Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Camino Credentials

I was still in diapers when I was issued my first passport. I've always had a passport so the experience has been uneventful compared to someone going through the mug-shot and application process while anticipating their first trip out of the country. After going back and forth to England assisting my mother as she laid her own mother to rest, I let my passport expire. It laid in a drawer for several years with other important papers that I'd brush over every so often when having a sort-out. During that time my travels were limited to within our borders which I didn't mind, after all I was one of those lucky kids who globe-trotted right up to my graduation from an American High School in West Germany.

Years ago I promised my mother, after seeing the British movie, Shirley Valentine, that she too would go to Greece and drink wine on a shore, just like Shirley. More than ten years later I would renew my passport so that I could travel with my mother to Rome where we'd board a Mediterranean cruise that would make a couple of stops in Greece. It was more a relief that the task was completed, than excitement when my new passport arrive in the mail. A year later I would part with my passport to apply for a 12-month visa to India. It returned safely with a large label stuck to a back page which allowed me entry to one of the most exotic places I'd only dreamt of visiting.

If I got excited about anything to do with a passport it was collecting stamps from the places I visited. They're like tattoos--indelible marks saying, 'I've been there.' The Camino Passport is one of the details that stuck with me after seeing the movie, The Way. I can still hear the chunky metal gears rotating as the stamp flips over to leave a permanent mark that he was, she was--I had been there. More than several movies have inspired me to go places, see and do things I might not have had done or seen. But this movie about a 500-mile pilgrimage, I knew even before the end of the film, that I would soon strap by gear to my back and do the Camino.

I spent days researching the details of the Camino, but one aspect I had to know first is when and how do I get the Camino passport or the Credencial del Peregrino, roughly translated the 'credential of the pilgrim.' I don't remember who or how I learned that I didn't have to wait until arriving at the Camino office in St. Jean Pied de Port to get my credentials. I went to the American Pilgrims on the Camino website and filled out my request. I now felt that excitement, the anticipation, the urgency to hold my passport in my hands which would seal my fate as a pilgrim. I had not seen the passport completely just glimpses of it in the movie. A few of the authors who wrote about the Camino after completing it, like Shirley MacLaine, use their passports as the artwork for the inside cover of their books.

Today, I removed the folded bundle of mail from the box and stood in the kitchen leafing through it for legitimate mail versus junk mail. I flipped to a white business-size envelope addressed to me in a flowing, yet precise handwriting. The return address stamp and the thickness of the envelope gave way to the contents. My heart skipped, I took a deep breath and reverently placed the envelope on the table and washed and dried my hands throughly, even though they didn't look or feel soiled. I gently tore open the envelope, removed the letter folded around the passport and set it down without reading it. My US passport is a leathery cardboard paper with blue sheets stapled on the fold. This one is made of sturdy antique white parchment with accordion folds. It has seven blank panels for Fermas y Sellos (Signatures and Seals). The image on the front is an earth-tone dot matrix image of the Puente la Reina (Bridge of the Queen). This bridge is in the first town I come to after crossing the Pyrenees. I open it and my name is written in the same lovely cursive hand and the line next to 'on foot' is checked. I smiled and inspected each page carefully, returning to the second page where The Pilgrims Prayer of the 12th Century is printed over a watermarked image of Saint James.

God, You called your servant Abraham from Ur in Chaldea, watching over him in all his wanderings, and guided the Hebrew people as they crossed the desert. Guard these your children who, for love of your Name, make a pilgrimage to Compostela. Be their companion on the way, their guide at the crossroads, their strength in weariness, their defense in dangers, their shelter on the path, their shade in the heat, their light in darkness, their comfort in discouragement, and the firmness of their intentions; that through your guidance, they may arrive safely at the end of their journey and, enriched with grace and virtue, may return to their homes filled with salutary and lasting joy.

I wept knowing this passport is my invitation to travel down the long Spanish roads, as well as the even longer roads within. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Achilles H.E.A.L.

I watched my feet heal as if in time-lapse photography, brought on by realizing that I had created my own experience of pain and suffering. We humans are so skilled at at creating that which we rehearse in our minds. We imagine conversations and experiences which we hope never to have, all in crisp detail. I thought I was past this particular lesson, after realizing that what I've reaped over the years, was first sewn in my mind. I said a heartfelt 'sorry' to myself, understanding that the newness of this Camino-experience had distracted me, and got ready to train. Today I will imagine healthy, strong, durable feet that would support my journey as they have for decades.

I am grateful, and even more relieved for the breakthrough as I applied the body glide generously, foregoing the tape, and slid the condom-socks over my toes and clumsily fit my five toes into the four compartments. Interesting that in life—and these shoes, the smallest must share space with its bigger sibling. Yet, I decided that's a bit more philosophical than I care to be for the moment and felt sure that I'd met my breakthrough quota for the week. I slipped my daypack on and headed in the opposite direction because the mountain was closed to prepared for the fireworks display to celebrate our country's independence.

I'll walk at a slower pace on level-ground and go past my nephew's house and knowing that the kids would be awake by now and might get a kick out of waving at me as I go by. I took out my cell phone and with sticks attached to my wrists attempted to text the mother of this orderly clan. It walked and texted, which is something I don't recommend. I got tied up in the sticks and stumbled, escaping a face drive on to the sidewalk. I was aware that I wanted to impress them as I trekked by. I finally hit send and looked up. I was disoriented, I stopped looked around but none of the houses looked familiar. Then it dawned on me that I had walked up the wrong street while texting. I giggled, wondering if I was the morning comic relief for someone peering out their window over their morning coffee. What story will they tell around the barbecue later today? "An Alps outcast went by my house today stumbling over her own walking poles as she frantically text. It was hilarious! I'll let you know if she comes by again and you can see for yourself."

I found the right wood-street and straighten my posture as I approached, but there were no signs of activity from a house occupied by a very hip thirty-something couple with a toddler and his gangly six year old sister. I was deflated by my own disappointment, which past after imaging them at an equally hip breakfast spot serving up an egg fusion delicacy.

I trekked on heading for my sister and brother-in-law house not but a mile or so from here. I conjured up a visual of my sister asking me to wait while she laces her walking shoes and takes a turn with me around the neighborhood. I smiled and increased my steps as if they would move me closer to my fantasy. My left heal sounded off with some discomfort. I reached the front of the house, it was quiet until their dogs detected me and sounded the alarm that someone was about to penetrate the invisible parameter. If they weren't up before, they are now. I walked up the path to the front door hoping the dogs would sense it was me and stop their incessant barking--no such luck. I saw a shadow of someone moving about in the kitchen. I drew closer and saw the window was open and my brother-in-law was feeding my nephew's toddler some breakfast. Over barking dogs I loudly said, "Hi there, I stopped by to say good morning. Where's my sister?" With some irritation he said that my nephew and his wife picked her up to join them for a workout at the athletic club. "Oh, okay." I said. I waved at the perplexed boy who could quite make out that it was me. I gave a distant "Have a great day." I rushed down the rock path to the street knowing that I was aiding in disturbing the early morning peace of the neighborhood.

I hadn't walked more than three or four miles and I was already on the way back to the house. I was sad which gave way to realizing that I have and have had unrealistic dream of a member of my family taking part in this or any of my adventures. I was taken back to other equally unrealistic day-dreams of standing on the platform in New Delhi as a train entered the station carrying my sister and mother. The smiles on their tired but astonished faces. I walked back to the house with the energy of renewed awareness, knowing that by the time I reached the house I would have worked through the radical acceptance that no one in my biological family had more than a mild interested in my journey.

By this time I was walking with a limp. I couldn't remember when my left heel began to hurt. My internal shaman was saying something about my achilles heel. I listened intently, while my spirit-self cautioned me about my unrealistic desires and facts of life that I hadn't accepted—these are my achilles heel. I took a deep breathe and said, “Okay...alright, it's done.” I picked an upbeat playlist, cranked up the volume and shook off the limp, and declared I will find my family, my Camino Family.

Wonder Woman Walking Sticks

I woke knowing that I wouldn't train my boots, instead I wear the Skeletoes cross-trainers I bought weeks before on the recommendation of my yoga teacher, Christie, who won't wear anything else. She told me about the evening she would wear them to dinner at an upscale Paris restaurant, after adding some bling to them. She and her Skeletoes caused quite a stir among the women seated around her. They asked her questions about the strange foot wear and admiring her for wearing them. I imagine a new trend was set that evening and we'll be seeing them on a catwalk in the future.

I applied the Body Glide generously after bandaging both my feet. I even applied it to the duct tape—after all it served as a second skin. Next the socks; and after learning that wicking means moisture-drawing, which helps to reduce the chance of blisters, I decided wicking socks were now the only socks for me. However putting toed socks on is an adventure in itself, especially when my feet are coated with the glide. Surely men are better with these than women, because it's like putting five little, yet connected, cloth condoms on my toes. Next the shoes, which aren't a shoe I can just slip on and off I go--not yet anyway. I wished I looked for a how-to YouTube video on these puppies. One must line the foot up perfectly so the five tiny blind penises can penetrate the appropriate compartments. I'm rarely successful the first try. When they don't go in right I can almost hear my toes arguing as they push and shove each other for space. If my pinky toe could speak, I'm sure it would prefer to go to market. But once they're on, my feet are at home in the strange looking hot pink and black toed-shoes.

I leave Green Beauty home and load up my daypack with a full bladder, phone, keys, and of course my pink nano for my listening pleasure. Gloves, sticks--not necessary but I'm partial to them and they serve as a deterrent to stray and off-lease dogs that might come too close. Many of the dogs on the mountain were unsure about these sticks at first, so I'd let them sniff them until one dog took hold of it as if I was offering up a chew toy. I used one as a back-scratcher on Tara, an eight plus pound Presa Canario, in that special spot near her tail that sends most dogs to happy-land.

One warm evening I was walking along Brockton and passed a family enjoying the big porch wrapped around their bungalow. I approached the house without knowing the family included three Chihuahuas, but the moment I crossed the invisible property-line they flew off the porch, touching down for traction and running towards me at full speed. I stopped and placed my sticks about a foot in front of me. All three dogs came seem to bounce off an invisible force field which protected me from the canine ankle-biters, which whimpered back to the porch while the family continued laughing long after I was out of view. Me, I smiled like the victor and thanked my trusty staves for protecting me in this mock trial.

I made it up and down the mountain in record time even with my usual stops to speak to my fellow mountaineers--today we discussed the strange Florida-like weather that we wish would return as fast as it arrived. Other than an occasional tenderness of the wound on my heel. Relieved to be out of the humidity, I cut myself out of the bandages and took a long look at the triage in the center of the table. I began to laugh the kind of laugh that come after realizing you're the butt of a really good practical joke, because in that moment I saw that I created the opportunity for pain and suffering. I studied blisters and the pain and suffering that accompany them. I talked about pain and suffering, I wrote about it in this blog, I thought about it, and expected it to be a natural part of this journey. I laughed while I lovingly gave birth to the breakthrough coming forth as I dismantling the triage. I set an intention that my experience will be that of strong, durable, healthy and resilient feet. I had a talk with the girls--again, referring to my feet for they deserve a term of endearment. After all my boobs are simply coming along for the ride and will only play a supporting role in this particular adventure. Yet maybe...I'll write a scene for them to play a lead role in another adventure, similar to the one they played in the blackness of a late night bus going from New Delhi to Chandigarh, when I sat next to my travel companion, a twenty-nine years old Sheik, in a deep blue turban.

I'll think about that tomorrow, said Scarlet

I was so happy not to waste time at the triage station attending to the slowest healing blister ever. Yesterday, I stopped by the sporting good store and bought a pair of trekking sandals. After all my feet were swelling from being imprisoned inside of boots in this heat. I was pretty proud of myself for making such a wise decision, and the whole two-birds-one-stone considering the hot temps that are a part of every Fall season in Northern Spain.

I put on my shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, instead of a tank-top, which provide no protection between my shoulders and the straps of my pack—another lesson learned while becoming a pilgrim. I applied anti-shafing glide anywhere the straps of the new sandals touched my skin. I even put it on the inside of my thumbs and index fingers where my weightlifting gloves and walking poles sometimes rub. I dawned the rest of my gear and was out the door in record time.

It wasn't until I was coming down the mountain when I felt the insoles of my new sandals buckling ever so slightly. My puffed up chest feathers shrank out of sight when I realized I'd forgotten to apply the glide to the bottoms of my feet. I have more than a couple miles to go before I reach home. Again I could hear my drill instructor say, in an unnaturally deep-voice, "suck it up Marine!" So I did, but only after looking for any one of my mountain buddies going to their car and whom might give this wounded warrior a lift. But they'd all gone--for theirs is a quick up and down workout.

I limped into the house in pain from the new blister that grew in size with every step. I had all but forget about the one on my left heel as it was bandage-free and healing in the fresh air. I released my pack as if freeing myself from a treed parachute, the only difference is that it dropped to the ground instead of me. I limped over to the kitchen table still serving as a triage station and sat down to remove my sandals. I could sense the old blister smiling in gratitude for the breathing room, but the new blister on the bottom of my right foot has a white puffy eye surrounded by angry red tissue. I sat and thought for a bit and abandoned the idea that a blister on the heel was the worse kind of blister, deciding that one that will painfully remind me of my stupidity with every step--is far worse.

I showered, dried my feet and bandaged the right foot for the walking I'd have to do throughout the day. I examined the sandals and saw that both insoles were shifting. I put them back in the box, located the receipt, and returned them to the store on the way to my first appointment.

I wondered how I would overcome my blister dilemma before leaving for the Camino. I choose to be like Scarlet O'Hara, and think about it tomorrow.

Blisters: A gift with purchase?

Shortly after choosing to walk the 500 miles of the Camino Frances I joined a Facebook group called American Pilgrims. At first, I visited a couple time a day for wisdom and advice from those embarked and embarking on the Camino, and for karma-sake—to contribute to the community in anyway I could. I clicked on links taking me to amazing pictures of the countryside in my future. I read excepts of blogs from Camino veterans, one that walked it 9 times! Yet no matter how many times I visited and scrolled through the posts, the message that stood out was that of preventing blisters, getting blisters, walking with blisters, mending blisters and still more about blisters. In a calm panic I navigated to YouTube to consult the 'professionals' who posted video after video on blisters--what I've come to realize is a trekkers' gift with purchase.

I took a deep breath and started making a list of everything I'd need to prevent blisters. Wicking socks, check—Vaseline, check—Moleskin, check—Medical tape, check—safety pin and lighter to sanitize needle, check, check—alcohol wipes, check—antibiotic cream, check—duck tape, check. I'm in pain just making the list. I put the 'triage bowl' in the center of the table and nodded in satisfaction, knowing I was ready for the inevitable.

Accepting that blisters would be part of my journey on the Camino I decided it was time to get my body accustom to the backpack. The tags are still on the green 45 liter High Sierra, should I need something more. I packed clothes, shoes, toiletries and various other items I've purchased over the last three month into it. Mind you I'v also watched videos on how to pack it for maximum efficiency in both weight and balance. I pulled, cinched, fastened and snapped the many clips and straps closed--questioning the usefulness of many of them. I put a clean pair of wicking socks on, laced my boots and strapped on the backpack that I've nicknamed, Green Beauty, in hopes that she'll be kind to me.

I was a mile or more away from the house when, "Crap, I forgot to coat my feet with vaseline!" I spoke a few affirming hopes that my feet would forgive my forgetfulness. As I walked another few miles, I pulled and released straps adjusting the weight of the pack. I wagged my body to shift the contents for better distribution, and after several more blocks of waddling, I did an about-face accepting that I'm not as ready as I hoped. I unlocked the door, took a step and wham, I was pulled back. My sleep-pad which is wider than than both me and the pack, got caught on the doorframe. Yet another thing to get use to—being the size of a 500 lb person in both depth and girth. I was frustrated, hot and pissed off. I sat on the bed and freed myself from pack. I removed my boots and socks and wah-lah, a blister on the back of my left heel. I began the process—pop, squeeze, wipe, medicate and bandage, almost entirely in contortions. I'm right-handed and it's on the outside of my left heel. 'Oh why haven't I been doing yoga?' I was out of breath, but finished.

I woke and used up the 30-minutes it usually takes me to get ready, on doctoring the small but painful culprit. I finished it off by wrapping my heel in duck tape. I lather my feet with vaseline and took my bandage for a test drive around the house. "This'll work." I said, and grabbed my poles and step through the door frame like a modern-day Quasimodo.

From One Bladder to the Other

I'm a spectacle walking up the Mt. Rubidoux dressed as a trekker, using walking poles and gloves, along side a sea of summer workout attire. The poles make me look like I'm a skier whose lost her snow. I frequently drink from the hose of a hydration bladder concealed in my backpack—I've been asked if it's oxygen. I trod up hill in hiking boots and a headband to cover the bed-head, and not a Nike swoosh anywhere to be found on my panting body. People often snicker and whisper to each other as I walk by, but the expression of 'what the heck?' it what I see most.

These poles are a life-saver. They keep my back straight and prevent me from rolling down hill. I can almost hear my drill instructor calling me Slacker. But what I've heard and read, is that this training and these poles will help me conquer the most dificult parts of the Camino – going over the Pyrenees into Spain. Why is the hardest part in the beginning? I'll take it as a metaphor for life when setting a goal.

I climb watching the sun making its decent behind the horizon. It'll be dark soon but I have a kind of miner's headlamp which will make me look even more freakish. I glance at the pedometer clipped to me, divide miles into steps--the math confirms I will have achieved 14 miles today. I reach the house and felt a resistance to stop walking, but when I did I felt a stronger resistance to bend. I've got to get my boots and two pair of socks off. An urgency to pee as a result of drinking steadily while walking. “You've got to stay hydrated.” my older sister insists. So I've drained the bladder on my back into the one in my body, which proves it can't hold 50 ounces. My boots are dirty and the carpet white. I tiptoe across the carpet to the bathroom. I ease myself down and for a double relief. I lift one leg onto my knee and free the first foot, examine it for blisters, there were none. The next foot wants to remain on the floor, but I pull it close enough to unlace. No blisters there either, but I did have to pull my toes apart. The two-pair of thick socks squish my toes so tight I got an idea of what it was like to be a girl in nineteen century Japan.

I sat with my business completed, wondering when I ate last. It had been early the day before. “You've got to take better care of yourself.” I demanded out loud to myself. My next thought was of gratitude—that the shower was only two steps away. I left my sweaty clothes in a pile which I pushed aside to close the bathroom door. In slow motion and aware of each muscle involved--some I wouldn't know I had if they didn't ache, and moved under the spraying water.

The next evening I included a stop-off at church for Wednesday services. After service, as I prepared to walk back home, a woman I don't know but seemed to know me or of me, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Be sure you aren't over-train.” “Hello, allow me to introduce myself, "I'm Over-Trained-Tracy, and you are?” Clearly she was sent by the All-Knowing Spirit, to tell me to slow down. By the time I reached the house her advice sunk deep. Tomorrow is a new day and a fresh start of training 'just enough.' But what is that? It'll come to me...

Three-alarm Wake up

It's nearly a month since I started walking--or training for the Camino; gently at first, more vigorously lately leading up to the 14 miles I accomplished yesterday--in two shifts.

The “take your tylenol” alarm sounds at 4:30. In the Corps we call this it 'O-dark-thirty,' but in civilian life it's just early. The plan is to go back to sleep and let the pain relievers do the job and wake on the second alarm--but I'm already up. The more I exercise the less sleep I seem to need. I rise and get my 'gear' on--another term I haven't used for 30 years. The third alarm, “You should be out the door by now,” sounds 30-minutes later. Starting early increases my chances of catching the coolest part of what will become another blistering hot day in the low desert.

I'm not sure what the Camino will demand of me. Yet somehow I know the physical preparation for this undertaking is more urgent than the mental prep. Thankfully, some of the mental prep began over three years ago when I journeyed to Southeast Asia. My ego judgmentally says, “Not really.” I'll resist the urge to argue.

These days the early morning hours are for getting as many miles under my feet as possible before returning to my daily endeavors. But before I show up for a coaching session, or go to a coffee shop to write, I tie a bandana around my head, saving me valuable time doing my hair--after all I'll be sweating again in just a few hours. Sometimes I get distracted by egoic thoughts of how I'll keep my hair looking good while I walk the Way. "I'll shave it off?" I say aloud--the ego retreats.

I have to make time to whittle down my list of trekking supplies I'm told I need to embark on such a journey. Today the short list takes me to the drug store for light-weight pedicure flip-flops that will serve as a barrier between my feet and the dirty floors of the albergues. Then off to the sporting good store for a puncture-proof bladder cover—if they make such a beast--making my hydration bag safe to be carried in my big backpack. I started a box for receipts and tags from all that I buy, out of a curiosity for what this journey ends up costing me. I'm in the middle of the book, 'To Walk Far, Carry Less' as I acquire more gear. In it the author shares the advice from an aging pilgrim of the Camino, who says, “We pack our fears, our what-if's, our just in case's.” I purchase an item, get it home and later realize it's an 'just-in-case' and return it a few days later. The box of tags and receipts has serves a dual purpose.

I look at my watch--it's almost 6 pm. I pack up my belongings, say my goodbye's to baristas and return to the house I'm sitting. After checking to see that the cats are present and accounted for, check their food and water supply, I change into my trekking clothes. I lather my feet with vaseline—a protective measure I picked up from an online video posted by a serious trekker—put two pairs of socks on and lace my boots up the way my friend, the figure-skater, taught me. I tie the laces with different tensions to achieve the best fit--this changes daily. My learning curve is as steep as the mountains I'll soon be treading on. I wear weightlifting gloves to protect my hands from the grip of my walking sticks. The last thing I do before locking the door is thread the cord of the headphones through the chest strap of the backpack—I've listened to four audiobooks in as many days; maybe that's part of my mental prep? The audiobooks help this pilgrim in training focus on the content and less on the challenge of walking for many hours. However, while on the Camino, I plan to listen carefully to the journey...