A Focus

I know I wasn’t going to write any more entries until Spain, but a number of you have been asking for more, and I’ve been itching to write them. So here you go – one last entry before the journey begins:

It’s now nearly 24 hours before I embark for Spain. Mom is taking me to Dulles, where I’ll meet Senorita Michelle la Loba and head out for Spain. In Madrid I’ll be picking up another couple pilgrims, before taking the train to Pamplona and crashing (hard) after a long two days of travel. Time zones are not nice to pilgrims (or anyone, for that matter). The next morning we’ll meet for breakfast, and for the first time meet all together as pilgrims. Unfortunately, our preliminary travels don’t end there. After stocking up on supplies in Pamplona (food for the next day, calling cards, etc.) we take the bus up to Roncesvalles, the traditional start to the Camino. Pilgrims have walked through the passes of the Pyrenees and bedded down in the monastery at Roncesvalles for centuries, and now we’ll be joining them. After what I remember as a strange and exciting first night, we hit the road, looking down from the mountains with our sights set on Santiago.

Thinking of that first day makes me smile. The Camino feels like an old friend, one who I can’t wait to meet again. Sure, there are times when I think that it won’t be as exciting, or as fresh – and I’m sure that’s true – but it’s okay. Each journey is supposed to be different, after all. I’m not going to Spain for the same experience I had last year; I’m going to make a new one. What makes me a little uneasy is that I have no idea what it will be.

I thought going into this that I’d know exactly how it all would work, and none of it would really be new. I’m starting to realize that’s not the case. Sure, the Camino itself isn’t that new, and I won’t be nearly as inured with it as I once was. In a way, though, that’s a good thing, because it allows me to shift my focus to something else entirely. Having already seen the meseta waving in the afternoon sun and the fog sliding over the mountains of Galicia, my attention will be elsewhere, perhaps inward. I have no idea where. That’s the scary part. Last year, what I took in were the thousands of amazing memories and new things and experiences. Cathedrals, albergues, Spanish food – all of it new. This year I’ll have already done that. So what will be the focus of my attention? What will make this trip unique? I’m not sure. But I have a good feeling it will be the people, rather than the places or things, that make a difference this time around.

So I’m heading into this with a focus: a simple, centered lifestyle of contemplation and well-being. A little exercise each day, lots of time to think and write, and good people to talk to. I don’t think I could ask for much better. That is my goal – to center myself. Lord knows it’s hard to keep your center in college, and I would like, this summer above all, to do exactly that. That’s part of the reason why I’m not working after I get back home. I need this time to focus myself, to recap all that’s happened in this past year and figure out who I am and how I’ve changed. Luckily, the Camino is good for that kind of thing :)

Of course, if there’s one thing I learned from last year’s trip, it’s that one should leave all expectations behind on the Camino. So I expect things will change, and for the better.

However, none of this is even going to happen if I don’t get out of this chair and get some work done. So, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

I’ll see you in Pamplona. :)

“Keeping to the main road is easy, but people love to be sidetracked.”
~ Lao Tzu (6th century B.C.E.)

Final Preparations

In the past month, I’ve been thinking about….well, thinking. About what I’m going to use my time on the Camino for, and preparing to once again be stripped of all my expectations. I look forward to the long, quiet peace of the road. I long for the time to simply think. But I realized something that made me hesitant. Not only did I want the time to think – I almost needed it. This has been a difficult semester, to say the least. At the same time, it’s been the absolute best of my college career. With so much going on, good and bad, I needed the time to just step back and think. I needed time for myself, for reflection. But it worried me that I felt I needed the Camino, that I would somehow break if I didn’t have that time for reflection. That realization changed my perspective somewhat.

So in the past couple weeks, I’ve tried to shift back to what’s really important, and refocus. And, thank God, I think it’s working. I’ve been so caught up in the stressful craze of this semester that I forgot to take care of the important things first – my spirituality and time for reflection, and then the people I love. I think some of my relationships have taken a blow this year because of me succumbing to the flurry of school and work. There were times I felt like a machine.

Now, I feel like I’m coming out of a haze, and it feels great. I’m finally starting to workout again, and am giving more time to my friends. I’ve also finally found time to relax – my end of the semester crunch is over. So, at last, I don’t feel like I need the Camino. I just greatly look forward to it :) I think I’m going to enjoy it much more because of it.

* * *

“When does your pilgrimage begin?”The room stayed silent after I asked the question, no one quite sure what I was looking for. John hesistantly put forth an answer:

“Right now?”

I smiled. He was right, of course. Our pilgrimage doesn’t begin when we take those first steps out from Roncesvalles. It begins when we arrive in Spain. It begins when we arrive at Dulles or JFK or Miami. It begins as we get into the car, as we leave the house, as we sat in that our last meeting together. It begins weeks ago as we met for the first time. It began, really in all of us, the moment we first heard the word Camino, at the moment it left its indelible imprint on our minds that would change the way we see the world. So pilgrims, your pilgrimage has already started. Soak it up. Breathe. Breathe it all in. Then smile, for you are on one of the greatest journeys of your lives. Just remember that the person who makes the journey is you.

“Traveler, there is no path
paths are made by walking.”

See you in Pamplona.


There is now just little over a month until our departure for Spain. I think everyone is getting more and more excited, and perhaps nervous at the same time. I believe it was Trey who said he was worried about leaving people behind, about what he’d miss. I feel ya, Trey. Last year was scary for me – five weeks was a long time to be gone. I was used to driving home every once and a while, seeing my family on weekends, never being out of touch for more than a day or so. It’s been different since coming back. I don’t have my car this year, so I see my family much less than I’d like. Five weeks no longer seem so intimidating.

But it’s important to remember – and at the same time very hard to – that there are others for who the time passes much more slowly. Though we often don’t realize it, it is harder on those we leave behind than it is on ourselves. Us pilgrims – and anyone who travels abroad – are the lucky ones. For a little while, we get to abandon the everyday rigors of school and work for an entirely different perspective on the world. One life is effectively replaced with another, at least for a little while. That’s what gives travel the impact it has, I think. Echoes of one life resound within the depths of another after you return. We come back and see shadows of another world. Shadows, perhaps, that aren’t that dark. Sometimes, as was the case with me, they are beacons to guide the way. Even now (perhaps especially now, preparing once more to do the Camino), those brief memories and shadows of those five weeks in Spain serve as reassuring pillars for me to lean on. I remember what it was like to focus on the simple things in life, to spend hours thinking on the trail. It encourages me, and I strive to have that here at home.

But not everyone gets a Camino. For those we leave behind, their lives suddenly have a giant gap in place of where we once were. And for us who are off having grand adventures, we often forget that there are people missing us at home. A phone call once a week, an email here and there, and we think we’re keeping in touch. But we really aren’t. Our loved ones can’t fill that gap with the same kind of adventures we can. For them, five days pass between phone calls. For us it seems like minutes.

So I guess what I’m saying is, keep those you left behind in mind when you embark upon a new journey. I particularly am going to try to remember this, for this year five weeks seems like nothing. But for my family, my friends, and my significant others, it is still a long time. Fortunately, it does get easier each time I do this. Mom and Dad and Jackie have come to realize, I hope, that no matter how long I’m gone, I’m always coming home.

I’m not as scared of change anymore. As long as I keep my friends and family in mind, and really keep in touch with them in a way that is meaningful, I won’t be missing anything. I’ll be right there with them as changes happen. Perhaps the Camino makes this harder, but not really. A meaningful phone call here and there, where you’re not just catching up on the week’s events, but actually talking about emotions, fears, wishes – high hopes and quiet concerns :) – is all it really takes.

So don’t worry, Trey. Don’t worry pilgrims, adventurers, wanderers of the world. Just remember the people behind you, the people that helped make you who you are. Do that, and suddenly your journey no longer seems quite so solitary.


I lost 17 lbs. on the Camino last year. I was so happy the first time I stepped on that scale. That’s not the point of the Camino, of course, but it’s an unavoidable – and extremely pleasant – benefit. This year I look forward to the same, except I plan on doing light exercise to keep up my muscle mass. And this year I’ll have an added incentive – I will have professional records of all my physiological statistics for the entire length of the trip.

Michelle W. has gotten national funding to study various vitals and physiological data of the entire group as they progress along the Camino, tracking certain statistics and seeing how they change over time. What this means for us, however, is a precise record of our physical progress along the way, so we can see exactly how our bodies are improving as they go. This I’m very excited about.

As with all things, though, this comes with an element of ‘quiet concern’ – logistics. There’s a lot to do in respect to the study. Blood tests, food diaries, and wearing monitoring equipment while walking. However, I’m already over the lab rat feeling, and what you just read makes it sound a lot worse than it actually is. Michelle is trying to make the study as unintrusive as possible, and doing an excellent job given the circumstances. My only remaining concern is actually that we won’t be able to do the study well enough. I’m a little worried about after León, when the group is no longer together. Uploading the data from the monitoring equipment might be difficult. And yet, I still think we can work it out.

All and all, things are going well. I’m feeling better and better about this year’s trip. I think it will be another amazing summer abroad. As I told the group today, most of my concerns from last week are just fading away, replaced by the sheer…appreciation for the amazing nature of what we’re about to undertake together. And I find myself thinking more and more often about my favorite quote:

Omnis habet sua dona dies.
Each day has its gifts.
~ Martial

An Old Friend

I recently became reacquainted with an old friend. I carried him 500 miles across Spain, and he in turn was my life. Friday morning I pulled him out of the closet once more, and worked out those stiff limbs.

It felt so nice to wear that pack again. I didn’t realize it, but I actually missed the feel of it snug against my back. It really becomes second nature after a while. So packing up the old Camino clothes, filling the Camelbak, tucking a few snacks into the top pouch, and finally hefting the pack with a few adjustments brought back fond memories. I set out the door of my dorm feeling energized and ready to go.

I met Tom by William & Mary Hall and we set out for Lake Matoka, hiking the various trails through the forest. Tom and I talked the entire time. We went out to the Point, which overlooks the lake across from the Matoka Amphitheater. The sun was glittering on the water, and it was a crisp, gorgeous morning. Tom found a tree that some beavers had been gnawing on, and showed me the pattern of teeth marks. The next day we went out again and found even more. It was kind of neat, as I’ve never seen beavers out on the lake.

All in all, it was a great morning, and an awesome way to start a Friday. Michelle W. came with us the next morning, and Elena on Sunday. It made me really happy to get a chance to chat with each of them (although I was really tired Sunday and not much of a conversationalist). I got really excited for Michelle when I realized this was her first trip out of the country, because I remember leaving the U.S. for the first time just last year. I hope her experience is just as awesome as mine was. Elena, I didn’t realize, lived abroad for a while in her youth, and speaks three languages with fluency. So she was telling us different stories over the course of our walk, all of which were neat to hear.

It’s refreshing to hear what this year’s pilgrims have to say sometimes. It brings back memories of my own fears and realizations. Michelle said something that automatically made me smile. She’s starting to realize, she said, that the pack she carries will be all she has for those 5 weeks in Spain, and that’s pretty incredible. I long ago lost that wonderment, and her realization gave me pause. Things like that remind me of what it was like to see it all for the first time with fresh eyes. I hope the pilgrims continue to share their realizations, so that I take none of it for granted. So thank you, Michelle. I suddenly appreciate my old friend a lot more.

Cast of Characters

Time to meet the pilgrims!

Trey Comstock

  • Trey seems like he’s done the backpacking thing before. I hope that this is a new experience for him he can appreciate. His worry is the same as mine once was – what will happen in the five weeks we’re away? What will I miss?

Andrew Cunningham

  • A fellow linguist, Andrew has been in a couple of my classes but I’ve never really gotten to know him. But from the impression I’ve gotten and what I’ve heard about him, he seems like a fun guy.

Kalle Fernandez

  • I met Kalle through my buddy Josh, whereupon he immediately asked, “You went on the Camino last year didn’t you?” I’ve already gotten the chance to know him and he’s an awesome character. Originally from Europe and a fluent speaker of Spanish, Catalan, and a few others, he’ll be a fun and valuable addition to our trip.

Ryan Ford

  • The one I’ll have to slow down :) He seems excited about the challenge, and I hope he takes everything he wants out of it. As I don’t know much about him, I’m hoping he’ll tag along for a walk this weekend.

George Greenia

  • The man who made it all possible. This is George’s fifth pilgrimage – some by bike, others by foot – and second with me. He never loses his good spirit and enthusiasm (except perhaps if you get yourself lost in Logroño). I think we draw on each other for our lively enthusiasm, and it’s nice knowing I have someone to turn to.

Elena Lower

  • I unfortunately didn’t get to learn much about Elena, aside from that she seems fun and excited to go. But I look forward to getting to know her. Elena, come walking with me this weekend so we can hang out!

Michelle Thorne

  • I think Michelle was one of those shifting under the weight of the pack. Hakuna matata, Michelle! She studies both history and hispanic studies – the perfect combination for the Camino – so I expect she’ll take a lot out of this trip, especially if she hangs around George and Tom, the two endless fountains of knowledge.

John Weeks

  • John is the one long-haired guy in the group :) I was giving him a hard time about short hair being more manageable on the Camino. He doesn’t really have to worry though. Anyway he seems like a good sport. I think he said he was a little worried about injuries on the Camino (like most of the students). Another one I hope comes walking so I can get to know him better.

Laura Whittle

  • I met Laura very briefly in George’s office the other day. Her encouraging smiles were nice while I was talking to the group and being slightly nervous. She’s a Russian major, interestingly, so this trip might be pretty foreign to her. I’d be interested to hear what made her decide to come. I imagine she’ll take a lot out of it.

Michelle Wolf

  • Michelle seems slightly nervous about the trip but at the same time lots of fun. She’s a Kinesiology major, and Professor Harris’ official “representative” on the trail. She’ll be helping administer a research project in which we monitor various body functions for the five weeks we’re walking.

Tom Wood

  • The man behind the man that made it all possible. Tom accompanied us last year, helping George rein in us boisterous students. He’s a born trail guide, able to tell you your altitude wherever you are :) Plus, he loves history, and told us as much if not more about Spain’s history and architecture as George. I don’t get to see him that often, so I look forward to walking with him Friday morning.

Danny Hieber

  • That would be me. This year I’m going as the “peer leader,” and am helping George with the logistics of it all. Since I don’t really know what to say here, I’ll just leave it up to you guys to fill it in with comments :)

High Hopes and Quiet Concerns

All the pilgrims met for the first time yesterday. If I thought I was excited before, now I’m ecstatic. We’ve got a really good group of people coming with us. The students are a little nervous, of course, most with some of the same worries I had last year. George and I showed them our packs, let them see what carrying 20 lbs. feels like. A few people gave nervous shifts when they tried them on. But hakuna matata – they’ll be old pros by the end of the first week.

George and I then each gave our own spiel on what to pack and how to do it. We’ve each got our own styles (as does every pilgrim on the trail), so I think we gave them a good look at the different ways to handle their gear. We also went around and asked for the high hopes/quiet concerns of each person. This is always a huge relief for me. George did it last year too, and I think it was one of his better ideas (not that they’re all not great George!).

For me, both my highest hope and biggest concern revolve around the other students. I’ve done this before, so I know what’s going to happen and what to expect (I hope). But the students are the new element; they’re the aspect I haven’t encountered before. I worry about being responsible for them, and that I can give them the same experience that George gave me. I worry about my Spanish (though it is admittably better than last year). Yet at the same time, I’m excited. I’m excited for the chance to pass on what I took from the Camino, and helping each person grow in their own way. I keep my old teacher Mrs. Bryant in mind as the exemplar of how to do this. If ever there was a woman who could impact a student’s life, it was her. I hope I am capable of the same.