips on places to eat, a laugh, encouragement on a hard day, and so much more. But I had to be willing to connect, to look up and make eye contact. This takes vulnerability!

Often, the timing of these unexpected meeting was just what I needed—a tremendous gift for this self-reliant introvert. Connections reminded me that humans are communal creatures. We need each other.

Relying on signs, maps, and the kindness of strangers

I could carry a device with accurate maps, but I want to learn what I’m made of. Some might say this makes the journey unnecessarily harder. If I get off track, what does this allow me to discover? Can I ask for and receive help? Getting lost on the Camino can contain may prepare me for times when I get lost in life, where neither GPS or Google street view are an option. This takes courage, but the insights are worth it.

Space and time for reflection

Have you ever been in the middle of a short walk or a long shower and had a new insight about a long-standing problem? To me, this is what slow travel provides. Removing myself from the everyday habits and triggers of my life allows space for new thoughts and ideas to arise. On the Way, each unhurried day unfolds at walking pace, leaving ample time for reflection.

On my last Camino, writing each night was a priority, and I cherish the memories that arise when I read my journal. For me, journaling daily is a way to synthesize the many experiences that take place and mine them for meaning. Both walking and writing have an inherent slowness to them that allows the mind to relax its grip and the heart to unfold.

Little to no technology

This topic deserves its own post, but I’ll say that by its very nature, technology is fast. Technology today is also tiny. A sponge-sized computer allows us to make reservations, take photos, store endless songs and books, make connections via video, bank online, and perform countless other functions. It’s a miracle, really. There’s no denying the plentiful and myriad advantages of carrying a cell phone.

But. (You knew that was coming.) As a highly distractable person with a technology addiction, every second of screen time takes me away from my surroundings. It’s just that simple. For every dollar I’ve raised or saved to get myself back to Spain, I simply can’t bring myself to waste a single minute on Facebook or behind a lens. Will I get lonely and want to connect online? Absolutely. Will I wish I could take a photo of someone or something while I walk? Yes. Will I wish I could make a reservation somewhere? Possibly. The bottom line is I will be able to survive without these tools in the same way that an alcoholic can survive without wine and beer (and even thrive).

To me, the absence of technology is a choice that makes room for a different, less-controlled experience in spite of its myriad advantages. It’s this lack of control and decreased speed I’m longing for on my return to Spain.

Enjoyment

With fewer distractions and a slow pace, the pilgrim can be fully present to notice herself think, hear Divine whispers, and witness the truths of other travelers. She can delight in discovering the world around her and connect meaningfully with fellow humans across generations and cultures.

Although pilgrims stay in a new place almost every night, it’s possible to know rural Spain and its provinces in a deeper way that even the Spanish themselves. I came away from my first Camino with an enduring love for its cultures and people.

For this reason, I’m not preoccupied with achieving a specific number of miles per day and am open to taking public transportation if needed. Some say you haven’t “done” the Camino if you haven’t walked every mile, but I’m not among them. I’ve met too many people who got injured on the Way and were still committed to getting to Santiago. If you enjoy the journey and learn something valuable from it, I say it counts as a pilgrimage without exception.

Slow is a state of mind

Years ago, I discovered a book by Carl Honoré called In Praise of Slow and read it cover to cover—twice. In it, he explores the many ways we can bring intention to our everyday lives. I highly recommend it.

As convenient as our speedy culture is, the calling so many hear to walk the Camino may be connected to our collective disillusionment with the pace of our lives. We’re longing for something deeper than fast. And to get it, slowing down enough to walk across a country is one incredible solution. How slow do you want to go?

I’d love to know your thoughts! What does a Slow Camino look like to you?

Divine nods

I believe in signs.

Since I avoid walking under ladders and throw spilled salt over my left shoulder, I probably should. But deciding to take a seven-week journey halfway around the world makes me look for affirmations—Divine nods—that I’m making the right choices.

Maybe I shouldn’t put this in print, but things are going really well.

Flights!

I bought my airfare! I have a flight to Dublin and will soon purchase connections to Santiago and Biarritz. Oh, my Lord, was that scary! At my request, Mary held my hand in support as I clicked “purchase,” and now it’s done. I’m going! Good sign? The price jumped up the day after I purchased and hasn’t gone down since. Granted, I know there’s a corporate algorithm that makes this happen, but signs are in the eye of the beholder. (And, in case you’re wondering, the fare was $1077 from PDX to DUB.)

Muriel!

Second, after a few emails and a Skype call to talk about details, Muriel emailed me last week to confirm that she will be arriving in Pamplona for us to cross the Pyrenees together. “Just in time for pintxos,” she wrote. I am beside myself with glee that this sage soul and I will walk together over those mountains while having deep talks and laughs about life.

I feel the need to knock wood right now!

Camino connections!

Third, I’ve met three separate people in two weeks who have Camino dreams. Totally random places. Totally joyful conversations. I encouraged them to trust the call they hear. “Our meeting was not a coincidence,” one said gratefully. Exactly my point.

More Camino connections!

Fourth, a local peregrina friend invited me to attend a huge Camino-themed holiday potluck put on by the Portlandia Chapter of APOC. Our hour-long car ride was fun and meaningful (why have we not done this before?). As an introvert, groups overwhelm me, and I feared sitting alone awkwardly with no one to talk to.  I should not have worried! We pilgrims know how to connect with almost anyone. More than one hundred people were in attendance and at least half had walked the Camino. One peregrina I met had completed her pilgrimage a mere month before. Her sparkling eyes and relaxed jaw reminded me: you too will feel this way soon.

Reconnections!

Fifth, two of my favorite Camino bloggers, Nadine and Elissa, both did Caminos this past summer. Both have been in post-pilgrimage processing mode and understandably quiet since they returned. In the last few weeks, they’ve both come out of the woods, reaching out and writing. This delights me as I’ve missed them (while understanding the need to take time to process the journey) and look forward to more reading and connecting with them both.

A draft!

Sixth, I spent time at my favorite mountain retreat center for five days of writing and—lo and behold—I finished a very rough draft of my Camino book. Good omen? You bet!

Happy knees!

Seventh (it just keeps going!!), I saw my awesome doc last week to talk about my knee progress. She didn’t say a word about hobbies or hiking. Instead, she was really encouraging and thrilled to hear that the supplements and exercises are working. I’m thrilled too. I’m not pain-free, but the pain is less and bearable. Now if I could just stop eating holiday goodies (I just learned how to make my own egg nog chai), I might make progress on the weight-loss side of things I’d be even happier. All in all, I’m thrilled my body is healing!

A serious one!

Finally, there is one sign I’m still sorting out. Since my post about risks on the Camino, the world’s axis seems to have shifted a few degrees in the wake of inexplicable violence. More than one caring person in my life has questioned whether it’s safe to travel in Europe right now. The US government advises caution. Here’s what I know in my gut: If I change my life or plans one iota because of fear, the evil side wins.

I mention this issue because signs don’t always confirm what we want to hear. Sometimes they challenge us to question how devoted we are to our call. Are you ready, they ask. Are you sure you’re up for the risks? Are you willing to lose others’ respect, your comfort, even your life to follow your heart? 

Yes. I am. Like life, the Camino may not be bed of rose petals, but nothing worth loving ever is. I’m trusting my conviction as a Divine nod—and proceeding with willingness, caution, and joy. May you do the same in order to follow what you love.