Category Archives: My Experiences

A Matter of Weight


Pilgrim with pack in Santiago de Compostela.

When I first filled my backpack with books and hauled it around the neighbourhood, I figured it weighed at least 15 pounds, if not 20. I didn’t actually know, because I didn’t think I had any way of measuring.

I can be a little slow, but I eventually remembered I could calculate the weight of my pack by weighing myself with and without the pack, and doing a bit of subtraction.

It turned out the pack with the books weighed a mere nine pounds.

I didn’t believe it. Something must be off.

I tried again. The weight did go up this time—but only by 0.2 pounds.

A few weeks later, when I finally filled my pack with all my gear (and a few substitutes for things I didn’t have yet), it weighed 15.4 pounds, without water.

But here’s the weird part: it actually felt lighter than the 9.2 pounds of books.

I have developed several hypotheses to account for this odd phenomenon.

1. My scale is broken.

Of course, it would have to be broken in a strange sort of way, where it shows heavier things as lighter, and lighter as heavier.

On balance, this seems highly improbable.

2. A pound of books weighs more than a pound of anything else.

I figure it’s the densely-packed knowledge that does it.

Except, of course, that a pound is a measure of weight, so a pound of one thing can’t possibly weigh more than a pound of something else—as long as you’re using the same kind of pound, anyway. As it turns out, a pound of metal weighs less than a pound of most other things, but that’s only because metal is measured using a different kind of pound.

But as my scale wasn’t designed to weigh metals, I’m pretty sure it only deals in the one kind of pound, and the hypothesis is a dud.

3. Weight is relative.

As every pilgrim knows, a backpack that was feather-light in the mornings can feel like someone filled it with 100 pounds of lead (a mere 82.29 regular pounds’ worth, since lead is a metal) by the end of the day.

Or, as in the case of my books, the exact same amount of weight can feel heavier or lighter depending on how it’s distributed. I did make an effort, by stuffing a blanket in my pack, to keep the books closer to my back, but it would seem it’s still better to have items of varying weights than a bunch of heavy objects.

Absolute weight—the kind you measure on a scale—can’t be relative. That would be a contradiction in terms.

But when you’re carrying the weight on your back, the absolute is somewhat less important. Weight, like time, depends on how it’s experienced.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:59 pm
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Have Stick, Will Travel

[Walking stick]

My second wooden walking stick—the one I just brought home from the Vía de la Plata.

I’m back in Canada, and not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’m busy sorting my photos, which I will soon add to my blog posts. In the meantime, I thought I’d cover a topic close to my heart: how to get a wooden walking stick home from Santiago.

I’m not going to enter the Great Stick Debate over whether to have a walking stick and what kind of stick(s) to get if you do have one. I’ll just say that I, for reasons that have more to do with the romance of the thing than with practical considerations (although it is very useful), like to carry a single wooden walking stick on my pilgrimages.

On my first Camino, I bought one in Le Puy-en-Velay before setting out. On my Via de la Plata trip, I looked for one in Sevilla but couldn’t find any. I ended up picking up a stick from a pile of wood by the side of the road on my third day of walking, and a week or so later a friend shaped it into a proper walking stick for me.

There’s something about a walking stick.

You—or at least I—can get more attached to it than to any other item of gear. My sticks were right there beside me over vast numbers of kilometres, and if I walked off without one, I always turned back within a few steps. I felt naked with a pack on my back and no stick in my hand.

A lot of pilgrims seem to leave their wooden walking sticks behind in Santiago, or hurl them into the sea at Finisterre. On both my Caminos, I thought about leaving my sticks behind. But each time I decided it was worth trying to bring them home.

And it worked. I brought both of my sticks safely to Canada on a total of four airlines.

I can’t speak for every airline, of course, but I’ll tell you how it worked in the case of my walking sticks so you have some idea what to expect if you try to get yours home.

My first stick was relatively easy to get home. I took it with me on the night bus to the Madrid Airport, where I had a flight—I think it was with British Airways. In the Madrid Airport they had a machine that could plastic wrap your backpack for you, and I was told that if I plastic wrapped my stick to my bag, the whole thing could be oversized luggage.

I did so, and didn’t see my stick again until we both arrived safely at Vancouver Airport.

My second stick was more of a problem, not because of anything inherent in the stick, but because I had three totally unrelated flights. I didn’t think there was much chance that my stick would be allowed on all of them, but decided to try anyway.

I left from the Santiago Airport on a Ryanair flight to London. Since I’d only paid for one piece of checked luggage, and Ryanair is known to be very sticky about its regulations, I didn’t have much hope for my stick. But I guess in Santiago they’re used to dealing with these things. I was allowed to check my stick for free.

Then, of course, I had to sit around in the oversized luggage area of Stansted Airport for ages after my backpack had appeared. The lost luggage guy didn’t hold out much hope of my stick turning up, but it did eventually appear.

My second flight was from London to Toronto with Air Transat, a Canadian charter company. I was told I could take my stick onto the plane, but it might be taken away from me and kept with the strollers. As it turned out, no one looked twice at me as I walked onto the plane with the stick, and I ended up stowing it in a very large overhead bin.

Then, of course, I had to check off “wood products” on the declaration form for entering Canada, which worried me. I was convinced my stick would be confiscated—maybe Spain had some terrible tree disease that my poor stick might be bringing into Canada.

But the customs guy actually asked fewer questions than usual, hardly looked at my stick, and let me back into the country within 30 seconds of first glancing at my passport.

My third and fourth flights were with Air Canada, to Vancouver, and then on to Kamloops. The check-in woman in Toronto told me I could pay $20 for extra luggage, and check my stick. Thinking of my first stick, I asked if I could attach my stick to my bag and check the whole thing as oversized luggage. She said that I could and gave me some very sticky airline tape.

Friends who met me at the Toronto Airport helped me firmly tape the stick to my pack. Relatively firmly, anyway. As I watched the whole thing disappear down the oversized luggage conveyor belt—stick first—I had serious misgivings about the whole thing. It wasn’t nearly as securely attached as my first stick had been, and this stick was a little bent and seemed likely to snag on something and crack.

My flight out of Toronto was an hour late, so I only made it to the plane that would take me to Kamloops 15 minutes before it took off. I was reasonably certain my pack with its hopefully-still-attached stick had missed the flight and I wouldn’t learn its fate until the next day.

But then the conveyor belt at the Kamloops Airport started up, and my pack was one of the first to appear. To my surprise, the tape held up and the stick was still attached.

My walking stick had one final journey in the trunk of my sister’s car before arriving home.

It’ll stay here for a while, now, in a corner of my bedroom, reminding me of my last trip and waiting for another adventure.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:17 pm
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I’m Off Then (to Toronto, England and … oh yeah … Sevilla)

[Walking stick]

After I decided to walk the Vía de la Plata back in January, I spent some time on the Internet reading about cities along the route and dreaming.

Most of the websites I found were aimed at tourists, and included sections like Getting There and Away. The first time I saw those words, my instinctive response was confusion.

Obviously, you get there on foot and leave walking.

A split second later my brain kicked in and reminded me that most travellers take planes, trains and buses.

I’ve been one of those travellers. I backpacked around Europe, volunteered in Thailand, worked in England and travelled in Mexico, Southeast Asia, and a bit of China. And then I walked the Camino from Le Puy to Santiago, and decided walking was by far my favourite way to travel.

So I’m off again in two days. I’ll be doing some non-walking travel for the first week: flying to Toronto to visit friends, then to England to see another friend … and finally to Sevilla, where I’ll start walking the Vía de la Plata.

I’ve spent the last few months accumulating information and other things I’ll need for the trip, walking around the neighbourhood with my backpack, and buying a variety of airplane tickets. And I still can’t believe I’m really going.

It seems too good to be true.

* * *

As far as this blog goes, I have at least one post ready for you next week.

After that, I’ll try to keep you posted intermittently (I’m aiming for at least once a week) about my Vía de la Plata walk.

If you want to follow along, you could sign up to receive posts by feed reader or e-mail (just use the box on the right side of this post; Google and I both promise not to use your information for nefarious purposes), or “like” the Pilgrim Roads Facebook page to receive updates in your Facebook feed.

Or of course you could just check back here occasionally.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:50 pm
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Ich Bin Aufgeregt

[Rama V palace ruins, Thailad]

Heading into the unknown.

I met this woman once, when we were both university students. I don’t remember her name or what she looked like or why we met. I just remember her story.

She wanted to travel to Australia. It was her greatest desire, the thing she’d always dreamed of doing. And one Christmas, her parents said they would buy her a plane ticket there whenever she wanted.

No worries, right?

But if that had been all there was to the story, it wouldn’t have stuck with me. The thing was, that Christmas had been more than a year ago. The student kept coming up with reasons not to go. When I talked to her, she wasn’t sure she’d ever make it to Australia.

She really wanted to go, but she was scared.

That encounter made me think a lot about fear and travel. I figure a lot of us get scared—or at least nervous—at some point, but the timing of that point can vary widely, and have a huge impact on whether or not we actually go.

I’m lucky. When I’m planning a trip, it’s the excitement that wins out. Otherwise, like that student, I’d never buy a plane ticket.

The serious fear hits about two weeks before I leave—when I’m too committed to back out. Like, say, right now, when my thoughts begin to cycle through an endless litany of potential problems.

I haven’t trained enough and will never survive that 30-kilometre section on day three. My boots are all wrong and my pack is all wrong and my knife won’t sharpen and my second pair of brand new hiking socks has vanished without a trace. And if the weather changes (snow in Southern Spain may not be likely in April, but surely it’s possible) I won’t have enough warm clothing and will freeze. Probably to death.

And then I’m going to miss my connecting flight on the way home—I knew I shouldn’t have cut it so close—because either my first plane will be late or for some unfathomable reason I’ll be hassled going through Customs. Of course, that will only be an issue if I make it to Europe in the first place. I can come up with any number of disasters that would prevent my arrival.

And … well, that’s about it for now, but I’m sure I can come up with more in the next week or so.

My saving grace is the excitement from the planning stages. It’s still there, beneath the fear.

I keep thinking about a conversation I had two and a half years ago, the day before I walked into Santiago.

“Is there a word in German that describes being both excited and scared at the same time?” I asked Sascha, a pilgrim from Switzerland, as we walked through a eucalyptus forest.

He couldn’t come up with one off-hand, but promised to think about it.

“I bet there’s something,” I said. German, I am convinced, has a word for everything. If one doesn’t exist, the Germans just mash two or more words together to create something new.

After a little more walking, Sascha came through for me. “Aufgeregt,” he said, and he patiently taught me to pronounce it.

Ich bin aufgeregt.”

The nervous excitement I felt when I walked out of Le Puy-en-Velay on my first pilgrimage was different from that of walking into Santiago, but the two had a lot in common. They were both related to the ending of one life—even if only temporarily—and the beginning of something new.

So now, as I pack and repack my backpack, as I put my affairs in order before setting out, as I go on long walks and think about my upcoming journey, of course I’m feeling the same way again: scared and excited, excited and scared.

I don’t know what happened to that student who dreamed of Australia. I hope she, too, came to feel aufgeregt about the journey, and that the excitement won out over the fear.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:05 pm
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The Same Road Twice

[Puddles on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques]

On the Chemin du Puy, after Arthez-de-Béarn

I’ve heard—and read—the advice: don’t expect your second pilgrimage, whether it’s on the same route or a different one, to be like your first.

I may be getting ahead of myself here, since I haven’t actually set out on my second pilgrimage yet, but it seems to me what no one mentions is that there’s at least one way the second can be even better than the first.

The first time around, everything is new and many parts are wonderful. The second journey, even if it’s on a different route, might never feel completely new. But, in addition to having its own amazing moments (as I’m sure mine will), it brings back memories of that past pilgrimage.

For me, anyway, there can be something almost magical about connecting with the past, whether it’s my own history or much older worlds. And just preparing for my upcoming Vía de la Plata journey brings back so many memories of my walk along the Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés.

These aren’t the one-off I’ll-never-forgets that I wrote about the other week.

They’re little things that happened over and over; feelings and experiences I didn’t appreciate at the time. I’d forgotten all about them, in fact, until I started going through the motions—and they really are motions—of pilgrimage all over again.

There are the calluses that developed on my fingers from pulling my bootlaces tight—and are starting to reappear.

There’s the huge difference a small adjustment makes to the feel of my pack on my back.

There’s going to the store and holding one object in each hand, closing my eyes sometimes as I attempt to detect a minuscule difference in weight.

Trying out my backpack with all my gear the other day brought back every morning on the Camino at once—putting the light objects at the bottom and the heavy ones against my back. And then deciding what should go on top: a sweater on a cold day; sunscreen on a hot one; rain gear if it’s pouring or the clouds look particularly grey.

I haven’t walked more than an hour and a half with my pack this time round, so I haven’t yet experienced total exhaustion. But I like to think that even in that I’ll find a bit of magic. It’ll bring back those afternoons on the Chemin du Puy when my feet ached and my backpack felt like I’d loaded it with rocks and I was sure I’d spend the rest of my life in France because I certainly was never going to move again.

And I’ll think: Oh yeah, I remember now, this is how it feels.

And I’ll know that I kept going once and can do it once again.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:05 am
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Camino Memories

[100 kilometres to Santiago!]

I'll never forget how weird it was to realize I was actually going to arrive in Santiago.

“I’ll never forget….”

Since I’ve started writing about the Camino, I’ve been constantly editing out those words, both in my head before they reach the keyboard, and when I read over what I’ve written.

There are just too many unforgettable moments. If I didn’t watch myself, my posts would be full of that one little phrase.

But here, just this once, I’ll let it stand, again and again and again.

  • I’ll never forget the little old man who wished me bon courage a few hours out of Le Puy, when Santiago seemed so impossibly far away.
  • I’ll never forget walking past cows with Agnes.
  • I’ll never forget cooking curry on a barbecue outside a yurt near Lauzerte.
  • I’ll never forget that day in Cahors with Sascha and Jeannine, which involved a lot of walking, a lot of waiting, and an entire cooked chicken.
  • I’ll never forget two Dutchmen who put on a spontaneous play for my friend Carmelina and me, after we discovered our beds were separated from theirs by a theatrical-looking curtain.
  • I’ll never forget my French Camino angels, who made everything better.
  • I’ll never forget the large French family, finishing off their Chemin for the year, who adopted me and a few other lone walkers for their celebration, which involved vast quantities of alcohol and traditional French songs, sung loudly.
  • I’ll never forget the day walking up hills was suddenly easy.
  • I’ll never forget the old Basque woman who, kilometres before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, pointed out the town of Untto, high above us, and told me I’d be walking through it the next day.
  • I’ll never forget the Pyrenees in the fog, with the sheep fading into the mist.
  • I’ll never forget Martin and the Fuente del Vino.
  • I’ll never forget walking through depressingly industrial parts of Burgos with Sonya, singing Christmas carols in October. (We got particularly weird looks when we started on Feliz Navidad.)
  • I’ll never forget losing my only sweater on a cold November day, or Xabi, who gave me a new one.
  • I’ll never forget reading Stuart McLean stories with Sonya, that night we had an entire albergue to ourselves.
  • I’ll never forget Sascha and Jeannine walking up the day before Santiago, when I hadn’t seen them since the meseta and thought they were miles ahead.
  • I’ll never forget walking into Santiago.
  • I’ll never forget Hayden spraying us with champagne at the end of the world.
  • I’ll never forget….

* * *

In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller looks at his own life in light of what he’s learned about crafting a story for a movie.

Screenwriters make scenes more memorable by setting them in interesting locations. So lovers break up while scuba diving, rather than in the local coffee shop.

And real life works the same way, Miller says. We tend to remember the times we do something crazy or go somewhere special. Everything else fades into the blur of everyday life.

I’ve travelled a number of places, but none were as special as the Camino. I have far more I’ll-never-forget moments from just under three months of walking across France and Spain than from any other period of my life.

If I were a more balanced person—if I weren’t filled with wanderlust—I suppose I’d take this Camino lesson, apply it to my everyday world, and create beautiful, crazy scenes for myself and others in my life. I wouldn’t have to travel to distant places because I’d have all the moments I needed right here in Canada.

But some of us seem to have to travel to find what we should, in theory, be able to find without leaving.

I guess that’s why I’m going back to Spain.

* * *

What about you? What’s your favourite unforgettable pilgrim moment?

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:51 pm
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