Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Templar Trail to Jerusalem: An Interview with Brandon Wilson


[Along the Templar Trail]Brandon Wilson is a author, photographer, travel expert and adventurer. He has walked to the four most important medieval pilgrimage destinations: Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela (via both the Camino Francés and the Vía de la Plata) and Trondheim (Nidaros).

I spoke with Brandon last week. He was in the Italian Alps, where he and his wife finished their most recent adventure: a hike along the Via Alpina, which you can read about in Brandon’s latest book, Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.

That wasn’t the walk we talked about, though. Rather, we discussed Brandon’s Lowell Thomas Award-winning book Along the Templar Trail, and the route he walked from France to Jerusalem—much of it with a Frenchman he calls Émile in the book.

The route runs 4,223 kilometers (2620 miles) through eleven countries: France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus and Israel.

We talked about the practicalities of the trip, Brandon’s experiences, and his mission to talk to people about peace along the way.

You can download the full interview (length: 36:48) on the very intermittent Pilgrim Roads podcast (to which you can now subscribe in iTunes), listen to it on your computer using the player below, and/or read highlights from the conversation below.

* * *

[Templar Trail map]

A map of the Templar Trail. Visit the Pilgrim's Tales website for more detailed maps.
Graphic courtesy Brandon Wilson.

When Brandon Wilson set off to walk to Jerusalem, one of his two main aims was to blaze a trail others could follow.

Lots of people walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Brandon tells me, and increasing numbers of pilgrims take the Via Francigena to Rome.

And after walking those routes—two of the three most important in medieval times— “A lot of the pilgrims I’ve talked to, say, okay, now what?” Brandon says.

I guess the ultimate in the Triple Crown is to walk to Jerusalem. A few people have walked it over the years, but I wanted to try to establish something that people could follow as a path.

He wanted to give pilgrims a rough itinerary, with stages and accommodation along a single route from Europe to Jerusalem.

The route Brandon and his friend Émile followed passed through the cities that Godfrey de Bouillon travelled through with 40,000 men during the First Crusade.

And this brings us to the second purpose of Brandon’s trek. He followed a route that had been used to wage war, while blazing a trail to spread a message of peace.

“It was a purposeful irony,” he tells me.

I did this not only as a walk to establish a trail, but as a personal peace journey and peace trek to talk to people along the way about the necessity to consciously make the personal effort to choose peace over war. This area in particular has been plagued for centuries, and has been a battleground for many different powers pulling on either end.

And I was met with an incredible response along the way, as I talked to people, ordinary people, working-class people who had seen the effects of war. And the effects had not only been losing family members as recently as during the war in Kosovo, to people who have had their cultures and their societies so disrupted, and have suffered through such a cycle of poverty because war not only drains human lives, but it drains resources from countries.

And did his journey—his talking about peace with so many people—make a difference?

[Brandon Wilson]

Brandon Wilson.
Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

“I like to think so,” Brandon says.

Émile walked with a large medieval pilgrim’s staff, which he decorated with the flags of the countries they passed through. And so, the two of them, as Brandon described it, created “a little bit of a spectacle, and something different. Something you wouldn’t normally see walking down beside the side of a road, these two fellows with backpacks, looking like garden gnomes otherwise.”

Their appearance created opportunities to meet and talk with people, Brandon said.

We had a lot of people coming up to us, and stopping us, and saying, “What are you doing?” And that would give us a chance to tell our story.

And we found the story of our passing preceded us down the road. We would have people driving past and waving to us, or even to the point of pulling off the side of the road and giving us food.

They ended up talking about peace on TV in Bulgaria and Turkey, where their interviews ran for ten or fifteen minutes and reached millions of people.

It’s hard to say how much of an effect the two peace pilgrims had, Brandon says. But their actions could spread.

Every action that we make in life, no matter how small, sometimes affects other people in other instances. It creates something. It’s like a snowball effect or it’s like a droplet in the water. It’s only a tiny droplet, one tiny action, but then that action causes a ripple that spreads and spreads and spreads.

And a lot of times that was a metaphor I saw with what we were hoping to accomplish here. That we were simply two pilgrims out walking and talking to people, but I was hoping that this message, and this establishment of the route would grow to more.

A Vision of the Templar Trail

[Café]

Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

Brandon has heard from a few people he and Émile stayed with along the way. They read Along the Templar Trail and were amazed, Brandon says, because “it ties them all together into this fellowship.”

Many along the route knew it was a path taken by the Crusades. In places like Bulgaria and Serbia, the people are very close to their past, which they remember partly through medieval re-enactments.

In the tradition, of course, it was a path of war. But Brandon wants to change all that.

“Why can’t it be a path of peace? Why can’t it be something that everyday ordinary people from countries all through that area get together and walk side by side like they do on the Camino?” he says.

Can you imagine the power of having a hundred thousand people walking a path, sitting down and sharing meals and stories together, learning that our similarities are greater than our differences, and breaking down those cultural barriers, those religious barriers that politicians and rulers have always set up to set us apart from each other?

There’s a huge potential for human power and the power of the consciousness to change that area. And by simply visualizing peace and working together on that common goal. Of putting one foot in front of another, and stepping and sharing the same trials and tribulations every day. What an incredible difference I think it can make in the long term.

It’s a beautiful dream, but is it likely to happen?

“I think it has everything going for it,” Brandon said.

I think that now more than ever before, we see the necessity for peace and co-operation. And not only avoiding wars, but co-operating on ecological issues, co-operating on issues of human rights and dignity and fair wages and things like that….

In different parts of the world—for example, the European Union—peoples who have been fighting each other are now realizing that times have changed, and it’s now time to join together, Brandon says.

So yes, I think [a peace path to Jerusalem] is possible. It’s going to take a lot of work—and probably more structural work than has been put into it so far, but this is a beginning; this is a genesis; this is a seed. If anything, in my own life, it would be great to be able to look back 30 or 40 years from now and say, yeah, this was something that started when two men with backpacks started out from France.

Brandon would like to do more to develop the route, and would welcome anyone else who would like to join him.

The Kindness of Strangers

[French Canals]

Walking along a canal in France.
Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

As they walked, Brandon and Émile met a number of people Brandon refers to as “angels”—people who went out of their way to help the two pilgrims.

One of their first angel experiences came when they were walking along a canal in France in the pouring rain. They were hungry, thirsty and cold, but there were no restaurants where they could stop.

Brandon saw some tables set out in a yard and joked that they should ask if they could buy a cup of coffee.

And [Émile] looked at me like I was a little crazy, and he said, “Okay, sure, all right.” And we walked over, and just as we approached the door, a man stuck his head out.

The two pilgrims asked about coffee, and the man said they were at his house, not a restaurant. But he invited them inside to his cozy kitchen, where his children—home from school for lunch—sat around the table. The man offered them wine, and then homemade lentil soup.

As we sat there, we were amazed by his generosity, that he brought his kids out and they entertained us, as little kids will do. And then his wife came in, and we talked for a while. And then we found that an hour had passed—and we’d had such a delightful time with these people, these total strangers—and we found we had to excuse ourselves.

I remember distinctly them standing at the door, outside in the rain, waving to us as we set off down the road again. And it was such a touching moment.

I had to say to Emile, “Is this typical in France?” Because I couldn’t imagine the same thing happening in America.

And he said, “Oh yes, you’ll find people are like this in the countryside.”

And that was the beginning of it.

Brandon walked for about four and a half months, and met an “angel” nearly every day.

It became almost as if we no sooner imagined it, we no sooner said, boy, I wonder where we’re going to stay tonight, than someone came forward offering us a place to stay. There was this connection, this eerie connection. …

I was amazed time and time again about the bounty of the world, and how we’re so caught up with feeling emptiness in some ways when there is such bounty, and people willing to share it. And it transcended countries, and it transcended religion.

One day Brandon was walking alone in Turkey. He was in the desert, and out of water. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it to the next town.

Then he saw a watering trough for cattle near the road, and went down to it.

“I was pretty desperate at that point,” he says, looking back on that day. But the water was green.

Just then I looked up, and there were two men standing there. And I said, “Can you drink this water?”

And they said, “Why, are you thirsty?”

I said yes.

And they said, “Are you hungry?”

I said, “Well, always. I’m a pilgrim. I’m always hungry.”

And they said, “Well, come with us.”

Brandon followed the men, total strangers, to the other side of an olive grove. Their families had set out a picnic there.

And there was more food there than I had seen in months. There was watermelon and bread and things to drink and all types of food. And they motioned to me to sit down and started passing all the food my way.

And we talked for a while, and they said, “What are you doing out here?”

I said, “I’m walking on a peace path to Jerusalem.”

And they said, “Well, what is peace?” Because they didn’t speak very much English—this is all semi-miming.

I said, “No war, no guns.”

And they said, “Bravo, bravo. We believe in peace, too.”

We talked for a while, and there was so much joy and such happiness in sharing this with them. And finally they started packing everything up, back in the van. They said they were going to the beach, which they would reach in another couple of hours. It would take me five or six days.

They left all the food in front of me.

And I said, “What about this?”

And they said, “This is for you. This is our gift for you.”

I was so touched by that. I was like the family dog left alone at the family table. I didn’t know where to begin, and I hated to waste anything.

But there were those sorts of incidences all the time. And it reassured me about the goodness of human nature.

I ask Brandon if we Westerners have lost the ability to accept kindness like that with grace.

“I think we have,” he says.

I think somewhere along the line, not only showing kindness to strangers but accepting kindness have been somewhat foreign to us. We’ve become so closed in, and so guarded and protective of what we have, and we forget the blessedness of giving, which is a basic tenet of all religions and faiths. The kindness of strangers and to share. And, like you said, the ability to accept it graciously, and to pass it forward.

As a pilgrim, Brandon says, you have to look at what’s really necessary.

It’s letting go of preconceptions, it’s putting yourself—throwing yourself, literally—out there in the universe.

I walk without a cell phone. I don’t have a big dog or pepper spray. I don’t carry a gun, and sometimes I have a stick, but that’s for hiking purposes.

But [pilgrimage is] placing your trust in your faith that you’ll be taken care of. And that you’re doing what you should be doing at that particular point. And that letting go, that’s a huge obstacle for people. It’s again something that’s outside of generally our comfort range these days.

So many people went out of their way to help, or encourage, the pilgrims—in part, Brandon suspects, because they wanted to be part of such an epic walk.

I sensed that a lot of people wanted to participate. They wanted to help us and feel a part of this journey. And [they did] so, by giving us food or giving us a place to stay, or just encouragement—we’d have people on the road who would drive by and beep their horns at us. And as long as they weren’t shaking their fist, I took that as a good sign.

Dangers of the Journey

There wasn’t only peace and kindness on Brandon and Émile’s journey. Sitting in a café in Belgrade one day, they found that fighting had broken out between Lebanon and Israel. The two countries were bombing each other.

“This is the last thing we wanted to hear at that point, because on a trip like this, even though you do have a certain amount of faith, you don’t want to do something stupid,” Brandon says.

You have faith, but you don’t want to step in front of a bus. And this was a potential bus. …

The media was seriously talking about this being the beginning of a World War III. There were some serious rumblings. And in talking to people back in the States—my wife in particular—she said, “Maybe you should think about coming back.”

And for me it took a lot of deep soul-searching about what I should do. I couldn’t speak for Émile because it’s a very personal trip and we each have to make our own decisions on something like this. But I thought, let’s give it some time. Let’s give it a couple of weeks or several weeks, and by the time we get to Istanbul, then we can decide what we’re going to do.

By the time they reached Istanbul, the Israel/Lebanon conflict wasn’t as bad, but there were other warning signs: an attempted attack on the American embassy in Damascus, tourists shot in Jordan, and an Ebola-like virus in eastern Turkey.

Émile, who was quite ill by that time, decided to go home. Brandon continued on, but he decided to take a safer route—and another Templar trail—through Turkey and across Cyprus.

The Walking

[Head]

Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

Brandon and Émile followed canals in France, and then took the Donauradweg bicycle route from Bavaria, across Germany and Austria and into Slovakia. From Budapest, they were able to follow bike routes through most of Hungary.

In Serbia, the walking changed. The two pilgrims took country roads when they could, passing through fields and woods when they could find a pathway. But sometimes they had to walk along the highway.

“The first part of Turkey was fine, but coming into Istanbul, the city stretches probably two days’ walking in each direction,” Brandon says.

So a lot of times we found ourselves out there competing with a lot of traffic, and a lot of buses, and a lot of heavy trucks. This became dangerous, and we’d always have to be on our toes.

It wasn’t a path in that sense like the Camino de Santiago, where everything’s nicely marked, and you’re away from the traffic, and there’s nice little arrows every fifty yards. We were out there blazing trails, and unfortunately in some instances these days, those trails are pretty busy.

There are other route options, but the two couldn’t meet up with the GR trails (European long-distance walking pathways) where they existed, because the GR routes passed through mountains, and Émile’s health was bad.

One of the pair’s problems was that Émile had been responsible for bringing maps, and these ended up being road maps without detailed walking information, so the pilgrims had to pick up information as they went along. In the future, Brandon hopes pilgrims will be able to connect with GR paths, or at least get onto safer country roads more often.

Most days, Brandon and Émile walked 30 or 35 kilometres, but some days were longer.

“I remember one day in particular, there was a 50k day, which was really really difficult,” Brandon says.

“Especially since it was through Turkey, and again I was in arid conditions walking by myself out in the middle of nowhere with very little food or water. It was near ten o’clock at night by the time I finally arrived, so it was in excess of a twelve-hour hiking day.

Expenses

Brandon says he averaged US $31 per day on the route.

In France, he and Émile stayed with Émile’s friends. In Germany and Austria, they often stayed in pensions, zimmer freis and bed and breakfasts. From there on, they stayed in hotels, or whatever other accommodations they could find.

But even Germany and Austria weren’t hugely expensive, Brandon says. The pensions had enormous breakfasts, “which would take you take you at least until lunch if not beyond. We’d have meat and cheese and bread and pastries and coffee and juice and milk and muesli. There were virtual feasts every morning, so we would load up on those. It’s still very affordable.”

In Germany and Austria, they also stayed in monasteries and convents whenever they could. Brandon carried a letter from a monsignor at the Vatican and another from a Catholic university, both introducing him and Émile as pilgrims. With the letters in hand, they would ask for refuge from monks and nuns.

Even at pensions and bed and breakfasts, the two sometimes got a pilgrim discount after they explained what they were doing.

Women on the Trail

I ask Brandon if, as far as the route is safe at all, he thinks it would be safe for a woman or women to walk on their own.

“That’s a difficult question to answer,” he says.

Of course, women walk on their own on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but on a route like this, Brandon says, people aren’t aware yet that “you’re not just some Westerner out there walking. So I would exercise a lot of caution for single women that would be attempting this now. And also in a practical sense, I think it’s a lot more fun to walk it with someone else.”

Ultimately, he adds, “You just have to use your own good judgment.”

And Back to Peace

[Tree]

Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

I ask Brandon if he has anything he’d like to say before we wrap up. He pauses for a moment before replying.

“I think what it comes down to is a lot of times making a personal choice about the type of world we want to live in,” he says.

Someone once asked Mother Theresa, if there was an anti-war rally, would she attend? And she said, “No. Because I’m not anti-anything, I’m pro. I’m pro-peace.” She said, “If you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be the first person in line.”

I think that’s a bit of wisdom, and I think what we need to do is change our way of thinking and make sure it’s always pro. It’s pro-peace, pro-action, pro-relief of many of the ills that affect us today. Because the human mind has an amazing strength. And the strength of putting this many billions of lives and wills together, it’s impossible almost to imagine what’s accomplishable.

And the funny thing is, in a lot of ways … a lot of the lessons learned on the trail are metaphors for a larger lesson in life, and a larger challenge in life. But the beginning of solving any problem is that first step. And just as simple pilgrims start with a first step, we start with a first step in our own lives.

A passage from the end of Brandon’s book, Along the Templar Trail, sums up his conclusions.

We’re all pilgrims, each on their own path, each with their own story to tell. Walking is only a first step, but one we can each take to discover the peace within. And that way eventually war would become unconscionable, darkness will be dispelled with light, one person, one step at a time.

Walking, helps us reconnect with nature and “meditate in our own way, through that discovering a peace within that we can then carry back to our families, to our work, to our communities,” Brandon says.

So again, it’s the droplet in the pond that’s spreading.
 

* * *

To learn more about Brandon Wilson, his adventures and his books, visit the Pilgrim’s Tales website. You can find Along the Templar Trail on Amazon.com. Also, check out Brandon’s latest book, Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.

The Pilgrim’s Tales website also has information for aspiring pilgrims to Jerusalem, including a rough map and description, and a list of stages and their lengths.

The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Jerusalem Facebook page is also a great place to learn more about the pilgrimage.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 6:17 pm
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This Week in Pilgrimage: New Albergues and More


[View from a Bar in Finisterre]

Photo of the Week
View from a bar in Finisterre, after my braver companions went swimming in the November-cold water.
Submit your photo for Photo of the Week.

The usual disclaimer: I’ve done the best I can to ensure accuracy, but a lot of this information comes from Spanish sites and my Spanish is, alas, far from perfect. This week, some information also comes from Italian and Norwegian sites, where I’ve had to rely completely on Google Translate.

As usual, get in touch if I’ve missed anything. Or for any other reason, really. I’d love to hear from you!

Camino Bits and Pieces

  • Puente Castro, a suburb of León, just opened a welcome and interpretive centre for pilgrims: El Museo de las Tres Culturas (The Museum of Three Cultures). The centre focuses on local history: Roman, Christian, and especially Jewish. Located in the Church of San Pedro, it’s described as a place for pilgrims to get information before entering León, rest and learn. The centre is currently hosting an exhibition called (in English) “One Camino, Three Cultures: The Puzzle of History in León.”
  • This information is from a week ago, so the situation I’m about to describe may have cleared up by now. If I understand this correctly, last year a disturbed Slovenian pilgrim tried to kill Tomás of Manjarin’s dogs. This same man reappeared last week on the Camino. He’s about 30 years old, has blond hair (possibly with brown highlights—I don’t understand that part) and has a blue backpack. Tomás wants anyone who sees the man to call him (Tomás) on his cell phone: 609 938 642.
  • Camino associations responsible for the Camino de Levante (southeast variant) want to make the route into a GR path. (The GR routes are seriously long-distance European footpaths.) They figure this would enhance the route, which would become the GR-239, and make it better known to hikers. It also seems that the route would become better way marked as a GR route.
  • According to a Diario de León article, representatives of pilgrim associations in Spain are afraid that in the last few years the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has become increasingly about travelling the last 100 kilometres. The Burgos association says this trend (which isn’t general yet) “doesn’t fit with the spirit of the route.” The average distance walked by pilgrims dropped from 444 kilometres in 2008 to 435 kilometres in 2009 and 422 kilometres (the lowest of the decade) in 2010. I believe this is part of a continuing disagreement between the pilgrim associations and governments the associations say are trying to turn the Camino into a tourist fad, but I have an incomplete grasp of the Spanish language, and no grasp at all of Spanish politics, so please don’t quote me on that.
  • The Camino Mozárabe, which begins in Granada (or Málaga) and ends in Mérida, where it meets up with the Vía de la Plata, was recently promoted at the Feria Internacional de Turismo Madrid (International Tourism Fair of Madrid) in a presentation that aimed to promote rural tourism. I’m not entirely sure what this means for the route, except that it may well get more popular—and, we can only hope, develop some albergues.
  • A new albergue is due to open this summer in Medina de Rioseco, north of Valladolid on the Camino de Madrid. The Convent of Santa Clara, located at the pilgrim entrance to the town, is currently converting one of its buildings into an albergue that will hold 18 pilgrims. (Via Rebekah Scott.)
  • The city council of Otero de Bodas is turning an old forge into a small albergue with room for two pilgrims. The nearby Camino Sanabrés (from Zamora to Santiago) doesn’t actually pass through Otero de Bodas, but town councillor David Ferrero Rodríguez said pilgrims, particularly cyclists, often pass through when they follow Highway 631—and the town could eventually be on an alternative Camino route. The renovations should be completed by the end of January.
  • In airport news, EasyJet has just joined RyanAir in offering international flights to and from the Santiago airport. It now has flights between Santiago and Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Representatives of the Xunta de Galicia met recently with the mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay. They decided to work together to create a network of the regions that the Camino de Santiago passes through, “in order to maintain a common tourism policy and to organize a coherent proposal from the two points of the Camino.” I don’t actually know what this means. I suspect I wouldn’t really understand it if it were originally in English—sounds like opaque government-speak to me.
  • Santiago, Spain and Tanabe, Japan are making a joint effort to promote their respective tourist routes: the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and the Japanese Kumano Kodo, both World Heritage Sites. The website www.Spiritual-Pilgrimages.net, which has pretty pictures but not a lot of useful content, is part of the effort.
  • Pablo Mosquera-Costoya, a Camino pilgrim and mixologist from A Coruña, developed a new cocktail in honour of the Holy Year. You can read the story—and get the recipe—on the Savoir Faire website. (Via Sil.)
  • The library in the new City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela has just begun a series of sessions “that is presented as a dialogue between literature and the fine arts.” Each of the twelve sessions will be about a single author—nine from Galicia, and three “guests.” Each will open with a talk about the author by an expert, followed by “a performance related to the spirit of the author being honoured,” and appetizers. This free series started on January 15, and will run until June 25.
  • The Camino Documentary recently shared a video clip that has various experts talking about medieval pilgrim motivations.

Other Pilgrimage Routes

  • Caravaca de la Cruz, which is a Holy City because it has the Vera Cruz or True Cross (which apparently contains wood from Jesus’s cross), hopes to become a “centre of pilgrimage in southern Spain.” Walking-wise, nine (or five, or eight, or ten—there doesn’t seem to be any clear agreement) routes collectively called the Caminos de la Vera Cruz lead to the city.
  • The Cammina Francigena organization (which seems to be related to the Slow Movement), has mapped out accommodations on the Via Francigena along a GPS route. (Via Sylvia Nilsen.)
  • A wreath was placed (I’m not sure by whom) on Archbishop Øystein Erlendsson’s statue at the Nidaros cathedral on Wednesday to mark the 850th anniversary of his return home to Nidaros (now Trondheim) to become archbishop. Erlendsson was the architect who designed the Nidaros cathedral, where pilgrims go to visit Saint Olav’s shrine. According to the article, “he was the most significant archbishop in the Middle Ages and was held to be a saint after his death (January 26, 1188).”

Pilgrim Roads

I spoke with pilgrim author Brandon Wilson earlier this week about the Templar Trail to Jerusalem, and will be posting an audio interview and article based on that conversation next week.

Also, Ian Brodrick recently traversed the Saint Bernard Pass (on the Via Francigena), and will be reporting on the pass in winter. It sounds like it’s not a journey for the inexperienced.

Have a great weekend!


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The Well-Equipped Pilgrim


[Team Wombat]

A well-equipped Australian family on the Camino Francés in Galicia. Go Team Wombat!

“Just pick one and get on with it.”

I have to admit that’s been my reaction recently when I’ve read about people obsessing over what kind of equipment to take on the Camino or any kind of hike.

But now … I don’t actually have a plane ticket yet, but I did make my first Vía de la Plata purchases earlier this week, when I bought some blister pads and a travel toothbrush at the pharmacy. And it hit me: I’m really going. In less than three months, I’ll be in Spain.

So I dug through boxes to find my old equipment, and considered it.

Some things I obviously needed. Others—like the clothes for seriously cold weather—I could just as clearly leave behind. And it was relatively easy to create a list of replacement items, for things that I lost or wore out more than two years ago on the Camino de Santiago.

And then there are the things I can’t quite decide about, beginning with Big Item #1: the sleeping bag.

I picture my inner dialogue on this subject as one of those angel/demon cartoon situations, with each on one of my shoulders, whispering into my ear.

Demon of Doubt: You have a perfectly good lightweight sleeping bag already.

Ultralite-ish Angel: But it’s rated to -10 Celsius, which is totally redundant. You could get a lighter, smaller 7 Celsius sleeping bag for $40.

Demon: Those heat ratings are designed for men, who tend to be warmer, while you are possibly the coldest person on the face of the planet. You sleep with five blankets at home, so you’ll freeze in the lighter sleeping bag. And the weight difference is well under a pound. Do you want to be a dead peregrina?

(I should interrupt here to point out that I’m Canadian, and thus allowed to talk about degrees centigrade and pounds at the same time. We’re weird that way.)

Angel: So you’re not worried about being alone and female on route without pilgrim throngs. You’re not particularly concerned about traffic, which has been known to kill pilgrims. But you really think that, wearing all your layers, in your lightweight sleeping bag, inside a building, you could die of cold?

Demon: You never know.

Angel: And every ounce matters. Who was it that added an extra ten minutes to her walk the other day and went up a substantial hill with her backpack—and felt like dying? And that wasn’t even a serious climbing-out-of-Conques sort of hill.

Demon: I’m not convinced shaving off a few ounces would have affected that.

Angel: And the -10 sleeping bag is just too big.

Demon: Right. So there’s a reason for using the backpack you already have.

And thus we segue into Big Item #2: the backpack. The problem being that my only functional backpack holds 75 litres, which is of course too big. But it’s so comfortable! And so affordable! And….

Well, you see what I mean.

I remind myself that gear choices aren’t absolute. Spain is not a barren shop-less wasteland. When I was walking to Santiago from Le Puy, I discarded some items and picked up others as I moved from summer heat to autumn chill.

But it doesn’t help—much. My angel and demon keep on arguing.


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High School Students Prepare for the Camino


[Sabrina and Adriana E.]

Sabrina E. and her twin sister Adriana are two of four Springfield High School students who will be walking the Camino Francés this summer.
Photo courtesy James March.

Springfield High School student Sabrina E. isn’t completely sure why she’s going to be walking the Camino Francés this summer, but she knows she’s going to get something out of the experience.

“I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but I feel like it’s going to be something good,” she tells me as we chat over Skype.

But she’s scared, too.

“It’s a large step, from being at home all summer long to being away from my mom for forty days,” she says.

I think the furthest I’ve gone without my mom was to Idaho, and that’s only eight hours away. So this is huge compared to that.

But that’s not going to stop her, or any of the three other students from Springfield, Oregon who are preparing to walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago or Finisterre (they’re not quite sure where they’ll finish) this summer with two teachers.

History teacher James March said he chose the four students—all girls—for the trip from their response to his questions.

[James March]

Springfield history teacher James March, during last summer's bike trip along the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Photo courtesy James March.

He would ask, “What are you doing this summer? Do you want to do a trip?”

“And they would say yes before they thought about it,” he says.

They said yes from a gut feeling…. That was my litmus test.

James is a veteran of the Pacific Crest Trail and other long hikes. After he began teaching at Springfield High School, he decided to involve students in his trips.

“I figured it was about time to share that experience with students, that long distance sort of ‘get to know yourself’ sort of trip,” he explains.

And so last summer, he and four students cycled 5,340 kilometres (3,318 miles) on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

As soon as he returned to school last autumn, students started asking about the next trip. James selected the four students, and gave them a choice: the Camino Francés, or the 88 Temple pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku, Japan.

Sabrina and the other three students researched the two pilgrimage routes. Even though James was pushing to go to Japan, they chose Spain.

Why the Camino Francés?

For Sabrina, looking at pictures helped her decide.

I think it honestly was … just the views of everything. And I’ve watched so many movies with Spain in it that I thought it’d be great just to actually see what was there.

She’s especially excited to see the cathedrals, as it’ll be a great experience to see the buildings she’s learned so much about.

[Deija]

Deija Z. (Grade 10).
Photo courtesy James March.

In a brochure the students are creating to give to friends and family, Grade 10 student Deija Z. writes that she’s always wanted to go to Europe.

“I know [the Camino] will be hard,” she continues, “but I am going to try my best.”

Auna G. writes in the same brochure that she dreams of travelling the world.

And as for the Camino: “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for me and I could not pass it up!”

The students—and their teachers—have been doing their research, and already have a good idea of what they’re preparing for.

Because of the timing of their holidays, they’ll have to walk in summer. At first, James was a little worried about the pilgrim crowds.

“I’ve done trips like this completely alone, where you don’t see people for three days,” he says.

And I know this is going to be a completely different experience. But I think it’ll be good, too. Because I think part of what we’ll all get is that cultural experience of staying at hostels and meeting people from all around the world. Having that sort of experience is something I’m looking forward to just for myself, not only for [the students].

James figures they’ll tackle the Pyrenees in a single day, as long as he’s sure they won’t hurt themselves.

“I think it’d be fun for them to get the idea of it physically right off the bat,” he says.

I think it’s kind of nice to [have] a big eye-opening experience on the first day. This is going to be our body and mind trip, and we’ll get the body thing done right away.

James outlines more of his philosophy as a teacher/chaperone on the trip in an e-mail he sends me after our chat. He aims, he writes, to have the students make the daily logistical decisions throughout their Camino.

I hope they are successful at it, but I also want them to screw up a bit and I’m perfectly fine letting them do so. Of course, if they are risking life and limb, I will offer my humble advice, but I want them to own this experience. Basically, I want the opposite of a strict itinerary, where they can follow their noses, rest when they feel appropriate, push when they feel good, and, like you said, stay in Santiago for a couple of days because they just want to.

I did the same thing [on the cycling trip] last year and if I think back, one of my favourite moments of the trip was realizing in the middle of nowhere Montana that I didn’t necessarily need to be there for them to successfully get home.

The pilgrim students and teachers have just solidified their plans, and there’ll be time for physical training later. The focus now is on fundraising.

[Auna]

Auna G. (Grade 10).
Photo courtesy James March.

The students are from what James describes as “a poor school, a poor district, a high-needs community.” The school district won’t be funding any of the trip.

So the prospective pilgrims will be asking friends and families for help, and are looking into bake sales and other fundraising opportunities.

James has also set up a project on the DonorsChoose.org website, where people around the world can pitch in to help buy the students’ backpacks.

“I wanted them to get something that was nice, and something to be proud of,” he explains.

There have been a number of donors so far, but there’s still US $480.45 to go. James says if they don’t quite reach the $745.45 goal, he’ll pitch in a few hundred dollars to make up the complete amount.

One of the reasons for the Camino trip is to represent Springfield High School.

Last year’s bike journey got the school positive press, James says.

We want to do something similar again, and keep showing that our school is doing really interesting and fun things. That’s the main motivating factor behind this.

“And the experience itself, pretty much,” Sabrina adds.

Just being able to get out there and not sit at home all summer long doing nothing. We’re actually going to do something worthwhile.

* * *

The students are going to blog about their journey, and have already started blogging about their preparations. Check out the Millers on the Way to learn what they’re up to.

You can learn more about their trip—and/or make a donation to help with their backpacks— at the DonorsChoose.org website.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:28 pm
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This Week in Pilgrimage: A New Bridge on the Finisterre-Muxía Route


[Sunflowers]

Photo of the Week
I passed innumerable fields of sunflowers on the Chemin du Puy around Moissac. Unfortunately, I was a little too late in the season, and most fields had either dying sunflowers, headless sunflowers, or the dead remains of sunflowers. So it was very exciting to come across this field of blooming sunflowers.
If you have a photo you'd like to see here, please get in touch.

The usual disclaimer: I’ve done the best I can to ensure accuracy, but a lot of this information comes from Spanish sites and my Spanish is, alas, far from perfect.

So here’s what I’ve found this week. As always, please write if I’ve missed something.

  • A new bridge on the route between Finisterre and Muxía has made walk safer. Previously, the dangerous river crossing on sometimes-submerged stepping stones discouraged some pilgrims from walking the route.
  • The Archdiocese of Santiago recently held a mass in honour of the pilgrims who died on the Camino in 2010. You can visit this link for more information on the pilgrims and their deaths.
  • I just learned about the Caminho da Fé, a pilgrimage route in Brazil that was inspired by the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims follow yellow arrows along the approximately 400-kilometre route, which has a variety of starting points, and ends in Apareceda. The Apareceda basilica houses Our Lady of Aparecida (Nossa Senhora Aparecida), Brazil’s patron saint.
  • As of tomorrow (January 22), there will be a donativo refuge in Alcalá de Guadaíra, on the Cádiz extension to the Vía de la Plata. It’s 1.5 kilometres off the highway. This is apparently the first refuge to open on the route from Cádiz to Seville. For some reason this news really makes me want to start the Vía de la Plata in Cádiz, but I suspect that’s impractical.
  • The Camino de Levante seems to have been more popular than ever in the last year. The number of pilgrims who stayed in the Ávila refuge increased by 60 percent from 2009 to 2010. Almost 85 percent were men, and the majority were Spanish, followed by French pilgrims, Germans and Italians. Nearly 54 percent arrived on foot, and close to 45 percent were cyclists. I wonder if the huge increase is related to the Holy Year, or if it’s at least partially a sign that the route is becoming more popular.
  • Samos Abbey, which is on a variant of the Camino Francés, is going to house an ethnographic museum about food along the Camino. (You have to scroll down to find the story—the site doesn’t allow links to specific pages.) The museum will have photos, recipes, products for purchase, and more.
  • Apparently there’s controversy around Santiago’s new City of Culture, which I mentioned last week. To learn more, visit the link, which is to an article in English. (Via Falcon269.) If you’re interested, you can a virtual glimpse of the City of culture through this video.
  • Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez are going to write a joint memoir called Along the Way, which is scheduled for publication in June 2012. It sounds like their time on the Camino Francés while filming The Way will be a central part of the book.
  • For the ninth year running, crowds gathered in the ruins of the Hospital de Peregrinos de San Antón to celebrate the festival of Saint Anthony. (The Camino Francés passes through the ruins just before Castrojeriz.) A priest celebrated mass, and after the Eucharist he—as part of an old tradition—blessed the animals in attendance, which included rabbits, dogs and goats. The modern ritual is based on a 1745 text that outlines the blessing ceremony as practiced by Antonian monks for centuries.
  • Those of you who understand French (it’s too fast for me) might be interested in this YouTube video about a group of people who are helping a paralyzed man get to Santiago. He’s on what looks like a stretcher mounted on a single bicycle wheel.

Coming Up on Pilgrim Roads

Next week, I’ll post the story on the Springfield High School students who are planning a walk along the Camino Francés this summer.

I’ll also be talking with Brandon Wilson about his book Along the Templar Trail and the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem that he hopes others will travel. I should be able to post the interview relatively soon.

And Andy from Pilgrimpace’s Blog has kindly agreed to an e-mail interview on walking the Camino de Levante and his experience of how “the walking becomes the praying.” We should have that ready for you within the next few weeks.

¡Buen Camino a todos!


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:10 pm
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Refusing the Adventure


[The moon and the cathedral]

I took this photo of a cathedral detail just before the pilgrims' blessing, the day I walked out of Le Puy.

Furthermore, we have not even to risk the journey alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (and quoted in The Power of Myth)

I’ve written before about the end of my Camino, and the post-Camino blues that followed.

Now, as I get ready to walk the Vía de la Plata, I’m thinking of beginnings rather than endings. And I’m hoping not to duplicate the beginning of my last Camino.

Here’s the thing: I wish I were more like Rob from SlowCamino. I really do.

But while I am a relatively slow walker, and I can be laid back about some aspects of life, I am also a first-class worrier.

So here’s me, the night I reach Le Puy-en-Velay at the end of August 2008.

I’m pacing up and down a hill that seems more vertical than horizontal. I’m trying to convince myself that my boots fit, but can’t escape the reality that they’re rubbing against my heels: a blister just waiting to happen.

My head itches. Part of me is sure this is psychosomatic—in my head rather than on it. The other part, the louder one, is convinced it’s fleas or lice or something worse, which I must have picked up in the hostel in Chartres and am now going to spread around the Camino.

Then there are my pants (that’s trousers for you British folks), which I suddenly realize I should have worn for more than three minutes back home. A piece of plastic-covered fabric scratches constantly against my leg as I walk. Later, I’ll find that my leg is bleeding.

And I don’t have a sleeping bag liner. I hadn’t considered this item before, but it suddenly seems a necessity on the Chemin du Puy. It’s hot out and my sleeping bag is too warm, but a gîte d’étape blanket with a sleeping bag liner, like the one the pilgrim in the next bunk has, would be perfect.

Then there’s the sheer fact of the hills. I’d walked around with my backpack a little at home, but I’m not really in great shape. I’d seen pictures of the hills around Le Puy before leaving home, but I didn’t understand, then, how steep they really are.

I am a complete fool, I decide, walking up and down that hill in the darkness, still trying to convince myself that my boots fit.

There are a lot of kilometres between me and Santiago de Compostela. My plan to walk them all, which seemed so reasonable at home, suddenly seems the height of hubris.

* * *

[The Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe]

The Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe, in Le Puy-en-Velay. The Chemin du Puy, I must admit, didn't ascend quite that vertically, though it sometimes felt like it.

The late mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined the “hero’s journey,” which shows patterns that he said are found in many stories from a variety of cultures around the world.

After showing the hero in her normal world, the story really takes off with a call to adventure—something that warns the hero she’s in for a journey, even if she doesn’t realize it yet.

The next stage of the journey (and not all stages are found in all stories, but this one is quite common), is the refusal of the call. It can range from a flicker of doubt to an outright refusal.

Or maybe the panic I felt that night in Le Puy-en-Velay as I paced under the streetlights.

Now, I’m no hero.

My point is that this refusal, which is part of so many myths and other stories, reflects a universal truth: doing something big and different is scary. It’s tough, too, even when we’re beginning something we really want to do.

And if galaxy-saving heroes like Luke Skywalker (Star Wars always comes up in a discussion of the hero’s journey, and who am I to break tradition?) can refuse their journeys, shouldn’t we be able to do it, too?

The problem is when the refusal becomes the story: it’s never overcome. Looking at my own life, I can see a number of times when I was living a refusal instead of an adventure.

But Campbell said we should choose the adventure, every time.

He was using the term “adventure” in its broadest sense here. You don’t have to leave home to have one. It could be taking a job you’re afraid you can’t do, or asking someone on a date when you’re afraid they’ll say no. Or, of course, (to choose an example totally at random) it can involve walking across a country or two.

Adventure is risk. It can be frightening. It can be tough.

But in the end it’s absolutely worth it.

* * *

Stained glass in the Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe

Some of the simple, beautiful stained glass in the Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe.

I didn’t reach a firm decision that evening I paced the streets of Le Puy.

The next morning, I woke up when my roommates got up to head for the pilgrim’s blessing at the cathedral. Then I rolled over and went back to sleep.

That day, instead of beginning my pilgrimage, I went on a long walk to a sports store, where I bought new pants and a silk sleeping bag liner. I decided my boots fit after all—and they really did, once my feet had swelled up from all that walking. I found a pharmacy and asked for anti-flea shampoo, after summoning all my French to describe “shampoo for the little bugs that bite in the hair.” (I’m still not sure if I actually had fleas—but at least it had a placebo effect.) I climbed the many steps to the lovely little Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe Chapel, and that alone made the delay worthwhile.

The next day, I got up early and trudged up the hill to the cathedral for the pilgrim mass. And when the mass was over, I started walking.

It was tough sometimes, the adventure I started that day— mentally, and emotionally exhausting.

But I walked into Santiago, almost three months after that evening in Le Puy, having walked the whole way. And I wouldn’t trade that journey for anything.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:31 am
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