Chapter 29 - How it all Began... and more.
Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.” In Search of Lost Time. Marcel Proust.
How this all began. In 2005 on a medical mission trip to Guatemala sponsored by Southwest Medical Aid (SMA) Joe Kelly, the leader of the pack and a former priest from the U.S., told me about a journey he took on 2003. He and a buddy, appropriately named James, (Jim Swartz) walked five hundred miles (790 km) across Spain on a pilgrimage – the Way of St. James - all the while using co-ed toilets, showers, and sleeping in co-ed dormitories on bunk beds. Why would someone want to do that? I wondered. Well, good for them in their search of being alive, but that wasn’t for me. Nor was walking five hundred miles. Good grief, my un-traveled mind thought. How boring… not to mention exhausting.
Fast forward to 2010 when I met Dr. Del Endres and Doris Lippo, a trauma nurse, on another medical mission trip. This one to Peru where we worked in steep mountainous villages around Corcca above Cuzco. For R&R a few of us on the mission trip continued on to Machu Picchu. The elevations ranged from sea level at Lima to 11,000 feet in Cuzco. Machu Picchu is around 8,000 feet. The three of us were unaffected by altitude sickness in Cuzco, although several other medical missionaries were seriously affected and required medical attention.
Afterward a few other hearty souls and I flew to Puerto Maldonado then traveled upriver by banana boat, on the pre-Amazonian waters of the Madre de Dios in southern Peru, and ventured into the jungle bordering Bolivia. But that’s a story for another time.
Dr. Del, Doris and I stayed in touch across the various states where each lived - New Mexico, Michigan and Arizona. Speculating that I was physically fit, and an adventuresome spirit, they tagged me for joining them on a trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa in six to nine months. Enough time to train and get ready I figured.
I purchased my first pair of waterproof hiking boots. Got them broken in. Walked in water to test. Feet got wet, but figured it was because the water over the bridge at nearby Sabino Canyon ran over my socks. Next I started training with four pounds of canned goods in my son’s battered, high school backpack. I worked up to carrying 20 pounds.
A new neighbor, Deborah Gabry, came over to introduce herself. When she learned what I was up to she offered to be my fitness coach. Within months, not long after she suddenly died. From an aneurysm. Ten years younger than me. A reality check that life is fragile. And unfair.
I visited my primary care physician and told Dr. Jim that I planned to climb Kilimanjaro. My previous medical records indicated my brother, Allan had a heart attack at age 55 and although he did not die from this condition nine months later he died from cancer. Just to be safe my doctor referred me to a cardiologist.
After the treadmill test, which I passed, the technician asked how I felt. I said, “Fine, except for a little tinge, or pressure in the sternum area.” Today, doctors readily and nervously admit they know little how women manifest heart conditions. The doc wanted me to undergo a cardio-catheter (probably to protect his legal liability). The procedure is invasive and under sedition, where wires are attached to the heart. After the fact, I suggest it was an over-the-top procedure, since the results showed no significant ticker issues....but at least that was great news. And doctors do have to be overly cautious these days.
Now I know my heart is healthy. And while my heart is pounding as I struggle to reach some mountain-top I am grateful to know I can continue pushing myself.
Meanwhile for various reasons my girlfriends Doctor Del and nurse Doris backed out of the Kilimanjaro trip. So I did too. Perhaps I was traumatized by my neighbor, Deborah’s sudden death. Moreover, I didn’t want to take on this journey without capable friends (and personal medical team) for moral support and urging me on when perhaps I would feel I couldn’t face the eight-day hike, freezing in a tent at night, and especially that last midnight push climbing up, and slipping down the scree, to the top of the snow-capped Kilimanjaro at 19,400 feet.
In the meantime, my retired, good-guy husband Randy - and my all-around talented son David, an accomplished world class free-style skier and former skate-boarder, with artistic and analytical skills - are cheering me on and knew I could do what I set my mind to do. I have some history with that.
I have a Dream!
Another month passed. “Life stands still for no one. Live your dreams.” Isn’t that what my young neighbor, Deborah, would have said? Let's not go to our graves regretting things we did not do. If not now, when?
The story of Joe’s journey to Spain years ago came back to me just like the adage, "When the student is ready the teacher will appear." No mention of Kung Fu and Grasshopper please. And so I began researching the idea of walking five hundred miles along the Camino de Santiago knowing there is beauty and blessing awaiting when we are ready to receive.
This wasn’t just a Sunday stroll in the park. This was a thousand-year-old religious pilgrimage across northern Spain. James the Greater was one of the twelve apostles. He was brother of John, cousin of Jesus and nephew of the Virgin Mary. In Acts of the Apostles 12:2, we learn that James was beheaded by Herod in 44 A.D. According to legend, his remains were mysteriously transported and centuries later found in Galicia.
In recent years some hesitated and claimed the Camino de Santiago is more spiritual in nature when it became politically incorrect to say one has a religious bent. A few found it more comfortable to say it was a walk with nature, and others professed it a physical test of endurance and will power.
I had been in my comfort zone. I led a busy, yet predictable everyday life. Periodically it's good to break free and slow down. Experiencing the unpredictable opens possibilities. What was I looking for in this journey? What would it be for me?
I thought of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Would this be a type of retreat experience for me? A time set apart to focus on, to ask, to consider and respond to basic questions of the spiritual life? I live in the Sonoran desert. I walk in and love the desert. For me a new environment would be as much a part of the retreat. More then a few friends questioned whether I was afraid of the journey, or traveling alone. It's easy to be fearless when one is grounded and loved. No, I wasn't afraid.
My beginning would be at St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. Up and over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain. The end would be the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, without giving a second thought, for now, to Finisterre - pre-1492 Christopher Columbus' "End-of-the-World," or more literally, Land's End.
After much research, with warnings not to carry more than 10% of my body weight plus six or so pounds of water, I settle on a Gregory 28 liter backpack. A few neighbors Gary Smith and Sam Smiley, who are experience travelers and hikers themselves, offered guidance. One suggested I purchase an identical pair of hiking boots and train equally in them. With their experience they knew I wouldn’t want to start the trip just to discover I had worn out my well broken-in boots during training. The second pair of boots story continues later.
In the meantime I made airline reservations to fly in and out of Paris, at Charles de Gaulle Airport, because it was cheaper then flying to Madrid. Ever the cheapskate. I felt guilty about spending money on myself and traveling without my retired husband while he cares for the home-front and the acre of vegetation that needs to be hand watered. Then our cute twenty-year-old son, Christopher lays out the guilt, “You never take me on trips,” as if he wants to walk 500 miles.
Unwisely, I planned to be gone only 35 days, which included four days of international travel. That left 31 days to walk 500 miles with no rest days for sightseeing, much less factoring in potential injuries.
You CAN get there from here...but not easily
I asked two different travel agencies to book a train from Paris to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. One gave up after being on telephone hold for 45 minutes or more. The other gave up when she found the train booked for the day of my arrival, as well as the following day. I hit the Google button and got on-line the next day and found a seat available after much effort, and after paying a premium, plus a meal. At least I had a seat on a train. My credit card was charged.
The next day the mysterious Mike, from Rail Europe telephoned to say I was issued an invalid ticket and my credit card would be credited. He could help me book another train. I insisted his plan would not provide adequate time for me to catch the earlier train. He insisted I would have plenty of time. He found one seat available on an earlier train to Bayonne, changing in Bordeaux. I would have to purchase a local train ticket myself in Bayonne to St. Jean Pied de Port.
I gave the pushy Mysterious Mike my credit card number. A second ticket arrived via overnight express. Even though I was told my first ticket was invalid, I planned to take it with me anyway. P.T. Barnum now works for Rail Europe as a management consultant in charge of ticketing.
On the ground and raring to go
There are twelve routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. I planned to walk the most popular, the French Route, thinking croissants and wine would be better than what I would find on the Polish route.
I trained seven-to-eight miles with a slight elevation change at nearby Sabino Canyon. Next I trained twelve miles to the top of the canyon leaving from my front door. If I could walk eight to twelve miles I believed I could walk sixteen. But could I walk more? The story unfolds.
I preferred training in the early morning when it is cooler, since the Sonoran Desert even on Spring mornings can soon turn from warm to damn hot.
All was going well until my first day of walking twelve miles. I returned home to a warm shower and discover a leg rash. I searched Google and self-diagnosed. I learned it doesn’t help to seek medical treatment, as many doctors don’t know what this condition is. Vasculitis. It’s commonly called “golfer’s leg” because it most often occurs with retirees like me who have the time to spend walking long distances in the heat. There were some warnings of a potential threatening condition. This forced me to walk fewer miles for a while. After much conferring with my long distance medical team, my girl friends and I figure my feet were getting too hot and thus causing the nasty rash on the lower legs.
At the sporting goods store I purchased the suggested second pair of hiking boots. But not identical. These new ones were a size larger than the first pair and are what I consider summer weight, as they have mesh inserts. Obviously not water proof. I don’t know why I didn’t worry about being soaked with rain. I only thought these would be cooler.
More research about the Camino suggests flip-flops or sandals for wearing in the afternoons and evenings to let the feet air out. Back to the reputable sporting goods store asking for two sizes too large so I can wear these new sandals for walking with the wool socks I had become used to. Big mistake.
The first day of hiking with these sandals my foot twisted ever so slightly with the looseness of the fit, plus socks, and carrying a fully-loaded backpack which alters one’s stride. If you doubt this try running across a busy highway wearing a backpack. It's not pretty. The store took them back giving store credit.
My time is running out. I went to a second “hard body” store and believe I am getting walking sandals based on what I requested of the sales clerk. Not so. I take them with me to Spain. They are bulky and won’t fit inside the backpack. That’s okay. I’ll attach them to the outside. Again I don’t think about rain.
Upon my return after walking the Camino I research and learn I was pitched water sandals by someone who doesn't personally own a pair of sandals. Another lesson. You must know the product better then the sales clerk. Research. Research. Research.
I continued limping from the date of the first pair of ill-fitting sandals, and my plane was leaving on a Tuesday. I woke up on Sunday to more pain. Not severe pain, but painful enough that I knew I was going into a very long walk with a stressed foot. My stay-at-home husband drove me to the Urgent Care where I’m the first patient of the day.
X-rays didn’t reveal much except to show that I had a heel spur, probably from ten years ago and the last time I had foot pain. But this wasn’t the heel. It was the top of the foot. The x-ray showed Sesamoiditis in the ball of the right foot.
There was no mention of arthritis (or at least I didn’t hear that word mentioned) and no sign of a stress fracture, but was told the latter doesn’t show up until after the bone starts to heal. One Urgent Care doctor had walked the Camino. He, along with my attending Doc, suggests I go ahead with my plans, “since I would probably go anyway,” they figured. I told them that was correct. I just didn’t want to create permanent damage. Doc said, “Just don’t walk as fast, or as far each day.” Good grief. I had 500 miles to cover. At the suggested rate per day it would take me three months to cover that ground.
I was not getting off on the right foot. The left foot was feeling OK. In fact my right foot continued to hurt for another six weeks after my return to Tucson when I was no longer walking long distances. But I digress and getting ahead of myself.
Almost time to figure out how to get a backpack through airport - TSA security
I repack my back pack for the fifth time. Each time shedding items I felt I could do without. Finally, I could zip all compartments. My sandals are dangling from a strap outside the backpack, as is my paper-thin sleeping bag and expensive rain pants. Realizing I needed to abandon something the cushy roll-up yoga-type pad got tossed aside before I left home. Turns out I didn’t need it, although a few times it would have been nice to unroll and lie on the ground. I didn’t dare lie directly on the grass with my allergies.
Hiking poles. A few nights before departure my husband and I attended a lecture by two fellows who walked the Camino last year. It was from them I learned that hiking poles can be collapsed, carried and camouflaged in a backpack. Randy took mine to sporting goods store #1 and the fellow collapsed them. But once I got my hands on them I couldn’t get them back together. Turns out that model is fixed and not meant to be collapsed. At store #2 where I purchased the poles Randy was given store credit for the price paid and sold another pair that collapsed into three parts. As an added bonus individual mesh carrying cases for each were included. Those turned into another of the many small blessings along The Way.
I have the clothes on my back and two changes of clothes. No make up. No jewelry except for pearl earrings I wore every day. I did wear a medal from Le Puy, France given to me by a non-Catholic pilgrim who walked the Camino from that starting point four years ago and a Benedictine medal from my brother, Father Duane Roy OSB, who is a monk in Brazil.
From start to finish - fini