Nine days done, twenty-one to go


The panoramas are unbelievable. This is taken from Citerna toward Citta di Castello, tomorrow’s destination.

All year I’ve been gearing myself toward thirty critical days, the four weeks plus two days in which I would actually walk the route that is the subject of my upcoming guidebook. It’s hard to believe that I’m nearly one-third of the way through. I’ve learned a lot about a wonderful and quirky GPS device, about a great camera on loan to me, about myself, and about the difficult and beautiful way I’m walking from Florence to Assisi to Rome.

I should say first of all that I’m fine, my health is fine, all my gear is intact, I’m not lost (at the moment) and I’m having a good time. I should also say that in the last few days I have been dealing with very hot temperatures, long days of walking and some poor way marking that has meant I’ve sometimes had to invent my own way to get from one stop to another. And let me say too that there has been some good company along the way. Dear Jacqueline has been with me since La Verna, three days ago, but unfortunately her knee has given out and she’ll be taking the bus or train to Gubbio and then on to Assisi, skipping ahead about five days and then heading back to Vienna. I’ve met other pilgrim friends — three Italians, a Frenchman, an older German couple and three fun mental health professionals from Lübeck, Germany.

But this walk is different than any other walk I’ve done. What makes it most different is that I’m working as I walk. I walk with the GPS in my right hand, with my iPhone in my left hand, and with my camera strapped around my neck. Every step I’m looking for a good photograph, making sure I don’t miss a turn in the way for the GPX way marks I’m creating, and describing it all into a dictation program on my iPhone.

Every day I learn more about the GPS device. I learned yesterday that if I stop the stopwatch function I also stop the track recording. This is bad. In my futile attempt to save battery I just erased the steps I’d walked (though I later found a way to recover them).

As I walk, though, I find that I’m thinking not about myself but am thinking about how best to describe what I’m going through for future pilgrims who will read The Way of St. Francis.   I’m taking the sights of this walk and trying to explain it in words that will go on a page, along with a few maps and photos. How do I condense all this experience into a book small enough that pilgrims will be willing to toss it into their backpack with them? How do I make sure they don’t get lost (like I have 3-4 times in 9 days)? How can I be certain I haven’t missed a turn or a landmark that will be explain where they’re at and where they should go? How also do I represent the amazing sights along the way, like the serene Santuario della Verna, nestled atop a mountain in the Central Apennines?

So many questions, and as I walk ahead and blindly speak into my iPhone I recognize I won’t have the answers until I finally sit down with all the material at the end of my walk and begin to flesh out what can and can’t go into the guidebook. At that point I will probably be hundreds or thousands of miles away from the trails that are the source material for the book, and I will just have my recordings, my photos, a pile of receipts and some random memories of hot, long, beautiful days in Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio.

Oh, and I’m using my Italian every day. I wish I’d listened better to Flora, David and Maria of Comitato Linguistico in Perugia. But even though I wasn’t the best student I’m putting their helpful lessons to work all the time, and my Italian is getting better.

Random reflections in the rain

PandelPellegrinoAround midnight last night I started to become annoyed at the loud talking and laughter coming from the restaurant below my hotel window. I don’t think I wished any evil on the loud diners, but if my thoughts magically caused the midnight thunderstorms and torrential rains I feel only a little guilty. With the loud and sudden downpour the merry making quickly ended, and somehow amid the crashing thunder I fell into a gentle sleep.
I realized this morning as I was greeted by a dripping day that guidebook writing and rain do not mix well. My walking routine requires having my iPhone in one hand for dictation, my GPS in the other hand for directions and distances, and my borrowed camera strapped around my neck for photos. All these electronic gadgets don’t fare too well underwater, so I decided to take the train and bus to my next destination instead, Camaldoli village. Here I could catch up on writing and editing, do some of the map and photo work I’ve skipped, and send my sample chapter to my publisher as promised by June 30.
It was no small decision to skip ahead. This means sometime this summer I’ll have to return to this little town of Stia in the Central Apennines in order to complete this walking stage in better weather. My schedule pulls me ahead, though, since I’m meeting my pilgrim friend, Jacqueline, in three days at Della Verna for a week’s walk to Assisi.
Once in Assisi I come to the high point of my summer — walking for two weeks to Rome with my sweetheart, Theresa. She’s been training in Seattle for the walk and, given that’s she’s already in great shape, I know she’ll be a happy and fun partner.
In the meantime, the rain gives me a chance to do some planning, writing and thinking.
The planning part was very basic. Today my employment as a pastor officially ended and outside of some mixed feelings there is practical work to be done: I need health insurance. Before I left Seattle I’d signed up on the Washington health exchange but never heard anything back (except that they cashed my check). Today I spoke for over an hour on Google Chat over sketchy WiFi with the State of Washington and my insurer. The result? “Call back in a week while we figure out what happened.”
The writing part was also pretty straightforward. I worked on my maps of the first three stages, using PhotoShop to add a redline over the trail I had marked with GPS as I walked. Every time I use that little gizmo I give thanks to the First Churchers who kindly gave it to me as a going away gift. So after today’s efforts I have three draft maps — one for each stage I’ve walked so far.
The thinking part is the most complex of my tasks under these cloudy skies. I’m feeling disconnected from family and friends due to the distance and the length of my sojourn. I’m feeling a little sad to miss events like Seattle’s Pride Parade and First Church’s participation in it. I’m also feeling sad about the loss of a close working relationship with the great First Church staff members who’ve been colleagues and friends over these last years. I’m missing the congregation and the many familiar and loving people who filled my life. On a rainy day when I’m not walking, the distances feel bigger and the time away seems longer.
It reminds me of a feeling from my first camino, back in 2008. I’d thought I was looking forward to some solitude and I remember taking the last train before my walk, seeing pilgrims with backpacks, and resenting them for intruding on “my” solitude. Within a short time — about a day — I was reaching out to pilgrims of all nationalities, hoping for some basic, human contact to break through my newfound loneliness.
As much as I want to think I’m self-contained and self-sufficient I discover again and again on these pilgrimages how much I depend on human interaction. I loved my time in Perugia, mostly because of the new friendships with Italian language students from around the world. I seem to crave both adventure, which takes me away from what is familiar, and intimacy, which comes only with deep roots. I know this is the enduring contradiction of my life and I’m not sure I’ll ever be truly happy until I can both be on the road and in the midst of friends and loved ones.
So until I own my own jetliner and can transport everyone I care about along with me I’ll always be a little unsettled, a little restless. Gail said of me before we split up, “You are brilliant and restless.” The brilliant part, she liked. The restless part she could never accept, much less love.
As for me, I’ve come to accept the restless part. In my work its focus on the future has kept me unsatisfied with an unsustainable or unjust present. So I’ve held political office, hosted a TV show, unseated a mayor, led protest demonstrations and marches, started organizations, fought institutional inertia and publicly challenged unfair rules. I’ve sailed across the Pacific, walked over 3000km in Europe, skippered sailboats in the Mediterranean, led tour groups to Israel, Turkey, Italy and Egypt, and studied five foreign languages. I’ve completed a doctorate and raised two healthy sons. I’ve also had two unhappy marriages, both ending in painful and difficult divorce.
So much to think about, but the rain has ended, night has fallen, dinner is served in the restaurant below my room, and the sun will come out tomorrow. So enough of planning, writing and thinking. Tomorrow it is time to walk again, to take this restless me and make it so tired and happy that it has no choice but to rest. I’m walking now toward Theresa, toward home, and toward whatever rest or promise or hope the future holds.

I get by with a little help from my friend


Jacqueline in a covered walkway along the Arno at the start of Saturday’s long walk.

As I sit on my bed with the sound of birds chirping outside the open window and the orange rays of the setting sun glancing off the floor of my room, I take stock of how I’m feeling today and ask the question, do I really get to do this for 30 days in a row?

Following yesterday’s grueling 30 km walk in the searing Italian sunshine I’m tired, my legs are sore from my hips to my heels, the toenail on my left foot is turning blue, I’m suffering from something called golfers’ vasculitis, and I’m missing home and loved ones. But I’m excited that I’ve finally hit the road and I’m starting to feel that pilgrim ecstasy that other pilgrims know. It is the joy of walking that pulls a pilgrim out of bed each day as the trail calls forward to each new day of challenge and progress.

The weekend began on Friday with a 2-hour train trip from Perugia to Florence, where I met Jacqueline of Vienna, a fellow pilgrim from caminos in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Jacqueline has already been a huge help to my guidebook project. She found a German book that describes this track and translated portions of it so I could more easily follow the less-traveled stretch from Florence to Della Verna, where the main trail picks up. In translating it she discovered the primary weakness of this route — there is no easy way to get out of Florence. In fact, the guidebook suggests starting in Florence by getting on the train for 20 minutes and then walking from a place called Sant’Ellero Sull Arno. From Sant’Ellero a person picks up a clearly marked trail to the next town of Consuma.


We stocked up on food at this excellent roticceria, assisted by a proud father and son team.

Well, Jacqueline insisted there must be a way to walk to Sant’Ellero, so she researched it online and decided to fly from Vienna to Florence with the express purpose of joining me for a walk, to prove her theory that the walk can be done without resorting to trains. Of course, we both knew that the primary requirement to end a walking stage is that there be accommodation. We also knew that the best way to see if there is accommodation is to go there and ask.

So…..on Saturday morning, June 7, we set out together from Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce to walk to Sant’Ellero. A little overshadowed by its neighbor, the Duomo, Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world, which legend says was started by St. Francis himself. It’s also rumored to have relics of St. Francis — some of his clothes and such. Santa Croce is also home to the tombs of some of the most famous Florentines — Michelangelo, Galileo, Michiavelli, Rossini, and more.


Looking down to Florence in the distance, with the Duomo on the far left.

Jacqueline and I set out after a leisurely breakfast  at 9:00 in the morning. Oops, we missed the coolest part of the day. The weather forecast called for a steaming plateful of Italian heat, and even by mid-morning we had begun to sweat. The GPS track we downloaded from WikiLoc (thanks, Gigi Bettin), sent us along the Arno River, then out of Florence toward Bagno di Ripoli. After about 5 km we were beyond the exurbs of Florence and feeling good. We stocked up for lunch at a great roticceria and, seeing the mountains ahead of us, we began what we knew would be a hard uphill climb.

In fact, the road started to climb very steeply. At a settlement high above the valley called Bigallo we caught our breath at a very fascinating spedale (hostel) for medieval pilgrims who’d chosen to walk to Assisi from Florence and parts prior. This gave us extra confidence that Florence is a great place to begin this trek, after all, we were walking in the footsteps of pilgrims from centuries past.

After lunch we turned left, across from Bigallo, to begin the more remote section of our walk where we’d been told by a bartender in Bagno di Ripoli that we’d find a beautiful path along a Roman road. Sure enough, soon we were on gravel roads, climbing and climbing. Then we came across a stretch of what obviously was Roman pathway, given its ordered and rounded stones. We continued to walk. And walk some more. By olive orchards. Through olive orchards. Through forests of pine. Through forests of oak. Along gravel paths, along Roman roads, and only briefly along asphalt drives. All of the walk under the 90F (33C) Tuscan sun.

Even as very experienced pilgrim walkers we were a little overwhelmed by the distance. Part of it was the sun, another part was that I was stopping every few hundred meters to speak into the dictation program of my iPhone in order to take notes or I was pausing every little bit to take photos. By about 4:00 p.m. we’d already walked 7 hours, and we soon came across a sign that said the next town of any size — Rignano Sull-Arno — was still one and a half hours away. Our final goal of Sant’Ellero was another 3.7 kilometers beyond that. A little despair began to set in.

I started to drag a bit, and Jacqueline trudged on ahead. Finally we came to Rignano. After a tall iced-tea that perked me up a bit I began to ask in my two-week new Italian if there were any hotels in the area. Immediately two men in the bar were on the phone to find us a room for the night at the house of someone who lets rooms. I explained that it wasn’t for tonight we were looking, but for the future, and they left me with a phone number I could call for more info. We also noticed a campground here, as well as a B&B a few kilometers out of town. Progress.

By this time it was 6:00 pm and even Jacqueline was beginning to drag. Still, our goal was Sant’Ellero which also included a train station where we could catch an 8:00 train back into Florence. At a second bar we asked about foot paths from Rignano to Sant’Ellero, but were told the only way to get there was by walking along the highway. We scouted around a bit more before we left Rignano at about 6:30 p.m. for our day’s final walking goal.

All roads lead to Rome, but not all roads were built by Romans like this one.

All roads lead to Rome, but not all roads were built by Romans like this one.

The 3 km walk along the highway was every bit as treacherous as we feared. Cars whizzed by, while we had just the space of the white line and a few inches beyond it as our path. Thankfully, with 1 km left, a red brick sidewalk appeared and we headed off the white line and into Sant’Ellero, noting signs for a B&B 6 km out of town. Here we also found a map mounted on a wall at the train station that clearly spells out the footpath to Consuma, stage two of the grand St. Francis adventure.

Utterly exhausted and a little dehydrated after 11 hours of walking, much of it uphill in the blazing sunshine, we caught the 8:00 p.m. train back into Florence.

Over a dinner of pasta and salad, Jacqueline and I asked ourselves, would pilgrims really want to walk this hard and hot walk, and then pick up and do another hard and hot 25 km (15.5 mile) walk the next day? Especially in heat like this? On the plus side, there are amazing views of Florence and many panoramas of beautiful valleys and farms along the way. A walk along an ancient Roman road is pretty awesome, too. The lack of accommodation is a challenge, though, but a pilgrim can take the train back into Florence like we did — it’s just a €3 transaction and 15 minutes on the hourly train — and then return to Sant’Ellero the next morning by train for Stage 2.

Then we asked ourselves the more personal question: would we have the strength to go on after such a hard day? As I sat there on the terrace of the hotel with Florence active and loud below, I wondered what had brought me here and why I would even consider leaving home and family and church and community to walk a long, hard, grueling walk for 30 days in the hot Italian sun. Would I be in misery for the next month? Would my feet hold out? I laid on my bed after dinner, a beer, and two sips of red wine, knowing I’d sleep well.

When I woke up this morning something strange happened. I found myself asking, where will I walk today? Is it really true I don’t get to continue on the path? Do I really have to wait another three weeks before I pick up at Sant’Ellero and walk to Rome?

My body is tired, but my heart is full. I’m ready to go. I’ve caught the bug again. All those tourists I can hear outside my window in Florence are seeing some amazing sights, but adventure is up the hill in the distance, down it again, across the river and beyond to Assisi and then to Rome. When language school is done, when camino reunion in Vienna is complete, when June 27 finally arrives, I will be ready for the road. And I can hardly wait.

Today I’m thankful for my great camino friend, Jacqueline. She has been a huge help on this project and I can’t begin to say share with her my gratitude for her assistance and inspiration.

Simple Task: Get to Perugia via Gubbio

May 23 & 24, 2014 — Rome to Gubbio

Yesterday’s taxi fiasco could have been averted by following the simple rule I learned in my first international trip: never agree to a taxi ride in an un-metered taxi without first negotiating the price. If only I’d followed another well-known rule of travel yesterday I would have saved a couple of hours of frustration. The rule? Never step onto a train without knowing for sure where it’s going.

These are on every breakfast table in Italy and each packet is the equivalent of eating two hazelnuts.

These are on every breakfast table in Italy and each packet is the equivalent of eating two hazelnuts!

The day started well and ended well. I awoke early in La Girandola Hotel B&B near the Termini Station in Rome and cruised the Web while waiting for breakfast to be served in the eating area outside my room. This allowed me to research the top cell companies in Italy to see where and how I could get a SIM card for my iPhone. I discovered the TIM company is Italy’s largest cell provider and they have a store right in Termini Station. I also reserved my train ticket to Perugia, where I will get to the airport and pick up a rental car for a ride to the guest house where I’ll relax for a few days before language classes. I also bought my train ticket online — Rome to Foligno to Perugia. Simple.

Breakfast time finally arrived (8:00 a.m. seems late when you wake up at 4:00 a.m.). “Ahh, yes,” I said to myself as I scanned the breakfast table. “Nutella®. I’m back in Italy.” One croissant and “the equivalent of four hazelnuts” later I was off with my bags to Termini. I picked up my new TIM SIM card and 10GB of monthly Internet (so I can use my phone as a hotspot for WiFi when necessary) and grabbed my train tickets from the machine with 45 minutes left to spare before my 9:35 train to Foligno.

Waiting for the train at Termini Station in rainy Rome.

Waiting for the train at Termini Station in rainy Rome.

On the train my mind went back to this same trip last year with Sebastian, my camino friend of 2011. The route is notable for the many tunnels, which themselves are notable for the terrain, which itself is notable for what it means for pilgrims — to walk to Rome requires you walk over all those mountains that the trains go under. Indeed, Sebastian, Jacqueline, Andreas and I had walked those mountains in a quad-building pilgrimage that had taken us to Rome and was the genesis of the book I’d be writing this year.

Two hours later the train arrived in Foligno, a flat, industrial town in the shadow of the Central Apennine range famous for gorgeous hill towns like Spoleto, Spello, Trevi and Assisi. At the station I checked the “Departures” board to see where I’d catch my Perugia train and dutifully went to Line 1 to wait. While I was grazing the glass cabinet of pizza slices and croissants in the adjacent cafe I heard the announcement, “[unintelligble]…[unintelligible]….Perugia….[unintelligible][etc.].” I sprang for the door, ran down the stairs and across to Line 3, jumped on the train, settled in, and immediately realized — it was going the wrong direction.

My first mistake was I hadn’t trusted my own reading of the Departures board. My second mistake was that I hadn’t realized that Italian train announcements always begin with where the train is coming from, rather than where it is going to. Not to mention that I hadn’t even learned any Italian prepositions yet, so I don’t know the difference between da and verso.

With some newfound humility I climbed off the train back at Spoleto and saw on this station’s Departures board that I would have to cool my jets for an extra hour before I could get back to Foligno. Out of curiosity I called a cab to see what the fare would be to end my train adventure and get right to my rental car. The polite cab dispatcher offered the ride for a mere 100 Euros (about $140). An extra hour wait suddenly seemed ok.

Guesthouse near Gubbio, with views toward Lake Valfabbrica. Gorgeous Umbria.

Guesthouse near Gubbio, with views toward Lake Valfabbrica. Gorgeous Umbria.

At 1:00 I was back on the train to Foligno, then after realizing the Perugia Airport is actually closer to Assisi, I transferred instead to St. Francis’ town, where I caught a 30 Euro cab to the airport. I picked up my rental car, and drove about 45 minutes to my delightful Gubbio guest house — at the end of a 4 km strada bianca (gravel road) with an amazing view of the Val di Chiascia. Highlight of the trip? A stop at a roadside cafe for a croissant — filled with delicious Nutella®. Oh, I also saw one large and beautiful deer I’d startled as I drove down the gravel road, plus a red fox who scampered across the gravel in advance of my tiny, white Citroën C1 rental.

Here in the countryside I’m deprogramming from travel for a couple of quiet days while awaiting the start of Italian classes in Perugia and my home stay there with the Bertolini family. During this green and calm time I’m gathering my thoughts, reading and taking notes from the books I’ve carried from Seattle. My mind is moving from the busy past weeks in Seattle to the upcoming walk I’ll begin after language classes end next month.

Layout of Umbria's Via di Francesco from the site

Layout of Umbria’s Via di Francesco from the site

As I drove yesterday I saw out of the car window the familiar blue and yellow way marks of the Via di San Francesco walk. The walk I’ll write about is all around me here outside of Gubbio. It stretches many miles north into the green hills around Sansepolcro and Santuario Della Verna and south past Assisi and across to the Nera River valley. The area is beautiful, and I’m happy to call it my home for these three months of learning, walking, writing and adventure.


Here are some photos of the lovely agriturismo I stayed at these days:

Getting a Testimonium at the Vatican is Fun (but not easy)

When a person arrives in Santiago de Compostela there’s not much confusion about how to get the “Compostela,” the completion certificate issued by the Cathedral Office. Pilgrims go to the special building near the cathedral, stand in line, present their credential, are asked a few questions, and then are issued their certificate. Presto!

At the Vatican, it’s not quite so easy.

When we four pilgrims arrived at St. Peter’s Square our first question was, “where do we get our Testimonium?” We asked various police officers, who told us to stand in line at the metal detectors and then go inside to the Sacristy for our certificates. So, we dutifully stood in a line of several hundred people, inquired as to where the Sacristy is (it’s off the West Transept of the basilica). When we arrived in this ornate room, complete with a beautiful, stone dome of its own, we met a man behind a desk who asked for our credentials and then stamped them with the Vatican’s “tinbro” (stamp). When we asked about our Testimonia, he at first didn’t know what we were talking about, then told us the Testimonium office is only open 9-Noon. Since it was after 4:00 we let it go to the next day.

Our little group divided in two, with Jacqueline and I heading to shopping and Andreas and Sebastian wanting to get to their rooms for a shower and comfy rest. As Jacqueline and I walked, we asked a few folks who looked like they knew what they were doing about how we would get our Testimonia. They directed us to the pilgrim desk at the Tourist  Office just off St. Peter’s Square. Sure enough, when we arrived there the kind woman seemed to know what we were talking about. She copied our credentials and promised she would mail us our Testimonia.

The next day, unbeknownst to Jacqueline and me, our colleagues went to the official pilgrim office inside the Vatican and secured their Testimonia! “Go around the metal detectors,” they said, “then go to the police station, then through the Swiss Guards, then to another police station, then through security, then walk down the road, turn left and then right and go into the building. They’ll give you your certificates right there.” IMG_2461

So the next day, Jacqueline and I did just that. After four security checks, including one with the guys in the flashy pantsuits, we arrived at the official pilgrim office. We were asked to have a seat behind a desk and surrender our credentials. In a few moments the kind man returned with stamped Testimonia, tucked into an official Vatican envelope. On our way out we asked how many pilgrims come for their Testimonia each day. Only five to ten, we were told. No wonder no one seemed to know where to direct us.

In spite of the difficulty in finding our way to the right office, it was still fun to see “behind the scenes” at the Vatican during our little foray into this tiny city-state. It’s been a month and no sign of any duplicate Testimonia in the mail, so I’m glad we took the extra time and asked around a little more so we did finally get our certificates.


We did it! Jacqueline and I succeed in securing our Testimonia, proof that we walked the walk! The Vatican office is just behind us.

Testimonium from the Vatican following our 2013 Cammino di San Francesco

Testimonium from the Vatican following our 2013 Cammino di San Francesco.

Nice town you got here, St. Francis

May 13, 2013 — Assisi, Umbria, Italy

IMG_2135The first thing I noticed about Italy when I awoke just before noon today was how much different it smells from Spain. There is a spicy, kind of sagey smell to Italy and as we looked down into the valley below Assisi I imagined the smell emanated from the countless, verdant orchards and farms below.

Yep, I woke at noon. The jet lag was responsible, and maybe the cold I’ve nursed for the last ten days. My kind friends, Sebastian and Jacqueline, sneaked out quietly this morning so I could get some extra shut-eye in preparation for the many miles ahead.

After an early afternoon shower I headed out to coffee and soon saw Sebi and Jacqueline walking up the hill toward the cafe near our pension. We paused for a breakfast slash lunch and then headed out for tours of Assisi’s amazing churches.

First stop was nearby San Rufino, then off to Santa Chiara with its relics of Francis and Clare. Then to San Damiano where Francis heard his mission to “rebuild the church.” From there we crossed town to the spectacular Basilica of San Francesco. When I was here in 1999 the upper church was closed for earthquake repairs. This time it was open and the historic 13th c. frescoes lived up to their billing. They depict in stark medieval style the important scenes from the life and death of St. Francis and the overall sense is of ancient, otherworldly mystery and power. The feeling deepened as we made our way to the lower church with its tombs of Francis and his friends.


Three pilgrims in front of our first waymark for the Via di San Francesco

After walking the town we stopped in true pilgrim style for beers and conversation. Seated next to us in the cafe were a delightful couple, Margo and Carol, from Illinois. They’re touring Italy with a jolly bus group from the States which we happened to meet later at dinner.

Following our meal it was back to Camere Carli for showers and sleep in advance of our first day of walking. Tomorrow’s goal: 25 km to Foligno, or if necessary, just 17 km to Spello.

Cheers to friends who are following us via FB and this blog! We love you and are thankful for the many joyful wishes and prayers for a safe and fun camino 2013.