A steady walk along dirt roads in an undulating landscape.
That’s how we expect life to be.
There will be some more difficult uphill walking and some summits to look out from.
There will be some easier down hill walking and some hollows where it is difficult to see ahead.
Part of making any journey easier is having the right tools.
When Sando and I used to go winter mountaineering in the Cairngorms, we took some extra tools – ice axe and crampons.
It is difficult to describe walking up a the steep side of a mountain in snow with just crampons and your ice axe for extra purchase. Ropes are not always needed.
When there isn’t any snow, the same route is difficult even with ropes.
Along the way you meet people with more tools than you.
And you may have different tools to them.
Sando had the tools of being relaxed. Able to immediately see any difficult situation in a humorous way. He broke the ice of tension easily
Like peregrinos on the Way, you may walk with some people for a short time or most of the route. You may just rest and share food or water, or wine! You may chat about the small things of life or the large questions which come to us all eventually.
Sando never asked why him in anything.
We never questioned why he developed a brain tumour.
It was there and he had a life to be lived.
He hoped to see certain milestones with his family.
Perhaps there was a little more impatience for some of these milestones to come more quickly than otherwise might have been the case.
The destination for this day’s journey is Estella.
Development of this town began in the 11th Century after a shooting star led people to a cave where they discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary. The town quickly grew as did its reputation, soon being known to travellers as ‘Estella la Bella’, Estella the beautiful.
Today’s route is from Zubiri to Pamplona. A distance of 21.1km.
Famous for the Festival of San Firmin and the ‘running of the bulls’, the city is the largest place and population along the Camino route.
San Fermin, or Saint Fermin, is one of the two Patron Saints of Pamplona – the other being San Francis Xavier – who died in 303AD. One legend has it that his death was due to being dragged along the street by a bull, but this was unlikely to have been in the city itself.
Just before entering Pamplona is a village called Villava.
This was the birthplace of five-times Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain.
He was a huge cycling hero of mine, along with Laurent Fignon and Gianni Bugno.
During or after his initial treatment – I can’t remember which – Sando got bitten by the ‘Brompton Bicycle’ bug. I couldn’t work out if he was more taken by the idea of the bike folding up or that there was a bag to put it in?
He had a number of forays out upon the roads once he had purchased one, but his pinnacle was taking part in a Brompton race in London.
It may not have been running with the bulls in Pamplona, but it was certainly more technical than motor racing with a Le Mans-style start, which in this case was unfolding your bike before setting off on the route.
He may not have won, but neither did the ‘bulls’ catch up with him.
He had made it past that first Christmas – which had been given to him as an event which he was unlikely to celebrate – and he fully intended to stay ahead of any further medical predictions.
His was ‘on the Way’.
It may not have been the route he had been expecting to travel, but he did not hesitate in passing through Pamplona and continuing the journey.
After the shock of the first day out of St. Jean and into Navarre, the second day’s walk is a respectable 22.3km, but mostly downwards in direction.
As with life, difficulties seems to rise steeply before you and behind one peak, another comes into view, so level or downward routes are never truly that. Hidden away on this route are a couple of steeper little summits.
In creativity these little kinds of path is often referred to as ‘the dip’.
You set yourself at your new endeavour with enthusiasm and action. The beginning is steep, but everything is focused and prepared. Initial difficulties are taken in your stride.
Then ‘things’ ease off. You start to gain success. Your efforts are paying off. So you relax a little. Ease back.
This is the dip.
Suddenly the road rises up in front of you again.
You feel less prepared. The effort to continue seems to be disproportionate compared to the start.
Some even quit.
The most common form of greeting on the Camino is ‘Buen Camino’ or good way.
In medieval times the common pilgrim, or peregrino, greeting was ‘ultreia’ – further onward – which would be answered with ‘et suseia’ – and further upwards.
This reflects the spiritual side of the peregrino’s journey – in walking further you gain higher spiritual awareness and reward – but it is also a life lesson – keep moving forward and you will experience and gain more.
After the dip there is the rise, but the rise doesn’t have to be an obstacle but a pinnacle of achievement.
Sando’s initial diagnosis was definitely the route out of St. Jean. We met that with joie de vivre, energy for the path ahead, and a healthy amount of fun at his expense. We did tell him that he wouldn’t be treated any differently, which he appreciated and needed.
Sore feet, aching backs and shoulders, with a sense of foreboding at those little peaks along the next part of the route, certainly kicked in as his treatment was begun.
The radiation therapy and the drugs clearly did have an impact, but Sando’s common response to our greeting of ‘how are you doing?’ Was ‘I feel fine.’
This led us to the theory that there was another ‘Sando’ out there who was continually going back to his doctor and complaining of really not being well, in a case of swapped test results for the two of them.
Sando certainly tried hard to convince the nurses that he really did feel ‘fine’ every time they came towards him with needles for blood, or drugs to fill him up.
Just 3.2km into the route for the day is the town of Burgete. Here the writer Ernest Hemingway wrote his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ in just eight weeks in 1926. In a note to his editor he wrote that the book was less about the ‘Lost Generation’ as Getrude Stein had referred to those lost or scarred by the Great War, but more about ‘the earth that abideth’ which is referenced as an epigraph.
Visit any church or cathedral and you easily gain a sense of those people whose footsteps yours join with, and many who have walked the Way of St. James make this comment also.
Sando felt this was true in his own pathway. He was one of many who had brain tumours and he was acutely aware that many others would follow.
The majority of people who have brain tumours are children.
I am sure we mentioned that quite a bit also.
Sando would have agreed with Hemingway (referring to his characters) that – he – they were ‘battered but not lost’.
Traditionally, any pilgrimage route began from your front door step.
Today the most common starting point for El Camino de Santiago begins across the Spanish border in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port.
St. Jean is the historic capital of the Basque Country which encompasses land and communities on both sides of the Pyrenees.
It is also a dramatic start with the route quickly elevating to a total height of 1429m and 14.2km of the total 24.7km for the day involving going uphill.
The beginning of El Camino seems to reinforce the observation that life can unquestionably be difficult.
Challenges abound. It is easy to lose motivation. It is easy to give up.
But how much of the challenge of the first day comes about because of a general lack of preparation?
How much comes down to a sense that walking should be easy, or is easy, or not as difficult as running, so some other such notion.
In the movie The Way, Joost sees a cyclist on the trail and expounds ‘You can do this on a bike? Why did no one tell me?’
Sando originally spoke of completing the Camino on bikes. It would seem easier to have completed the Way pedalling, certainly in terms of time taken. He became convinced that the route had to be walked. The ability to accomplish this inevitably delayed us in our efforts.
Sando’s diagnosis of a brain tumour delayed much that he would have wanted to accomplish.
Those first months were very much like the profile of the first day on ‘the Way’. Tough. Uphill. A struggle. No obvious end in sight. No particular alternate route, which was any easier.
You simply had to put one foot in front of the other.
Walk the route which many others have done before you and take solace from the fact that they made it to ‘Roncesvalles’.
Sando certainly became aware that there was a wider community of cancer patients and survivors out there and he wanted to be part of that continuing community offering support to others through his experiences.
There is a saying that there is more which unites us than divides us.
I am sure that this is true, but to discover this we need to take those first steps outside our front doors.
We need to engage in action and then the ensuing connections with others will come.
Denmark is reckoned to be one the happiest nation in the world and one of the concepts at the heart of their daily lives is that of clubs or societies, with most people spending three or more evenings a week engaged in specific activities with others.
The first pilgrim guest house in Roncesvalles was built in 1127 and recorded in a poem:
‘The door opens to all,
To sick and healthy,
Not only to true Catholics
But also to pagans, Jews,
Heretics, the idle and vagabonds.’
El Camino opens the door to us all but do we open our door to all?
In Sando’s copy of ‘John Brierley – A Pilgrim’s Gude to the Camino de Santiago’ there is a quick 5-point reference page.
It lists the following points: Travel – a quick guide; Preparation – Outer; Language; Pilgrim Passport, Protocol & Prayer; Preparation – Inner.
Under travel it refers to when and how long. Life questions in themselves.
Both Sando and I grew up in the Cold War, and much has changed in the world within the scope of our lives. We would often joke about when ‘we were lads . . . ‘ knowing full well that when we did so those around us had only a vague notion of what we were referring to. Life moves on quickly.
I used to wonder in amazement, when I was a young boy, at my Great-Grandmother who had been born in 1901. Her life had begun when only birds could fly and encompassed men travelling to the moon.
Sando and I had grown up under the shadow of nuclear weapons and MAD (mutually assured destruction) and was now overshadowed by a virus pandemic. We definitely hadn’t considered that after he first collapsed.
The Camino journey is normally estimated at 33 days of walking and a couple extra added in for rest days when needed.
Sando had the blessing of six years extra than cautioned once he was diagnosed.
In sport and many outdoor adventures we were both mindful of the necessity of preparing well. Despite the advice to travel as light as possible, we both would carry ‘extra’ to help out others.
Travelling light is a concept underpinning many business and personal life coaching.
Jesus was probably the first recorded teacher sharing this message as the disciples were sent out into the surrounding countryside, being told to take nothing but their cloaks and sandals.
Medieval pilgrims were exhorted similarly, teaching them to seek nothing but dependence upon God.
Memories weigh nothing – expect perhaps the emotions they conjure up – so carry as many of those with you as you can.
Plenty of other things can be left behind, or dispensed with when you realise on the Way that they are unnecessary.
Friends often help you out spotting these things ahead of you doing so. Listen to them.
Language. Sando was well accomplished in this department and his mastery of Spanish a definite advantage in the Basque north of Spain.
Learn other languages and try and find ways to practice them.
The more people and cultures you come into contact with will broaden your horizons dramatically.
I am good at reading and listening but my speaking of other languages wouldn’t even get me onto the bottom of the grade chart.
If you are the same – get yourself a Sando!
Pilgrim Passport, Protocol and Prayer.
The credencial is a document which you carry with you and show at the various albergues along the Way. In return you will receive a stamp which is conformation in Santiago de Compestella that you have indeed walked el Camino.
Be grateful to your hosts and respect your fellow peregrinos. They will not always look or sound like you.
Maybe we should be given a credencial at birth and collect stamps as we go through our years? It might alter our sense of accomplishment and remind us of events easily forgotten.
Pray always. We always need to be reminded of this.
Preparation. Once you reach Santiago you show your credencial and receive your compostella – your certificate for completing the Way of St. James.
If you state your reason for walking as religious, you will receive a certificate written in Latin. If you state your reason for walking as personal, you receive a certificate in Spanish.
Note how you declare this at the end and not the beginning?
Your answer may have changed in the course of El Camino.
Remember everyone of us is on the ‘Way’ and the ‘Way’ changes us.
Despite our best efforts to ‘carry on’ as we always did, Sando and I both knew things had and would change.
We made adjustments without mentioning them.
I can’t say with any certainty, however, that I was prepared for the end as it came.