First Adventure In My New Boots

In November, I got to take my new boots out for a spin. One of my friends in Chicago has a yearly hike around his birthday, and a bunch of my group of friends get together to spend a day in nature. Of course, our version of a nature hike includes wine, snacks, enough chattering to scare away the wildlife, and typically at least one stupidity-induced injury. In short, it’s not exactly serious, but it is a lot of fun.

The friend who puts all of this together, Nate, is an architectural history enthusiast, and when I lived in Chicago, we’d regularly go and explore cemeteries and old historic sites together. I was so happy to have my monthly work trip up to Chicago coincide with his birthday hike, since he always picks somewhere interesting to go. What’s great about hanging out with Nate is that he’s able to find the historic gem in the middle of the most banal setting. For instance, the following pictures are from Red Gate Woods, a forest preserve in Lemont, IL. I found out during our hike that it was the site of Site A & Plot M – the world’s first nuclear reactor (and subsequent disposal area).

One of the nature trails in Red Gate Woods.

One of the nature trails in Red Gate Woods.

Nate at the Site A marker.

Nate at the Site A marker.

A close up of the marker.

A close up of the marker.

Most of the trail was in the woods, but there were some open areas, too. Plenty of prairie grass here.

Most of the trail was in the woods, but there were some open areas, too. Plenty of prairie grass here.

Do Not Dig. Seriously, don't do it. You won't like the results.

Do Not Dig. Seriously, don’t do it. You won’t like the results.

We found a pond near sunset. It was frozen over enough that some of us (not me - I'm not crazy) were able to walk out onto the ice.

We found a pond near sunset. It was frozen over enough that some of us (not me – I’m not crazy) were able to walk out onto the ice.

The day was perfect, and my boots did their job perfectly. By the end they were caked in mud from the trail, but throughout the course of the day I was able to try them for extended periods on asphalt, gravel, grass, dirt, and mud. They were warm and waterproof, and I think they’re going to do me well on The Camino!

Chelle & The Shell

shutterstock_223506559

Today’s Daily Post prompt is pretty interesting. It also happens to intersect perfectly with the Camino-related topic that has been weighing heavily on my thoughts for the last few days. The prompt asks us to discuss the person in our inner circle of friends/relatives who is most unlike us, and what we think makes it possible for us to get along.

For me, the answer is pretty simple, since one of my best friends in the world is pretty much my polar opposite. Rachelle and I met during our freshman year of college. She lived in the room across the hall, which she had to herself for most of the year after her roommate quit school a month or two into the first semester. Behaviorally, Chelle was (and is) about as different from me as someone can get – extroverted, loud, outspoken, and somewhat argumentative. OK, really argumentative, but only in a fair way. Do NOT say something stupid around her, unless you feel like getting verbally eviscerated in the next five minutes or less.

Culturally, Chelle and I were from two different worlds. She was from the San Francisco Bay Area, and loved what I then deemed “fancy” food (sushi and complicated coffee drinks were top on the list). I’m from a tiny, hick town in North Carolina, and until I moved to New Orleans, the majority of my diet had been fried or out of a can, or both. She’s Jewish, and oldest of five kids. I’m pagan, and an only child. She did pretty terribly in high school, grade wise, but had excelled in extracurriculars and student government. I graduated seventh in my class, hid out in the yearbook classroom or AFJROTC class to avoid other kids, and was captain of the Quiz Bowl team from sophomore year until I graduated. She got an allowance, and I worked two jobs to put myself through school. When we first met, my first impression was of a bossy, privileged loudmouth. Luckily, we were both intrigued with how alien the other seemed to be.

After I got to know her a bit, I realized that half of the things I was a little wary of were actually awesome. I’m extremely introverted, but her extreme extroversion means that she can a) go out and make me friends without me having to do anything (win!), and b) not be offended if I’m not feeling that talkative. She’s not a soul sucker like a lot of extroverts, either – she has a great way of realizing when you’re overwhelmed and slowing down and moving at your pace, even though her pace is like a million miles an hour. She’s bossy, but she never tries to steer a conversation or outing without making sure that everyone’s happy, making her a great natural leader and planner. Plus, she’s always upbeat and positive, meaning we work really well together to come up with solutions to problems, since neither of us gives up (if you’ve ever watched Parks and Rec, you can just think of us as Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins). Chelle’s enthusiasm and global outlook got me introduced to a lot of new foods and ideas pretty early in my college career, which only helped to expand my horizons. She’s probably part of the reason that I got so into traveling. In turn, I helped introduce her to what life in the South was like. I can’t actually look at that as a positive, but it must have helped a bit since she’s now living in TN with a husband and a family of four (see, I said we were totally different).

So how does Rachelle fit into my Camino journey? First off, she’s one of my favorite people to talk to about spiritual stuff. She’s deeply interested in her religion, and enthusiastic to share, but she’s also really open-minded. Like me, she loves nothing more than a good chat about spiritual paths, whether that’s finding out about someone else’s religion, comparing practices, or discussing new ideas about how to lead more fulfilling spiritual lives. She’s very active in her synagogue, and often goes to dinner with her rabbi and his wife. I wish I could sit in on their debates, instead of waiting around to hear about them afterwards!

Additionally, one of the things that makes Rachelle such a great planner is her skill with budgeting (which is definitely not my strong point). She’s got two sets of twins, so she has to really make every penny count now, but really, she’s been great at stretching her cash since we met at 18. When it crossed my mind the other day that I should really start putting together a budget for my pilgrimage, one of my first thoughts was that I should try to channel Rachelle’s budgeting energy…but I’ll probably just call her up in a week or two and see if she has any pointers.

For right now, I’m doing what has traditionally helped me with budgeting for bills and paying of credit cards – starting with an Excel file. I’m going to price out all of the gear that I know I’ll need, plus plane tickets, food, auberges, emergency funds, and enough money to cover all of my bills back home while I’m away. Gee, that sounds scary already. Then, my next step will be setting up a goal in Mint.com, and figuring out how much I should be saving per month between now and then to reach my goal. Guess I should finally pick a travel date, huh?

Oh man, I should really call Chelle.

A Prayer for Exhaustion

It’s funny how the Daily Post keeps giving us perfect prompts for a chat about The Camino. Today, for instance, we’re asked to discuss our sleep habits – something that has been particularly troubling me regarding this pilgrimage. You see, I have a great deal of trouble nodding off, and even more staying asleep. I sleep best alone, in a dark, quiet room, which is going to be an issue on the road.

Along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, peregrinos have a few different choices for accommodation. There are alburgues, which are basically hostels for pilgrims; guest houses or rented rooms; hotels;  or, for those rugged, outdoorsy types, tents. Most towns offer some variation on one or all of these (except for tents – that’s something you need to bring along), but when it comes down to money, most people agree that alburgues give you the best bang for your buck.

The typical alburgue gives you a bed to sleep in, a place to shower, a communal kitchen, a clothes line to hang up your washing, and if you’re lucky, you might even get a washing machine to do the washing for you. Talk about height of luxury, right? All of these things sound great for the price – between 8 and 15 euros a night –  but there’s a downside for light sleepers. Sure, you get a bed, but you also get roommates – lots of them. And anyone who’s shared a room with one snorer/sleep-talker should be able to imagine the hell that is MULTIPLE snorers/sleep-talkers in the same tiny space, night after night.

There are solutions, though. Kinda. One thing that I already do is wear a sleep mask. I can’t stand any amount of light when I’m trying to nest, and for years I didn’t know this – I just thought that waking up four or five times a night was something I’d have to live with. One day, on a whim, I bought a silk sleep mask, and from that point forward I’ve only woken up once a night. One problem solved.

Everything I’ve read thus far about loud sleepers on The Camino has mentioned that ear plugs are a great way to get some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, I have weirdly-shaped ears or something. I can only wear one kind of headphones – the flat, disc-like earbuds that are getting phased out by those stupid, long, rubbery ones that everyone seems to love. The latter pop out of my ears in no time flat, so I guess one day I’ll have to move on to huge, retro headphones that make my ears hot – blech. Anyway, this same issue translates to ear plugs, and I’ve never been able to make the plugs stay in my ears for any length of time, despite squeezing them into tiny little logs and shoving them all the way in. They just keep growing like Play Doh noodles and eventually pop out. So uncool.

But there’s another solution. An expensive one, but probably the one I’ll have to go with. I’ve heard that for people who have trouble with ear plugs, the silicone ones made for swimmers are a safe and comfortable bet. They’re much more pricey, but it seems worth a try. The other option is to have ear plugs specially made to fit your ears, which will be my last resort.

Do I need them, though? Will I be so exhausted after 15 to 20 miles’ walk each day that my traveling companions’ sleep habits won’t even phase me? Or will I be the culprit, annoying the shit out of would-be sleepers? As much as I’d love to pretend that I’m a petite flower, I’m SO not. If I’m having even a touch of sinus trouble – which happens every time I go to Europe, without fail – I’ll definitely be snoring. Even worse, the last time I was sick in Europe, I ended up moaning through the night every night. My two best friends were with me, and still laugh (woefully) about not getting to sleep since I was bitching in my dreams all night long.

There’s this really funny part in the The Way, My Way, where author Bill Bennett recounts his first night in an alburgue, and getting accustomed to all of the night sounds. After what he considers a sleepless night, he thinks it’s only fair to inform one of his roommates that she snores, so that she can warn others along the way. He tells her as politely as he can, only to have everyone in the room give him a dirty look – first, for being so forward about calling a fellow traveler out on a common issue, but more importantly, because HE was the one snoring loudest all night and keeping the rest awake! I have a not-so-secret fear that this will be me, so I guess the last thing to bring along (just in case) are some snore strips. I’d hate to alienate potential friends – or get smothered to death in my sleep by the roommate who loses it, lol.

Footloose, Fancy-Free…Fashionable?

Yeah...no.

Yeah…no.

Here’s a confession: I have no clue what to wear on The Camino. Sure, I know the basics, like sturdy boots, a warm, waterproof jacket, breathable shirts, convertible pants/shorts, and thick wool socks, but I’ve never purchased any serious outdoorsy gear. Hiking and camping aren’t really huge pastimes here in New Orleans, and the last time I went on a “hike” I lived in Chicago, wore sneakers, and brought along a couple of bottles of wine for the journey. With pretty much zero experience and a seemingly endless array of different Camino forums and camping websites, option paralysis has already taken hold. When it comes to putting together my all-star list of perfect pilgrimage duds, I’m feeling pretty lost.

My rational side tells me that this is all a bit of a gamble, and that I should try my best to not get bogged down in the details. Things that matter: weight, waterproofing, temperature control, long term comfort, injury prevention. Things that don’t matter: color, attractiveness, current trends.

In the end, I’ll probably make some sacrifices on both sides of the coin. For instance, I know I won’t be comfortable wearing a dark jacket. What if I fall down a cliff and the rescue team can’t see me? So I’ll be looking for a combination of performance and obnoxious color – preferably magenta, since it makes me happy. I’m also thinking of trying to find minimalist hiking boots, which will probably come across as a tad trendy to most people. However, I love walking in minimalist shoes, and my hips and back feel a lot better since I stopped using shoes with extraneous cushioning, so in that case trend and performance are on equal ground.

Socks, as small a purchase as they are, are one of the most important choices I’ll have to make. Blisters can slow you down, or even end your pilgrimage, and I am notoriously prone to blisters on the tops of my toes and backs of my heels. There are methods to avoid this, like rubbing Vicks Vaporub on your feet each day before donning socks, but your choice of socks is still key to preventing foot injury on the trail.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten as of now, other than discovering that there are about a million and one choices for everything on my list, and all of them have pros and cons. In the end, I’m going to have to start trying things out, one at a time. I’m going to probably spring for boots and pack first, so I can practice and wear them (and myself) in. Everything else will have to happen a piece at a time, so I guess I’d better get started comparing reviews, huh?

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Spanish Lessons For The Road

Image via Brahmaloka or Bust.

Click through to read “The Yoga of Learning a Language” on Brahmaloka Or Bust.

Here’s a dirty little secret – I don’t speak a second language. It’s a shameful thing to admit, but thus far it hasn’t terribly affected my ability to travel and explore other countries on my own. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in places where people don’t speak English, and aside from a few rough moments (like trying to get my hair styled in a tiny Croatian town, or trying to find the nearest train station in Bratislava), I’ve been pretty lucky. There was the run-in with the knife-wielding, potentially deranged guy in Paris, but that was less about not speaking French than not spotting the nuances of insanity right off the bat.

This moderate success at travel in the past is probably why I’m being kind of lazy about learning Spanish in preparation for my pilgrimage. Well, that and the knowledge that lots of other pilgrims travel without a great command of Spanish and live to tell the tale. There will be thousands (or at least hundreds) of other people on The Camino when I walk it, after all, and I’m bound to meet other people who speak English. There’s a saying that The Camino will provide; I’m just hoping it provides me with a translator.

But therein lies the rub. If I fail to learn at least a little bit of some other language (aside from the minimal German I currently own, which mostly boils down to ordering beer and saying “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” – all extremely useful, but not so much in Spain), I’m going to be just one more jerk American who can’t be bothered to be a world citizen. I really don’t want to be that person. That person sucks.

I’ve just never been that good at languages, though. I took Spanish all through high school and have no recollection of more than the very basics like “water” and “bathroom” (as well as, oddly, how to order fish at a restaurant). In college, I took Latin and all but failed out every semester. The primary reason that I didn’t move further with my studies in medieval history after undergrad was that I’d have to learn Italian, German, and French to even apply to grad school, which for me, both then and now, is a completely incomprehensible goal.

I will admit that the one language I’d desperately love to learn is Italian. I adore Italy. It’s not a romantic thing – though it is an undeniably romantic place. It’s the fashion, the architecture, the lifestyle, and those beautiful Italian men, so quick to flirt, so deliciously unreliable. (OK, so maybe it’s just a little bit about the romance.) Since I plan to make a quick pit stop in Umbria before heading off to Spain, maybe I should learn Italian, too…

In all seriousness, though, I’ve been studying a little bit of Spanish and German over the last couple of months using a great free website/app called Duolingo. If you haven’t tried it out yet, I’d definitely recommend signing up now. It’s a fun way to pick up some vocabulary and test out your skill in both reading and speaking other languages. But I’m not convinced that I’ll become adept at conversational Spanish with solo online study, so I’ll probably end up joining a Meetup group to chat en español over coffee.

Did you walk the Camino without learning Spanish first? Weigh in here on how it worked out for you!

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Your Backpack Is A Portable Laundry Line: Washing Clothes on the Camino

CroatianLaundry

Laundry on a line in Split, Croatia; photo by Anna Harris (2012).

One of the things I’ll have to get used to while walking the Camino is wearing the same thing, day after day. It’s advised that your pack only be about 10% of your body weight, which currently puts my pack’s ideal weight at about 15 lbs. I plan on hiking as lightly as possible, which should mean two changes of clothes, max.

As you might imagine, wearing the same thing every day is not only boring, but also potentially stinky, especially when you’re walking between 15 and 20 miles per day. From what I’ve been reading, there are opportunities to wash and dry clothing in machines once a week or so. In some cases, it’s even possible to have your laundry done for you. However, it seems that many people end up hand washing essential pieces in the afternoon after a day’s walk, then hanging them out to dry on a laundry line at their alburgue (a type of hostel along the Camino). Another option is to hang smaller wet clothes, like socks, on the back of your backpack as you walk the next day.

I hate washing clothes. Even with the modern convenience of a washer and dryer in my apartment, I still put off washing clothes until I’ve run out of all of my favorite t-shirts. More than just washing clothes, I especially hate hand washing clothes. I like soaping and rinsing them, but I really dislike wringing them out. When I was a girl, still living at home, one of my chores was to do all of the laundry, even when our washing machine died and this meant washing everyone’s clothes by hand. It’s just not something I ever want to do again, and I try to avoid buying delicate clothing as a result.

As lame as it may sound, I think this might be a small issue on the trip. Will I just deal with it, and hand wash when needed? Probably. Or will I hold out until the last minute, desperately hoping to run into a washing machine in the next town over? Well, there’s a good chance I might do this for awhile, too. One way or the other, it’s sure to be an adventure.

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