Paging Dr. Chutzpah

I came to Colorado near the end of February because my mother’s Denver surgeon had

What I brought from Oregon

What I brought from Oregon

said, unequivocally, that surgery on the last of Mom’s tumors would take place “at the end of February or in early March.”  Once I was already in Colorado, the doctor, whom Mom had told I would be flying in for the scheduled surgery, told us removal of the entire tumor would be risky, and was not viable.

Still, I’m glad I am here now to sort out this curious breed of people they call doctors, and to help Mom reason her way through important medical decisions.  I am finding that being a patient-advocate means being a very patient advocate.  Here I am, calling the proton therapy center in Loma Linda, California:

Me:  What do you mean you can’t take people with Stage IV cancer?  Why not?

Bureaucrat (not her actual name or title):  We only do the proton therapy on Stage I and II.

Me:  She’s not symptomatic.  Another proton therapy center thought that made a difference.  No?

Burcrat:  We only do I and II.

Me:  So is there some distinction, as regards proton therapy, that makes Stage I and II different from Stage IV without symptoms?  Or could it be a distinction without a difference?

Burcrat:  Stage IV is the stage we don’t do proton therapy on.

Me (trying another tack):  Can you tell me why that is?

Burcrat:  That’s our policy.

Kafka Was Lucky

The works of Kafka became famous for situations that make more sense than talking to someone who doesn’t know why her organization does what it does.  If only the woman had uttered one of my favorite lines from The Trial, in which two mysterious men materialize in Joseph K.’s apartment and are unresponsive to his queries, the day would have been at least aesthetically perfect.  In The Trial, Joseph K. eventually tries to leave his apartment, but the men tell him:  “You can’t go out, you are arrested.”

“So it seems,” K. replies. “But for what?”

“We are not authorized to tell you that,” he is told.  “Go to your room and wait there. Proceedings have been instituted against you, and you will be informed of everything in due course.”  And then the hilarious line:  “I am exceeding my instructions in speaking freely to you like this.”

K. tells himself this must all be a practical joke, or at least a mistake, for he lives in “a country with a legal constitution.”  But no.  K. is now in the surreal, irrational world that would come to be called Kafkaesque.

And I am in the world of American medicine, the bloated, inefficient thing we find ourselves stuck with in 2012.  I’m an advocate for my mother in a different kind of trial.  And one of the lesser trials is of our patience.

Witness our experience with the Denver-based gynecological surgeon and oncologist we met above.  We’ve taken to calling her Dr. Chutzpah.

Dr. Chutzpah:  Part I

Nearly two years ago, Dr. Chutzpah told my mother that she, Dr. Chutzpah, would not perform surgery on the tumor now in question unless my mother underwent chemotherapy afterward.  (Yes, afterward.  As if she could legally bind my mother’s post-surgery conduct).  My mother told the doctor that she couldn’t go through another round of chemotherapy.  The doctor said she would not operate without chemotherapy.

Last Monday, Dr. Chutzpah told us that the tumor is now too wound up with veins from the aorta to allow for a safe operation.  She also said that Mom has a mucinous tumor, and that such tumors are usually not responsive to chemotherapy.

Dr. Chutzpah to a White Paging Telephone, Please

So Mom and I unpacked that as best we could.

In order to perform critical surgery, two years ago, that could have prevented the further growth of the tumor, had she required a likely waste of time, my mother’s scarce money, your taxpayer money (Medicare), and, not least, a great deal of statistically unnecessary suffering?

So what should we do now? we asked, two years later.

Dr. Chutzpah suggested that Mom should go through chemotherapy, just in case it worked.

Mom and I were perplexed.  Hadn’t she just said this tumor was unlikely to respond to chemotherapy?

Dr. Chutzpah: Part II

In mid-January, Dr. Chutzpah told Mom to get another $8000 PET scan.  Mom had just had a PET scan in mid-November.

Dr. Chutzpah then had Mom and her friends drive over the Continental Divide, in January, to Denver, for a pre-op procedure – and then sent her home, saying the hospital in Grand Junction had failed to send the critically necessary PET scan.  Once Mom had arrived back home $400 lighter, Dr. Chutzpah’s office located the PET scan.  It had been in her office all along.

But then Dr. Chutzpah said the $8000 PET scan that she had ordered, and which was necessary to the $400, two-day trip to Denver, didn’t show the right information.  She called it “blurry”.  Then Dr. Chutzpah did an interesting thing.  She told my mother to get a CAT scan.

Now, you would think that if a PET scan had been the best choice all along, Dr. Chutzpah would have ordered another one.  Or, if PET scans had a tendency to be “blurry” or to be unlikely to show the object in question, Dr. Chutzpah would have known that and ordered the CAT scan the first time around.

So far, two PET scans and a CAT scan in 60 days.  Who absorbs this cost?  We do.

In any event, Mom, her immune system struggling with the fearful thoughts this confusing process was causing her, immediately went to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction and underwent a $4000 CAT scan (thank you, readers!).  The hospital again sent the doctor the CD.  Then we heard nothing for several weeks.  How to explain the time-sensitivity that says a November PET scan may not be current enough — but surgery can wait for several weeks after the third scan?  Maybe there is an explanation, but if Mom was given one, she didn’t realize it.

Mom’s nerves were fraying.  She wasn’t sleeping well.

Finally, Dr. Chutzpah left a message last Saturday saying she’d call Mom on Sunday.  On the appointed day, Mom chained herself to her phone and did not go out all day.  There was no call.

Late on Monday, Dr. Chutzpah reached Mom, said she’d called both of us earlier in the day (a curious fib in the age of missed-call lists), and said she hadn’t called on Sunday because, she said, “I thought you might be in church.”

When Mom (who does not go to church) got off the phone, she was incredulous.  “Did she think I’d be in church all day?”

This, too, affected Mom’s sense of trust, and well-being.

Dr. Chutzpah:  Part III — Primum non nocere, or First, do no harm

I watch these things with the eye of a consultant, a coach, a businessperson.  (And a comic, sadly).  I have been passionate about best practices and efficient systems since before I knew their names.  I’ve devised the best ways of doing things, used them, recommended them, helped others build them for my entire career.  And I too am incredulous — at the avoidable waste, inefficiency, and poor service I see in medicine.

Dr. Chutzpah, for example, does not have in place the fundamental operating policies a competently-run business has in place to make a real effort to respect clients’ time, money, and emotional energy (which is, or may as well be, the immune system).  Leaving aside the possibly wasteful scans, here are just a few policies Dr. Chutzpah could implement as easily as creating checklists for them:

  • Waste no patient money, I.  Establish a procedure to ensure that a patient does not even cross town, much less the state, unless the doctor possesses all the tools and information the appointment requires, including a PET scan.
  • Waste no patient money, II. Establish a procedure to ensure that a patient does not expend the time and money to come to an appointment unless all tools are in working order, such as clear PET scans.
  • Take responsibility. If doctor’s office does cause a patient to foreseeably waste time and money, the patient’s overall bill should be reduced to compensate for the increased expense caused by office’s negligence.
  • Pay attention to foreseeable consequences. If you know that a patient is making plans based on what you say, pay attention to what you say.  For example, if you haven’t yet reviewed the CAT scan that would alone tell you if surgery was or was not possible, do not set a date for surgery that others will rely on at their expense.
  • Do not substitute authority for evidence. When you do recommend courses of action, explain why.  Cite a scientific basis for a recommendation.  For example, if chemotherapy doesn’t “usually” work for a particular situation, give the patient, at a minimum, statistics for your interpretation of “usually.”  Better yet, provide the actual studies you are referring to.  Otherwise we have to wonder how cutting-edge your knowledge is, how good your memory, and how well you interpret data.  And because you’re a human being and I’ve read the research on medical errors when doctors don’t implement good systems, I don’t want to rely on you alone.
  • Have the courage to talk about ideas you disfavor. Please address those actions you do not recommend, even if you think they are absurdly alternative.  Because we are going to find out about them, and we will want to know the scientific bases for your dismissal of them.  We’re probably going to ask you anyway; why not be thorough and streamline things in advance?  (Another doctor inspired this addition:  When you are asked about alternative therapies, discuss them rationally and unemotionally, rather than with anger and contempt.  The latter is about your ego.  The former is about your patient).
  • Better yet, write it all down.  It is madness to expect a terrified person to hold in her head everything you tell her, or to take flawless notes.  The mind screams:  What are you thinking?

Dr. Chutzpah’s Last Ride?

Because no doctor had clearly laid out the options for my mother, nor written anything down for her, we were left with a raft of questions.  I called Dr. Chutzpah’s office and left a voice mail saying we had questions.  I asked for her email address.  I said that we would not rent, sell, or barter the email address, but if the doctor was concerned about getting inundated with emails, I could put the questions on a web page and they could view them there.

I mean, right?

Dr. Chutzpah’s nurse called, several days later, to say that I should leave the questions on their answering machine.  Twice she stressed that I should not be worried about leaving “a long message”.  In fact, I was quite brief.  I read off these questions:

  1. What is the primary cancer here?  We have heard ovarian and lung.
  2. How was the stage defined?  What does it mean to be in Stage IV without symptoms?  Is such a Stage IV not qualitatively or quantitatively different from more symptomatic Stage IVs?
  3. Is this tumor metastatic (spreading) from the primary?
  4. Why was chemo required 2 years ago when she’s saying now that Mom’s type of cancer typically doesn’t respond to chemo?
  5. Why not do a chemo compatibility test?
  6. What are your thoughts on partial removal of the tumor first?
  7. Can a biopsy be done without surgery, or in this case is a biopsy about the same procedure as surgery?  If the latter, does it not make sense to do the surgery in order to learn what kind of mass it is?

The next day, the nurse called us back.

“Dr. Chutzpah,” she said, “said that if you have so many questions you will need to make an appointment to see her.”

No, Seriously

“I’m disappointed to hear that,” I told the nurse, “because I think we shouldn’t have that many questions.  Their answers should have been included in a well-thought-out presentation.  And if there’s not going to be any medical exam, it doesn’t make any sense to travel all that way for a conversation that can be done by phone.  Does it?”

Eliminating the only remaining reasonable objection, I added, “We’d be happy to pay her for her time on the phone, but it makes no sense to drive four or more hours to Denver when there won’t even be a physical examination.”

“I will communicate your views to Dr. Chutzpah,” the nurse said.


On Auschwitz and Cancer

For at least two weeks I have had in mind a post that addresses Mom’s PET scan and the expectations that so many people have about what will happen to her cancer now that she has been on the Camino.  I discern these expectations in what people say to Mom, in her telling me, a week ago, that she felt “pressure”, and in our tribe’s utter inability to stop telling ourselves stories . . .

But for at least two weeks, I have not found myself writing anything.  Why that has been so could justify its own essay.  It wasn’t until I read Mom’s “Cheers and Kindness” post of this morning (about her experience with her friendly townspeople and her wait for the results of the PET scan), and found myself crying at the end, that I began to write this post.  I don’t know where it’s going, but I begin anyway.  “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” as my master and hero Samuel Beckett once had a nameless character say.

Humans see patterns in everything.  Hypnotize a person (as researchers did in a now famous set of experiments) and tell him to get up from his chair and walk to stand by a window, and when you wake him up and ask him why he is standing by the window, he will say, for example, “There was a cold draft, and I was shutting the window.”  Of course this is not true, but we now know that the brain searches relentlessly for explanations of everything it does not understand or does not wish to grapple with.

Not so long ago, we prayed to the sun to intervene

Just today I opened The New Yorker to read “It was an article of faith among the [Libyan] rebels that Qaddafi had regularly used magic to prop up his long reign.  What other explanation could there be?”  Lacking explanation, man often turns to the supernatural.

Stories are easiest to see in beliefs about politics and religion — two areas that, not coincidentally, wise people know it’s best not to argue about.  That’s because such beliefs are usually not arrived at by reason but by responses to emotion, and it’s pointless to argue with conclusions reached by emotion.  Today I saw one writer’s interpretation of New York City’s shutdown of Occupy Wall Street, as he looked at the site that once housed the 5000 books of the Occupy Wall Street Library:

What a picture it would be . . . of police in riot gear gathering boxes of donated books and loading them into garbage trucks. A perfect metaphor for what appears to be the intention of last night’s raid: destroying the body of knowledge that had been collected by a movement just two months old . . .

If you want to spot tendentious, made-up belief systems, look for words like “appears to be,” as in “the contents of another person’s mind appear to be an intention to destroy knowledge.”  A great many marriages founder on this one powerful impulse, that of imagining we know the meaning in another person’s mind.  All storytelling arises from man’s wrestling with painful sensations of ignorance and uncertainty — which is fear.  The results of this wrestling, this agon, we call myth, religion, fiction, cinema, psychology, ideology, doctrine, dogma.

So we see a woman walk across Spain on (and in) a dream and we

Mom displays good food on the Camino

continue the story.  She has cancer, right?  She wants it to go away, right?  And look at all that bravery, all that effort!  Look what a story so far, with all the blog posts illustrating the triumph of the human spirit!  Why, we’ve even got her in high-definition video!

It’s a story fit for the movies!

What is left behind

Except for one thing, we think:  we don’t have our ending yet.  As the writer of the Gospel of Matthew well knew, adding, as he did, the all-important Resurrection to Mark’s far more abrupt ending*, there can be no meaning without a proper ending.  And the only acceptable ending to this fairytale is, of course, that somehow, in magical ways we don’t need to understand but need to believe in, the walk across Spain – the exercise, the sun, the intention, the bravery, the purpose, God – cured the cancer.  I would guess that nearly every reader of this blog will acknowledge in herself this secret hope, this small buried voice whose sister whispered in my mother’s head as she approached the Cruz de Ferro with the earlier PET scan, with the cancer, she hoped somehow to leave behind.

I don’t need to understand how it can happen, we think, but I would love to see a fairytale ending.  I’d love to see God choose to play a role in this drama and give a woman her just dessert.

This is a way of thinking pilgrims were familiar with a thousand years ago:  surely if I go to all this effort, God will reward me.  The medieval Catholic Church validated this thinking, handing out “indulgences”, in its role as God’s mouthpiece on earth, to people who made some kind of effort – the Camino pilgrims, say, or the people, both wealthy and poor, who got karma credits with God for handing over their money to the Church.

Setting aside the Church’s confusion of money with divine will (and itself with divinity), all of this relies on belief in an intercessionary God — that is, a God who will intercede, or intervene, in human affairs, if we simply do something noticeable enough to catch “His” attention (a God who intervenes in human affairs is nothing if not person-like).

I would like to believe such a God exists, but then if such a God did exist, and either set in motion or stood by and did nothing for the shot, gassed, and hung-by-their-tongues Jews of the Shoah, or the Rwandans, or the victims of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, I would find Him unworthy of the barest worship.  Either he is weak beyond imagining, or he is capable of ending unbearable suffering but lacks all compassion.

It is this God who is said to have died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and for people who study history and its lessons there is no resurrecting him.  Can there be a kind of divinity who intervenes in the cancers of mothers who do pilgrimages but ignores the cries of children in gas chambers?  I do not think so.  Not that kind, by that definition.

This is not to say divinity, or a consciousness that pervades the universe, does not exist.  It is only to say that I’m not able to believe there is a person-like entity who intervenes in human affairs.

If Mom’s cancer does not reappear on her PET scan, there are a number of possible reasons for it, from what science now tells us of the power of the human mind (in science’s belated validation of prayer and meditation) to what we know love and purpose can do for the human immune system.

I create meaning and emotion just by inserting an image in a particular place

Love and purpose.  Immune system.  For those who don’t credit an intercessionary God, these are the building blocks of their hope, vague as it may be:  Inge did that amazing walk, such great purpose, we all love her, we hope her cancer goes away now.

I do too.  And I too don’t care how it happens or whether I could ever explain it.  My mind bends toward the romantic and the idealistic as much as the next person’s.

But I have worried since the first moment Mom mentioned doing this trip that it would begin to work on her mind, whispering to her of salvation, giving her a hope — so powerful in the agon with dis-ease — that might turn on her if the outcome to which she had inevitably grown attached did not come about.  I have worried for many months about us measuring the success of the trip, or Mom’s chances of survival, by the same meaningless yardstick, the PET scan of November 14.  (See the end of my post a day before we reached the Cruz de Ferro, when Mom voiced aloud what until then had only been the whispers of going to the cross and leaving her cancer behind).

But the PET scan is meaningless, in the sense that it neither signals an objective truth — someone will or will not die — nor has within it a pre-fabricated storyline of what must happen next — of what it means.  We create the storyline.  Yesterday’s PET scan is just

Another Day on the Camino

another day on the camino, and just as there were days before it that did not speak of life or death, there will now come days after it that are silent on the matter.  The PET scan is just data; we supply the meaning of it.

Mom is powerful precisely because she gets to choose what meaning to assign the PET scan.  Doctors and others will look at a certain scan and say, “This is great!”  They will look at different results and say, “Oh, oh, my, this is unfortunate.”  They are, however, simply speaking from their own, inevitably blinkered, system of belief.

Mom can decide what storyline she will believe in, and as one of my favorite Taoist stories shows, her storyline doesn’t have to grasping for meaning prematurely.

Sometimes a horse is just a horse, of course

There was an old farmer who had worked his land for many years.  One day his horse ran away.  His neighbors heard the news and ran to see him.

“Such bad luck!” they said.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer.

The next day, the horse came back, bringing with it three wild horses.

“How wonderful!” the neighbors said.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer.

The next day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Here came the neighbors.

“What a disaster!” they said, patting the farmer on the back.  “Your fields will rot if he can’t work the farm.”

“We’ll see,” said the farmer.

A day later, the emperor’s army recruiters passed through the village to draft young men into the army.  They saw that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, and they passed him by.

The neighbors, again.

“Such good fortune!” they said.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer.

All this is to say that the Lord moves in ways mysterious, not ways we can divine in our desperate interpretations of this event and that . . . In the absence of knowing, then, what we’ll see, we can

Give it a try -- supply your own caption

only let go of the need to know, which sometimes comes in the form of patience and other times forgiveness, and cultivate those states of mind — love, compassion, positivity — that lead to healing.

The “unfortunate” PET scan of May has unfolded into some of the greatest experiences of Mom’s life, not to mention mine, Carrie’s, and many others’.  Who, then, will claim to know that yesterday’s PET scan can be “bad news”?

That camino continues, and we’ll all be walking with Mom as she walks it.


* The original Mark ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb, and saying “nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  (How the writer of Mark knew what they saw when they said nothing to anyone is another story.)  In Mark, there is no Resurrection, and without the decades-later additions of Matthew, Luke, and John, Christianity as we know it would not exist.

Ode to feet

During our daily camino walk and climbing as well as blisters and other foot related maladies that I observed in other people, I was thinking about feet.

How unappreciative we usually are of our feet and the miracle they perform without us giving it a second thought. We spend a lot of money on hair, make up, nails. O.K. Some people have pedicures. I had my first one only a couple of months ago.

Usually, we just put on socks, shoes and run off. The first time I thought how very grateful I was for my feet was 2 years ago. One morning, while walking into the kitchen, I felt a sudden, sharp pain. I cried out and looked down what I’d stepped on. There was nothing. Puzzled, I looked at my right heel, sure that there would be a glass shard embedded. Nothing. The pain continued with each step and was so bad that I tried walking on tip toe.

I figured I probably pulled some muscle or small ligament and it would disappear after a few days. Well, it didn’t. I hobbled around doing my chores. I went on errands with the car and then hobbled into the store. I really have a high pain tolerance but this was getting worse. I had to stop walking. I had to stop volunteering at the soup kitchen, where I’d been chef once a week for 3+ months.

I took Ibuprofen, Tylenol, the usual. I was stuck in the house and getting depressed. I kept saying to my friends, ‘If I can’t walk anymore, they may as well shoot me.’ No one could tell me what the matter was. I gained weight for lack of walking. One day, I put the symptoms on Web MD. There was this odd name: Plantar’s Fasciitis. Now, I had a name but the prognosis was not very encouraging. I asked around and found a very capable therapist. For a month I went there and had electro-therapy.

While laying there, with nothing to do, for an hour, I talked. Poor guy had no choice . I’m glad to say that he and his wife became dear friends. Shortly after that, I changed my lifestyle due to cancer.

If someone would’ve said to me, a few years ago that what I was putting my mouth was wrong, I would’ve scoffed at them. I mean, I selected my vegetables carefully, I did not eat fast food, had no cokes or sweet tea, I didn’t even eat a lot but still had gained weight.

Well. Then when I did all that research on cancer and other immune illnesses, a light bulb came on. (Ten years prior, when I had cancer, I had eaten better and healthier but after my chemo and tests I thought ‘now, it’s gone’ and went back to my meat, sauces and oil/butter cooked foods.

It wasn’t long after I converted to Vegan, that a host of problems disappeared. Plantar’s Fasciitis has not returned.

I was absolutely certain that once people saw what it did for me, they’d be just so happy. They’d immediately copy it. (Some did.) Others were so full of resistance that I had to shut up about it.  Others tried it for a little while and because it’s not easy, in the beginning, they stopped, or, they changed it without the getting the great results. That was huge surprise and it continues to amaze me how people just want to have their crap (and eat it too.)

But, when I think of what my FEET accomplished I feel so very happy and grateful that something made me listen and change. I am in awe, that they carried me these hundreds of miles without a whimper. (The blisters don’t count.) I treat my feet much better now. I don’t need expensive pedicures.

Casanova Mato, Arzua, Pedrouzo, and Santiago

From October 12 on . . .

After some confusion and miscommunication about the transport of Quasimodo, we set off around 7:30a.m.  It’s still dark, with a full moon.  Going past a forest and up a hill.  Mist rising in the valley, and we’re walking with Rene, from Jena.  He’s into holistic medicine and also works with crystals.  Walking is brisk in the morning and our path goes uphill quite a bit.  I am truly amazed how hilly Spain is!

We stop at a store and I buy fruit and my beloved Spanish pepper.  Someone should import these.  When I think of the ones back home, in comparison, they seem plastic.  Temps were going up to 32C.  My whole body got hot as I still wore two pairs of socks (so as not to blister).  Also greased my feet and toes with Nivea.  We stop at one little bar and have a fresh and natural raspberry drink.  Oh, my, that was so good!

Mainly we walk through sunlit forests, but we’re still going up.  One particular steep hill — I dedicated this one to my cousin Renate.  Another for my sister, brother, and close friends.  There are enough hills here for half of the people in Montrose.  Sure was glad when the 17+kms were done today.  Now I’m sitting under an old gnarly apple tree, looking out at hilly landscape, and wide swatches of fall colors.  Birds are singing, and it’s another peaceful spot.

Stopped in Casanova Mato.  The refugio is right on the road.  There are only five houses here, and no store.  Carrie and I are ahead of Cameron, who took advantage of free wi-fi and stayed longer at the last spot.  The woman talks very rapidly in answer to my questions.  I tell her, “No habla Espanol.”  It’s nice and clean and has a kitchen.  This was put in as a joke, since there’s no store here.  We showered with the usual sound of ahhhhhhh.

Cameron caught up.  We were told that there was an albergue 1.5km away that would pick us up.  That was too far to walk, even for very hungry pilgrims.  We got a very good lentil soup — we ate two plates each.  Then meatballs, home-made fries, peas and carrots, all in a nice sauce.  Water, bread, wine.  A very reasonably priced good meal.  We are happy campers.  We were chauffered back and I told Carrie that I could purr like a cat now.

There are ten bunks total, and they’re all filled up.  I read a bit, and talked to a German woman next to me, who has walked from France, but by a different route.  The street light shines right into my face, and I had to put my mask on.  Then I woke up, out of a deep sleep, because the Spanish couples came in, talking, rustling.  Finally, quiet, until one of them starts snoring.  Deep, loud, and going on most of the night.  I was dismayed, thinking of the long hike ahead with barely any sleep.

Got up at 5:30 and got ready.  Again only one bathroom for all of us.  We left at 6:15, one cup of tea and one small piece of bread we’d brought from the restaurant last night.  Carrie was the only one who had a light.  Cameron lost his, and mine was empty, as I’d used it to read.  There was a full moon, but of no use, since we had to go through a very dark forest.  And so we trekked along.  After 4-plus kilometers, I shared the last bit of chocolate, which only made us more hungry.

Cameron figured we’d have to walk about 9km before reaching a larger place.  I was thinking of all these refugees who walk for days without food.  Finally, we saw a large city and we knew there was a bar open somewhere.  Having come up some more steep hills, I was famished.  We walked around a corner and there it was.  We could have pizza and sandwiches, and there was Internet and cafe con leche!  Almost paradise.

We stayed for over an hour.

Ten more kilometers to go.  I would never have guessed how many hills Spain actually has.  We’re going through lovely forests, but also steep inclines.  I dedicated each to a different person.  My heart friends:  Irene, Bonnie, Inge, Carla.  The next hills to Rowena, Jayne, and Willa Kay.  The last steep one to Cameron.  Then suddenly I felt shaky and dizzy.  We stopped and Carrie gave me a banana, and then we kept going.

The stench of liquid manure, pig farms, etc., is overwhelming.  As beautiful as Galicia is, so far it smells the worst of all.  In between, we would smell natural scents of hay, dry leaves, eucalyptus, fennel, roses, mushrooms, and even camomille.  We were ecstatic.  We arrived at the next town, but then decided not to stay in another dormitory with noisy people.

We took a taxi for a few kilometers to Arzua and checked into a hostel with nice, soft beds and towels.  After the usual shower, Carrie and I took off to find a grocery store, and when we did, and the automated door of the grocery store opened, we both said, “Ahhh, look how pretty!”  There were shelves of food, and it was very clean.  I went to the produce section and almost wept with joy.  Everything was there, and my wonderful red peppers too.  I bought grapes and cheese, bread, yogurt, tomatoes, salad, and dressing, plus plastic plates.  We came back and had a picnic on the bed.

We had found Internet (expensive as usual).  I also thought of the high prices they charge along the way for a small cup of coffee and a piece of toast, 3 Euros.  We haven’t seen much of this town, so very near Santiago, but we are too tired.  Carrie and I watched some Spanish soap opera, and laughed at the bad acting.  And since we didn’t understand, we made up our own dialogue.

I want to make sure of this distinction:  that we only know the food on the Camino.  I am not saying all food in Spain is this indifferent.  We don’t know how people eat elsewhere in Spain.  There simply isn’t any desire nor creativity to be different along the Way.  Cameron suggested starting a moveable deli, starting at one point and moving along to meet pilgrims wherever possible.


We’re in Pedrouzo now.  This is a very nice albergue.  Near new, clean, wooden bunks, sheets and pillows.  In the middle of the dormitory is a plant topiary with soothing water running.  There’s nice soft music playing overhead, and it’s truly an oasis.  The usual ritual followed:  I washed all clothes — in a machine – and hung them out in the fresh air and sun.  Then Carrie and I went looking for a grocery store.  Not many choices, they said, since it was Saturday.  But we found one and got the usual:  bread, cheese, grapes, and white asparagus for me.

We ran into Rene, who was staying there as well, and he joined us outside for dinner.  He talked of his journey, and disappointments.  How unfriendly, unsmiling the business people, waiters, etc., on the Camino had been.  He was upset at the cruelty to and neglect of the animals.  “You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat their animals,” he stated.  Then he asked me if it was true that people in the U.S. had the claws from their cats removed?  I said yes, I had seen a few without claws.  He said, “It’s just like ripping out your toes.”  He was visibly upset, put his face in his hands, and just shook his head.

Next morning, sure enough, the rustling and bathroom-goers started at 5a.m.  Then, as people walked into the hallway, a light came on automatically, and shone in everyone’s faces.  They need taller walls — the kind that go all the way up to the ceiling.  I got up at 6a.m., Carrie did too.  I went to the coffee machine to have a cup.  It made such a racket that I walked away so no one would know that it was me!

Cameron needed to work some more while he had wi-fi, but since it would be 20-plus kilometers, I wanted to leave at the agreed-upon time of 7a.m.  Carrie and I left and made our way, looking for our yellow arrow.  Here came the forest . . . deeep and dark.

She cranked up her light, and then we remembered that Cameron wouldn’t have a light.  Back she went a little way, left her penlight and a note.  I doubted that he would see it, but hoped that he would find some other pilgrims coming through.  After a while, Carrie and I agreed that we’d never have done this at home.  We actually felt safe here.

Finally, a different path, then forest again.  Then small hamlets started to appear.  Same slate-stone houses, with corncribs.  By now, we would know that if there were six houses, two to three would be in ruins.  After an hour or so we saw our first bar.  Stopped for cafe con leche and Carrie had a fresh OJ.  We waited 20 minutes, then moved on.  I told her that Cameron would catch up, probably singing, “She’s a lady, woh woh woh, she’s a lady.”


Last kilometers into Santiago

I am catching up the blog but have to rely now on my journal as memories fade already to exact words and thoughts.

As we were walking  the last kilometers I was thinking about the trip. Did I have expectations? No. Did I have any regrets? None whatsoever. Will I be disappointed if results turn out different? No, not really. It has been a fantastic journey, in many more ways than one.

I was wondering what that last, steep hill would be like? I’d read about it in 2 different books and was a bit nervous. But, if I can climb the Pyrenees then I can climb this one too. We came closer to Santiago and some people sped up. We stopped at a mount with a huge wall with a likeness of the Pope on it. Then went on. When we actually came upon a hill I went up without comment (or sigh) and when we came down I realized that this was ‘the hill’ they had described as so difficult. Phhhht!! Totally anticlimactic. Whiners, both of those authors. Unless they or someone moved the mountain.

On we went to Santiago but curiously did not feel a whole lot. There were large, box-like Apartment Housings, 60’s style that seems to be the same all over the world, in cities. Since it was Sunday, shops were closed. I had had the shakes earlier on and I believe I’m missing vital nutrients besides this daily, physical hardship. We must’ve walked 2-3 km when we finally came upon a cafe and sat down. After a small respit, on we went and then saw the historical section. There were lots of people walking around the small, cobble stone streets. I saw spires from the back and other nice buildings. We met an American couple, who were visiting Santiago for the second time, liking it that much. They told us that we were the first, actual pilgrims they had seen in three days.

I had told Cameron earlier that I did not feel I had arrived until I would see the cathedral. The absolute finishing point of the camino. When we came around to the front, ‘Timothy’ came back once more, lodging in my throat. There it was. The End. I had absolutely made it. Through grueling mountains and long, hot hiking, sunburn, toe injuries, hunger, thirst, and double blisters. Santiago de Compostella. I remembered a sign we had seen, right after St. Jean pie de Port, which stated 792 Km to Santiago and how I thought what a LONG way away this was. Now, I was here and tears came. Then, Cameron reached into his backpack and came out with red carnations. Like a magician. He had carried those 2 flowers for awhile. That really opened the water works, We hugged one another and then group hug for us three, so happy to have arrived.  Happy shock. The couple had also come around and congratulated us and took a few photos, promising to e-mail them. 









Just When You Thought It Was Over: Portugal

City of Port

If you learn nothing else from this post, you will remember that Porto, also called Oporto (“O” being the Portuguese “the”) in both English and “Portuguese” (explanation of quotes below), is the second-largest city in Portugal and the origin of Port wine.

I knew the latter even before we took a tour of an award-winning port wine maker clustered on the river with dozens of its peers. I learned, from our Botswana-born guide, that the makers prefer French and American oak for their barrels, that port is made by interrupting the fermentation process with a heavy infusion of grape alcohol, and that the ruby and tawny ports I often see are the two middle rungs of port wine, with vintage being the newest and least expensive, and reserves, running from 20 to over 40 years old, being the oldest and most expensive.

We sat down at a sawed-off barrel with a Dutch couple and began tasting. I don’t think I’d ever had white port wine before; they offered a dry one and a sweet one, both very good. I tried a 20-year-old reserve, and bought a sweet medium-red tawny.

Who will give me an excuse to open it? Please complete your application in the Comments section of the blog. Especially interesting applications may be emailed in confidence.

The drive from Galicia took about three-and-a-quarter hours, and was a continuation of the beautiful, green, hilly country we’d seen in Spain, but it looked better maintained. It was hazy all day, for the entire distance we covered.

I’m sure Porto has culture, and in the distance I’m pretty sure I saw churches and palaces and whatnot, but my interest was focused like a laser beam on (1) doing nothing and (2) finding civilian clothes. For a month I have worn two shirts, two socks, two pairs of underwear – I was like the Noah’s Ark of hiking gear. I discovered in Porto that I had an inner metrosexual, and he wanted to come out.

We pretty much accomplished all these goals on the Via Catarina, a long, narrow, pedestrian shopping street, and during a few visits to the Majestic Café, a carved-wood-and-mirror Nouveau Art creation in which I could imagine Hemingway, its contemporary when it opened in 1923, sitting down to write. They are so proud of being able to cook a proper spaghetti Bolognese – which is to say about half as good as Mom’s – that they will take from you about $17 for a bowl the size of an appetizer dish. But they will speak English to you, like many Portuguese seem to do – they even seem to prefer it to Spanish.

Portugal lives in the shadow of Spain, its much larger, more populous, less poor country, and so to carve out their own distinct identity, the Portuguese have sort of agreed they will speak Spanish with a Russian accent. This they call “Portuguese”.

Things get really confusing when you hear a Russian immigrant speak “Portuguese”, or when you ask a Portuguese if he or she would prefer that you speak English or Spanish. “English,” they always say. This is because saying “Spanish” would simply reveal their secret: they are already speaking Spanish, just with a heavy Slavic accent.

The notion of customer service was stronger in Porto than on the Camino. Our first interaction was with the proprietor of a café-bar who (it would not be too much to say) hurdled over the counter to come and translate his menu for us. Everywhere we went, people were very friendly and accommodating.

Kudos especially to the woman who harvested an entire wall of its

No dummies were hurt in this demonstration

sweaters, and even brutally amputated a mannequin, in an attempt to get me to buy a sweater; the friendly young man at Zara who worked his mic like Madonna and who professed not to believe that I had never, as I told him, been as cool as he was, and therefore could not wear some of the items he was suggesting to me; and the salesman at Massimo Dutti, which I have decided is superior to Zara for men over 35, for lightening my wallet more than all the others combined.

I took care to hold on to my receipts, though. Taxes on clothes make up a whopping 23% of the listed price, but the foreigner can get back 19% at the airport. This helps a lot when you’re contemplating a 220-Euro winter coat at Massimo Dutti. Curiously, there is a minimum purchase of about 60 Euros, as if the authorities (in Portugal and elsewhere, actually) don’t want to administrative overhead of dealing with small receipts. But this creates a disincentive to buy single articles from smaller, mom-and-pop merchants, and likely benefits mostly the department stores and expensive retailers.

Many of the churches in Porto look as if they were built from the French Country section of Pottery Barn, being faced with a combination of somewhat grimy stonework that frames large, eye-catching expanses of blue-and-white Delph tiles depicting Biblical stories.

We took a double-decker bus around town. Mom on the bus ride along the ocean reminded me of a little girl, which is another way of saying that she’s able to be open and present to things as if she’s never seen them before. Ohhh! Look at that! It’s crashing! Do you hear it! I’ve got to catch that! It was amazing. I felt so stick-in-the-mud. We got off the tour bus on the avenue of port wine makers. “When will the bus return here?” I asked. “One hour,” the woman said firmly.

Fifty minutes later it paused briefly at the bus stop, a block away from us, and left without us.

For dinner that night I decided to try bacalao, or cod, which I’d had once in Spain, but which is considered a national dish in Portugal. Probably I should have waited until we were in a finer restaurant. Though I ordered it “grilled,” there was so much oil on my plate I could have run my BMW on it. I literally spooned it like soup. The fish itself, as prepared, was nothing to write a blog home about.


In Lisbon yesterday we began with a series of small disasters. The tourist office called about five hotels but all were booked. No problem: I’d look them up on the Internet. Then I discovered that after about 30 straight days of remembering to pack all of my electronics gear every day, I’d left behind my MacBook Air’s power cord. I’d used the battery on the bus, and it was almost dead. My Vodafone USB stick has been done for since Saturday.

We dealt with these setbacks by having lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Carrie was in heaven. Mom loved her salad. The mac and cheese was pretty good. Afterward, we marched into a Starbucks that’s surely located in one of the most beautiful buildings for any Starbucks, and I madly tried to book a hotel on any of Priceline, Travelocity, or Venere. My power reached 2% and I booked a place called Caza Latina. We jumped in a cab and drove uptown to the address.

There was no sign. “This is a hotel?” I asked the driver. He shrugged, pointing out that he’d just brought us to the desired address. Obvious locals sat around at some tables at the joint next door. They told me, I thought, that it was a hotel. I then saw the “Latina” plate next to the buzzer marked #1. I buzzed. And buzzed. No one. I buzzed one marked “Porto” and this brought forth an angry charging dog dressed as an old Portuguese woman. By this time I was cursing with her. I established that she was not with the hotel, and though she was not done with her rant, I said goodbye to her and walked up the stairs. No sign. Nothing indicating a hotel or any commercial establishment. No open doors. Nobody.

On the sidewalk we considered our options. Finally we hailed another cab to take us to an Internet café whose address (like an Apple reseller’s) I’d looked up while in Starbucks. A miscommunication delivered us to the Apple reseller instead. He had no more power cords. But he was very generous: he said I could charge up and use the wi-fi. He also pointed out the coffee. Wow.

On Prieline, I found a two-star hotel near the Apolonia metro station. The rooms had single beds of the sort you’d see in the army, if you were in the army in one of Portugal’s former African colonies. A sign warned against “eating or drinking in the room”, but the presence of an unwalled sink and bidet added, “but do feel free, out in the open, to wash your ass”. The manager was extremely helpful in calling the hotel in Porto and having them ship my power cord.

Then we headed out for the ocean, two blocks away, but we were stymied because the ocean, it seemed, had been fenced off. For miles and miles.  Never seen anything like it.  So we went to an Indian restaurant, opened the place up (at 6:30), and had a fantastic meal. We were the only patrons, and it wasn’t just that restaurant: block after block, restaurant tables were empty.

I asked Mom and Carrie what felt different or what they missed now that the Camino was over. “I miss Julio!” Carrie said. Mom said, “I miss Julio’s encouragement, and I miss Marie Anne’s laughter. I also miss walking a little every day.”

I will write more later about our dawning realization that we have left what screenwriters call the Special World.  We bring, I suppose, the precious elixir from our journey back to the Ordinary World.  But we also know that the other reality is now imminent.

The End of This Way

Pedrouzo to Santiago – 18km

We weren’t in a hurry this morning.  For most of the walk we went at a leisurely pace, putting me in mind of the pilgrims to Canterbury, England, who once rode their horses and donkeys toward their destination at neither a slow trot nor a fast gallop, but somewhere in between, which is why we now have the word canter.

If you think Priceline (above) is confusing, definitely avoid

I did start late, though, and so spent the first hour or so catching up to Mom and Carrie.  I had stayed behind at the albergue to try to get a car rental from Santiago to Lisbon, and I worked at this until I realized several things:  (1) Priceline’s notions of arithmetic are akin to Camino café-bars’ ideas about spaghetti Bolognese (2) car rental giant has not yet entered the era of user-friendliness or common sense, to put it mildly, and (3) it is impossible to rent a car one-way in Europe for a price less than that of booking a private jet.

We’re at about the 42nd parallel, which is perhaps near the California-Oregon border in the U.S., but it’s still dark until well after eight a.m. because while the Spanish discovered America for Europe, they haven’t yet discovered Daylight Savings Time.

About forty-five minutes after Mom and Carrie had gone, I left Pedrouzo at a fast pace and found myself in a dark wood.  Two roads diverged in the wood, and I, I . . .

I waited for some pilgrims who hadn’t lost their headlamps.  Instead I got pilgrims who had no lights at all, and one who tried to use his phone.  The wood was so dark that I couldn’t even make out the ubiquitous Pilgrim Litter Navigation System.  Once a group of ten of us had bunched up, murmuring in three or four different languages, we concluded via groupthink to take the wider path, a decision that, unlike the Bay of Pigs, worked out pretty well.  I caught Mom and Carrie about an hour later, and I was pouring sweat.  I don’t remember the song I was singing as I came up from behind, but they were convincingly disappointed that it wasn’t “She’s a Lady”.

A Spaniard on a bike asked us if we’d seen a group of four men, including one with a beard.  No, we hadn’t.  Why?  Well, the bearded man and a woman had fallen in love some stages back, and then they’d gotten separated.  The biker was trying to find the man to deliver a letter from the woman that included information on how to contact her.  Awww, how sweet, right?

No.  I am sorry, but better the letter is never delivered at all.  If two people allegedly in love can’t think to negotiate contact information, what hope is there that they’ll remember to have sex, or to stop at the grocery store on the way home?

Not long afterward, we passed a pilgrim coming back from Santiago.  He was walking back to France – that is, doubling his trip.  We’d already run into an Austrian woman, perhaps late 40s or early 50s, who had begun in Toulose, France — 750 kilometers before the start of our own walk.

For Second Breakfast, I asked for the Espaguetti a la Carbonara.  Based on my bolonaise experience thus far on the Camino, I knew this was risky; my espaguetti could arrive with octopus on top, and in a pesto sauce.  Mom, feeling lucky, said she’d have one too.  But the man at the bar informed us that, sadly, there was only one.  Mom looked at the man, then at me.

“What did they do with the other one?”

A few kilometers later, she left her despised orange shirt on a sign that had been vandalized beyond usefulness anyway.  We had walked twenty yards away from it when she said, “Oh, God, now it’s whining.”  I thought she was joking, but she turned around to go back and get it.  I took out my camera, but she had turned around again.  “There are people coming,” she said sheepishly.

We walked on.  She got shaky again.  “It must be this food,” she said.  “My body is just all messed up lately.  I’ve got to get back on my diet.  I haven’t felt so many problems in my body in two years.”

Reaching Santiago

There’s not much to say about the last stage to Santiago.  After the early forests and some brief bits of farmland in ruin, we walked on backroads bordered by some aggressively ugly houses, through sparsely settled suburbs, near an active firing range where all the suburban warriors were belting out double-taps, Navy-SEAL-style, and through Santiago’s outskirts, which, like a bride’s skirts, seemed to go on forever.  We were in Santiago itself, but instead of the steep final hill that some guidebooks went on about, we were tested only by a tolerance for boredom.  Said Mom, “I won’t feel I’ve arrived until I see the cathedral.”

With a little less than a mile to go, we took a break.  I took off my trail-running shoes and discovered my first blisters, including a 2” x 3” job on my right foot and several on my toes.  The unnecessary river crossing I had done two days ago had gotten my minimalist footwear wet, and they hadn’t dried out by yesterday.  I had worn them anyway, with wool socks, but wearing them at all may have been a mistake.  You never want moisture near your foot when you walk a long way.

I took out a pair of scissors and did the kind of surgery that makes fifteen-year-old girls blanch, and then I put on my FiveFingers.  They had done almost all the work that got me here, and I would not, as Yahweh had done Moses, deny them the Promised Land right on the verge of it.

On our way to the plaza of the cathedral, we met two Seattle tourists who seem to have felt sort of bad because they’d gotten to Santiago by car.  Mom chatted with them a bit before we had to answer the magnetic pull of the finish line just a few blocks away.

When Jesus Meets Me in the Sky

I was thinking of Julio’s words to me.  “When you get to Santiago,” he’d said, “the local townspeople will greet you and offer to take you to their homes.  You’ll have dinner with them and stay the night with them.  It is a tradition there.”

I could just envision it.  People would line the road like in the Tour de France, holding out bunches of wildflowers they’d picked themselves.  Small children would squirm on their father’s shoulders, and teenagers would clamber onto the first-floor ledges of buildings, or hang from fire escapes and drain pipes.  Everyone would cry out huzzahs and hosannas.  Sloe-eyed and slender Spanish women would blow kisses.  Old women would clutch at their rosaries.

I would pick up my poles and jog around the plaza in a victory lap, but the people’s joy would not be so easily contained, oh no.  They would lift us up on their shoulders and sing to us traditional Galician songs, songs so old they were once sung by Pagans, and they would parade us around the square.  When they finally set us down, all of us laughing ourselves to tears, a member of the Knights Templar would step out of the shadows and explain that the brotherhood still existed, after all these centuries, and could I please join – nay, lead — them?

The cathedral was well-hidden on the far side of Santiago.  Also hidden were the townspeople and their homes, the huzzahs and the women, young and old.  There were no tears, there were no kisses, and the Knights Templar remained a figment of Dan Brown’s imagination.  We would stay in a pension, the Santa Cruz, run by an extremely helpful Spaniard who insisted on walking us places rather than simply give directions.

The Cathedral, and a Sort of Finish Line

The cathedral seems situated for maximum impact.  You see only spires as you approach, and then the back and side.  Then you go through a stone archway into the plaza and face the building opposite the cathedral.  And once we entered the plaza of the cathedral, I focused on watching, and filming, Mom walking ahead of me.  I surprised myself by getting a little choked up, but I’m pretty sure it was because I forgot to take my meds.

“Oh, we’re here!” she said.

Mom holds out the credentials stamped by all the albergues on the way

“You made it!” I told her.  “You did it.”

I handed Carrie the camera and hauled my backpack over to Mom.  I set it down and extracted the two battered red carnations I’d stored in it since the night before, and when she saw them she started crying again.  She didn’t even care that the stem of one was now only eight inches long.  When I pulled out the sixteen inches of the rest of the stem, she reached for that too.

Our Seattle friends

The Video 

Our Seattle friends now materialized before us and took pictures. [Read our correspondence from over four years later, in November 2015 – opens in new tab].

“We’ve been here for days,” the man said, “and you’re the first pilgrims we’ve gotten to talk to.  You guys have really accomplished something.”  It was strangely wonderful to have some witnesses, to call them that, who were fully willing to join in something so late in the day and yet still get something from it, and who gave something back.

In the cathedral floor — where you go if you don’t burn enough karma, or whatever, on the Camino

It was almost as an afterthought that we toured the cathedral.  It did not impress as much as the ones in Burgos and Leon.  There are three world-class cathedrals on the Camino:  in Burgos, Leon, and Santiago.  Burgos boasts most of the gold in South America.  Leon, its magnificent stained-glass windows.  My favorite, though, was the one in Los Arcos, because that is where something magical happened, as a father mourned his lost son, and we were witnesses to his love.  What matters, in a cathedral, is simply who’s inside it.

Nearby, we found the Pilgrims’ Office and got our Camino certificates, in Latin, which, as I work it out, means they came straight from the Vatican.

But it ain’t over till the mochilas come home.  We still had to schlep across town and pick up Mom and Carrie’s backpacks.  They were at the seminary, which turned out to be down a steep hill, up a steep hill . . .

“I’m glad we’re not staying there,” Mom said as we got close.  “It looks like a prison!  Look at the bars on the windows.”

“That’s to keep out the nuns,” I said.  Carrie then learned that a

The Seminary

seminary is an all-male facility, which we know because it shares the same root as semen.  She will have so much to share in her school report when she gets back to Colorado!

We ran into Devin, of Canada, who had walked 60km in 24 hours and now had severe tendinitis in both legs.  “I saw the sign for 50 kilometers,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I could be in Santiago by tomorrow morning.'”  We saw the 19-year-old New Zealand woman who had sped across Spain alone, on a deadline to catch a plane to London.  And Mom was overjoyed to find Barbara of Bavaria, whose husband had surprised her for their 26th wedding anniversary by flying out to join her on the last three days of the Camino.  She had walked him for 35km the first day.  “You people have got to be crazy,” he said.

Reunion with Barbara of Bavaria – in Santiago

What Have You Learned?

“When people ask you what you learned on this trip,” Mom said to Carrie, “what are you going to tell them?”

Carrie held an imaginary microphone to her mouth and sang, She’s got style / She’s got grace . . . ”

I think that’s a job well done.  Go forth and prosper, little cousin!

Me?  I learned that Galicia, especially the countryside, is in a state of disrepair.  My friend Adam, a longtime student of Spanish and Latin American history, and who is right about things that don’t really matter exactly 63% of the time, says that Galicia was depopulated during the 20th century.  The guidebooks don’t often mention that until less than forty years ago, Spain was isolated and in decline under the right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

I learned that if you’re a Pope, you can fly into Santiago in a private jet, slide into your Popemobile, and, having materialized at home base, as it were, receive the designation of “pilgrim”.

I learned that miracles are possible.  For example, in the hurly-burly of travel, I had lost both the little rubber earbuds to my iPod’s headphones.  For weeks, I stuffed the hard metal tips into my ears.  They fell out easily.  It was a hard, hard existence.  But one day, as I was walking along, I saw, draped over a branch on one of the countless trees in Spain, a black wire.  As I drew closer, I saw that there was not one wire but several.  The tip that plugged into a music source had been ripped away, but there, before my eyes, were two rubber earbuds.  I crossed myself and harvested them, leaving the hard metal tips and the rest of the wires on the branch.  They fit my own headphones perfectly.

I learnd that if the collected works of E. Presley have taught us anything, it is that the primary anxiety of a waiter wearing blue suede shoes is that you may do anything you want to do but you should lay offa his blue suede shoes; that you can burn his house, and steal his car; that you can drink his liquor from an old fruit jar.  You can do anything, that you want to do, but you oughtta lay offa his blue suede shoes.

There is no destination.  Only the way.  Recall the book by the German comedian, if you can set aside, for a moment, the oxymoron.  The jacket copy said that since its publication, the number of pilgrims had increased by 20%.  If more people go on the Camino after my book about it, they will have missed the point.  There is no Camino.  There are only caminos.  There is no camino here.  The camino, the way, is wherever you make it.

“Buen Camino!”  We have heard that hundreds of times, from fellow pilgrims afoot, from bikers, and from the Spanish.  But at no time does it seem more appropriate than now, once we’ve reached Santiago.

“Have a good Way!”

Chief Expedition Videographer, Biographer, and Podiatrist

Next to Last Day: Arzúa to Pedrouzo

Arzúa to Pedrouzo

In Arzúa’s  hostal, I slept well until the early morning.  Instead of being awakened by the rustling of pilgrims, there were other noises.  The sound of scuba gear, for example, with all the oxygen tanks, being dumped into showers upstairs.  A body dragged across the floor.  An entire roomful of furniture being moved across, scraped on, and dropped on the oddly uncarpeted tiled floor on which the hostals here insist.  Then everything was moved back again.  The body propped up in a chair.

Once again we walked a long way in the dark, using Carrie’s wind-up light.  The going was slow.  My thoughts went to the surprising, and large, prepayment penalty I’d just been assessed on my home loan.  I thought it might have been avoidable if I’d given the matter more of my attention, but before the blame could really lock in I reminded myself that I had juggled a superhuman number of things before I’d left for the trip, and I decided to let the money go, which is to say, to forgive myself.  Besides, when we hold on to money, we are trapped in a mindset of scarcity.  You don’t have to believe in something called a law of attraction to grasp that thinking money is scarce and hard to come by will create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We were very hungry, and Mom needed to rest.  But there were no places to stop, other than stones on the trail.  We kept walking.  At about 7 kilometers, we saw up ahead another mirage – a site for Second Breakfast?  Yes!  I began to hum, and then to whistle, “Ode to Joy”.

I stayed there a while, and Mom and Carrie went on ahead.  I find that I prefer to start from behind and then catch up.  I may have falsely accused myself of competitiveness the other day.  I just feel better at 5 to 7 kilometers per hour.  I don’t get sore, and my bones, legs, and feet don’t hurt.  So, for the last time on this trip, I turned it on, and it was good.

Think of something funny, my boss said.  For the blog.

I got nothing funny.  Trying to walk here.

Then do profound.

Also not.  (Now my boss had me using German grammar).

Instead, relieved of the pace of 3 kilometers per hour, I was free to sing to myself, and also to the black-and-white Hereford cows I passed:

She’s got style

She’s got grace

And she’ll squirt milk

in your face

cause she’s a caa-ow

You who judge me, or dismissively recommend a karaoke exorcism, simply reveal the depths of your own ignorance.  It so happens that at my stride length, “She’s a Lady” offers the perfect rhythm for walking 7 kilometers per hour.  Go ahead.  Measure a three-foot stride, walk for an hour, and see if you don’t cover seven kilometers.


The Albergue Porta de Santiago, in Pedrouzo, was one of the most modern we’ve seen, and one of the most attractive.  It is one of perhaps three albergues on the entire trip that has motivated me to take its picture.  I especially salute the designers for the happy Feng Shui of their glassed-in plants, and for using solid, well-constructed wooden bunks in place of rickety aluminum, and wooden slats in place of springs.  (Noise control, however, would be much better if they used walls that went to the ceiling.  As it is, there is no way for pilgrims to pack or even exit without pilgrims on the other side of the eight-foot partial wall hearing them).

Rene was already there when we arrived, resting his sore bones inside his sleeping bag.  Next to the Feng Shui area, naturally.  He grinned at me every time I passed, which I did a lot in order to get on the free wi-fi.  The proprietor gravely informed me that the password to the wi-fi was “un secreto,” and only he could type it in.  Rene grinned really big when he saw me with my laptop.  He assumes that the only thing that can be done on a computer is work, whereas I live much of my life on it, including 46% of the fun parts.

The next day would be our last on the Camino.

Freud’s Sun

The Demise of the Beautiful

Before Julio and Marie Anne had to leave us, Julio said that Marie Anne would be sad once she got back to France.  “She is always sad when a walk ends,” he said.  And indeed she was, as he reported a few days later.  There’s something interesting here.  She was sick during much of the trip.  Over the summer she had fallen out of her usual walking shape, with the result that she struggled every day and was always falling behind.  And of course she slept with the masses, and ate food designed for them too.

So what did she miss?  The camaraderie?  The slowing-down mindfulness of walking?  Freaking Julio?

Carrie, too, said she was already sad at the prospect of the walk being over.

I don’t have this.  On the other hand, I did at least enjoy myself while it was going on.  In working with clients (not to mention myself, my most intractable client), I often think of Freud and a colleague walking in the evening, or perhaps it was morning.  Freud pointed out the magnificent sunset, but his colleague did not want to look.  He said something like, “It will only go away, and then I’ll be sad.”  A lot of us, a lot of the time, live our lives that way.

Notes from Kilometer 18, Give or Take

Oy.  I am knackered.  Currently in Arca, or Pedrouzo, or Arca Pedrouzo, or Arca (Pedrouzo) – it all depends on the sign you read.  Just as whether we’ve traveled 40 or 43 kilometers in the last two days depends on whether you believe the piece of paper given us by the French, the somewhat suspicious Galician kilometerstones, or your lyin’ legs.  In any event, we’re at about Kilometer 18 – or about six hours’ walk from Santiago, which we’ll reach tomorrow.

A few days ago I was going to write here that I’ve finally gotten the hang of all this walking business.  By the time we reach Santiago, I thought, I’d be in shape to walk this Camino.  But yesterday the bones (or something; ligaments?) of my legs hurt. And today it was the bottoms of my feet.  We’ve been resting for hours, and they’re still sore.  It’s like a dwarf pounded on them with a wooden mixing spoon.  Why a dwarf?  I don’t know.  Imagery.

Let’s catch up, shall we?

Spanish Pilgrims

The Spanish (all references to “the Spanish” here expressly exclude Julio) keep to themselves, somewhat like the Asians.  Everyone else on the Camino interacts with one another.  In the Asians’ case, I think it is a matter of language and culture.  If they speak English, or want to talk, they don’t let on.  In the case of the Spaniards, it is both the lack of a common language (few speak English, the common language of the non-Spanish pilgrims) and the Spaniards’ lesser need to seek out friendship:  their own friends are just around the corner.  And who else but the Spanish can take just two or four days to walk on the Camino?

Lejos!” they say, when I answer that I am from the United States.  Anywhere in the U.S. but New York is, in their minds, even farther away.

The Spanish are also not as much in the moment, perhaps because they are in their own country, so they have not, in a sense, left their old lives behind.  They are still on the same cell phone plans, and they, unique among the nationalities here, carry their phones with them around the albergues, or can even be heard talking on the Camino itself.  I’ve seen Spanish Camino bikers ride by wearing earbuds.  “Buen Camino!” one called out to us, and then continued talking into his cell phone’s microphone as he rolled past.  Really, why bother with the Camino?  You can do that on a stationary bike in your local gym.

On Toilets

I think it’s time we had a serious, adult conversation about toilets in Europe, and perhaps especially in less developed Europe.  The traveler to certain parts of Europe, like points on the Camino, cannot help but notice that there must not be a distribution channel for toilet seats in these areas.  There the commode sits, fine white porcelain, yet bereft of any place for you to sit.  Except that you are supposed to sit.  You must sit.  And if you are a man, you will sit where the splashing from other men goes.  On the porcelain itself.

Was there, at some point, a rash of toilet-seat thefts by tourists or pilgrims?  Where would you put one?  My driver’s ed teacher in high school made his bathroom pass a toilet seat precisely because they can’t be hidden.

At least it’s not southern Italy, whose toilets alone (last I was there, in 1989) gave it Third World (or Developing World, as we’re now supposed to say) status.  There, you get a hole in the ground.  If you’re lucky, there’s a chain or rope from the ceiling that you can clasp hold of while squatting.  I remember I was right out of college, this was in Naples, there was a long line for the bathrooms.  I walked to the front of the line just to see WTF.  There sat an unsmiling matron of a certain age, at a large desk, doling out five squares of toilet paper to each of the backpackers.  There they all stood, shifting their weight from one foot to the other, waiting for their squares.

I then went to see the toilets.  Cheesus Crise! as Julio would say.  Hole in the ground and not even a chain to hold onto.  The Romans were better sanitation engineers in 40 BCE than the Napolitanos were in 1989.

Ventas de Narón to Casanova Mato

Web with Dew

Every inhalation in Galicia brings with it a surprise.  It is an earthy, aromatic part of the world.  Woodsmoke and sorghum, fall leaves and grass, cow dung and a smell like oranges (but there are no oranges), hay that smells like camomille, soil.  Eucalyptus!  Brought in from Australia in the mistaken belief it would be useful for building.

In the morning I am inhaling the camomille-like smell in deep breaths, taking it in, imagining the freshness of it nurturing my cells, and then I am caught short by a smell so foul that my cells threaten to mutate, or at least to revolt, until once again I can smell something like tea . . .

We have left so early that we navigate by moonlight.  I have left my new headlamp somewhere, and Mom has spent so many hours reading while others sleep that her battery is dead.

Oh what a plight

Dark as dark night

Thank God for Carrie

With her wind-up light

There is a corona around the moon, like a small rainbow.  “Grandma Powell always said that meant a change in the weather,” Mom said.  “I guess that was the Indian in her.”  Grandma Powell was one-quarter Indian – Cherokee, and perhaps Blackfoot or Blackfeet (these are two distinct tribes).  The rest, as I’ve written elsewhere, was gristle.

From the hills we’re in, we can see fog blanketing the valley below.  When we enter the fog, the air is so thick with water that our packs grow wet, and the trees rain water down on us as we pass.

We pass a cemetery.  My eye catches the word “Peregrino,” Pilgrim, on a sign, and I back up to read it.

Cimetario de Peregrinos

How encouraging.  A cemetery for pilgrims who fell between the 80th and 60th kilometers.

Mom said she read in her book, the one by the German comedian, that only 16% of pilgrims finish the Camino.

We are still navigating by moonlight, and when we enter the trees and the moonlight can’t penetrate, we navigate by litter.  Pilgrim litter is far more reliably ever-present than the Camino’s fabled yellow arrow.

My mind is still working on yesterday’s legal kerfuffle.  It’s also working out solutions to the electronic document signing on Friday.

Secure DocuSign signature starts with the preparer of the document having the email address of the signatories and giving them a password.  Title company inexperienced with DocuSign, won’t think to require a password.  Person clicking on the signature lines needs only the credentials to the email address to be used. 

And this I give to Julio, who is on his way to Madrid, by text message, with instructions for him to pass the same on to Adam, in New Jersey, by email.  Problem solved, I return to the world around me.

Dog and Corncrib (What do these things *do*?)

We will put in around 20 kilometers today.  It is almost too much for Mom.  “I wish we were already there,” she says, with a few kilometers to go.  I have noticed the same thought in myself.  I then put my attention back in the present, including on my sore legs or hips, working to remain in the now.  I suggest that she too follow Eckhart’s advice not to resist, not to want to be in the future.

“I’m not resisting,” Mom says, resisting even talk of resistance.  “It was just kind of a little hope.”

Carrie laughs.  Forget being a prophet who isn’t heard in his own house; try being a mere life coach.

Casanova Mato

We finally reach the albergue in Casanova Mato.  The older woman who runs it is handsome and officious and as helpful as she can be without speaking English.  We three go upstairs and shower, and then Carrie and I take a nap.  It is probably my second nap of the trip.  I’m finding that naptime is an excellent time to get sleep without snorers around.  Daytime has always been for me an illicit time to sleep, a hedonistic indulgence, and so it’s doubly delicious.  In fact, it’s downright —

“Wake up,” Mom says.  “It’s five-thirty.  Time to eat.”

She’s perched on the edge of her bed, shoes tied smartly.

“We just ate a few hours ago,” I say, stifling a sob.

“No, we ate at three,” she says.

Mom’s gusto for food has reached a fever-pitch on this trip.  I point out that I’m not yet hungry, and that nothing in Spain starts cooking before six-thirty, and that in fact the woman downstairs told me that the albergue a kilometer to the east opens at seven-thirty, and the one 1.5 kilometers to the west, which offers a ride, opens at six-thirty or a quarter to seven.

“I’m bored,” she says.

“Why don’t you arrange the mochilas for tomorrow?”  This will get rid of her, I think.

A young Spaniard named Álvaro helps me speak to the service that handles the mochilas, the backpacks that Mom and Carrie send ahead by car every day.  I thought I was clear to tell the mochila man that we need him to carry the mochilas from Casanova Mato to Ribadiso, but he keeps asking the name of whichever woman is downstairs.  Is it Carmen?  How the hell should I know?  We went around like this for some time.  I asked a group of four Spaniards of about my age if any of them spoke English.  They all shook their heads and pointed to Álvaro.  He got on the phone, then off.

“He is very hard to understand,” Álvaro says.  “It’s a strange dialect. I think it’s maybe his first day on the job.”

I asked Álvaro why he was on the Camino.  “Because in January my mother was very ill, and I promised if she got better . . .  She got better.”

We invited him to join us for dinner, but he’d brought his own comida, he said.  So we called the albergue, Casa Bolboreta, that served food 1.5km away, and then we were blown away by the great meal we got for 8 Euros.  Meatballs, great fries, lentil stew, water, wine – Mom said it was the second-best meal she’s had here, after the dreamy two servings of soup she got during the festival in tiny Navarette.

She and Carrie had been reading the blog and got themselves into a laughing fit.  Mom started to reminisce about a trip to Germany in the 1990s, when Oma, my mother’s mother, was still alive.  Mom had gone with her then-husband, known now as whatsizname, and they decided to take a bus tour of the Rhine Valley.  Oma invited herself along.  They’d been riding in the bus for several hours when Oma leaned across the aisle and said to Mom, “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know,” Mom said.

“Well, where is it then?”

“I don’t know that either.”

Oma, disgusted, turned to the man next to her.  “Sir,” she said, in her unmistakable (and usually incomprehensible) Bavarian accent, “d’yaknow where this bus ‘s goin?”

“Leiwen,” the man said.  She thanked him and turned back to Mom.

“Where is this Leiwen?”

“How should I know?”

“What,” Oma said, “you get on a bus and don’t even know where it’s going?”

The Albergue at Casanova Mato

The albergue itself looked a lot like the little hospital in which I was born.  Boxy, small, and, by definition, I suppose, sort of clinical.  There must be a manufacturer out there who makes albergue dormitory bunk beds, because I’ve seen them again and again on the Camino.  They’re made of hollow aluminum.  They don’t fit together well, and they squeak.

But their squeaking is nothing compared to the sound their springs make. Imagine ten windshield wipers that have lost their rubber.  I felt bad every time I got up from the bed, or sat down.  It’s not good to hold it in when you’ve got to go in the middle of the night, but some times – and I do mean only some of the time – I’m more thoughtful than is good for me.

Or maybe I still had in mind the ominous sign downstairs.  Its English translation assured us that the albergue had the right to “throw away” any “infractors” of the rules of the albergue.  (The fine print said infractors could be thrown in either a culvert or the trough of a pig (also known as pre-jamon) “at the proprietor’s sole discretion”.)

Casanova Mato to Arzua (~ Km. 60 to ~ Km. 38)

Still no grocery stores. And our albergue didn’t even serve breakfast.  The next spot on the map – there are few towns on the Galician Camino – is over 9 kilometers away.

It is cold when we start.  After thirty or so minutes, I have to take off my windbreaker and cap, leaving my two wool layers and gloves.  Then, without any change in altitude, we all suddenly walk across an invisible line and the temperature drops.

“Did you feel that?”

“Yes!  It got cold again!”

We walk on for a bit, and then it’s like walking into a warm house.  By now I am totally confused.  I am able, finally, to empathize with Tiger Woods, never quite sure whether his clothes are to be be put on or taken off.

Mom says that she no longer feels anything in her back, where the tumor sat.  She says that Barbara the Bavarian told her about a German woman who’d had cancer and walked the Camino.  The woman visualized the cancer as a ball of wool, and every day saw herself pulling a strand of wool off it.  When she went back for her tests, the cancer was gone.

The Ultimate Second Breakfast

However, Mom says she feels a pain like a band across her stomach.  Perhaps it’s the lentils, which begin to do their job and send her into the bushes.

Mentally, I am more of a walker now.  Walking 20 kilometers, or almost 13 miles, is no longer a big deal.  On some days, I could see walking a good bit more.  And of course 13 miles will get you all over Manhattan. But we rely on our food, and our breaks, and we love above all Second Breakfast – which is hard to find in Galicia.  We are all starving, and need a break from walking in the near-darkness.  I am just commenting on the dearth of places to eat when, up ahead, I see it.

It’s like a shining city on a hill.  A castle.  A grail.

“Is it a mirage?”

No.  It is, in fact, a place to eat and rest.

We fall upon it like castaways on a toasted bagel with cream cheese.

Menus and signs are everywhere, and they have pictures of pizza on them.  “I wonder if they’re really serving pizza this early,” I say.  “I was thinking the same thing,” Carrie says.  It is 9a.m.  We order, get on the Internet, I click to electronically sell the big, beautiful house I’ve owned for almost two years, and at 9:30 we’re each hoovering up a medium pizza.

Only later does it occur to me that I didn’t even read the closing documents on my house.  I just clicked.

We spent over an hour there, and then we were off.  We were nearly run over by a small herd of cattle, including a feisty little bull whose head had been tied to his right leg, so that he ran with a misleadingly submissive ducking motion.  Then we were into the eucalyptus trees, and then we came upon another hill.  Mom has not yet seen a hill that didn’t elicit a groan from her.

I felt my pack pulled backward.  I looked back and saw that she had grabbed a loop of it with one of her walking sticks.  “Come on,” she said.  “I carried you around everywhere for nine months.”

I am sure we pass a kilometerstone saying 44 kilometers, and then 45, and then, much, much later, 42.5.  I am hoping this system prevails at dinner, when someone will serve us 12.5 Euros of food and charge us for 10.

“Buen Camino!” we say to some bikers.

“Good way!” they cry back, in English, much as the flirtatious waitress (which kind of has a nice ring to it) in El Acebo, when thanked, had translated directly from the Spanish de nada to sing, “Nothing!”

Bone-Tired and Shaky

My legs are bone-tired.  But Mom is worse off.  There are more hills.  “Look,” she says, holding out her hand.  “I’m shaking.”  Indeed she is.  We ponder why it is and she walks some more, stops.  Holds up her shaking hand.  She tries to walk some more, stops, trying to catch her breath.  “I can call a taxi,” I say.  She shakes her head.

“You slept terribly,” I remind her, “and didn’t eat much for Second Breakfast.  And no First Breakfast.  Let’s get you something to eat.  I think Carrie has a banana.”  Carrie did have a banana.

In Arzúa, we opt for another hostel, so we can have our own rooms and get some sleep – and rest even when not sleeping.  I fell asleep on the bed with my laptop on my chest, something about as common, for me, as fainting.

Are we going to make it to Santiago?