Day 88: Marie Celton

Dear Marie,

One of life’s great joys is the time we sometimes take reflecting on friendships and the circumstances bringing them together. But for a change in occurrence here or there, a different route taken, a departure or arrival of a moment’s difference, our life is forever altered in the people we meet.

And I’m so happy that we met, you and I.

As fate would have it, three of us elected to spend an extra two euros for a lower bunk that night. That was money well spent. You and Barbara from Germany were my companions for the night. Too bad about all those bedbugs she’d encountered the night before.

I’d never heard of Reunion Island. When you described your home there I slipped away a moment to locate it. Maybe you do have a house there. Maybe it is an occasional resting place. What I see so clearly now is that you’re truly a citizen of the world.

It’s so enjoyable watching your travels here and there. It takes a special person to travel solo. We must eliminate the fear. Remember our conversation that day? There was such wisdom in the things you said. My prayer is that you are finding the answer to life’s greatest questions. At least you are looking. Not everyone has the courage to go looking. Keep looking, Marie.

I hope you are smoking fewer cigarettes (which was one of your purposes for camino) and the plastic bag addiction is long a thing of the past. Ha!

You were one of the loveliest walking partners with whom I enjoyed time on the Way. Thank you for sharing your time.

Love and admiration always,

Steve Watkins

 

 

 

 

 

Day 85: David Landis and Anna Dintaman Landis

Every morning’s typical breakfast routine, planning the day ahead and thinking just a bit about tomorrow.

Dear David & Anna,

Everyone approaches things differently, I suppose. Some people try planning every detail as much as possible. Others go at it knowing almost nothing. Getting ready to solo walk 40 days across a country, I wanted a balance somewhere between the two. Your guidebook was the perfect planner.

It may be true that anticipation of an experience like pilgrimage is one of the very best parts. As part of my anticipation, I searched all the popular guidebooks and chose yours as my companion before, and during, the walk. It seemed it had everything a person could need.

Adventurers and authors, David and Anna Dintaman Landis

Reading through the sections in the weeks before departure, your descriptive narratives, elevation charts, beautiful photos, and historical sidebars only increased my excitement. If the trip was as good as the book, I was bound for a great experience. Just before departure, we purchased two additional books for my wife and mom, and for their own daily account of my progress across the Iberian peninsula. Dana carried hers a year later in 2016.

On arrival, and from Day 1, the guidebook was among my top three most valuable possessions. There was a quick routine study every morning, lunchtime, and just before bed. Your work became a trusted daily planning tool, and even remedied a few jams along the Way.

I still have it. It survived a nearly white-out, seven-hour blizzard down O Cebreiro, the constant dampness across the Basque countryside, and even a few accidental spills of a refreshing second-breakfast San Miguel. Dog-eared, worn, and crinkled from so many wet-dry-wet cycles, it sits on the bookshelf as a prized, trophy-possession of perseverance and the best of times with new friends and great adventures.

Thank you for your gracious endorsement of my own book due out in a few months. It’s such an honor. In a different sort of way, I hope it contributes something just as special to the body of literary works dedicated to the place that means so much, to so many.

Buen camino, y vaya con Dios.

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

Day 78: Trudy Ramirez

“No story is a straight line. The geometry of a human life is too imperfect and complex, too distorted by the laughter of time and the bewildering intricacies of fate to admit the straight line into its system of laws.” ~ Pat Conroy

Dear Trudy,

Sometimes, the most unassuming people are the ones who quietly and unexpectedly command your attention. Oftentimes, they’re the ones who make the real difference.

Such was the case with you as you became the first person I “followed” across the Way of St. James. It was invigorating coming along on your journey as you told your story from the inside out.

You weren’t looking for attention. But you surely got it.

Trudy Ramirez, who shortly after her pilgrimage, made a bold move for a new life in France.

Every day, hundreds of us checked the status for Trudy Ramirez. How far did she make it today?  Did she hold up across those mountains? I hope last night’s bad sleep didn’t affect her too much … We knew you’d tell the story exactly as it happened with no sugar-coating and, moreover, that we’d get a strong sense of it all from your soul. That’s what drew people to you, Trudy. You weren’t just story telling. You were soul telling. You brought us along.

My walk began two short months after yours, so it was exciting reading your daily accounts. But there was more to it than just enjoying your story. Your attitude did much to shape the manner in which I’d ultimately tell my own. For some, telling the story is as much a part of pilgrimage as the walk itself. What’s the point of even doing some things if you can’t tell the story? Some of us don’t even know what we think until we see it in the written word. It’s just how we process life. Occasionally our own therapy is working for an unknown greater good. That’s how your story worked for me.

Thank you for your transparency, and for telling the story your way. It’s safe to say I’m not the only one you impacted. Your footsteps made a lasting imprint on so many hearts.

Ultreia.

Your fellow seeker,

Steve Watkins

 

 

 

Day 76: Michael Duff

 

(Note: In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a short interview with Michael Duff, one of my favorite Irishmen on Camino.)

Dear Michael,

Irishman Michael Duff in one of my favorite photos from Camino 2015.

It was a cool and breezy morning still some 10 kilometers to the day’s destination in Santo Domingo, a landscape of open countryside, rolling hills, vineyards and young fields of grain as far as the eye could see.

Taking a seat on a patch of green grass I’d decided to rest me legs for a wee bit before the final trek into town. Your friend Joe already passed by with a kind word and a smile but he clearly had more walking on his mind.

You paused for a drink and we shared our stories. Before we knew it we were speaking as old friends. No, there are no rigid boundaries on the camino. We are all one family.

Thank you for one of the most refreshing conversations on the Way.

May neighbours respect you, trouble neglect you, the angels protect you, and Heaven accept you!

Day 66: Maite Sobrón

Dear Maite,

It was a lovely Saturday for walking. The poplar trees stood reaching for the azure sky, golden and majestic, full of glory, leaves rustling gently in an easy western breeze. The late November weather was cool, but not cold, much as it would’ve been back home, and walking into Nájera my mind transported momentarily 4,000 miles west.

My imagination could practically smell the barbecue grills firing up for Saturday afternoon tailgates and SEC football games. It would be a good day to stop short, I reckoned, and enjoy a Saturday afternoon relaxing in your sweet Spanish town.

As I walked hesitantly inside Puerta de Nájera just a few minutes after noon, the furnishings practically said “welcome home.” You carried a mop and bucket working feverishly just behind the stairs and I noticed one young German pilgrim nursing his heavily bandaged wounds on a couch in a quaint sitting area. A world map showed pins across the globe representing sojourners just like me. I made my mark a world away in Northeast Arkansas.

You practically ran to meet me at the counter.

“Si! Si! Estamos abiertos,” you replied with a comforting smile negating my concern you might not yet be open. “Es su casa. Bienvenidos.”

“Es su casa.” Such sweet words.

After quickly recording my passport number and stamping the credencial you insisted to carry my pack and muddy shoes upstairs. “Tranquillo,” you insisted.

I chose a bunk, enjoyed a long leisurely hot shower and shave and returned downstairs smelling almost normal just to sit and relax a bit. You poured a glass of wine (and actually I think you left the bottle on the table) asking if there was anything else you could do. I remember the white wine’s sweet, succulent taste … and I don’t even like wine. It felt so good to feel at home.

The day passed and you treated every pilgrim who walked in the door just as you’d treated me. Bright smiles. Hugs. One of the most genuine welcoming spirits I’ve seen anywhere.

The couch in the sitting room felt so nice I could hardly move. It was honestly the most comfortable I’d been in two weeks. As you dimmed the lights just before midnight you walked over again with a soft blanket and extra pillow.

“You can sleep here if you like,” you said, “and if it’s more comfortable. Es su casa.”

You had me at “sleep here.”

The seven hours that followed on that couch was among the most wonderful nights I spent on the Way. I’m not sure I felt more welcome, or more at home, anywhere on Camino.

I’ve told so many pilgrims since that one of the nicest, most hospitable people you’ll meet on the Way runs a nice, neat albergue in Nájera. Her name is Maite Sóbron.

Thank you for taking such good care of me, Maite. When I think of the Way, I think of you.

Bendiciones, mia hermana y amiga.

A grateful pilgrim,

Steve Watkins

 

 

Day 65: Hanne Pelletier

Hanne's work depicting one of our favorite scenes along the Ecuadorian coast near the town of San Lorenzo.

Hanne’s work depicting one of our favorite scenes along the Ecuadorian coast near the town of San Lorenzo.

Dear Hanne:

It’s been said our memories are best described as selective pictures in our mind’s eye. No one really knows how or why certain “pictures” go into, and remain, in certain files. A great and wonderful mystery, oftentimes our memories.

Thank you for making tangible, some memories I’m just not willing to forget.

Hanne Pelletier, who I worked with for a bit in the publishing industry, and creator of two original works of art in our home.

Hanne Pelletier, who I worked with for a bit in the publishing industry, and creator of two original works of art in our home.

Three Christmases ago I remember wondering what gift Dana might possibly enjoy in a lasting way. Some of the crazy memories we’ve created with one another are the best gifts we’ve exchanged during seven years, so I asked your idea about capturing a memory from the special times we’ve shared together in South America.

The artwork you created replicating a favorite scene along the Ecuadorian coast now hangs prominently in our bedroom, a reminder of the times we sorted through some new directions in our life.

She loved the gift, and I loved giving it to her.

The Way of St. James, near Palas de Rei.

The Way of St. James, near Palas de Rei.

Last year, Dana used your talents to help me permanently recall an extraordinary experience in my own life. Your rendering of the Camino de Santiago from a photo I took just past the village of Palas de Rei is now displayed in direct line of sight from my favorite easy chair. It’s one of the first things I see drinking coffee each morning. One of the last things I see before bed each night.

The pleasure your work gives me each day just can’t be measured. The Camino rendering bearing your signature reminds me of fundamental things about life, and I need those reminders.

I’m so glad God gave you a creative talent that brings such joy into people’s lives, and so happy you’ve been willing to share that gift with us on occasion.

Thank you for helping us preserve the memories we’ve made.

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

Day 59: Barbara Kriesel

Dear Barbara,

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-4-52-36-amWe’d crossed paths on occasion but never spent much quality time with one another until that overnight in Terradillos, just short of the Camino’s halfway point. My new friend Marie and I were captivated with your story from just a few nights before when you encountered an experience every pilgrim fears. Chinches. You showed us the evidence: a half-dozen moderate to severe bedbug bites, the red, swollen marks along the arms, ears and neck now insufferably itchy and a constant painful distraction.

But it was the story you told as we walked together the following day on that beautiful, crisp fall morning that really got my attention.

Barbara Kriesel

Barbara Kriesel

Nearing your sixtieth birthday, you’d experienced a series of illnesses in recent years that resulted in a complete energy depletion. Doctors said you had about 10 percent the energy of an average person your age. Determined for a remedy, you traveled from home in Germany to Sri Lanka for promising non-traditional treatments that, in fact, restored you to new energy levels, near 70 percent. It was enough, you thought, to challenge yourself on Camino pilgrimage, and when we met, you’d already walked more than 250 miles.

You came to the Camino with a simple goal. Just move. That was it. The idea of taking the initiative and putting yourself in a radically challenging situation was satisfying enough early on, but not any more. Your thoughts now turned to more transcendent notions. Alas, attempting the hard thing, and the courage in that decision to try just wasn’t enough.

“It was just about the moving in the beginning, and it was so very difficult crossing the Pyrenees. It took a few more days than I thought to recover, but over time I became more serious about the walking. Now, I’ve gone beyond even that, and my number of days here is limited, but I’ve begun to let myself think about arriving,” you said.

You’d gone from a goal of moving, to a new goal of walking, now, to new purpose – arriving. It’s that certain look a person gets in her eyes when a cause is planted in her heart. Barbara decided she had the wherewithal to finish. I loved seeing that look in your eyes and hearing that tone in your voice. And I love that you finished. Ultimately, Barbara arrived.

Move. Walk. Arrive.

Thank you for a great lesson you shared with me that day, Barbara.

Sometimes, there’s no substitute for the Power of Arrival.

A fellow pilgrim still looking to arrive,

Steve Watkins

 

Day 52: Helen Corbett

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Dear Helen,

It may surprise you, but I’ve reflected on what you wrote so many times. It was just a simple social media post, yet one of the most endearing things anyone’s ever said to me.

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Snow in the elevations at O Cebreiro.

Day 39. I’d walked almost exactly 800 kilometers. Up and over a mountain range. Through cold, rainy wind and lots of mud. One night of delusional fever. There was an eight-hour blizzard. And my lower left shin was visually hemorrhaging blood now. But only one day of hobbling remained.

A friend of a friend sent a message suggesting maybe it would be best to call the whole thing off. Come back and finish another time. Nothing is worth that kind of pain, she said. “You gave it a great effort,” I read her final suggestive words as my blood pressure spiked.

Oh my Lord, someone’s recommending I quit.

Never has a suggestion seemed more hateful in the pit of my gut.

The crossroads where I paused to write on that beautiful Saturday morning.

The crossroads where I paused to write on that beautiful Saturday morning.

Moments after reading all this, I remember pausing for a photo at a Galician crossroads just as the sun peaked over the distant eastern mountain ranges. They were so far away. The fog was burning off revealing the promise of the deepest azure-blue sky for a final Saturday walk. Tomorrow, the prize: Santiago de Compostela.

I sat in some dewy grass and crafted a public response to the idea about quitting. The urge to write was overwhelming. That happens sometimes.

“The very thought of quitting is hateful,” I wrote. “I’ve come this far, gone through this much, walked through this kind of pain to quit one day out? Do I really seem a quitter to you?” My words became unnecessarily defiant and obnoxious now. “I’d crawl all the way through oozing Spanish mud to reach that cathedral tomorrow.”

Now, that was very much NOT what a pilgrim should exude at this point, but it sure felt good.

***

It might be the honor of a lifetime how so many people followed along on that walk. Some actively joined in the conversation over 500 miles. Others just quietly sat back and watched. You fit the latter category, I suppose, until you read that awkward articulation of raw emotion on Day 39.

That night I read what you wrote, and I wept with the sincerest honor I’ve ever experienced. I kept a screenshot of your words so I’d remember them forever.

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Crap, I’m weeping again!

From across an ocean divide you chose me to take you to the cathedral? You chose me???

My walking partner, Naomi, practicing a little physical therapy helping me get through the last three excruciating days.

My walking partner, Naomi, practicing a little physical therapy helping me get through the last three excruciating days.

Aside from my own wife, I don’t think anyone’s ever expressed a sentiment more understanding of my spirit. Yes, hell or high water, we would get there, Helen. I wish I’d known you were along for the journey earlier. I might have been less indignant – a bit nicer even – polished things up a bit more.

I’m not sure if I followed up to share this with you, but the final Sunday of walking was glorious. There was much hobbling and it took about two hours longer than it should have to complete those final 12 miles, but I savored every step, much because of you, and others like you.

In the final steps to cathedral square, the trumpets did resound and I recalled your words. I shall never forget the moment. The cathedral spires appeared just to the left, I walked toward the square’s center, laid down on the cobblestones, and cried. Yes, I’m a crier, it’s true enough.

Lots of people and many things ran through my mind as I lay there after 40 days of walking. But one of them was you, and I thought you should know.

It was the honor of a lifetime taking you on that journey.

Thank you for letting me know you were there.

Your pilgrim brother,

Steve “High Roller” Watkins

 

 

 

 

Day 47: Cathy Spano

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Dear Cathy,

Isn’t it strange the turn society has taken with all its bickering, name calling and insult?It’s as if we’ve lost all civility. We’re in crisis and don’t even know it.

Such a sad “new normal.”

Thinking about this sad state of affairs yesterday took me back to a time that was like medicine for the soul.

Cathy with her beloved granddaughter, Chloe.

Cathy with her beloved granddaughter, Chloe.

In late 2015 I set out for a solo walk across Spain on the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago. For more than a millennia, pilgrims have walked this path for penance, to heal their hurts, as a matter of faith, or just for the sake of a long walk and some thinking time. Most people go it alone and enjoy the quiet. By way of social media, I took several hundred people along for the ride. That wasn’t necessarily the plan. It just happened that way.

You came early, and stayed late. And what a great guest you’ve been.

Some years ago this profound revelation came into my spirit and stayed there for good. Since then, I’ve both welcomed it, and done my best to give it as a gift. Everyone needs a cheerleader. It’s really so simple.

Your enthusiastic words of encouragement and support bought a smile to my face and peace to my soul on many occasions across the Camino and since. There were times when it was really difficult, that walk. Cold. Rain. Mud. Snow. Mountains. Painful injuries. Some people said, “well, maybe you oughta quit.” Not you. You cheered through it all to the end. “You can do this.” Your message was that simple and that on cue. You knew exactly what I needed to hear.

God gives us all certain talents, abilities and gifts. When it comes to doling out the gift of encouragement He chooses a certain kind of person. He chooses the people who will use it with reckless abandon because amongst all the gifts it would be such a terrible one to waste.

Thank you for directing that gift toward me on occasion, and especially across the Way. I’m not sure why you sent your encouragement my way, but I’m surely thankful you did.

A thankful pilgrim still on the path,

Steve Watkins

 

Day 42: Tim from Alaska

(Note: I met Tim two years ago in Leon, Spain, two-thirds across the Camino de Santiago. Like so many pilgrimage relationships, our time together was short, ( I never got his last name) but long enough for a conversation I’ll never forget.)

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Dear Tim,

If you searched long enough I suppose you could find all sorts of quotes with wisdom and grace about woundedness and the healing that may follow. So many will say we’re better and stronger for it all. Even so, we may always have our doubts and wonder … why???

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-4-35-38-amOne thing you learn on the camino is how certain pilgrims have stories that precede them. Just as the pilgrim herds wander slowly across the Way, their stories somehow become a part of everyone’s experience, and the focal point of their respect.

I’d heard your story from others. So thankful to hear it from you.

The magnitude of your loss still resonates.

You’d come walking in a tribute to your wife who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground and drown in six inches of water. In an instant, you and your family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was your best friend.

As you shared the story, it didn’t bother you one bit to let me see how much it hurt.

The honor in your walk was so very evident. You’d brought her spirit with you on pilgrimage. I could see it on your face, hear it in your voice. She was right there. Pilgrimage was mostly for her, not so much about you.

(Above: A short interview with Tim.)

A day later you placed few of your wife’s remains at Cruz Ferro, the place where, for a millenia, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind. I never saw you again, but thought of you often and prayed that some understanding would come, some wholeness might return.

Some time has passed now. The pain may be less painful. I doubt the wound is completely healed, nor that you honestly even have that desire. Whatever the result, I pray you have peace.

I’m thankful you’d share such a personal experience with a stranger who, much like you, seeks the meaning in it all. Our conversation that day was part of an ongoing process for me as well.

Be well, my friend. Keep walking the path.

A fellow seeker,

Steve Watkins