Category Archives: Preparing for Pilgrimage

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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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 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.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:57 am
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Becoming a Pilgrim Again


Backpacks outside a store in Carrión de los Condes.

It’s funny what a difference twenty or so pounds can make when you’re walking.

I’ve been walking with my backpack for a week now—the same one-hour circuit I’ve often done unencumbered.

Here’s how it’s gone so far.

Thursday: I loaded the pack up with a stack of books, and a small blanket to fill in the places where light objects are supposed to go. I hardly felt the weight as I walked the route, which involves a few hills but nothing terribly strenuous.

Friday: I added a large trade paperback book. The only difference that day between walking with a backpack and my usual unencumbered stroll, was that the pack kept my back cozy in the sub-zero weather.

Saturday: I added an even larger trade paperback. I’m not sure if it was because of the added weight or because I’d been doing this for three days now, but I noticed the weight as I trudged uphill, and my hips were a little sore by the time I got home.

Sunday: I didn’t add a book, and my shoulders hurt a little.

Monday: I wimped out again and didn’t add any weight again. This time, my shoulders were still stiff and I developed a slight pain in my left heel that disappeared the moment I took my boots off.

Tuesday: I added another book. My shoulders were still a little stiff, but other than that I felt great.

Wednesday (today): My hamstrings were stiff until I stretched them out. Apart from that, I had no problems. I’m obviously going to have to increase my distance and/or add more weight, because my body is getting used to this.

And I have to admit, I rather like having a few aches and pains.

Don’t worry: I’m no masochist. It’s just that the small discomforts make me feel like I’m starting—barely—to get back in shape.

And they remind me, physically, of being a pilgrim.

My body remembers what the walking was like, so the ache in my shoulders, like the mere act of strapping on my backpack, brings a cascade of memories. And then, of course, here I am cataloguing my precise aches and pains, as I’ve done at no other time in my life except while on pilgrimage.

So why am I doing this?

Well, I get more exercise from walking with a pack. And, as I mentioned already, it keeps my back warm.

And then (insert drum roll here) … I’m going to walk the Vía de la Plata/Camino Mozárabe this spring.

I’d been thinking about other routes—particularly Saint Olav’s Way—for my next pilgrimage. But then I realized that right now I just want to walk and walk and walk for as long as possible, so I need a long, relatively inexpensive route. The Vía de la Plata seemed a good choice in that regard.

So I started reading up on the history of medieval Spain/al-Andalus (as the part under Muslim rule was called) since the Vía de la Plata passes through cities and towns that are part of that story.

And, history geek that I am, I’m now totally, absolutely, completely, head-over-heels besotted with this fascinating period. (I’m sure I’ll be inflicting sharing more with you on that in the near future.)

So now I’m reading as much history as I can manage, and counting down the days to my next journey—only slightly hindered by the fact that I don’t yet know exactly which day I’m leaving.

And I’m preparing my body for walking, one step at a time.

* * *

The timing of this post is pure coincidence, but it worked out rather nicely for the first week in the new year. Have you made any exciting resolutions/plans/decisions for 2011?

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:18 pm
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