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

Day 35: Andrew Suzuki

 

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(Note: Andrew Suzuki is a documentary film maker from Australia, but is more or less a citizen of the world. I had the good fortune to meet him last November in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.)

Me and Andrew Suzuki, one of those random camino moments when everything lines up perfectly.

Me and Andrew Suzuki, one of those random camino moments when everything lines up perfectly.

Dear Andrew,

So there we were having dinner just a few hours after a completely random, happenstance meeting earlier that day halfway across the world … the conversation flowed here and there, as did a bit of Spanish wine, we shared some laughs, a few deep thoughts, then out you came with an idea that makes more sense than anything I’ve heard in a long time. It took me aback, quite frankly.

Simple, yet brilliant. Creative clarity. From the standpoint of journalistic entrepreneurship, it may be the most profound thing I’ve ever heard. Someone suggested this idea to you, and now you have me rethinking everything.

“If you’re going to invest a good part of your soul, your time, and your resources into one project, you might as well create two things from it.”

Thank you for teaching me the Double-Bang Theory. Now why hadn’t I thought of that?

***

I was camino starstruck from the moment you walked into the bar that morning. “Should I talk to him? Should I say something? It will be so humiliating if he blows me off …” I know it’s silly, but it’s true. I’ve been a fan of your creative work for a long time.

But it was almost like old friends from the first moment. Isn’t it both amazing and wonderful how the camino bridges such gaps for us? Thank you for joining us at our table that morning, and for making me feel so special.

To be quite serious for a moment, your work is amazing. Both series, Beyond the Way and Don’t Stop Walking are more than just timely and familiar subject matter. They are some of the most thoughtful creative works of art I’ve seen. I don’t say that to many folks, but you and Annie O’Neil (Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago and Phil’s Camino) have been positive influences in my own creative aspirations.

But you bring something different to the table, you scoundrel.

Andrew was the fourth recipient of our five Phil's Camino patches provided by Annie O'Neil.

Andrew was the fourth recipient of our five Phil’s Camino patches provided by Annie O’Neil.

This blend of genuine love and ornery irreverence you have for pilgrimage produces a creative tension as I’ve never seen. In certain moments I don’t know whether to give you a hug or a piece of my mind. Seriously.

But that, my friend, is a trademark of some extraordinary creative storytelling.

I come back to this quote repeatedly as I think about the work we both pursue and I share it frequently. The great Southern author Pat Conroy said, “The most powerful words in the English language are, “…tell me a story.'”

Thank you for entertaining me and for educating me. Thank you for your gracious manner and for sharing a cup of cafe con leche with us that morning, and dinner that night.

And thank you for teaching me that if I’m pouring everything I have into one thing, there might as well be two things.

Don’t tell anyone, and just between you and me, but I’m doing that very thing right now.

Keep telling the story, my friend.

Your fan and admirer,

Steve Watkins

 

Day 32: Phil Wilson

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Dear Phil,

For the longest time that late afternoon I thought I might be the only pilgrim at the albergue in Villamayor de Monjardin. Then after a bit of a long trek you walked in.

It was more a nonchalant saunter, actually. I liked you immediately.

That's cool Phil Wilson (second from left) sipping a warm drink on a cool morning in Los Arcos.

That’s cool Phil Wilson (second from left) sipping a warm drink on a cool morning in Los Arcos.

As the placed filled up, it’s funny the two older guys chose the beds closest to the bathrooms. But we made our way on the camino with the best of them didn’t we friend?

It was a pleasure to meet you Phil. I wish we could’ve spent more time together, but alas, that’s how the camino goes, eh? I walked to the albergue where I thought we were to meet in Navarrette the following day, but I must have been mistaken. So we walked on separately, but I thought of you often. Still do.

I so enjoyed the conversation we shared that morning as Tanya walked ahead. We spoke of the things only guys our age understand in certain ways. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. Failures. Wounds. Higher callings. Higher powers. What life’s really about.

Thank you for asking me to tell my story and share my reasons for pilgrimage. I think you may have been the first person to do so.

But thank you even more for what you said (and did) and the conclusion of our walk that morning as you pressed on just before engaging a quicker pace. I’ll never forget  your question.

“Would it be okay if I prayed for you along the camino?” You asked sincerely.

“It surely would. It would be nice to know someone’s doing that out here,” I replied.

Thank you for praying for me,  Phil. It’s one of the nicest gestures anyone made toward me in those 40 days.

When we met, I quickly assessed you as honest and real, genuine and unmasked. I knew you were on a search for something just as I was also.

I pray you found it and carry it with you today.

Blessings to you my UK friend across the way. You’re one of the good guys.

Wishing you a buen camino today and through life,

Steve Watkins

Day 26: Jeannick Guerin

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Dear Jeannick:

I’ve asked lots of people lots of questions. If I told you the number, you probably wouldn’t even believe.

Jeannick Guerin

Jeannick Guerin

But of all the thousands, nothing ever stuck like your response to a question one day within minutes of the  moment we met.

“Why do you think so many people walk the Camino?” I asked, as we sipped coffees at a random bar in Azofra.

“Generally speaking you have three kinds of people: You have the walker who does it as a challenge. You have the person who does it for reasons of faith. Then you have the pilgrim. The pilgrim never knows why he’s on the path, and the path doesn’t go to Santiago. You always stay on the path. It’s people who are searching for something. Once you’re a pilgrim, you stay a pilgrim. That’s bad news for you, mate.”

Not so bad, though I’ll admit some days are better than others, my friend.

I’m still on the path, Jeannick. Thank you for letting me know it’s okay.

Hope you are well.

Walking onward,

Steve Watkins

Day 18: Hans-Georg Schneider

(Note: Hans-Georg is a hospitalero at albergue Casa Paderborn just as you enter Pamplona on the Camino de Santiago. He serves there about a month each year and it’s my good fortune I passed through in each of the last two years when he was there.)

Dear Hans-Georg,

It was such a pleasure to see you again last October as Dana and I began our camino in Pamplona. Thank you for allowing me to reserve two beds several weeks in advance of our trip. It pays to know people in high places!

Departing Casa Paderborn after a good night's sleep in Pamplona. That's Hans-Georg (right) and Heinrich. Fortunately, I lost nearly 30 more pounds after that photo. Ha.

Departing Casa Paderborn after a good night’s sleep in Pamplona. That’s Hans-Georg (right) and Heinrich. Fortunately, I lost nearly 30 more pounds after that photo. Ha.

Before we arrived I shared with Dana the kindness you and Heinrich showed me in 2015. I will always remember it as one my most special camino experiences – especially the morning over breakfast when you both permitted me an interview and we discussed “camino magic” at great length. What a wonderful and enlightening conversation.

That discussion, you should know, created a change in direction for my spirit on the pilgrimage, and stayed with me all the way to Santiago.

You are one of the kindest and most pleasant men I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I hope you will know of my great gratitude for your help to a weary pilgrim not once, but twice, and for always making me feel at home.

When you can make someone feel at home, that is a special gift, indeed. I treasure your gift for hospitality.

Many blessings to you, and a buen camino, my friend.

Your’s truly,

Steve “High Roller” Watkins

Day 3: Nate and Faith Walter

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Dear Nate & Faith:

It was such a pleasure meeting you both in Santiago de Compostela last November. Lucky for us Dana made us keep searching the narrow, crowded streets, and that we finally came upon you at Pilgrim House.

I had my reservations. Not sure why, but I did. I thought Pilgrim House might be some mystic out-of-the-way place, the smell of incense burning from the back, full of strange people I wouldn’t connect with all discussing their karma and listening to tracks of buddhist chant music playing about. I’m not sure why I presumed that, but I did, and not that it would’ve been the end of the world. It’s just not my comfort zone. Of course, to my great pleasure, it wasn’t, and to our great fortune, we had the pleasure to meet you both.

Thank you for being so kind to us, for washing our clothes, for help with all the logistical questions and directions, and for taking an interest in our camino experience. It was intriguing to hear your stories, too, and the idea for how Pilgrim House launched. When we got home, I did more research on your affiliate agency and was completely struck by ITEAMS’ promotional material tagline.

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You had me at “Things are not alright.”

It’s a special thing when people who are passionate about finding their purpose, are also the kind of people who can successfully face the odds for all that it takes to make it happen. When those two qualities come together, stuff gets done.

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Faith and Nate Walter

It’s so amazingly wonderful that you’ve recognized this practical way to show people the gospel in a culture where life is lived out in the Spanish cafes and bars. You’re not telling people the Good News. You’re not preaching at them. You’re showing them how it’s done! What you’re doing, where you’re doing it is SO important. Brokenness exists along the Camino de Santiago like a train wreck. There’s woundedness from the Pyrenees to the sea.

But dreaming is one thing. Getting it done is a different order altogether. You beat the odds with all the challenges presented in a different culture and you never quit. Well done, my pilgrim brethren. Well done.

I think of Pilgrim House and pray for it almost every day. I think about the pilgrims passing through your doors, what they’ve just experienced, how they’re beginning to process it, and what they’ll do with it all from that important moment. And I think about the great opportunity you both have as the very first part of their transition. “WOW” comes to mind as I think about the latter.

Dana and I hope to come and volunteer with you some day sooner rather than later. We hope you have a great 2017. Until then, we send our most heartfelt wishes and a buen camino on your mission.

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