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Getting Prepared

And so it begins!  Donna & Connie Johnmeyer are 9 days out from some epic travel, so we decided to blog about it.  The first adventure is the Camino de Santiago, walking 482 miles across much of Northern Spain.

Are we ready?  Well, yesterday we hiked Tim’s favorite mountain-biking trail at Grindstone/Capen Park with loaded packs for about 3.5 miles.  Almost a fourth of the average daily distance we will be walking on the Camino.  Come on now – no judgement – it’s a start.

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Walking with Newt at Capen Park, 26 Aug 2017

Camino Dreams*

Spanish Camino Trails from Merienne AtlasThe

[Above illustration is from “Atlas: Des Chemins De Compostelle” by Patrick Merienne.]

Camino de Santiago (aka The Way of Saint James) is a network of trails that lead to the tomb of Saint James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain. It is a pilgrimage people have been making since the 9th century. In 2017, 301,036 people presented themselves to the pilgrims office at Santiago to receive a certificate of completion for the Camino (see http://www.csj.org). Today, the Camino Frances (aka French Way) is, by far, the trail most utilized by pilgrims (aka Peregrinos) with 60% of pilgrims using that trail. The second most used Camino trail is the Camino Portuguese with 20% of the Camino traffic in 2017. The Camino Frances begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, passing into Spain in a few miles, then continuing across Spain a little short of 500 miles. Donna and I walked the Camino Frances in 2017, along with 180,735 other pilgrims. Yep, that’s a lot of pilgrims.

Being the faint-hearted extrovert that I sometimes am, I think it is great to have the 2017 number of pilgrims on the trail.   For me, company means security: both physical safety and the security of knowing one’s basic needs could be easily met. Along the Camino Frances, there are hundreds of cafes, restaurants, pharmacies, toilets, and lodging accommodations (albergues – hostels for pilgrims, pensions & hotels). An initial concern I had was where to find a toilet. As it turned out, I wasn’t even tempted to use the great-outdoor-toilet until mid-trip, and then it was only because I was impatient and the line for the women’s toilet at a cafe where we had stopped was too long (a universal for women’s toilets it seems). To be fair, if one is traveling with limited funds or are a bit tight, the great-outdoor-toilet would be more necessary. Everywhere there are signs that the toilets are for paying customers. But, it doesn’t take much; 1 euro for water or coffee and, bingo – you are a paying customer.

Cafe Goxona

[A popular cafe for pilgrims in the village of Burguete in the Navarre region of Northern Spain.]

Primary to physical security on the Camino are the pilgrims themselves. It is usual to be able to see pilgrims ahead of you, behind you, or beside you. If you get to a place where there are no pilgrims, all you have to do is sit for a few minutes and one or more will probably appear. Pilgrims take care of each other. They offer medical assistance if needed and they are sources of advice on an abundance of subjects: how to treat blisters; which path is slippery, steep, scenic, or rocky; the weather forecast; and where the last bedbug was thriving or had met it’s fate.

And, the local people do their part. Most are very gracious and helpful. On Camino Frances, pilgrims are a way of life and a way to make a living. I doubt that private albergue and cafe owners get rich off 10-15 or so euro for lodging and 8-10 euro per pilgrim’s meal, but they can apparently sustain a business in an area, mostly remote, where they want to live. Pilgrims also provide business to pharmacies, medical providers, sporting goods stores, masseuses, pensions, hotels, and grocery stores (many albergues have kitchens where pilgrims can cook).  And aside from making a living, the people I met seemed genuinely fond of pilgrims.  It’s a good situation.

Although I never noticed much of a police presence on Camino Frances, from what I have read, it is a priority in pilgrim country to keep the pilgrims safe. I certainly felt safe and had nothing but pleasant or at least reasonably polite experiences with fellow travelers and others.

Yet, according to the statistics kept by the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos, the number of people traveling on the Camino in recent years has increased every year. Many people, including my sister, Donna, would like to walk a less populated trail and fear that Camino Frances will soon be overpopulated.

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I said all the above in order to explain why I spent a month this year in Carcassonne, France, 520km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port by trail, 241km by car. Even though I like a populated trail, it occurs to me that walking will likely increase in popularity over time as people shift from materialism to experientialism. I asked myself, “Wouldn’t it be exciting to participate in the development of lesser known Camino trails?”

Carcassonne happens to be on a lesser known French trail called the Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen (meaning the Camino of the Pyrénées foothills). The Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen begins at different places – Montpellier, Narbonne, or Carcassonne – depending upon who you ask. From Carcassonne on, the Chemin du Piemont follows a reasonably well marked path called the GR 78A or GR 78. GR paths are known in France as Grande Randonnee’s. They are a network of long-distance footpaths and are marked with a white stripe above a red stripe. According to the website, CSU.org.uk , the Chemin du Piemont Pyrénées is probably the most beautiful Camino trail in France. It runs South of and mostly parallel to a more populated trail, the Chemin d’Arles.

Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen

[Illustration above is from “Atlas: Des Chemins De Compostelle” by Patrick Merienne.]

There are about 5 primary Camino trails in France that join with Camino trails in Spain in a small area in the Southwest of France / Northeast of Spain. There the trails bottleneck, some meeting the Camino Frances – others meeting alternate trails, but all heading to Santiago de Compostela.

So, Donna came to France in September with the intention of exploring some of the trails in the bottleneck area. Then she joined me in Carcassonne to check out the origin of Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen. After Donna returned to the States, my cousin/friend, Christiane and I took a rental car journey along much of the Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen. We went as far as Oloron-Sainte-Marie which is near the bottleneck area and where the Chemin d’Arles and Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen cross before meeting up with different trails in Spain.

Here’s a summary of what we found in comparing Camino Frances with Chemin Piemont:

Trail markings:  Below, see examples of trail markings on the Camino Frances.  There were many and it was difficult, most of the time, to get lost.

Camino Markers.JPEG

On the Chemin Piemont, although the GR 78 is marked well, there is only an occasional Camino marker which is a welcoming sight for pilgrims. And in larger areas like Carcassonne and Oloron-Sainte-Marie, we found even the GR marking challenging to follow.

Chemin Piemont start Carcassonne

Above is the only Camino shell marking we found in Carcassonne.  This marker is at the foot of the walking bridge that goes to “La Cite”.  You can see the Camino shell is shown with the GR 78 signage.  Thuy and I followed this trail for approximately 2 km out of Carcassonne and were able to do so fairly easily, although we were following the GR 78 signs, not Camino shell or yellow arrow markings.  Two weeks later, Christiane and I walked around Oloron Ste-Marie looking for the location where the Chemin Piemont and Chemin Arles crossed.  We think we found it – we found a large metal pilgrim, however, there were no signs/markings there and we were only able to locate one GR sign at the base of a bridge.  The pictures below show two other places along the Chemin du Piemont where we found markers of the Camino.  The top picture was a sign in the small village of Montjoie that acknowledges both the GR 78 and the Chemin du Piemont.  The last three pictures are from the picturesque walled village of St-Bertrand-de-Comminges where the Camino shell markers were in evidence.

Markers on Chemin Piemont

Trail population: We saw very few pilgrims in Carcassonne or elsewhere on the Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen. While one can never be sure if a stranger is a pilgrim, they can usually be identified by their clothing, backpacks, and walking sticks. We saw very few people thus outfitted. I saw no one with the shell that traditionally identifies pilgrims on the Camino Frances.

Accommodations: Although the larger towns along the Chemin du Piemont, such as Carcassonne, Lourdes, and Oloron Ste-Marie,  have plenty of hotels and cafes, we saw few pilgrim albergues and almost no pilgrim meals that most pilgrims traveling for 1-2 months could afford.  If the population of pilgrims traveling the Chemin du Piemont increased appreciably, lodging and affordable meals would need to increase.

I do want to spotlight a marvelous place for pilgrims to stay in Carcassonne.  It’s not right on the GR 78 trail but if pilgrims find it, they will be happy for having done so.  It’s in an old abbey, called “Notre Dame De L’abbaye.”   When we visited the abbey, the staff member there said there were currently 3 pilgrims staying overnight.  It is a lovely, peaceful place from which one can view La Cite (the old walled city of Carcassonne).

Notre Dame albergue

Guide books: We could not find any guides for the Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen that were in anything other than French. On the Camino Frances, which is mainly in Spain, guidebooks are available in multiple languages and while Spanish is the most common language spoken on the trail, English, German,  & Italian were also commonly spoken and written.  If the Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen were to become more popular, the current guidebooks would need to be translated into other languages or new guidebooks would need to be written.  The one guidebook (in French) I could find is pictured below.

French guidebook Chemin du Piemont

Conclusion: The Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen has good potential for growth and Oloron-Sainte-Marie would be a good place to develop a pilgrim’s center (albergue, cafe, & research center for translating and/or developing guidebooks).  This is my opinion, obviously, but sometimes I just like to make statements as if they were a fact 🙂 .  But why?  Well, first, the Chemin du Piemont is a spectacularly beautiful trail.  Many have commented that the first few days out from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPP) on Camino Frances are the most beautiful of The Way.  That’s because that part of Camino Frances is in the Pyrenees.  The Chemin du Piemont is the foothill’s trail that follows the Pyrenees all the way to SJPP.  It is amazing.  There are also many interesting and diverse towns/villages along the Chemin due Piemont, starting with Carcassonne, home of La Cite.   Mirepoix is a quaint little market town with lots of character.  St-Bertrand-de-Comminges is breathtaking.  Lourdes is an international Catholic pilgrimage, which, according to Wikipedia, hosts around six million visitors every year.  In France, (in 2012) Lourdes was second only to Paris in terms of tourism and hotel capacity.   I am sure there are many other interesting and beautiful places along Chemin du Piemont as well.

Why Oloron-Sainte-Marie?  Two reasons: 1) The Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen and the Chemin D’Arles intersect at Oloron-Sainte-Marie which should mean it already has more Camino traffic than other Camino trails in France; 2) Oloron-Sainte-Marie is only 4-5 walking days from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so would be a good place to begin to develop a trail for people who want to walk just a little further than the 4-5 weeks which are usual for people walking the Camino Frances.

If you are still reading this post, thank you and bless you heart!  I realize I am in the weeds here – the Camino weeds.  Crazy I know, but not just everyone is interested in the development of Camino trails.  And, what are you thinking?  I would love to know.  Here is a farewell scene for you.  May your days be peaceful and meaningful.  Buen Camino!

[Below is a village seen from St-Bertrand-de-Comminges.]

Village seen from St-Bertrand-de-Comminges.jpeg

The flood of 2018

La Cite (old walled city) in Carcassonne.

I (Connie) arrived in Carcassonne on the afternoon of 3 October, Wednesday, and was met by my sister Donna, who had arrived in Carcassonne two days earlier. She had already been in Europe, France and Spain, for a month, exploring and learning about a number of Camino trails that cross France (more about the Camino in a later post).

During my first one and a half weeks in Carcassonne, Donna and I, and then Thuy, Donna and I, learned about the vagaries of Carcassonne weather. I took some French lessons while here, and my French professor, Dominique, told me I would be hearing a lot about weather. She had no idea how true her statement would turn out to be. Apparently the weather in this region is greatly influenced by ones position relative to the Mediterranean sea, and the Pyrenees and Black mountains.

In Carcassonne, layers of clothing are necessary because the weather changes are considerable over the course of a day. It seemed like every day we experienced sun, clouds, rain, heat, chill, fog, and always at least part of the day, wind. “The wind off the Mediterranean,” people would say.

My partners in Carcassonne left me by mid-month. Thuy, an Air Force friend who had flown in from England for a two day visit, left on Saturday the 13th. Donna, my sister, one of the two older women who walk (this blog), left on Sunday the 14th.

Late Sunday night, the sky opened up and it begin pouring. The apartment we rented for a month is in an attic and has no regular windows (and precious little standing upright room). I could hear the rain loudly on the skylights, but initially it seemed a nice rain to sleep by. Then I began to hear a not-so-nice dripping sound near my head. I turned on my lamp and discovered a leak where a large roof beam met the wall. Water was dripping onto my nightstand and down the wall. I wasn’t too alarmed but the amount was significant, so I got up and found two plastic containers to catch the water. The containers seems sufficient to contain the amount of water flowing, so I went back to sleep.Skylight and Leaky Corner

Maybe a half hour later, now Monday morning near 1AM, I awakened to knocking at my door. On my doorstep were two, older-middle-aged British people – a couple who said they were renting an apartment on the floor below mine. They had had a more serious leak onto their bed that had also taken out their bed lamp. They were concerned the leak was coming from my apartment ; they worried I had fallen asleep or passed out in a bathtub and it was overflowing. I showed them my leak, and my shower (no tub), and we talked about letting the owner know later in the morning.

All told, my leak yielded just 3 cups or so of water and a wet carpet. The owner said that spot has leaked a little bit during earlier rains and he had been unable to find the source of the leak. No big deal.

Until 1:30 in the afternoon, I had no idea how big a problem the rains had caused. I showed up at the building where I was taking French lessons and rang the doorbell to be let up. I got no response. So, I started looking around and noticed there were crowds of people here and there, several police and emergency response vehicles, and just a block away, a bridge across the River Aude was cordoned off. I went exploring and found a raging river completely out of it’s banks, and the old walled city completely cut off due to closed bridges.

Road and path by the Aude River in Carcassonne

In an area known for periodic flooding in the fall, this was the worst flood since 1891. 13 people were killed, hundreds of cars and houses destroyed. Roads were closed and rail services were suspended. Reports indicated the area received approximately 9 1/2 inches of rain in six hours – equivalent to the normal amount of rainfall for this area in 3 to 4 months.

I found out the next day that my French professor, Dominique, lives in the small village of Villegailhenc, which was the worst hit of the nine municipalities that were principally affected. In Villegailhenc, the Aude River runs through the middle of town and the bridge over the river was washed away, splitting the town in two. Dominique could not initially get to her 91 year old mother who lived on the other side of the bridge. Dominique first learned of the flood at 1 AM when she attempted to go downstairs to her ground floor to use the bathroom. She stepped into a foot of water. In the next hour, the water rose to 5 or 6 feet high, destroying her garage with two cars, her living room, kitchen, and bathroom.

When I saw Dominique Tuesday afternoon, she was able to teach but was clearly shook up. She said she had been unable to eat or sleep and she only had one pair of red leather high-heeled boots (she and her husband kept their shoes on the ground level by the door).

Connie & Dominique

On Thursday the 18th, my cousin/friend, Christine, arrived from Germany to do some vacationing with me. She and I walked to the walled city and saw some damage there. Some shops were closed, but mostly it was business as usual. However, when we walked along the banks of the Aude River, we watched people there mucking out their houses and piling up ruined furniture for pick up.

Ancient wall in La Cite that gave way during the downpour. There was a restaurant above that will need some repair.

The flood continued to impact the community and to impact us. First we tried to get to the Mediterranean Sea. After many delays in stations and on the train due to closed roads and railways, we spend a little time in Narbonne and then returned to Carcassonne having seen no Sea.

Then we tried to find a car to rent so we could explore the path of “Le Chemin du piemont pyreneen” (a route of the Camino de Santiago that goes from Carcassonne, West to Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port). We checked every car rental company: “Sorry, none are available. They are all rented out by people who lost their cars in the flood.” Finally we found an itty-bitty Fiat 500 that was available for just 2 days. We took it, and that’s another story.

After returning from the west, we planned a trip south to Quillan and Limoux. We were actually able to make that trip, however we had to leave very early and come home very late due to limited transportation options. We went by bus – the trains were not running.

So that’s my story of the whopper flood of 2018 in Southern France. The flood was devastating for this area, a tragedy for many families and communities, and a minor inconvenience for me. I am sad for the people of this area and thankful for my own good fortune.

Reputation Precedes: Drug Seeking on a Minnesota’s North Shore

26e6d773-1214-4b76-902d-fe3df6a66c7bMy brother, J.A., sister-in-law, Cathy, and I spent the last few days exploring Minnesota’s north shore of Lake Superior. Beautiful! We stayed in the camper trailer, 20 miles from the shoreline road (61), most of the road unpaved.   Post- season, we had all the solitude most people would want. The leaves were turning yellow, orange, and red and at night the sky was glorious with stars. There are enormous state parks along the 110 mile stretch of highway 61 from Duluth to Grand Marais:  we hiked in Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, and Judge Magney State Park.  It was all good except what wasn’t.

I have had a naughty back since approximately 1996. 1996 was the first year that I twisted my back the wrong way and spent three days flat on my back. After 1996, I experienced muscle-spasms for a few days, 1-2 times a year for the next 15 years or so.   Along the way I figured out that I could get through those days with a combination of naproxen,  Flexeril, and stretches, after which my back would slowly mend itself.  Eventually, I started seeing a chiropractor and the back attacks became less frequent and less severe.   During my last years in the military, I was issued a bottle of Flexeril so I could take care of myself if my back acted up while I was deployed. I finally used all those pills in 2016 and I thought about getting more but never got around to it.  Why bother – my back was good.

So, of course, after driving  700 miles, hiking, and sleeping on an unfamiliar trailer bed, my back complained. So I found myself in Grand Marais, Minnesota, at a clinic.  I wrote down my name, address, & presenting concern.  After the doc saw me and called in the prescription for Flexeril, he shared that when he saw the note (woman from Missouri with low back pain), he figured I was looking for drugs.  I pointed out to him that he was correct – I WAS img_0315looking for drugs – apparently just not the drugs he expected.  Two days later and I feel much better.  I can sleep like a log and I found a hotdog to ride with me in the car (no kidding!). It helps.

Couple of conclusions come to mind.  1) Winter’s Bone and the Ozarks’ series have given Missourians a reputation, and 2) It’s difficult to keep all body parts young and supple when you aren’t young and supple.

A little snaz for my new pack

Kyte 46
Old Pack Kyle 48
Stratos 36
New Pack Stratos 36

I bought a new pack – a beautiful pack.  It’s an Osprey Stratos 36.  I already had a beautiful Osprey Kyle 48 (which I used on the Camino in 2017) but I wanted something smaller, that would hurt my back less, and that would not tempt me to go over my self-imposed weight limit, which is now 14 pounds.  I’ve read one shouldn’t carry over 10% of one’s weight and since I weight 140, that’s my limit – suuuure!  I would be ecstatic if my weight were 140, but sometimes facts ARE facts, and 140 I am not.  Wishful thinking aside, I don’t get the logic that smaller people should carry smaller packs.  My theory is that for every 5 pounds I am over my good BMI weight, I should subtract 1/2 pound of cargo because I have to carry that extra 5 pounds.  Following me?   So, if an acceptable BMI for me were 155, and I was at that acceptable BMI, my goal should be 15 ½ pounds.  Alas, I need to carry less because my body carries more.  All you smarty pants out there, who love to solve higher math problems, feel free to calculate my weight.  Just keep it to yourselves because gossip is rude.

Webbing Inspiration
The Inspiration

 

Anyway, that is not where I meant to go with this story.  My new Osprey is perfect except it doesn’t have many attachments upon which I can hang a jacket, socks to dry, etc.  So, I took some pictures at REI of the kind of attachment apparatus I would like to have, I ordered some 5/8 inch nylon webbing, and I took my pack to a tailoring shop.  I explained my dilemma and proposed solution to the tailor, who briefly pretended to listen, then cut me off with a smirk.  She explained that her machines couldn’t get to the spot I needed work done on (I knew that!. I just thought she would have more talent, therefore be better able to get to it manually 😊.) No luck.  She directed me to JoAnne’s fabric shop to pick up a leather needle.  I got one and now I’m thinking about just how badly I want a place to hang my socks and jacket.

Worth a Smirk
Snaz!

I did it!  I am my own hero.  After much futzing around, I had webbing, needle, thread, and zero expertise collected, and started sewing.  It might have taken me an hour – 5 hours if preparation and worry-time are included. The original plan was to do two strips of webbing, one on each side of the center zipper.  I’m not sure about the second one now.  I’m not sure I have it in me to do another 5 hours.  That smirking tailor was no dummy.

Pilgrimage End, maybe..

We have arrived!  I’m a day late (now 2) notifying you; we arrived at Santiago de Compostela Friday 14 Oct 17, in an anti-climatic haze of tiredness and confusion.  Although we are pretty used to the centers of historic cities being a maze of tiny streets, we couldn’t seem to find our bearings in Santiago.  We thought we had found the cathedral – but weren’t sure – and then couldn’t figure out how to get into it. Part of the problem was that the front is scaffolded for renovation.  I (Connie) peeked into the scaffolding: oh my goodness, there are huge, ancient pieces of columns and sculptures on the ground waiting to be transformed  to their former glory.  I am thankful for that.

Anyway, we gave up and went instead to the pilgrim’s office where we waited in line for 2-3 hours to get our certificates of completion.  It was nice to be surrounded by pilgrims for what will likely be a final time.  Then we ate and went to bed early – like good pilgrims.

I slept for 10 hours – very weird for me.  Today I felt human so I found the door to the cathedral and went to mass.  I didn’t understand much but heard a powerful, haunting choir,  saw the impressive botafumario (smoking metal thing swinging through the cathedral), and heard the pilgrim’s blessing. How did I know?  I heard the priest say,  “blah blah casa blah blah Santiago,” followed by a long list of nearly every country of which I have heard.  The view from my seat suggested people from each of those countries were present.

Tonight we had dinner with 4 other women we met along the way: two from South Carolina, one from Australia, and one from Sweden.  We were all thrilled to run into each other again in Santiago.

So it is over.  Which, for me, brings back the question of what this pilgrimage was about.  According to an online dictionary, a pilgrimage is a long journey or search of moral or spiritual significance or exalted purpose.  Doesn’t sound like me at all.  I’m usually more concerned about a back ache, my next meal, something funny that just happened or colors.  I love colors.  But, I am also addicted to news.

I know this will surprise none of our friends, but both Donna and I watch, listen to, and or read news daily.  I began requiring a daily fix when I was deployed to Iraq in 2003.  At that time, CNN was on non-stop in the chow-halls and many of us were quite interested because we were directly impacted by world events.  Donna started listening online to KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, in part to stay in touch with home.  She listens to news via KBIA’s NPR every day in Ecuador. Most days on the Camino we were still able to get WiFi and get our fix.  The experience of the Camino encourages thoughts about the state of ourselves, our nation, and of humanity; for me, those thoughts readily turned to the news.  

Several days before we reached Santiago we passed  a wall on which a series of questions/statements were displayed.  It was entitled, “The Wall of Wisdom” by Bruno Lernout.  A couple of statements stayed with me: 1) “When you are aware that our society is on the verge of destroying itself, carrying on with your life as usual makes no sense;” and,  2) “People who are awake do not expect authorities to avoid mankind’s self-destruction, but change society by changing themselves.”

During our last 16 kilometers going into Santiago, I found myself thinking of those quotes and about how I might take some responsibility for turning around what to me seems an avalanche of horribleness that U.S. tone & policy have become.  Spoiler alert – I have no answer.  I do, however have some musings.

For obvious reasons, I began thinking of a pilgrimage- a walk from the west coast to D.C., with opportunities along the way to discuss, listen, study, and to come up with ways that I, other citizens and our leaders can demonstrate honor, compassion, industry, dignity, open-mindedness, fairness, and responsibility.  Wouldn’t that be something?  

It would be a Herculean task for community organizers to facilitate thousands of people to consider hundreds of big questions like, “What do we want?”  Do we want equality of opportunity for all?  What would that look like?  Who do we want represented in decision making?  Is our current system working?  How do we want decisions to be made? Do we want rule of law?   How is that working for us?  Do we want separation of church and state?  What role do we want religion/science to have in government, if any?  Do we want an educated populace?  If so, what does that mean, how is it achieved, and who pays for it?  How hospitable an environment do we want and how can we achieve that?  Might healthcare be a necessary ingredient of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” 

So, big questions and no answers.  Perhaps another pilgrimage.  Interested?