Miles To Go Before I Sleep

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I  have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep, 

And miles to go before I sleep. 

The three of us walked side by side through the mystical forest. I will never forget the stark purple flowers that guided our way. They were the only thing glowing as the white mist loomed then drifted slowly over the gravel path. There was a familiarity about our surroundings but a complete sense of unknown at the same time. The two emotions mingled in harmony. Many of the hills we climbed lead into a misty cloud, a seemingly nowhere destination. I mentioned the fact that I felt really free. A piece of my mind had been calmed and I was at peace with areas of my life I had been holding onto.
“Let it out,” Jale told me. We had recently experienced the invigorating and cathartic release of screaming at the top of our lungs in the middle of nowhere. It’s an urge we often get in a world where it’s so easy to feel trapped. Jale, our new friend Nicola and I all let out a howl so loud that  I’m sure it could be heard from the next town over. It’s something I plan to come back to time and time again.

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 It’s been said that the Camino consists of three separate stages. The first stage focuses on the physical aspect of the walk. It breaks you down and shows your body that it’s capable of far more than the standards you’ve set for yourself. The next stage is mental and although I beg to differ that it only begins on the 12th day, once your body accepts its fate your mind begins to do the same. While faced with walks alone and the meditative sound of your own footsteps, it runs wild and free and thoughts come out of the woodwork. Growth always follows and the moment you think you’ve already found exactly what you’re looking for, it throws you a curve ball. The last stage is spiritual. Whatever you feel spirituality is for you, it will fill your mind through until your last steps into Santiago and onto Finisterre. Having walked halfway across the country now, I should be into the mental stage of the game but like I said before, it strikes you from the moment you walk through the Pyrenees. Just keep following those yellow arrows.Image

 Our days following consisted of gorgeous landscapes just the same and sleepy little towns that hardly seemed real. My body has reached that point where it’s accepted that this is how it’s going to be until October hits. It’s finally seemed to surrender. Apart from the fact that I’ve rolled over my ankle about seven times and the arches of my feet are close to collapsing, I feel thankful. I am lucky that this is the extent of my injured body. Not a blister in sight and my knees are still in working condition! It could be heaps worse. It’s funny because our days have become longer and longer and the distances that seemed daunting are now considered easy. They’re baby days. After two days back to back of 36km each, 20km is a piece of cake to any of us. Doesn’t that seem hard to believe? Our sleep in mornings consist of a 6:45am wake up and 20km is a short and simple morning stroll. Who knew I would ever catch myself saying that! It’s true though. Like a lovely friend wrote to me the other day, I guess we can get used to anything. Image
 When I’m not surrounded by the beauty of nature that can’t be ignored, it comes to me in the form of The Meseta. This particular section of the trail stretches for one hundred kilometres and consists of a completely open space with a dirt path running all the way through. I’ve heard that the olden day pilgrims used to make a point of walking this section alone because it has a way of breaking you down. When you’re surrounded by emptiness and the hot sun is beating down on your forehead, your mind can do nothing but think and your legs can do nothing but walk. It sounds tedious, yes. And if I were to express my desire for everyone to have the opportunity to walk it, you would look at me like I’m a complete nutcase. It’s been a highlight in many ways and I think it’s become even more impactful as the physical stage wears off slowly. On this particular day I was taken aback by the formation of the clouds and the open space. The sky covers you like a blanket. There’s nothing to distract you from its enormity and it seems bigger than ever before. It’s really wonderful to zoom in on the secret treasures of the world while walking along.
ImageWhile heading through a town called Viana, we had no choice but to leave our friend Gustavo behind. I knew we would eventually begin to walk at different paces and the moment would come. A common phrase we like to use as encouragement during the low moments is: “the camino will provide.” It always does. Somehow the Camino has a way of giving us and showing us everything we need. It proved itself once again only a short day after we left Gustavo behind. Nicola became a huge presence very quickly and her wisdom and light has followed us all the days since. I became enthralled by her love for meditation and have vowed since to make it a huge part of my day to day life. The more we walk together, the more I seemed to learn about myself. Her experience and advice act as my guide toward a new perspective and has been the driving force toward happy and exhilarating breakthroughs. I am blessed that she sauntered up to Jale and I that afternoon only last week…
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The people that you meet on a journey such as this become family very quickly. Somebody once told me that every day on the Camino you earn one year of wisdom and every day of friendship should be considered at least a week. They couldn’t have been more right about it. Not only do I feel like I’ve reached heights so high above the person I was when I began, but these people have impacted me on a level that I cherish as deeply as the relationships I’ve spent years building upon. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful that time doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to a life changing friendship.
Every day we get up and walk. It’s the only goal we have in mind. Our time is measured in kilometres, towns and the nearest bar. At this point, it’s a pleasant surprise when we run into a group that has been behind or ahead for a few days. We’ve all discovered what our legs are capable of and walk only what we can handle. The nights finish with drinking and a three course meal. You would think that we would tire from the routine but as much as every day is the same, it’s also drastically different. The actions are all similar but the way we experience each home stretch or meal always changes. They’re filled with different thoughts and sources of laughter each time. If we’re lucky, some of the albergues have a kitchen and we’re able to cook which is a slice of heaven when it seems like ages since I’ve created something out of food! A friend Matt and I deemed ourselves chefs and made a gorgeous meal for the lot of us one night. It doesn’t take much to make us happy, really. A home cooked meal and good company is the definition of content. Running barefoot through the streets of Spain in the pouring rain will stay in my memory forever. Those moments where I’m lying with friends writing in my journal, drinking wine from the bottle and giggling on my back as the sun goes down…they are the simple things that keep becoming more and more satisfying each day. For once, you’re only focused on what you truly need for your body, your health and most importantly for your well being. There’s no excuse letting either of those go unnoticed. ImageNew friends. Beautiful peopleImageImageImage
ImageI’ve found the sunflowers again. Fields and fields of them every day. I think the Universe has decided to apologize for making me walk so far to find them in Florence.

 As I write about my experiences it becomes more and more difficult each time to truly express the feelings they bring me. I’ve talked to many fellow pilgrims and they’ve expressed the exact same concern. When we speak to our families, it’s easy to tell them that “today I walked 30km, ate a ham sandwich and fell asleep.” But what our hearts are dying to say is that we’ve all been altered that day! We’ve all felt community and love and compassion for one another. While walking through a small town the other day, I stumbled across a place that may help explain the unique nature of a pilgrim in the best way possible.
A sign outside the door read The Hospital for the Soul. Beside it, a small plaque said:
This is not an albergue, just a place for pilgrims to relax and feel comfortable. Please, use our kitchen. Don’t be afraid to plant in the garden, visit our library or take a rest in the beds. Feel free to view our photo collection titled “Chasing our Shadows”. 
Nicola and I wandered in and were immediately overcome with a sense of peace. Soft music played throughout the house and each nook and cranny was so thoughtfully decorated. I carefully studied each photo on the wall. They all held a quotation below that fit the spirit of the Camino so perfectly! I read that the man who owned this place had walked the Camino himself many times. He and a woman he met on the journey started this house together and the two of them wanted to create a place where pilgrims could rest and feel at ease. As I wandered around in awe, I discovered a table with painted rocks, postcards and beautiful hand-made journals. A wooden donation box sat beside the gifts and tears filled my eyes from the trust they had in the people walking through. Not a soul was in sight throughout the whole house and anyone could have wandered in and taken advantage of its gorgeous contents. Being pilgrims themselves, they must have understood the nature of the people passing through these towns. It tugged at my heartstrings when I thought about how rare it would be to find something like this back at home. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every bit of it right there and then. I wished harder than ever before that I could bottle up this exact energy and take it home with me.
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A moment of Camino magic showed itself in the form of a book in the upstairs library. Nicola had been thinking about the book The Pilgrim’s Progress which is read by the sisters in the novel Little Women. For a few days she had been longing to read again and this particular book had been on her mind as something she thought would be interesting to enjoy on a pilgrimage herself. As we studied the shelves and the books displayed that were all written in Spanish, only one English book sat quietly on the highest shelf. It was The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was as if it had been placed there just for her. As she grabbed it quickly, I could feel her excitement from this little miracle. An address written on paper was placed on the lid of a chest in the same room. Anyone walking through was able to take books they felt drawn to and post them back or send their favourites to add to the collection. Ask and the Camino shall provide.
Suddenly, a man with a long beard and an angelic step appeared in the stairway. Nicola explained about the book and he smiled telling us “of course you can post it back. People do that all the time.” We followed him downstairs and boiled water for green tea. The two of us sat there drinking and breathing, still shocked from the way this place seemed to alert every single one of our senses. It was a sense of serenity that I’ve never felt before. It heightened as the man walked by with burning frankincense. I felt the closest to peace I think I’ve ever been.
While I sat back in my chair enjoying small squares of chocolate, a cat sauntered in and was shooed away by the man who had immediately seemed so calm. I was confused at first but let it pass as he told us, “he pees everywhere.” Gotchya. I knew then that I needed to photograph him. He held an incredible presence and aside from that, I wanted to learn more about this place and thank him for what it brought me.
When I peeked my head outside, I saw that this man was now playing happily with the same cat he had chased away. His smile was big and bright as the kitten lounged in his arms and crawled around his neck. A stark contrast from their previous interaction. In broken Spanish I asked him if I was able to take his photo and thankfully, he responded enthusiastically in English. As I snapped away, I found out his name was Mau. The lady running this with him is named Nia and is also the photographer behind the series of photos around the house. He asked me where I was from and a bit about my photography before he looked me in the eyes and put his hand on my shoulder. With total confidence he said to me, “You’re going to make millions of dollars from this photo of me and when you do, I want you to do only good things with it. I want you to build hospitals and use it to help other people. Can you promise me that?” I nodded my head yes. “You have my word”, I told him. He lead me to a little cave in the garden that had been dug deep into the rocky wall. “This is where I do most of my working”, he told me. He held up a cross that he had hand painted with a smiley face on the front and began working on it instinctively, adding to the detail and colour, smiling all the while. I asked him what his absolute favourite thing was about what he did.
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 “I just want to keep my door open.”
I couldn’t stop thanking him for providing this space. I know in my heart that it’s affected people in the exact way it affected me and the world certainly needs more people like Mau and Nia. Image
Before I walked away, he reminded me again what I was to do with my millions of dollars. I assured him he wouldn’t feel let down. With a full heart, I walked away and emptied out the last of my change into the donation box. Mau told me I was able to take a post card with an address written on the back so I could send him the photos. I was drawn right away to a photo of somebody’s expressive hands lit up by the sun in a dark church. I re-read the biography on Mau and realized that they were his hands in this photo. He was the subject in all the photos from the Chasing Our Shadows collection they had created together.
As we left the house feeling full of grace and new light, Mau called out to us and said,
“Keep open.” 
We walked up the next hill with confidence and new perspective.
In the spirit of giving and open spaces, I was recently touched to read about a new project happening in the arts community back home. Rachel Behling who is now starting up the Kaufman Arts Initiative has begun a campaign titled “Project Pilgrim.” The goal is to get our tri-city community, and beyond, walking and appreciating the beauty found right in their own backyard! Rachel is right, the Camino can be found anywhere. We’re all in need of a time to feel disconnected from the living world and take part in a meditative experience. There is so much beauty in this universe and most of us walk by it without taking the time to stop and reflect. Share your stories, mark your own way and dare to inspire! Our arts community will be sparked with passion and continue to grow the more we walk, explore and learn from each other! Take a minute or two to look at the website and read more about this amazing new step! I hope it ignites something in you.
Off I go from the geographical centre of the Camino and onto the end of the known world.
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3 thoughts on “Miles To Go Before I Sleep

  1. Dr. John, how wonderful it is that you’re reading and following along! You were the initiator of this idea in the first place and I can’t thank you enough for it! The experience has been incredible, the people unforgettable and am I ever learning a lot! It’s something that will certainly change my life and stay with me forever! I’m really glad you’re able to read about my journey! I’ll have to pay another visit to Shauna and speak to you about it in person! All the best!

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