Long Lake Lore

The Journey Is the Reward-My Camino

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The Journey Is the Reward-My Camino

Up to now, my blog posts have consisted of excerpts from the writings that I have done for my book, Taking the Mask Off … My Journey from Dr. Seuss to the Bible.

In this post, I skip a beat and focus on a journey from which I recently returned, a 500-mile (779-kilometer) journey over three mountain ranges covering two countries that resulted in the most wonderful 32 days I’ve experienced since the birth of my children. It was a journey that taught me life-changing lessons: Lessons that, in truth, I’ve been told before in other ways but had put a mask on to hide. Lessons that had I followed, I wouldn’t have had to deal with much of the trauma and disappointment I experienced throughout my life. This journey on foot, commonly called the Camino Frances Pilgrimage and done by millions before me and about 300,000 from around the world each year, changed my life.

So, together, let’s condense my 500-mile journey to 20 minutes and walk through the words below together in my post. I’m going to let you into my life so that you may see what I found inside myself, not what I did. For those who read Taking the Mask Off, consider the book the cake and the Camino Frances, well, the icing.

A little background. For the reader not familiar with the Camino Frances, officially called the Camino de Santiago, let me briefly explain what it is. The Camino de Santiago, typically called The Way of St. James, is one of many pilgrimage routes throughout Europe converging at the foot of the cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.

Around 1830, a hermit named Pelayo followed unusually bright stars to a field where he found a decapitated skeleton. Pelayo contacted the local authorities, and a senior local authority, Bishop Theodemar, declared the skeleton to be that of St. James the Great, whose name in Spanish is rendered as Santiago, one of the 12 apostles of Christ. In the end, this route, the Camino Frances, was viewed to be a route to the remains of St. James. It is believed that the cathedral in Santiago, the destination, was built over the bones of the St. James. For over a thousand years, paupers, popes, and kings have walked the many routes of the Camino to the town of Santiago to seek the blessing of St. James.

Another interesting factor was the significant number of churches and the role churches played during this time, a time referred to as the Age of Faith. Some estimates show that there was a church for every 40 or 50 people. Most of these churches are no longer open, many not structurally sound, but they served as directional beacons during my journey across Spain, beacons for both my mind and heart to follow.
Fast forward to modern day, many scholars now doubt that the body found by Pelayo was that of St. James. This writing doesn’t get into these details as many people much smarter than I are still debating this; I only wanted to provide a summary.

So, that’s it, in summary, there are probably a hundred different routes and about 10 popular routes throughout Europe that focus toward Santiago. I chose the most popular, which begins in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, and in 32 days, I shed 12 pounds, hurt muscles that I didn’t know I had, and could hardly move when I finished, but I cried at the end, because, believe it or not, I couldn’t wait to do it again and was sad it was over.

So, back to the lessons, lessons I already knew, lessons I failed to follow until now, lessons that depict my weaknesses as well as my strengths. The difference between the two is often a simple realization to say, “I was wrong.” The lessons laid out below are as follows: 1) My prejudgment error, 2) How important it is to learn how to jump over yourself, and 3) In the end, we are all where we need to be.

Lesson #1: My Prejudgment Error

A Ghost Town—Hell No!
On the 9th of October, I completed a short 13-mile walk in Spain from Burgos to Hornillos de la Camino, which as you enter looks like a little ghost town. The main street had a small grocery store, and if you arrived after 2:00 pm, nothing was open until 7:30 pm. And I had walked a bit slow that day and had arrived after 2:00 pm. Spain does siestas, meaning most stores and restaurants close midday for rest and reopen in the evening.

Upon my arrival and checking into my hotel, one of the pilgrims said, “Hey, when you’re ready to eat at about 7:15 pm, go down to the end of the road. There’s a restaurant called the Orion. They’ll serve you food there.” I said, “Okay.”

Hornillos de la Camino was interesting because it taught me my first lesson while on the Camino on the hazards of prejudgment. I had initially judged the town by how it looked rather than the character of its people.

After taking a shower, planning my next day’s adventure, and elevating my feet for about an hour, I went outside to enjoy the evening sunshine. At about 7:15 pm, I hobbled down to the restaurant and went inside, and there’s no one inside. A few people were sitting outside, but the area was pretty empty for an establishment opening at 7:30 pm. So, I walked inside, ordered a fizzy water, and sat down at a table—a hard wooden table with four chairs, and each chair rocked as did the table. So, you know, my judgment was kicking in big time. I had already thought this place a ghost town, and now I’m drinking water on a table that rocks more than a rocking chair on creaky floors. What will happen next?

About 15 minutes later, people started to come in and sit down at the other tables. Two ladies, who I later found out were from Canada, invited me to sit with them, and so I moved from my table to theirs. We chatted a bit, and then the gentlemen serving behind the bar came out to take our food order. I later found out it really wasn’t a food order; he was merely asking if there was anything he was serving that we could not eat, because they were serving everyone the same thing. The meal started with a garden salad and was followed with chicken and rice decorated with slices of green and red peppers.

Once the salad was served, two of the waitstaff helping him walked forward to what was an open area and started moving around some equipment. Again, these were the same people who earlier were taking our orders. I’ll be damned, as we indulged in our salad, if they did not pick up instruments and start playing. They sang Frank Sinatra tunes while sounding like Frank Sinatra. They played jazz and sang opera. I don’t know if these two gentlemen were farmers from the local community, locals who drove a few miles to entertain. All I know is that for the hour and a half that they provided entertainment they made me forget about the physical pain I felt and knocked the shit out of the judgment I previously had. Of all the towns I’ve gone through during this entire journey, the one town I’m going to go back to is Hornillos de la Camino. Ghost town my ass. I woke up and learned once again to never judge a book by its cover.

Walking for Someone Who Can’t?

So, for the guy who always criticizes others for stereotyping, guess what? I got a taste of my own medicine.

All of us have predetermined thoughts, whether they be on politics, race, weather, sports. We have things in our mind that we feel are just infallible, almost factual, right? Well, I certainly do. I used to judge people the minute I saw them. This was not done in a negative way; it was only done to size them up, because, again, my predetermined thoughts couldn’t be wrong, right? Well, let me tell you, this journey brought out my predetermined thoughts and crushed each one! Aside from sports, and yes, I still root for the NY Jets, everything I thought about people changed, or, let me say, everything I thought about people just verified what I was taught at an early age: Never criticize what people cannot change and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Let me share a couple of stories to highlight my comments above.

So, why do people walk, practice religion, exercise …? Because they have nothing else to do? How about, for someone else who can’t! One slightly rainy day, on the 16th of October, let me explain “slightly rainy.” Rainy is what happens in Georgia, Florida, and Seattle. Slightly rainy occurs in Colorado and New Mexico, and it consists of enough rain to get you wet if you stand still, but putting on a poncho or a protective overgarment will cause more sweat than it is worth. So, on slightly rainy days when you are exercising, you simply don’t worry about getting wet, make sense? Well, this was one of those slightly rainy days that encompassed a 20-mile walk. I heard a fast-paced walking person come up from behind me like a fighter jet intercepting prop plane except I heard the boom, boom, boom, boom of boots hitting the pavement. Truth be told, for some reason, I always got annoyed while on the trail because I was so used to being the fastest walker, and so when someone passes me, well, I tend to get a bit jealous. I guess, I need to remind myself that I’m 64 and not 36.

Back to the story, I stepped out of the way of the impending collision to let her by and found that the fighter jet was a she. She took the time to slow down and talk with me. I was like, oh my goodness. I said, “Hello,” and asked, “Where are you from?” She replied, “I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina.” She asked me the same question, and I replied, “I’m from Alaska.” Given we were also both black, you can imagine the questions she asked, beginning with “How the hell did you end up there” and “What was it like growing up in Alaska?”

We got to talking, and then about 15 minutes later, she continued on. Many people who passed me would stop ahead at a local place to grab a coffee or a bite to eat, and I would pass them again as they rested. I rarely stopped for more than 10 minutes until the end of the day due to my Achilles tendonitis flaring up. So, I caught up to the place where she was enjoying a cup of coffee and waved to her as I walked by. Then, 30 minutes later, I heard the same boom, boom. This time I knew it was her. I turned around to greet her, and she slowed down, and we chatted for a while, and this time she opened up and told me a little bit about herself.

She only had 25 days to do the Camino Frances, meaning she had to average about 20 miles per day. (Most people take 32 to 40 days.) So, I thought, this is my kind of girl: athletic, determined, focused, kind, and a fast walker. I love women who walk fast, but why was she doing this and why in only 25 days? She then looked down as we walked about a mile down the road, and I could tell she was gathering her thoughts but not in a sad way. Then she looked up at me and then to the sky and said that she could only get 30 days off from work and she was walking the Camino for her son back home in Charlotte who was paralyzed. I just stopped and gave her a hug. I didn’t know what to say except I’m sorry about your son. I wanted to ask what happened, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was me being there to listen, walk, and let her know how wonderful I thought she was.

Shortly afterwards, knowing she had ground to make up, I recommended that she move on and not be restricted by an old man like me and so we took a picture together and she walked on. I never saw her again, but for the next 10 miles and the remainder of my journey, I realized that she really was not like me—she was better. She was a woman with a purpose and no judgment. I was a man struggling to find a purpose who still judged. What a wonderful woman she is. Why can’t our world be like the people on this trail? Why can’t our world leaders be like those who are walking this trail? Why can’t our politicians have that compassion? I had fallen into the trap I see so often of prejudgment, a trap that I have always regretted.

Lesson #2: Sometimes You Need to Jump Over Yourself

I saw some interesting signs people had put up, who’d been on the Camino. These may have been spray paint they painted on road barriers. It may have been a post they put up on the dirt. These are all manmade by the way type of signs. One sign that really struck me was probably about two weeks into the trip. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, hurting a little bit, really hoping the pain would go away when all it did was move from one body part to another. I was told by some veterans of the walk, those who had walked the Camino several times, that you go through three stages: body, mind, and soul. Well, I couldn’t wait to transition from the body to the mind aspect of the walk. I plowed along midday. Hitting the 10-mile mark usually meant my trekking poles changed from being an accelerant and taking the pressure off my hips to a means to finding balance so I didn’t fall. I don’t know what happened, but the first 10 to 12 miles never seemed hard, and the next 5 miles were a bit slower and much more painful, but the last 3 miles were harder than the previous 17 miles.

One sign on a road barrier, spray painted in black, said, “It’s time to jump over yourself.” Now think about this. You’re on mile 12 of 20, the sun’s hitting your every exposed spot, and you’re so hot and tired that your body stops sweating. You cross the farmers’ fields where the fertilizer they use smells of manure, and the flies begin to attack in each direction, and you pray for wind to keep the flies away, but the wind just blows the smell of manure in your face. The flies are so annoying that you wish they were mosquitoes, because at least mosquitoes don’t buzz and after they bite they are done. So, in a sense, my transition now was kind of going from the pain to the mind.

I met so many people. You ask them what they’re doing there, and you hear everything. One gentleman owned a wine distillery and sold it, and now he and his wife were walking together for a couple weeks, then taking a short break to visit relatives in Europe, before returning to walk some more. I met others who were trying to make it with 180 euros in their pockets. A young woman told me the story of her venture, how it really began in the Netherlands and how everything she now owned was on her back. Some senior people were recently laid off, some were getting ready to start new jobs, and some merely wanted to do something different.

All of whom I met were similar to me in one sense: they were all trying to find their way, all finding a way to jump over themselves and become who they wanted to be instead of putting makeup on who they were. They all look the same, and they’re all walking for the same reason: to find their inner soul, to peel the onion skin off their body, to become who God meant them to be. Whether in a pair or a group of six, in the end, regardless of who came with you, who you meet along the way, when you’re on this trip, it’s your Camino all by yourself. Ironically, many of whom I met didn’t speak a word of English, but mysteriously, like two soldiers from different countries fighting together on the battlefield, give us 20 minutes, and after an exchange of pictures and sometimes a cup of coffee, we find ways to smile, laugh, and share a story. The Camino is no different: it is that secluded, inclusive, nonjudgmental zone. It’s the Planet Fitness of religion.

I know that God put that there for me, because I know He knew ahead of time that I was just starting to feel a little down and thinking about me a little bit too much. He was right. He is always right. It was time for me to jump over myself. Then about three miles later, at mile 15 or 16, getting close to my destination, I saw a sign that said, “Most of the time when you don’t get an answer, because you didn’t ask the right question.” I thought about how often we forget that sometimes the question is more important than the answer. I thought about how much different I would be now if I could retrace my steps back 15 years. Maybe the question I would ask is “Why am I feeling so much pain knowing others are feeling more?” Or, better yet, “Why am I focused on only my pain?”

When I was in the Army, some of our elite units had an adventure challenge called Mungadai. Mungadai originated hundreds of years ago with the warrior Genghis Khan as a test for his troops to see who would be in his calvary. As I walked, I thought about some of the problems in our world, some of our politicians on both sides of the aisle. Wouldn’t it be great for all new employees of a corporation and freshmen congressmen to just take a week out and walk among one another to see what they are made of? Find out who’s got what? Who’s got the guts? Who can handle it? Who’s going to cry first? Man, I wish we could do that.

Here are some examples of situations where I found the need to jump over myself.

Hey Man

So, I was walking 21 miles one day, and I was only on mile 15 and feeling it, you know. It’s the mind telling you to stop, saying slow down, etc. The mind, your mind is just another adversary that day. I was walking along when I hear a person approach, and before passing me the person said, “Hey, man, how you doing?” I replied, “I’m okay.” I then turned around, and it’s this kid, 19 or 20 years old. Shortly after he and another older gentleman passed me, I thought, why did he say, “Hey, man,” and why did he ask how I was doing? Well, aside from the fact that I was walking with a heck of a limp, I mean what else would cause him to ask me how I was doing, and what’s with the “hey man.” When I was 19 or 20, I would never call a man my age “hey man”; I would say, “Mister, you okay?” or “Hey, how are you, sir?” Whatever. They were walking fast, and their rucks were bigger than mine. I assumed they were a father and a son or coworkers. I didn’t know.

But I got a little frustrated with myself. Why did he show that disrespect? I mean, I’m not his buddy. I don’t drink beer with him. I’m not asking to be called sir, but he was kind in asking if I am okay, something I found common on this journey. But you don’t just “hey man.” What the hell? So, I started judging and saying, “Man.” To make a long story short, about three miles down the road I caught up with them because they had stopped to eat; I continued on and didn’t stop. Then they passed me again, and the young man called out another “Hey, man.” I yelled out, “Where are you from?” The young man said, “Canada.” I said, “What part?” They told me, and I said, “Well, I used to live in Canada.” They slowed down a little bit, and we walked together for a while. The hey-man kid said, “Yeah, I live in Europe now. But my dad lives in Canada.” He went on to explain that he moved away after high school, and he and his dad had not been close since. This was their journey to try to come together. Talk about feeling like shit. I kind of felt like shit because I was a little jealous. I wish my son was with me. That kid had the maturity to say in front of his dad, “My dad and I hadn’t been that close; this is our time to come together.” I said, “Well, I wish you guys the best; you’re a wonderful looking team.” I meant every word. Sometimes we have that hey-man moment. Take a look at how you got it. For me, it was looking at that father-son team, wishing my son was walking with me, and wanting to be in the footsteps of that dad with his son. Yeah, it was a hey-man moment, but more importantly, it taught me to jump over myself. I was so fortunate to meet that wonderful father and son.

Getting Rid of the Rocks

My birthday, the big 64. I had been on the trail for 23 days and walking for about 22. The weather, all the way up until my birthday on the 19th of October, was pretty good. There had been maybe one or two days when it really rained hard. The day before, the 18th of October, I stopped at a town called Rabanal del Camino. A pretty cool town on the side of a hill, it looked like a one-half-mile stretch of San Francisco, not a piece of flat ground around. But the cool part of this town was that it was the last stop before reaching the summit of the entire walk, Cruz de Ferro. In mountain climber terms, Rabanal del Camino was the base camp.

A little history: Cruz de Ferro is the high point on the Camino Frances and is symbolized by tall cross on top of the hill, a cross that at its base is engulfed by numerous rocks. Each rock was placed there by a pilgrim wanting to get a worry off their mind, remember a loved one, or just pray. A place where there’s a cross. The cross signifies a place where pilgrims let go. Well, at the time, I was hurting, but my pain was no longer prevalent in my body for I had made the transition to mind in the paradigm body, mind, and soul. Cruz de Ferro was about two-thirds of the way through the Camino, and I probably had 11 days of walking remaining. The pain I now speak of rested in my mind, and yes, every part of my ankles, Achilles, and knees hurt, but the pain in my mind superseded every physical pain possible. It was a pain I felt all night, it was a pain signified by how I have treated others and been treated myself by others, and now, after walking for 23 days, I could reach a point to let those worries go or, as I said in my book, let that shit go!

So, I gathered five rocks the night before and wrote down the names and events I wanted to let go of. Bad experiences, one really bad relationship, two judgmental thoughts, and one blank rock. I put the rocks in my rucksack and went to bed. The next morning, I got up, went downstairs of where I was staying, had a cup of coffee and a croissant with chocolate, and sat just staring outside at the rain. It wasn’t necessarily the rain that bothered me but the rocks. Would putting them on a mound on the Alto really relieve my worries? Would it lighten my mind?

As I stared outside at the rain, a man eating breakfast next to me looked over and said, “Why are you walking?” I hesitated because there was no introduction but the simple question, which I had been asked many times earlier in my journey. So, the response, albeit somewhat canned, was “I’m walking to find myself, to appreciate all the good things God brought my way. I’m walking to meet great people like yourself.” He responded, “Hmmm, that’s not why I’m walking.” So, naturally, I asked, “Why are you walking?” He responded, “I’m walking to thank God. I was in the pits for years, doing so many bad things. Then God called me and pulled me out. I wouldn’t be alive if it had not been for him.” He then said, between bites, “That’s all I’m walking for.” I thought about what he said and wondered if he had any rocks. Maybe he was the one others put rocks on the pile for. Maybe this man, a new man, was the result of others putting his name on rocks to finally have God tap him on the shoulder. I thanked him for talking, and as I got up to leave, he said, “You need to go over to see the pilgrims’ chapel; you need to see it.” I said, “Okay, I will.”

I put on my raincoat and cover for my rucksack, rucked up, and walked over to the chapel. It was simple, well lit, and clear, and I could tell God was there as well as the spirit of many who came before me. As I left the chapel and started my four-mile uphill journey to the Alto, I thought about the man and what he said. In truth, I had heard similar reasons from others with whom I had walked. His words of his past life were not unique. What was unique, however, was why he spoke out to me, the fact that he was there and I was there and that he openly shared his thoughts were not an irony. As I headed up the hill and thought more about the conversation, I soon realized that it wasn’t a man who was speaking to me but rather God speaking through a man telling me what I needed to hear. It was God who said, “Just have faith in me. Your rocks will come and go, but I will always be there.” As I approached the Alto, rain coming off the brim of my hat and hitting my face and the wet raincoat I had equally dispersing every drop of water onto my pants, I looked up to the top of the cross and said, “Thank you, God.” It was my 64th birthday, and I had walked over 300 miles to get to this point. If nothing else happened today, if I could not complete my walk, I would be fine because I had reached the summit. I took a few pictures and then placed the rocks on a pile already there.

My conscience was immediately lighter, and I thought about the fact that here I was in the middle of Spain, on my birthday, carrying rocks to get rid of and going to a place that’s designed to get rid of those rocks, and God put me here. I mean, I could have walked a mile slower each day and not been here on my birthday. I could have missed that by three miles. I mean, it just all worked out. So, I was able to get rid of my rocks on my 64th birthday. The worst weather I had experienced turned out to be the best day ever.
Still raining like hell, I came to the next town, six miles from the Alto and five miles from my destination for the day, El Acebo. I saw this wonderful, enlarged outdoor plastic menu with three-inch letters spelling out “carrot cake” neatly arranged. Well, soaking wet and full of energy, I had carrot cake and coffee on my birthday sitting inside a tavern. Every inch of my body below where my coat hit my pants was soaked. My Columbia hiking shoes now weighed a good 2 pounds apiece. My wool socks were like a sponge, and every time I took a step, the air pushed water out of my shoes causing bubbles to come out of my shoes.
My kids communicated with me that night, and plenty of people sent me birthday congratulations. It was a wonderful day.

Pain, People, Stuff

What I learned in the first six days that I’d never learned in my 64 years came at dinner in a town called Puenta la Reina. I met a wonderful family, yes, a family. I was staying at the Hotel Rural Bidean, which offered rooms upstairs and a restaurant downstairs. It was about five hours after my arrival, and I had visited the local grocery store and purchased some salami, apples, and oranges for the next day and then had taken a hopping stroll—hopping because my Achilles was killing me—to the local farmers market and then back to the hotel. Around dinnertime, around 8:00 pm, I went downstairs and ordered a huge salad and some pasta, my favorite go-to meal on the trip.

Across from my table was a very nice, young-looking woman who said, “Where are you from?” Well, I gave my typical answer of Alaska, and the next thing you know, her chair was turned my way and her friend now had to share her discussion with me. My one table now had three people. She was a fascinating woman from South Africa now living in London, and we shared stories while I ate my salad. The next thing I know, she was saying that she was with the loud group over there in the corner. Well, three minutes later, that loud group came our way and introduced themselves. They were from Australia and having a ball on this trip. These individuals were supporting a young lady named Tessa with cerebral palsy who was making the 500-mile journey in a special wheelchair. The charity, OG Cool Kids, was run by a man named Kristian whose sister and mother were also disabled. The parents of Tessa, Susan and Brendan, were right there and smiling along with Tessa, telling me about their experiences but seemingly much more interested in me. This wonderful charity and Tessa’s humble family were providing Tessa a dream of a lifetime.

Soon the group of six grew to 10, and as I sat and listened to their stories, I noticed the crowd around us had grown. The crowd was pulling up a chair and adding tables to the already elongated table. This crowd, I would soon learn, was not a crowd but the new family to this wonderful family, the wonderful family that would be known as Team Tessa. And each time I saw Tessa on the trail, there would be many enthusiastic individuals with her, all wanting to be part of Team Tessa. All of us want a place in life where everybody knows our name, where we are missed, where we know someone cares. This group was the Cheers TV series team, and everybody when they were around Team Tessa felt like Norm. We were instantly all friends. The truth is, aside from the family I naturally have and those I’ve met in the Army, I’ve never felt so accepted and been so welcomed so soon by any group of people. We talked for hours, and to this day we still communicate on WhatsApp. No doubt in my mind we will see each other again.
As we indulged in our meal, Tessa’s father, Brendan, came and sat next to me. This was one of those meals where after everyone ate their main dish it was like musical chairs or speed dating. One of the topics Brendan and I discussed was something he learned from a veteran of the Camino during his journey. Keep in mind we all were still working on the first 100 miles of a 500-mile trek, and so we had a long way to go. He said that people on the Camino, regardless of the path, go through three cycles. I interrupted and wrongly blurted out, “Oh yeah, body, mind, and soul,” because the books I read all stated that. He said, “Well, that may be, but the old timer told me it’s pain, people, and stuff.” Brendan said, “As you continue on the Camino, everyone goes through the dilemma of learning about pain, people, and stuff.”

He went on to talk about the difficulty of the first part of the journey we all completed of climbing the Pyrenees and other challenges, the pain we felt in our bodies, and how we learned to deal with it. As he talked, my mind wandered internally to better understand how what he was discussing pertained to me. I’ve kind of dealt with pain all my life, but this journey was one of being out there instilled in physical pain while navigating the many roads of emotional pain. This was a journey that physical pain started from day one. The only thing that took the physical pain away from one location of my body was more pain somewhere else. Every day my body felt pain. What I found that frankly surprised me is that going downhill was a lot harder than going uphill. On the emotional side, I was dealing with separation, one of being lonely, one of being deliberately used by others. I was fighting the empathetic “oh me, oh well” victimhood that we all go through. Then I realized it was my choice to be there and there are others in similar or worse situations, and then I realized why God put me there.

Brendan continued discussing people, how we are all different yet want similar things. Our language doesn’t separate us, but our caring glues us together. We all were in this journey together. Yes, it’s our Camino, but we are together. His discussion reminded me of a lesson I learned from a preschool teacher who shared what her school principal told her on her first day of work. The principal said, “As you go through teaching, there will be days when you don’t like some kids, but just understand, there will never be a day when you don’t love them.” As he continued to talk about the people he met, I thought, I must have met people from 20 to 30 countries so far along the journey, some for as short as 10 minutes and others for much longer, and each one was someone I would allow into my home. Each one greeted me with a smile, saying, “Buen Camino,” and I’d just say, “How are you? How are you doing?” We always checked on one another. Ah, people, we are all so different, yet by taking this journey we realize how to better deal with one another and understand that in the end we are pretty much the same. Ironically, I ran into 12 people on the trail who were from Alaska, three from the same area I grew up in. What great individuals, what a wonderful world.

Then Brendan brought up my most annoying topic: stuff. I say “stuff” because I immediately thought about my backpack being too heavy and how much unnecessary stuff I brought. Spoiler alert, I had five pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, three pairs of pants, two space blankets, and three shirts that I never even used in the 32 days, because there were sufficient laundry facilities along the way. Talk about being a bit pissed at myself for all the extra weight, well, I was mad. But the stuff he was talking about was not that. The stuff he was discussing was the fact all of us have too much shit, period. He didn’t say it like that, of course, but that’s what his interpretation of the old timer’s comments meant. So, my bifurcated mind immediately went to not only what I carry on this journey but also what I own and what I carry emotionally. I was guilty of having too much stuff. I quickly solved the baggage issue by shipping my excess stuff ahead via a taxi service while on the Camino, taking my backpack down to about 25 pounds. I just wish I could have done the same with the things I own and my emotional baggage. It was stuff in my mind, and it was stuff at home. At that point, about day six or eight, I was determined to get rid of my shit. I was doing a good job unloading it on the trail, the emotional and nonmaterial stuff.

When I tuned back in, he was telling me the story of a young woman, about 26 years old, who he and his family met along the trail who was from the Netherlands. I don’t want to repeat her story, but the bottom line is she had sold everything she had, and everything she owned was on her back. I thought, she is fucking brilliant. I wish I was that smart. Brendan and I ended our first discussion; trust me he and I had many discussions over the weeks to come. His wisdom, his caring, his character were apparent, and I had made a wonderful friend.

The next day, and I would honestly say since that day, all I’ve thought about was pain, people, and stuff. I’ve since unloaded a significant amount of my emotional pain and learned how to deal with physical pain. Instead of asking the doctor what my pain is, I now ask my doctor, “Is it cancer?” and “Will the pain get worse?” As long as the answer to both those questions is no, I leave her office with a smile. When it comes to people, I smile a lot more. I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt, I’m initiating a smile to those I don’t know. I’m now calm with the understanding that those I meet in the grocery store are really the same people I met on the trail, they all share the common denominator of good.

When it comes to stuff, my problem was always emotional issues. The backpack was easy to fix, but worrying about things I couldn’t change was like pulling a 747 by hand—I just couldn’t do it. So, I’ve adapted to if I can’t change it, why worry about it? I also decided to start getting rid of shit. I’m now focused on being like that 26-year-old with a backpack. I mean, what do I have to lose?

Lesson #3: We Are All Where We Need to Be

I Say a Little Prayer

God works in mysterious ways. As I trekked through the whole journey, probably on the fourth day out, the heat started hitting me. It was probably 80, 85, or 86 degrees when the heat was at its highest. It started out at 50 degrees in the morning, but the sun came out and you started to try to get the hard part of your trip done early. Then the last part you finished at about 1:00 or 2:00 pm, and it’d be kind of hot out. So, this was, I think, an 18-mile day for me. So, I was on about mile six and trucking fine. No issues. I came up on this hill, and I didn’t think anything of it. I saw a stand with tables set up like bingo tables, and they had fruit and some coffee on them, and a little donation sign was out. You saw this quite a bit on the trail from locals who catered to the pilgrims.
So, I stopped and purchased an orange and an apple from her. As I looked around, I noticed that up on a hill behind her stand, there were some lounge chairs set up. So, I went up and sat on a lounge chair, and as I sat and bit into my apple in the shade, I noticed there were speakers around me playing soft music. How relaxing. Well, as I sat in one of those soft chairs, chairs so soft they engulfed me, I thought about my mom and dad, how they would never do a journey like this, and what they would think about me sitting in the middle of Spain, on a Sunday in the 80-degree heat, on a hill. Then the song in the background was by an artist my mom loved; it was “I Say a Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin. I just said, “This is where I need to be.” It was a Sunday, and I was somewhere between Puente La Reina and Estella in Spain, and it was where I needed to be. I was just so blessed to have that ability to stop, close my eyes, and listen to Aretha sing a prayer for me, a prayer that my dad and mom wished for me as they sit in as I went through this journey. I know everyone there heard it, and we’re all praying for each other.

The Journey Is the Reward

As I ended the trek coming into the town of Santiago, one of the handmade signs I spoke of earlier said, “The journey is the reward.” That’s the title of this whole thing. The journey is the reward. Sometimes we forget when we go on different tracks or to a place that getting there is sometimes more prosperous than when you get there. Personally, I treasure the time shopping for others during Christmas, I treasure the slow plane flight as I wind through the canyons of Colorado enroute to a mountain destination. As I look at the 500 miles I completed and hear the questions from others that commonly start off with “Would you do it again,” I smile, talk about my pain, and then say, “You’re damn right I would.” I never want that journey to end!