4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Life”

Let’s Start Again (by Carmen)

Carmen walking at sunrise

A new day, a new blog

Hello, nice to meet you again. It’s, um, been a while.

Two and a half years ago this blog kind of just went over a cliff edge. Not that Nathan and I haven’t continued to travel, explore, and eat well, we simply stopped writing about it. But I want that to change. Anytime I scroll through this blog, the rush of excitement I felt in these places returns in an instant.

I’m therefore excited to announce that we’re bringing it back! Right now we’re piecing together the half drafted posts and assorted photos to cover some highlights of the past 2.5 years. Over the next couple months, we’ll be posting two a week so we can get caught up to the present. A glimpse of what’s to come:

  • “Quick Trips” about long weekends spent exploring the east coast in 2015 and 2016
  • A wine-oriented vacation in Italy
  • Travel with friends to New Orleans and Germany
  • A move abroad(!) and exploring our new city / continent

Some trips aren’t covered (like the 6 weddings we’ve attended in California!) but this should get the ball rolling again. Looking forward to reliving it all here and, hopefully, you’ll get some good travel tips out of it too.

I’m glad we had this chat. See you soon.


The Sun Rises And Sets In Santiago – Part 7 (by Nathan)

Sunrise near Frómista

There is a profound simplicity to walking the camino.  The rhythm of walking and breathing consumes most of the day and the nights are filled with exhausted sleep.  Everyday we wake, walk, talk, eat, walk, talk, walk, shower, launder, talk, eat and sleep.  This rhythm at first seems never ending, but the body easily welcomes such a flow of exercise, thought and relaxation.  Our day’s tasks echo the simple cycle of the sun that rises and sets in a pure unaltered rhythm.

Sunrise near Carrión

Experiencing these cycles of the sun has been one of the most enjoyable portions of the camino.  Our path is surrounded with all colors and fragments of light. We walk in the deep dark of morning, there is sometimes disorienting fog, there are bright pinks and oranges of sunrise, intense brilliant midday heat, afternoon glow and the reds and purples of sunset welcome star-filled nights.  Like our breathing in and out and our hearts beating the sun rises and sets each day on our camino.

Sunrise after leaving León

Walking from the darkness of pre-dawn into the light provides an optimism to the the steady and difficult walking to be completed that day and every day for four weeks.  Our lives are filled with the uneventful beauty of peace.  Very little happens each day, but slowly we have progressed to our destination- the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Sunset in Astorga

So what is it like to finally arrive at a place after walking 500 miles (800km)? It felt like just another day, another church, another plaza and another new town.  I did not feel any intense emotion at finally being at the place. I was excited, anxious and a bit confused.  But I think what was more overwhelming was the ending of it all.  The steady tranquil walking was over.

Ornate east entrance to Santiago Cathedral

I stared up at the enormous ornate church facade letting the whole experience soak in.  Each detail and carving reminded me of a laugh or pain, a blessing or hardship, or the humility or arrogance of my journey across Spain.  My mind raced with all the wonderful memories from our trip.  There were our favorite little towns, food and sights.  I also felt the warmth of so many wonderful people that we met.  Didier and Basile gave wonderful friendship and conversation on the early part of our journey, Donovan, Nancy and Robbie Inspired us to drink more, laugh more and eat more chocolate.  There were so many new friends of all ages and from all over the world: Irish Richard and Joe, Missouri’s Jim and Ryan, German Gina and Christian, British Sara and Garett, Deanna and Kerry from Australia, Danish Lisette and Bibi and the spirited Suzanne from Colorado.

Lunch for two: meats, cheese, wine and una tarta de Santiago

I cannot forget the most special peregrina of my journey, Carmen.  It is amazing after ten years of a relationship that there is more to learn, and that there is room to grow closer and more intwined into each others lives.  The trail provides a time to talk, to listen and to empathize from the depths of my core.  Walking the Camino to Santiago with someone is difficult;  all their pains, challenges and frustrations become disruptions in your experience.  But the joys of smiling, relaxing, and acomplishing are heightened beyond belief when shared with someone you love.  It takes a dedication to one another, a willingness to compromise, and a persistence to make it to the end (wherever that is) no matter what….and holding hands.  The camino has been a personal and shared journey and the Compostela is a mere milestone in the exciting life ahead of us.

Santiago Cathedral as seen from the east

Midieval angel

The city of Santiago de Compostela is a flurry of excited tourists and pilgrims.  Thousands of people descend onto the city filling the cathedral and outdoor cafes.  The sight to see is the “swinging smelly thing,” the botafumeiro that masks the smell of the pilgrims attending mass.  There is also a time to reflect on the journey, people watch and relax.

Ornate glass façades in A Coruña

A Coruña beach

Many pilgrims continue their journey for another three days after Santiago.  They walk to the most western portion of continental Europe, Finisterre.  Someday we will make that journey, but we went to the beach instead.  A high-speed train took us to A Coruña on the north coast of Spain.  The buildings were decorated with ornate picturesque balconies, and the beach stretched for miles.  The one thing we forgot was how difficult it is to find restaurants open in Spain on Sundays.  We did find a chocolatería that served delicious churros, we rested on the beach in the sun and we strolled on the beach boardwalk before returning to Santiago for another night out.

Crazy three sets of spiral stairs at Galician Ethnography museum

Walking for so many hours has allowed the engineer in me to think about the many numbers and values that go into a journey of this type.  Here are some of the most relevant numbers of the camino:
– 29 days to walk from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago
– 1,000,000 footsteps each to walk 500 miles (1,100-1,300 steps/km)
– 180 hours of walking (approx 4.5km/hr)
– 150 villages, towns and small cities
– 27 liters of wine consumed together
– 20 liters of beer consumed together
– 180 liters of water consumed together
– 25 three course pilgrim dinners

Finding the right information about this journey can be difficult.  For anyone planning a trip on the Camino Francés we have a few recommendations from our experiences and those shared by friends.  The landscape of Spain is extraordinarily diverse with mountains, deserts and seascapes; we enjoyed them all, but here are some of the best portions.

Favorite stretches of the Camino:
– St. Jean to Roncesvalles and Larrasoaña
– Astorga to Molinaseca
– Villafranca to O’Cebreiro (scenic route via Dragonte and San Fiz de Seo)

The city and food of a place can make the journey even better.  Sometimes we would land in places that were complete dives, other times the people welcomed us with delicious food and friendship.  If you are hiking the Camino make sure that you stop and sleep in these places, it will be worth it:

Our Favorite Albergue experiences:
– Azofra municipal albergue – private rooms.
– La Piedra in Villafranca – clean, friendly and built into the mountainside.
– Porta de Santiago in Arca o Pino – clean and welcoming.

Some friend’s favorite Aubergue experiences:
– Grañón parish hostel – nightly communal parade in the street.
– Boadilla del Camino – “En El Camino” – pool, huge lawn, great food and family that
is very welcoming.
– Santibañez Parish Albergue, Excellent communal dinner.
– Send a comment if you have any others.

One of the most amazing experiences of the camino is the consisent transition from the natural environment to the villages and cities.  Even the smallest town has density of buildings and people that exceeds San Francisco.  The history and community of the people is layered like the mortar and stones that make up their buildings.  Here is a list of our favorite towns, sleep here or plan on spending a couple hours to enjoy the character and charm that each has to offer:

Favorite towns:
– Zubiri- cute riverside village.
– Puente de la Reina- charming town with wonderfully detailed buildings.
– Los Arcos- Quaint plaza with cafes and sangria.
– Santo Domingo- chickens in the cathedral!
– Hontanas- tiny village, but friendly and relaxing.
– Carrión- wonderful market and many streets to stroll and people watch.
– Hospital del Orbigo- long bridge leads to charming main street.
– Molinaseca- picturesque stone village.
– Villafranca del Bierzo – the start of the mountains and transition of cultures.

The Camino Francés passes through some of Spain’s best cities.  The culture and devotion to the camino has taken place for a thousand years and nowhere on the journey is it more prevalent than in these wonderful places:

Best Small Cities:
– Pamplona- a mix of Basque and Spanish with color and food to match the vibrancy
of the people.
– Burgos- taller and more dense with copious amounts of plazas and cafes.
– León- a maze of winding streets with tapas bars enclosed by old city walls.
– Astorga- a hilltop city of chocolate factories, parks, churches and Gaudí.

Sunset in Astorga

The Camino de Santiago was life-changing.  It was subtle, but the effects of a journey of this type are positive.  The mind and body is put to work through all the complexities and weight that burdens the daily life.  I feel that my core has been cleansed.  I am ready to explore more of the world, and I welcome the time return to my career.  I feel this inner peace, a contented soul that is difficult to describe other that there is lack of cloudiness.  There is clarity of who I am and where I am going.  To those I meet along the way, “Buen Camino!”

The Final Stretch of an Ever Changing Camino – Part 6 (by Carmen)

Pedro the sidra pourer

The camino had changed. First of all, we had entered a new region, Galicia, which has its own language more closely related to Portuguese than Spanish. Secondly, the terrain was most definitely mountainous. O Cebreiro is located at the top of a mountain and Nathan and I were certainly glad to see it after our long up hill hike. We celebrated with a bottle of sidra (cider) which came with a surprise. It seems to be a tradition to pour sidra by holding the glass low and the bottle high. With no skilled sidra pourers that night, the bartender instead handed us a mechanical contraption to help us out. We christened him Pedro and he indeed poured a mean glass of sidra.

Lush forest path

Other than language and terrain, Galicia has another distinguishing factor: weather. Up to this point, we had experienced the hot, dry and sunny Spain one expects. On our descent from O Cebreiro we got out first taste of the rain Galicia is known for. After digging out our ponchos from the bottom our packs we trudged on through thick droplets and wind that at times sounded like a train coming at us. With all the rain, stone buildings and slate roofs, I felt like I had found a secret portal to Ireland right at the edge of Spain.

By the time we reached Triacastela we were soaked and ready to dry off. We holed up in a cozy albergue and didn’t leave until dinner time. The next day we pushed on to Sarría where we encountered another of Galicia’s legacies – bus loads of pilgrims. Sarría is about 100km to Santiago, the minimum required to receive the compostela. This means you receive official recognition from the church for your pilgrimage. The result is hundreds more people on the trail, most notably teenage youth groups that are very skilled at destroying the peace with their screaming and flirting and playing.

Cloister in monestary of Sarría

Shell shaped flan at pilgrim dinner

We were just passing through Sarría but decided to stop for lunch at an italian restaurant called Matias. Sadly, I did not get a picture but I will always have the memory of how fulfilling the homemade tortellini was. And then there was the delicious tiramisu. I started to regret not including Italy on this round the world trip! There was no time to dwell on this thought as it was time to move on.

The wide river at Portomarín

The next day brought more, harder rain. I had had a dreadful nights sleep due to snorers and was greatly looking forward to a café con leche and a pasty in Portomarín. We ducked into the first cafe and we were served blah coffee. They don’t have pastries. Then a jackhammer starts up outside. After we leave I get stuck behind a gigantic youth group on the trail. It’s one of those days. I began to feel frustrated that I couldn’t get my desires met – sleep, good drink and food, peace. But part of the camino is learning to accept the bad with the good – even the teenagers. One day I will once again have more control over these things but in the meantime it is a trade off I make for the incredible experiences I am having this year.

Small stone chapel

When we finally arrived in Palais do Rei the camino gods took pity on us. After being told by albergue after albergue that they were full, we picked up a cancellation at the last one we checked.

Pulpo and white wine

The following dawn was a new day and I had a special treat to look forward to. Around lunch time we entered into the town of Melide and we made a beeline for Pulpería Ezequiel, a restaurant specializing in octopus. We ordered a grill plate for two which arrived dripping with olive oil and paprika, accompanied by crusty bread. Our white wine was served in small rustic bowls instead of glasses. With the long communal tables and convivial atmosphere it was the Spanish equivalent of a German beer garden. I loved it.

Grassy meadow

More rain in Galicia

That night in Arzúa we again garnered one of the last beds in town, this time in a rather dank basement. In the middle of the night we were awoken by strange screams. It sounded like a scene from the exorcist. But when someone with a flashlight went to investigate the screaming stopped and it was a mystery as to who was making the noise. You never know what can happen on the camino. The eeriness continued in the morning as we left before sunrise in a extremely thick fog. But as the clouds cleared we had a choice – to make a big 40km push to Santiago or take it slow with two 20km days. We decided on the latter. After so many kilometers why not draw it out a bit? We settled into a nice hostel in the tiny town of Arca o Pino.

Nathan on his way to the cathedral

And then it was the final day. We took it slow and stopped for coffee and cake. Somehow, we managed to avoid all the large groups and were able to have the trail largely to ourselves. We took time to reflect on our journey and all its highlights. Nathan and I felt that if we could finish the camino together, we could make it through anything. And we did!

We made it!

Walking up to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela did not provide any great epiphanies for me. I did not even sigh with relief. I simply felt grateful (again) that I had such a wonderful walk and that I had the physical ability to do it. To have met the people I did. To have the courage to fulfill my dream of taking this year off to explore the world. To be alive. I know how lucky I am.

Preparing the botafumeiro

After dropping off our bags we headed to the pilgrim mass. It was a Friday so it was crowded but there was a great energy in the room. And we even got to see the botafumeiro in action. This incense burning contraption swings through the church in a symbolic purification of the congregation. It is huge and weighs about 180 pounds! Seven people operate a pully from the 1600s to swing the botafumeiro at high speeds up to 50 feet in the air. Watching the crowd observing the whole show is also entertaining as their eyes and heads move with the pendulum motion. It was awesome. We even went to mass the next day just to see it again : )

Pimientos de padrón

Our celebratory lunch was outside on a plaza where Nathan spied one of his favorite tapas, pimientos de padrón. In the afternoon we simply walked around the town saying hello to people we recognized. We told everyone to meet in front of the cathedral for our last pilgrim dinner. A group of 14 of us gathered with plenty of hugs going around. It was a fitting end to a wonderful journey.

Plaza de las Platerías

Life Is Not A Race, Dondering On The Camino – Part 5 (by Nathan)

After three weeks of walking all the positive effects of the Camino are beginning to take affect. We are stronger and more capable in our walks of 12 to 25 miles (20-40km) wach day. Our bodies and feet ache less in the evenings and mornings. We are also much calmer, focused and easy going with each day, each hill and each footstep. It has been imprinted into our minds, our souls that every problem and every solution is reached one step at a time.

It is so easy to become caught up in the hurrying aspect of it all. Each day hundreds of caminantes (walkers) leave the albergues, hostels and hotels. The people pulse through the forests, farm lands and deserted sidewalks. Headlamps, clanking walking poles, whispered voices and the shuffled footsteps of obscure figures fill the moonless mornings. We walk at our standard pace of 4 to 5 km/hr (2.5-3mph), but still it is strange and uncomfortable when we are passed by person after person. We lengthen our stride, leverage our walking sticks to propel us forward and I huff at Carmen to quicken the pace. Eventually I realize the turmoil and anxiety within me; I stop, I close my eyes, I breath.

Carmen and her awesome hat

And I am passed by a small group of Spanish men. I am reminded how 29 days of walking can parallel 29,000 days of living (80 yrs). Carmen has been wonderful and encouraging that we walk at OUR pace. I tell myself “the Camino is not a race,”. We grab each other’s hand and we walk on. Similarly, life is not a race so we take time to observe and to appreciate everything around us. I have been learning to donder, to lolly gag, which, is actually a difficult challenge for me as I typically walk fast with purpose and conviction. Slowly, I am making progress.

Sunrise on the foothills west of Astorga

The walk west from Astorga slowly climbed into the mountains. For the last week the terrain changed little, but now we left the meseta behind and worked our way higher and higher, we approached Galicia.

Stunning landscape outside of Astorga

Aren’t we all just sheep in a field?

These mountains and foothills were amazingly spectacular. Shrubs, trees and wildflowers filled the rolling landscape. I remember stopping, breathing it all in and telling Carmen “This is soooo beautiful.” The terrain was red and rocky. And the smell, I distinctly remember the smell of thyme and dust. I spent many days thinking about time – what to do with it, why it is important. This strong fragrance further cultured these thoughts.

I am realizing that I value the power of patience more and more. This year off, this walk and maybe just growing older has shown me to slow down and let things go. Lack of control used to make me uncomfortable, but life happens. Deep down I am excited for a more patient me, less stressed and more skilled at adapting to any challenge. I am willing to stop and say “I am happy.” I can enjoy what I own, what I know and the people I love. What is the importance of the biggest house, highest salary or fastest car? Patience restructures life’s big hurry and we can be content. When life is good, rest, relax and enjoy it.

Carmen’s dead tired siesta

There are days that the walk thoroughly exhausts all energy from our body and mind. Those days require some warm sunlit grass and a siesta. I woke from my own nap one afternoon to find Carmen konked out overlooking the mountains.

Top of the mountain

Manharín Templar shack

I was mesmerized and entertained by the landscape. Each turn and each ridge opened up another view of the countryside. We stopped at a small shack that was the single residence of the Manharín village. We were invited for a communal lunch, and stayed for a dimly lit kitchen dinner and we slept in the “cabin.” Looking back on it, lodging that night more closely resembled a stable, but the food was rustic, home-cooked and delicious. It was worth a little sacrifice. In the morning we bid farewell to our mountain hosts and we clamored down the mountain.

Green sunlit Galician mountains

Knights Templar castle in Ponferrada

The green of the mountains was endless. The towns showed that they now had the resources of stone to build bigger and more magnificent buildings such as the castle in Ponferrada that was built by the knights templar.

Pieros main street

Vineyards outside Villa Franca del Bierzo

We entered into the Bierzo region. Rich wines made from Marcia grapes and picturesque cobbled streets.

Welcoming pilgrim statue

Botillo del Bierzo

Villa Franca creek

One of the most impressive of these towns was Villa Franca del Bierzo. A mountain town that could just as easily fit into the alps as in Galicia. We were met by an elegant pilgrim statue at the bridge. We stayed at an albergue (la piedra) that was built into the rock outcropping of a cliff. For dinner we had botillo, a local specialty of pig parts and chorizo like seasoning. It was heavy and hearty, but just what we needed. The next day would be our hardest day of climbing yet.

Narrow camino autentico

Golfer snake slithering the camino

We decided to walk separately this day. Carmen would walk the scenic route with 1,200m (4,000ft) of climbing and 32km (20mi) of walking. I went to for “the way of the dragon,” the extreme scenic route that climbed and descended four mountains with 2,000m (6,600ft) of upward change and nearly 40km (25mi) of hiking. My path would be small and sometimes non-existent. I was excited for a bit of solitude and way-finding exploration of the Galician mountains. By 7:30 I was 450m (1,500ft) into the clouds on a ridge looking down into Villa Franca and green mountains surrounded me.

Church bells of Vilar de Corales

Our trusty guide map from John Brierley

Shortly after the first town of Dragonte I had a short conversation with a couple on a morning walk along the quarry. They complimented me on walking the “verdad camino” and encouraged me to get a coffee in Moral de Valcarce. I walked into the tiny village of twenty inhabitants. I found nothing anywhere close to resembling a cafe and I quickly realized I must have understood incorrectly. An older women with dyed red hair leans far out of her kitchen window and yells “camino autentico.” I agree and I ask her where I could get a coffee. She shakes her head, then with a sudden realization her face brightens and I am rushed into her kitchen

In a matter of seconds I have a plate filled with mini chocolate croissants, and cookies. She pours me a coffee from the percolator and asks me if I want aguardiente. I look at her confused, aguardiente was the 80% digestive jet fuel that I finished meals with in Portugal. She scurries off to the adjacent room and returns with an ornate crystal bottle with the clear elixir. I pour a dabble and she insist on a little more.

Sofia, la Reina de España

We sit and talk. I have my first conversation where I felt confident enough to understand and communicate. It is so nice to talk to someone that slows down, enunciates and actually cares to hear and understand. I gesture to the two buckets of grapes on the counter. I learn about the complexities and wonder of the Marcia grape and her plan to juice and make a few bottles of wine. My plate is again filled. This time with an enormous bunch of grapes. She refills the mug with the thick black coffee. This time she takes the cup and insists on fixing it right this time.

A couple teaspoons of sugar and some aguardiente…1…2…3…4…seconds, oh what the hell, I watch as one quarter of my mug is filled. Another mound of grapes lands on my plate. Recognizing that my eyes were starting to bulge from my head, we decide to delicately wrap them for me to take on my journey. Our goodbye is met with the eyes of all the neighbors that just watched this young man leave her house. She jokes that she is starting a cafe. I learn her name “Sofia, la reina de España,” how could I ever forget the sweet welcoming queen of Spain?

Abandoned cantina in San Fiz de Seo

Winding oak-lined path

I descend the mountain walking on a cloud. A combination of meeting such a delightful woman, the beautiful scenery and I’m sure the pot of coffee and aguardiente had something to add. The trees thicken, I get lost, then bushwhack my way up the hillside to the village of Vilar de Corales. A sweet dog escorts me to the water fountain and I meander my way through forests and tiny mountain villages.

Green hills from descent to Herrerias

Cows in Herrerias

I cross rock quarries and farmland. Hours of walking and I only encountered six people from the various villages. In Herrerias I finally merge with the main camino. I am greeted by some cows and rejuvenated with some grapes from my pack. The last climb is more of a slog, I am exhausted, but I meet the smiling face of Carmen when I finally stagger in O’Cebriero. There is no doubt that Spain has changed before our eyes we are now deep into Galicia.

Green farmland seen from Faba

How Jesus Brought My Skirt Back From the Dead, a Camino Miracle – Part 4 (by Carmen)

Tree farm providing much needed shade

Map of the camino near León

We were in the final stages of the meseta, the flat and largely shadeless plateau stretching 231 km (144 mi) between Burgos and Astorga. The sun was hot but the lack of change in elevation meant we could achieve greater distances. With this in mind we endured long walks from Carrión to Sahagún and then to Mansilla. We stole shade when we could from the small tree farm groves that would spring up occasionally. The towns themselves were rather unremarkable places. The true highlight was mingling with other pilgrims, either over a dinner in the main square or a beer in the albergue courtyard.

Nathan in cloister

Cloister keystones

By this point, León was in our sights. This one of the larger cities on the camino and as soon as we passed the medieval city walls into the old town, Nathan and I were impressed. A maze of cozy winding streets led out onto pleasant plazas. There were a two main historic sites to see. The first was the painted ceiling of the Iglesia de San Isodoro. Frescos almost 1000 years old look down on the tombs of kings from that period. I was so amazed at how the biblical stories depicted are still relevant so many years later. The second sight towers above the entire city.

Leon cathedral from the plaza

Tons of stained glass inside the cathedral

The nearby cathedral was the true gem, though. They had used advancements in the gothic architecture of the time to build soaring ceilings and walls of stained glass.

Gaudí building in León

We were also treated to a building by a favorite architect, Gaudí. We learned that the building was significant as the first major building in the town to be built by a middle class citizen as opposed to the church or aristocracy.

Pulpo on the plaza

For dinner we settled into a small plaza ready to people watch. While deciding what to order we saw a plate of pulpo (octopus) pass by and we had to have it. With a. bottle of rosé we watched the street theater come to life. By the time we finished eating at the very early hour of 9:30pm, things were just getting going. But it was bedtime for us.

The next day I was dealing with the side effects of an unfortunate reality of the camino – bed bugs. I learned that my proclivity for attracting mosquitos meant I was extremely attractive to their blood-sucking, bed ridden cousins. It is truly disheartening to feel so vulnerable and helpless against the attack of such a tiny creature. And, like mosquitos, I am allergic. On the morning we left León, my body decided to react to a collection of bites on my big toe by forming a giant blister. Not good when you have 35km ahead of you.

So we made it a short day and ended up at Casa de Jesús (named after the owner) in Manarife. It was a strange day since we felt that we had more energy to walk off but my toe prevented further movement. We used our time to write, do laundry, catch up on the internet and recoup in general. But since Manarife was extremely tiny, we were anxious to move on to Astorga the next day.

Nathan on bridge into town

Spain’s got hops

The walk to Astorga passed through cute towns, more trees and even a crop of hops.  As we neared our destination I suddenly realized that I had left my skirt on the clothes line in Manzarife. It was just a skirt but I had only brought one other pair of pants. I also cherished this skirt as the perfect travel wear since it also turns into a halter top. Seriously, how cool is that? For the rest of the walk I had to force myself not to think about the loss.

Nathan the peregrino

Tree lined path

In Astorga I was resolved to act. I called the albergue and arranged for my skirt to be taken with a transport company that usually transfers people’s backpacks to a town I would pass through the next day. I also called the place it was to be delivered so they could expect it. Accomplishing all this in Spanish was a feat and I was proud.

Afterwards we walked around Astorga, which surprised me by how pretty it was. We meandered along the shops selling jamón, chocolate and a local shortbread called mantecadas. We joined some fellow pilgrims for wine and tapas in a broad plaza.

Astorga cathedral exterior

Me inside the cathedral

Then we headed over to the cathedral – yes another one! It’s lucky that neither Nathan nor I get tired of going to these magnificent structures. Each one has its own story, architecture and feel. This one was rather bare inside but had a beautiful baroque façade. Next door we explored another excellent Guadí building, originally constructed as a monastery. His creative decor of ceilings and walls always amazes me. I also liked that the entryway included his signature art nouveau arch.

Gaudí in Astorga

The next day, I arrived at the meeting point I had arranged for my skirt hopeful only to find that the backpacks had arrived but not my package. After a few calls I was told he was coming. I tried not to get my hopes up as I waited. But came he did and I was reunited with my favorite skirt. When I asked how much I owed he waved me away and said nothing. It was so kind and I left the albergue buoyed on a wave of gratitude.

I felt so so grateful – to Jesus the albergue owner in Manarife, to Jose Luis for driving it, to the staff at Albergue del Pilar for trying to help me figure things out. It was the kindness of strangers that made me feel cared for, even loved. It got me thinking about the power of love in all its forms. How easy it really is to give and receive. How it is a common link of everyone in the world. How there should be more of it. I got to thinking about the people I love in life and how I wish I could spend more time with them. In the end I was moved to tears over a silly skirt. The tears were not of sadness but I felt as though all the love of the world had entered me and filled me up. These moments of awareness or enlightenment or whatever you want to call it are so fulfilling yet fleeting. It’s funny how you can feel clarity on how the essence of life one moment and then it becomes somewhat elusive the next. Even as I write this it is hard to understand the intensity of emotion I felt at that moment. That is what the camino can do though. It wears you down mind, body and soul until you start afresh and appreciate everyday life’s small miracles.

Blisters And Deep Thoughts On The Camino – Part 2 (by Nathan)

Pilgrims ascending to Torres del Rio

The first week of walking was filled with excitement, but quickly like the sharp pains of our blisters, the reality of our undertaking throbbed at our hearts and minds. We slowly made our way through Narvarre into the Rioja region of Spain. The sun would slowly awaken from the horizon and steadily beat down on us from overhead. One step at a time, we moved further westward. The novelty of walking across Spain was worn out and we had time, lots of time to fully interpret, analyze and entertain the great thoughts and reasons for undergoing a pilgrimage.

Orchard of sunflowers

“Pilgrimage” is a metaphor for life- there will be hardships, joy and glory with the finished effort. And this walk will be used as an opportunity for me to assess my life, my goals and my expectations for the upcoming months, years and decades of my future. I created a set of questions that I read to inspire thought, conversation and debate in my head throughout the day:
1) What are you carrying (material belongings, anger, stress, negativity) that is not necessary?
2) Where are you going in life/career/family/etc?
3) Are you being greatful for health, partnership and the hospitality of your hosts?

Rustic street in Los Arcos

Painted church ruins of Viana

A walk like this can be done for millions of reasons. Most traditionally a pilgrim hoped to be absolved of his sins upon arriving to Santiago. Although, I won’t be denying this privilege, I hope to gain a better understanding of who I am, who I want to be and how to get there. I find myself relating to the most common age group on the Camino (50-60 yr olds). Like me, they have changed or ended jobs and the Camino serves as a canvas to draft the plans for what comes next.

Nájera climb out of town

Rioja vineyard

The fountain of wine that Carmen described, was a highlight to my first week on the trail. For the next week we walked our way through one of the agricultural strongholds of Spain. Hill after hill and field after field were bright green from the vineyards or tan from the stalks of recently cut wheat. It appears that spaniards survive off of two things: wine and bread. Carmen and I enjoyed both of course.

Tent camping in the forest

Forest dinner of cured meat, local cheese, olives and bread

One night we enjoyed a wonderful evening camping between the vines outside Logroño, another night in the pine forests near San Juan. Our dinner of local delicatessen treats was eaten peacefully a few hundred feet from the trail. Every night in our tent was filled with the uneasy sounds of a strange place, but the stars welcomed us each morning and we walked on.

Carmen at sunrise

The mornings have become the best time to walk. We have began the routine of the peregrino, awake by 5:45am and we begin walking by 6:30. This means that the sky is still very dark, and the path only subtly lit by moonlight. The light very gradually increases its intensity and by 8 we embraced by the golden light. By 9 we are pulling off long sleeves, lathering on suntan lotion and shielding our faces with our funny floppy hats.

Plump ripe grapes

The abundance of grape vines have been wonderful for snacking. I did not want any bad karma with Dionysus (god of wine), so I only ate the bunches that “naturally” fell off on their own (yes, this does happen).

The wonderful Azofra albergue

Some nights we turn in the tent for a hot shower and mattress to sleep on. There are municipal and private albergues in almost every town so it has been easy to find a place to take off our boots and put our feet up. One place in Azofra was wonderful; the rooms were private and simple and the sun was brilliant as it beamed onto the hallway outside our room.

Santo Domingo

Grañón street

We pass through dozens of tiny towns and medium cities. Every couple hours there is winding road leading through some ancient village. The stone buildings huddle together with impressive density. The people walk the streets repeating “buen camino” to every pilgrim that passes. Sometimes we stop for a café cortado, other times we walk on through. Each village has its own charm and hundreds of years of history of being on the Camino de Santiago.

Colorful building in Viloria de la Rioja

The camino has been a pleasurable and powerful experience thus far. There has been time to look deeply inward as well as a time to admire the history of a beautiful country. The details of the towns are enriched by the footsteps needed to view them – slowly a town enters into view over the horizon, and slowly the buildings come into focus. Each step forward reveals another ancient building, a roman foundation or a vast farmland. Then the towns, the people and the land are just faint memories; they disappear slowly and shrink in the distance. There are still 350 more miles of Camino ahead.

It Is Much Less Stress Going Car-Less (by Nathan)

Sunset over Donner Lake, made possible with my car.

Freedom.  Finally I was free, sixteen years old and I had a driver’s license and a car.  I could go anywhere and do anything.  It took hard work, but after two years of dishwashing I had saved enough to buy a used pickup truck and the insurance and gas to keep it going.  I did not realize it then, but this first purchase, this first attempt at freedom meant that I would be constrained and obligated to maintain, insure, fuel and protect my investment.   Owning a car comes with baggage, too much baggage.  I just sold my car and I am now more free than I ever was!

Owning and driving a car in the United States has become more than a privilege, but a right and a necessity.  “I love public transit (for other people), but don’t take away my parking space” is a phrase that echoes in thousands of forms across the urban areas of the United States.  With subsidized gasoline and smooth highways, GPS and music at your fingertips, who wouldn’t want to drive?  For many, that act of driving is essential to their lives, maybe it is freedom, maybe it is easy, but I wish that everyone knew just how expensive driving a car can be.                                  

  • American drivers                        Nathan                  Nat’l Average
  • Average miles per year:                 6,700 mi                13,500 mi
  • Average cost per mile:                   $0.37                      $0.64
  • Average cost per year:                   $2,500                   $8,500
  • Average cost per day:                    $6.90                      $24.20
  • Average hours per year:                192 hrs                   386 hrs
  • *Sources AAA Driving Costs & FWHA Annual  Driving Averages

Owning the same little pickup truck for twelve years has its perks.  With my one and only car, my vehicle costs were almost a quarter of the national average.  And I still spent almost $7 a day to keep my wheels ready to move when I wanted them.  How did I keep the costs low?  I bought a cheap truck for cash, insured it with bare minimums, I performed my own maintenance and a rarely drove.  Over twelve years my vehicle related costs were over $30,000.  Not anymore.

These are just personal costs; no one realizes the stress of just driving, the necessity to focus on the road, the anxiety from unpredictable traffic and the road rage that flows to and from all the drivers on the road.  The infrastructure costs to create and maintain roadways and the environmental impact from personal car use is also not considered in these numbers, if people knew these numbers would they still be petitioning against that new train, BRT or subway line?

I will miss my little truck.  We had some great memories together.  My truck and I initiated my love of travel with trips to the mountains and canyons of the western United States.  We camped under the stars, blasted our favorite tunes and for over a decade we had a life that was entwined and dependent on each other.

My last day with my truck

Dear little black truck:

I am breaking up with you.  As you know, I am no longer working.  I will be traveling for the next year and I cannot give you the attention you deserve.  I find that I am much happier when I am on a subway train or bus.  I think we would both be better if we had someone/something else in our lives.

This does not mean that I did not enjoy grabbing onto your hard steering wheel, pushing your gas pedal and driving you crazy through the day and night.  Thank you for all those good times.   I remember all of our wonderful hours together, the miles upon miles of open road and how you kept me safe.  You will be missed.

To my four-banger, the little-truck-that-could and the Nissan Hardbody (oh wait that was your real name), I wish you the best life romping through the grassy hills of the Marin headlands.



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