Chapter 31 – Home

“Travel does not exist without home. If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” ~ Josh Gates

Few experiences will bring a person to a full knowledge of their senses as traveling alone. Maneuvering a far-away land will heighten your awareness at every level. It’s the thing I’ve learned over time that brings me most alive. It’s not so much the getting away from things as it is the freshness of new, uncharted experience. Traveling alone builds confidence, character, and offers a perspective on the world that is achieved no other way. Comfort zone boundaries are demolished and necessarily overcome when you have no idea what to do next, and no other choice than to figure it out. But there is nothing that stirs the blood as standing at the helm of your destiny.

Solo travel can also have a life-changing effect on how a person thinks about home.

After a walking a million and a half steps across Spain it was comforting and exhilarating thinking about the familiarity of home, but I was petrified of the conversations surely ahead in future social situations.

Somewhere over the ten-hour North Atlantic flight home it occurred to me. People are inevitably going to ask you to talk about this. And most of them are going to say, ‘Well, how was it, and what was it like?’ As surely as the sun rises, people would ask that question just as if it had been a long weekend vacation on the beach. I feared my any given trigger reaction to the empty questions.

All of a sudden there was a keen awareness of an inadequate fragility that goes with returning home after a hallowed and humbling experience that has changed you in ways too early to understand. Never speaking of it again would have been perfectly fine. That’s how it felt at the time, anyway.

***

Wheels down in Memphis concluded a remarkable seven-week odyssey. As the reverse engines roared I exhaled deeply blowing out what seemed every emotion God ever made.

Stepping out from the aisle seat on Row 10, I reached to the overhead bin and strapped on my backpack a final time. A text from Dana brought a wide smile. I’m here! The Delta captain stood at the cockpit’s entrance as passengers deplaned. I thanked him and shook his hand for the safe trip home.

The C concourse for arriving flights at Memphis International Airport is simple and uncomplicated with the feel of a regional terminal. From the furthest arrival gate it’s no more than a five-minute walk past security to the point where friends and family await weary travelers. At the last left turn there’s a final thoroughfare short enough you can see past the TSA checkpoint and make out faces in the eager crowd. Home always happens when I see my wife’s face there.

Just before the turn my hands went automatically to their familiar spot on the backpack straps and a sequence of images from the last seven weeks raced vividly through my mind. It was incredible what had happened really, and the fragility came full-bore.

Fifty yards down the concourse she was smiling the purest most familiar smile I know. It easily came to mind what a blessing she’d been and how much I loved every single thing about her. Reaching around her neck I began crying unexpectedly and couldn’t let go. It was so hard, I remember choking out and holding her tight. It was just so far, and so hard but I didn’t quit. The embrace must have lasted a minute as travelers walked politely around us. Home can be anywhere for me as long as Dana’s there.

At home, a long hot steamy shower with fresh smelling soap and a soft towel was a momentary rejuvenation from three consecutive days of non-stop travel, but short-lived from a desire for sleep in my own bed. For the next twelve hours things went black.

We avoided people for days and Dana kept me well insulated from the outside world, aware of my desire to stay clear of people and conversation. Eventually visitors came. “We want to hear all about it,” they said. The predictable sweeping nature of the question made me ill.

“You’ll have to ask some more specific questions,” Dana jumped in. “I don’t think he really knows how to answer the big open-ended questions yet.” She saved me.

The truth is that most people ask these questions only for the sake of polite social chit chat. It’s required decorum, and the only thing we know. They really don’t care, and it’s not really their fault because they could never understand. Some have labeled it the Seinfeld Effect. You’re telling a story answering someone’s question about one of the most unique experiences of a lifetime, and in five minutes, they’re staring off into space, completely uninterested, wondering which Seinfeld rerun will air next. This happened countless times and it’s one of several reasons the story of pilgrimage is so personal and private.

In some ways I was completely prepared for what came next. In others, I’m still figuring it out today.

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Pilgrim Strong (Prologue Excerpt)

Strength is so misunderstood. At times it seems the most elusive of our heart’s desires. But because there’s no other choice, we must go looking.

The search for strength is a daily ordeal unconfined by time, place, or cause, but at some point today, you’ll search your reserves for strength. It’s our ongoing, solo quest, the loneliest walk we’ll ever take. No one will find your strength for you.

The good news is every time the sun rises in the east a second chance gets born. Failure is more than just an option in the process of growing strong, it’s a necessary part of the equation. As the darkness gives way to the light, so graciously renewed is our second chance at finding strength. It happened today, will again tomorrow, and the next. Embrace the failure. It means you tried.

***

The pursuit for strength has many trails, and yet they all lead to the same place. If only we understood that better. No matter how we get there, our strength is founded in the things we most fundamentally believe, and moreover, the things in which we place our greatest faith.

Everyone has faith. Want to find your strength? The crusade begins in searching two answers in a simple question. Where is my faith, and why? The where is easy. The why so complex that many fumble and stumble for the words articulating an answer. As we avoid the hard work of asking ourselves the difficult questions, we may spend a lifetime never knowing the “why,” and that’s a real shame. We owe this knowledge to ourselves.

Maybe knowing the answer for sure is too much a commitment. Maybe there’s too much dogma involved in finding a fixed, finite reasoning. Some people are comfortable not knowing. If only we realized that faith isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Faith will never be void of all doubt, but rather a never-ending adventure and a desire for knowledge based on an inkling of some belief. I reached a personal breaking point that so penetrated my soul, the desire to chase the why surpassed everything.

I ached for the knowledge of the why.

Absent the knowledge of the why, our strength is built on a house of cards and teeters mercifully unsure through life’s blowing winds. All we can really do is hope everything holds together and wonder if we’ll be strong enough to make it through the next ordeal. But the next chance to find our strength is coming soon, this much we know. The next valley is just beyond the present plateau.

Knowing the why is the most important part of our strength. It’s out there, and our destiny is finding it.

But we must stand at the mirror and ask some tough questions.

And then, we must go looking.

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Day 85: David Landis and Anna Dintaman Landis

My guidebook was, and is, like an old friend.

Note A Day

Every morning’s typical breakfast routine, planning the day ahead and thinking just a bit about tomorrow.

Dear David & Anna,

Everyone approaches things differently, I suppose. Some people try planning every detail as much as possible. Others go at it knowing almost nothing. Getting ready to solo walk 40 days across a country, I wanted a balance somewhere between the two. Your guidebook was the perfect planner.

It may be true that anticipation of an experience like pilgrimage is one of the very best parts. As part of my anticipation, I searched all the popular guidebooks and chose yours as my companion before, and during, the walk. It seemed it had everything a person could need.

Adventurers and authors, David and Anna Dintaman Landis

Reading through the sections in the weeks before departure, your descriptive narratives, elevation charts, beautiful photos, and historical sidebars only increased my excitement. If the trip…

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Day 66: Maite Sobrón

Another story about friendship and hospitality on Camino. So many stories.

Note A Day

Dear Maite,

It was a lovely Saturday for walking. The poplar trees stood reaching for the azure sky, golden and majestic, full of glory, leaves rustling gently in an easy western breeze. The late November weather was cool, but not cold, much as it would’ve been back home, and walking into Nájera my mind transported momentarily 4,000 miles west.

My imagination could practically smell the barbecue grills firing up for Saturday afternoon tailgates and SEC football games. It would be a good day to stop short, I reckoned, and enjoy a Saturday afternoon relaxing in your sweet Spanish town.

As I walked hesitantly inside Puerta de Nájera just a few minutes after noon, the furnishings practically said “welcome home.” You carried a mop and bucket working feverishly just behind the stairs and I noticed one young German pilgrim nursing his heavily bandaged wounds on a couch in a quaint sitting area…

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Day 64: Coach Steve Roberts

Not all my blog posts at Note a Day are appropriate for the Pilgrim Strong blog. This one includes a message that’s such a part of me, I felt it was okay today.

Note A Day

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-4-56-41-amDear Coach Roberts,

Before writing you this morning I spent time reflecting on your years as head coach here at Arkansas State. I was on academic staff much of your tenure and recall it as a new, refreshing, even glorious eight years. Something definitely felt different with you in charge. Something surely changed.

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Then a little quick research into your win-loss record at A-State honestly shocked me. I forgot, by the numbers, you never had a winning season. There was a conference championship, a remarkable program “turnaround,” in fact,  attendance numbers grew, you were a conference coach of the year, and we won at home much more than we lost, but we never had an outright winning season. That can’t be right, but the record speaks for itself. Or does it?

What I recall more about your ASU coaching career than wins and losses is the dynamic you brought to…

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Day 62: Kathy McLeskey

(Reblogging from Note A Day.)

I’m often amazed and count it as a great blessing when I consider the personal, wonderful stories I have from Camino life.

Note A Day

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Dear Kathy,

For the longest, I scoffed at notions of Camino Magic. I was wrong. You’re a slice of Camino Magic if I’ve ever seen one.

Happy birthday, my pilgrim friend. I wish you the happiest of days.

At the heart of everything I’ve learned about life are two simple things: (1) Everyone needs a cheerleader; and (2) we’re all at our very best when we’re cheering for others. It’s my good fortune to share both experiences with you.

As much as I’ve tried, words may never adequately describe my initial desire to walk the Way of St. James, or to convey the experience itself. If it’s not possible, that’s okay. Perhaps the best stories are the ones that remain forever in the privacy of our hearts.

Dana and I, meeting our friend Kathy McKleskey in Santiago de Compostela last November. We'd been social media friends for a year, but this was our first time to meet personally ... of all places. Dana and I, meeting our friend Kathy McLeskey in Santiago de Compostela last November. We’d been social media friends for a year, but…

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Day 52: Helen Corbett

From my current daily blogging project at Note A Day. A fond memory from that first pilgrimage.

Note A Day

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Dear Helen,

It may surprise you, but I’ve reflected on what you wrote so many times. It was just a simple social media post, yet one of the most endearing things anyone’s ever said to me.

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-5-53-06-am Snow in the elevations at O Cebreiro.

Day 39. I’d walked almost exactly 800 kilometers. Up and over a mountain range. Through cold, rainy wind and lots of mud. One night of delusional fever. There was an eight-hour blizzard. And my lower left shin was visually hemorrhaging blood now. But only one day of hobbling remained.

A friend of a friend sent a message suggesting maybe it would be best to call the whole thing off. Come back and finish another time. Nothing is worth that kind of pain, she said. “You gave it a great effort,” I read her final suggestive words as my blood pressure spiked.

Oh my Lord, someone’s recommending…

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