On Camino

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Life is really not all about swords, despite what you may think from my other blogs.  This spring, with the support and companionship of friends and family, I walked the Camino Primitivo in Spain.  In medieval clothes and shoes.  You know.  As one does.

Now first, I feel the need to tell you that yes, I am religious. I understand when people say ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ but that’s not enough for me, and I’ve always enjoyed the human pastimes of philosophy and theology almost as much as swordsmanship and role playing games, so walking across the mountains of northern Spain while discussing transubstantiation and immanence and the impact of Duns Scotus and Descartes on modern notions of God (when we had the breath to discourse at all, of course) was marvelous.

And so was prayer. (I have this picture of 200 people closing the browser window at this point). Hey, listen, in normal life, I pray… infrequently.  In Spain, my friend Elisabeth and I did compline most nights, and the rhythm of prayer was…remarkable.  And very Medieval. I managed Morning Prayer (I’m an Anglican of sorts) a few times, off my cell phone… not nearly as spiritual as reading the BCP.  At least, for me.

In addition, I prayed at a dozen or so wilderness chapels, every one of which resembled, to me, the various Arthurian ruined chapels where wandering knights find wise old hermits.  Some people in my group suggested that I was old enough to take on the job, which I guess would be flattering, except that I don’t feel particularly wise and I still like to fight in armour, but there’s another story.

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So, there was prayer.  But there was also fatigue.  The Camino Primitivo has daily elevation changes of almost 1000 meters, all told; the ups and downs are wearing, and the linear distances of 20-30 kilometers are wearing, too, especially in medieval shoes.  Hmm.  I’m not sure I mean that; my shoes were fine, and years of hiking in and out of the military have convinced me that ankle support is a myth, if your ankles are strong.

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And Medieval clothes are marvelous.  People kept asking us, as if we were very brave and super tough, if our clothes were hard to wear, and I’d always say ‘people actually lived in these clothes.’ One very nice couple actually became frosty when I suggested that my clothes were better adapted to the environment than theirs. But in fact… the hood is an incredibly useful garment; separate hose that can be rolled down are the most flexible legwear I’ve ever owned; it takes seconds to change the arrangement, unlike zip on trousers and other ‘outdoor’ wear offered by various outfitters.  Wool remains, to me, better than any modern ‘miracle’ fabric.  Ditto linen. In my ‘Greenland’ wool cote, I was impervious to 100 KPH winds while I watched various hikers and pilgrims suffering in very expensive ‘outdoor’ wear.

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As to weight, I climbed over the Hospitales Route carrying my bedroll and all. It was not easy, but on the other hand, I used everything I brought, so I feel fairly justified. I admit that the rondel dagger was probably the most useless thing… but wait.  I didn’t get attacked by bandits, but the triangular blade was awesome at breaking up heavy Spanish chocolate bars…

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Here we are, about a kilometer from the top.

None of this really matters.  The prayer, the load out, the kit, the views.  What matters is walking.  Many people told me about the walking, and I didn’t listen, because 1) I can be an idiot and 2) I’ve spent so much time walking, from Africa to the Adirondacks, that I knew all about walking.

Well, Humility will no doubt come with time.  The thing about the Camino is that it is there every day.  I was constantly reminded of Nathan Greene‘s comment on the American Revolution; ‘We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.’  Every day, no matter how hard the day was, ANOTHER day was waiting. Every morning, no matter how swollen our feet, we had to get up and walk.  Eventually, all there is is walking.  Everything else falls away; life, family, work, writing, swords, competition, masculinity, poisonous or otherwise; contracts, social media, all slowly stripped away until it’s just walking. Camino means ‘I walk.’

Yep.

Companions help, and mine were the best.  My companions never lost it on the trail; we had no spats (until the day was done) and no one walked off.  I had fabulous conversations.  I heard wisdom, learned secrets, told a few.

And we walked.

After the Hospitales route, and Salas, we were joined by the original inspiration of our Camino, Greg Mele, and his wife, and my friend Steve.  And then we were eight (including my daughter Bea) plus my wife Sarah, who became our emergency driver.May-June 2018 Santiago to Verona 033

These people are hot and tired.  But we ‘only’ have 3 kilometers to go in a very, very long day, and we started too late.

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This is one of the most magical places on the whole route, an original pilgrim spring on the Medieval road, complete with benches. And no stinging nettle.  Some of us were particularly good at attracting stinging nettle. Ahem.

I’m glad I have these photos, because this is the day I had a fever and I really don’t remember much of the day. In a way, it was the ultimate ‘I walk’ because from time to time, I just had to lower my head and walk on.  I wasn’t even in a spiritual space. It was as if I didn’t really exist.

And that loss of self, of worry, of pressure, of stress… I think that’s what everyone was trying to tell me.  It’s not about pain, swollen feet, difficulty.  I walk a lot; I’m 55, I’m used to being tired.  Parts of me hurt every morning, regardless of my fitness level. But there is something MARVELOUS about having nothing ahead but the road.  No reward but completion, and maybe a glass of wine.  Or compari*.  No penalty at all.  Stop and rest; stop a day.  Stop and work at an albergue for two weeks. Get on a bus and go to Santiago.  Whatever.

A little story not my own.  Greg Mele swore a vow to do this walk many years ago, when he was recovering from a very serious martial arts injury.  He walked it in ten times the pain I was in.  I watched him do it.  But… I think he also found that feeling that there is nothing but the walk.

It’s quite a feeling.

I haven’t really discussed this with my compadres yet.  But when we made it to Santiago; when we’d hugged some friends we made on the road, and some total strangers, in the plaza in front of the cathedral, when we’d hugged each other, when we’d gone to mass, when, finally, we all sat down to eat a huge and well-deserved feast…

I can’t describe it.  It was beyond accomplishment.  I’d go again tomorrow. Let me revisit this thought… I’ve had a pretty good life, with plenty of adventure, in and out of the military.  This adventure was ‘doable’ by a 55 year old man, a 53 year old man, a badly injured man, a couple of middle-aged women… This isn’t a desperate mission behind enemy lines.

Its ‘just’ walking.

It will remain one of the greatest adventures of my life.

My thanks to Greg (Greg Mele, master of Armizare, my own teacher for many years, and also head of Forteza Fitness), for vowing to go, and to Sarah and Bea, for driving the support vehicle, and to my companions, Matt, Elisabeth, Marc, Steve, Tasha (That’s Cotte Simple Tasha!), and Greg, and for a little while, my daughter Bea (who, with a 14 year-old fit body, cruised a 28K day and clearly thought we were all out of shape. Of course, she didn’t do it again 🙂 ) Great companions make great adventures.

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And a few more photos…

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Inside the Cathedral at Lugo, where apparently they thought we were priests and nuns of some very odd American order. BTW this is the Cathedral Vestry, which was larger than my whole church at home.

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Greg walks. (Tasha, too).

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I think Greg and Tasha are in the stream.  Seriously, this is from my fever day and I have no idea what’s going on.  Good pic, though.

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Steve, ready to walk on day 11.

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Once we linked up to the main Camino, it was like this all the time.  Pilgrims everywhere.  Jolly, happy people with only a couple days to go.

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Almost there, in so many ways.

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The feast!

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Pilgrims going to mass on Trinity Sunday. One days pilgrims FILLED the cathedral.

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I had Saint James, if it is indeed Saint James, all to myself for a while.  Seems like a good place to end. I’ll probably write more on this later, with less rant and more contemplation.  And talk about how all of it was practice for a tournament.

Sure it was.

Try it!

*Oh yeah, Compari.  So we all started drinking Compari after the Tournament of the White Swan in Verona back in 2014.  As one does.  And an important part of life on the Camino Primitivo is that if you walk into a town at 3PM, NO ONE will feed you until 7PM at the earliest.  But they will give you stale chips, and booze.  One particular evening, after the Hospitales route, when we were all exhausted, an inexperienced Albergue keeper poured us highball glasses FULL TO THE BRIM of Compari.  And gave us very small bottles of soda water to add. Buon Camino, indeed. I could barely do laundry; walking to dinner was challenging.

Yum.  Compari.

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