I had just struck up a wonderful conversation with a mother and son duo from Idaho when I saw the sign. I apologized and told them I just had to take a detour and climb the hill. They understood, and we wished each other a Buen Camino. I strayed from the path and rushed towards a small chapel that sat at the top of the hill.
I read about the chapel in my guidebook app and decided it wouldn’t be worth the one kilometer detour from the path. However, the sign that took me away from my Idaho compatriots had a familiar logo: The Society of the Sacred Heart. I started crying from excitement as I climbed the rocky path.
If you read you my blog post about my time in Paris, you’re already familiar with the Society of the Sacred Heart nuns (also known as RSCJs) because I visited the relics of its founder, Madeleine Sophie Barat. If you’re not familiar with the Society of the Sacred Heart, they’re a group of nuns who operate schools and other ministries around the world including Duchesne Academy where I teach in Omaha.
So I summited the hill and found a woman with a large, silver cross around her neck wiping down tables. Since there are only 2500 RSCJ nuns around the world, to find them along the Camino was a welcome surprise! We greeted each other in Spanish, but I quickly realized she spoke perfect English. I explained that I’m a Sacred Heart teacher and immediately I received a warm hug!
My visit was phenomenal. Sr. Mariasun gave me a quick tour of the chapel and albergue which her community of four RSCJs operate for pilgrims. She even let me climb to the rafters so that I could ring the oldest bell in Navarre! When I came down, I found that she had arranged a tray of sweets and coffee, so we sat overlooking the Pyrenees and chatted for over an hour. I shared my story and she shared hers. The RSCJ all have such fascinating lives. A Spanish native, Sr. Mariasun had done it all: from directing RSCJ novices and serving as a spiritual director in Grenada to leading youth ministry and resettling Bosnian refugees in Sweden.
Since I’m American, she wanted to hear about the big milestone that American RSCJs celebrate this year: our Bicentennial. St. Rose Philippine Duchesne brought the Society of the Sacred Heart across the Atlantic Ocean two hundred years ago in 1818. Originally hoping to serve Native Americans, she instead landed in St. Charles, Missouri and established the first free school west of the Mississippi. Many years later, she eventually moved to the Potawatomi reservation in Sugar Creek, Kansas where the Potawatomi gave her the name “the-woman-who-prays-always.” Although it was only for a brief period of time, Philippine eventually achieved her dream of serving Native Americans.
Sr. Mariasun told me that when she was young she often prayed that she’d find her own Potawatomi. In other words, she prayed that she’d find a population that she felt called to serve. Now, as she nears 80, she cherishes her time in Sweden working to resettle Bosnian refugees and other displaced peoples; she had found and served her Potawatomi. Next year I’ll be sure to ask my seniors to think about who their Potawatomi might be as they leave for college. As for me, I feel blessed to have found my own Potawatomi at Duchesne so early in my career.
After over an hour, Sr. Mariasun pushed me out. I would have liked to have stayed there overnight, but it was still morning and she knew that Pamplona was still a long road ahead. This pause along the way has been the highlight of my trip so far.
Greetings from Pamplona!
This is perhaps the most recognizable city on the Camino, internationally known for its San Fermin festival and running of the bulls. Pilgrims are typically advised to avoid the city during the festival, so I won’t be running with the bulls today. Besides, I doubt I could run too fast at the moment because I developed two blisters during the steep decline yesterday, but that’s part of the Camino. After a visit to the pharmacy today and a rest day tomorrow I’ll be fine.
There’s a lot to say, so I broke up this blog post into a couple of sections. You can read about what you’re interested in!
I last wrote on the train to St. Jean Pied de Port. It’s a cute, little village at the foot of the Pyrenees. Throughout the Camino, pilgrims hold onto what’s called a credential. These allow us to stay at albergues reserved for pilgrims, give us access to discounted pilgrim’s menus, and are stamped by albergues and restaurants along the way to prove we actually walked it all. So I picked up my credential in the pilgrim’s office and headed to my first albergue. I heard that sometimes the small town can become overcrowded with pilgrims about to embark on the journey, so while I plan to just wing-it the rest of the path, I had a reservation at a cheap, well-rated albergue. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Basque man who immediately poured a glass of wine for me and another American. Night one was good.
For the first time in Europe, I got a good night’s rest. I needed it to start walking. Day 1 is the hardest - it’s steep ascent through the Pyrenees and then an even steeper, muddier descent. I hiked about 24 kilometers plus an entire kilometer of incline and decline. I felt like a part of history on this day; humans have used this pass to cross the Pyrenees for millennia. Pagan pilgrims, the Roman Empire, Christian armies, and Napoleon all used this route towards Spain at one point or another.
After about 7 hours I arrived at the old monastery in Roncesvalles. It’s a gigantic building that’s been recently renovated to house nearly 300 tired pilgrims each night. Since it was Saturday, I went to the monastery’s evening mass and received the traditional pilgrims’ blessing.
Day 2 I left the monastery for a 20 kilometer hike to Zubrini. I traded the grassy mountains for lush hills. While most of yesterday’s trail was paved, today I trudged through a lot of mud and dry creek beds. I made great time though because I was racing the rain (I won, of course), so I enjoyed a nice lunch in the town with other pilgrims.
Day 3 I headed for Pamplona nearly 20 kilometers away. It was a much slower hike that included a surprise stop that merits its own post (check back tomorrow). I arrived in the city later than normal and desperately needed to do laundry, shower, and eat, so I’ll explore this city tomorrow!
So in total I traversed about 40 miles. If you need a frame of reference, it’s nearly the same distance from Omaha to Fremont, Nebraska except more mountainous.
I get a lot of questions about how the Camino is done, so I’ll answer a few of them.
What do you do for food? I improvise. So far all my albergues have provided breakfast of varying qualities. The monastery even offered dinner since there aren’t very many services within walking distance. For lunch I use my app to see if there are any towns along the way to pick something up, otherwise I’ll pack a sack lunch to eat on the way. Dinners are very social. Pilgrim menus usually run 10 euro, include 3 courses with wine, and are a great opportunity to talk to strangers.
Who walks this? While the reasons people walk are endless, there are two major demographics I’ve noticed so far. 1) young adults like me who are on summer break from school (both as teachers and students) and 2) older adults who just retired. I have strong respect for anyone who can do this in their 60s - it’s not easy. Understandably, there’s quite an age gap because not many people in their 30s and 40s can leave their family behind for at least a month.
In terms of nationality, it’s really diverse. Spain probably makes up the biggest proportion, but there’s many people from USA, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and Australia. According to a monk at Roncesvalles, South Korean representation has risen quickly, prompting him to learn the pilgrim’s blessing in Korean.
What does a typical day look like? Wake up, eat breakfast, and walk. I want this trip to balance solitude and social interactions, so I usually (but not always) walk alone. Besides, the young people seem to like leaving early (I need my beauty sleep) and the retirees who leave with me are slower. After the walk I’m much more social. I find an albergue, shower, hand wash my clothes every other day, and find somewhere to eat dinner. The dinners are fun because restaurants pack you in with strangers so it’s a good way to meet people. After dinner I’ll look at tomorrow’s route and talk or journal before bed.
What does an albergue look like? Depends. Roncesvalles had long hallways of large cubicles with 2 bunk beds each so it could pack in 300. Tonight’s room is just 4 bunk beds. All (so far) have warm showers and lockers for your pack. Most have kitchens so that you can make your own meal and WiFi so that you can update Instagram (or blogs). The number 1 rule at all of these places: no shoes.
Do your feet hurt? Obviously.
I think most pilgrims agree that the Camino is a meditative or prayerful experience. At the very least, a lot of the younger pilgrims say that this is an opportunity to simply “clear the head.” Going into the Camino, I wanted to be intentional about how I was going to grow from it. One way I’m doing this is by starting each day with a question to ponder while I hike. For example, my school’s theme for the year was “Crossing Frontiers” so I spent a day pondering the frontiers and milestones I’ve crossed this year and what I aim to accomplish in my future. So some of the things I’ve accomplished this year include getting published, starting a real job, and graduating my first class. And in the near future I hope to earn a master’s degree. Of course, I’m also crossing a literal frontier by walking the Camino.
Ok that’s it for now! Check again soon for another post about my surprise detour on the way to Pamplona. If you have a question you’d like to ask, write a comment!
Greetings from the train to St. Jean Pied de Port!
Despite our surprise, quick visit to Cedar Rapids on our way to Chicago, I made my flight to Paris! There was a period of 20 minutes when I was sweating bullets because it took us forever to find an open gate at O’Hare. But thankfully my plane wasn’t the only one running late so they held the plane to make sure people made their connection. The gentleman in my row wasn’t so lucky though. His wife was supposed to meet him in Chicago so that they could fly together, but she was still waiting to deplane when we took off. I felt bad for the guy, but I was secretly glad that it meant the seat next to me was empty. Yay for more leg room!
Although I was pretty annoyed by our reroute to Cedar Rapids in the moment, in the end I’m thankful for it. On our way back onto the plane I saw one of my old professors at Creighton! We spent the whole leg talking and getting caught up. Even though I’m graduated, she continued to inspire me with her wisdom and her attitude really reorientated me in that frustrating moment. While I was really annoyed about our reroute, she was able to sincerely say “it’s just an adventure!” Boy, did I need to hear that. And that’s partly what this whole journey is - an adventure. There’ll be unexpected twists and roadblocks, but that’s absolutely okay. Like I said in my last blog post, whatever happens, this whole experience is a gift.
So after I landed in Paris I took the train out of Charles de Gaulle and started exploring! Immediately I went to Norte Dame since it was on the way to my Airbnb. From there, I dropped off my gear and headed to the church of St. Francis Xavier. This was a more personal visit than Norte Dame for me. I feel like everyone visits Norte Dame just because it’s Norte Dame. Christians and non-Christians can get their Instagram of the ornate architecture and colorful windows. And while St. Francis Xavier is a beautiful building, the smaller crowd there was less about taking pictures and more about a spiritual visit. The reason I visited was to view the relics of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, the foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart religious order (also known as the RSCJs). After the French Revolution, which had major consequences on the Church, Madeleine founded the RSCJs to provide an education to girls at a time when that wasn’t highly valued. The order quickly spread and opened schools around the world including Duchesne Academy in Omaha where I teach theology.
From St. Francis Xavier, I meandered around towards the Eiffel Tower. Everyone in the train stations and sidewalks seem like they’re in such a rush in Paris, but it contrasts so much to the Parisian culture of sitting at a sidewalk cafe and just leisurely watching the traffic for hours on end. These cafes are everywhere, so I found one with a nice view of a Cathedral and ate a Baguette sandwich before walking the rest of the way to the Eiffel Tower. The tower was kind of underwhelming - I was pretty tired at that point so I took my picture and headed back to my Airbnb.
Now I’m on the train to St. Jean Pied de Port, one of the most popular starting points on the Camino. I’ll take the afternoon to explore and rest before beginning to walk tomorrow. My next update will most likely come from Pamplona.
My closing thought is that is really sucks not knowing the language. I got by, but it was pretty awkward when I blew past the bag check guy at Norte Dame or needed to order food. Hopefully Spain will be a little more forgiving than Paris, but I can only imagine how non-English speaking immigrants or tourists must feel in America.
As I sit on Cedar Rapid’s tarmac, I have a lot of emotions crossing through my mind. Excited for the next six weeks of travel. Nervous that I’ll be in a foreign country completely alone. Doubtful that the weather in Paris and St. Jean Pied de Port will clear up. Grateful for OneTraveler extending me this opportunity. And highly annoyed that my flight to Chicago is rerouted to Cedar Rapids. The list could go on and on.
Along with all of these emotions come many hopes for the next couple weeks. Normally I’m hesitant to have any hopes or expectations before a journey begins because high expectations typically set myself up for disappointment when they inevitably aren’t met. So instead of hoping that everything goes flawlessly (that’s flawed because of the French rail workers’ strike and my impromptu landing in Cedar Rapids) I came up with a few goals that are a little more realistic for the journey ahead.
The first hope I have is pretty obvious: walk to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve been training physically for this by walking, running, and lifting and have no doubt that (barring any major injuries) I’ll be able to make it to Santiago. It’s harder to train mentally though. My first week has a LOT of rain in the forecast and that’s going to take a toll on my attitude each day. Anyway, I hope to make it to Santiago both physically and mentally stable.
The second hope is to be social. The Camino is littered with people from all over the globe. As an introvert, I really hope I feel comfortable talking to them. I will start the journey alone, but I’m sure hoping that I don’t have to finish it alone.
Something that really limits me here is my language abilities. In high school I thought it would be fun to take Latin. And while it was fun and comes in handy now and then (usually when watching Jeopardy) it’s not necessarily useful when traveling. So I know zero French and practically no Spanish. I’m hoping that doesn’t limit my communication abilities too much, but in the end, I’m sure I’m bound to meet a few English-speakers.
Lastly, I hope I can take some time to reflect during these next few weeks. I used to be so good to at setting aside a few minutes each day for journaling, prayer, or reflection. In the busyness of being a first year teacher though, I seemed to have lost that habit. Hopefully there will be plenty of time to do this during my walks.
Whether or not these hopes are realized, I keep in mind that this whole opportunity is such a gift. Things might not go my way. I’m not even on my flight to Paris yet and they already have not gone my way. But no matter what happens, I’ll return to the States as a grown person.
I have about 10 hours of flights ahead of me today plus a nearly 3 hour long layover. I love sharing music, so if you’re curious what I’ll be listening to both today and throughout the Camino, I linked my playlist. It’s a lot of new pop and alt-rock.
Some people choose to walk nearly 500 miles with a great degree of luxury by booking private hotel rooms or hiring a luggage transport. Others, take the opportunity to live more simply along the route, so like most peregrinos I'll carry all six week's worth of supplies on my back. The original goal was to carry no more than 15 pounds... but I just weighed everything in my pack and it looks like I'll bring about 20 pounds. A little more than the average pilgrim, but not backbreaking. Packing this light really makes you think about what's absolutely necessary. I've gotten a few questions about my packing list, so a detailed one is below.
So that was probably more detail than anyone needs, but that's everything in my backpack. It's really just the essentials with one or two luxuries. But as you can probably see, everything is packed with intentionality. There's no razor, comb, sleeping mat, pillow, cooking equipment, tent, or trekking poles. I put thought into every single thing I'm bringing and I know that everything has its purpose.
I'm in the minority of people across the world who think it would be fun to walk 500 miles across a foreign continent with only a backpack and no knowledge of the language. Most people don't get it. After all, it's going to be hot. It's going to be exhausting. And there will be many points along the way where I will want nothing more than to be in my own bed back in Omaha.
While it may be challenging, I look forward to the journey. The Camino is a trail full of history, Spanish culture, and people from around the world. Historically, the Camino is a religious pilgrimage trail. Before the days of Christianity, European pagans walked across the continent to the cape at Finisterre whose peninsula was thought to be the edge of the world. In the early middle ages, Christians began walking the same trail to the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela which holds the relics of St. James. Today people come from around the world to walk the Camino for a variety of religious, spiritual, and personal reasons. I don't have just one motivation for taking this trip. While I am Catholic, I don't feel any great calling to venerate St. James' relics (if it was just about that, I could just fly direct to Santiago de Compostela). For most people, including myself, the Camino is less about the destination and more about journey you take to get there.
My journey begins on May 30th with a series of flights from Omaha to Paris. Originally, I had two full days planned in the "City of Lights." I was looking forward to meandering through the Louvre, mass at Notre Dame, and a tour of the catacombs, but when I went to book my train ticket, France decided to test my flexibility. My journey's first surprise (of what I assume will be many!) was a French rail worker's strike. At least they are courteous and announce in advance their planned strike days... which happened to fall perfectly on the weekend I was planning to spend in Paris and travel to the Camino's starting point. C'est la vie - such is life.
So the new plan includes just one afternoon in Paris. We'll see what I can actually accomplish in such a short period of time, but my hopes include ducking into Notre Dame, browsing the sculptures at the Rodin Museum, and taking some time to sit and eat at some sidewalk cafe. While I hope I don't encounter any more strikes that throw my itinerary completely off-balance, if things don't always go my way, it's okay. I never expected that I'll follow every piece of itinerary exactly as I planned anyway. No matter what happens, thanks to OneTraveler this whole opportunity is a gift anyway.