Why be a pilgrim?

So why do people walk the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain? There are as many reasons as there are pilgrims, but they can be organized in several logical categories.

Like pilgrims from the Middle Ages to the present, the largest category would be religious/spiritual.  Originally this would have been a primarily Catholic endeavor, as Catholics were encouraged to go on pilgrimage to various shrines, including Santiago, where the bones of St James were allegedly discovered. Now there is an equal number of “spiritual, not religious” types who go on pilgrimage to re-center their minds, disconnect from the electronic chatter of modern life, or strip life to the bare essentials and engage more honestly with other people. This last point is a common refrain from peregrinos (pilgrims): on the camino, you have only what you need, so you eliminate the artifice of modern society and have more meaningful relationships with your fellow pilgrims.

Another large group is seeking simple self-improvement. They want to lose weight, quit smoking or kick some other bad habit, get in shape, or simplify one’s life. There are some similarities here to the first group, but without any specific spiritual content. Smaller sets of pilgrims are on vacation, after a personal accomplishment, or do it just because it is there.

For whatever reasons pilgrims have, the numbers have been consistently increasing. Last year over 300,000 walked the Camino Frances, with the frequency diagram displaying a familiar normal distribution (I promised no math, but this is statistics) centered on the Summer months.

The trend continued to >300,000 in 2017
This counts “completions” with most taking 30-45 days

To receive the official completion certificate, or Compostela, you need only complete the last 100 kilometers of the Camino Frances. When you arrive in Santiago, they ask whether you walked for religious/spiritual reasons or for other reasons.  If the former, you receive a Latin script Compostela attesting to your accomplishment; if the latter, your certificado is in Spanish. If you wish, for a few Euros you can also receive a certificate of distance which attests to the actual time and distance hiked.

Whatever one’s motivation, one theme among peregrinos is consistent: how well pilgrims treat one another, and how well pilgrims are treated by their Spanish hosts. Out on the camino, people share with and care for each other. The small towns, some of which only survive by association with the camino, provide a warm welcome. Stories abound of services provided or help rendered by anonymous pilgrims to those in need.  Likewise, there are numerous tales of pilgrims finding “no room at the inn” and being taken to stay in local’s homes. There are exceptions, but crime or simple boorish behavior stand out mostly as exceptions to the rule of good behavior.

This is the magic of the camino, and what really brings many pilgrims to come back and walk the camino over and over.

As for me, I am walking in thanksgiving. From early on when my wife Judy and I considered walking the camino, I saw it as a way of saying “thank you” to God for good health, a great family, a satisfying career, and all the other blessings I have received. We’ll spend time every day giving thanks, looking to help others (or maybe accepting help from others–that’s a blessing too) and praying. If you have a prayer request, let me know!

A Camino Day (Proposed)

Some of you may be wondering what that 800 kilometer hike across northern Spain will look like. From a geographic perspective, it starts in the Pyrenees mountains, crosses the Basque country and heads into the meseta or Spanish plains, and ends in Galicia. Much of it crosses fertile cropland, including vineyards, with about three mountain ranges. Along the way we’ll pass through numerous small villages along with the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León, and Santiago de Compostela. Some of the way is roadside, some farm trails, some traditional hiking routes. But what does an average day look like? Based on the preparatory research I have done, here is what pilgrims tell me.

The pilgrim’s day starts early, perhaps 6 am, especially if you stay at an albergue or hostel.  Most albergues insist everyone leaves by 8 am so they can clean for the next night’s pilgrims; yes, you can only stay one night in each albergue. Breakfast may be available at or near the albergue, or at least some coffee. Most pilgrims want to get on the road before the heat of the day, and many albergues are first-come, first-served, so there can be a little bit of an Oklahoma landrush in the morning to get an early start. One of the banes of pilgrims in the the albergues is the rustling sound of other pilgrims, which may start as early as 4 am, as they try to get packed and depart.

Tortilla de papas, almost always available
The humble but delicious bocadillo

Whenever the time comes, breakfast is probably continental, such as a pastry with coffee. Lunch is often a sandwich called a bocadillo, which is some form of ham on french bread. Some push lunch back until 1-3 pm, perhaps coinciding with arriving at the next stop’s albergue, but others keep a lunch break around noon. Most pilgrims hope to get in to their next albergue or inn sometime in the afternoon.  After check-in, you find your bed/room, unload, shower and switch into your casual dinner outfit, and wash your hiking gear from that day. Next comes some quiet time to siesta (my favorite), read, catch up on social media, buy some trail food for the next day, or fix any physical issues (blisters?).

Some towns have a pilgrim’s mass at night, and many restaurants will serve a pilgrims menu of three courses (soup/pasta, meat, dessert) and vino de casa for a nominal fee (E10). After socializing with fellow pilgrims, most retire early for the evening. This might mean sleep, but it might not, as the cacophony of snoring, people rustling in their backpacks, and the usual comings-and-goings can make sleep a challenge. Some pilgrims only stay in albergues; others only use hotels and private rooms.

Wake up and do it all over again. For 30-45 days.

Now of course there are the many hours of time spent walking, which can also be an opportunity for prayer, sight-seeing, introspection, or meeting one’s fellow pilgrims. That gets to the “why” of the Camino, and I will return in a future post to answer it.

Camino Gear

As promised, here is my follow up post on the gear we plan to take when we walk the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied-de-Port (France) to Santiago de Compostela (Spain) in May.

First, here’s the photo layout:

Now here is what you see. Starting in the upper left corner (and moving clockwise) is my pack, an Osprey Kestrel 48. This is an overly-large pack for the Camino, but it fits me well, and if we need extra room I have it. On top of it is a Venture ID bag for our passports and camino credencial, the document which identifies us as pilgrims and gets us into albergues. Next is a Melt travel roller, a lightweight device for stretching; on top is my Diamond red light headlight, and below it is a pair of Keen travel slippers.

Moving due right is a soap/wash solution and the Brierley guidebook, and slightly right and up from that is a large travel towel (folded) with a pair of walkie-talkies. Above that is my emergency caffeine kit (24 packets of starbucks instant coffee), which is all that is standing between me and disaster if Judy needs a coffee fix some morning!

In the upper right corner is an Osprey 2 liter water bladder which fits into my pack with a drinking tube right to my face. Below left is a lightweight set of stuff sacks, a cocoon brand mummy liner (sleeping bag liner, no bag), a set of lower leg protectors (keeps rain/pebbles out of our boots) and an electric travel adapter. In the lower right corner are my Cascade adjustable hiking poles and gloves.

To the left is my lightweight, collared travel shirt and a long-sleeve Under Armour shirt, with my toiletries bag on top of them. Next left is a pair of running shorts which double as swim trunks, then my other detachable hiking pants and short-sleeve shirt. Curling back in to the center are two more pairs of quick-drying travel underwear and two sets of travel socks and silk liners. Above that is an over-the-pack rain poncho, and to the right is a Cool-rag brand towel, a travel utensil kit, and a blacklight flashlight.

And that’s it.

Not pictured are a small Android tablet and phone, and one set of gear I will be wearing (t-shirt, Keen hiking shoes, merino wool socks with silk liners, detachable hiking shorts/pants, quick-dry travel underwear).

Most of the gear is self-explanatory. We bought lightweight, quick-drying  equipment because (1) we’re carrying everything, and (2) you wear one pair, wash those when you are done for the day, then wear the other pair. We tried to get gear which is multi-purpose, like the detachable shorts or the running shorts/swim trunks.

Some things are unique. The Cool Rag is a towel which stays cool and moist in its container: on hot days you pull it out to cool off. The black light is great for identifying bed bugs, a nemesis when staying in dormitories. We found Melt rollers a necessity to recover from hard workouts. The headlamp is great for early morning (dark) starts, and can be used inside an albergue in the red light mode (without disturbing other sleepers).

We probably don’t need the 2 liter water bladder, and on some legs I won’t fill it, but it is a nice emergency item for us (or other pilgrims).

In yet another follow-on post, I’ll cover what I anticipate a camino day to be like.

Camino veterans, or those who are just meticulous planners, if you see something missing, please ask about it in the comments section!

Training down the homestretch

We’re now under 90 days out for our departure for the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela, so it is time to get serious about training. We have done once- or twice-a-week walks thus far, getting up early or walking under the hot tropical sun to experience different conditions.  We have gone as far as 24 kilometers carrying our loaded packs and wearing our gear.

They gave way!

After a few weeks off for Christmas and a trip to the States, we started back in yesterday with a 8 mile mid-morning hike. No sooner had we left our development then we found ourselves heading against the herd, literally.

It was difficult getting back into the swing of hiking: neither Judy nor I felt very motivated this hike. We ran into our friend Lisa who stopped to talk, and even she noticed we didn’t look very motivated (good assessment). By the time we took a lunch break, we began feeling better, and the last few miles felt like old times. We are very tired for such a short walk, but I think we will recover our form rapidly as we increase the frequency and duration of our training hikes.

These two demanded I take a photo

Part of my problem was probably overpacking. I have been gradually increasing the weight in my pack, well beyond what I will actually carry, so that the hike seems easy in comparison to our training walks. However, I did not keep track of how much I was adding: I would just see something fairly heavy but still compact, and I would think “that would make great pack filler!” so I would throw it in the pack. After yesterday’s hike, I went back and unloaded and weighed everything, and I was up to 25 lbs. Seasoned Camino pilgrims suggest never carrying more than 10% of your body weight, which would give me an 18 lb target.  Seven pounds may not sound like much, “but ounces make pounds, and pounds make pain” is the mantra.

Keeping your pack weight to a bare minimum is critical for an 800 kilometer hike.  I will detail what we’re bringing, and why, in a follow-on post.

A little Whiplash

So during the last 10 days, we left our relatively perfect lakeside weather for a quick Stateside trip.

First, we spent a cold snowy weekend near Cincinnati. We had pre-staged some cold weather gear there, so I was able to hit the sledding slopes with my Grandson Ian.

Sledding in my Hannibal Lecter outfit

We hopped over near to Baltimore, where it was even colder! There wasn’t enough snow to sled or make a snowman, but there was a steady wind. I didn’t stash as much weather gear. The granddog didn’t even want to go out for a walk at night. But Grandson Henry and I did get to build a fort out of the sectional couch, and defend it from the beasts (Granddaughter Quinn and Granddog Rufus) outside the walls.

Baltimore: not charming!

That cheap flight I mentioned last post got us to Playa del Carmen, where we thawed out. We were the only tourists NOT complaining about the cloudy weather with occasional rain, as the temps were all 70 degrees and up.

Beautiful view from the balcony, but notice the missing Sun
So we were forced to eat French food indoors (sigh)

Not looking for any sympathy, just noting what it is like on the road.  I do claim my “winter credentials” for another year! Winter is a season best only visited.


We’re currently in the States on a quick visit to see our kids and grandkids.  Unlike our last marathon car trip NOB, we are flying this time. Going back to visit family or friends is a perennial aspect of expat life, and the ready availability of air routes via Guadalajara’s Miguel Hidalgo International airport (GDL) provides many opportunities to do so. Landing rights and routes between the US and Mexico were strictly controlled for a long time, and only recently began to loosen up, so new options are constantly evolving.

The main routes from GDL to the States are United Airlines via Houston, American Airlines via Dallas-Fort Worth, and Delta via Atlanta. Many airlines fly directly to Los Angeles and Mexico City, which provide other alternatives. New direct routes to New York are popping up, and the advent of low cost carriers is making a real difference.

One thing I have learned is the need to consider all the alternatives, including unusual routes and special sales, when planning a trip. My favorite travel planning site is Rome2Rio.com, which provides a comprehensive set of options for any trip. It shows options for driving, bus, rail, or air, and has flight data even on carriers like Ryanair and SouthWest, which often don’t show up on air search sites. The site only gives you an estimate on the costs, but you can immediately check those estimates with links to the actual carriers.

For example, during this trip we’re using old accumulated frequent flyer miles to get from GDL to Cincinnati, then Southwest (via their most recent fare sale) to Baltimore, Southwest again from there to Cancun before returning to Guadalajara on AeroMexico. The savings from the Southwest tickets (versus a normal fare via the routes I mentioned earlier) is large enough to let us stay a few days at a resort in Playa del Carmen! I also noticed very cheap direct fares to/from Europe via Cancun, due to the tourist demand. And we’re doing this with very normal flight times, not using the other advantage of retiree travel, the long or multi-leg travel itinerary.

In the interest of sharing info, please add in the comments if you have a good travel planning or search website/service to recommend.

Preparing for The Way

One blessing available in retirement is the ability to indulge new hobbies or interests. My wife and I wanted to travel, find a way to exercise together, and engage our interest in religious study and practice. A few years back, we ran across the Martin Sheen movie “The Way,” which introduced us to a concept which combined all three: the Camino de Santiago.

For those unfamiliar, the Camino (literally, “Way”) is an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain, leading 800 kilometers (~500 miles) from the French border to the town of Santiago de Compostela. This route is also known as the Camino Frances or French Way, and it represents the final leg of many other pilgrim routes that led from all over Europe, all ending in either Rome or Santiago. The reason for a religious pilgrimage to Rome is obvious, but Santiago may seem an unlikely choice. Legend holds that the town was founded after the miraculous discovery of the bones of Saint James the Apostle in farm field under a starry sky (James being Iago in Spanish, with compo for field and stela for stars, hence Santiago de Compostela).

Pilgrimages in Spain started during the 9th century, then spread across Europe in the 11th century. Pilgrims carried only their clothes and bare necessities, and offered prayers and penance along the Way. Villages along the Way provided hospitality (literally hospitals) where pilgrims were given food, water, and shelter for free or a small donation. The number of pilgrims waxes and wanes, but over the last 30 years the numbers have exploded to over a quarter million every year! While the largest number of pilgrims walk the Way for religious reasons, it has become popular for exercise, dealing with a mid-life or personal crisis, or to get back to nature.

Judy & I will be making our pilgrimage next Spring. We’ll walk between 10-15 miles each day, eating local foods, carrying a backpack and staying at a variety of different pilgrim accommodations. While we were in the States recently, we went to REI and got fitted out in all the right gear, and got briefed by our good friends Caryn and Mary, who completed a pilgrimage this year.

Pack, poles, hat, shoes

Gear is incredibly important: when hiking such long distances “ounces are pounds, and pounds are pain” as the saying goes. Unlike camping, where durability is key, weight is all important on the Camino. The rule of thumb is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight, and that includes your pack, clothes, food, and water. So we bought ultra-lightweight gear. We have personally-fitted packs and hiking shoes one size too large (because your feet swell when you walk day after day after day). Among the secrets we’re learning are the wonders of merino wool socks (not hot, very cushiony), silk sock liners (prevent blisters), wicking clothes (wear one set, carry the other), and how to use hiking poles (very important when going downhill).

We have started training lakeside, where we have the advantage of already being over 5200 ft in elevation, which is higher than almost any spot on the Camino. This should give us an oxygen advantage, much like that you hear broadcasters talk about when sports teams travel to Denver. We’re up to about 9 miles a day with packs, sometimes along a flat route and sometimes with some elevation gain. We will gradually add elevation and back-to-back hiking days.

I’ll provide regular updates as we train, and expect to keep the blog up-to-date during our actual hike across Spain. Buen Camino!

Judy modeling her gear

Visiting the Shrine

When we still lived in the States, we made an annual visit to South Bend, Indiana, where the majority of my relatives live. I often described these visits as a “pilgrimage to the shrine,” since we always stopped at the University of Note Dame to take in the beautiful campus, tour the athletic facilities, and buy fan memorabilia at the bookstore.

On one hand, my fanatic support for the Fighting Irish (Notre Dame’s football team) is easily explained. I grew up in the 1960/70’s when the team was dominant, I lived about 3 miles (as the Leprechaun flies) from the Golden Dome, I was Irish Catholic by background, and the local nuns taught us to root for “our team.” Being a Notre Dame fan was an essential, positive part of my childhood.

Well, the connection went deeper than the obvious links. Being a Notre Dame fan was part of rooting for the underdog who overcomes the odds, backing the side that does things the right way, being part of some shared belief in good triumphing over evil.  Even when “the breaks went against the boys” in Rockne’s immortalized line, that too was a lesson that sometimes even Good comes up short.

But we all grow up, and leave behind childish things, don’t we? Yes, I went off to school and the Army, marriage and children, career and travel. I realized that other teams weren’t always evil, and some of the Irish players I formerly idolized were, shall we say, a wee bit unsavory. I ran into opposing fans who could not understand my devotion to a school I never attended, or harbored some deep resentment at a loss to the Irish. I even had to get used to not winning all the time, which seemed as remote a possibility as the actor who played the Gipper becoming President. While my passion for the Irish waxed and waned over the decades, it never failed to gel come late August, building to a fever pitch by the end of November.

So I find myself back on campus this year, but the feeling is very different. I muster little excitement for the impending season. The team is talented but underperforming, unable to put-away inferior opponents and easily overmatched by those more talented. The coach has the remarkable ability to turn purple at critical moments, and is unequaled at sharing the blame with others. The program is under the cloud of an academic cheating scandal. The stadium is ever-larger,

What’s that growth on the stadium?

as if size really did matter. Classroom and leisure facilities are built onto the stadium on three sides, ostensibly connoting a commitment to academics merged with athletics, but instead literally propping up the luxury suites. The overall architectural effect recalls a Communist planner given too many monuments and not enough plaza. The field is synthetic, since grass is apparently a non-native species in northern Indiana. A Jumbotron hovers over the House that Rockne Built; I am sure it will instruct Irish fans when to “get loud.”  Piped in inspirational music and smoke effects complete the scene. It looks like every other Ginormous State University stadium … except it isn’t.

The stadium does look good on the inside, but how long before they are hawking used cars on the ‘Tron?

Which is the point, after all. Change is inevitable, but the changes need to be consistent with something original, something organic, something profound. Notre Dame today presents an updated, Disneyfied college football experience. The emphasis is on appearances, which do not amplify an underlying reality so much as merchandize an existing, fading brand.

Concession tables set up inside the luxury boxes

Don’t get me wrong: I will always be a fan.  I will watch games this year, and probably get way-too-involved. But it is much harder to be passionate about a performance by the University of Notre Disney Competitive Generics. Just give me back the Fighting Irish.

The luxury suites rival Touchdown Jesus, which is never a good idea. How did that tower in Babel turn out?

Where in the world…?

So if you are an expat, occasionally you will have the opportunity to “return home” to the US of A.  For us, that involved a drive from Ajijic to the border, which we just accomplished. While “all’s well that ends well” is certainly the case, the trip was not uneventful.

The drive from Ajijic to the border at Laredo is about 11 hours, so you might end up driving at night (or at least dusk) in Mexico if you try to do it all in one day.  Nighttime driving is a big no-no south of the border, just because livestock graze along the highways, and nothing says “stop” like coming across a cow looking for better grass in the middle of the cuota (toll road)!

So we drove to Monterrey and staged there for the next day’s assault on the wall, err, I mean the border. Tip for Lakesiders: the City Express Hotel Norte next to the airport in Monterrey is a great choice: under $50 US, clean, next to the main road north to Laredo, with a few adjacent restaurants. Our first day’s drive was uneventful, with the exception of a severe rainstorm we eventually outran.

Our second day went differently. We made it to Laredo by 10:00, but there was a 90 minute back up at the border.  Even our Waze app (highly recommended) abandoned us, as it tried to take us across a closed bridge. Judy was driving the first vehicle in our convoy, and of course she got the border patrol officer who wanted to do a full car search, uncovering her “stash” of contraband, which you and I would call bottles of Limoncello made by Benedictine nuns. Fortunately, she just had to pay import duty, and we went on our way.

We made it to US highway 59 outside Laredo.  If you like driving, you owe yourself a trip to Texas just to drive on this take-off/landing strip which pretends to be a highway.  Several hundred miles of two-lane pavement (with ample shoulders) with regular passing lanes.  Flat and straight as an arrow. 75 miles-per-hour, and the only people in uniform you will see are US Border Patrol. Oh, and this part of Texas has plenty of nowhere, as in you might not see anything beside the road beside scrub brush.

Things were going well but running late as we approached Houston. Texas had not properly welcomed us yet, so it chose this time to do so.  We saw some ominous clouds, and then as we were just an hour outside Houston, we met a literal wall of water: a true Texas-style storm.  It was like driving through a waterfall, or driving inside a carwash.  This caused the native Texans to slow to almost 60 mph, and yours truly played along.  I always say seeing is overrated when it comes to driving!

Judy kept up in the chase car, although all she could see at times was my emergency blinkers disappearing in the mist. We eventually made it to the CarMax in Houston. They processed my Toyota FJ in about ninety minutes. Car-selling tip: check out CarMax even if you are not trading in, but take along an “instant offer” which you can get online from Kelly’s Blue Book. This ensures you get a fair price.  Since my car is sought after, they made me an offer AND did their own double check on Kelly’s, then said they would match the Kelly’s price, which was greater than their offer or my original Kelly’s estimate.

Adios, Amigo!

An hour of Houston rush hour traffic later, we made it to our hotel in Baytown (east of Houston on I-10).  We were one car lighter, had some US change in our pocket, and were safely across the border. Now I just have to stop saying “Buenos Dias” to everyone.