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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

February 28
Day 1: St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, 31km/19m

I burrowed all night and managed to not just stay warm, but also get some restful sleep. Most of the pilgrims had departed by the time I was up and alert and ready to go. I was lingering, waiting for my PA (Polish Angel) to get ready. The idea of starting alone was daunting to me so I asked if he wanted to walk together.

He struggled to hoist his bag onto his back. Not wanting to lift it from the floor, he heaved it onto his bed, put his arms through the straps and stumbled like a weightlifter to straighten his knees. How much did it weigh? I wondered. Sixty pounds? Eighty pounds?

More than three feet of snow had fallen on the mountain, and to walk the preferred path was to risk your life, we were told. Instead of crossing the mountain, we would be forced to walk around it (at least the peak of it). I quickly decided that what I most needed was a view OF the mountain rather than a view FROM the mountain.

We left the refuge together in the light of early morning, and I saw St. Jean Pied de Port for the first time. So beautiful. So European. The trickling water, the crisp air, the ancient stone buildings at the edge of the river Nive. A bridge arched over the water. The white-capped mountain towered beyond. Snow had piled up in doorways and blanketed the pathways. It was hard to be in such a postcard-perfect locale without taking any time to explore it. It was the sort of place that was meant to be discovered, and yet I had merely crashed there for the night.

My PA and I passed quickly through the city and began, at first, to follow the road. We had 2 km of pavement before we could veer off onto the pathway that traversed alongside it. I knew that the pounding would accumulate quickly and begin to take its toll on my feet and body, so I pulled out my trekking poles, something I’d never used before. I’d read that they could absorb 25% or more of the impact of walking. The metal tips struck the pavement, tapping out a rhythm and marking each footstep. It was odd using them like this—on flat ground—but I was willing to accept any help I could get.

It wasn’t long before we saw the way markings—shells and arrows—leading us off the road and into the countryside. The way markings would be, that first day and for the next month, the sight of happiness.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 4, 2005
Day 5: Puente la Reina to Irache, 30 km/18.6 m

Much as I begrudged my Italian Shepherd, he got up every few hours through the night to tend the fire and make sure our clothes were dry by morning. And because he left the door open, it also kept us somewhat warm.

And yet I still didn’t want to walk with him. Thankfully, he’d packed up and left the room without me. But when I exited the dorm, I found him sitting in the common room waiting. And I had to tell him again that I needed to walk alone. He set out reluctantly without me. But I was walking with him anyway, in my mind, and following his footsteps. I could see them in the snow, and they provided me comfort. There was a detour written in Spanish, which I couldn’t fully understand. So without his footprints, I would have felt lost. My Italian Shepherd was the one who marked the way for me. And I struggled with him again. Who am I, and who do I want to be? I kept asking myself. Do I want to be someone who embraces and includes and loves… or am I someone who berates and tosses aside the needs of others? Once again, I was lost between my needs and the needs of others. It went for miles unresolved. Do I waste energy on fighting him or can I simply accept what comes? I didn’t have any answers. There was only the trail ahead. With his footsteps guiding me.


I climbed up to some mountain peak a few miles past Puente la Reina, and when I looked back, I saw the snow-covered countryside and, way off in the mountains, the windmills. I couldn’t believe I’d come that far. Just the day before I was at those windmills, which now seemed miles away. But more than the distance, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. Especially the snow. It was the snow that made every day seem so picturesque and so different. I was grateful for it all.

I kept debating the reasons I might have undertaken the trek but looking at those windmills gave me a sense of purpose. Maybe the trip was simply about marveling—at what I’ve endured, at where my roads have taken me, at forward progress despite what may sometimes feel like inertia. Walking 500 miles is kind of a crazy thing, I thought. But if I can do this and maintain my sense of happiness and presence—being present with being here—if I can every day endure physical pain and difficult conditions and still make progress and still feel full, then that’s all I think I’ll ever need to accomplish.

I thought about Shirley MacLaine. And the star system that follows the Camino along the Milky Way. I thought about the time-intensive act of physically taking each step, and taking each step on that particular earth, under those particular stars and that particular sky, at exactly that moment. And even though I was reaching to the past, to the moment when Shirley MacLaine saw what I was seeing, and even though I glimpsed the feet of a million pilgrims backward and forward through time, I was firmly rooted in the here and now. Past, future and present converged in an instant, all of them interconnected, all of them accessible at every moment. In fact, as I write this on September 7th of 2011, I find myself able to slip back to that moment, to that spot of earth, to that feeling of the entire world contained inside of me. All those spiritual ideas I’d studied—that there’s no separation between you and me and God, that there’s no time—it all made total sense. I am every moment. I am every person. And this world is a shared event.
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