Five Years

I glanced at the date at the bottom of my screen, but the glance turned into deeper vision as I fell into that place. May 17 will always be the darkest day for my family, the most unnatural of places, where a father watches his son depart; where an entire family is changed, in an instant, numb and wandering, looking for whys.

Perhaps it’s that point, when we actually realize that we’re numb, that we look around and find ourselves embracing, not clinging to stay afloat, but rather holding each other up.  These are intensely personal thoughts and emotions, but shared as evangelism, as we each hold a piece of puzzle and struggle with how it fits into our own journey.

We place one foot in front of another and choose our paths alone.  At times of insight, we realize that we have chosen to walk with others by no accident.  We are, in fact, “here for a reason,” although sometimes it’s a struggle to know why.  Not in the context of, “everything happens for a reason.”  I stopped believing that a lifetime ago.  But rather, in response this sometimes tragic life, how do I respond?  Where do I go, both literally and figuratively?  Which direction do I look for guidance, to make sense out of any of it?  And whom do I find myself walking with, as I look around, when I finally emerge from the anaerobic depths.

I stopped being numb only when I finally realized that although sometimes those who I walk with are holding me up, and are “here for a reason,” this is my journey, and only I can choose to feel again, to breathe again, to live again.

Four years ago today, after hiking, falling, and crawling 540 miles from France, across the north of Spain on my first Camino de Santiago, I held my wife Sharon’s hand and entered the Cathedral of St. James.  The pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle is life changing for everyone who completes or even attempts it, in very unique and individual ways.  It was here that I began to look around and notice where I was, and those around me.  Somewhere during the month, I began to look at myself from a different lens and realize how my words and emotions were changing.  I don’t think these were my own eyes, this was someone else’s vision of me.

My story was one of great pain and loss, and I wanted to make everyone else know the pain, and cry with me.  I hated this journey, I hated my life, and I hated everyone I encountered because they didn’t feel my pain.  But, as I walked the Camino de Santiago, I began to feel again, to stop hating, to love again.

Somewhere along the path I had stopped enjoying the tears of others.  Clearly it had been a struggle, but I saw myself and my swollen knees, black and blue and bloody from so many falls, struggling up and down the trails, continue to carry me forward one step at a time.  And I saw myself embracing others, from Belgium, France, Germany, China, Morocco, Canada, Japan, Spain, and so many other places.  They carried their own crosses of pain – their own unique struggles and grief.  Others were there for a reason also, and my walking with them was no coincidence. My story began to change from one of death and loss to one of life and salvation.  And the words and stories and memories I found myself sharing were those of love and happiness and support for others who were also hurting and struggling to find some sense in their own lives.

   

Working through grief is hard work, and it very different for each of us.  There is no recovery, no return to the previous path, no “new normal.”  Loss is not something to get past, to recover from, so we can “get on with life.”

In the movie foreshadowing so much of my life, The Way, when “Jack from Ireland” discovers that Dr. Tom (Martin Sheen) has lost his son and is carrying and spreading his ashes along the way, he exclaims, “That’s brilliant! Tragic of course, but brilliant!”

And so it is.  Life is, in fact brilliant and beautiful.  Of course there is tragedy and great loss.  But it’s tragic because of its beauty, and we only see the brilliance of salvation because of the loss.

I don’t love my life in spite of my losses.  Like my son I have things I struggle with.  But struggles and losses don’t mean his life wasn’t beautiful, and meaningful, and love filled for everyone he encountered.  His having lived for 19 years made the world a much better place.  I have chosen to embrace my loves and losses, because they make me, me.  Cullen was here for a reason, and so am I.

  William Cullen Klein  IMG_3615

Each year since that accident have found me remembering the date in remarkable, meaningful places.  Santiago twice, Morocco, Lourdes, and today, on the fifth year reflecting on his beautiful life, I’m at the Trappist Monastery where Thomas Merton wrote his classic Seven Story Mountain.

Today doesn’t have to be about loss.  Many celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and other joyful celebrations. Please join me in thanksgiving for a beautiful life.

His, mine, and yours.

Much Love.

Cullen’s favorite pose

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12 May 2022 – Bucha and Borodyanka

I couldn’t say it would be easy, but I will say I could go on and on this entire post about the sheer destruction of these two areas in Ukraine. Homes, businesses, recreation complex, shopping center, apartments, and the horrific stories of vehicles filled with families – moms desperately trying to flee with the children and if they had a few seconds, a few pictures, clothes, toys. Once I write this post, I don’t think I’ll ever revisit these scenes with my eyes. Liked the scorched earth, the horror is etched on my heart and in my mind forever. Driving down the still blood stained infamous road of Bucha brings my stomach up as I recall the blurred out images of bound civilians, elderly and children distorted in puddles of scarlet shown on news channels all over the world (except <lower case>: russia). Under other circumstances, the entire fields of livestock – cattle, pigs, goats, horses laying there on the ground, shot (for fun/sport/orders so locals would starve?) and left to bloat and stench the air would by itself be unspeakable. One hog remained, a reminder like historic statues, to remind all of what this place would forever be remembered for.

I spoke for quite a while with the owner of this house. He saw the tanks coming and firing at everything that moved, or was standing. He desperately tried to find “Udi,” but clearly the poor dog was scared out of his mind. With the tanks less than 100 yards away and actively firing, the man gathered his family and left with literally nothing but his hysterical family. Across the street lived a priest who stood in his front yard as the tanks rolled by, and fired upon this family’s home, bursting it into flames. Apparently because the tank crew “didn’t want to upset God,” they drove past the priest and his home. (Interesting wartime theology!) Shortly after they left, the priest scooped up the terrified, bloody and schrapnel injured “Udi,” and cared for him as best he could, until the owner returned, weeks later. I found a badly fractured pelvis and dislocated hip. An easy FHO surgery would help this poor creature immensely, but certainly not something I could do in wartime conditions. He’ll be just fine – If only his family had a house to live in.

“Udi”

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11 May 2022 “Zoopatrol”

When I was told we’d participating with “Zoo-patrol” today, I thought pretty much what you’re thinking right now. Wow, that will be fun – giraffes, elephants, tigers, etc. When I was in South Florida I vetted a “roadside” zoo (mainly gators, but Florida Panthers, Bears, Otters, rhinos, and a few others) owned by the Seminole Indian Tribe. It’s been 20 years, but in a pinch I could pull it off, if I had experienced helpers. We’d seen on the news the horrors of war including the keepers running for their lives and actually fleeing, as well as the bombs going off, destroying fences —> resulting in zoo animals on the lam. Sounds like a fun day.

Let’s just put this in the category of cultural/language differences. In this context zoo = pertaining to animals, (eg. zoonotic disease can spread from animals) <chinese bats? to humans>. So in this context, “Zoo patrol” actually means volunteers who go out on a regular basis and gather up the animals left behind by those who left in an (understandable) panic. Perhaps a bomb scared the crap out of everyone and the dog/cat/etc simply ran off, when they were trying to evacuate, or through a now gaping open, burning house. Or perhaps they hiked for miles carrying the children and the cat, only to find the bus or train absolutely would not allow animals, only mom and her children- there simply wasn’t room. There were so many refugees, and so the pets would be left on, or tied to the bus bench, etc, etc.

The zoo patrol knows the bus and train schedules and so would go gather up the abandoned pets on a regular basis. Sometimes even assuring the refugees that they’d see “Boris” or “Anton” at a pre-arranged place in Poland, or where-ever. However there have also been even more heartwrenching stories – a dog left with a bucket of water and an open 50# bag of food, with a promise to be back … someday. Or maybe the cat just ran off and they couldn’t collect them. And the enemy tanks were (literally) 100 meters away, blasting away.

It’d be easy to criticize, but until you wear someone else’s shoes…

Anyway “zoo patrol” responds to Facebook pleas to check on “Boris” or a phone call about “Nikki,” or the military personnelle hearing nonstop barking from a partially destroyed house. These animal rescuers are almost considered “paramilitary” with their traffic jam evading abilities, given a secret daily code word allowing them to pass an otherwise 2 hour wait barricade – a TSA pre-approval, if you will.

And so on “zoo-patrol” we’d have these duties and take the rescued pets to a “sanctuary,” or shelter to gather/treat/comfort terrified, confused and often hurting animals.

Clearly I missed the first, most important wave, because I’m here 2 months after the war started, and the massive amount of work was in that initial couple of weeks. I got here for the stragglers, and to treat the ones that survived but weren’t quite right yet.

This is a boxer with an indolent corneal (eye) ulcer in dire need of a “burr keratectomy.” However, triage/field medicine dictated a bit more crude approach; not having the thousand dollar diamond burr with me, I opted for the standard “grid keratectomy.” Easy enough, although typically requires anesthesia – no gas, so we used a propofol continual drip with pre-med of dexdomidor. Nothing fancy, but should work fine, as long as they are able to heep the collar on him and use the medications I left for them.

Little smash face bully dog needed an entropion (eyelid) correction, and some kitties almost definitely had a bad case of Calicivirus, probaby secondary to the stress of the times, and full of parasites. I left medicines which will help immensely, and off we went.

This is a good time to give credit where it’s due. I am eternally indebted to Marharyta (Meg) Syvachenko the local Elanco Animal Health Rep, who drove me around and was an infinite help to me. Her boss Elena Moskalenko, and her boss Antoni Hulas, regional head of Elanco Animal Health for this part of Europe not only allows her to spend her time as a humanitarian, he personally saw to it that arrangements for me were intact, and that I was actually an asset, instead of “volunteer” baggage in the way. She and local vet Gaylyna Chernichko kept me busy every day. They are the true heroes – they ran towards the fire as everyone else fled. I am in awe of them and proud to call then collegues and new friends. Gaylyna left her position as owner of her practice and immediately drove back and forth from Poland on almost a daily basis to gather donated provisions from the blessed Polish people and delivered it to folks in the villages who simply had nothing to eat, much less feed their pets. She still does this several times a week. Two of the days, I saw some of her patients so she could be the incredible humanitarian that she is, and be gone to distribute food to people/pets who won’t have a market in walking distance for months.

As local pharmaceutical rep for Elanco Animal Health Meg (who also has veterinarian credentials) performed similar humanitarian gestures. For instance, she paid out of her own pocket for food and supplies for a local veterinarian who had been beaten brutally and taken hostage. His office destroyed and looted. An entire blog post will be devoted to him. And my loyalty to Elanco products has become profound.

Again, these are the true heroes. They say there’s a special place in Heaven for people like them, and there may be. But working with them has once again exemplified that Heaven is also in fact here, and we are happiest when we serve others. Through the tears they smile, knowing they’ve made a difference.

“He answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 12:20-21
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10 May 2022 – Crossing the border

A 14-hr bus ride turned into 16 with border delays and required pit-stops (the advertised Wifi and on-board toilets were “temporarily” not working). Certainly understandable during wartime. You’d think someone would eventually get tired enough to sleep in any position, but apparently not me.

An a lighter note it was interesting to have the bus pulled over (about an hour AFTER 2 hour wait crossing the border and getting passport checked on both sides and stamped in Ukraine) by the (Ukranian military) police who boarded the bus after we dodged the wartime road barricades and pulled over. The fun military TSA or soldier or whatever his position asked (only) me for my passport, which he took for them to check again, then returned it and nodded acknowledging all was ok. Certainly raised some eyebrows as the (clearly) only yank on the bus had had so much fun.

Shortly after that we stopped for a much needed prostate stop and it occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Remembering that the bus driver was emphatic with me holding up 10 fingers how long we would be stopping there, I rushed to convert some currency in the rest stop, bought some chips and water, and got in line for the girl making the panini looking things. I had no idea what they were, but I really needed something to eat, so I watched the person in front of me order and tried to remember the words she used so I could order the same 3 things. She belly laughed at me when I attempted this, since I had possibly said something inappropriate instead, so I tapped the girl on the shoulder and asked her to order for me what she had ordered for herself. She giggled, but understood.

They were the best thing I’d eaten all day! One was chicken and cucumbers and maybe cabbage, one was cheese of some kind, and one was some kind of apple pastry thingy. Enough for the next 9 hours.

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9 May 2022 – Warsaw, Poland

As a perigrino who likes to see himself as he wishes to be – running towards the flames, I was pulled towards Auschwitz like a magnet draws bits of iron filings. But it was not to be. Yes I had an entire day in Poland to explore and wander, but frighteningly close train and bus schedules, and only a very small fraction of those I had encountered today were able to speak English. And so navigating in another language through train and bus transfers (both directions), some with less than a ten minute transfer time left me uncharacteristically afraid to chance the unknown. Maybe I’m finally acting my age and displaying atypical common sense. They call it Xenophobia, the fear of the unknown or uncertain.

Regardless, as the only train that could have begun this version of today pulled away, I felt so disappointed in myself, almost embarrassed at my lack of courage.

But what was the draw there anyway? I’m not Polish, German or Jewish. Why the overreaction? Well you aren’t required to be black to get meaning from the horrors of slavery recalled by museums and statues. But more than that; my father and an entire generation, the greatest generation, risked and gave all in WWII. It wasn’t only about genocide, but to these folks it was.

And to three million who have fled Cherson and Marioepol, Bucha and Melitopol, and probably Odessa next week, it also feels a lot like genocide.

Maybe I “tapped the brakes” because of the horrors that might lay before me later this week in Ukraine. I didn’t need a prologue.

Tomorrow will mainly be 14 hours spent on a bus to the border; passports, currency and more language issues, and explaining to the border police that nine boxes of surgical supplies and medicines are not threatening: neither weapons nor narcotics.

Will be interesting.

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8 May 2022 Ukraine

Why am I layingover in Copenhagen, ready for my next leg to Warsaw, Poland? Other than the obvious (if you know how ridiculously impulsive I am), it’s actually kind of difficult to explain. It’s been impossible (for me) to watch the news without my knees buckling and often tearing up. Admittedly it doesn’t take much to draw me in to the emotions of suffering after so many of life’s highs and lows over 62 years. But what is it about the horror and atrocities halfway around the world that make them so addictive?

I think mainly because these people look like us: not in culture, color or language, but two months ago these were people with lives pretty much like us, and at the flip of the switch someone else changed all that. We like to say its one man, one crazy man named Putin, but I don’t t think he pulled any triggers -it’s taken hundreds of thousands of people to effect this destruction.

The whole concept of bullying is so very strange. Why do human beings need to have people beneath them? Even enjoy their suffering… You’d think we’ve evolved past canine and feline urinating on each other’s things. Apparantly not.

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death

From A Headstone In Ireland:  “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

Hilary Stanton Zunin:  “The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief – But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.”

Unknown:  “When death overtakes us; all that we have is left to others; all that we are we take with us.”

Walter Scott:  “Death— the last sleep? No the final awakening.”

Leonardo da Vinci:  “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.”

Theodore Roosevelt:  “Death is always, under all circumstances, a tragedy, for if it is not then it means that life has become one.”

Bertolt Brecht:  “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.”

Benjamin Franklin:  “A man is not completely born until he is dead.”

 

Mark Twain:  “All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’–a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.”

Rabindranath Tagore:  “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”
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Camino Primitivo with Dad, “Striking it Rich in Lugo,” 4th Night, 12 May 2016

My “cheater bus” didn’t have a stop in Cadavo, so I’m actually skipping 2 segments tonight – in about an hour I’d be in Lugo.  This actually put me a day ahead, and I’ll now arrive in Santiago on the 16th. My previous time in Santiago was emotional and, although not rushed, certainly not leisurely. I’d not had a day just to wander aimlessly, and people watch. Or instead, I could go on to Finisterre.  Tempting?  Of course not – this journey has always been about embracing the tomb of St. James on the 17th of May, not some pagan clothes-burning ritual at the end of the world.

I slide off the bus with 18 Euro now, and am beginning to  squirm a bit because if I don’t get my stupid ATM card to work soon, I’m going to run out of money. As my GPS guides me to my albergue, I walk by still another ATM; I spin around to try for probably the 10th time. I’d texted Sharon with Capital One’s phone number and was emphatic that she read them the riot act. Actually she’d undoubtedly been much sweeter than I had been the four times I’d called.  Maybe honey attracts success better than vinegar.

And so on my 11th attempt, out comes 200 Euro!!!

Wooo Hooo!  My wife is amazing!

I truly felt like I won the 500 million powerball.

Here’s a picture.  Me, stinking to high heaven from hiking in the rain and sweating up a stench in the afternoon bake for 7 hours, hauling 28# on my back, walking like my blisters had blisters.

But now I gots a “swagga.” Like I had gold chains on my neck, walking in the club, wit’ abou’ a bilyawn dolla in my pockets.

I know it all sounds a bit ridiculous. But that’s how I felt.

I still stayed in the 8 Euro hostel, but nodded without hesitation when asked if I wanted to eat a communal dinner with everyone. No problem, I can afford it!

And besides, I really like Paella!

 

IMG_1672

Toasting the Chef at Albergue Lugo

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, “Catching up in the Rain,” 4th Day, 12 May 2016

I woke up today in such a good mood.  I slept well, my electronics were all charged up, my clothes all washed, and had memories of a fantastic day yesterday. I was up very early, and out the door while it was still dark…

Uggghhh.  Rain.  Very heavy rain.

Rainstorms in Florida pass in an hour or two.  But not here.  I was near the end of Asturias, and very close to Galicia, where it can actually rain for days.  No biggie.  It’s why I’ve carried around the extra 3# in my backpack.  I went back into the albergue and slipped on my rain-pants, and jacket, both made of eVent fabric, a newer cousin of Gore-Tex – supposedly waterproof, but breathes better so I won’t get soaked in sweat.  And this time I had also brought along gaiters, to keep the rain from dripping from my pants onto my socks and into my boots.  I was ready.

And off I went.

I’m making good time until I realize that I haven’t seen a scallop or arrow “way-marker” in an uncomfortably long time, and it’s raining entirely too heavy to risk getting my phone out to use the GPS.  I’ll trudge along for another mile or so and if I still don’t see any signs, I’ll turn around to retrace my steps.  I hadn’t even gone another 100 meters when the trail simply ended.  This path had clearly not been the Camino.  I’d obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere in the past hour.  So I turned around, and although I’m trying very hard to laugh at myself, it’s pretty difficult.

Goretex and eVent may well be “water resistant,” but they most assuredly are not “water-proof.” I’m now drenched through and through, and pretty miserable.  I backtrack to the last visible marker and I can’t, for the life of me, see how anyone could know which is the correct route.  There are several crossroads, and so many are conflicting that I begin to look for someone to ask.  But there is no one to ask, and so I give it another best guess. This one is lucky, because within about another kilometer, I see regularly spaced markers, indicating I’m on the right path.  Wishing I had someone to “high-five,” I look up and smile, lifting my hands for a different kind of salute.  I’m pretty sure He’s glad I finally found the right path also, and it just felt appropriate to celebrate together.

The weary feeling is exhaustion – so tired and doubting myself, with morale slipping, and frustrated, almost desperate for affirmation.  And then there it is.  Hundreds of years old and pointing “the way.”

Just when I think no one else could really understand the emotions of needing so desperately to get a sign that I am going the right way, one of those light bulbs goes on over my head.  It’s another metaphor for our life journeys; lots of people who have never worn a pair of hiking boots know this feeling. Guess I’m just a slow learner.

So anyway, 7 hours and 27 sloggy km later, I see the first hiker I would encounter today, and as I approached him from behind I was nothing short of astonished.

“Stefan! How the Hell did you get this far?” I reached for his hand and he almost fell onto me. “How are you?”

“Not very well, My feet hurt very badly.”

And how did you get ahead of me?

“Well, as I arrived yesterday in La Mesa, I realized I had only walked 29 km, and it was still pretty early, so I just kept walking, and there was nowhere to stay until I got to Grandas.”

“Yeah, but that 29 km was the hardest segment of any Camino!” I reminded him.

Stefan sheepishly replied that he really regretted it during the last hour.  “So you walked 45 km yesterday, on the hardest day…”

“Actually it was 44, but I don’t know how I got ahead of you, did you sleep late?”

“No, but I did get lost for about 2 hours.”

Stefan began to laugh from the belly, the kind that is contagious to everyone around, “Did you go to the left just after Castro, as the path entered the forest?”

“Umm, yes…that’s exactly where I got lost.”

He kept laughing, because he had made the same wrong turn in the rain.  “I saw the fresh tracks, and I followed to the left for a while, but when there were no waymarkers, after about 10 minutes, I turned around.” (That’s where he had overtaken me, because I stayed on that wrong path for probably an hour).

IMG_1680

Another Camino metaphor: Don’t blindly follow another’s footsteps (especially if they’re mine!), when you, deep down know you’re on the wrong path – your inner compass is a better judge.  When we simply follow where others have gone, we’re effectively walking in their boots, and not our own.  They may not have a very good compass, or they might be ignoring it.

“Anyway, so why did you keep pushing forward? You told me you already had a few extra days to spend in Santiago, so why not  pull back and take your time?”

Stefan stopped walking and looked at me, “You are my friend, and I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

Wow.

I was surprised. No, actually I was shocked. He would push himself through this much pain to see me? And now I was horrified, and embarrassed. “You’re on track now to get to Santiago on the 18th (his original plan was for the 19th).  I actually leave on the 18th, so I need to be there for the Pilgrim’s Mass on the 17th.  So in Fonsagrada, I must get on the bus again, to…”

“I know that,” Stefan said.  “It’s fine, don’t feel bad.” I’m very happy that we met again.

“Let’s at least have dinner together, did you have lunch?”

“No,” he replied, “there was nowhere to eat!”

Realizing we were now in Galicia, I suggested we have pulpa (octopus), the specialty of this region.  “I’ve never had it before, why not!?”

IMG_1659

I was squirming a little bit when I saw the menu.  Twelve Euro was reasonable for a four course meal featuring pulpa, but cash was low, and the sign behind the bar said, “Cash Only.”  So I excused myself to use the restroom, where I could count my cash, and was relieved to see I had 24 Euro and about 40 cents.  Perfect – of course I wanted to pay for his meal also.

By his facial expression and the food left on his plate, I’m pretty sure he thought it was disgusting, despite the fact that he said he liked it.

Now I really felt bad.

I asked the waitress for the check, and she looked at Stefan, then at me like I was from Mars, then back at him again, and he said, “I paid for our meal while you were using the servicios.” When I started to object, he cut me off.  “Don’t say anything bruder, I’m so happy that I can help you.”

He remembered how cash strapped I am.  My ATM password hasn’t worked since I got here, and so I’m limping along for 4 days on the $100 (74 Euro) emergency money I had brought, and he knows it’s almost exhausted.  Funny his math was better than mine.  If I had paid for dinner, I wouldn’t be able to pay for the bus!

And so the food didn’t seem to matter at all to him.  We’re talking and laughing and telling stories, and remembering… as if I was 30 and a childhood friend of his from Berlin that he hasn’t seen in years.

Except we’ve known each other for almost exactly 24 hours.  Camino time.

And so, once again I got on the bus, and he would walk on to the next town. The way he was painfully hobbling along, I knew he couldn’t go much further.

But it was sure good to see him.

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, “Piggy-Back Ride up to the Hospitales,” 3rd Day, 11 May 2016

The guidebook on my Kindle was very clear: just after Borres there would be a fork in the road. I think I’ll be there about the time the sun is rising.

To the right was the alternate route that I’d heard others talking about, with much greater grades and difficulty, of which the book warned, “must be avoided in inclement weather,” and to the left was the “recommended” path.

Don’t even ask.

Of course I would take the more “scenic” route.  These little journeys I take are something I kind of take personally, as I’ve said before, it’s time with my Creator and my son.  And so, when I’m most challenged, I imagine him on my back, and I’m giving him a piggy-back ride, seeing the most magnificent things that anyone could imagine, and can only be seen by hiking this trail.  Perhaps that’s why they’re magnificent.  And soon we encounter wild horses, and as I get closer I realize one is giving birth.  New life, another pretty powerful metaphor.

About two hours after the fork, my thighs are beginning to feel the burn as the path becomes loose rocks, and the grade is becoming misleading.  The trail meanders right, then left, over and over again, with relatively flat areas where it reverses.  This results in my being fooled repeatedly that I’m “at the top,”  or even near the top.

My pace has slowed considerably, and I’m beginning to count my steps and rest after every hundred paces, because I can no longer make it to the next flat area to stop to catch my breath and get a sip of water. And soon it’s only about 20 paces between rests.

Seriously? Am I this out of shape? Am I this much older than I had been in 2013? The huffing and puffing, and drenching in sweat in the morning sun, and the loose rocky footing is building on the doubt that we often carry around about ourselves. This is part of the “Camino catharsis.” During my previous 4 week Frances Camino, I heard it said that the first week breaks your body, the second breaks your spirit, the third breaks your soul, and the fourth week becomes the resurrection of all three, as you enter the Santiago and the Cathedral.  An Ignatian Spiritual Exercise, if you will.

In a shorter, two week version like Primitivo, I’m not really sure where the cut-off is between breaking body and spirit, and today the first two are fully employed.  Fortunately I had learned about knee braces, but my heart is about to explode right out of my chest as it struggles to keep up with me, and my back is killing me, especially where my right strap crosses the plate on my previously broken collarbone.  As I shift the strap over and adjust the angle of my pack, I just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  Like the “AA 12 step program,” I’m just taking one more step at a time, and not just “getting through” this but embracing and owning it.  Life’s not about getting past the trouble and pain so you can get on with living, but rather seeing trials as important parts of life itself.  And as I place one foot in front of the next, I slip into memories.  My throbbing collarbone takes me back to the day Cullen and I were riding our dirt-bikes through the orange groves, often at breakneck speed.  Zipping past each other we were laughing and screaming at each other, and popping wheelies and having the times our lives, and then as he cut me off, I slowed and dropped my front wheel to the ground. Scattered throughout the grove were stumps, and as I glanced over make sure I wasn’t cutting Cullen off, I hit one.  My 250cc Honda 2 stroke came to an immediate halt, hurling me over the handlebars and although my head dodged another one of the stumps, my shoulder and neck took the brunt of the impact.  I soon realize why they say a shattered collarbone approaches the pain of childbirth, and the memory of the pain brings me back out of my trance.

I’m also startled by the chill in the air.  I’m much higher than I was when I started, and the damp from my perspiration is now  really making me cold.  I stop to add another layer from my pack, and I realize I can see my breath, and that some of the clouds are below me!

I’m trudging forward so slowly that I’m really surprised that none of the stronger hikers have caught up to me, and that actually I haven’t seen anyone since I left.  Some of the Europeans, especially the Germans and Austrians think a day like this is just a walk in the park – they don’t even use hiking poles.

Most of the time I hike in silence with only the noise of the wind and birds and the voices in my head, but now I slip in the earbuds so some music can take my mind off this brutal climb and give my feet a cadence from the beat of music.

A few songs later I’m again struck by how cold I now am, and I wish I still had Cullen’s sock-cap to pull over my chilly ears.  Before I can drift into that memory, I encounter on my left the ruins of a shelter, called “los Hospitales,” from medieval times.  Just a pile of rocks now, I imagine the perigrinos from over a thousand years ago, especially in rain or snow, so relieved to discover a rufuge here in which to weather the storm, or simply find food and water.

I loosen my backpack, and unload her to grab the cheese and baguette I’d stashed for my lunch.  It takes forever to get the cheese package open, because my fingers are numb from the chill.IMG_3779

As I fumble to assemble my sandwich, I’m startled to see a shadow quickly cast on me from the only other hiker I will encounter today.  Stefan seems as glad to see me as I am him.  I ask if he speaks English, and he smiles to respond with a German accent.  Of course he does, Germans are the only ones who consistently speak English proficiently – I learn that it is mandatory for all their students, and I’m again embarrassed that I’m the idiot abroad.  Although I can get by in Spanish, all I can think of in German  is (I know I can look up the proper spelling, but this is the awkward way I tend to say stuff) “Gesuntite” (which wasn’t in context now), and “sproish de English?”   And we’d already established that, so I was stuck with, “Beautiful day, huh?”

Soon we’re past the small talk and quickly form one of those unusual Camino friendships that are difficult to describe to anyone else.

And so as we walk together we begin to unpeel the layers of our respective lives, and he agrees that this rocky path is “beginning to get challenging.” (I wonder if he means our lives, or just today in particular). “It just keeps going and going, up and up and up!”

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But, mostly, time spent hiking is in silence.  Soon I take note that the directional monuments on this “alternate route” aren’t of concrete and spaced every few kilometers, but are wooden and every few yards.IMG_3758

Hmmm.  Then I again notice the clouds below me, and realize that this is not one of the inclement weather days, where the the fog is so thick that you would need trail markers every few yards.  (I later learned that there’s only about a dozen days each year with the visability have today). And I can imagine how treacherous it might be on such a foggy day or in the driving rain.  To my right is the mountain, but to the left is a sheer rocky, crumbly drop-off of about a thousand meters.  If the weather changes and it becomes such a day, I’ll be glad I can hug close to these markers, and I’ll be glad that they are spaced so much closer.

Although I’m enjoying my walk and sharing with Stefan, I know my pace is much slower than his and I encourage him to go on ahead, and not wait for me.  He does, but not really.

Then, without warning, I realize the wind is almost gale-force.  The side of the mountain is no longer at our side.  Finally we’re at the top, walking on a ridge, and the wind is screaming from one side to the other.  It is so exhilarating.

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The ridge on the top lasts about 6 Km (a little more than an hour), and the descent now down to Montefurado and then Lago is beautiful, but just incredibly difficult on my knees, even with the braces.  IMG_3789

There are two descents, both of about 200 meters, each in about 1 km. Trust me, this is pretty steep, especially on loose rock!  I have no idea how Stefan manages without poles.

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After the two downgrades we have a chance to talk again, and as we encounter a few cattle, Stefan decides he wants me to take a picture of him with them.  As he approaches the cows, one from a distance turns out to be a he and begins to run after him, ripping the ground and snorting.

Thankfully the bull stopped the pursuit after the perceived threat to his harem had passed, and we fell to the ground laughing.

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As we approached Berducedo, Stefan wants to eat dinner together, after we find the hostel and get cleaned up.  I’m really embarrassed  to admit that as much as I’d like to take him up on the offer, I’ll be boarding a bus in Berducedo to skip tomorrow’s segment, and instead will be then a day ahead of him.  I’ll be staying in Grandas de Salime tonight and hiking tomorrow to Fonsagrada.  It was unlikely that our paths would cross again.

Our walk passes the bus stop there, and we embrace to say goodbye.  He wished me, “Buen Camino” as he continues on to the next town where he has now decided to stay, another 4 km down the road.  I can’t imagine walking more.  The day has taken its toll and I am spent.

As I ride the bus, I realize how blessed I am. I’ve learned that people share our journey for a reason, and I’m so happy to have crossed paths with Stefan. When we take off our masks and let down our guards, we truly accompany each other as we walk through life.  He’d shared some pretty personal stuff with me, and I know that I’m the only one in the world that he’s told some of these things.  I’m also better for having “walked” with him.

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