Everyone Does Their Own Camino—Luxury Version

“When you told me about the Camino,“ our friend John said, “you talked about hostels and sharing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you had told me it was going to be like this . . . “ Dad had just called John to fill him in on our adventures and the latest four-star hotel we were staying in. “We’re doing a luxury Camino,” Dad explained, repeating the words I’d used many times on this trip. “Here, I’m going to put Becky on.” Dad handed me the phone.

I didn’t even greet John. I started right in with my Camino educational-moment-of-the-day. “Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain walked the Camino to Santiago. We’re doing it their way. I’m pretty sure they had people carrying their bags for them and they probably stayed at some pretty nice places.” Municipal hostels didn’t exist when they walked it. . . Last night we stayed in a former palace that dates to the 1500s—I’m thinking that was more their style. Though they couldn’t have stayed in that place specifically because they walked in the late 1400s.

A popular phrase along the Camino is “everyone does their own Camino,“ by which we mean that there are many ways to do this journey. There are, in fact, hardly any rules. The only one I know of is that if you want to get your official compostela certificate at the pilgrim office in Santiago, you must get your pilgrim credential stamped twice per day for the last 100 km. But other than that, there’s no definitive rule book.

So Dad and I will carry our day packs, enjoy our air-conditioned room and private bathroom. You can call us King Lou and Princess Rebecca if that makes these accommodations easier for you to accept.


A Night on the Camino with Dad

“Let’s go meet more pilgrims,” Dad said on Friday night. He has become adept at identifying pilgrims by their clothing, shoes, shuffles, and limps. Backpacks and shells are also markers.

So as we strolled the streets of Los Arcos around 5pm, I saw them the same time he did. Except I immediately recognized them. Two men over six feet tall and heavily tattooed. You don’t see many like them on the Camino, and so even though I saw 60-90 pilgrims per day in the Pilgrim Office, I remembered these brothers immediately.

Pace and Thor (from California) were with a German friend and in search of a supermarket, which Dad and I had just passed minutes earlier, so after introductions, we not only walked them to the supermarket, but walked around the tiny store with them chatting about our experiences thus far. (Imagine one of our supermarket aisles in the US, but so narrow that two people can barely walk by each other. And then take that and cut it into quarters. Put two quarters side-by-side, decrease the inventory by two-thirds and you have the market.)

Our (new) friends were staying at the municipal albergue (hostel) and I asked if they could take my dad in there to show him how the other half lives on the Camino. They laughed and welcomed him to see the dorm. I stayed outside—I had stayed in this very place seven years earlier so knew about the bunkbeds and communal kitchen (and everything else) thanks to personal experience. “Looks like the homeless shelter that I volunteer at once a month,” Dad said when he came out.

They invited us to join them for beers in the courtyard at the albergue. Their other brother Mitchell joined us, along with a young man from England (also named Louis). For the next couple hours, we fed one euro coins into the vending machine inside producing beers for most, water for me.

Eventually the conversation of backpacks came up. “Tell them what you do!“ Dad said. And so it was that two of them produced their backpacks and I went through them asking questions about the contents and why they needed certain things. Pace’s biggest problem was the weight of his empty pack. This was something I had personal experience with. On my first Camino, my filled 45-liter pack weighed 22 pounds— which I didn’t know until it was weighed when I arrived at JFK airport to leave for the trip. By the time I returned, I had left enough things across Spain that my pack was down to 16 pounds. It was only when I was preparing for another Camino that I weighed my empty pack and found it weighed 5 pounds on its own!

For Louis (the Englishman), his first issue was the fact that he brought an 85 liter pack with him. The heaviest item in it was some sort of charger that must’ve weighed at least 3 pounds.

Eventually we made our way back to the main square for dinner. Some of these folks had two and three entrées! Thor and Louis decided not to tempt the fates, and headed back to the hostel to make the 10 PM curfew. Mitchell and Pace didn’t seem as concerned— they figured they could hop the fence if they had to.

At 10:30, we all parted ways and I called the number for the taxi to bring us back to our hotel, which was 3 miles from town. When the woman answered, I barely made out her voice over the noise from wherever she was. “No puedo,” she said. “. . . Pamplona.” Which I immediately understood to mean “I can’t. I’m in Pamplona.” Pamplona continues to celebrate the San Fermin festival this weekend. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this Camino, it’s that the Spaniards have their priorities: family, friends, and enjoyment of life are all much more important making money. Which was great for this taxi driver, but not so great for me and dad.

So I asked our server at the restaurant if she knew of anyone. She looked at the phone number I had and, in Spanish, said simply that that was the only taxi in the town.

Dad had had enough beers and sangria and great conversation that none of this worried him at all. Our hotel offered, as part of their services, to pick up pilgrims in the town to drive them to the hotel when they first arrived. and bring them back in the morning to continue their walk on the Camino. But they did not operate a taxi service back-and-forth. However, the woman who picked us up when we first arrived told us that if we needed anything after she left for the day at 4 PM, the owner didn’t speak English. But we were welcome to call her and she would gladly assist us. So I called her. The background when she picked up was only slightly less noisy than the taxi driver’s. But without hesitation she told me she would be there in five minutes.

Two minutes later she called back saying that the owner of the hotel would be along to pick us up instead, Explaining that she had had a couple of drinks and so was unable to do so.

A couple minutes later a late model Mercedes pulls up. The owner is kind and laughs with us at the fact that the only taxi service in town is not available tonight. We get back to our room and I decide I’m entirely too tired to keep all of you updated on our travels. And so it is that we finally get to sleep.

Walking vs. Volunteering on the Camino de Santiago

Some of you may know, just before meeting my dad in Pamplona to start our Camino, I spent the previous week volunteering in the pilgrim office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP), France. Many people begin their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in that town. They walk into our small office thinking we are there just to sell them their Camino credential (passport) and give them their first Camino stamp. I did both of those things for 60 to 90 pilgrims every day. But in addition, we give them a list of all of the pilgrim accommodations along the 500 mile journey, an elevation map, and go over with them—in detail—the route for their first day (because it is the hardest day of the entire Camino and we want to do our best to prepare them). In addition, I answer any and all questions they have (to the best of my ability). I would get questions about accommodations, safety, food, alternative transportation, pack transfer services, my own Camino experiences, and many other things. But it was made clear to me in the six pages of instructions I received via email a month before I arrived: my number one job was to reassure people. Which now makes so much sense to me. Deciding to walk any portion of the Camino to Santiago is a big decision, and to finally arrive at your starting point, the thing that people most want (though they may not realize it) is reassurance.

It takes most pilgrims 3 to 4 days to walk from SJPDP to Pamplona. Therefore, I knew that the people I was checking in on Friday and Saturday were ones that I might see again—as I was going to take the bus to Pamplona to meet my dad to start walking the following Wednesday.

And here we are. . . nearly every day it happens that someone smiles at me and then pauses and looks quizzically. Some recognize me right away. Others are not sure where they’ve met me before. One young man saw me, Dad, and Patricia having dinner in Estella. He came over to us to specifically thank me for helping him at the start of his journey. It turns out he had been sitting at the table next to us that night, and after sharing his thanks he gave us the rest of his bottle of red wine before he headed back to his hostel for the night.

Last night, Marjorie approached me thanking me for my help before she began her journey. It was now the last night of her one week walk on the Camino, and she shared with me the details of her challenging first day, and how proud she was of what she had accomplished.

Many people who have volunteered on the Camino told me, before my first time volunteering, that volunteering along the route was even better than walking it. Having volunteered twice so far, I completely understand the sentiment. But I might change it to say that even better than walking or volunteering is doing a hybrid of both. Getting a chance to see the people that you were able to help is quite an incredible way to experience the Camino to Santiago!

Camino Vignettes

Just a few things from my first day on the Camino with Dad:

We fill Dad’s water bladder by pouring cups of water into it from the bathroom sink. (Why he doesn’t just hold it under the faucet, I’m not sure.)  “You know how to use this thing?” I ask.  “No,” he says. I had thought his friend John, who lent it to him, was going to show him how  how to drink from it. “I’ve never figured out how they work,” I told Dad. “I think you need to bite on it to get the water out.” He does so. It works. Camino challenge #1: Mastered.
At the start of the day, I encourage Dad to step into a crosswalk with me, knowing the Spanish stop for pedestrians. “Probably not good luck for them to kill a pilgrim anyway,” I say.

As we walk through town passing Spanish folks Dad asks,  “How do you say good morning?” “Buenas días,” I tell him. Dad says it to the older man approaching us. The man says something back. “What did he say back?” Dad asks me. “The same thing you said to him!” Learning Spanish may be a little too much for Dad. We’ll focus on the walking instead:)
One hour later, after he drinks from the tube attached to his water bladder, Dad says, “Can we put ice in this thing?“ He decides to ask for some in the next town.  “It’s called yay-lo in Spanish,” I tell him. I decide not to tell him how to spell it (h-i-e-l-o), as that will only confuse him. He practices. I tell him  “That was Lois’ favorite word on the Camino. She’d always get a lemon soda with ice everywhere we went. To this day, I think she still remembers how to say ‘with ice.’” “You can just ask for it for me,” Dad says. (Further support for aforementioned idea of nixing Spanish lessons for Dad on this trip.)
We meet two strapping young lads from France. Dad says he’s probably three times as old as they are. “How old are you?” they ask Dad. He asks them to guess. They start in the 50s. And take four more guesses to get to 71. I think, “I doubt I had a  clue as to what a 71-year-old man looked like when I was their age” but decide to hold my tongue. Dad enjoys the fact that he’s the oldest person on the Camino thus far (three hours in at this point). We meet a woman who walked with her 73-year-old mother for 21 days on the Camino last month. But without discussion I know we both don’t count that as she’s not actually here on this very Camino at this very moment.

Gloria Morgan: Revealed

As she promised in her Christmas card,  yesterday on our first anniversary, Gloria Morgan revealed herself to us. (For those of you that don’t know anything about the Gloria Morgan saga,  I highly recommend you click here to read the start of this story before going any further.)

In true Gloria Morgan fashion, I will keep you in suspense a little longer by first telling you some facts I learned about this illustrious character:

1. Gloria Morgan is the brainchild of not one, but two people.

2. This couple came up with the idea after seeing that one could send us messages on our wedding website. “Let’s ask some funny questions,” one of them said to the other. They started brainstorming and came up with so many questions that, beginning four months before our wedding, they actually sent one per week. And the week before we got married? One per day!

3. The aforementioned couple thought it would be at most a few weeks before they started to hear from us about the mysterious messages we were receiving from dear Ms. Morgan. They were very disappointed to arrive at our wedding not having heard a single mention of her. So disappointed were they, they told their secret to some of our guests—they just had to get it out!

4.Our couple were both dismayed and delighted to read the blog post that finally came out telling the Gloria Morgan story to the world. Dismayed to learn that Michael and I had deleted so many of the messages as they came in. Delighted to see how much entertainment they were providing to so many people who wanted to help us solve this mystery.

5. After the New York wedding celebration, when Michael and I started making phone calls accusing people of being Gloria Morgan, we contacted this couple and they denied it. Many of the other relatives that we contacted that day also knew about it, but denied to us any knowledge of what was going

6. The name Gloria Morgan was indeed chosen due to the Vanderbilt connection. For those of you that don’t know, there is a Vanderbilt mansion in my hometown of Hyde Park, New York.  I grew up flying kites on their lawn. As a teenager, I regularly played their Steinway piano. Not because we were friends of the family, but because it was and still is a National Park located just seven minutes from my parents’ house. There is also a Vanderbilt mansion in my current locale of Asheville, North Carolina. The gentlemen who built these mansions, Frederick and George Vanderbilt respectively, were uncles of Reginald Vanderbilt. Reggie married Gloria Morgan, and they soon became the parents of Gloria Vanderbilt, who, I was shocked to see, died today at the age of 95. “She was hanging on for the big reveal,” one of our co-conspirators said.

Speaking of big reveals, Gloria Morgan continued to show off her creativity by revealing herself to us in a video that she emailed to us yesterday. 

A public thank you note to you, dear Glo:

Thank you for your your humor and creativity. We are very impressed that you were able to keep your secret for this long. And that those you told were able to keep it a secret as well! May you two continue to entertain friends and family for many years to come. We are all blessed to have you in our lives.

With love,
Rebecca and Mitchell

A Camino with Dad: Training (or lack thereof)

When a friend heard my father was going to join me on my upcoming Camino, she said, “So your father is in good shape, then.”

“Um . . . not exactly,” I said, “He eats donuts for breakfast and hot dogs for lunch.”

“So is he pretty active at least?” she asked. I pause. “He definitely has a lot of energy,” I say, thinking to my husband Michael’s description of my father: I wouldn’t say he’s like a monkey on crack, but just a little bit less than that.

It is true that when dad’s awake, it’s rare that he’s not moving. This is the man who never took a cab in all our visits to New York City. “Forty blocks? We can walk that!” At which point he’d take off like we were in a power walking competition. Except that was his natural pace.

“So have you got him on a training program?” she asks. “Well, about that. . . A few weeks ago, he was opening the pool for the season and fell in. He did something to his foot in the process. Ended up having to wear a boot for a while. Mom told me about the lovely blue and purple color his foot turned. And about the blood that would pool at the bottom of it because he wouldn’t follow the doctor’s order to stay off of it.”

When my mother was telling me about the “pool incident” my dad was, at that moment, in the backyard with a neighbor putting together an outdoor gazebo. He was wearing the boot, at least. But certainly not following doctor’s orders.

“Well, I can cancel all the hotel reservations up to two days in advance,” I told my mother.

“Oh, no, you won’t have to do that,” she said. “He’s definitely going. Even if he can’t walk. He really just wants to see what it’s like and meet all the people. He’d be fine just sitting in a square all day talking to everyone.” I think about this. Despite all the aforementioned activity my father engages in, there is one time per year my dad does some serious sitting: On vacation. At Canoe Island Lodge. He begins the day eating in the lodge, moves to a deck chair to read a book or talk with friends in the shade, moves to the sailboat where he takes up his post in the front corner of the starboard side bench, where he promptly falls asleep (he doesn’t sail the boat–this is the kind of place that pays people to do that for him), then he returns in time to sit down for lunch, and then repeats the reading/sailing/sleeping/eating routine until bed. (His employees don’t believe me when I tell them how he spends his vacation. “He sits? You mean he sits still? And reads? For hours?!” This is a side of him his employees never see.)

Now I realize a man can’t stay standing all of his waking non-vacation hours. There are a few instances per day when Dad sits.

  1. When he’s driving. But only because we haven’t yet gotten to the point that one can drive while standing.
  2. When he eats. Sometimes. But if he’s actively engaged in conversation during said meal, he’s waving his arms around like any good Italian. Thus even when sitting, he exerts lots of energy.
  3. When he’s on a serious phone call–by which I mean one in which he’s placing an ice cream order or trying to resolve an issue with a bill he’s received for his Dairy Queen. In which case he sits hunched over with both elbows on a desk, holding the phone to his ear with one hand, holding his head in the other, saying something like, “Let me speak to your manager’s manager.” (For a long time there was a rumor that when he calls Pepsi and they pull up his account, it says, “Give this man whatever he wants. Don’t argue with him. We’ll fix it later.” A friend later went to work for Pepsi and confirmed this was indeed the case. Except the language is a little stronger.)

But the question remains: Does Dad have enough energy to walk twelve to fifteen miles per day for seven consecutive days? Some may think I’m trying to kill my 71-year-old dad by requiring this amount of exertion (by “some” I mean my sister Jessica, who asked me the other day if this trip is a plot created by my mother and I to get Dad’s life insurance money).  Let me be clear: Dad wanted to do this trip. There was no cajoling on my part. When asked, I’ve always confirmed that he could indeed physically manage to do it. Mainly because I’ve met 87-year-old men walking the Camino. And if they can do it, I imagine my father can.

And no, I don’t require twelve to fifteen miles per day, either. I initially planned that Dad and I would do ten miles per day max. But when I told him this one night last month the conversation went something like this:

Dad: Only ten miles? I thought we were walking 100 miles in a week!

Me: I thought we were doing 100 kilometers. (60 miles)

Dad: How far do you usually walk every day when you go?

Me: Twelve to fifteen miles.

Dad: Then that’s what we’re doing.

I’m consoled by the fact that there are companies that will carry our packs from town to town. And if we’re sick of walking, usually one can find alternative transportation to get to their destination. And we’re only walking together for a week, so really, how much training does one need? On July 10, we’ll find out.


A Movie and A Walk

December, 2011

The first time I saw the movie “The Way” I was with my mother at an independent movie house in New Paltz, NY. Originally, my father was supposed to come with us, but I got mad at him about something (I don’t recall what) and when he asked if I preferred he not come, I thought that a good idea. I regret it to this day.

At the end of the movie, my mother asked, “Do you still want to do it?” By “it” she meant walk the Camino de Santiago–the subject of the aforementioned movie. “Absolutely,” I said.

May/June 2012

The second time I saw the movie “The Way” was a mere six months later.  I had just finished walking what would become the first of many journeys on the famed thousand-year-old pilgrimage route. My walk was over, but I was not yet home. I sat in the living room of a post-Camino retreat space outside Muxia, Spain with a few strangers as the familiar opening scenes of the movie played out on the television screen. Martin Sheen’s assistant tells him he’s missed a call from his wandering-the-planet son, played by Emilio Estevez. There’s no call-back number. The son is somewhere in France, she says, and it’s in that moment that tears spring to my eyes. My poor parents! I thought. Yes, I left them with a day-by-day itinerary of my proposed walk. Yes, I emailed them. First to tell them I was on schedule. Then to tell them I wasn’t, and how far off I was. But in all honesty? I had no idea how far I’d be able to walk each day, if I’d be able to stick to the schedule I gave them. In fact, I think I told them I might not. My plan was really no plan at all: to walk until my body told me it was time to stop for the night

I tried to email every day, but sometimes I didn’t have access to a computer from which to do so. So sometimes my parents went two or (oh my poor parents) three days without hearing from me.

I was also, at that point, writing posts for BustedHalo.com about my trip. But my mother later told me, “I knew they posted those a couple days after you sent them, so just because one went up online didn’t mean anyone necessarily heard from you that day.”

How did my father get through all this? I’m not sure. I’ve never asked. But my mother? Thank God she’s religious. “I just went to sleep each night and put it in God’s hands,” she told me. Well, if that’s not faith, I don’t know what is.

June, 2012

The third time I watched “The Way,” I was in my parents’ living room with both Mom and Dad. Every few minutes Dad would say, “Is this what it’s really like?” And I’d pause the movie to answer Dad’s questions or tell them a story from the place that had just flashed across the screen.

“I want to do this someday,” my father said. “Do you want to do it, Jean?” he asked my mother. I’m sure she said something, but all I remember is her look which stated clearly, “Nope. I’m good.”

June/July, 2019

This summer I’ll embark on my fifth and sixth journeys along the Camino de Santiago. In June, I’ll go back to Figeac to continue from where I left off on the Via Podiensis route in France two years ago. After a week or so of walking, I’ll head to the Pilgrim Office in the tiny town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to volunteer for one week. And on July 9, I’ll head to Pamplona to meet my walking partner for the next week: my dad.

Mom, in my opinion, is getting something I know she’ll enjoy: some time to herself. Dad? I’m not sure if he knows what he’s getting himself into. I’m not sure know what I’m getting myself into. But maybe it’ll make up for denying him that trip to the movies eight years ago. Maybe not. But at least we’ll have some great stories to tell.