Cowabunga and the Camino, Kindred Spirits

Blisters gone. Swollen ankle—subsided. A few items lost, some new friends found. Satisfaction guaranteed. Thirty-five days for an adventure. Thirty-five days powered only by my own pedestrian momentum, only my feet pushing me from Point A to Point B, beginning to end, 500 miles across a country—just because.

It seems everybody's a Cheryl Strayed-wannabe these days. She accomplished an amazing feat hiking 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), cold turkey—no preparation whatsoever. She had never backpacked before nor was she in top physical condition. It was her last ditch effort to rid herself of demons and to right a life gone terribly wrong.

Like so many of Cheryl Strayed's fans of her best seller, Wild, I was inspired by this book and became a wannabe too. It also struck me how it paralleled the movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, where a father sets out on a mission to complete the 500-mile pilgrimage route of the Spanish Camino de Santiago that his son begins, but is cut short by his untimely death early on in the Pyrenees mountains.

And then I also remembered that many years ago, when I lived in the Bordeaux area of France, some of the local roads were labeled with worn signs designating them as historic, part of the original medieval pilgrimage route of St. Jacques de Compostelle, just a few of the many French “feeder routes” that today still lead to the final home stretch of the Spanish way at the base of the Pyrenees. All this steeped in my head until the seed sprouted. I realized, though, that I wasn't ready to take on the project of the PCT. Having to trek with a backpack laden with a tent, cooking equipment, and organize all the box shipments of provisions ahead of time to the various supply stations along the trail was more than I wanted to take on for a first venture. I was, however, prepared to pack my sleeping bag, and the minimal amount of clothes (three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, two shirts, one pair of pants…), and opt to sleep in hostels along the way with up to 60-100 other fellow "pilgrims" each night, donning earplugs to dampen the group snoring, and sharing group bathrooms. No, I decided, I ain't no Cheryl Strayed. I would walk the 500-mile section of the Camino de Santiago known as the Camino Frances instead.

It's a Go

Off I went to Spain with a friend this past September, fully prepared to undertake the 30-or-so days that all the guidebooks, websites, and blogs recounted it would take. Thirty days to walk across a country. Could I do it? Physically, could I walk seven hours a day, 15 miles a day, for the time it would take? Would I have the mental strength to continue when it was long and tedious? In our previous 10 years at sea as a family on a sailboat, we sailed across an ocean in 30 days, so could I walk across a country in a month as well? Daunting? Maybe. Possible? It should be. So many others have walked the Camino, and many older and in less better physical shape than me have done it and are currently doing it, so why not me? Many had, and have, more nobler reasons than me to embark upon this quest: perhaps a personal tragedy to overcome or the search for spiritual guidance. No, for me, it would just be a personal physical and mental challenge: Could I walk across a country?

And being realistic, now in my 60s, with probably only 20 years left to go on this lease, I thought better of doing it later and that now was the time, before "the other shoe drops" health-wise.

We began our trek in the town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, at the base of the French side of Pyrenees. We soldiered across the mountains and in to Spain our first day. For the next 34 days, we walked from the storied Basque Country, through the vineyards of La Rioja, across the Meseta of Don Quixote, and over the mountains to Galicia, our final province. It wasn't all smooth sailing. Between the two of us, there were blisters galore (despite having followed all the preventive and/or curative advice), a plaguing knee and ankle issue, some material carnage due to a raging storm, some very hot days, and a few "dive" hostels in the mix.

The long road ahead
The long road ahead

A New Lease on Life?

A life changing experience? No, I wouldn’t say that, but there is a "before-and-after." Maybe I earned a new perspective on my "everyday"—on the mundane, on what should or shouldn’t be important, on what’s really worth getting angry about, or maybe not at all, or at least trying not to let some things anger me…as much. Maybe my usual errands around town that I routinely do in my car don't seem as important or urgent now compared to so many people, worldwide, who just try to get by daily, or even survive, only able to accomplish their everyday tasks on foot. Maybe it was a lesson in patience, to slow down, take the time it takes—or should take—to go about one's business. When all I had to do for 35 days was get up at dawn and set out on foot on a daily mission to just get there—fatigue be damned—coming home, back to my "real world" was reassuring yet unsettling at the same time. Maybe I felt like I had purged something. And then I felt, just maybe, that I had a tad more confidence to take on the impossible.

And still maybe, (perhaps the most of my "maybes"), it was about keeping the spirit of Cowabunga alive, our 42 ft. sailboat of days gone past that was our home, our way of life, our 10-year story of adventure and evolution of our family of four. Our 30-day ocean passage has always stayed with me, and now my 35-day cross-country passage nestles beside that sister experience in the same corner of my memories, continuing to inspire me.