With limited wifi and time, I’ve decided to post all my journal entries at trailjournals.com/donsbrother (at least for now). At some time I will add them to this site too. I’ll also eventually post pictures. For the moment, however, I’ll be posting more photos on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading.
My arrival in Madrid in about two weeks will mark my second trip to Spain. The first occurred way back in 1973 when I ventured over to Europe shortly after graduating from college. A mere lad of 22, I had no knowledge of the Camino de Santiago then.
In fact, before I made my way to the land of Cervantes, I spent about a month in Germany. A childhood friend who was studying in Munich offered me a free place to crash for as long as I wanted. No second urging was needed. I bought a “student fare” airline ticket for less than $400 round trip, purchased $300 in travelers cheques, and put graduate school on hold. In early October I boarded a plane in Columbus, and connected in Atlanta, New York, and Frankfurt, before eventually arriving in the Bavarian capital. It was the final week of Oktoberfest. All was good.
While my friend worked and attended classes, I toured the city, visiting museums, cathedrals, and an occasional McDonalds for a much-needed “almost” American meal. I rode the trams and experienced just about everything that Munich had to offer. I visited the Olympic Village from the previous years summer games, did a day trip to Nymphenburg Palace, and took a train to the Alpine city of Garmisch.
When around four weeks had passed, I decided that I wanted to see more of Europe before returning to Georgia. So I bought a third class train ticket for Madrid with the opportunity to de-train wherever I wished along the way. The first significant stop, Zurich, was much too expensive. I stayed briefly in Geneva, passed through Avignon in the middle of the night, and decided I needed a bed when I got to Barcelona.
After a few days there I took an overnight journey (that’s all my cheap ticket would allow) to Madrid. I checked into a pension on Jose Antonio which was under $10 a night. After a Sunday afternoon at the Corrida de Toros, an almost full day in the Prado, a tour of the Royal Palace and photo opt at the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho, I planned my return to the US. I was booked on now defunct TWA; however, it turned out their flight attendants were on strike, so they re-scheduled me with Iberia.
The lady at the TWA office in Madrid told me that since I was flying back to the States from Madrid rather than from Munich, where the flight had originally been booked, that I would be owed a small refund. I would have to wait to collect when I got to Columbus. A couple of weeks later I received a check for somewhere between $20 and $30, as I remember. Airline policies have certainly changed.
I don’t expect to do much sightseeing in the capital city on this trip. What I do expect is a beautiful traverse through northern Spain and an opportunity to join with other pilgrims from all over the world on a spiritual walk to Santiago. Now 44 years later, I think this visit to Spain may be just as exciting as that first. I have a lot more mileage on my legs, but they’re inspired and looking forward to the journey.
After a thirty-seven year teaching career, I walked out of the classroom for good in May, 2012. I’ve been officially retired now for over five years. At 66, amazingly, I still feel young. At least young enough for an occasional adventure. And that’s how I’m viewing my upcoming trip to Spain—-as another adventure. I hope to find spiritual relevance along the way, but for now I’m focusing more on the physical journey than I am the internal experience.
During those years as an educator, I’ve also been a dedicated runner, logging over 59,000 miles in a journal that I’ve kept since 1980. For the past three years, some things have changed. After a series of minor injuries, I’ve been more of a sporadic runner than a dedicated one. Still, for the past few months I’ve been maintaining about 20 miles a week. I walk almost every day as well. Fortunately, I’ve been able to stay in reasonably good shape, especially for my age.
To get ready for the Camino I’ve determined that all I really need to do is spend a little more time walking. I’ve decided to continue running three or four days a week, usually 4-6 miles every other day. I’ll also hike occasionally and walk before and after each run. By the time I leave for Spain, I plan to have walked at least two back-to-back days of around 15 miles. That should prepare me well.
This past Monday I walked a little over 11 miles, and yesterday I hiked a 7.8 mile loop on the Pine Mountain Trail with my good friend Alton. Along the way my buddy shared some of his Camino experience and answered several of my questions. I appreciated his insight.
Later in the afternoon I joined my other Camino-experienced friend, John, for lunch. Like Alton, John was happy to answer questions and provide what should prove to be some valuable information. It was interesting to see different perspectives on a couple of issues from two men who had both walked the trail last spring.
Today I’ll run, walk, read, write, and wait. I wouldn’t say that I’m anxious, but I am definitely in an anticipatory state. With only a little over a month remaining until my departure, I expect the time to pass quickly. The Camino de Santiago is just over the horizon.
Immediately after booking my flight to Madrid, I ordered a copy of John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. Even though I already had an older edition that I’ve been perusing for a couple of years, I figured it was better to travel with the most recent publication. The book arrived in the mail from Amazon two days later.
I’ve begun reading; however, I don’t plan to try to absorb all of what Mr. Brierley has to offer prior to my departure. I do want to become familiar with the route, at least in a minimal sense. But like the guide suggests, I will let the path lead me rather than try to pre-determine my every step.
One thing that the author strongly suggests is that pilgrims have a “spiritual purpose for taking the journey.” At the present I haven’t quite determined if I do. I suppose I’ll know when that occurs, and I fully expect that it will. Like with my steps, I’ll let the path determine my inner journey as well.
For now I just plan to read about the Camino. I’ll walk some each day and continue to run four or five days a week until I leave. Occasionally, I’ll train with a full pack. I hope the “full” pack will never weigh any more than fifteen pounds. That seems like a reasonable goal.
Over the next five weeks I plan to write a few pre-walk entries in this journal. Some may be informative while other will be reflective. Like with the walking, I’ll let the spirit lead. And I’m looking forward to finding out exactly where that is.
I posted this entry at trailjournals.com on Don’s 60 birthday, July 6.
“When are you going to do the Camino?” one of my good friends, John, asked as Linda and I shopped in Lowe’s last Monday.
“I plan to go one day,” I responded. “I’m just not sure when right now.
John undertook his walk from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago last summer. A few months later he shared stories from his pilgrimage with our group of running buddies one morning over coffee. Producing his certificate of completion, it was obvious that John’s journey had been both physical and spiritual.
So last Tuesday, the following day after that chance meeting with my friend at Lowe’s, I decided to search for plane tickets to Madrid. I check delta.com regularly like some people monitor the stock market. Always looking for a deal, it occasionally doesn’t even matter where I go. I just like a bargain. When I spotted one departing from Atlanta in mid-August, I only vacillated for about an hour before hitting the “purchase” key. I too was going to Spain.
“I just booked a flight to Madrid,” I sent in a text message to Alton.
“You are like me……a restless soul,” my friend responded.
Alton was right. Lately I’ve been restless. The decision really wasn’t a difficult one.
In six weeks I’ll embark on another adventure…..a journey…a pilgrimage. As I write this today on what would have been my brother’s 60th birthday, I’m thinking about Don and what he would have said. He would have reminded me to “be careful.” And I will. And just as I did when I successfully thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, I will have my brother with me in spirit. Physically, I’ll travel alone. But within, I’ll know that Don is with me.
In about five weeks I’ll be heading to Spain. I’ve written three pieces that I’ve put up at trailjournals.com under my Camino de Santiago journal. Like I did on my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I’ll post entries there as well as here. So tonight, I’ve decided to go ahead and post those first three entries. I hope you enjoy following along on this new journey.
Tuesday, June 27
In January of 2016 I began this journal with the opening line, “It’s time for a new adventure.” It turned out that it wasn’t time for that “adventure” then; however, I think it is now. Therefore, I’m starting again with a little different twist on my upcoming pilgrimage.
On September 2, 2013 I completed a five month, eleven day thru-hike of the then 2,185.9 mile Appalachian Trail. While engaged in what was certainly one of the most grueling endeavors of my 62 years on this earth, I vowed during the final few weeks of the ordeal that “every step I took was a step that I would never have to take again.” I broke that vow in the summer of 2014 when I joined my long-time friend Alton for a return to the A.T. in Maine. The hikes were short, and I carefully selected sections that weren’t quite so demanding.
It was during that time together in Maine, however, that Alton began seriously discussing his desire to one day complete a long distance hike of his own—not on the Appalachian Trail, but along another popular walking path on a different continent. The hike would be a pilgrimage—a walk from the village of St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. As I listened to my good buddy’s strategy for his life immediately after retirement, I too thought that I would join him on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James.
We had actually been talking about undertaking the Camino since the summer of 2007. It was on a section hike of the A.T. in Vermont that we met thru-hiker, Tao. Joining the young lady for a couple of days, both of us were fascinated by her descriptions of the Spanish countryside. We were equally intrigued as she talked of the spiritual phase of her Camino journey.
“We need to do that Camino one day,” Alton noted as we struggled up one of the steeper Green Mountains.
“Sure,” I replied, not really as excited about a trip to Spain as I was about finishing the Vermont section of the A.T.
My friend ended his 42-year teaching career in early May of 2016. The following day he set out on his Camino journey. I did not accompany him. It just didn’t seem like the right time for me. I was trying to finish my second book on my A.T. thru-hike, and a couple of other life events made me realize that it was more important for me to be in Georgia than is was to be with my buddy an ocean away. Still, I knew that eventually I too would follow in his footsteps
So yesterday, almost on a whim, I purchased a plane ticket to Madrid and began researching modes of transportation between the capital city and Pamplona. From Pamplona I’ll still need to figure out how to get to St. Jean. I’ve already made a reservation for the first night on the path at a hostel in Orisson. From there I’ll walk on to Roncesvalles. After the first two choreographed days, I expect to just take one day at a time. At least that’s the plan for now.
With less than seven weeks until departure, I suppose I need to brush up on my Spanish and begin reading some about northern Spain and the Camino. I also need to decide just how little I will need in my pack for the almost 500 mile hike. And, of course, I’m writing again. Just as I did on my 2013 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I plan to write and post every day that I’m in Spain. As I’ve already said, now just seems like the right time for another adventure. Only time will tell as to whether the decision is a wise one.
When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2013 I spent six nights in Erwin. The small, northeast Tennessee town, tucked between I-26 and the Unaka Mountains, provides the perfect setting for a slack packing base. As I mention in both of my books, I stayed so long in Erwin that I did my laundry twice and even got a massage. I would have duplicated the massage yesterday; however, the therapist supposedly departed for parts unknown and a replacement has not been found. My ailing back had to settle for ice packs and ibuprofen.
Back in 2013 I chose the Super 8 as my home away from home. I’m here again. Even though I did take one day off while here (the second on my journey to Maine), I hiked five days, returning to the same room every night. From Devil Fork Gap, about 35 miles south of Erwin, to Carvers Gap, about 35 miles north of town, I spent every night in a bed. Each of the aforementioned trail heads is in proximity to a paved road and provides ample parking for several cars. This is one of the easiest sections of the entire A.T. to hike using the Don’s Brother Method (road to road hiking).
After my fall yesterday I was not certain that I would be able to go today. Since Dynamite decided that she didn’t really want to slog along a slippery trail, I never had to make the decision. So instead of hiking, I checked out the severity of my “injury” with a 4 mile run around Erwin. At about a 10:00-10:30 mile pace, all went well. I felt like I could have hiked even though my back is a little stiff and sore. Other than being somewhat “stoved up,” as my grandmother would have said, I’m fine. While running along Main Street, I even located some possible places to partake of a meal later in the day. The Choo-Choo Cafe looked like a good spot.
Around noon May and I ventured back into town for lunch. After reading a sign on the glass door of the Choo-Choo, “On vacation; back on Thursday,” we walked farther down the block to the Clinchfield Drug Co. A pharmacy from another era, the establishment sports a lunch counter with authentic stools that looked as if they had been around since the 50s. My hiking buddy and I both selected the daily special: Hamburger steaks, fresh mashed potatoes, green beans, and a toasted roll. The meal even came with iced tea and dessert. I chose the Mounds yum-yum; May tried the Butterfinger. Each complete meal set us back $5.95 plus tax. I would highly recommend this nostalgic dining experience if you ever find yourself hungry at exit 36 off I-26.
With our lunch complete, May and I walked through the rain back to my parked car on Main St. Noticing several porcelain elephants, May wondered what significance the paciderm has to Erwin. Upon doing a little investigation, I discovered that the only elephant execution on record in Tennessee occurred in Erwin. Apparently an unruly critter, Mary, killed her handler one day in neighboring Kingsport and was given the death sentence. With its large railroad yard, Erwin seemed like a suitable location for Mary to meet her demise. Supposedly a couple of thousand people witnessed the event even though townspeople were not in favor of the verdict. Now a festival is held each year in Erwin with proceeds donated to an elephant habitat. You just have to love “small town America.”
The plan for tomorrow is to hike. May and I will return to the trail at Spivey Gap and make our way north to the Nolichucky River, the closest trailhead to the town itself. The forecast is again for rain with potential storms. If it looks dangerous, Dynamite might decide to alter her plans. Hey, I’m just here to support my friend for a few days. When I thru-hiked I wanted to make the decisions. In this role I’m fine with her making the calls. I want to hike, so I hope the weather cooperates. If it doesn’t, perhaps I’ll go on a small scale book selling expedition. Either way will be fine. After all, I’m getting to hang out near the Appalachian Trail.
On an overcast, humid warm morning, I stepped back on the Appalachian Trail for the first time this year. My hiking partner today was May “Dynamite” McDaniel, a 71 year-young thru-hiker from my hometown of Columbus, GA. May began her quest for Katahdin on March 16. After some early difficulties, which included several days away from the trail to adjust her food planning, Dynamite has been steadily working her way north. Prior to her departure I had promised to meet her along the A.T. and slackpack her a few days. Today I kept that promise.
We started our day with a drive to Devil Fork Gap, a road crossing between Hot Springs, NC and Erwin, TN. The previous evening I had contacted my old buddy, Tom “10” Bradford and arranged a shuttle from DFG to Sam’s Gap so that we could walk toward my car. Tom was booked; however, his wife, Marie, was happy to provide the service. After the short transport, May and I were walking south a little after 9:00. It didn’t take long for the trail to remind me of its difficulty. Still, after an early climb out of the gap up to a ridge, the A.T. provided my hiking companion and me a rather gentle path throughout most of the day.
Early in the hike I suggested to May that we play my favorite trail game, over or under on the number of hikers we would see. Pilgrim and I had often occupied hours on my thru-hike of 2013 keeping tabs on the number of other backpackers that we met or that passed us. Dynamite happily played along, selecting the “under” when I chose the number 15 for today’s walk. Perhaps this seemed a rather high number considering we were only hiking 8.5 miles, and it was a Monday with rain in the forecast. My reason for proposing 15, however, centered on the fact that we were southbounding and most thru-hikers were headed north.
The day passed quickly. Sharing stories from the trail, we reached the Hogback Ridge Shelter in a little over an hour. Along the way we were met by several northbound hikers including my friend Bon Bon’s son, “Doogie.” May knew some of the hikers and introduced me as a former thru-hiker and author of two books. Among the many that we met, I especially enjoyed chatting with Popsicle, a young lady from Oregon, and Preacher Man, a very young Episcopal priest originally from Birmingham. When the priest noted that he was almost out of food and not going to be able to re-supply until the following day, Dynamite offered him some of her provisions.
As the day passed I continued to count each hiker. Deciding to list them in Spanish, when I reached “ocho” by noon I knew the contest was going to be close. With less than one-half mile remaining, the number reached “quince” and I took a fall. I couldn’t believe that my first day on the trail since last summer, I found myself tumbling down the side of a mountain. I simply tripped on a stretch of flat trail, stumbled to my right, and rolled five or six times before coming to a stop on my right side. Other than a little lower back discomfort, I seemed to be fine. May, however, was shaken. Staring down at me, she pitifully asked, “Should I call 911?”
“No, I’m OK. Just toss my poles down to me so that I can get back up there.”
May obliged. As I lay there surveying the situation, I immediately thought of Speck, my good friend, and occasional hiking partner on my thru-hike. She would have been laughing mercilessly. I even smiled thinking about my predicament.
Within a few minutes I was back on the footpath, headed south. Although more embarrassed than injured, I still felt grateful not to have been hurt more seriously. Had it been in New Hampshire or Maine, I might have never been heard from again. I can’t believe that I fell on such a simple section of trail. Then one never knows what danger awaits on the A.T.
When the the road at Devil Fork Gap came into view, the number of hikers we had seen was still at 15. Then as we rounded a bend and spotted the parking lot, four hikers were preparing to head our way. I had won the game on our first day on the trail. We had met 19 folks, all thru-hikers. Even with my roll down the side of a mountain, it was an OK day. It felt good to be back on the A.T. I’ll re-evaluate the back later this evening, but my plan right now is to hike again tomorrow. And if I do I’ll try to pay closer attention to flat sections of trail with no obstacles. That’s what got me today, so I need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
On the first of May I decided to start writing again in this blog. I did so for a few days and then stopped. Originally, I had several reasons why I wanted to start writing again. I missed writing. I wanted to establish some kind of goal as I turned sixty-six. I wanted to have a venue for my running aspirations. And I hoped again to generate some reading interest before I returned to the Appalachian Trail for a few days.
Since I haven’t updated the site in over two weeks, I suppose it would be appropriate to comment on what’s been happening in my world. My running injury has improved, and I’ve been able to log a few 4 mile runs at a 9:15-10:00 pace. I’m content. At this stage in my life, running is more for cardio than for competition. As long as I raise my heart rate for 35:00-45:00 four or five days a week, I’ll be happy.
For now, however, I want to get back to talking and writing about the trail. Yesterday morning I departed Columbus and drove up to Waynesville and then Maggie Valley, NC. I stopped by Muddabbers to see my good friend and owner of the pottery studio, Brad Dodson. Then I ventured up to Davenport Gap to offer some trail magic to a 2017 thru-hiker, May McDaniel. May, or Dynamite as she has been dubbed on the trail, has several reasons for tackling the challenging Appalachian Trail at the young age of 71. You can read about her goals and the adventure at destination100.com and on her Facebook page under Destination 100. Like her page and send her some encouragement.
Right now I’m writing this entry from Damascus, Virginia, argueably the “best” trail town on the entire A.T. Dalton, MA and Hanover, NH might challenge; however, most folks give the honor to Damascus. For the next three days I’ll be selling my books at the author tent in the city park at the Trail Days festival. I’m also on the program to speak at the Town Hall, Friday, at 7:30 in the evening. It should be fun.
After Trail Days I plan to join May for two or three days of hiking. I also hope to hook up with two other acquaintances who are in the midst of a thru-hike attempt. Aaron “Pawki” Wilkes is somewhere just south of here, and Steven “Rooster” Riecker is already in Pennsylvania. Rooster is raising funds and awareness for ALS in honor of his good friend, Roger, who was diagnosed last fall.
It’s good to be in proximity to the trail. For the next few days I’ll try to document my Spring, 2017 A. T. adventure. But for now, I think I’ll lace up my trail runners and go for a short hike. After all, the trail is just out my front door.
Sometimes plans have to be changed. While slowing making my way through a five mile run early yesterday afternoon, I began questioning just what I was doing. Even though the groin only felt mildly uncomfortable at a agonizingly slow pace of almost 11:00 a mile, I quickly realized that to run faster would be to risk further, and perhaps greater injury. So I accepted the consequences of the setback and continued to run at the easy pace. After completing the run, or jog seems more appropriate, I walked the final 1.6 to achieve my 6.6 mile goal for the fourth day of May. With twenty-seven more days remaining in my birthday month, I’m really not sure it’s worth the risk of a more serious injury to continue with the probably ill-conceived goal. Maybe the best, and by far smartest decision, will be to rest a little and then continue running when the affected area feels better.
As I ponder the options, I’m reminded of my younger days when buddies and I differentiated running from jogging by pace. I remember an article in a running magazine that defined running as any pace under 8:00 minutes per mile and jogging as over 8:00 per mile. At a time when I rarely trained even over 7:30 a mile, this definition seemed about right. 8:00 and slower miles were meant as “cool-downs” after more serious training. That was then; this is now: my 9:00 pace seems “fast” for this almost sixty-six year-old.
Speaking of pace from my very serious training days, I recently found a chart I had included in one of my running journals that I have kept since 1980. I had penned two columns. In one there were the words: Run/effort and in the other: pace. As odd as it may sound, I can still see myself running at the sub-6:00 pace, just like I can see myself sinking fifteen-foot jump shots and hitting forehands with accuracy to the back corner of the court. Unfortunately, we age. Just like my basketball and tennis talents faded years ago, now so has my running pace. I’m not begrudging; in fact, I think I’ve accepted the aging process as it relates to the sport I love. I keep reminding myself that I’m fortunate to still be running at any pace.
Like I often stated in my journal when hiking the Appalachian Trail, I believe things happen for a reason. Maybe I was supposed to have a minor set-back at this point in time. My wife and I will be traveling up to New York tomorrow to visit our daughter. I had looked forward to a run in Central Park one morning and another along the Hudson River. I’ve run in both places on several other occasions, so maybe I just need to enjoy time with family and appreciate walking throughout the City. Not having to pack running clothes will also lighten my suitcase slightly. I’m obviously looking for any positives in an otherwise negative circumstance. There will be other times to run in New York.
So today I’ll walk. And I won’t worry about distance. I’ll do the same over the next few days, or maybe rest entirely, if need be, after the trip. Whether I cover 6.6 miles any of the next few days won’t really matter that much in the big realm of things. What will matter is that one day soon I’ll be running again. And hopefully, I’ll be running “fast,” at least by my definition as an “older runner.” There are days to run for years to come. I just have to take my running days like all days in general, one day at a time.