Tuesday, April 27, 2010

North American Pilgrimage

Of course, I'm planning the next. How can I not be? I like pilgrim life.

But where to go, and for what purpose? It got me thinking... why go so far? Is there a viable route in North America that would make a suitable pilgrimage? Would North Americans be open to the idea of a 'pilgrim' as something other than the group who landed at Plymouth Rock?

I googled around to create a shortlist of potentials. It must be historically significant, with a tradition of being a pilgrimage destination, and through an area suitable for walking, preferably breathtakingly beautiful. Ste Anne de Beaupré near Québec is a definite contender... it's status as a place of pilgrimage dates to 1658 when a miraculous cure was attributed there. The St Lawrence area of eastern Canada is certainly breathtakingly beautiful. And, I speak French.

Our Lady of Guadalupe - Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe - in Mexico City is another. It's first miracle and subsequent launch as a pilgrimage destination occurred in 1531. It's a huge pilgrimage site to this day, but I haven't seen any numbers about modern foot pilgrims. The Franciscans of the late 16th and early 17th centuries went throughout Mexico and the American southwest building missions, often on or near sites held sacred by the various Native American inhabitants. Many of these missions prompted by their own miracles are also pilgrimage sites, though not as famous as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Both of these sound interesting and are therefore on 'the list'. Because I'm living in Denver at the moment, Guadalupe has slightly stronger appeal, though from a language perspective Ste Anne would be easier. Note to self... bone up on Mexican Spanish (really not hard to do in Denver).

Without even diving into the research necessary to open the front door and start walking, I know the first hurdle: Colorado, New Mexico, Chihuahua, and the rest of the Mexican states on the way to Mexico City are comprised of huge areas with few villages... no pilgrim houses to be sure, few ranch houses within a day's walking distance. This will be no Euro-pilgrimage. Methinks camping will be required... methinks a llama will be involved... let the planning begin!

Pilgrim Athlete

It doesn't have to be, but a pilgrimage by foot can really be a spectacular athletic event. I'm not complaining when I mention to people that rightly only 78% of me actually arrived in Patras. More of me than I knew could be spared was consumed during the long cold winter of borscht. The fitness benefits of eight hours of aerobic exercise a day can't be underestimated.

Not all trekkers on the pilgrim trails view it as an athletic opportunity. Last winter in Spain I met a German retiree who proclaimed that he'd been a pilgrim for more than seven years non-stop. He strolls along one of the many marked trails to Santiago, stopping in the bars to chat with pilgrims and locals alike. With that amount of time under his belt, he's gotten to know just about every barfly and tender. While walking, he covers maybe 10 kilometers a day with more time in bars than on the trail. When he tires of walking, he volunteers at a pilgrim house for weeks on end, greeting pilgrims and offering help. He approaches the pilgrim life in an uncommon way. By the looks of his lumbering stride, when he walks, it's not at an aerobic pace. A pilgrim he may be, but not a pilgrim-athlete.

I met another pilgrim, another German as it happens, last year in Spain. Young and fit, he was bound determined to walk the distance from Roncevalles to Santiago faster than anyone on record. He carried a tiny pack and wore running shoes, boasting that he was covering more than 40 kilometers every day. Far more of an athlete than a pilgrim, I observed. I was offput by the annoying 'fingerbells' he wore. I've seen these often enough in Germany... like a bicycle bell, but worn on the finger and dinged with a finger flick to alert a slower pedestrian to make way, no vocalization necessary. Efficient to a fault?

An Austrailian couple I met were walking for the sake of life-saving fitness. Fair-fat-and fortysomething, they had assessed their lives after their youngest went off to university... change their lifestyle or remain couch-potatoes for the rest of their days. They chose to walk the camino for the purpose of the weightloss and fitness. When I crossed their paths about midway between the Pyrenees and Santiago, they had each already lost so much weight they had to scramble to find new clothes that weren't hanging on their much svelter frames. They were very careful about what they ate, buying supplies when they could and making their own dinners rather than get the high cal, carb-laden soups and pork steaks with fries that are the more standard pilgrim fare at the inexpensive taverns in the north of Spain, always served bottle of wine. This couple was in it for the longterm. I admired them. With such a change in their metabolisms, I'm sure they got a new lease on life by the time they arrived in Santiago.

From the perspective of fitness, being on the pilgrim trail is in many ways much different than being in an urban neighborhood or gym. I'm not sure the effect would be the same - could I have lost 22% of my mass by getting 8 hours of aerobic exercise in 4.5 months in 'real life' the same as on the pilgrimage? Hard to say. And what about 4 hours of aerobic exercise a day over the course of 9 months? Walking on a treadmill or elliptical machine in a gym is never as strenuous as walking across the steppes or through the mountains. Would I have even ventured out to get to a gym during a blizzard? Probably not. Yet there I was getting my 8 hours of aerobic exercise walking through many an icy, ferociously windy snowstorm to get to the next night's accommodation.

The gym or even a footpath around an urban park would never have the same overall activity as walking as a pilgrim - the wind buffeting a backpack around is quite an abs workout, the use of the walking sticks is not only invaluable for toning those flabby upper-under arm bits but also the forearms when launching across small streams and ditches, and uneven surfaces really helps tone the otherwise anonymous muscles used for balance.

And the hard part? How do you go from eight hours of aerobic exercise a day to maybe a one hour walk through the park?

Friday, April 16, 2010

As an Alternative to the Camino?

The route I took in Greece from Thessaloniki to Patras is about the same distance as from St Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostelle. It begins at sea level on the Aegean climbs through the pass beside Mt Olympus (the highest point in the country), across some lovely plains, then over a few more mountains, across broad valley of cotton fields, then into more mountains including the pass beside Mt Parnassus, finally descending for a walk along the Gulf of Corinth to Patras. There's a similar balance between mountains and plains on this route to Patras and the Camino Frances to Santiago.

While there is a full absence of foot-pilgrim tradition in Greece, I found plenty of options for accommodation - monasteries, churches with side rooms with a couch or two, pensions, hotels, agritourism, as well as unlimited camping opportunities. The E4 hiking trail, part of the transEuropean network, weaves through the region and there are numerous farm or forest tracks with minimal traffic; only a small part of the route I took is along any roads with significant traffic, along the Gulf of Corinth, but always with a very wide shoulder, and always with a gorgeous view. The E4, by the way, runs from the Straits of Gibraltar to Crete through Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, and central Greece. The sections I walked on were fairly well waymarked with obvious care regarding such amenities as resting stations, shaded picnic tables, drinking water fountains, etc.

One silly challenge in the route is in crossing the Haliacmon River, the longest river in the country, which empties into the Aegean just outside of Thessaloniki. As far I could tell from the maps and from asking around, the only bridge crossing is via a major highway, barred from pedestrians, and for good reason. I resorted to flagging down a car to get across the river. (The driver, an enthusiastic English-speaking archaeologist, as it turned out, filled me in on some fascinating historical facts about the area.) The route can be easily modified to begin on the right bank of the river rather than the left (Thessaloniki).

If a modern pilgrimage is taken to be a trek through beautiful landscape, steeped in ancient, world-significant history, with daily stages spaced 15 to 30 kilometers apart, leading toward a specific destination, then this route between Thessaloniki and Patras by way of Meteora and Delphi, studded with centuries'-old monasteries that offer accommodation to pilgrims, makes for a wonderful alternative to the Camino.

If there is a desire to walk as a pilgrim on a specific path that has been used by millions of pilgrims throughout the millennia who left their collective mark on the landscape, then this route has no particular meaning. There's no indication that St Andrew himself visited these places. I connected the dots of places legend says he visited between Kyiv and Istanbul, but after that, I found no easy references of how he ended up in Patras where he was martyred. It didn't matter much to me, being more interested in the history and the landscape rather than St Andrew's specific route through the area. I made my way to Patras by connecting the dots between places that existed in the first century, places where he could have traveled to. For these reasons, the route I took cannot really be called 'The Path of St Andrew'. Unlike the Camino to Santiago, there was no tradition through the Middle Ages of pilgrims to use the same monarch-sanctioned route to get to the saint's tomb, which is what made the Camino so famous, even up to modern times.

Of the entire length of my pilgrimage route, this 725-kilometer section was far and away the most beautiful, and with such a wonderful balance of climbs and flats, mountains and sea, villages and forests, oh, and the wonderful food, plentiful water... I found it overwhelmingly harmonious to walk through. There are countless options for specific daily routes, so it's adaptable for any skill- or fitness-level. Averaging almost 33 kilometers per day, it took me 22 days to walk this route. It could be done by bicycles, too, road or mountain, and no doubt, horses or mules for those so inclined, just like the Camino. People I met along the way were surprised but receptive to the idea of a pilgrim passing through on the way to Patras. I was treated extraordinarily well with daily kindnesses from villagers, monks, nuns...everyone. It would be remiss of me not to recommend it as an alternative. Go pilgrims, go.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Equipment Review

I'm culling through my backpack for the long trip home...
...my backpack itself might just make it, but the cordura fabric is worn sorely on all of the friction points. It's a 30-liter Vaude. It was with me last year to Santiago, too, but it wouldn't likely stand another long trip (even the one home) without blowing out of its frame. I suppose it's held up well for the number of kilometers it's seen, but its demise seems a little premature for the length of time I've used it. If I take another long trek, I might consider something a little smaller and with a sturdier suspension system even if it's a bit heavier. I like that the mesh keeps my back cooler than foam, but it's gotten pretty saggy over the road.
...all of the clothing from EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) and Under Armor has held up remarkably well; everything from SmartWool and WinterSilks has utterly fallen apart. I don't have any sponsorship so I feel free to say it as I see it. I've replaced some socks along the way - never quite getting the hang of the hot stoves in Ukraine, I burned quite a few pairs - and picked up one European brand more durable to the daily scrubbings and drying. They say 'x-action' on the instep and 'trekking pro' along the side, but I'm not sure which is the company name. Anyway, they're ultra durable and comfortable being made for right and left fittings and sized based on shoe size rather than just small/medium/large.
...my REI Ascent Shocklite walking sticks of course became invaluable extensions of my hands, but the telescopic length locking mechanism became unreliable pretty early on. Ideally, I like to be able to lengthen one or the other when I'm traversing a steep slope or both of them when I'm crossing a deep stream, but because of this locking problem, too often they wouldn't relock in the new position, or in any position and I'd have to spin and spin for 20 minutes before they'd lock again. Way back in Odessa, while looking for new snow baskets after losing both in the ice storms, I considered for a moment replacing the poles themselves. All the other poles I saw were more than twice the weight of the REIs. I value the lightweight feature more than anything else, so suffered through the fixed length without much regret. Still, the poles are the most important piece of equipment.
...I innovated a retractable map case from a clear plastic zip-top 3-ring notebook sleeve and two retractable ID card holders. I clipped the reels of the holders onto loops on the top of my pack and snapped on the plastic sleeve at the corners. With the map inside, I could easily access it without so much wear and tear on the paper map, especially in bad weather, and then let it retract back without having to refold it or unzip anything. Handy. The idea is grand, but the application... well, at this point, there's more clear plastic tape holding it together than the original plastic. I stopped in countless post offices along the way to seek repair help - they always have plenty of clear plastic tape lying around. Before undertaking another trip, I'll look more carefully for a heavier plastic sleeve or somehow reinforce the ones in every Staples or OfficeMax. The retractable ID badge holders, that cost something like $2 each at the local hardware store, work as smoothly as when I brought them home. They were probably pulled and retracted at least a dozen times every day. Never a hitch.
...I mentioned earlier that my boots are on the last of their treads and the leather is rather cracked, the Goretex liners worn and holey, and no matter how much rosemary I stuff them with during the nights, they're powerfully odiferous. They're Austrian, Meindl brand, with Vibram soles. In my three long treks, I've gone through two pairs of boots - that's 9,000 kilometers in total. (The first pair, nearly identical to the Meindl, REI label on Raichle-made boots, again, Austrian.) On the one hand, they get a lot of use - thorough soakings, intense fireside dryings, dust and dirt, snow and ice, rocks, streams, etc... on the other hand, that's what's expected during long distance hiking. It seems to me that they've worn prematurely. Never any blisters, though =)
...my silk sleepsack, down blanket, reflective 'emergency' blanket (never used in an emergency, but to trap precious heat on the coldest nights), helium ditty bags, and sports towel now on their third trips are all as useful and functioning as in the very beginning.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The way, the weather and the welcome

As I've been walking these last springtime weeks knowing it would all soon come to an end, I've contemplated what makes a good pilgrimage - why some days are so grand and other days such a trial. I've summarized it as the balance of the contributing components: the way, the weather, and the welcome.

The way changes daily, hourly even... an idyllic sheep-cropped broad, grassy path on a ridge offering a spectacular view with a clear perspective on where the path goes - ahhh, what a comfortable way! Or maybe a steep rocky slope of snow-covered scree where one misstep can mean grave injury or worse - uh, oh! Perhaps an unavoidable stretch along a busy, shoulderless highway in the rain where for some ungodly reason drivers are inclined to honk their horns, which causes nothing but alarm and further distress - arrgh! Now an unpaved country lane, a ribbon between harmonious villages spaced an hour's walk apart, one favored by all of the local songbirds and cuddly wildlife - >sigh<. Sometimes the way can be controlled through taking an alternate route; other times not. Sometimes a rough way is easily endured because it's only a short distance. In a daily distance of 30 or 40 kilometers, the quality of the way can change many times or, as in the case of the Ukrainian steppes, it's more of the same flat land of black earth for days on end.

The weather is related to the way in the sense that it's incrementally less miserable to be in a cold pouring rain on a paved, level country lane than climbing hand over hand up an over-vegetated rockface in the mountains. Conversely, it's incrementally more miserable to be on a long flat stretch of unshaded black pavement under a midday sun than it is to be prancing under the interconnected branches of an almond orchard in full bloom. The weather is the weather. The preparedness for being out in the weather can be managed to a degree, but only within the contents of a backpack.

Finally, the welcome. This runs the spectrum on the positive side - fabulous, warm, friendly, gracious... but stops at 'indifferent'. Indifferent is easier to recover from when persistence eventually produces an introduction to a positive welcome. This factor is not entirely random or in the hands of the welcomer. A friendly disposition, no matter how beaten down from the weather or the way, is likely to encourage a friendly welcome; a grouchy demanding disposition in response to the beating from the weather or the way, will more likely encourage a cold welcome - so I've learned. To be certain, a warm heartfelt welcome will trump crappy weather or a difficult way. Meeting the right people can dissolve away anything else. The accumulated aggravation from hours of walking in horrid weather disappear the minute someone taps on the pane and says 'would you like to come in for a cup of tea?'

There are some days, or portions thereof, when the way, the weather, and the welcome all bottom out and hit like a perfect storm - everything seems wrong wrong wrong. Hunker down and sleep it off until everything looks brighter in the morning. One can always have hope. Other days, though, the way, the weather, and the welcome all come together like hitting the trifecta at the derby. Nothing can be better on a pilgrimage than these days - the way is so memorable, the weather perfect, and the warmth and camaraderie of strangers summing up everything that is right with the world. Ah, to be on the pilgrim trail.


An easy and breezy 21-kilometer walk along the Gulf of Patras with an overpowering fragrant mix of eucalyptus and orange blossoms... I crossed the modern bridge and walked the last 10 km along the pebbly beach with the surf lapping at my boots, so holey they should be reserved for Sundays... I walked into the Cathedral of Agios Andreas.

Wow. I'm done.

I happened to meet the priest of the cathedral as I was on the exterior steps putting a stained and faded shirt on over my tank top so I would be as 'suitably attired' as I can be as the signs require in many languages. 'English, Deutsch, Francais, Italiano, mali, mali Ruskie?????', my usual question after stating 'eimai proscinitus', I am a pilgrim. 'Mono Greco', his response, the one that I've heard far and away the most often. Nonetheless, I was able to explain to him in embarrassingly poor Greek that I've walked all the way from 'Kievo' to come to his church. I showed him my credenziale. He shook my hand, then hugged me, then shook my hand again, and finally kissed my forehead, gathering together the candleladies and everyone else in reaching distance. No one, the elderly man told me softly, has ever done this as far as he's ever heard. 'Bravo', he pulled me into the cathedral, into his office, and stamped and dated my book in the place I've reserved for the honor. He gave me a few postcards of the cathedral and an icon of the Holy Mother, because he couldn't find one of St Andrew, and then took me to the reliquary of my virtual trekking pal and gave me my hand back. There's a skull bone in an ornate silver case under glass and pieces of old wood in an X-shaped case behind it. In the side-church, there's another case with some finger bones and some rib pieces. All quite macabre for my taste, actually, Andy's bits in their final resting place. The church is fairly new with comfortable strong Italian influences - gold mosaics on the walls and interior domes similar to St Mark's Cathedral in Venice; colorful and pictorial stone marquetry on the floors like so many of the cathedrals in Tuscany - unquestionably the largest church I've seen in Greece.

And now I'm done with the walk. 4,423 kilometers.
No... can it be true?