Among the many stories of those who have walked the Camino de Santiago, that path in Spain that pilgrims have walked since the Middle Ages, is my own. Much of my story is shared by many and not so unusual; however, there is one particular occurrence in mine that I believe to be quite unusual and for me, rather embarrassing, almost shameful. I will share it here. The surprise is revealed in Part II.
The beginning: In 2016, approaching my seventieth birthday, I decided I wanted to do something rather spectacular, certainly different from any earlier adventures. After reading a lot about the Camino and not being particularly athletic, other from enthusiastically rowing as part of the Gloucester Gig Rowers, I decided that I wanted to train for, then walk part of the Camino, specifically the last hundred kilometers. I wanted to carry my own pack, walk what I could each day, and spend each night at a hostel, having a shared dinner with other pilgrims. This would mean having an openness to the weather, my body, and its capabilities and not committing to a particular distance or hostel until the end of each day. There were many stories about hostels not being particularly clean or comfortable, others about luxurious accommodations requiring reservations, and everything in-between. I wanted to aim for the in-between, knowing there would be a certain amount of risk.
On the conference call of my 69th birthday (this was pre-Zoom) with three special friends, I announced this decision, inviting them to also walk the Camino when I did. The reactions were mixed, as I was planning to retire soon, while they were each to continue working. Among the challenges facing us were settling on a departure date, the length of our overseas stay, and which level of accommodations we wanted. From the start, I emphasized that we could make different choices and still walk the Camino at the same time.
Planning: During the next year, we held several conference calls to discuss possibilities and constraints. We were not in agreement about one particular issue — the level of accommodations. Others expressed interest in hiring a company that would transport our bags and reserve higher end accommodations. To me, this defeated the primary challenges of the trip — full openness to each day, carrying my own baggage, and allowing each night’s lodging to happen by chance. Yes, I would be risking comfort and perhaps a bit of safety, but for me, this was to be a spiritual adventure, not a vacation.
Our planning continued and included a rendezvous for the purpose of buying the right walking shoes and other equipment that we would need. We met in Pennsylvania, lived in different states (North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts,) and had traveled together for 35 years to each other’s homes, plus to Alaska, Puerto Rico, England, and many beaches. We were used to traveling together and had worked through many of our differences. Two of us were early risers and the other two liked to sleep in, so we early risers often quietly left the others to walk, explore, and bring back coffee to the sleepyheads.
When we reached the point of making reservations and a commitment, the three others each wanted to hire a company to carry our bags and make high-end reservations, eliminating the need for any risk of discomfort. For me, that choice also eliminated my primary challenge of the expedition. However, I went along with it and sent in my share of the expenses, more than a thousand dollars for two weeks. I had retired in June and would be staying longer than the others and would make other plans for my last week there alone.
One point of contention was that I did not have a smartphone, so could not text. We had agreed that we might not all walk at the same pace and they wanted to have a way to know I was all right. So, as a concession, I sought out an application for my iPad that would allow the equivalent of texting.
My individual planning involved creating a walking plan for a six-month period of increasing miles, first without carrying anything, carrying an empty backpack, then gradually adding weight to it until I was carrying the maximum weight I expected to carry on the walk. I think that was about twenty pounds and included the clothing I would need for the two weeks of hiking, requiring daily washing out of socks and underwear. Among the pleasures of this preparatory work was the occasional inquiry from someone who saw my walking and asked about it.
My Decision: I agonized about giving up what I most wanted from this special trip, choosing being together with these special friends over my inner-most desire. We were to meet at Logan Airport in Boston, each of the others flying from their locations first.
Finally, the night before our flights I made my final decision. I called each of them, individually, to explain that I’d decided to spend the first night in Spain with them, as planned, then to walk on my own, carrying my own backpack, and determined by how my body felt, when to stop walking for that day, and secure a hostel for the night. I expected that perhaps by halfway or more, I would rejoin them and spend the last few days with them. I knew that I was disappointing them, but experienced enormous relief, as I was deciding to be true to myself. These calls were difficult; each friend heard me, then said good night, knowing we’d see each other at the airport. Still, I didn’t really know how they felt about my decision.
Conclusion, including startling surprise, to come next week in Part II.
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