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.

Italian Hospitality? Molto Gentile. Italian Weather? Rain!

May 23, 2013 — Poggio Bustone to Rieti
20130523-084318.jpgFrom left: Sebastian, Andreas, Jacqueline, our host, Feliciano, me

Today’s weather report called for rain all morning, then sun in the afternoon. This grim forecast convinced our group to hang out in Poggio and hope for a dry 15 km (10 mile) walk after the rain was done. We waited in the “yoga room” of our hostel, La Locanda Francescana, which gave us time for good byes with Michelle, our hostess. Last night we enjoyed the cooking of her partner, Feliciano, at the hostel’s restaurant, and once again, as at Piediluco, we were overwhelmed by the generous hospitality of the local Italians.

Before cooking our meal Feliciano graciously asked for dietary issues within our group. I explained that I don’t eat red meat (a staple of all Italian second courses, it seems) and he kindly secured some “local chicken” for last night’s dinner. It was the first meat of any kind I’ve eaten in several days. On our way out this morning he shared the tender, Italian two-cheek kiss with each of us. The result with his day’s growth of beard was kind and scratchy-sweet. We left with a smile and a promise to come back.
20130523-100419.jpgOur group, this time in the yoga room with Michelle

Yesterday we noticed a barber shop just a few meters from our hotel, so this morning while we waited for the rain to stop Sebastian and I went over to treat ourselves — me to a haircut and Sebi to a straight-razor shave. Sebastian came out looking and smelling like someone ready for a Friday night date. I came out with the shortest haircut of my life — a 2mm razor cut over my entire scalp. My hair was already short, but by the time the barber finished with me his floor was covered with black hair that once had been mine. I shrugged to Sebastian, “Well, I have three weeks to grow it back!”

Before beginning our walk at a disappointingly rainy noon hour we had a bite of lunch next to an intense card game at a bar off the main piazza. Jacqueline was not feeling well and had decided to take the bus to Rieti, so Sebastian, Andreas and I walked down and out of Poggio Bustone in the cold precipitation decked out in rain gear and hoping for the best.

Before reaching the bottom of this lofty hill town we had already lost the waymarks, so we headed onto the shoulderless car road to Rieti, which we daringly followed as far as the turnoff to Cantalice. Here an Italian woman in a grey car spotted us looking at our maps and pulled over to give us directions. Her suggestion was to follow a quiet auto road into Cantalice, rather than take the more direct but busier auto road straight to Rieti. Her advice was wise, but in the one dangerous moment of our walk we met a truck coming uphill on a narrow turn with a bus (Jacqueline’s, it turned out) coming downhill at he same spot. Andreas happened to be on the cliff side of the road while Sebastian and I were on the rock wall side. Traffic stopped in both directions while pilgrims and motor traffic took turns using the narrow road. As the bus passed we waved to Jacqueline and other pilgrims aboard who’d noticed us stopping traffic. We were happy to see Jacqueline, even if it was just with a quick wave from the side of the road.

20130523-224137.jpgCantalice rising above us

The rain and traffic soon subsided and we had our first good look at Cantalice, another Italian hill town, this one seemingly even steeper than each of the others. Our first thought should have been, “How beautiful!” but was actually, “Hope we don’t have to climb that!” We’d been without waymarks since we left Poggio and were delighted and disappointed to find them again at the foot of a steep staircase — this time pointing straight up the steep city streets.

We armed ourselves with cafe lattes from a bar in the lower city and climbed the steps up and farther up toward the church and castle tower at the summit. Someone commented, “I think the grandmothers in this hill town must have buns of steel!”

20130523-224910.jpgChurch of San Felize, in honor of Cantalice’s homegrown saint

We stopped for pictures of decaying doorways and ancient church facades in this mouldering town, then were given helpful directions by a Brit who’d heard sounds of English emanating from the path below. “Follow the road past the bar and keep going!” It worked, and soon we were heading along a ridge at the same level as upper Cantalice, enjoying views back to the town and, when the clouds cleared, as far as Poggio Bustone.

20130523-225738.jpgViews back to Poggio Bustone, today’s starting point, nestled on the mountainside in the distance

The ridge continued in a southeasterly direction, pushing us closer to La Foresta, our final St Francis site of this pilgrimage. We arrived there at about 4:00, finding an empty chapel and shuttered cloisters. That allowed a quick visit and we covered the remainder of the walk to Reiti in a brisk, 40 minute downhill march.

The outskirts of even the prettiest towns seem to be a maze of parking lots and strip malls, Reiti being no exception. But after passing through the gate of the city’s medieval walls we were in another world. The quiet streets were filled with workers heading home, grandmothers on errands, Italian soldiers in uniform fatigues chatting by fountains and cheerful teenagers enjoying dripping cones of colorful gelato.

Jacqueline, who’d arrived hours before, had found a room for herself and a triple room for us. We settled in, showered, dressed in clean clothes, and headed out with Jacqueline among us again, this time to enjoy the now dry and sunny weather as well as the sights and sounds of a beautiful, Italian town.

The evening’s meal was filled with good food, wine and laughter, plus the hospitality of a kind restaurant proprietor who opened his establishment 15 minutes early to accommodate a few tired and hungry pilgrims who had just finished their rainy day’s journey by foot or bus.

20130523-231025.jpgLooking toward the tower of Reiti’s cathedral

Whoa — The Camino del Norte is Sounding Hard

Una's boots on the Camino del Norte

I knew the Camino del Norte would be difficult, but in her blog my Internet Forum friend, Una, describes shares a cautionary tale that gives me pause.

I wonder who thinks that a pilgrimage walk is a great way to get away from home and enjoy a few weeks walking in Spain. Well, I don´t blame you. But the only words I can think of to call this post and message is Muddy. Forest mud, river mud, sandy mud, wet mud, red mud, yellow mud, mud that sucks the very soul from your body and makes you wonder why you thought a Camino in April in Northern Spain is a good idea.

So it has been raining. We walked to San Sebastian and stayed in a Youth Hostel there. We took a high track through a muddy forest into Orio. The path was quite beautiful and the views over the sea were amazing. I thought I might get a swim but the waves on this coast are for surfers. In Deba we stayed in a little room beside the beach, the facilities were very basic, and the Walrus, the Carpenter and the little puppy were sleeping there too, all men who snored! I will have nick names for most of the peregrinos by the time I finish in Santiago. I walk with an Irish woman, a Spanish woman from Valencia and a young Portugese fireman who is deeply religous. We four are now in Gernika in a room with a French couple in a very dear youth hostel.

Today the guide book said take the road if possible as there might be mud but the yellow arrows kept leading us into the river, mud, forest and we couldn´t seem to stay on the road. It was very scenic and it was not raining this morning, but is now.

Last night we slept in Ziorta Monastery, what a treat, a Japanese man was the only other person there, we were given a good supper of soup and bread, attended Vespers and got our first pilgrims blessing. We did get Mass in Deba on Saturday night. Mass in the Basque language is hard for the Spanish to understand, let alone the Portugese or Irish but we enjoyed the Misa as it was our first. Unlike the Camino Frances there is not the same opportunity to attend local mass at night as the alberques are on the outskirts of towns.

Just four weeks and three days away from my own Camino del Norte. I’ll certainly be watching Una’s blog to see how the trail goes. Meantime, today’s weather report in Bilbao, where I’ll be starting, shows almost exactly the same temps and conditions as Seattle: 60 degrees and cloudy/rainy.