Podcast Interview with Dan Mullins on ‘My Camino’

(Blogger’s Note: This is a podcast interview with Australian pilgrim Dan Mullins on his popular program, My Camino. The interview was October 15, 2018.)

 

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An Interview With Author Brien Crothers

(Blogger’s Note: I first met Brien Crothers as an “online friend” and because of a mutual interest we have in the pilgrimage of the Way of St. James. Since then, we’ve enjoyed time together personally and he and his wife, Kathey, even hosted me in their beautiful California home a few days. Brien is the author of the non-fiction work, Su Camino, and his newest book, a novel titled The Red Sedan which we discuss here. He publishes The Red Sedan under the pen name Chase Moon.)

 

 

SW:  You spent quite a bit of time traveling for research on this novel. Tell me about the contribution it made to the story.

BC: The stories, characters and places that sometimes show up in The Red Sedan were experienced before I ever had an idea for writing this book. There are composite characters in there, and there are one or two that are slight exaggerations of people I have met in my travels. Because the Way of St. James has had such a huge impact on my life, because I have met so many wonderful people on The Way, and due to the energy I put into my non-fiction work about my first Camino, it naturally played a big role in this bit of storytelling. And I love to travel around the world and meet new people, so The Red Sedan being international—set in England, Spain, and the U.S.—is a natural extension of that passion.

SW: Ultimately, how did you develop the idea that produced book’s foundation?

BC: The idea for the book appeared, yes, appeared in my mind one day on a drive to do some errands. The title and the first scene just showed up in my head. I have no idea

Brien Crothers

where it came from. Steven King says “No one knows…” But the foundation you ask about developed over the first few weeks after that vision, if you will, as I jotted down ideas and worked on an outline. I was never a “writer” in this sense of the word. I retired as a project manager, a top-level engineering position for the organization I worked for, and the most I wrote there were proposals and budget narratives. Dry stuff that.

One thing I struggle with is being diligent about writing an outline first. So with The Red Sedan, my Camino book, and my latest WIP, I put down ideas as they come in an outline. But I always want to write, and it tugs at me. Whenever an idea is there, I can pound out 2,000 words in a setting. They’re not always good words, but they will morph into something with some good editing and fleshing out the story. 

SW: Tell me about the characters in The Red Sedan and how you developed those personalities.

BC: I’ve told friends that Michael, the protagonist, is someone I would want to be. A truly good guy. I’m no beast, of course, but we want to be better people, don’t we. I let names just pop into my head and characters are driven by the needs of the story. Walter Breem, the mobster in the tale, is no one I have never met or even known of. But I read enough to be able to put someone like him together when needed. Most of the people in this story, The Red Sedan, came about in that way, sort of organic. However, Michael’s friend, Eric, who shows up later in the story, is very close to a Camino friend of mine from Belgium. We met when I did the Via de la Plata in 2016. I did take a little bit of creative license there, though. We have talked, Eric and I, and he is okay with my character in the book that goes by his name. 

SW: Your first book was a non-fiction work about your walk on the Way of St. James. The Red Sedan is a much different work of fiction. What was that transition like for you?

BC: As I said earlier, I didn’t really write before retiring. My first Camino, which I walked in 2015, inspired me to say something about that amazing experience. I’m not the only one, I hear. I had been posting about my travels on social media for a while by then, and I was slowly discovering that I liked to tell my stories. Su Camino, my first book, taught me that I could stick with a lengthy project and that I liked writing, really liked it. I still like writing creative non-fiction, but I find it somewhat limiting. We must not break the contract with the reader in such stories. Facts are facts. So that led me to want to explore fiction. My mother is a voracious reader of mysteries, so as an experiment, I wrote a short story for her birthday a couple of years ago. It was called Thud, and is set in England. (I’m an Anglophile, if you haven’t noticed.) She loved the story (she’s a good mom), and I discovered that I liked writing fictional tales where I could make it all up and have some fun. All of the characters in that story came to mind as I needed them.

SW: Your writing is something that you’ve picked up in recent years after a career in the field of renewable geothermal energy. What is it that draws you to storytelling?

BC: Some of the perfunctory aspects of how recreating myself as a writer came about, the timing and opportunities that presented themselves, I’ve covered already. But what draws me to the art, now, is the buzz. It’s sort of a high when I’m in the groove and the story is flying off my fingertips. It’s a thrill when that energy (what I called [Universal] energy) is pulsing through my body. In those moments, I tell my wife, Kathey, “I gotta get this outta my head.” (She usually indulges me.) That flow is intoxicating. 

SW: The Red Sedan is a self-published work, so you managed not only the writing but cover design, interior design, etc.  Do you enjoy the creative control you have as a self-published author?

BC: I do. I guess it’s kind of a control thing, but I do like the process. However, I have a wonderful mastermind group of friends that do a lot to help me. They educate me, set me back on track when I derail, and quite often introduce me to missing aspects of the world, from the right people and proper software, to perspectives and characters just when I need them.  

SW:  Do you have a writing routine, or is this something you do as time allows, and what have you learned about your writing over time?

BC: As hard as I try to create rhythm, it hasn’t worked out yet. I see the value of a routine, but I guess I have too many hobbies. I run, bike, hike, and work on philanthropic projects too. So my schedules conflict a lot more in my life than I’d like. But who’s fault is that, huh?

I’ve learned that my writing must have been painful to read years ago. I have learned much in the last few years, so much so I can’t even describe. For the The Red Sedan, I enlisted the help of a young copy editor that I had worked with on my blog, Grandpa’s Gone Again? He happened to be between projects and wanting to hone his skills as an editor, so our timing was perfect. His dedication to The Red Sedan and his professionalism was a blessing. I can’t possibly thank him enough. His name is Kalil, and he lives in Indiana. We’ve never met in person. 

SW: What are your aspirations beyond this?

My ultimate thrill in writing will be a series of books written for young people about world travel adventures. Stories to excite young people to see the world in an adventurous setting where a key character must deal with problems that arise while overseas. I want these stories to entertain them, plant a seed for a passion to see the world, and learn from mine and others—not always pleasant—experiences while abroad. My first will be set in Spain and have to do with walking the Way of St. James, of course.

SW: You’ve chosen to take a pen name for your first non-fiction work. Discuss your reasoning for that and what’s the significance behind the name Chase Moon?

BC: I tried to get our daughter to name my first grandchild Chance Moon. I grew up on the north coast of California and that would have been a cool name for a child in our very liberal communities. She named him Jaxon, after a TV star at the time. So, I guess I never gave up on Chance. I honor Jaxon here with this nom de plume.
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Author Interview: Walking to the End of the World by Beth Jusino

(Blogger’s Note: I’m excited for the release of Beth Jusino’s Walking to the End of the World. She’s one of the more gifted Camino authors you’ll find. Beth’s book is an account of a 2015 pilgrimage she made with her husband, Eric, on the Le Puy route. Beth is an author, editor, and public speaker who makes her home in Seattle. This is a conversation we had recently about her pilgrimage and her book. She is also the author of The Author’s Guide to Marketing and a contributor to Choosing Higher Ground.)

***

1. Steve: First let me ask you about the incredible distance you walked and cover in this book – one thousand miles. That’s like walking from your home in Seattle to Bakersfield, CA. Can you discuss the mental and physical challenges that arise in a trek of that distance? It must have felt as if you truly did walk to the end of the world.

Beth: A thousand miles sounds like such a huge number, doesn’t it? Before Eric and I set out for Le Puy, that number used to excite me. All I could imagine was the sense of satisfaction I would feel at the end of a thousand miles. But then, once we actually started walking, “a thousand miles” started to weigh me down. My first week of walking was harder than I thought it would be. I wasn’t in great physical shape, I was still jetlagged and culture shocked, and it was quickly apparent that my tender feet would be a problem. When I tried to think about carrying that pack and walking for a THOUSAND MILES, I would panic. I couldn’t possibly go that far!

Quitting just a week into a 3-month trip wasn’t an option, though, so I made a conscious choice to stop thinking about “a thousand miles,” and instead to focus on a day at a time. Eric and I averaged 22 kilometers (almost 14 miles) a day, which is pretty standard pace for Camino pilgrims, so that didn’t seem so extreme. I could handle 22 kilometers.

2. Steve: You’ve referred to yourself more than once as a “Jersey girl” who wasn’t much into outdoor kinds of things, or even travel for that matter, yet you completed the Le Puy route and have returned to Spain for two more experiences. How do you reconcile the background you describe with what you’ve pursued here?

Beth: That’s true. After we got back from that first Camino, someone told me “Oh, I could never do what you did. I’m not into extreme sports.” And I had to laugh, because trust me, I’m not, either. I’m a writer and editor who prefers my couch, a book, and a cat to almost anything. Before 2015, I thought a good hike was 3 miles on the paved path around our local urban lake. I’d never been backpacking, never slept in a hostel, and never been to France. Eric had never traveled farther than Canada. 

The initial decision to go was scary, and we talked about it for more than a year before we bought plane tickets. But the pull to go—to step away for a season from the relentless pace of modern life and experience a piece of history at a more human pace—was stronger than the fear of being uncomfortable. 

Also, we knew that we weren’t throwing ourselves into something genuinely dangerous. It’s not like I went from being a couch potato to camping with the bears on the PCT. France and Spain are modern, safe countries with great healthcare and plenty of services. We were going to walk an established, well-marked trail, where I was assured that beds and bathrooms and cheap meals were provided at regular intervals. Yes, it was often uncomfortable, but it’s never threatening.

3. Steve: You walked the Le Puy with your husband. What does sharing an experience like this eventually tell you about your most important relationship? And in retrospect, do you think you came away with similar or different experiences?

Beth: There was one day when Eric and I were walking and talking about some arcane subject, and it occurred to me that we’d been together 24 hours a day for almost two months. That’s an intensive amount of time that few couples will ever get together, especially not in the mid-stream of their marriage. And yet we still had things to talk about. We still liked each other!

That wasn’t a huge surprise, though. Eric and I knew before we left that we generally

Beth and Eric Jusino

travel well together. Our strengths complement each other in terms of organizing, engaging, and pacing. But most important, we’ve always been friends, and we can talk about anything. It’s an incredible gift to have a partnership like this.

We met a lot of people on the Way who were walking without their spouse or significant other, sometimes because of scheduling issues but usually because the pilgrimage appealed to one and not the other. (And despite what I said about the Camino being safe, it’s still a tough trip; I don’t recommend bringing along a reluctant spouse.) 

As for our experiences? It’s hard for me to answer that for him. We had the same surface experiences, of course, but I know if you asked us to each name our three most meaningful moments of the trip, you’d hear different things. And part of the fun of writing a book about our shared experience was the chance to read through Eric’s journal and talk with him about his memories and recollections.

4. Steve: Authors write books about the Camino for different reasons. Some simply want to share a profound experience, others are writing as they still process the walk. What was the contribution you wanted to make to the body of work that conveys this pilgrimage?

Beth: I wanted to write the book that I looked for and couldn’t find before my first Camino. I had so many questions about what it was like to be a pilgrim on the way to Santiago. How do you know where the gites/albergues are? What are the trails like? What time do people wake up? And the all important one: where are the bathrooms?

“I hope that I’ve painted a picture of a normal person on a great adventure, and give the reader lots of space to see themselves there. “

~Beth Jusino

So when I got home, I started to write a narrative travel guide masquerading as a memoir. Walking to the End of the World isn’t a book where you’ll see me doing a lot of soul-searching or emotional processing about some painful thing back at home. Instead, I keep the camera aimed squarely on what it’s like to walk on the Way of Saint James. I hope that I’ve painted a picture of a normal person on a great adventure, and give the reader lots of space to see themselves there. 

Also, I should mention here that I wanted to expand the narrative of “the Camino” to something beyond the Camino Frances. There’s so little written about walking the historic French paths that are referenced in the earliest Santiago literature, or on the web of trails that crisscross Spain and end in Santiago. It leads to the misconception that “the whole” Camino is just a single 500-mile stretch. 

5. Steve: Many pilgrims inevitably have several “what have I done” moments. Will you share one from your pilgrimage?

Beth: Sometime during that first difficult week, Eric and I reached the highlands of the Massif Central, irregular rolling hills on a high-altitude plateau in the center of France. It was beautiful, dramatic, windswept country, but I was miserable. 

On the outside, everything looked fine. I didn’t have a single blister. But inside, the tendons of my poor inflamed feet screamed in pain with every step, and they made me a terrible travel companion. 

Things were tense when I limped into Finieyrols, a cluster of houses too small to be a town. Eric left me slumped on a rock outside while he got us checked into the gite. Completely dejected, I sulked in the late afternoon sun and imagined everyone’s reactions when I went home and confessed that I’d quit the Camino. Because clearly, I wasn’t up for this. We’d walked barely 15 kilometers that day, and I was a wreck.

I’d known, intellectually, that this walk would be hard, but it had never occurred to me that I would have to stop. That I would want to stop.

That was the thought that jerked me out of my sulk. Did I WANT to stop?

 I dragged myself off the rock and down to the main building, where I bought a local beer appropriately called Antidote, tucked myself behind a picnic table, and looked around for the first time. I’d never seen a place like this. It was so beautiful. The treeless hills stretched as far as I could see in every direction. I watched two kids hanging over a fence at the edge of the property, trying to pet the shaggy, wild-looking horses. 

Yes, my feet hurt, but that didn’t change the opportunity in front of me. I was in the middle of an area so remote that few French citizens see it, let alone a couple of American tourists. I’d walked here because there was really no other way to arrive, and unless those horses were tamer than they looked, I was going to walk out of here, too. 

I never considered quitting again, although there were plenty of other days when my feet left me in frustrated tears.

6. Steve: In the grand scheme of life experiences, where does this experience rank in terms of things that have shaped you as a person? Also, how you view the world?

“News from around the world takes on a new light when you’ve spent time with people who live in different corners.”

~Beth Jusino

Beth: By my late thirties, most social scientists would say that I was already pretty well shaped as a person, and Eric likes to remind me that “wherever you go, you’ll be there.” But walking a thousand miles on the road to Santiago definitely expanded the way I see the world culturally and historically. 

News from around the world takes on a new light when you’ve spent time with people who live in different corners. Not long after we got home there was a bombing in Paris. It wasn’t the first shocking terrorist attack there, but it was the first since I had formed a Camino family that included Parisans. My response wasn’t “oh, such a terrible thing.” It was “Where’s Caroline? Is she safe?” 

Engaged travel like this, where you really experience a place and form lasting relationships, makes the world smaller, but also so much bigger. Spending almost three months outdoors, seeing new places every day, meeting people from around the globe, and sinking into centuries of history made me realize just how small is my piece of the global story. Millions of pilgrims walked this way before me, and they did it as empires rose and fell, wars raged and ended, families and whole cities grew, and people died. And yet this path, and the human desire to follow it, continues. 

7. Steve: What is someone thinking/feeling as they take the final steps in a thousand-mile walk?

Beth: Everyone’s Camino experience is different, of course, but as I walked the final kilometers to the lighthouse and “the end of the world” in Finisterre, I had this very simple thought that “this part is over.” That this was it.

As I saw the Atlantic Ocean pushing up to the rocks at my feet and watched the sun sink into clouds above the horizon, I was okay with being done. I was exhausted mentally as well as physically. I’d taken in as much “new” as I could handle for a while. Seventy-nine days of constant change, it turns out, was my limit. And the beauty of that is that I experienced Finisterre without any regret. I wasn’t sad that my Camino was over. I felt very calm, knowing that I’d been here long enough to get what I needed. 

After that, Eric and I stayed in Finisterre for three days, visiting beaches and eating seafood and seeing friends, and it was this delightful period of celebration and joy, something I’d recommend for anyone taking a long walk like this. Give yourself time at the end to just linger in the moment with people who have shared it with you.  

Journaling on The Way.

8. Steve: Sometimes Camino veterans speak of a “rhythm” that comes with the daily simplicity of eat/walk/sleep/repeat. Can you speak to this?

Beth: I love routines, and there’s a comfort to the pattern of the pilgrim, of living a simple life. 

What impacted me more, though, was the contrast: while our rhythm was the same every day, our surroundings were constantly changing. Every day, and often every hour, I was challenged to walk-eat-sleep-repeat in a new place, with new people, in a new way. Every town we passed had a story, every church had its own icons. Our Camino family grew and shrunk and changed, with new people every day. Every bed was different. Every host and hospitalero was unpredictable; some were generous, some were surly, some were there to serve and others to make money. Every meal was an unknown. (They all looked the same on paper, but I had some four-star pilgrim’s meals and some utterly inedible ones.) The land and the weather changed around us. Would it rain? Would the hill be steep? Would the albergue still have beds? 

This constant level of surprise and change was a challenge for me. It’s what left me exhausted at the end, longing only to sleep in the same bed for three nights in a row. But it’s also what makes the Camino so life-changing. There’s nothing static about it, and it stretches its pilgrims to not be static, either. 

9. Steve: Your best moment out there?

Beth: GR65, which is the French Grand Randonee number for the Le Puy Camino route, climbs and descends steep, rocky river valleys. One morning, the air was cool and the sun was out, and Eric and I climbed for about 5 km until, just past a cluster of houses guarded by well-fed French chats, the trees cleared and left only bright green, early spring scrub grass on a rocky outcropping. And on top of the rock, there was a castle. Or, at least, the ruins of a castle. A crumbling keep kept watch over the river valley, while an intact chapel built of stone seemed to extend directly from the hillside. 

The date on the lintel read 1328. My American brain couldn’t find a context for a date like that. Where I grew up, a building 300 years younger than this would be designated a national monument, with school tours and park rangers. Here, though, there weren’t even fences. 

Eric and I shed our packs, and I climbed onto a rock beside the chapel and looked out over the valley below. I could see a train winding along the river, and in the distance I could make out that town that was our halfway point for the day. It seemed impossibly far away, but at least it was downhill. I tried not to look at the rows of mountains behind it, between me and Santiago. 

I love the quote from Robyn Davidson’s memoir Tracks, where she says, “There are some moments in life that are pivots around which your existence turns—small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track….[This] was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence—and lasted about ten seconds.”

That was me. I was on top of a mountain, next to a French castle, on a spring morning. I was past my lists, my maps, my plans. 

For ten seconds, I was entirely present. 

10. Steve: How can people follow your work, tour schedule, obtain signed copies, all that kind of thing?

Beth: My website is www.caminotimestwo.com. There are links there to order copies of Walking to the End of the World from your favorite online or brick-and-mortar store, a full page of book appearances and events, plus lots of extra articles, packing tips, albergue recommendations, photos, and more. 

(That’s also where you can contact me if you’re interested in me visiting your book club, hiking club, adventure group, library, or bookstore.)

If you’re interested in more pictures, I spent the summer doing an Instagram countdown to the book release, with one photo from each day of our 79-day walk: http://www.instagram.com/bethjusino/

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My Five Travel Necessities for 2018

 

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

– Mark Twain

It’s been a year of considerable travel, maybe the most mobile year ever. Planes, trains, ferries, rental cars, busses, Airbnb, Uber, even something called Bla Bla Car. I’ve used it all getting from point A to point B. From Potomac, MD to San Francisco, a month in Ecuador, another in central Mexico, and three months in Spain, I’ll easily spend most of this year away from home base camp in Jonesboro, AR. Next year already appears a close second.

Packing light and having your necessities close at hand is a learned art. But when you’re away from home for extended times, it’s important having the small things that will at least make you feel at home.

These are five items that never get bumped from my personal travel list:

This RAVPOWER portable charger means no more searching for a charging station in airports, or anywhere for that matter. It stays in my briefcase even on day trips. With an overnight charge of about eight hours, this portable charger with dual stations will give nearly four full charges to a modern smart phone. It goes for about $25 on Amazon and comes in equally handy with this next item.

I’m a cold sleeper and need cold, moving air for a good night’s sleep. It’s been that way since I was a child. At home where night-time summer temps will frequently bottom out at a humid 82 degrees, we keep the AC set at 68. There’s also a ceiling fan above the bed, a high-powered table top fan at bedside, and a big cheap box fan from Wal-Mart about ten feet from the footboard. It’s like sleeping in an arctic category 1 hurricane and I love it.

Obviously not every overnight travel situation sets up this way.

The Efluky 4.5 inch mini USB rechargeable fan is a life saver.  With three speeds, it holds a charge that will last about two hours, or connect it to the RAVPOWER portable charger for about four hours use. Connect it to an iPhone cube plugged into a wall outlet and you have a surprisingly powerful fan that will go all night long. This little treasure pretty much saved my life one stifling night in Oakland, CA, and again one night here in Spain just a few weeks back.

It’s not beyond me to take the cheap route for lunch or supper, especially if I’m tired and just want to go home.  I’ve purchased more than one can of meatballs at local tiendas here in Spain for a keep-you-going snack. It’s nice during those times not to scrounge around for a plastic fork. This one comes from REI and goes for $2 and change. I’ve had it since my first pilgrimage on the Camino Frances. It satisfies me having my own fork!

The only way my Swiss Army Knife doesn’t make the trip is when the turnaround is quick enough that no bags need checking, otherwise it’s standard carry. Two blades, bottle opener, and cork screw I can’t imagine travel without it. Back on that first pilgrimage I checked my knife in a packing tube along with my trekking pole. This link has it about $50, but I got this one for less than $20 at a local Sports Academy.

My Buckshot 2.0 bluetooth speaker is for both work and pleasure. There’s a good bit of audio/visual packed into my on-the-road Pilgrim Strong presentations and volume from the computer or projector just doesn’t get it done. You’d be surprised how much volume this thing emits – plenty for a classroom holding forty to fifty people. I bought this at WalkAbout Outfitter in Richmond, VA but you can get it at Amazon for under $30.

What’s your absolute, deal-breaking travel necessity?

Wherever you are headed happy travels and buen viaje!

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Week 3: Day Trips to Muxia/Fisterra and A Coruña

I’ve always wanted to stand in this very location. If you’ve seen the movie, The Way, this is where Tom Avery spread his son’s ashes in  the final scene. There was a gypsy in Burgos who told Tom to go to a little seaside church in Muxia. “This has nothing to do with religion,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

A rental car is SO much faster than walking.

In week three we found ourselves with several consecutive days off work and we decided to rent a car for some travel to  one place I’d been previously, and two I’d never seen.

Observations about driving in Spain.

(1) Open roads are great and well maintained. They should be. We paid two 6.40€ tolls on a round trip less than 120 kilometers.

(2) Driving through any downtown (centro) means you’ll maneuver  lots of narrow, one-way streets. You’ll encounter roundabouts within roundabouts, and oftentimes there will be stop lights within the inner roundabout.

(3) You think gas is high in the US? 1.60€ per liter here and it takes about four liters to make a gallon.

There probably aren’t as many photos here as there should be after visiting three locations, but it’s really hot in Galicia now and the touristy part of me was a little impatient and edgy.

In A Coruña, the Tower of Hercules, the oldest working Roman light house in use today.

Walking up toward the Tower of Hercules

 

This is some sort of seaside compass pointing to all the regions in Galicia.

 

Standing on the Camino in Muxia.

A 360 view seaside at Muxia.

This small, but important church was destroyed by lightning a few years ago, but has been fully restored. It’s beautiful inside. Perhaps the westernmost church of the Old World.

Standard cold beer shot on a very hot day.

Someone trailing up the rear thought it would be funny taking this shot. NO, I was NOT going to Burger King. Three minutes IS pretty close though!

Week 2: Thin Spaces: Your Truest Sense of Self

 

Here’s a short video I made yesterday in the square. Happiness all around.

 

Twenty years ago I started the practice of spending several hours each New Year’s Day with my grandmother. With a tripod and video recorder in hand I’d ask her questions for hours — the kind of questions you often wonder about long after loved ones are gone. Together, in a sense, we were preserving history.

Well into our visit  one afternoon I asked her this simple question: “When was a time when you felt closest to God?”

She told a story about coming home from work one afternoon and working in her strawberry patch. “I was pulling weeds and picking berries and then there was just this feeling when I was overcome with peace — like a light came over me. I’d never felt it before and I’m not sure I’ve felt it since,” she said.

That was it. That was her story.

I’d expected something so much more colorful and wisdom-filled from this octogenarian I loved and respected so much. But that was it, and she was perfectly content with her reply.

Like so many in our agrarian family, granny sensed God’s presence when she was on her knees and her hands were in the dirt. She believed sincerely that we never owned the land. We were just God’s temporary caretakers.

My grandmother’s thin place was in the garden, and all these years later I identify with the simplicity of her answer. It need not be complicated.

***

 

This group came in yesterday just before noon. I never tire of watching the celebrations.

Going places usually gets something on my mind. This “thin place” notion has permeated so many thoughts since Dana and I arrived in Santiago de Compostela two weeks ago. I first read about it as an ancient Celtic belief mentioned in Father Kevin Codd’s book, To the Field of Stars where he elaborates on the ideas and beliefs of some that there is a thinner realm between earth and heaven in certain places.

I don’t necessarily believe in this idea as a physical property, but in a spiritual sense it’s undeniable. There are times and places when we feel closer to God than others.  How can this be, and what makes it so? After spending considerable time here in three out of the last four years, I know this is one such place, not because of where it is, but rather because of what it creates.

Watch someone as they conclude the final steps of a five hundred mile pilgrimage across some forty days. You will not see ego, pride, or braggadocio. Hugs and warm, lasting embraces replace high fives.

Much more evident is gratitude, humility, and tears of thanks. I get to watch this almost every day and it’s incredible.

It’s as if all guard comes down here. If but for the moment, we find the truest sense of self.

Watching I inevitably wonder, why can’t it be this way all the time?

I’m also focused on this idea of walking. So many places in the bible we find references to walking out our faith, or walking alongside God, or walking by faith, not by sight. It’s clear, especially in the new testament that walking was important to Jesus. Our life of learning and understanding more about God involves “walking” beside him. He does not pull, nor does he push, but He wants us to walk with Him. His invitation is, come along.

In a sense we’re on a pilgrimage to God’s kingdom. As we walk and listen I think we become more sensitive to God’s present reality in our lives. We’ll take detours, we’ll get lost at times, and we’ll learn from those missteps. But the goals is to just keep walking.

Where is your thin place?

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Spain Week 1: Getting Here and Getting Going

I’d love to have been closer for this photo, but the moment was just too personal and I didn’t want to infringe. Some things are more important that getting the story perfectly. But you can see why it was so powerful. This is the essence of pilgrimage. People sharing experiences together.

Maneuvering their way methodically through the crowd of Sunday morning tourists the three young women emerged from the descending tunnel just as every bell in the city launched a frenzied peal proclaiming high noon. Commanding all attention, the bells overwhelmed every other noise in the plaza, including the bagpipes that always seem oddly out of place, yet inevitably evoke emotions consistent with something so powerful and deep as the conclusion of this journey.

Walking sticks in hand, clickety-clacking along the ancient cobblestones, the trio made the last of more than a million purposeful steps across the better part of forty days. Six hours prior and ten miles eastward they’d set out early but there was no beating the heat this day. Noontime temperatures already pushed three digits and heavy streams of sweat ran down their dusty legs as gravity pulled tiny rivers of mud into their long-ago sweat-filled, worn-out shoes. The threesome remained close making their way respectfully through the bustling crowd and came to a point that obviously seemed suitable. In unison, they turned their bodies and eyes eastward and upward now bringing into full view the place they’d walked toward a month. Newly restored and refurbished, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is breathtaking against the deep blue August sky. For the moment, each was lost in her own private thoughts.

All cleaned up after many years of restoration the cathedral is restored to her former glory.

Just as they were soaking it all in, one of the peregrinas made an independent step forward raising her hands wide toward the heavens as if to receive this long-anticipated moment into her spirit. In a crowd of hundreds, she is alone in a private state of thanks — immersed in gratitude. Following suit, her compañeras step alongside as they clasp hands skyward celebrating as family.

Together, they have walked across a country on a footpath known to seekers for more than a millennia. Maybe it was nothing more than a long walk. But it’s just as possible they may never be the same. Only time will tell.

Nevertheless, together, they have arrived.

***

After four days traveling Dana and I had already spent two recovery days on the ground shaking an unusually difficult bout of jet lag. We decided to fight the fog of flying forward in time and pretty much losing an entire night by taking a bus to the cathedral plaza — the familiar place that defines Santiago de Compostela. It was there where we witnessed the scene described above. I was already caught unwittingly off guard by the emotions returning to the site where the Way of St. James concludes. This place, and what it means, has become an unexpectedly important part of my life over the last three years. There was two years of book writing most recently followed by nearly fifty presentations from Potomac, MD to San Francisco. It seems I’ve lived “The Way” for a long time now.

God works in mysterious ways. This pilgrimage experience continues bringing personal and important revelations about the things I consider most important. And it has blessed me with an incredible network of family and deep and meaningful friendships across the world. It’s a big deal for a kid who grew up in a cotton patch in the middle of rural Arkansas.

So I know exactly how these women felt as they concluded their long pilgrimage. What they may or may not know is the truth found in that cliché notion that their real pilgrimage begins at the end. I hate that cliché. But I now know that it’s real and that it has the potential to shape us in wonderful ways.

***

Here’s a recap of our experience so far:

GETTING HERE

Saving more than a thousand dollars on air fare, Dana and I bypassed our home airport at Memphis International and made the six-hour drive to Dallas-Fort Worth for our departure point. The total ten hours from Dallas to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Madrid was about as flawless as international travel comes.  Still, we were three hundred miles from Santiago de Compostela, our home base for the next three months.

I’d not pre-booked any travel beyond Madrid in the event of delayed connections or airport problems. Too many reservations can quickly become a falling house of cards with the slightest glitch in this type of travel. The other side of it is that you never know the scenarios that await.

After catching the airport commuter train to Chamartin Station, the man at the ticket counter explained that every train to Santiago for the next four days was fully booked. August is vacation season in Spain and everyone is squeezing in their last bit of free time before school starts. The bus lines were also fully booked. I’ve learned these moments are not resolved with panic.

Our goodbye selfie with the Walters. Somehow, Kathryn didn’t make it into this photo.

After a few back-and-forth texts with our hosts, Nate and Faith Walters, we discovered a ride share program in Spain that works much like Airbnb. They call it Bla-Bla Car! After a few hours weighing all the options (which amounted to one) we booked three seats (one for each of us and one for our luggage) with Humberto who was headed from Madrid to Santiago the following day at noon. By 7 p.m. that night, we’d arrived at Nate and Faith’s, exhausted, but at home base for the next eighty-nine days. As noted earlier, we remained in a travel fog for the next thirty-six hours.

OUR HOME

The final puzzle piece that made this trip possible was the opportunity to house sit for Nate and Faith as they are on an extended trip back to the US. So our responsibilities include both caring for their house and serving at the faith-based, non-profit they founded, Terra Nova Pilgrim House, just a few blocks off the cathedral square.

It’s a nice, four-level home with all the modern conveniences, an outdoor patio, a great kitchen where I’m already re-learning how to cook, and a nice backyard garden.

Together, we experienced a four-day transition as Nate, Faith and their four children departed for Washington just yesterday. They were all so gracious. It’s not easy having guests in your home as you’re preparing that many people for a six-month trip across an ocean. They must have walked out the door yesterday with a dozen suitcases.

OUR SURROUNDINGS

We’re a fifteen minute walk from a local mall and super mercado, and just twenty minutes off the Way of St. James as you enter the east side of town. I can throw a rock

At the local old-town market. A foodie’s dream.

to the local bus stop and busses run every thirty minutes all over town. Public transportation in Europe is great once you learn it. We’re looking at possibilities for all kinds of long-weekend side trips. Dublin is even a possibility.

There is a training school for circus performers two doors down from us. Interesting, yes.

Eager to prepare my first home made batch of pimientos de Padron. I may possibly consume a million of these while here.

WEATHER

Just as we arrived European news agencies disseminated warnings of all-time record heat in the forecast. We’re talking 118 degrees Fahrenheit in some remote areas. We approached 100 on three consecutive days. Because this rarely happens it’s just not

I don’t know of a person alive who could’ve taken this fan out of my hands.

practical for families to invest in air conditioning here. You open the windows and turn on the fans. Our finding a large fan at the mall was a divine miracle last Saturday. Practically every shelf in town was bare. Best €25 spent in a long time. Last Sunday, I took five cold showers.

It’s 68 degrees as I write at 11 a.m. now and a lovely breeze flows through our large open windows. Sweet relief.

Our sleep patterns here are complicated so far. Not only was there the adjustment of time, but at this latitude in this season our sunset doesn’t happen until around 10:45 p.m. Because I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy it’s totally thrown me off from what we’re accustomed to in the lower southern latitudes. We are going to bed around 11 p.m. and getting up between 8 and 9 a.m. I haven’t slept that late since college. At least it’s pretty consistent with Spanish culture.

COOKING AND FOOD

Yesterday, we ventured to the old-town outdoor market. It’s a place that will make a foodie downright giddy. I’ve never seen better produce than what’s available in the Spanish markets. Combine that with the local cheeses (Galicia is famous for its cheese), locally produced wines (I’m determined to learn more about wine while here), fresh seafood and meats (chorizo everywhere), and baguettes for €.35 each, and I could easily gain fifty pounds in three months. This whole volunteer experience may require another long walk!

After yesterday’s market trip I prepared our first comida — (late afternoon lunch,

My chorizo and seafood pasta dish from yesterday.

typically the biggest meal of the day here). It was a nice chorizo and seafood pasta with a tomato, pepper, zucchini sauce.

I’ve discovered some low-alcoholic fruit ciders here that are refreshingly delicious. A cold San Miguel or Estrella Galicia beer is nostalgic of “second breakfast” on the Way. I also love an occasional cold sangria here, and cerveza de limon, a drink that is half beer, half intensified sparkling lemon juice. So refreshing. We’ll attempt a homemade papa tortilla soon.

OUR PURPOSE

Not to overlook the very most important part of this experience ahead.

Beyond everything, Dana and I have come here to serve and to listen. There is something inside my spirit telling me that listening will be the foundation of our service.  The more I contemplate Jesus’ commission for disciples to take the gospel news to the ends of the earth, the more I think it’s about listening in the modern day. Historically, our delivery method has been talking. Telling people this and that. Inviting them to come into our circle as if we are somehow different and set aside. We just don’t sit still and listen enough. “Come into our group, affiliate with us, and you will be okay,” we say. “You are there, but we are here. Come here.” I think it is time we listen rather than be so determined to recite the four spiritual laws to someone and expect a miraculous change in someone’s life in fifteen minutes. As Rick Warren says, for Christians, “we have a lot to unlearn.”

I want to embrace people. We are all the same kind of different.

Beyond this, I have come here with personal expectation.

Over the years this has become one of a handful of places where I believe I better hear God’s direction for my own life. Maybe I imagine that, or maybe it is true, but it doesn’t really matter as long as I believe it. I’ve come here with the expectation that God will clearly show what comes next. Ideas abound. Clarity is needed. Maybe it is another book. Maybe it is a new mission, altogether. If you pray, I ask that you might pray for Dana and me as we sort through what’s next. I’m personally praying each night that God will make me receptive to the place where He leads. I want to have an open heart and an open spirit. So we covet your prayers in that regard.

***

Tomorrow, we’ll receive our first mission and vision training at Pilgrim House and go through full orientation. Our work schedule begins on Saturday.

Until next week, buen camino.

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