There we sat like knots on a log, two late-40-something men bored and useless at one of the tediously never-ending Junior Auxiliary fundraisers, when my buddy offered a dubious reading recommendation.
“That new Truett Cathy book is pretty good. I think you’d enjoy it,” he said, staring off into space toward the luxury porta-potties apparently necessary for this particular outdoor charity event at the “ranch.”
“Chick-fil-A?” I responded, silently scoffing at the likelihood of some fast-food propaganda promo and how I might benefit from it.
“That’s him,” he said.
“Okay, I’ll check it out,” I lied.
“Hey, did you check out those porta potties?”
“Yep. Sweet. Very sweet. I think I’ll go back in and pee again.”
Two days later he shows up at my office Monday morning with his used, dog-eared copy.
Trapped. Great Caesar’s Ghost.
But I read it. And something stuck.
Truett Cathy was a fine man. He did a lot of good, instilled much goodwill, set an example for the kind of life to which I aspire. He had his haters. Who doesn’t these days?
But Cathy founded his business with good people. From corporate execs to the janitorial staff, everything was/is personal. And he successfully created an environment that makes people happy to work at Chick-fil-A. He wanted people to give customers heartfelt service with a genuine smile – the kind that comes naturally.
The next time you run through a Chick-fil-A, listen for a key word.
What do you hear at the speaker greeting? “Welcome to Chick-fil-A. It will be my pleasure to serve you. Order whenever you’re ready.”
Need ketchup? “It will be my pleasure.”
Soft drink too flat? “It’ll be my pleasure to replace that sir/ma’am.”
Cathy created an environment making it a pleasure for his employees to work there, and they pass their pleasure on to the customer. However you may feel about their public positions on certain issues, rarely will you have a bad experience at Chick-fil-A.
Civility’s rapid decay during the last two years has on occasion made me physically ill.
Through modeling from public figures of the highest profile, by way of mass media, the entertainment industry, the lingering effects of a recession from which some will never, ever recover, and the slow, drip, drip, conditioning it creates in a very numb society, it’s now easier to treat others with incredulous disdain than with kindness. We’re almost unconscious in our rude behavior.
The Resistance??? There are may things we need to resist now, and the players in and around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may be our least worries. We must resist becoming void of all kindness and civility. The hard part is, no one can do it but you.
I made a decision in October than I will not bow to civil decay. That requires an intentional, conscious effort every day in taking responsibility for myself. Add to a plan of a balanced diet, exercise and spiritual well-being, this:
Intentional gratitude. I’m pausing for it several times a day now.
As I focus on what’s good, (especially people in my life) it actually requires less and less effort over time. It makes it much easier to take my eyes off myself and look outward.
Truth is, it makes almost everything a PLEASURE. Regularly, throughout the day, and with no force of thought I find myself in conversation regularly saying …
“It’s my pleasure.”
“The pleasure is mine.”
“It couldn’t be more of a pleasure.”
And I’m laughing as I write this, but I mean it. Things are much more a pleasure now than they were when I paid attention to all the garbage. I’m not going back into the mire. That behavior is unacceptable. I reject it. This is my Resistance.
And so in everything I now pursue, it’s become an unintentional mantra, and I wasn’t even going for that.
El Gusto es mio…
AND THAT’S A PLEASURE!
(Blogger’s Note: This is the last in a series of posts looking back at 2016, and ahead to the new year. Thank you so very much to everyone who read the posts at Pilgrim Strong this year. Your encouraging comments and friendship are so much a part of what’s real in my life. We really are “just walking each other home.” May the Lord bless and keep you. May He make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May He lift up his glorious countenance upon you. And give you peace. I hope you’ll join me for a new and different kind of writing adventure next year at noteaday.com. )
When the final numbers come in, these are the likely top 10 movies of 2016:
1) Finding Dory
2) Captain America: Civil War
3) The Secret Life of Pets
4) The Jungle Book
5) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
8) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
9) Suicide Squad
10) Doctor Strange
Notice any trends? It’s all fantasy. More and more every day, we’re living a very real life in a make-believe world driven by fantasy and conflict. We’re losing touch with reality at unsurpassed momentum. And so many of those whose public professions you hear about making things great again, are really just driven by self-serving motives best advanced when you’re kept in a fog. I’m imploring you not to be part of the shell game.
It’s never been more important that we take responsibility for ourselves, especially as it relates to how we formulate important, fundamental opinions. To a great extent, civility’s survivability depends on how successful we are in knowing what we believe, and why. I’m challenging you to be as shrewd as Kido the cat as you face the bait-and-switch shell game ahead in 2017.
You watched that video didn’t you? Admit it. I knew you couldn’t resist.
In 2017, please don’t let your reality be based on people or media conglomerates or commercial businesses whose self interest is to manipulate every part of your brain. Just say no.
You can help yourself with two things: filters and anchor points. These are my working definitions:
Filter – methods, personal experiences and hands-on techniques you can use to sift fantasy from reality; lies from truth.
Anchor Point – a solid, unwavering, fixed point of reference reminding you of your identity, purpose, and direction. A practice creating a north star-like quality.
I think a lot about those two things this time every year. Isn’t it wonderful how every 365 days, we sort of get to imagine new beginnings, second chances, and do overs?
On pilgrimage in Spain this year I felt the strongest calling to make 2017 a time when I’ll take my eyes off myself and be ever-aware of the motives behind my actions. In 2017, I’ll launch a new blog designed to do just that. (You can sign up to follow that blog by email here). I’ll travel a lot – it’s high on my priority list for understanding a world outside Jonesboro, Arkansas. There will be an extended adventure/walk somewhere, most likely on the first one-quarter of the Appalachian Trail or the John Muir Trail, and I’ll walk upwards of a thousand miles getting ready, and actually doing it. I’ll start fishing again. I love fishing, and have missed it for years. I’m going back to stand in cold streams and feel the thrill of a taut, jerking line. And I want to spend a lot of time thinking about how my giftings can help others. Those are some of my plans for the new year.
In all the things I’ll do, I’ve resolved to do them with more vigor, deeper passion, greater gusto. I want to take deep breaths of fresh air, stand in awed amazement at breathtaking vistas, listen intently to birds singing at the dawning of a new day. And I never want to stop having laughable dreams. They’re among my greatest personal anchor points.
As we close out this frenetic year and look to a clean start, I wanted to share with you some possible ideas for thinking about your own filters and anchor points.
- When it comes to social media, learn to recognize bait, and just don’t take it. It’s easy enough to spot certain trigger words that immediately create a “we vs. them” forum. Don’t get caught up in the false idea that your participation in these discussions advances some convicting cause or that you’re making a difference. You’re not, and no one’s really listening anyway because everyone’s talking and thinking about what they’re going to say next. Don’t take the bait.
- As a general rule for social media, limit your time there, and don’t use it as a babysitter for your boredom. I have a lot of work to do here.
- Limit your time watching television. I haven’t watched network news in almost 80 days and life is better. The world isn’t nearly as bad as they’re telling you.
- Resist the comfort zone you perceive in being around people just like you. Yesterday, I received the nicest note from a man who’d read one of my blog posts in this series and he asked for some clarification on a religious matter I’d raised. We had a wonderful genuine exchange about some things on which we disagree, and yet further advanced the respect we have for one another. Isn’t that so refreshing?
- Do your best to look at situations through the eyes of others, and realize that very few things are truly as they seem. There’s usually much more to the story.
- Be proactive, not reactive. And calm down, for crying out loud.
- Resolve to listen more than you speak. Be present. Again, I speak to myself.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. I’ve laughed at myself more in the last couple of years than in all the rest of my life combined.
- Be someone’s cheerleader. Younger, older, it doesn’t matter. This is SO important. One of the things I believe most about life is that we’re at our very best when we’re cheering for others. I have a few specific people already picked out for 2017.
- Do some very difficult things all ALONE. I’d never discount the immeasurable value of sharing life experiences with a loving, trusted partner, but some of my most profound anchor points also come from times when it was just me, mentally and physically depleted, and when I had no idea what came next.
“You can’t accomplish ANYTHING without the possibility of failure.” ~ Gary “Laz” Cantrell, founder of the Barkley Marathons, the race that eats its young
- Meditate regularly on why you believe what you believe. The ability to answer this simple question is important for you and everyone you touch.
- Keep an understanding inside your head that the current world economy is driven by fear and conflict. Don’t be afraid. Is it any accident this phrase is mentioned 365 times in the bible?
- Consider a daily journal and the lasting power your written words can have on your outlook.
- Develop some new hobbies that actually require a lot of time. I mentioned fishing as one I’ll bring back next year. And I love watching Bob Ross videos and trying my hand at painting, even though the outcome is always laughable.
- Read. Pretty simple.
- Do some good deeds that remain a complete secret. Don’t tell anyone.
- View life through the lens of time. So much of my thinking now is shaped by the realization of how short my time is on earth.
- Invite people into your home. I think this is so important, and it’s such a shame that the “dinner party” is less a part of society than it once was. We’re designed for communal fellowship. Three years ago we began hosting a New Year’s Day Feast for as many friends as we can get to come. I love this day, and it gets my year off to a great start surrounded by people I care about. In fact, I’m planning the menu this morning for our fourth annual event.
In fact, it’s time to go do that now.
Happy New Year, everyone.
- Let it Rain Michael W. Smith
- Oh Happy Day The Edwin Hawkins Singers
- Uptown Funk Bruno Mars
- Overcomer Mandisa
- Walking in Memphis Marc Cohn
- Bad Day Daniel Powter
- How Do You Like Me Now? Toby Keith
- I Can See Clearly Now Jimmy Cliff
- Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me George Michael & Elton John
- East to West Casting Crowns
- Take a Back Road Rodney Atkins
- Walking Man James Taylor
- Go Rest High on that Mountain Vince Gill
- Heads Carolina, Tails California Jo Dee Messina
- Take This Job and Shove It Johnny Paycheck
- I Then Shall Live Gaither Vocal Band
- When Mercy Found Me Rhett Walker Band
- If Everyone Cared Nickelback
- When I Rose This Morning Mississippi Mass Choir
- It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere Alan Jackson & Jimmy Buffett
- Just a Little Talk With Jesus The Statler Brothers
- September Earth Wind & Fire
- King of the Road Roger Miller
- New Attitude Patti LaBelle
- As Good as I Once Was Toby Keith
- Over the Rainbow Ray Charles & Johnny Mathis
- Revelation Song Phillips, Craig & Dean
- Sundown Gordon Lightfoot
- A Little Less Conversation Elvis Presley
- Tennessee Whiskey Chris Stapleton
- Cool Change Little River Band
- Die a Happy Man Thomas Rhett
- I Am a Pilgrim J.D. Sumner
- Time for Me to Fly REO Speedwagon
- Troubadour George Strait
- When I Get Where I’m Going Brad Paisley
- When the Going Gets Tough Billy Ocean
- Mandolin Rain Bruce Hornsby & The Range
- Already Gone The Eagles
- Here I Go Again Casting Crowns
Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret. ~ Bill Bryson
A nice, long walk on any given day can be about lots of things. Some days I want to burn calories and just enjoy a good sweat. Other days I feel so bogged down in minutia it’s the only way the cobwebs will clear. I just want to go out and have a long talk with myself – solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.
More often than not, my long walks are about inspiration. Finding it, more specifically. Contrary to popular belief inspiration rarely falls into your lap. Inspiration owes you nothing. You must seek it out, and purpose toward its elusive hideaway.
Barbara Kreisel and I met just as she was experiencing new inspirations of her own about walking. We’d crossed paths on occasion but never spent much quality time with one another until an overnight in Terradillos, just short of the Camino’s halfway point. Forking over an extra euro for a lower bunk was the deal of the day, and we shared a room that night with Marie Celton, a Reunion Island native, who’d already tallied more than 1,200 solo miles. Marie and I were captivated with Barbara’s story from just a few nights before when she’d encountered an experience every pilgrim fears. Chinches. As she spoke, she showed us a half-dozen moderate to severe bedbug bites, the red, swollen marks along her arm, ears and neck now insufferably itchy and a constant painful distraction.
The next morning Barbara shared a more significant story as we walked together.
Nearing her sixtieth birthday, she’d experienced a series of illnesses in recent years that resulted in a complete energy depletion. Doctors told her she had about 10 percent the energy of an average person her age. Determined for a remedy, she traveled from her home in Germany to Sri Lanka for promising non-traditional treatments that, in fact, restored her to new energy levels, near 70 percent. It was enough, she thought, to challenge herself on Camino pilgrimage, and when we met, she’d already walked more than 250 miles.
She’d come to the Camino with a simple goal. Just move. That was it. The idea that she’d taken the initiative and put herself in such a radically challenging situation was satisfying enough early on, but not any more. Her thoughts now turned to more transcendent notions. Alas, attempting the hard thing, and the courage in that decision to try just wasn’t enough.
“It was just about the moving in the beginning, and it was so very difficult crossing the Pyrenees. It took a few more days than I thought to recover, but over time I became more serious about the walking. Now, I’ve gone beyond even that, and my number of days here is limited, but I’ve begun to let myself think about arriving,” she said.
She’d gone from a goal of moving, to a new goal of walking, now, to new purpose – arriving. It’s that certain look a person gets in her eyes when a cause is planted in her heart. Barbara decided she had the wherewithal to finish. I loved seeing that look in her eyes and hearing that tone in her voice. And I love that she finished. Ultimately, Barbara arrived.
Move. Walk. Arrive.
There’s good reason to walk, and Barbara was really on to something. A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found 90 minutes of walking regularly, especially in non-urban areas, reduces tendencies toward depression and mental illness. Scientists could actually see this at work in people’s brains. Another study used a test group to prove that backpacking and disconnecting from technology boosted creative thinking and problem solving by as much as 50 percent. I know it’s true.
It’s pretty amazing to think just how much putting on a pair of walking shoes can actually change your life – if you actually walk in them, that is. No, the shoes won’t walk for you. That much is up to you.
If you pay attention to guidebook elevation charts as I do, you have time to mentally prepare for the days that really push your legs. Not only were Naomi, Aida and I uncertain about the physical challenges ahead the day we set out to climb O Cebriero, there was now much trail talk of a substantial snow storm ahead, and we needed to beat the weather to the top. A change in conditions loomed, and you could feel it in the air. It was time to push. We’d deal with whatever hand the weather dealt when we arrived. As Barbara learned many kilometers back, there’s power in your arrival.
The walk from Villafranca to O Cebriero begins with an extended two-hour hike down into a beautiful valley just east of the Galician border. It’s daunting, because you know for every step you take down into that magnificent lowland, the tide will turn to a radical upward ascent. Sure enough, you bottom out in the small village of Vega de Valcarce, and get your first glance at the winding, skyward footpath that lie ahead. You know right there your legs will start talking to you soon.
As the climb ensued, we adopted a pattern that lasted much of our remaining Camino. Aida, packed light and with the frame of a runway model, gradually pulled ahead as Naomi and I lagged behind. Naomi preferred a slow walk, taking things in. My hemorrhaging shin demanded slow. I lost count of the times Aida pulled ahead, then respectfully waited on us to catch up through the sierra.
It was reminiscent of the daylong trek through the Pyrenees, hopefully but incorrectly thinking the summit lie around every blind corner and every false plateau. Eventually, our team slowly disintegrated into three individuals, each on his own, now testing their metal one slow step at a time to the top.
Seven hours later and now 4,000 feet higher we rounded a corner leading to the locally famous marquee signaling our official arrival in the Galician territory. We took photos, slapped high fives and absorbed a sublime expanse of countryside most people never see. The further you walk through Galicia, the more striking these vistas become. The final leg of our journey was now officially under way, and the end of our day just a few short kilometers ahead.
O Cebriero is distinctive in every way. The Galician people are descended from Spain’s second wave of Celtic invaders who migrated across the Pyrenees. At the fall of the Roman Empire the region fell under the authority of several Germanic tribes, followed by the Visogoths and the Moors. The architecture is uniquely slate-based, the food rich and hearty, the people, hard-working, private and proud.
The winds of O Cebriero. Little did we know this was the calm before the storm.
After a celebratory beer in a local pub, our threesome considered its options for the night. Our decisions had greater ramifications now. If the snow talk was real, tomorrow was a complete unknown. An albergue would have us out the door by 8 a.m., whether we wanted to go or not. We needed a Plan B.
A local tavern with several private habitaciones was the answer. Naomi and Aida split a room, and I took my own private quarters across the street. Hot showers, privacy, the steady aroma of roasted pork and bubbling caldo gallego from the downstairs kitchen, and an antsy, high-energy pilgrim family – all citizens of the world – made for a divine early evening environment. It was home for a night.
Anxious about the forecast and our next day’s prospect for hiking downward to Triacastela, I walked outside several times during the evening. Three hours after our arrival, and as the sky went dark, a misty rain set in, and the wind blew.
I’ve never been in a colder, stronger, wetter wind. It howled with a mocking, obnoxious fury.
All you could do was go to bed for now, and see what lie outside the frosty windows tomorrow.
But at least, we’d arrived.
“The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works, is the family.” ~ Lee Iacocca
“A man that hath friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” ~ Proverbs 18:24
One of the best parts of family is how it functions as a unit. One member falls short, another picks up the slack. One becomes weak, there’s strength in the group. Disagreements abide, but kin always cheer one another onward. The family is the original cheerleading squad.
Ten years ago when I developed a passionate interest in travel, it was mostly about exploring those places I knew nothing of, and learning cultural ways about which I’d never heard. And indeed, I’ve learned so much. But for me, the unexpected benefit of distant travel is the family connection it’s created. Doing difficult things in far-away places inevitably creates a special relationship with others most akin to brothers and sisters. I’m a 50-year-old only child. I longed for siblings as a youth, and wonder what it might be like to have them now. As I’ve traveled different places and experienced different things I’ve filled that void with brothers and sisters around the world. And I love these people as my own.
After 28 days walking, my Camino family was loose, but unbeknownst to me, coming together rapidly. It came in the unexpected form of two sisters. Naomi and Aida.
It’s a long, downward descent from Cruz Ferro, easily an entire day of negative grade. It sounds easy enough until you actually do it. Walking down miles at a time with a 24-pound pack jars the knees in potentially dangerous ways.
Twelve miles in, the small village El Acebo (population 37) looked like an inviting place to end early and break up a hard day, and it was the beginning point of a long stretch where the vistas became gradually more thrilling. A restaurant/bar, nice beds, and wifi for 7 euros at Mesón el Acebo made the decision easy.
Awaiting a patata tortilla and cold beer I checked online messages and noticed a social media post from Naomi. She was nearing Cruz Ferro several miles behind but still connected to the internet. I sent her a quick message to catch up and told her I was done for the day. A nine-time Camino veteran, she knew exactly where I was. Her next message changed everything.
“See you there in a few hours.”
Just as unexpectedly as I’d found the unusual depth of certain Camino relationships, was the virtual relationship I now experienced with past and future pilgrims online. Regular posts – sometimes photos, sometimes videos, often just a metaphorical thought for the day – somehow resonated with certain people, and I had a list of virtual friends that grew daily. As I shared certain thoughts and feelings, they responded with amazing support. It was the strangest and most unconventional sense of family cheerleading and encouragement. And the way it affected my attitude and determination was amazing. Family is found in the least expected places.
A few hours later, Naomi arrived, and though we’d spent no more than a couple of hours together four days back, it was like seeing an old friend. We shared our experiences from Cruz Ferro and selected bunks for the night. After a good meal and a peaceful night’s sleep we woke the next morning, packed up and headed out together. We never spoke about it, but somehow understood, I think, we’d walk on together to the end. I sensed Naomi approached this undertaking much as I did. We were both just fine as soloists taking care of ourselves but knew the benefit of having trusted, at-your-side support. In the end, I probably got the better end of that deal.
Two hours short of Ponferrada, and after we’d discovered a mutual love for cooking, Naomi had an idea that produced one of our best times on the Way. She knew the donativo albergue where we were headed and how its accommodations lent themselves to a special sense of community.
“Why don’t we pitch in and buy some groceries and cook for everyone tonight?” she said. I laughed out loud thinking how I literally had nothing else to do.
“Okay, what’s the menu?” I replied. And so we thought it through for the next several miles.
The sleeping setup at San Nicholás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada is much like that in Roncesvalles – small, pod-like rooms that sleep four pilgrims each on two bunks. We landed a pod near the communal kitchen and showers, and cleaned up before a trip to the mercado. Naomi was a stickler for backpack organization, and as we tidied up the room after showers, our bunkmate for the night walked in. It was a young, professional Spanish girl from near Barcelona who’d started solo at Leon a few days back. Relationship dynamics are often the strangest thing. We were a public school teacher from California, a hospitality industry professional from Barcelona, and journalist from Arkansas. Oddly, it was as if we were all immediately connected as a group.
We told Aida we were putting on a group meal for all interested pilgrims. Word spread quickly and we’d feed about a dozen peregrinos from around the world that night. Aida offered to wash our clothes in a group while we shopped, and my Camino family was finally born.
We were a unit now, walking one another home. I was the older brother with the funny accent, viewed often, I’m sure, as one sometimes the good-natured, good ol’ boy, and other times, a bit cantankerous. Naomi was the middle-child rock, the glue, with a deep understanding of where we were, exactly what we were doing, and furthermore how it might potentially affect each of us. Aida was the essence of our collective pilgrim spirit – professional, fun, strong-willed, with a little touch of rowdiness. We were quite the unlikely threesome.
Our dinner that night was completely cosmopolitan – one of the best experiences in my life.
Early the next morning, we moved on as family, bound for 10 final days of adventure, cheering each other as we walked.
(Blogger’s Note: In the hiking community, a side trail, or spur, is a footpath that wanders off the main trail and simply leads to another scenic vista or practical destination. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of journalism’s sidebar. Closing in on the manuscript draft of my book, #PilgrimStrong, I’m incorporating a “side trail” (a different, but related) short story at the end of each primary chapter. I think it kind of breaks the story up and adds some variety. Hopefully, it works. Here’s a “side trail” preview excerpt I wrote today.)
At 33, I left a potentially promising career in the frenzied political world for one more structured, predictable and family friendly. It was that structure that soon got me in trouble and ultimately bestowed a great lesson.
As state communications director for a member of congress I enjoyed the freedom to do just about whatever needed doing to make things work. Most rules, wherever they existed, were completely gray, and I knew how to work them. They were much more black and white in my new state-regulated job as a higher education fundraiser. Rules abounded.
When we needed some giveaway promotional t-shirts for an internal fund drive I called up a buddy I trusted and knew would give me a quality product on time. He said, “What do you need?” I told him. He said no problem. I said, “Done.” We committed to the deal and I sent him a check for $15,000. There wasn’t as much as a handshake.
Just a few days later a trusted secretary brought attention to my grievous error. The structured, predictable and friendly government rules required all requisitions above $1,000 go out for at least three competitive bids. It meant the money I’d committed would have to come from our private foundation, rather than our state-supported budget. In short, it was a $15,000 screw up. Yes, my bad.
There was no hiding. I’d completely exposed my inexperience and had to tell the boss. He was newer to his job than I was to mine. We didn’t know one another well yet, and he scared me a bit. I walked in his office to take a beating that would’ve been well deserved and told him exactly what happened. I said it was my fault. I said I was sorry, and didn’t really know what to do.
He leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands and was silent for one of the most intensely painful moments of my life. And then he said this:
“Well, you won’t make that mistake again, will you?”
“No sir,” I said, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never did.
“I’ll take care of it. Get back to work,” he said. And so he forgave my debt.
It was the most unexpected, underserved grace I’ve received in a lifetime of mistakes. And it’s a lesson that’s served me well.
“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.” ~ Psalm 103:12
There are certain things you don’t think much about, but really need for creating a deeper, more meaningful life. Two such things for me are symbols and ceremony.
Our symbols are those “notes to self” that remind us of our most important commitments, our heritage, even our deepest convictions. Today, they play an ever-increasing role in our lives, not always for the good.
Ceremony is to the meaningful life as the period is to the sentence. It punctuates, gives definition, and separates our most significant moments from those less consequential. Ceremony forever marks a milestone. It places a picture-memory in your mind.
My long-awaited arrival at Cruz Ferro afforded the opportunity for embracing both.
A pilgrim’s departure from Leon means the Meseta’s end is near and radical changes in the landscape are upcoming soon. Aside from Astorga’s magnificent architecture, the next two days are uneventfully necessary en route to Galicia. I pressed on purposefully through the last of the flat land eager to conquer the remaining elevations, see the new land’s heralded splendor, and leave my burdens behind at Cruz Ferro.
Keeping with standard practice in the bigger cities, I walked slowly through and past Astorga that Sunday seeing the sites, soaking up the culture and restocking with a few supplies. I intended to move on for an overnight in the smaller Murias de Rechivaldo five kilometers outside town.
In mid-November the Camino hospitality industry rapidly shuts down for winter’s onslaught. It often means the smaller villages have no pilgrim accommodations whatsoever, and you eat when you can find food. I enjoyed a great night’s rest in Murias where the only facility open was an actual bed and breakfast. There was a private bath, clean sheets and a toasty fireplace-warmed common area with a comfy couch. High Roller lives large again. If Vegan Tom could see me now…
The proprietor prepared a home cooked breakfast the next morning before I left out for the final steps along the Meseta en route to Foncebadón. She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and directed my attention to a framed photo near the exit. It was a portrait-type photo of a beautiful woman I assumed was her daughter.
“Es su hija?” I asked.
“Se trata de una peregrina de los Estados Unidos,” she said.
It was a photo of Denise Thiem, an Arizona pilgrim who went missing on the camino seven months earlier on Easter Sunday. She was murdered by a local who lured her off the path just a few kilometers ahead. The proprietor met Denise before she was killed. Everyone knew the story. It was a Camino tragedy that made news around the world. I thought much of Denise and said a prayer for her along the straightaway where she disappeared. One pilgrim gone home.
Cruz Ferro (iron cross) marks the highest elevation along the Camino Frances. It’s really nothing more than a tall pile of rocks and a wooden pole topped with an iron cross reaching skyward. Known as a sacred place where pilgrims leave symbolic objects (traditionally stones) brought from home, a pilgrim walks away from Cruz with a lighter load both physically and spiritually. Reaching Cruz Ferro was a moment I’d anticipated more than three years.
I overnighted in Foncebadón just a mile short of Cruz so I’d arrive there the next morning at sunrise. There’s just something about the sun coming up over the mountains that goes well with the blessings of forgiveness, second chances, and new beginnings.
Foncebadón is an unusual place that has a dilapidated, ghost-town like feel to it high
atop the Cantabrian mountain range. Its rickety rock-wooden structures, winding dirt pathways and an indescribable sense of quiet emanate a secluded sense of abandonment. But the vistas from that elevation are silently spectacular. The sunlight, especially at sunrise and sunset, interacts with the clouds and landscape in a way that produces colors I’ve never seen or imagined. It induces a sense of holiness.
On Day 30 I packed up and set out in pitch dark for the 5,000-foot elevation at Cruz Ferro. For me it was a high point in more ways than one.
The village’s main dirt path was dimly lit by a couple of ancient street lights. A hundred yards ahead at the edge of town, the path disappeared into black darkness. A young Scottish woman was seated on a rock considering the same dilemma I now faced – wait for a bit of natural light, or press on carefully with a flashlight.
Two strangers, now momentary partners by way of Camino fate, we discussed our options when Megan interjected as she gazed eastward.
“Oh my goodness, would you look at that,” she said staring past me.
I turned to see the first glimpse of daybreak, and a horizon that danced with streaming clouds and thin air painting a picture of holy fire. It was a moment when your soul tells your mind to take a picture and file it in a special place. We both went speechless.
We obliged a few photos for one another and decided to walk toward Cruz together for safety and reassurance. If the views were this lovely from town, we could only imagine what we’d see and how we’d feel a mile ahead and further upward.
No more than 10 minutes into the walk we encountered two more pilgrims, one from England, the other from Ireland, as they, too, stopped every few seconds looking back at morning’s fiery dawn. You wanted to move forward, but couldn’t help looking back at the majesty in motion.
Megan, Lauren, Philippa and I walked on through a foggy, damp darkness as the sky slowly illuminated. Our group conversation about the morning’s evolving beauty and my focus not to misstep on the rocky footpath distracted me from what we were doing and where we were about to arrive. Before I knew it I could see a tall cross taking form through the haze. I stopped and took in a deep breath of reality as the threesome walked on. I was about to step foot on what I personally considered one of the holiest places in the world. I was really here.
The three young women walked up as a group and I stayed behind, both so I could take photos for them, and walk to the cross alone for my personal moment. I’d brought four marbles from my father’s prized collection to leave behind, along with a prayer I’d seen Martin Sheen pray at this site in The Way nearly four years ago. Trivial as it sounds, it completely expressed my sentiments about the moment:
“Dear Lord, may this stone, as a symbol of my efforts on pilgrimage, that I lay at the foot at the cross of the Savior, one day weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds, when the deeds of my life are judged. Let it be so. Amen.”
Reading the prayer, I let the marbles slip randomly between my fingers falling where they might for eternity, set alongside the spiritual baggage of millions of others who’d done the same for a millennia. As they fell and trickled along the stones, I thought of my parents, my children, my wife, the people I loved the very most, and the ways in which I’d fallen short so many times. I thought of God and the times I’d offered him deals in exchange for my wrongdoing. He’d forgiven me for such things long ago. I knew it as well as I knew the sun just came up. So I promised never to waste His time again with another request of forgiveness for all things past. It was Finished here.
As my three companions stood silently watching below, respectful and reverent, I taped my written prayer to the pole, and wept. I could hear them crying, too. There’s power in such moments.
I walked down and we all gave one another a hug wiping tears and laughing and the unexpectedness of it all.
“Let’s go to Santiago,” I said.
(Blogger’s Note: This is the third video blog post in a series about pursuing our purpose. It’s a short, simple point, but central to everything.)