Camino reflections

Its been several weeks since we returned from Spain. We have all settled back into our lives and “normal routines” but the Camino will always be a part of us now. I believe this experience made a profound difference in each of us – the Polish Veterans Piotr and Witold, Dan the US Marine, Giovanni the French Foreign Legion Veteran who became part of our group and, of course, myself. Veterans share a common bond by virtue of standing in harms way, shoulder to shoulder. This new bond we share was forged by walking the Camino de Santiago, also shoulder to shoulder.

Dan has graciously shared his thoughts and observations about his experience on the Camino. We are all better humans for this shared experience. Buen Camino my friends!

Brad Genereux
VOC founder

Contributed by Dan, 2018 VOC Veteran participant:

It’s been just over two months since we Veterans on the Camino stepped off on our journey from St. Jean Pied de Port, France. And it’s been a month now since we reached Santiago, the tomb of St. James and the timeless end of the road for most peregrinos. We then continued immediately on to Finisterre, the even more ancient journey to “the end of the earth” and of the known world for millennia, from there splintering into journeys to our respective homes and lives resumed.

I wonder often how profoundly the pilgrim experience has affected each of us. Personally, I can say that it still manifests itself every day. It takes little to remind me of the blessed simplicity of Camino life—not that it was easy, because it was far from it. But the need to focus daily on the basics – hydration, sustenance, shelter, progress, contemplation, perhaps prayer – rather than the usual hundred-odd things that can pull one’s attention in every direction but the needed one…that was a precious gift. The opportunity to make friendships along the way, with people from all over the world, was another one for sure. There were more than a few times when I had to shake my head in amazement at the international dynamics in some of our gatherings, seeing a veritable United Nations of pilgrims singing along to something played by our friend Jean-Baptiste, for example.

It’s at least slightly crazy to miss the vagabond way of “the Way”… to miss waking up each morning in a different bed, a different bunk room, a different hostel, a different town, than the one before, and to repeat that pattern for more than five weeks straight. Yet conversations overhead in normal life seem far more absurd. We may have had silly arguments while bumping into each other constantly on the Camino, but that’s far more forgivable than the kind of constant complaining you’ll hear from those who hate their lives but refuse to change them. And any day’s frustrations melted easily by the time a group dinner was prepared, toasts made and stories shared, something communal that is missing in regular life for all but a very fortunate few in this age.

Vivid memories are so easily brought to life by random things seen or heard in post-Camino life: simply eating at a picnic table today reminded me powerfully of lunch at a similar table one afternoon in Rioja, breaking out a shared meal with Witold and Paige, ditching the boots and socks to let our feet recuperate in the chilly grass for a spell. We were on our way to mystical and meditative Grañón, where the volunteer hosts at a donation-based albergue located in an old church (they were ALL old, for an American especially) made us feel so welcome, and so privileged to be on this journey. That entire feeling, remembering the aches and pains of that particular moment, along with the sights, smells and sounds that made it so special, is what made the journey so special.

At the same time, the journey is dreamlike in retrospect: a blur of images and associated emotions from across a changing landscape and featuring an often-rotating cast of characters. Matching dates with places is often puzzling, for example trying to make sense of when we trudged through the seemingly constant cold rain and strong wind of Navarra, when we traversed the hot and dusty Meseta cattle farms, and when we climbed into the strikingly colorful lands of Bierzo and then Galicia. It’s too easy already to forget just how many days of trial and wonder, introspection and camaraderie, actually did lay between the mountain air of the Pyrenees crossing on April 4th and the Atlantic winds that greeted us at the heights of the northwest after O Cebreiro…entire states, ancient kingdoms whose mighty walls and churches still tell tales of the struggles and triumphs of their histories.

As I flew back over the continental United States to Denver, I gazed down at rivers constantly and thought of how many Camino moments took place on or along the banks of rivers: water breaks, spontaneous lunch picnics, an occasional cool-down splash when it didn’t require too much removal of tape and bandages, a cold beer or a hot café con leche at a table with a view. One day very early in the trek, I stuck my feet in the icy water alongside Piotr, and I’ll never forget dropping a sock in a most unfortunate spot as I moved, allowing the river to swiftly sweep it away. He yelled something as a good comrade would, and I just shrugged and laughed, knowing for once that there was no use dwelling on this bonehead error. Something about the most kinetic of waterways makes so much more sense on the Way, as they are meandering, changing speed and depth, anything but direct, in search of a distant destination. We were all like that in some way as we walked.

Will we continue to be peregrinos on THE WAY of life? That’s up to each of us. I can easily see walking again with any or all of my amigos from this journey, but even if it shouldn’t happen in that way, I imagine every one of us taking some of the Camino approach in how we deal with goals and challenges. We made a name for ourselves among fellow pilgrims, with our common bond of past military service and shared sacrifice, and can continue to further that name wherever our paths take us.

 

The Camino is no vacation!

The daily routine begins with a systematic application of tape, bandages, lotions and careful donning of socks and boots.  Not everybody is suffering the same aches, pains and blisters but all have experienced a variety of discomfort.

After a month together we know each other quite well. We help each other out as well as other Peregrinos, and they help us.  

We have “favorite sock day.”  We are tired and sore more often than not.

The Camino is not a vacation.

On the flip side, the metabolism is at peak efficiency.  We can eat whatever we want knowing that our bodies will easily burn the calories.  Everybody has lost the extra weight, we are leaner versions of ourselves.

The exercise, all day every day, has improved breathing, circulation, muscle tone and even thinking.  Much of the day is spent simply walking and that leaves ample time to ponder thoughts as they come and go.  No need to focus on a project at hand, or immediate work problem. The mind wanders where it will and discoveries are made.

This is actually the bigger challenge of walking the Camino.  The thoughts that rise to the surface aren’t always particularly nice ones.  But there is room on the Camino to sort through them, plenty of time and space.  Perhaps the most valuable benefit of walking the Camino is the peace that is found simply by having no boundaries on thoughts and the ability to process and come to terms with them.

We meet other Veterans on the Camino.  The Vietnam Veteran, Richard. Cory who lost his hand.  Jed and Sandy, the Veteran couple who are now wanderlust nurses.  We share an immediate bond, Veterans and Peregrinos on this long, long journey.

With just over 60 miles left to Santiago, this group of Veterans is travel weary but also in a much better place, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Santo Jacobea beckons us forward day after day.  Our existence has become very simple. Walk, eat and sleep.  We continue on the way towards Santiago and ultimately, Finisterre – the end of the earth.

Leaving stones at “Cruz de Ferro” – Witold arrives in Galicia – Two Veterans on a long walk

Camino Moments

Kayoko Azuma is a slight Japanese artist who carries a backpack that looks to be larger than herself. She also ran the Barcelona Marathon last March and can outpace everybody else around here.

She was so touched by the Veterans on the Camino group that she timed her Camino to meet up with us at a very special alburgue. The Albergue San Miguel in Hospital de Orbigo is famous not only for the truly genuine hospitality afforded by the Garcia’s, but also because they provide paints and canvases for Peregrinos to use. The result is a stunning collection of paintings that decorate the walls of this cozy home.

Kyo (as we call her) took this opportunity to use her artistic talents and paint a picture representative of VOC. She dedicated this gift to VOC, to the albergue, and to the Camino itself. The painting now memorializes VOC on the walls of the Albergue. Thank you Kyo.

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Another lasting impression felt on our Camino…

This poem was written by a Peregrina who lost her sister a few years ago.  She is only 19 years old but the words are powerful.

I walk for you

Skies of grey

Or skies of blue

None of that matters

When I walk for you

 

Sometimes I’m lost

And I have no clue

But I’ll find our way

When I walk for you

 

You left too early

You were gone too soon

But I’ll never be lonely

When I walk for you

 

It gets really hard

And I feel like I’ve failed too

But I’ll never give up

When I walk for you

 

So I’ll make it to the end

And I’ll see this through

Because I don’t just walk for me

I walk for you

 

Paige Lewis

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The Iron Curtain

Many people weren’t around or don’t remember the Cold War, but Witold and I do and talk about how it was.  

Both of us were young in our military careers when the Soviet Union was still alive.  Massive amounts of military forces were arrayed on opposite sides of the iron curtain.  Practicing war, missiles and artillery aimed at each other, the threat of nuclear war hanging over us like a dirty cloud.

Witold was very much a part of this.  He was on the wall, but on the Soviet side.  Having come to know Witold, its strange to think that our countries were adversaries during that era.

His stories tell a different sort of reality though.  He talks about a time when the Soviet Union was starved for goods.  Poland was ripe for transferring many of the hard to find items that Russian soldiers prized.  Highest in demand were women’s stockings, cosmetics and condoms (by now we were laughing hysterically).  The Russians would smuggle color TV’s and gold to use as currency. The checkpoints would search for this contraband, but they would hide the goods inside of the missile tubes of the mobile launchers.

Witold laughed at the notion of the “Warsaw pact.”  It had nothing to do with Poland as they were a lukewarm participant at best in the Russian grand scheme.  Warsaw certainly had no hand in scripting this.

He recalled a running joke among his fellow Polish troops at the time, that Poland would declare war on the United States.  Once they were completely surrounded by the American forces, they would ask to become the 51st state.

While the stories are funny, it still chills me to think of what could have happened.

I’m honored to have been side by side with Polish troops in Afghanistan.  We fought together, bled together, and some paid the ultimate price. Now we are walking together on the Camino de Santiago.  Fellow Veterans and Peregrinos. Friends.

It’s good to talk about these things.  It’s good to have bonded as we have over the course of 400 km so far.  It’s good to recognize that nothing is as simple as it seems when you step back to look at the big picture.

Piotr

I make a point of walking with each Veteran every day or two.  Several days ago I finally asked Piotr what had happened to the finger that is missing on his right hand.  The following is his story:

He was deployed to Ghazni, Afghanistan in 2011 to work with the Afghan National Police.  On a standard mission, they were diverted to perform a “cordon and search” of a suspected munitions bunker concealed in a house in a small village just 15 kilometers south of Forward Operating Base Ghazni.  An area I know all too well.

Once the village was surrounded, his police element moved in.  The Afghans take the lead with the Polish advisors just behind. At first it was just an eerie feeling of walking through what appeared to be an abandoned village, but the hair stood up on his neck when they entered the town square and were facing a line of old men and young boys holding hands in a line facing them.

Piotr had just enough time for the sensation to register that something was wrong before all hell broke loose and the taliban opened the ambush using the line of people as human shields.

Piotr is a big man.  The next thought that registered is that the taliban would pick him as the first target as he was easily the biggest and easiest to hit.  He wasn’t wrong.

The first round went through the flesh of his left arm, just above the elbow.  He didn’t even notice that because almost simultaneously, 4 more bullets stitched across his chest impacting the assortment of grenades, ammunition magazines and ultimately his armor plating.

Next, his right hand was tossed to his side.  He brought it back down to grab his rifle and find a target but something was wrong.  He looked at his hand and his pointer finger was missing. He looked at the back of his hand and saw that his finger was there, but in the completely wrong place..  It didn’t make sense. He took a covered position as the fight ensued, kept trying to grab his pistol to return fire but frustratingly couldn’t grasp his weapon as his finger was hanging by a shred of torn skin.

The fight lasted an eternity of 20 minutes.  The despicable ambush involving children resulted in 2 other Polish soldiers getting wounded.  One died later from the wounds.

With a casual glance, you can’t really tell that Piotr is missing a finger.  The scars on his left arm are more apparent as he is completely adjusted to doing everything minus one digit.

He talks to his wife and 2 daughters every day, they are the center of his universe and he glows with pride every time he talks about them.  He also tells me how his family is worried.  

Piotr is returning to Afghanistan next November for another deployment.  I could see a shadow cross over his face when he told me this.  He is a damned good soldier but also a husband and father now.

In this short time sharing “The Way” with Piotr, I have seen his heart and how big it is.  I’m proud to be making this journey with him on the Camino.

Left to right – Piotr, Dan, Witold arrive in Burgos.        Piotr on the train from Paris.

The first 6 days

Left to right -Giovanni, French Foreign Legion Veteran.  Brad – founder of VOC and USN Seabee Veteran.  Piotr – Polish Navy Veteran.  Dan – USMC Veteran
Witold pauses on the road for a photo

After crossing the Pyrenees, we settle into a routine of walking, eating, sleeping and doing it all over the following day.  Of course those are the main portions of the day, but as we walk, and as we gather at the albergue for the evening, we talk amongst ourselves and we meet the other travelers on “The Way.”

Our conversations cover a lot of territory.  I spend part of each day with each member of our group.  Most of our talks are about the small matters in life, sometimes about powerful and even horrific events that happened during our military service. Veterans seem to speak a different language between each other when the conversation goes down that path. Every day I learn a little more about our amazing group of Veterans.  

I asked Witold what his favorite part of walking the Camino is so far, he thought for awhile and then said that as his body gets in shape from the long hours of walking, he feels better.  Even younger. He has been struggling with blood sugar issues but by actively walking and getting in shape, he feels much better.

Many people believe that the first third of the Camino is about conditioning your body, getting used to walking every day, making your metabolism more efficient.  I think Witold is experiencing this – I look forward to asking the question again once we are on the Meseta.

Crossing the Pyrenees

We had only met in person the day before when we linked up at the airport in Paris, the long train and bus journey to reach Saint Jean had provided some time to get to know one another.  Scratching the surface really.

The night before our walk begins we have dinner together at a quaint local restaurant in Saint Jean Pied du Port, France.  Although everyone is travel weary, we are excited to begin the hike in the morning.

Earlier in the day, we had checked into the pilgrims office and to our surprise and disappointment, they told us that the scenic but difficult Napoleon route that cuts over the top of the mountain was still closed as portions were under snow.  

Jean Baptiste, my French assistant facilitating this trip, and I weren’t satisfied with that answer so we called the albergue Orrison. Its the last stopping point nearly halfway up the mountain so we asked their thoughts on the pass being clear enough to hike.  They said that it was finally clear enough to hike despite the official word stating otherwise.

We took a vote at dinner and decided to make a go at the more difficult, but incredibly stunning Napoleon route.

And so, in the morning. We took the high road knowing full well that we could have to turn back at the very peak if the weather turned or the snow proved too deep to find the path.

Our gamble paid off.  We were able to walk the incredible Napoleon route without incident and arrived safely in Roncesvalles before the sun set, probably among the first 20 or so Peregrinos to make the route this spring.  Tired and sore but very happy, we celebrated with a toast at dinner before getting some much needed rest to be ready to get up and continue walking the Camino in the morning.

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The Veterans and friends ready to begin walking


Piotr makes it to the top, Witold has a selfie stick and Casey Saunier is with us in spirit

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Jean Baptiste plays his guitar in the emergency shelter at the top of the mountain