Six Ways to Santiago

I’ve been thinking about the Camino today. I’m sure that’s no surprise to you. It’s another 9+ months until I leave the country and start the longest walk of my life. The magnitude of this step has got me pondering a lot of things about my life, you know?

I wonder about the choices I’ve made. The missteps on the road, the detours and the fast tracks. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But how do I know when to take the long way home?

Tonight I watched a documentary called Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. The documentary follows a number of pilgrims along The Way, as they struggle with physical pain and emotional/mental burdens from their lives in the “outside world”. It captures the way each peregrino and peregrina overcome their various stumbling blocks. One of the pilgrims mentions that people have told her that the Camino will answer her question, but that she’s realized she never thought of what question to ask. Another pilgrim takes note of all of the simple beauty she has been blessed with, from wildflowers to raindrops.

I identified with both women. I love details. I look for the little things, and try to stay mindful of the moments of beauty I’m given each day. But I also have a fear that I’m not asking the right questions, that I’m missing some important lessons because I’m so focused on the small stuff that the big picture escapes me.

But there’s time to figure it out. Another pilgrim mentioned that he believed the Camino de Santiago was really just a detour from the bigger Camino – our lives. I tend to agree. Today I’m trying to hold on to the idea that THIS is my journey.

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

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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 Traveling Companion

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Today’s Daily Post prompt was just too good to pass up, especially since it touches on something I was thinking about just yesterday. In the prompt, we’re asked to describe what we’d do if we walked into a new friend’s house, only to find that it was decorated exactly the same as our own, down to the books and art. Would we be creeped out to happen upon this design doppelganger? Would we be excited to stumble across a kindred spirit?

First off, I’ve gotta tell you that this has actually already happened to me in real life – or about as close as any of us is liable to experience. Prior to my freshman year in college, the school assigned roommates at random. My roommate Trinity and I exchanged one letter prior to moving into the dorm, but it was very formal – no photographs, or friendly information exchange. Just some “pleased to meet you” & “hope we can be friends” kind of stuff. Neither of us believed for a second that we’d actually like the person we’d be sharing a room with for the year. We just hoped that we would be able to ignore each other sufficiently.

When move-in day rolled around, as Trin and I started to unpack our books and bedspreads, a trend became apparent: we matched. All of our bedding was in the same color scheme. Our books were all in the same genres. She came with her stuffed teddy bear; I’d brought my velveteen rabbit. Her clothes were a little more skater chick, while I was a bit more goth/hippy (however that combination even happens, I don’t know), but that was basically all that differed even close to drastically. We even had the same lava lamp, red lava in yellow liquid, though mine had a silver base and hers was gold. From 1999 to today, we’ve gotten even closer, and after that year, we were roommates and/or housemates for almost a decade.

Trin’s one of my very best friends. She knows me more than most people, and we get along splendidly…most of the time. In fifteen years of friendship, the only time that I can remember being well and truly DONE with her is when we were traveling in Europe together. But like all good friends, we managed to hang in there until it was time to fly solo. We said goodbye in Venice, then went on to have great separate vacations that we could tell each other all about once we got back to the US. I learned an important lesson when I was traveling with Trin, though – as well-matched as you might be with your friends, friendship does not automatically make someone a great traveling companion.

I’ve traveled quite a bit in my short life. Not as much as a lot of luckier people, I’d guess, but much more than most people I’ve met. I’ve spent a bit of time in England, Ireland, Wales, France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Croatia, and got to walk around for a few hours in a handful of other countries, as well. There’s still so much more to be seen out there, and I’m not close to being done with exploring the world. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is the next big leg of my personal journey, and it’s a HUGE step for me. But what I’d really like is to be able to share it with someone.

What would I do if I stepped into a new friend’s house, and they had all of the same books and art? What would I do if I walked into someone’s home and it was obvious that they collected watercolors of European street scenes, and book after book on St. Francis and the Camino de Santiago de Compostela? I’d ask them if they’d gone on pilgrimage before. I’d ask them if they’d walked it alone, or found a friend who had their same pace somewhere along the Road. I’d ask them if it was lonely, or if walking alone was a blessing. I’d probably ask them if they fancied trying it again sometime.

One of the major things that you learn when you’re getting ready to head out from St. Jean Pied de Port is that you should walk at your own pace. Trying to keep up with faster walkers will increase your chances of hurting yourself. Slower walkers will slow you down. The point of the journey is to find yourself, and how can you be yourself while trying to match someone else? That being said, I’d still like to take to the Road with a traveling companion. I’ve thought about asking friends and family to go with me, but there’s no one that cares about this the way I do. It would be painful for both of us, but for different reasons. I can’t afford to lose a friend over this, but I also can’t afford to lose this over a friend. I’m just going to have to keep reminding myself that we can’t choose our own walking partner. The Camino chooses them for us.

One Foot In Front Of The Other

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless our walking is our preaching.” – St. Francis of Assisi

When I first started seriously considering going on pilgrimage, I made this silent agreement with myself that I would only approach the concept of the journey from a place of positivity. I guess that might sound strange – after all, what’s there to be negative about when you’re considering a soul-shaking adventure that promises to completely change the way you encounter the world from that point forward? Positivity wasn’t part of my grand plan; it wasn’t something that I carefully decided on and then tried hard to fulfill – being positive was just something that happened, then continued to happen. And now that I’m writing this blog post, I’m finding that indeed, I’ve been used to thinking about this trip in such glowing terms that it’s hard for me to put words to any underlying worries.

(Side note: Yay for positive thinking! It actually works! This is especially important since I’m generally kind of a realist in the day-to-day, definitely not anything near to being a Pollyanna.)

There comes a time, however, when you must confront potential issues, if just to work through them and visualize what your solutions might be should problems arise. For me, my greatest concerns about this trip have been focused on either side of the Atlantic: my cats’ wellbeing while I’m gone, and my physical stamina on The Camino. 

If you’ve ever read my other blog, Compass & Quill, you’ve probably seen me mention my two cats, Izzy and Munky, at least a few times. Though I wouldn’t go as far as some cat ladies and say that they’re “my life,” they are definitely my fur babies, and I love them. When you decide to share your home with another living creature that depends on you, there are always going to be some sacrifices made for their wellbeing. For instance, though I don’t always have the money to go to the doctor, they always get a yearly vet visit, stay current on their shots, and get the healthiest food I can afford. They make a mockery of my upholstered furniture, despite constant claw clipping, double-sided tape, pheromone spray to keep them from being stressed, and a dozen other tries at possible deterrence, but that doesn’t mean that I’d ever consider declawing them. And now they’re going to cost me a pretty penny for a pet sitter while I’m gone.

But even though I’ll most likely have at least a couple of people looking in on them on a regular basis during my absence, I still worry. Izzy is high strung and only likes one human – me. The last time I left for a couple of weeks, even though she had constant care and companionship, she still meowed herself hoarse at the door, waiting for my return. What’s she going to do when I’m gone for a month and a half? Luckily, Munky loves everyone. I doubt he’ll even notice that I’m gone as long as he’s still getting back rubs on a daily basis. But I’m afraid to think of the stress I’ll be putting poor Isabel under by being gone for an extended period. There’s no real solution, so I guess it’s really not something I should think about too much more. I’ll shower her with love for as long as I’m here, and I’ll make sure that their cat sitter is the best possible choice for a loving surrogate while I’m out of town. After that, it’s out of my hands.

The other thing that worries me is the physical toll of walking 500 miles. Unlike the cat situation, this is something for which I can prepare myself. However, much like the cat situation, no matter how much preparation I undergo, it is inevitable that there will be a considerable amount of pain involved. If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading so many Camino autobiographies, it’s that I will think that I’ve thought of every eventuality, but I’ll miss something. But the best I can do is try to go with the flow. Put in as much work as I’m capable of, then take my chances.

Right now, I’m walking about seven miles a day on average, with a 15 lb. backpack. I’m going to try to keep upping that number (pack and distance), until I’m closer to walking 10 miles a day with a 25 lb. pack. Hopefully that will negate some of the shock to my system when I kick things off in St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I’m also going to need to start doing some thorough stretching on a daily basis to try to get my hip and back pain under control prior to leaving. If anything has a real chance of sidelining me, it’s going to be hip/back/knee pain or a major blister. Unfortunately, I’m really prone to blisters, so I’m not sure if there’s much I can do to avoid them, other than properly breaking in my hiking boots, wearing good socks, applying some sort of non-chafing cream/lotion my feet every day, and bringing along plenty of bandaids and moleskin patches for hot spots. One thing I should be much more worried about, but am not letting bother me just yet, is the fact that there are no hills or mountains anywhere near my home in New Orleans, yet much of the terrain I’ll be covering in Spain is hilly or mountainous. The best I’ll be able to do is start walking at steep inclines on the treadmill, and hope that helps a little bit. Other than that, all I can do is put my boots on and just put one foot in front of the other, and trust that they’ll get me where I want to go in the end!

Have you had any worries about walking The Camino, or about leaving your life behind to go on pilgrimage? How did you address them?

Wants, Needs, Money, Travel

Hi there, lovelies. I’m back for good. So sorry to keep you waiting (those of you who care). I’ve been dealing with some serious doubts – in general worthiness, in the nature of my life’s path, in my ability to correctly assemble the puzzle pieces of this pilgrimage. I’m just starting to get a few things figured out, and as my life gets sorted, pilgrimage is sounding more and more like a real possibility.

Since leaving a long term relationship and moving on with my life five months ago, I’ve really been struggling financially. I’ve never doubted that I’d eventually be OK, but it’s been kind of scary to go from a life that to me seemed almost middle class (for the first time in my life – a nice apartment, a fridge stocked with food, a washer and dryer of my own, even a car to drive!) back down to where I was 8 years ago and before, living paycheck to paycheck, with no guarantee that there would be another paycheck to follow. Yes, I know that many of us live this way. It makes me feel spoiled to essentially complain about my life as it is right now when there are people living on the streets, but the mental stress of feeling like I could be living on the streets soon, too, is really getting to me. It’s not that dire of a situation – there’s always something to be done – but at some moments over the last few months, it’s definitely felt that way. I recently had to start selling off possessions on Craigslist to be able to buy groceries, and that was really scary.

I’ve also been through complete loss before, and know that I am strong enough to come out on top. I can’t get too down about not having money or things. I learned the hard way that the only things that hold true worth in this short earthly existence are all inside of you. Like many in this city, during Hurricane Katrina I lost everything I owned, and was cast adrift in the world with no income and very few possessions (one outfit, a couple of photo albums, my laptop, and my cat). My story wasn’t at all tragic compared to most, but I was still broken for a while. Thankfully, with the help of a few great friends who took me in and kept me from crying myself into an early grave, I managed to pick myself up and build a new, stronger, better life. Now I have all the faith in the world that I am built to weather through moments like this. Also, thanks to my friends’ examples, I’m now equipped to help other people float, too. One day I will. But first, I need just a bit more patching up.

So I’m getting ready to embark on the hardest journey yet – debt repayment. In order to start saving up again for the pilgrimage, I need to pay off the debt I accumulated in breaking free of my old relationship, as well as my taxes from last year, plus save up my taxes for this year (I’m a freelancer, which means that my income taxes aren’t automatically taken out of my paychecks). If I’m very, very good, I might even be able to realistically plan to go to Santiago de Compostela next summer or maybe next fall. It’s only a year, but it will most likely be a hard year as I learn to live simply after living what (to me, anyway) has been a life of stressful excess. I’ve already started lightening my load over the last few weeks by beginning to clean out my apartment, selling off the things that are worth a few dollars, giving away the things that would be too difficult to sell, and making tough decisions about all of the flotsam and jetsam I’ve accumulated over the years. Next up will be paring down my spending, while increasing my work hours substantially. I’m not excited about that part, but it will have to be OK.

Just think, in a year I could be boots on the ground in Spain!