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.