Prepping for El Camino

Despite the fact that this is going to be my third Camino, it is still as exciting as the first, I guess it must be the expectation of adventure. So here are some thoughts and advice on preparing for the Camino:

Knowing that the pilgrimage to Santiago has been around for centuries (there was a pagan trek to Finisterre (the end of the world in Latin) before Christianity modified it to their needs) means that it can be done – and should be done with minimum amount of technology, help, etc. For me the Camino is a return to basics, so I do not book hotels, I do not use a phone app, nor use high tech clothes (other than shoes). This allows for a freer mind.

Because of this minimalist approach I do not have to worry about packing: just 3 pairs each of socks, underwear, shorts, T-shirts, a poncho, a sweatshirt, flip flops, Marseille soap for body and laundry, dopp kit, swiss army knife, water bottle, hat, walking stick, sunglasses, little else actually.

A more pressing issue for me is what to read on the Camino. There are at least a couple of schools of thought: one is to read something that has nothing to do with your journey. The second is to read something germane with your trip. I am in the second camp. My first outing I read a book on the parable of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job. On my second outing I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, that fellow pilgrim James gave me on the first outing! This year I had a few options: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which I finally have in French, Kathleen Dowling Singh The Grace in Dying, and finally the chosen option The Way of Ignatius, A Prayer Journey Through Lent, by Gemma Simmonds who was my sister’s teacher in school! Granted, Lent is over, but one should always be ready for a “prayer journey”.

As important as the kit is the actual physical preparation. This year I also had to break in new shoes, so I killed two proverbial birds with one proverbial stone: breaking in new shoes and training. The trick is to slowly add miles and weight to your pack in training with the goal of breaking in the shoes and your back!! This year I did a few solo outings and one with a couple of friends – and their dog – in nearby El Pardo natural park.

This week I bought my train ticket to Irún and a pair of socks (to replace a lost pair), but these are no ordinary socks, 60% Merino wool, no seams, and cushion. The original ones were Darn Tough socks from Vermont, this pair is Icebreaker from New Zealand.

The final details involve getting stuff done before leaving for a month, and getting the last items purchased and prepared. Follow my Instagram (Tonxob) or Facebook (tonxo balson) for daily photo uploads of the trip, starting June 3…

Gear for El Camino. What should I pack?

Many of my fans preparing for the Camino have asked me about my gear (ok, maybe just a couple of people). There are many Internet spots that explain what and how to pack, but here are my two cents, as Americans would say:

Walking 500 miles (give or take) in a month (give or take) carrying your backpack is an exercise in minimalism, physically, mentally and spiritually reducing clutter. By reducing stuff in your backpack, you also reduce it in your mental/spiritual backpack. I hope to soon be able to write about the emotional and mental process of the Camino. For now I will leave you with this quote from Richard Rohr, and write about the material gear that goes in your backpack.

The German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260—c. 1328) preached, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [2] But in the capitalistic West, we think very differently. We all keep trying to climb higher up the ladder of success in any form. We’ve turned the Gospel into a matter of addition instead of subtraction. All we can really do is get out-of-the-way. The spiritual life is often more about unlearning than learning, letting go of illusions more than studying the Bible or the catechism.

There are a few things to keep in mind when packing for the Camino: a. you are never more than a few hours away from civilization, with supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, and anything else you might need. b. there are laundry facilities at all albergues, so you do not need to pack many clothes, and c. basically all you do on the Camino is walk, eat and sleep. Having said all that, this was my packing list:

Shoes are probably the first thing to think of. If you are walking in the summer you do not need hiking boots. I saw plenty of people struggling with heavy hiking boots in the hot 30+ C° weather, plenty of abandoned boots, and plenty of feet like steak tartare. Good, broken in hiking shoes are perfect. Some people wear running sneakers, they are probably fine, although maybe a bit too lightweight for you and your pack, in my opinion. I packed a pair of cheap Flip-Flops for showering and a pair of water sandals for the apres-walking evenings.

You basically only need the clothes you are wearing and the ones that are washing/drying. Of course this depends on the season, but in the summer that means T-shirt, underwear, shorts and socks. As I mentioned before, as I am a snob, I carried three changes.

Since your feet are doing basically all the work on the Camino, and account for 25% of the bones in your body, you really should pamper them with the best socks you can get. Ideally hiking specific socks in a wool blend without seams. The higher up the leg they are, the less dust and grit is going to get into your feet.

Although everybody recommends hi-tech, moisture wicking, breathing fibers, for your T-shirts, I chose old school 100% cotton long sleeve shirts. The cotton because I am a snob and don’t like the feel of synthetic fibers, and the long sleeves because I also hate sunscreen and long sleeves meant I could avoid creams (and packing them).

For a second I considered athletic underwear, but ended up going with my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts. Some things just like hanging the way they always do!

I carried two cargo shorts. The side pocket was extremely handy for my guidebook/map as I used it constantly.

It was never too cold for me until the approach to Burgos. That day I wore two long sleeve shirts all day long. That evening I surrendered to the cold and bought a hooded sweatshirt at the souvenir shop, the only shop open in Burgos that day, as they were celebrating their festivities!

For my bald head I alternated bandanas (which I would tie around my neck in the morning) in different configurations depending on the sun: a la Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, or a la Tupac Shakur, and a  “crunchy” boonie, or giggle hat that I could soak at fountains to keep me cool.

Unless you are going to camp or bivouac (which I saw plenty by the side of the Camino) you are going to sleep indoors, so a summer weight sleeping bag is fine. I chose to have one of my favorite cotton sheets folded in half (lengthwise, duh) and sown to create a sleeping bag. It might have been a bit heavier than the synthetic bags, but it was oh so comfy. Most albergues have blankets, so on cool nights I pulled a blanket over my sheet/bag. I did carry a pillowcase since the albergues all have pillows, in retrospect I could have used one of my three T-shirts.

Your minimal dopp kit with your bathroom supplies. I used Marseille soap – Jabón Lagarto – in Spain as I could use it for my laundry and my body, and my bald head, hahaha!

A lot of thought was given to what to read on the Camino, something meaningful but light. The library at the albergue in Roncesvalles, the first stop, is full of donated/abandoned Bibles… I ended up choosing The Book of Job and I do not regret it. I did finish it early and donated it to the Convent of Saint Claire where I was staying at Carrión de los Condes. I also packed a notebook and writing material to keep a diary and a daily Scripture reading for inspiration.  I carried two guidebooks: The Michelin Guide for quick reference on the go, and the Anaya “El Camino de Santiago en tu mochila” for more detailed reference.

Small flashlight – critical for reading and moving around the albergue after lights out. Mine has a wrist band which means I could hang it from the boards of the bunk above me, great for reading.

For towel I used a lightweight microfiber from Decathlon, it is not the most luxurious item, but it works. I must confess I was very jealous when James pulled out this exotic, gorgeous, printed Indian sheet. It is very refreshing to see flashes of glamour on the drab, technical, weight obsessed Camino equipment.

Water bottle, and make sure you have a comfortable, handy spot to carry it, I struggled carrying mine around in different locations until I settled on a hip strap. Although you are never too far from a fountain, there are a few long (over 10 km.) stretches without water. Also, you should always be drinking anyway, so even if you do not fill it up, always carry water. It is also handy to wash fruit, hands, etc. Some people carry water “bladders” but these seem tricky to fill up mid hike and are apparently expensive.

Basic first aid kit with whatever you think you might need – hopefully you will not use anything.

Bathing suit!

Trail mix, it is nice to have s snack without having to wait for the next bar.

Phone and charger.

Bug spray – I did not use it.

Sharpie, critical for marking stuff and writing on stones at mileposts.

Safety pins in case your clothes have not dried overnight and you need to “hang” them outside your pack.

Poncho that covers your backpack. Keep it handy in case of sudden storms.

Most albergues have laundry facilities for manual laundry. The bigger ones have washer/driers. Some of them will even treat you to detergent, so I packed a few of the liquid plastic pods in a zip-lock bag.

Pilgrims swear by the hiking sticks (that look like ski poles), I carried one of my dad’s old walking sticks that an old friend had given him. It was useful on technical climbs and descents and to poke at things.

Last, but not least a pocket knife is critical. You might only use it to make bocadillos, but it is always handy to have. I found an old Swiss Army knife that I had given my little sister years ago and that for some reason was in my dad’s desk drawer.

Buen Camino!

Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill

The best time of the week for me is Mondays from 6 to 9 pm when I volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill. I love my team: evening manager Michelle, night manager Antoinette, volunteer chair masseur Bill, and my shift partner, the Batman to my Robin, the Ginger Rogers to my Fred Astaire, the Ying to my Yang, etc., Margaret! There are also the Therapy Dogs with their owners and the different dinner groups that cook for the families.

The first question people ask me when I tell them I volunteer at the House is what do I do there. Well, on a typical evening there are families to welcome and check into and out of the house, there are rooms to set up for incoming families, there is always tidying up to do, vacuuming, helping out volunteer dinner groups, cleaning the kitchen and dining room if the dinner group has not done so, I also manage the ADP Sorority volunteer girls that come in to help out – they are great! I am also the official announcer of dinner on the PA. I do this in English and Spanish for our Hispanic families and I occasionally throw in the accent of whatever geographic area dinner is from! I am also the official receptionist for the people who bake goods for the house, mostly high school kids that get Community Service hours. A big part of that job is making sure the quality of the baked goods is up to the high standards of the House. Another part of my job is just to hang out and be there. Sometimes you chat with members of the families because they need to talk, so you listen to their stories.

You see, we get so caught up in our lives and we think our lives suck and we bitch and complain. When you listen to a parent whose kid is in the hospital for whatever reason, or you get the privilege to actually hang out with the kid, and you realize that maybe my life is not so bad. It is not unusual, when I finish my shift for me to leave the house crying. So if the weather allows I prefer to ride Rocinante to the House so my tears dry in the wind.

Speaking of Rocinante. The other day was a quiet evening in the house (some rooms were closed for renovations), and the House had just launched a fundraising campaign selling Ronald McDonald socks. The campaign asks those who purchase socks to take an “interesting” photo with them and post them on the House’s internet site. So we wheeled old Rocinante into the House to take our pictures with the socks on. Good times!!

Then there is the annual volunteer recognition brunch in which we celebrate the volunteers that have been there since forever and have worked literally thousands of hours, amazing!

So now you know where to find me on a Monday evening. Come on down and I will show you around.