Camino de Santiago: Did I achieve my goals?

In one of my first blogs about the Camino, I talked about the why for this 5 week hike. Today, I want to talk about whether or not I achieved my goals. My goals were three-fold: Get in better shape; connect with God; research potential short-term teams for the Camino.

During my first week on the Camino, one of the hostel owners told me that most people don’t lose weight on the Camino. That boggled my mind, until I realized that the average person walking the Camino didn’t have to lose much weight, so the balance of gaining muscle and losing some fat would tend to leave them close to the same weight. I was not the average Camino hiker, so, yes I did lose weight around 25 lbs (~12kgs). I also definitely gained muscle and was in better shape when I was done than when I started. Did it jump-start weight loss though? Sadly, not really. It is easy to eat less and healthier when you are hiking every day because who wants to feel bad when they have to walk 6 hours the next day? It’s been a tough transition back to the “regular life” where I don’t have time to hike 6 hours a day and the goal of being in better shape is not as physical as a place you need to reach. It’s been tough, but the desire is still there.

My second goal was achieved, but just like the weight loss it is tough to continue. During the Camino I prayed every day and multiple times each day. I talked to God as a much more normal part of my day. Back in “real life” and the distractions are much more prevalent. Again, the desire is there, but finding a routine is much more needed than on the Camino,

The last goal was the biggest success of them all. My friend and I want to do a Camino hike short-term mission’s trip, so throughout my time I was thinking about how we could hike and serve simultaneously for a week, but then also serve for a second week while remaining in once place. What I found was that there are so many opportunities throughout the whole 5 weeks that it we could be very flexible and even hike the whole Camino over a 5 year period. There is a coffee/tea shop run by GEM missionaries at the end of week one where part of our team could serve while the others could set up break stations for people along the path leading to and from the city. The toughest section of the hike (the Meseta) can get really hot and boring, so providing cold water, or friends to walk with could aid those in need. I’ve got so many ideas that to share them here would get a bit long, but needless to say, I can see multiple ways in which we could effectively serve the pilgrims and show them the love of Christ. What comes of this is yet to be determined, but I would love for this to be a team I could lead every year for many years to come.

Camino de Santiago: Fat Man Walking

Fat, chubby, husky and pleasantly plump are all names I’ve heard before. And yes, pleasantly plump was actually the way someone suggested you refer to overweight people. My thought is, maybe refer to them by their name? But what do I know? That’s not really the point though. The point is that I am a big guy and I walked the Camino. I know I’m a big guy, it’s not like I can hide it.

Walking the Camino as a big guy, I really stick out since most people who hike the trail are a lot smaller than I am. That’s not to say that I was the only overweight person on the trail because that simply would not be true. There were several of us out there, doing what we needed to do to accomplish our goal. I may or may not have been the biggest person on the trail during my time (How could I possibly know that?), but I can say I was one of the biggest. This isn’t to pat myself on the back or anything. That’s not the point of this blog either.

The point of this blog is about judging. On the hike I saw a lot of people, of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, age, sexuality, religions, etc. I saw a lot of people and they were all very different. While walking I, unfortunately, made a lot of judgements in my head before even learning their name. I’d see the people out late every night and think one thing, then I’d see someone walking really slow or really fast and think another. It was sad, really, that I didn’t give people more of a shot before instantly judging them.

This is a problem that isn’t mine alone, but it needs to stop. We all need to stop doing those snap judgements. Sometimes the snap judgements may be correct, but that doesn’t make them the right thing to do. Just because someone is (insert trait here) doesn’t make them (insert trait here). I think most people who saw me on the Camino would never have guessed I was walking the whole 500 miles. And yet…I did. They would have probably also been surprised to hear I’ve run a marathon, 3 half-marathons, two triathlons and a bunch of other races as well. Again, not to brag, but rather to show that our initial judgements can be way off, so how about we say hello before we think we know all we need to know about them.

Go out there and say hello to someone. Take a chance that your judgements are wrong and find out for yourself.

Camino de Santiago: Life-draining Straightaways

I can see my destination. I’m almost there. It’s so close I can almost taste the Pilgrim menu waiting for me. A nap is near. How is the town still that far away? Am I walking in place? Am I seeing a mirage? And I will walk 500 miles, and I will walk 500 more…

That is essentially what happened in my head every day for a solid week during what is known as the Meseta (plateau). No lies, the Meseta is dreaded by most pilgrims who have heard the horror stories of those who came before them. Some people planned to skip the Meseta completely or to rent a bike to make the 109 miles go by as quickly as possible.

The Meseta reminded me of Kansas, or Iowa, or Nebraska, or any of the other flat states that consist of pretty much nothing besides farms. It’s not that it was ugly, it was that it was the same…always the same. And flat is nice, but when you can see your destination which is actually 10 miles down the road it always looks like you have made zero progress even though your legs are telling you that they are tired.

When reflecting on the Meseta, I saw a direct correlation with other times in my life. Other times when I knew the destination, but I was so focused on it that it never looked like it was getting closer. I didn’t take the time to appreciate the journey, to look around at the scenery and recognize the beauty that surrounded me. Sure the farms may not be as beautiful to me as the mountains and streams that I prefer, but that doesn’t make them less beautiful. I can’t say I loved all aspects of the Meseta, but it was on those long stretches of straight road where I had some of the best conversations and some of the best times of deep thought.

I can’t help but think about what I have missed on the path of life, that was beautiful in and of itself, even if it wasn’t the beauty I was wanting. Maybe you’ve experienced this too, maybe without even realizing it. Think about some of the best things in your life right now. Were they the destination you thought you were headed to or were they the result of a change in destination or a delay in reaching the destination? Maybe your best friend is your best friend because of how close you became when you were going through a rough patch and needed someone to talk to. Maybe your career is not what you thought you would be doing, but it is exactly what you should be doing and where your real skills lie.

My challenge to myself, and to you all as well, is to look around wherever you are in life right now and appreciate the things that are present. They may not be what you thought you wanted or needed, but maybe they can be loved just the same.

Camino de Santiago: Pushing Through the Pain

Pain is normal. Pain is expected. Pain is ever present. Pain is the Camino.

That may seem a bit dramatic to say, but let’s be honest, could you really imagine not having any pain after hiking 25 km (15 mi) every day for 32 days? I mean, really? No matter how much you prepare you can never really prepare for the Camino and even if you did, you will still experience pain. Whether the pain comes in the form of blisters, muscle soreness, bruised toes, knee issues or any other of a wide variety of possibilities, the pain is there.

For me, the pain was a bit different. I didn’t always share all of the details of my pain, because even what I did share caused some people to worry about me. I was fine, or mostly fine…whatever.

The three days prior to my start I was laid up in bed pretty sick. In fact, I considered not going at all, or at least taking an extra day in St. Jean before beginning, and yet, I did neither of those and started May 1st with a cold and cough. I felt decent, but it was obvious the cold wasn’t truly gone because on day 4 I went to an Urgent Care and had a doctor check it out. Turns out, he didn’t speak English nor I Spanish, so the prescription wasn’t for what I needed, but my sister came to the rescue and told me to get an inhaler and cough syrup for what was, most likely, bronchitis. The bronchitis could have ended my Camino, but I pushed on.

Soon after came a pain, that was excruciating towards the end of every day’s hike and when I would lay down. A simple device, that once again came on the suggestion of my sister, helped alleviate the vast majority of the pain. That pain may have ended my Camino, but I pushed on.

Then came the Achilles pain which caused every step to hurt. A train ride and two nights in a hotel helped make it a manageable pain. My Achilles should have ended my Camino, but I pushed on.

At this point you may be thinking, “What an idiot!” and you might be right, but I pushed through that pain and the last two weeks were nearly pain free. But why did I push through the pain? Well, simply put I wasn’t done yet. I wasn’t done connecting with God and other people. I wasn’t done researching for my work and quite frankly I wasn’t done growing.

Pain helps growth and if I would have given up on day 4, I wouldn’t have grown nearly as much as I did. Pain is a way in which we can be forced to grow or change. When we injure ourselves it may be forcing us to slow down and see more of what is happening which we may have ignored before. The pain after lifting weights is literally making us stronger. The pain of a break-up can help us see what we want/need in a relationship. The pain of this trip helped me rely on other people and pray to God for His will more than I may have done otherwise.

My Camino was painful; physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. I pushed through the pain so that I could grow. What pain are you experiencing right now that you might need to push through (with the help of God and others of course!)?

Camino de Santiago: Devotionals

In preparation for the Camino I reached out to a bunch of my close friends and asked them to give me a favorite passage of their from the Bible. For each day of the Camino I wrote out the passage they gave me and included their name. Each day I would start out (if I remembered and wasn’t getting ready in a pitch black room) by reading the verse and the name of the person who gave it to me.

Throughout the day I would try to think about the verse, but even more so I would keep the person in mind and pray for them throughout the day. Since my Camino was a spiritual experience I needed prompts for prayer and for thought provoking topics. When you have 6+ hours of hiking, some days you run out of things to think about and these verses helped greatly!

This was my way of connecting with God and with my friends. It also helped keep me focused, or as my friend says, “Keep the main thing, the main thing.”

I’d be curious to know, what would you do to help keep yo spiritually focused on a long hike/trip like the Camino?

Camino de Santiago: An extrovert’s dream?

49,000+ pilgrims arrived in Santiago in June of 2019. I was one of those and most of the people I walked with would have been in those numbers as well. 49,000 people is a ridiculous number. That essentially means you are never alone. Maybe you will walk alone for part of each day, but you will never really be alone. An extrovert’s dream, right?

I’m an extrovert, of that there is no doubt. So, hiking the Camino should have been just what I wanted, tons of people at all times. To some extent, it is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be with people every day and the days I struggled the most were also the days I walked and ate by myself. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted some alone time, but the best days were days where there was a combination of people and alone time. With 49,000 people (an average of 1,633 people finishing per day) it was rare to get those days. That didn’t make it bad, it just made it more difficult to contemplate all of life’s deeper questions like, “What crops are they growing in this field,” or “What was the name of the person I walked with yesterday?” You know…the deep stuff.

But like I said, I’m an extrovert, so shouldn’t the ridiculous number of people been exactly what I wanted? Well, yes, kind of. I met so many amazing people over the course of the 5 weeks and I was genuinely glad to see them when I did. In fact, my best memories were directly tied to the people I met and I will never forget them. It was a bit of an extrovert’s dream, but there were two problems with the number of people. The first problem was there were always people. If you were doing the Camino for a pilgrimage you had to deal with the fact that your silence would probably get interrupted by someone and way sooner than you’d probably prefer. Dealing with that was pretty easy though as most people understood when you would say you wanted time and silence to think. They were, after all, probably wanting silence sometimes as well.

The second issue was a bit different, and maybe it was uniquely my issue, but probably not. When you didn’t have a connection with any one of the hundreds of pilgrim’s staying in the same town as you, it could prove to be very lonely. Walking out of a hostel and seeing so many people laughing, relaxing, eating and otherwise enjoying each other’s company was tough on the days when all you felt like doing was joining in, but not feeling like you could. Those were the lonely days.

Those lonely days are where I learned a lot about myself. Even though I am an extrovert, I struggle introducing myself to people who look like they don’t need another member of their group. I learned that I do this, because I am not confident in myself. At my worst times I don’t think I will add value to their group or that they won’t like me. What’s amusing is, that time and again, when I met people and joined in on their conversations, we had a good time, so clearly this was a me thing. It a ridiculous me thing too and I am fully aware.

The thing is, I know this now. I know this stems from a long list of issues I have about myself and this was one of the many things of value that the Camino gave to me. When I had some time to myself, to think and pray about why I was on the Camino, God revealed more about my character and showed me His love through all of those thousands of others. This extrovert was blessed by the welcomeness of others, but also the awareness that we all needed some alone time.

Camino de Santiago: Serving

In my previous post about why I walked the Camino de Santiago I mentioned doing research on potential short-term mission trips. As I walked, I was observing what needs there were for both the pilgrims and the locals. Obviously I didn’t have to observe some of the needs as I felt them firsthand.

The following ideas are simply that; ideas. That is all they can be at this point. The way we work, in GEM Teams, is we work with European partners who would benefit by having a short-term team come and serve alongside them. Without that, there will not be a short-term team. That being said, here are some potential ideas I thought about while on my way:

  • Hike for a week and then serve somewhere for a week. Potentially finishing the whole Camino over 5 years.
  • While hiking set up nightly discussions on topics such as hope, forgiveness, love, etc.
  • Volunteer at Pilgrims’ Oasis in Viana, Spain
  • Set up aid stations in particularly tough areas providing water, fruit, ice cream, etc.
  • Take photos of people on the Camino with their phone or with a nice camera and email later
  • Have massage therapists, physical therapists, doctors, and/or nurses help with injuries.
  • Find a place to prepare communal meals for small or large groups and invite people to come and enjoy.

There are more ideas of places to stay and work, but these ideas are the ones I think are the most likely to work. Depending on the group we could potentially get to come, any, all or none of these ideas might work. I made some contacts along the way and I’m excited for the potential of how we can serve those on the Way.

Camino de Santiago: Communal Meals

It is no big secret that I am both a fan of food and talking to new people and so it should come as no big surprise that my favorite moments on the Camino came around a dinner table.

Throughout the Camino there are many options for places to stay. Almost every village or town had at least two hostels to choose from. Knowing what I know now, I would tell anyone and everyone who asks for my advice to stay at places that offer a communal meal. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert these communal meals can be very valuable, enjoyable and delicious.

The communal meals were often done at smaller hostels, where we would all gather together to have a meal instead of going to a restaurant by ourselves or with people we have already met. These meals forced you to sit down, take a load off and get to know some of your fellow pilgrims.

So, other than the obvious, why would I enjoy these meals so much? Well, it was a chance to enjoy a home-cooked meal (most of the time), but also a time for us to forget about the struggles of walking, tell stories and laugh together. It never failed that, when I had a communal meal, more laughs and fun happened than just about any other times.

On the Camino, but also life in general, we need fun and laughter. These communal meals not only filled our bellies with some incredible food, but also our hearts with people.

When every day looks practically the same having a meal with laughter and new people can be incredibly beneficial. Laughter has been proven to help with mental health as well as boosting the immune system and releasing endorphines. Each day comes with similar struggles; the blisters, aches, pains and monotony of it all can take their toll on most people. Ending the day with people who understand what you are going through and letting loose a little bit, might just save your Camino, but it definitely will make it more memorable.

Some of my favorite memories of my Camino will be the communal meals at Oasis Trails hostel with one of the best vegetarian dishes I’ve ever had, or the meal at Refugio de Peregrinos Acacio y Orietta where our host cooked a delicious meal with a ridiculous amount of food and the Benedictine Monastary in Sahagun with some pasta cooked by some Italian pilgrims. Oh and who can forget the giant Paella in Hontana at Albergue Juan de Yepes?

We laughed, we shared, we opened up to complete strangers, and we were all better because of it. If you get a chance to do a communal meal on your Camino I recommend you do so, whole-heartedly. In fact, why wait for the Camino? Find some people and invite them to your house for a communal meal of your own.

Camino de Santiago: The way?

Throughout the Camino de Santiago there were guideposts to show you that you were on the right path. Most places used a yellow arrow to show the path, other paces had a sign with a pilgrim and an arrow while other places had little metal discs in the sidewalk. No matter where you were, there was something that would show you you were on the right track.

In some places the path would get a bit crowded, but not necessarily with fellow pilgrims. The Camino would often go through major cities and because of that you would come across people who were not hiking, but were sharing the same path and it got me thinking.

Camino de Santiago, in Spanish, means the Way to Santiago. On my third day of hiking I was leaving Pamplona and I saw a guy walking right along the Camino. He was on “The Way” and yet, he wasn’t.

This guys could have been a pilgrim. He was doing the exact same thing as I was, walking on the path, but at the same time he wasn’t walking with the same goal. Minus the lack of backpack, others seeing him may have wondered if he was a pilgrim.

After seeing this man, it got me thinking (and man, did I ever have a lot of free time to think on the Camino). There are so many “good” people out there that are doing things we, as Christians, are supposed to be doing. They are living a “good” life, being kind to others, helping those in need, donating to charities to help those less fortunate, etc. Some of those peopel would consider themselves Christian, while others may believe in a different religion or even none at all.

So, what sets Christians apart? Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) There is only one path to Heaven and it’s not our deeds. Yes, as James says, we should show our faith by our deeds (James 2:18), but our faith in Christ’s actions is what sets us apart. We are all sinners, yet because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we were made whole. When we are walking “The Way” it is not because we want to be a good person, it is because we know we are not and it is only through Jesus that others can be made clean, like we have been.

Camino de Santiago: A Taxi and a Train

Everyone who starts the Camino has an idea of what they are willing to do and not do in order for them to view the Camino as a success. Some people plan to walk every single step of the Camino with a pack on their back. Some people have a strict deadline, so they plan on 2 days of rest as the guide book suggests. I, too, had my plan. I gave myself 4 days to rest and had no thoughts of doing anything other than carrying my pack every step of the way.

Day one my plan changed and I wasn’t happy about it. First off, let me tell you about day one of the Camino starting in St. Jean Pied de Port. It is an absolutely beautiful hike, but it also is absolutely difficult. The guide books say it is 25ish km (15 miles), but 20 km are straight up a mountain and the other 5 are straight down said mountain. In other words, the day is rough! This is day one too! No one is ready for that day, I don’t care how good of shape they are in, it is a tough day for almost everyone.

After about 8 hours of hiking up and down a mountain I sat down because I was feeling a bit odd. Almost as soon as I sat down I realized I had not managed my food and water intake very well and was about to pass out. I was walking with a British guy named James that day and he sat with me as I attempted to get back to normal. After the break and then another hour of walking we arrived at our destination…or so I thought. Sadly, once we got to Roncesvalles, we were told that there were no more beds there or in any town for another 12 km. Needless to say, we were frustrated. At that point we had two options: Walk 12 more km (3+ hours) or take a taxi. I did not have another 12 km in me, so a group of 6 of us got in a taxi and were driven to a place to stay.

One the way to our new destination we all talked about what the next day might look like. Would we take a taxi back to Roncesvalles so we could walk every step of the Camino, or would we just start our day from where the taxi dropped us off. It was a tougher decision than it sounds. The Camino is 786 km long. You plan for 786 km and not 774 km. The certificate you get at the end says 786 km, not 774 km. Taking a taxi is cheating. If you don’t walk it, you didn’t do it. That is what was running through my head, but in the end I decided to take the taxi and recognize that 12 km was 1.5% of the whole hike and missing out on that little wasn’t a big deal.

Fast forward about 3 weeks and I was having a major issue with my Achilles. Every step caused me pain. It wasn’t unexpected seeing as I had walked over 450 km (279 mi), but the pain was getting to be too much. There was no way that I would have been able to continue on for another 2 weeks at the pace I needed to have in order to catch my flight. I had to keep moving, but I also had to stop. Again, I was faced with the decision to continue walking and potentially end my journey in a hospital, or to take a train for 37 km to León where I had a hotel reservation and could properly rest for two days. I chose the latter and because of that rest I was able to continue on.

Towards the end of the Camino my friends and I all had a common saying. Whenever we discussed doing something that others might judge as not being Camino-like we would say, “This is our Camino.” Essentially it meant that we all needed to do things that allowed us to continue on. We could have made the decision to stop, but if we wanted to continue we needed to do certain things like sending our pack ahead to the next town when we were about to climb a mountain, or take a taxi because we physically couldn’t do more, or stay in a hotel because we wanted a good night’s sleep.

My Camino involved all of the above and yet I will always say that I completed the Camino, all 786 km. I just needed a little help at times (isn’t that always the truth) to finish strong. And what happened when I got to Santiago? I felt so good, I literally danced, but that story is for another day.