Peeling back the onion on a once-in-a-lifetime experience is complicated. My husband and I returned from Spain two weeks ago and a common question is, “So, how was it?” My answer was never what I wanted, but what can you expect from a hallway conversation or brief encounter when you don’t know if they really want or are ready for a long-winded emotional reply?
This week the students where I work (IMSA) asked me to speak at “Minds on the Mike,” a Ted-talk-like event put on by Student Council. I was forced to sit down, reflect and articulate about what I’d say in my seven minutes and was able to boil it down to a few points.
THE FOUR P’S OF EL CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
Inspired to celebrate our milestone anniversary in a unique way, my husband and I started planning our trip to Spain to walk The Way of St. James (el Camino de Santiago) to count our blessings and ‘unplug’ from our daily lives. Equipment preparations for me began one year prior to departure, when I retired my external frame backpack used for Boy Scout High Adventure outings and purchased a new lightweight internal frame pack. Next came the light weight sleeping bag, waterproof pack cover, packable high performance clothing and so on. Steve took care of travel logistics (planes, trains, public transportation) and I found us a centrally-located hotel for our stay in Barcelona for our off Camino vacation. We allowed ourselves a very long planning period of over a year to assure we were ready.
The one part of preparation that really made a difference in the Camino experience was a distance walking program I developed. Our first walk (featured on the right) was 4 miles in early February, trudging through snow and cold. The past winter in Chicago was unforgiving; one could look at as an obstacle, but instead we viewed it as a field test for our outerwear and long underwear. Each weekend I would add one mile to our Saturday journey and then Sunday would be one mile less than Saturday – so 4/3 first weekend and 2 miles twice in the week, 5/4, 6/5 and so on until we hit 13/12 on the weekend and 6 miles in the week before we left in late April.
The one thing we couldn’t train properly for in Illinois was the hills and mountains. Somehow getting on a treadmill and tapping up the incline wasn’t quite the same and the Fox River bicycle trail (asphalt) couldn’t mimic trail conditions. The result was two major blessings: no blisters or injuries. Cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and mas pan “more bread” kept us going. Yes, preparation paid off.
An entire blog could feature the people we met on the Camino. When we didn’t get their name, one was made up for them that equated to the place they “are from” or some key feature: Jackson Hole, Señor Valencia and such. One person I want to talk about is featured on the photo with me and his name was Frederick (from Germany). We met Frederick well into our Camino at the end of day 5. I overheard him talking to some ladies in the lobby of our hotel about his Camino, which started 89 days ago in Germany. He was unfolding maps and routes and was so fascinating that I invited myself (and Steve) to share dinner with him that night.
Frederick was an older gentleman, probably mid to late 60’s, who is a semi-retired architect in Germany. He designs upscale residential homes and was on the Camino for holiday and for also design inspiration. As he ordered his fine bottle of wine, he exclaimed that “life is too short to drink cheap wine,” and then proceeded to share his wine with us. “I like this guy,” I remember thinking as I sipped in the good stuff. It was later that we also discovered that he battled a major health issue in 2012 and this Camino trip was both a health goal and celebration of life. Every person we met had different intentions for their Camino; the shell we lashed onto our backpacks was the outer sign of our inner Camino and bound us together as we greeted one another with “Buen Camino” (good road) while passing along the trail.
As a natural athlete and sprinter, the thought of someone passing me never sits well. Yes, you can say I’m completive, always. In fact, long races or endurance contests are not really my bag. Despite this, I love the cadence and peace of long distance walking. One thing I didn’t consider was that there would be many rates of pace along the Camino and I would need to deal with the fact with shorter legs and a longer torso, that I’m not a swift walker. My pace allowed me to stop and take pictures, smell the flowers and admire the countryside. But day one with more people passing me on foot and by bicycle, I had to resolve with myself that this was not a race; we all would reach the finish line at our own pace. Once I came to resolution with this, the walk was much more about finding my personal rhythm and less about what other people’s speed was. I also learned from a biker who hopped off his bike to walk with us for awhile, that biking the Camino may allow you to cover more miles per day (significantly), but that you don’t really “see” the beauty of the trail. He started getting off his bike to meet people and also to let the scenery go by more slowly. I’m sure the butt break was also most welcome. No, my pace was just fine, and 1,023 photos and video clips and six days later, we reached our designation of Santiago and celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday at the Cathedral at the Noon Pilgrim’s Mass.
There is plenty of time to reflect when you walk 120 km through the Spainish countryside. There were dozens of churches to pray in, and kilometer markers to count off, as well as a 3:00 pm alarm on Steve’s watch that were constant reminders and cause to pause to reflect. Steve and I had never been on a two week vacation together and being away alone for 15 days was a gift in itself. Our pilgrimage was one of celebration for our marriage, our family and the many blessings that envelope us daily. We also enjoyed and appreciated the history, architecture, culture, landscape and people that blended to form our own personal Camino pilgrimage.
Before departing, as part of preparations, blessings and intentions were gathered from friends and family and written down on a pocket-sized journal that I carried in my backpack. As I entered churches and walked along, I offered up these daily, frequently thinking about the people who entrusted them to me to be part of my pilgrimage. It was a privilege to carry these and offer them up at the cathedral in Santiago. Steve found a side chapel where a religious statue beckoned me to place the journal in a basket. Steve likes to think that the incense used in the swinging ball used in the Pilgrims’ Mass was composed of books like ours. Yes, I’m going with that idea.
Our Camino was an experience that I’m still unpacking (literally and figuratively) and will forever change how I view my journey through life. As Steve and I completed over 100 km, we were presented with our official certificates after presenting our credentials with stamps from the places we visited along our route that verified our accomplishment. As the women inked in my Latin name (Brigidam McKenna), I felt a sense of personal and spiritual accomplishment. I’ve also come to realize that we are all on Camino and just need to remember our credentials and clam shell to encourage others to join us. Life is good and I wish you a Buen Camino.