Category Archives: Personal thoughts and ideas

Happy New Year!

This was supposed to be my Happy New Year blog, but I was down with the flu for almost three weeks. I don’t think that I have been this sick for this long since I was a boy. And this was even with the flu shot and the pneumonia booster. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without that. Anyway, it’s behind me and life goes on.

We had a lovely Christmas, with three of our children and both grandchildren here for almost a week. I do have to report one tragedy, though. As you may know, Carroll and I have had a long-running grudge match of Spite and Malice (double solitaire) since 1996. She is way ahead of me, 12 years to 5, and had won in both 2011 and 2012 so I was looking forward to a convincing win this year. It was, alas, not to be. On the last day of play in 2012 with us tied and one game remaining, she beat me for another year’s win for the Black team. Now it is 13 years to 5 and it will take me another 8 years, if I win every year, to break even and another year, if I win it, to finally edge ahead. I calculate that to happen in 2022 (if I win every year until then, which I fully expect to do).

Carroll has been off in Florida for the past ten days, visiting with two of her nursing class friends and she reports that they have been having a wonderful time in the Stuart, Jensen Beach and Sebastian areas. She comes home this evening and I am looking forward to her return.

You know from the last blog that I had sent the next book’s manuscript off for first review by an editor and have been waiting anxiously for her response. It has come. A brief synopsis of her comments:

This is a good sequel to A Journey of Days. It is interesting how different the Chemin seems to be from the Camino as described in the first book. It seemed to be less of a mob scene, and somehow more personal. The gites were often quite small, the people running them many times former pilgrims themselves.

The author makes it clear how he needed to complete his journey by following the chemin. One of his topics is why a person walks the Camino/Chemin and there seem to be as many reasons as there are pilgrims. One can walk for religious reasons – a promise made to God, perhaps, or to oneself. In fact, most involve a promise to oneself, but not always for religious reasons.

The lessons learned and relearned at the end of the book cover his insights and conclusions, all of them clear and interesting. The book is written in a style that reports what the author sees, hears, and smells. It is almost as though the reader could close her eyes and be there with him. He reports conversations thoughts and impressions as well, which gives the book depth and body.

As you might imagine, I am very pleased with her take on the manuscript. The next step, which has already started, is to have an editor (the same editor as last book) read the book in detail and suggest corrections, deletions, alternate ways of expressing myself and make the book more readable and the ideas more accessible. This will take several months. After that, the clean text, along with photographs and any appendices, is sent to the book designer who will do the book layout and cover. Another couple of months, perhaps. Then the decisions about quantity to print, pricing, launch date and location and so on. We do know that it will be available in both print and ebook format.
So the rest of the winter and spring will be an exciting time for me.

Meanwhile, back in Canada …

You may well wonder what’s been happening for the past 6 months or so since I finished up in Pamplona at the end of May.  I took the train to Barcelona and met Carroll there, where we had a wonderful reunion, walking along one of the ramblas that lead to the beach, lounging around in an open-air bar on the beach and watching the world go by. Then we caught a flight to Zadar in Croatia, where we spent a couple of weeks, first resting at my sister’s summer home on a tiny island in the Adriatic just off Zadar, then on an interesting car trip up the Dalmatian coast as far as Trieste in Italy.

Our Croatian rental car died there, so we left it and rented another in Trieste to get my sister and brother-in-law back to Croatia, then had to return the car to Trieste and get a bus and ferry back to Zadar.  Once back, we caught a flight that eventually got us back to Ottawa on 22 June. I was glad to be home, kind of. I really want to stay in touch with the people I met during my walk. Two of them, Marcel and Mireille from Strasbourg, visited us here in Ottawa in September. They were the people, you will recall, who told me that I had to have a gite stamp for them when they arrived … and I did! And here it is. You will note that the turtle has a beard and a Tilley hat. This image is because of the Lauzerte bench incident.

gite la tortue

As soon as we returned home, I started work on a new book which will expand on the blog and include the many lessons that I learned while in France and Spain. The manuscript has just gone to the editor for the first stage of review, to be followed – I hope – by detailed editing and publication next summer or early fall.

The other big news is that Carroll made a beautiful five-foot-square quilted wall hanging from T-shirts from a dozen IFMA (International Facility Management Association) conferences from 1990 to 2002. Carroll’s motto: if you are going to go, go big! She had lots of support from me (I did a LOT of cutting) and our daughter Meredith. In late October we hand-carried it to the annual conference held this year in San Antonio, where the wall hanging was donated to the IFMA Foundation for their auction. It raised $1300 for the Foundation. Then the winning bidder donated it to the new IFMA headquarters, so it was a perfect event for us. After the conference Carroll and I rented a car and explored south Texas, new for us, as far as Laredo and Brownsville, visiting friends in San Antonio, Houston and Bastrop, near Austin. Next time, north Texas.

Now we are getting ready for Christmas. We will have most of the family here over Christmas, two daughters, one son, two grandchildren, and some extended family as well. It looks as if I will be doing a lot of cooking, because Carroll is busy in her sewing studio making Christmas presents for folks. I can’t tell you what she’s making because some of them might read this, but I can tell you that I am doing a lot of fabric cutting again.

I was really pleased a couple of weeks ago when we determined that we have sold over 4000 copies of A Journey of Days, 2800 paper copies and 1200 eBooks.

I will keep this blog going, more frequently than every six months. Bye for now and have a great Christmas season. Love each other.

30 May – A Last Day in Pamplona



Victoria (dark) and Patricia (blond)

I arrived here yesterday and I will leave tomorrow for Barcelona, where I will meet Carroll on 2 June. Today the only thing planned is a dinner at the Iruña Restaurant with the two German girls, Patricia and Victoria. They stopped yesterday somewhere short of Pamplona and are coming in today from the north, so we arranged dinner together. The Iruña is where I ate one night in 2007 while waiting for my errant backpack before leaving by foot for Santiago, so I remembered its name and location in the Plaza del Castillo. The Iruña is also a place that Hemingway made famous in ‘A Sun Also Rises’, written mostly here in 1926. Hemingway features on every menu at the Iruña, so they are doing him a reciprocal favour.

I am sitting at a strategically placed table in a cafe at the corner of the Plaza del Castillo. I think that anyone I know will have already passed through Pamplona and will be on their way to their destination. I order a beer and am sipping on it when I spot two guys I know. I cannot for the life of me remember who they are but I catch their eye and they turn and walk in with cries of; “Guy, Guy”. We greet each other with big hugs and then I try to figure out who they are. It takes a while as they give me increasingly obvious clues – it’s like a TV game show, and then I have it.

They are two of the three brothers from Campuac back in late April. The third brother arrived by car with all three wives and in the morning we all walked off on the chemin for a couple of days. They are Pierre and Jacques, the two brothers who are walking all the way to Santiago. Why are they so late to be here? They ought to be at least 100 kilometres farther along the camino by now. It turns out that one of them has developed a sore shin that requires a day off every few days to recuperate, but he is determined to walk all the way, so here they are. They enjoy a beer with me, then leave to walk on for a few more kilometres today to a place called Cizor Menor, five kilometres beyond Pamplona.

I go back to my hotel for a siesta – I am in Spain, after all, then about about 6:30 I walk back to the Plaza to meet the German granddaughters. As I walk across the Plaza, I meet the Dutch woman who had so much trouble with privacy a few days ago, along with her friend who has now joined her. I hope that her issues will diminish as she travels the camino. The gites (albergues in Spain) don’t pay a lot of attention to personal privacy.

As soon as I sit down in front of the Iruña, Patricia and Victoria appear looking radiant in their skirts and their youth. We order a paella for three and cannot eat more than about half of it. It is a bit of a trick since there are whole shrimp in the shell and big pieces of chicken in the paella and we are issued nothing but a fork each, plus one big spoon in the paella. So it is very Mediterranean to pick pieces out of the paella with our fingers, dismembering the shrimp from its shell and using only the right hand of course in the paella. I do hope we all remembered how to clean ourselves using only the left hand.

After dinner we head off just outside the Plaza for ice cream. The ladies insist that since I bought dinner, at my request as an honourary grandfather, that they buy the ice cream. I acquiesce and we all get a variation on chocolate. Mine is chocolate with orange, always a favourite with me. We sit together on a bench and eat our ice cream as I wonder if I will ever see these fine young people again. We exchange offers of a pilgrim welcome if they get to Ottawa or I get to Leipzig. I do hope that it happens.

Eventually it starts to get quite chilly and we reluctantly – at least for me – say goodbye and head off to our various beds. In the morning I leave for Barcelona where I will meet Carroll in a couple of days. I am reluctant to have this journey end, although it must end, as all journeys do, even this magic one we call life.

What have I learned on this journey across France? One of the first lessons is a realisation that, five years ago when I wrote rather smugly in ‘A Journey of Days’ that “There are no new lessons learned, just the same old lessons relearned”, I assumed that the lessons I noted then were all the lessons there were for me to relearn. What I have learned on this journey is that I will keep on learning new lessons or relearning old lessons as long as I draw breath. So I AM both older and wiser now than I was five years ago.

A major lesson is the need to be able to withstand setback and failure. In 2011 I intended to walk from Le Puy en Velay to Pamplona, about 850 kilometres. I walked (and rode) only about 130 before deciding to pack it in and go home. My reason was valid. I thought that I was experiencing potentially serious cardio-vascular problems and the Aubrac plateau was a very bad place to have medical difficulties.

There was often no cell phone coverage and I believed that a minor heart problem there could turn very nasty. All those little jokes about the tasteful little memorial to the Canadian pilgrim (me) didn’t seem quite so funny all of a sudden, especially since I have passed several tasteful little memorials to other pilgrims who died here and didn’t expect to.

Of course you know that the medical community in Ottawa tested me thoroughly and found no underlying cardiac problem, but I do have now and probably had then, diabetes. It is controlled with a pill every morning and a little care with my diet. Like not too much ice cream.

There is a big difference between having a failure and being a failure. Having a failure is a temporary condition, a setback if you like while being a failure is a statement of a life condition. I had a failure last year, but I am not a failure because of it.

There will be many more lessons but I have to think more about them and get them straight in my head. I am too tired right now to do them justice and, since I now accept that there many be lots of new lessons, I am reluctant to miss any. So they will come later.

I appreciate all of you who have kept up with me as I walked and all of you who contributed to a Hospice, either the Hospice at May Court in Ottawa or a hospice wherever in the world you happen to be.

This physical camino is over but the one inside of me is well and strong and will help guide my life. Bye for now.

The austere and lonely life of a pilgrim in Pamplona


Sometimes the pilgrim life is hard to bear. This, however, is not one of those times. This is me enjoying ice cream with my two newly-adopted granddaughters, Victoria (left) and Patricia (right) from Leipzig.

29 May Zubiri to Pamplona – closing the circle

I am up for breakfast in this very nice gite in good time. It is vey strange to be contemplating the fact that this is my last day on the camino, that I will today have completed the 1,500 kilometre journey that I set out on over 5 years ago.

Robert tells me at breakfast that he did not sleep well and that there is a direct correlation between getting up too early (before the lights come on) and the number of plastic bags that one uses in one’s backpack. He quietly identifies several women with whom he will not share a room in the future. He was in a different room from me.

The camino from here to Pamplona runs along a valley which also carries the main highway and traffic north, so we are never out of earshot of the traffic. A German woman, tall, strong, in her early 40s, catches up to me and walks with me all the way into Pamplona. She takes few photos but when she does I recognise the pattern and ask her if she is an architect. She is. Claudia has her own business in her city not far from Frankfurt.

For most of the distance we are on the east side of the valley, running parallel to the highway and quite flat. We cross the highway and do a series of these annoying little hills that the folks in France like to use as the chemin. Then we enter the suburbs of Pamplona and walk through unusually well-marked streets to get to the centre of the city.

When we cross the last bridge before we climb into the old town Claudia turns to me and says; “Well, you are here. How does it feel to be finished?” And the answer is; “Quiet satisfaction” and it is quite true. It is the 29th of May and I have walked about 750 kilometres since the 22nd of April, about 6 weeks. I have been wondering for some time how I would feel, whether I would have the feeling of anti-climax that I had in Santiago five years ago. Happily I don’t.

We walk to the front steps of the Hotel Maissonave where I started in April of 2007 and then I feel completed. The circle is truly closed. Claudia takes a pictuure of me with the hotel sign, I check in, Claudia goes off to find her gite and I send a message home to Carroll and to the Hospice at May Court that I am in Pamplona and the walk is over. And I think; “Not bad for an old guy”.

After showering and changing into clean (cleaner) clothes I go to the train station, get my ticket for Barcelona, visit the cathedral to get my pilgrim passport stamped and head off to the Plaza del Castillo, where I make one tour of the Plaza and see no-one I know. I find a strategically located bar and sit there nursing a beer. Someone comes up behind me and covers my eyes.

It is Mirielle from Strasbourg. She and Marcel join me, then Robert shows up and he joins us. We all enjoy basking in the sun, drinking a beer – somehow they keep coming – until 6 when Marcel and Mirielle go off for some errand. We agree to meet here and figure out where will go for dinner. At 7:30 when they return I haven’t moved. So we decide to eat right here.

There is a little boy somewhere between three and four, black hair, black eyes, round face, wearing a red short-sleeved T-shirt and red shorts playing here just beyond our table. He has a red rubbery thing that looks like a bright red sea urchin and he is kicking it happily back and forth in an open space. He waits if people walk by and then gives it another good kick. I think that there might be a soccer gene and if there is, this little boy has it.

Dinner is about what you might expect in a tourist trap restaurant but it is flavoured with bad jokes in several languages. Mirielle and I speak French and English, Marcel speaks only French and Robert is about 15 percent fluent in French … but it works. After dinner I spot Claudia walking in the Plaza and I catch up to her. She is happy to join us. She speaks German, French and English.

Robert has to be in his gite by 10 – he missed the curfew in Roncevalles and almost got to spend the night outside, so he has been sensitised – and Mirielle and Marcel say goodbye and promise to be in Ottawa in September. I have to have the Thatcher gite stamp ready by then for their pilgrim passports. It is to include an upside-down turtle and a snail. I think there’s a message for me there.

Claudia and I sit for another hour and talk about all sorts of things. I really don’t want this evening to end. Eventually it starts to get chilly and even the Spaniards are starting to leave the Plaza. So it is goodbye to her, with a promise to keep in touch and back to my hotel for a well-earned sleep.

28 May Roncevalles to Zubiri

I am out of Roncevalles very early. The lights come on at 6 AM and there is not breakfast here, so it’s up and out. I have 22 kilomtres to get to Zubiri, from which it is only one more day to Pamplona. It is a little hard to believe.

I have a brief fright just as I get up. I go the window and look out. It is still dark and it looks as if it snowed last night. The ground is covered in white and it is quite cool. It takes a few minutes before I catch on that I am looking at the white stones that cover the inner courtyard. Apparently Natalie’s father makes the same mistake at about the same time. He reports snow, she is sceptical.

The camino here to start is wide, level and paved. Then it runs through a forest and although the sun is up, there is a morning twilight in the forest. Quite an eerie effect.

After about an hour, there is a little roadside cafe where I have coffee with Patricia and Billy, the Irish couple from both coasts of Ireland and with Robert from Toronto. He is ecstatic because he has found his missing meds – in his backpack in a seldom used pocket. The German sisters pass me and one of them, Patricia, shows me a bottle of red wine that she has in a pocket of her backpack. So that is how they have resolved the red wine issue. We agree to drink it later today.

Later in the day I walk out of the woods to a vehicle set up to service the pilgrims. Again this is a good stop and I buy a drink similar to Gaterade. It tastes good and anything to boost energy is great by this time in the day. I am about to leave when Robert appears. He has been lying down, fell asleep on the grass and is walking about looking a bit stunned. Because he is wandering here and acting a bit bewildered, I ask him if he would like me to walk with him the three kilometres down a winding descending path in the forest. He says he would so that’s what happens.

We arrive in Zubiri where I have booked a bed in a gite. Robert comes with me and is able to get a bed there as well. I think he’s lucky, because beds are still pretty scarce. The gite is well done and uses pass-cards to access the dortoirs. That’s a nice touch because the town, with an industrial centre, is big enough to have people capable of theft. The German girls are here, as is the couple Marcel and Mirielle from Strasbourg and their friends from Colmar. We sit outside in the back garden in the sun and drink the red wine that Patricia has carried all the way from Roncevalles or somewhere en route.

Today I was thinking about my emotional state when I was in the gite at Orisson with all the Americans and the fact that I did not much like it. What was going on with that? I think it might have been because for five weeks I have usually been the only native English-speaker and therefore something of a rarity, unique so to speak. And apparently I don’t like being not unique.

But is my uniqueness based on my ability to speak a specific language? Surely not. And the same goes for what I do or did for a living, where I live, my age, sex, religion, and all those other groupings that we humans use to conveniently categorise others. So what makes me unique? What makes me ‘me’ and not anyone else? I thought at first that it must fall somewhere in the relationships that we have with others. But then I recalled that hermits, who may have no relationships with others, are still unique. So that’s not it.

Perhaps my sense of uniqueness is an illusion, created by the individually-focussed society in which I live. Perhaps if I lived in a densely crowded and large country like India, I might not have this sense of uniqueness. So at the moment I don’t have an answer to the question; “What makes me unique?” Perhaps a better question is; “Am I unique and, if so, how?” And an even better question is; “Does it matter that I am or am not unique? Does anything in my life or in my awareness change either way?” Things to ponder.

Later in the dortoir, one guy speaks long and loudly on his cell phone, then talks with his bedmate for another 20 minutes or so. The lights are out and the outside light is fading. The other people in the room are all in their beds, either sleeping or trying to sleep and this rather ignorant guy is either unaware or doesn’t care about the rest of us. I am really tempted to speak out; “Taise-toi” but I don’t. Eventually he gets the message and quits talking. I think he’s Italian.

27 May Orisson to Roncevalles

Today the weather dawns bright and clear. It is quite cool, which is a very good thing since there is a long climb ahead of me. Although I have done the worst (i.e. steepest) part of the ascent, I still have about 20 kilometres to travel and about 600 metres more of climb before I get to Roncevalles. I have breakfast with the group, the language is mostly English, which is a huge change from the last month. I will talk later about the effect on me – it isn’t entirely good.

I see the woman whom I helped yesterday but I don’t know whether she will call for a ride or attempt the next section. From here it looks difficult, even for me after five weeks of steady walking and hill climbing. All those hills over the last weeks are like hills with training wheels. Yesterday’s climb to here was brutal and I know that today’s, while less steep overall, may still have particularly difficult sections. I would give her odds of less than one in a hundred of making it from here to Roncevalles on foot.

So off I go. The part I can see in front of me is a steep climb up and around a corner. When I get there, the landscape opens up and I can see forever. There are huge hills, a few outcroppings of rocks and very few trees. What trees there are, are stunted. Except for the rocky bits, it is all upland meadow. The chemin winds off into the distance, always climbing, but not steeply.

At some points it is level or even descends a bit. I could do without the descents because I know I will just have to climb back up around the next bend. The chemin here is a road surface, wide enough for the occasional vehicle that labours past.

Off to the sides are pasture lands, with a few scattered concrete block structures that take me a little while to figure out. They are three walls, no roof, about five feet high, in the shape of a shallow rectangular ‘U’. They all face the same way, so it’s easy to figure out where the prevailing wind is. They are shelters for the herders if they get caught up here in bad weather, which is both common and extremely dangerous. You just sit down inside the arms of the U, cover yourself with whatever clothing you have and wait the storm out.

The shelters also work for pilgrims caught out here, if they can figure out what the shelters are. There are multiple warnings for pilgrims about not attempting this option in anything but good weather. I saw several signs in Saint Jean and in both the gite and the pilgrim welcome centre in Saint Jean we got verbal warnings. One pilgrim dies here this week and I would guess that there are more who go unreported or underreported. It would not be good for business to advertise the losses on the mountain.

There are herds of cattle and sheep on the steep hillsides, no fences anywhere. At one point, there is a vehicle stopped with pilgrims clustered around. When I get there I see why. They are offering drinks, chocolate bars and cookies, as well as the last opportunity to get a stamp in the pilgrim passport in France. What amazes me most are the prices.

If this were Canada, I would expect to see prices elevated as steeply as the surrounding landscapes. Instead, a chocolate bar is half a Euro, less than I would pay in a store in any town. So the couple operating this little ‘store’ must be pilgrims too or at least very sympathetic to pilgrims.

I walk up around a corner and there are horses, a small herd of them on both sides of the road. The stallion is over on the right, standing quite still, quite alert and clearly the head of this herd. He is big, brown with huge strong legs and now I know where the expression ‘hung like a horse’ comes from.

There are perhaps a dozen mares and two foals, one a colt and the other, a patchwork of brown and white, staggering along beside its mother, trying to get milk and not quite succeeding. This foal is only a day or two old at the most. Her attempts at walking, legs out to the sides for balance, remind me of my granddaughter Bella, when she was trying to figure walking out.

I can see ahead a couple of kilometres where tiny figures are slowly making their way up a slope off road to a point between two rocky outcroppings, where they disappear. This may be the Col d’Elhursato (Elhursato Pass) at 1152 metres, the second highest point on this leg of the chemin. I get to the point where the chemin finally leaves the road and heads off up the hill. The path is good, dry, a few rocks, mostly just hard surface and steep. Slowly, slowly I climb, drinking lots of water and taking frequent rest stops, just noting that each step, no matter how short, is moving me in the right direction.

And the good news is that this IS the first of the two passes, so only one more to go before I reach the steep downhill into Roncevalles. There is an enormous feeling of victory and satisfaction at this point. This has been an arduous demanding climb … and I have made it.

Beyond the pass the chemin continues over rolling ground. At one point the path is over a small mass of dried mud and stone. I look uphill to the left and see that there has been a small landslide at this point which accounts for the hummock of extra material on the path. That would have been an interesting moment. I pass a stone maker that says Navarre and I assume that I am now in Spain. There is no other indication of a border that I can make out.

The path continues to climb quite gently until I pass Roland’s Fountain. Roland was the officer in charge of Charlemagne’s rearguard as he retreated from Spain. The rearguard was caught in this hills and killed to the last man by the local Basques. The Basques were quite properly annoyed because Charlemagne’s army had pillaged Pamplona, a Basque city, as it moved north.

Several centuries later the ‘Chanson de Roland’, the Song of Roland was written. This song is to France as the King Arthur story is to England, the heroic myth of larger than life and braver than life characters from a time shrouded in history.

I continue walking until I enter a huge beech forest. The ground is steeply uphill to the left, steeply downhill to the right. The path is marked with upright posts on the right, one every 50 metres. They are sequentially numbered starting with one and have at eye level a little legend ‘SOS 112’ with a telephone symbol. It’s clear that people get in trouble up here and this is a very quick way to locate them accurately.

In the forest there is a small memorial to a 64-year-old Japanese pilgrim who died here in 2002. It is just another reminder that we are all here temporarily.

Still climbing very gently in perfect walking weather, I come to the Col de Lepoeder at 1440 metres the high point on this whole section. Almost immediately I come to the steep descent into Roncevalles. The advice we have all been given is to take the road to the right, which is what I think that I am doing but instead I take the off-road trail down through the trees.

It is a steep descent and would be deadly in rain or mud but I have neither today. I stop where there is a convenient tree trunk as a seat and have some of the sandwich I brought from Orisson. The two German girls catch up to me, big smiles, chatting with me as they pass.

Again, slowly, slowly works. This isn’t a race so it doesn’t matter that I am likely the slowest person on the path. There are reported to be at least 400 beds at the gite in the Abbey at Roncevalles, so I am not concerned about finding a place to sleep.

And I finally arrive. Roncevalles is a tiny village of 30 inhabitants, a huge church and abbey, a hotel and two restaurants. The gite is inside the abbey structure. I am here at one and the gite doesn’t open until two, so it’s stack the backpack and poles against a wall, off with the boots and on with the sandals. And here are the German sisters, Victoria and Patricia and the Dutch woman Natalie. Her father has not yet arrived.

I get into a little potential trouble when I ask Natalie if she has an adapter for the European power outlet. This is because I still think she’s American. I am looking for ne to borrow to recharge my camera battery, since I lost mine weeks ago. She says; “No, we all use the same power plug in Europe” and that is when I discover that she is Dutch, not American. I apologise for the error, since many Europeans, not to mention most Canadians, do not want to be mis-identified as American. She laughs and says that it is not a problem for her. That makes it not a problem for me.

The enclosed courtyard is covered with white stones, easy to walk on but very bright in the sunlight. It is just a little to cool to sit in the shade so I move to a bench on the sunlit side of the courtyard opposite the gite door. The story is that the gite is one huge dortoir or sleeping room, so imagine my pleasure when I discover that it has all been renovated with modern facilities and cubicles or ‘boxes’ of two bunks in each. I am assigned bed 121 which is, happily, a lower bunk.

I talk with the German sisters and they want to know how I learned German. I tell them about my service in Germany and they want to know when that was. When I tell them they laugh and say; “Our mother was 10 that year.” That puts everything into perspective, so I tell them that they could easily be my granddaughters.

We decide that they are honourary granddaughters, which gives me a total of six grandchildren, two by blood, Cian and Bella Thatcher, and four honourary; Craig and Kaitlin O’Hagan – who were named honourary grandchildren when it didn’t seem as if Carroll and I would ever have any – and these two lovely young women from Leipzig.

At about 6 PM in walks the woman from New Orleans, the one I helped yesterday. I can scarcely believe that she is here, and neither can she. She says that she is so tired, but she is also quite triumphant. She has accomplished something that she was sure she couldn’t do. It is a great illustration of the relative importance of physical strength and mental strength. She had a weak moment yesterday and she is now confident that she can go all the way to Santiago … and I expcet that she will. She goes off to get a bed and sleep.

My granddaughters and I have dinner together at one of the restaurants where I had previously made a reservation. I had been warned that it was necessary to make a reservation. There are about 400 pilgrims here and two small restaurants. Do the math. I offer to buy dinner but they will only agree if I buy one and they buy the other, so that’s the deal. It turns out that I have to pay for all three in advance, so they don’t get to pay. After dinner, Patricia very shyly tries to give me 10 Euros. I tell her, no, just some red wine, which I intend to mean a glass of wine for later. They agree and then it’s off to bed.

It is early to bed again here. The gite closes at 10 and the lights are off until 6 tomorrow.
And, oh yes, I found a friendly American couple from Portland, Oregon with a power plug adapter which I borrowed and recharged my camera battery, so I am good to go again.

26 May Saint Jean Pied-de-Port to Orisson

This morning I get up, have breakfast and ask if there is an opportunity for a bed this evening. They tell me that they won’t know unless someone calls and cancels and it may not be until late in the day that we will know if I can stay the night. I decide that this won’t work and I ask if they can check for me at the refuge at Orisson for a bed. They do this but warn me that it is unlikely that there will be one available. There are only 18 and it is a holiday weekend – again. But they call and there is a bed reserved for me if I can be there by 2 PM.

They also tell me that an American pilgrim died in the hills between here and Roncevalles earlier this week. He got lost in the fog. I don’t know what happened to him but it is instructional. Mother nature isn’t benign, nor is she malign. She’s indifferent. If you ignore the warnings of the locals – and they are very quick to warn people if going over the pass is a bad idea – then you are, quite literally, on your own.

Since I have a bed at Orisson, I am committed to going the higher route. I have discovered that the high route involves a climb of 1200 metres, and the valley route involves a climb of 800 metres and the high route offers me a much better view and a break at the halfway point, based on height. So that is where I go. Out of Saint Jean, immediately into a climb and ever-increasing vistas. On the distant hills the herds of cows are just tiny dots. The hills are really high, but even here no mountains.

The weather is cooperating. It’s overcast, warm but not hot and little wind. Even so, with the constant climb I am soaked within 20 minutes and sucking back a lot of water. At the 5 kilometre mark there is a little gite, where I refill my water bladder, which has just gone dry. The chemin S-turns up a hillside and there are cows on both sides of the chemin and on the trail itself. Happily, they are as docile as one expects from cows – they are year-old heifers, no bulls and placidly chew their cuds as I walk by.

Soon after I come upon a woman sitting at the side of the path. She has been crying and is quite distraught. It is her first day and she had no idea of the physical effort required to climb this steep and unforgiving hill. After a few minutes she gets up and we walk together very slowly up the road. She urges me to go on but I can’t leave her. She is just on the edge of complete breakdown. She tells me that she has never failed at anything in her life, four degrees, children, career, but she can’t do this.

I urge her on, a step at a time. I tell her that Orisson is only a kilometre away and I am sure that they can order a taxi for her to go to Roncevalles. We walk slowly, very slowly and talk, stopping often and she continues to keep moving, occasionally weeping but mostly under control. At one point she asks me; “Aren’t you tired?” and I realise that I am not. It’s a lesson for me that even here on this steep, long and unrelenting climb, if I walk slowly enough, which I am doing because I am staying with her, it is an effort that I can readily manage. So the French are right; “Doucement, doucement”. Slowly, slowly.

Then we come round a corner and there is Orisson. She immediately brightens up. We go inside, I confirm my bed and ask if, by chance, there is another bed available. There is and I ask her if she wants a bed or a taxi. She immediately takes the bed and goes off for a sleep.

The view from here is breath-taking, probably 20-30 kilometres. And who is here but Francois. We are starting to be old friends. We have touched lives a dozen times in the past several weeks and it is, for me, very encouraging to watch him come slowly out of his shell. He tells me that he has changed to better boots. He had a friend from home s end him a pair from his home and he has sent the air that he was wearing home.

At this gite, the young and attractive woman, Pantxika (pronounced Panchika) who runs it, very efficiently by the way, tells me that there are many Americans on the chemin right now, mostly due to the popularity of the movie The Way. She also tells me that she is in the movie, in some scene walking behind Martin Sheen. I am going to have to find out exactly which scene. Tonight there are 5 Americans staying here, out out 18 beds. That is four more than I met the entire way in Spain 5 years ago.

After dinner, Pantxika asks us to say who we are are something about our camino. People are quite shy, so I stand up and do my, by now familiar, dog and pony with the little paragraph about the real camino is inside me, etc.

Some of the people here I already know like the two young German girls, sisters Victoria, dark-haired and Patricia, blonde, both little from near Leipzig, whom I met back at the gite in Estaing on a rainy day in April. Some are new like all the Americans and Robert from Toronto, who have just started today from Saint Jean. He is concerned because by mistake he left behind in Paris his month’s supply of medication, worth about $1,000 and some electronic bits. He is a big loose limbed man, very pleasant. And there is a young pretty Dutch woman, Nicole, walking with her father. Her English is so good and so accent-less that I take her for an American. This will get me in trouble later.

Early to bed because it is another 20 kilometres with quite a climb in the morning. The weather looks promising.

25 May Ostabat to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port

I leave the Ferme Gaineko Etxea before 8. There is heavy fog below us in the valleys and the tops of the trees are just above the fog, making for a surreal and quite beautiful image. I am heading for Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, just about five years and one month later than planned. This was where I intended to start my pilgrimage walk in 2007. It didn’t happen because the airline lost my backpack and I waited in Pamplona for five days until I realised that their promise of; “It will be there in the morning” was nothing more than empty air. By the time I came to this realisation I did not have enough time to get to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port and walk back to Pamplona, so I started from where I was.

This is beginning to feel like closing the circle. I have walked from Pamplona to Santiago, from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Chely d’Aubrac and from Saint Chely to here. From Saint Jean, Pamplona is only four days away and will complete the 1500 kilometres from Le Puy to Santiago.

After about an hour’s walk, the young German cyclist whose name is Dietmar, pulls up beside me and starts to walk his bike. We end up walking together all the way into Saint Jean, another four hours. The walk is mostly level between hills that get higher and higher – but still no mountains. Although we are not very high, the tree line is just below the top of most of the hills. They are green on top and often I can see cattle grazing in the high pastures. It would be nasty up there in a cold rain or with wind.

Dietmar wants to talk. He has been riding for three weeks from somewhere north of Bordeaux and today is his last day. He has a train out of Saint Jean late this afternoon. He is from Minden and he is pleasantly surprised that I know where Minden is. Not far from where I was stationed in northern Germany, there is a place which is a natural focal point for any invasion force from the east. It is called the Minden gap. He wants to know if most Canadians know about Minden. I have to break it to him gently that only Canadian soldiers of a certain age who served in the north of Germany would know Minden.

He is a very young-looking 35. I guessed him at 20 to 26. And his is a depressingly familiar story. He was in architectural school, then dropped out because of family illness. First his mother, then his father got ill and eventually died. By this time he had a job running a machine making cigarillos. He tells me that it’s a good job, although his interests are history and geography. Seems like an awful waste to have someone like this making cigarillos.

He talks about how he sees parallels between the chemin and life. I agree completely. Every day on the chemin is a miniature slice of life. At one point he asks me if I would prefer to walk alone. It’s a very caring gesture, because sometimes people really do need to walk by themselves. But I don’t at the moment and I get a strong sense that he wants to talk. Part of this, I recognise, is that this is his last day and he doesn’t want it to end. I know exactly how that feels.

When we finally arrive at Saint-Jean I drop my backpack at my gite and walk down with him to a crossroads where we sit and have a beer. He still has to find the station and take his bike there, so we hug each other and he heads off to the train station. I meet Francois near the church and we hug each other. Hard to believe I ever called him weird Harold. He seems to be less sad and quite willing to talk with people.

Saint Jean is named because it is at the entry to the pass to Spain. It was heavily fortified with a still-standing wall because it stood between the country to the north and all potential invaders from the south – and there were many. There are dates like 1527 and 1620 on some of the tiny buildings lining the main street in the old town inside the wall.

I go back to my gite, L’Esprit du Chemin. It is a very different operation from the many more commercial gites. With the exception of the owners, everyone here is a volunteer
from elsewhere. At the moment, there are three; Katherina from Germany, Wilhelmyne from Holland and Judy Gayford, the president of the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims. All three speak excellent English, as does Huberta, the gite owner, which makes my life a little easier. Today is Judy’s last day as a volunteer here.

I have picked this gite on purpose. Five years ago when I was planning my first trip on the camino, I intended to walk from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, I booked a bed here in this gite for the first day of the trip. The the airline lost my backpack and everything I had, including where I was staying, the phone number – everything. So I guess the bed went empty. Anyway, they were very upset and sent an email to my address at home, telling me, correctly, that this was not the act of a pilgrim. So for five years I have waited to get back here, explain what happened and offer to pay for the missed night. Huberta tells me that I can put a donation in the box, only if I like, for the missed night. Which is what happens and all is forgiven.

I ask if I can spend another day here, but they are already fully booked for tomorrow. My name goes in the book if there is a cancellation. At dinner they have a lovely ceremony. Huberta asks that each of us say who we are, where we are from and something about our own experience on the chemin. We are one from Ireland, one Northern Ireland, two Americans, five French, two Dutch, two German, one Dane about my age, one Canadian. When it’s my turn, I tell my story, then read that little passage from my book and ask another pilgrim to tell it again in French.

Dinner is lovely, all cooked and served by the volunteers, who join us at the table. Later that night, I am lying in bed in the room shared by the Irishman and the Dane. The Dane, Erik, mentions doing UN duty in Somalia, I mention doing UN duty in Cyprus. He asks when I was there. I tell him the summer of 1968. He was there at the same time as a platoon leader in the Danish battalion while I was the Deputy Commanding Officer of the armoured reconnaissance squadron. He remembers – I find this astonishing – that my unit’s name was the Fort Garry Horse.

So we served together 44 years ago, we never met, and now we are here sharing a room in a gite in Saint Jean Pied-de-Porte. Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

If I can stay here tomorrow, I will. This is a lovely gite, very special. If not, then I have to decide to either go to another gite if I can get a bed or head out to Roncevalles by one of two routes. I don’t have to decide until morning.

24 May Aroue to Ostabat

This morning it’s foggy, very foggy and I leave with the prospect of a longer day ahead, about 24 kilometres. After a while in the fog, I start to think about life and how the fog is a good metaphor for the future. I am walking confidently along the chemin, taking note of the excellent signage and I can’t see 100 metres in front of me. Of course, the analogy fails when I look behind me because in life, the past is quite clear, just a little hazy because there is so much of it. Here what is behind me is as foggy as the path ahead. In life, I stride confidently along, thinking how lucky I am and in fact I have absolutely no idea what is out there.

I understand that at some point the luck will run out and, at 75, it’s likely to be sooner rather than later, but so far the run has been just fine. Somewhere out in the fog that is the future there is a precipice waiting for me. It doesn’t alarm me, because I do not fear death. It seems to me that death is as natural as birth and as necessary.

Imagine the world if nothing ever died. There would be an awful crowd of old people – can you imagine the bingo halls? – to say nothing of old toothless crocodiles, old monkeys that keep falling out of trees, birds walking everywhere, you get the idea. Would we be wiser … or just older, a lot older?

And at the end of life, there is often pain. But because I am an optimist – to be a helicopter pilot, which I was a very long time ago, one has to be an optimist – I think that any associated pain will be manageable.

Mostly I am curious. I think that the end of life is the end, full stop. But of course I could be wrong. Perhaps this is only the introduction to a, for me, unimaginable future. I guess I will just have to wait and see. Don’t get me wrong – I am not in any hurry. This raises a question for me. Why is it that people who are deeply religious and confidently expect a glorious afterlife are so reluctant to get there?

As I am walking along deep in thought – well, knee-deep in thought, I am brought up short by a stone on the path. My right ankle twists sharply to the right and only the boot keeps my foot from going completely over. I get only a brief shot of the pain that warns of a sprain and then it’s okay again.

My whole trip has almost come to an ignominious end. That would be really annoying, to have the whole adventure shudder to a halt because of a stone in the road. Yet, isn’t that what often happens in life? Just when things seem to be going well, there is a stone that twists your ankle and throws all the plans out the window.

The fog lifts and it gets warm but there is no sign of the promised mountains. I did see them briefly some days ago as I left Aire sur l’Adour, but nothing since. After one last climb for the day, I get to the gite, the Ferme Gaineko Etxea (It’s Basque and the ‘tx’ combination is pronounced ‘ch’, which makes it Echa), which is absolutely nothing like the farm at which I stayed last night. That was a farm. This is more like a hotel, except the rooms aren’t private. It’s well organised and well run and has a magnificent view to boot.

When we are shown to our shared room , there is a funny moment. Two men, Jean-Pierre the Belgian and I are taken to our room. There is a Dutch woman already there, in a partial state of undress. This is hardly unusual on the chemin but when we get asked if everything is OK, we both say that it is, but the Dutch woman says; “Pas pour moi”. She gets herself organised and disappears. The she returns to say that she is changing rooms, to one with a couple of women. This a first for me on the chemin.

I have never seen someone refuse a bed because of the sex of the other people in the room. It just is not an issue. I discover later, talking to her, that this is her first day and she did not expect to be alone. An experienced friend had convinced her to come along, then the friend got sick and will join her in a couple of days. I expect that her attitude will soften after a few days, but it is understandable now. She is expecting hotel and getting gite.

My roommates are Jean-Pierre and two cyclists, one a Dutch woman, a fit 50 and the other a young German guy. Everyone is fine with this.

Dinner is served for 40 people, many of whom are pilgrims and some of whom are tourists. It actually works. It’s likely that the aperitif of Muscadet and the plentiful red wine during dinner helps break the ice.The Basque who runs the gite is a short chunky guy,, with a – of course – black Basque beret, about 70 with a great voice which he exercises by singing us Basque songs and getting the crowd to sing along. One of the songs, of which everyone seems to know the words, is sung very enthusiastically to the tune of ‘She’s Coming Round the Mountain’.

He is a proud Basque which may be redundant, because all the Basques seem to be proud of their independent heritage. By the time dinner is over and all the red wine has been drunk, we can all sing in Basque, probably separatist anthems. He tells us a little of Basque history and culture, including the fact of the uniqueness of the Basque language. They are keeping the culture and language alive by running free schooling for all.

I go off to bed full of red wine and Basque songs running around my head.