A Word on Backpacks

I’ve been noticing that there are backpacks, and then there are BACKPACKS when it comes to The Camino.

I had heard that the Rule of Thumb is “pack ten percent of your weight.”  I did just that.  And I thought that I was packing the “bare minimum.”

And then I saw what the locals (meaning the Europeans) are carrying.

My goodness, these folks travel light!

Here’s what I’m thinking.  The stores back home, in Toronto, while they have heard of The Camino, stock their packs to deal with backpacking in and around Ontario.  Meaning, you walk into someplace like Algonquin Park, carrying ALL your gear.  That means your basics, tent, cooking gear, food, AND you carry all your crap out.  That means all your trash as well.  So of course, carrying a 60 to 90 liter pack is fine and dandy.  Keep in mind, my pack at empty is 4 pounds.

That is not necessarily the case on the Camino Frances.

For one, European packs are lighter to begin with, like 2 or 3 pounds lighter.  And they rarely go over 40 liters, so you really can only pack the basics like a change of clothes and a toothbrush.

That weight difference is such a big deal after twenty days of hard slogging over rocky trails!

My Dad is already thinking of doing another Camino route, but he definitely  will not be taking his current pack.  He’ll be getting a Deuter, or Osprey, or some other European brand, no more than 40 liters.  And yes, he will be packing LIGHTER!

Poles on the Camino

One of the many observations I made while walking on The Camino is how the equipment you carry affects your experience.  For example, the kind of poles or walking stick you use is a big indicator of how you walk.

The most popular choice is a pair of collapsible hiking poles, which from appearance seems to have been developed from skiing poles.  Adjustable to your own height, but generally to about the height of your elbow, the poles act like a second pair of feet.  The help to carry thirty percent of your weight, which is a great help when walking with a backpack.  Normally these have metal tips which can be thrust into sand, soil, and snow.  They can also have rubber tips which can pop on and off, so they can be used on pavement.

The other choice is a classic walking stick or staff.  These can be from elbow height to as tall as your are (one gentleman had one a foot and a half taller than himself.)  Shod with a metal tip, the wood staff has a leather thong which wraps around the hand, and can be decorated with a gourd or shell, the classic icon of the Peregrino.  They are also much cheaper to get, and some folk just improvise a staff from a branch they pick up off the trail.

Each choice has it’s own style of walking.  The double poles reflect the left, right, left, right motion of your feet.  Depending on the terrain they can either jab into the ground for support, push off for speed, or lightly tap the ground for pace.  The classic staff is held in a much lighter grip, and is used to tap the ground for pace or probe ahead for support.

From observation, the people who choose the single staff are much more experienced walkers.  They generally walk faster, with a much more even gait, and use the staff only on occasion to support their weight.  The double pole users, on the other hand, can use their entire body to propel themselves and support and balance the load of their backpacks.  And for an inexperienced or heavier walker, the poles can be a lifesaver.

Of  course, I have seen a few that choose to walk without the poles or staff.  To each their own.

True Grit, Camino Style

I’ve had some time to reflect on some of my more recent experiences on this journey.  If there is one thing that The Camino teaches you, it’s that the deep lessons don’t really begin until you’ve been pushed to the limit.

Or to sum up, blisters suck, but they do heal.

I had the fortune of getting an excellent pair of boots long before the flight to Spain.  They were excellent quality, capable of standing up to heat and cold, shuck off rain, with a wide toe box that won’t crunch my toes going down a steep hill.  I wear liner socks, and proper wool socks that still keep warm when wet, and are excellent cushions.  My core is strong, my back is steady, and I trained with a very capable and experienced crew.

Blisters still came.

And they came hard.  And in unusual places.

To date, I have had five blisters.  The one on my right heel I count twice, because it not only came back twice, it brought a friend, big as my thumb.  The strangest is the one between the big toe and middle toe on my left foot, right where my sandal thong lies.  That one is taking the longest to heal.

For more than a few days, those blisters (and more) sapped my strength, retarded my speed, and made the gravel trails feel worse than anything I have ever experienced.  And I walked through a bed of hot coals at a Tony Robbins event!  I felt broken.  Humbled.  Weak.

And seemingly, all my prayers to get me off this trail came to naught.  Because at times, it just never seemed to end.  The heat and the rocks and the weight of my pack drove me into depths of despair.

But you know what the interesting thing about blisters is?

They wil heal.

Moreover, a properly healed blister leaves a callus on the spot of your former weakness.  It comes back harder, tougher, and able to withstand the pain and the heat.  Sometimes, the former blister site may not even look like it was ever hurt at all.

That’s profound.

Take care of yourselves, all.  The Camino isn’t even halfway done, and there are more stories to tell.

The Road To (and from) Pamplona

I have been letting this go for far too long.  This blog is in serious need of updating, so the short version of my tale will have to do for now.

We set off from St. Jean Pied De Port, and broke up the first and most ardous journey up a mountain in 2 steps.  Climbing that peak was wet, cold, miserable, and tiring.  But we made it finally to Roncesvalles, and received a Pilgrims’ Blessing before resuming our walk.

The weather semed to turn afterwards, because the sun came out at stayed out as we climbed hills, walked through fields and vineyards, and entered each new town to find a bed or a meal.

For me, I learned that each pilgrim is a story onto themselves.  Always friendly, sometimes with a note of caution as they relate a mishap.  Injuries happen; sometimes it’s a blister, sometimes it’s worse.  I have seen two journeys prematurely ended, and others just starting from the town I just stayed in.

At some point, I will revisit these stories in greater detail.  But for now, I will leave off with a few insights:

Sometimes, you must stop and savor the moment.

Any meal after a long, tiring day is good, but it is better when shared with a friend.

Movement is youth.

The pilgrim heart may be pure, but you must still keep a wary eye on the road.

And finally, rest when you can, but always keep moving forward.

Updates will be more frequent, I promise.

The first leg of the journey.

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“I’m leaving on a jet plane. I don’t know when I’ll be back again.”      — John Denver.

The plane journey was long. Flying into Europe as a whole is about 8 hours, but this stands out for a few reasons. A lot of firsts occured yesterday.

First time on a new airline: Jet Airways, a carrier based in India. First time doing a 7 hour layover. First time in Belgium. And of course, first time in Spain.

By the end of the day, Dad and I found our hotel. He assures me that this neat and tidy, private room, is as good as it gets. By tonight, we will be staying in albergues, the pilgrims’ hostels that lie along the roads to Santiago. As it is, we’ve also done our first round of hand washing. Still damp, but we should be able to fix that with the room’s hand dryer.

Before we check out, our intention is to fuel up with the hotel’s breakfast buffet. We won’t get a chance for a proper sit down meal until St. Jean Pied de Port, just over the border in France. After the bus to get there, as well as the first albergue sleep, the Camino really begins!

The Trainers

Good Friday is a day spent in reflection. Nothing is supposed to be done; no chores, no work (thus being a day off), all in preparation for the Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday. Typically, Catholic folk dwell an the death of Christ on the cross and his suffering. But as I spent the last few Fridays (and the odd days in between) going on training walks for Spain, I wanted to spend some time on the group my dad and I walked with.

Anatomy-of-a-Camino-Veteran
Anatomy of a Camino Veteran

This walking group is a voluntary effort organized by Darlene McKee, a lady living in the East end of Toronto. Every Friday, she leads a group that sets out from her house and meets others that gather at Riverdale Park and The Brickworks for a walk that goes on regardless of weather.  So, rain or shine, hot or cold, these folks follow Darlene as she sets the pace and the route for the next 15 to 17 kilometers.

Mind you, my primary trainer for walking the Camino has been my father.  He’s been a great example of what a good long walk can do to you health and spiritual well being.  Having said that, both Dad and I have gotten a lot of great tips from Darlene and a lot of other great people we’ve met on these trips.

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There were lots of other folks that generously kept giving advice and stories of walking the Camino.  Lenore talked about an essential oil mixture to combat bed bugs.  Donna talked about pinning wet laundry or towels with safety pins to the outside of the pack to dry when walking on a sunny day.  One fellow asked if I felt comfortable with a long rain poncho I wore one day, cautioning about windy conditions in Spain that could turn that rain cover into a sail.

Two fellows, Kai and Mike, showed me how to adjust my pack.  The weight is supposed to sit primarily on my hips so my whole body carries it, not just my shoulders.  Darlene, of course, set the example of how to walk efficiently for those long stretches of terrain.  She uses small steps that fall under the hips.  They don’t look like much, but with a rapid cadence, her feet can churn out the kilometers and keep excellent balance over almost any slippery conditions.

And I also got a taste for how different folks walk at different paces.  And, it’s okay if you’re not the fastest walker.  This isn’t a race, it’s a journey.  Believe me, it’s a humbling experience to be nominally the youngest member of a group of trail hikers, whose average age is 70 or so, and being the last or next to last to catch up to them at a rest stop.  The point, I guess, is to walk how you walk.

I got tips on what to wear, how much weight to carry, stretching from those folks that actually stretch (most of them just pull on their packs and go), where to eat in Spain and Toronto (they know some good places to get lunch), and so on.

Darlene is doing her final walk after Good Friday services, and then she and her traveling companion are leaving on Sunday, a day before my Dad and I depart.  She’s starting from the same point, and on the same route, the Camino Frances, but I don’t know if we’ll ever see her.  I mentioned she can walk really fast, didn’t I?  At any rate, I’m so grateful to have met this fine group of folks who get together in a spirit of healthy and community.

Departure for Spain is coming soon …

Preparing the backpack

You’d think packing a backpack would be easy, right?  Just stuff it with what you need, and put it on.

I discovered it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The impression I get from Camino veterans is that you actually need a lot less than you think.  For example, you only need two changes of clothes, and you’re already wearing one.  So, the spare shirt, pants, socks, underwear, and maybe one light jacket.

Perhaps there’s a raincoat in there, along with a towel and a sleeping bag.  Of course there’s a water bottle in a side pocket.  And of course, there are your toiletries like soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, and whatever prescriptions you need.

But what else comes with that?

I had heard of a suggestion that your pack should weigh no more than 10% of your body weight.  Well, as of right now, I weigh about 217 pounds, so I should carry about 20 pounds worth.

Here’s the thing; my pack currently has a change of clothes, a raincoat, sleeping bag, towel, and my Android tablet plus accesories.  That’s without the poles, food and water, and toiletries.   The current total weight:16 pounds.

Oh dear …

My backpack

Post 11 – The Flash

31-day-challenge_Post-11By now, I have to realize the obvious.  My 31 Day Challenge has just been really thrown out the window.  10 posts out of 28 days (today would make it 11) is really less than stellar.So, what to do?
I’m going to finish out the rest of the month with what I’ve got.  Call it a wash.  Start again.  Perhaps a M-W-F schedule, like I’ve seen several webcomics do.
As an exercise, which this ultimately is, I can say that I’m an out of shape blogger.  However, if I can draw parallels to other exercise programs like going to the gym or running, I can say that I’ve got a baseline performance level which I can now beat.
Should I do this again?
Maybe.
But there’s a lot more preparation to do if I take this up again.

Thoughts and Art from the road