Posts Tagged With: long distance trekking

Why I Trek

As we begin the countdown to our fifth European trekking adventure, I felt it was time to share my story of just why I’ve become so obsessed with walking. I feel extremely fortunate to have recognized the proper trail that would lead me through troubled times.

You never know who you’ll meet walking along the trail!

The door opened and he extended his hand, introducing himself. “Hello, I’m Dr. J. I can’t believe you are still walking!” I shook his hand and glanced over at Reg in stunned silence.

As Reg shook the hand of the neurosurgeon who would ultimately save my life, I tried to prepare myself for what was to come. Six months earlier, I had noticed numbness in the ends of two fingers on my left hand, and I soon found myself shuffled between a series of appointments and doctors. Days earlier I’d had an MRI of my cervical spine and had been told it revealed a tumor. I was about to learn just exactly what that meant. I suspected the news would not be good.

It was November of 2011. Reg and I studied my MRI on Dr. J.’s computer while he explained that my tumor, a fairly rare intramedullary ependymoma we would eventually learn, was located within my spinal cord and had grown large enough to begin restricting the flow of spinal fluid. That was causing the numbness and tingling, along with a host of other symptoms that I would eventually piece together.

“You will need surgery, he said. “It is not without risk. We will take every precaution, but there is a chance you will be left quadriplegic. It is also possible that you will not survive the surgery…but if we do nothing, the tumor will kill you.”

Three and a half weeks later, two weeks before Christmas, I was prepped for surgery. There was really no other choice. Ratcheting up my powers of positive thinking, I put my life in Dr. J.’s hands. I did tell him, in all honesty, that if I couldn’t walk out of the hospital, not to bother waking me up. The next thing I remember, I was in a hospital room bed with Reg by my side.

As I slowly became aware of my surroundings, Dr. J. hurried in and began touching my fingers. “Move this one, now this one.” When I wiggled each finger, as ordered, he turned to Reg and announced, “She will be fine.” And off he went.

While the diagnosis was devastating, the recovery was absolutely traumatizing. Surgery had been pretty much a complete success, but I hurt every time I moved. Two days later, I was sent home. I could walk but I couldn’t feel my feet. Sheets and pants felt like sandpaper dragged across my bare legs. My rib cage felt as though it had been wrapped with an elastic band, and both hands were numb and tingling. I felt as though a spike had been pounded down alongside my neck, a neck that sported an angry, red six-inch scar. All part of the recovery process I was told. My nerves had been traumatized and needed time to recover…and so did I!

A year and a half later, in 2013, Reg and I trekked Spain’s Camino de Santiago together. It was a walk of discovery and gratitude for us both. We had our individual reasons for tackling such a challenging feat. For me, walking is something I will never again take for granted. Reg and I have continued to trek the trails of Europe where we find both a sense of adventure and contentment.

While I’m left with a few lingering side effects from the surgery, I’ve learned not to complain. Some (most) days are better than others. When so much could have gone wrong, I will forever be in debt to, and in awe of Dr. J.’s skills. To keep trekking is the best way I know of acknowledging how incredibly thankful I am that he was able to save my life.

And that is why I trek.

Categories: Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

A Cure for Post-Super Bowl Blues


Looking for a path away from the post-Super Bowl blues? Check out our short slide show from the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Categories: Tour du Mont Blanc | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Walk Scotland’s Highlands With Us

The year after we walked the Camino de Santiago, we journeyed to our former home, Scotland, to walk the West Highland Way. It was magnificent! Sue has a slide show for you.

Categories: Scottish Highlands and beyond | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Camino documentary goes to PBS

Reg and Lydia Smith at her Portland film celebration.

Director/producer Lydia B. Smith invited us to Portland last week to help celebrate her documentary’s nationwide PBS broadcasts.

Lydia, joined by volunteers and a small core staff, worked more than nine years to film, edit and promote “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago.” The film follows an international cast of pilgrims aged 21 to 62 on their journey across northern Spain. We first saw the film in 2014, soon after its release, and have streamed it many times since. It continues to inspire us to keep on trekking.

You can see the full-length documentary (it was shortened for the PBS showings) at caminodocumentary.org.

Congratulations to Lydia and to all who worked on the wonderful documentary!

Categories: Camino de Santiago | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

#7 – Favorite Photo Countdown 2018

Long distance trekking has taught us to appreciate simplicity and to enjoy the journey.  We have also learned that the path is not always clear.

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And when he path is cluttered with distractions, it’s OK to seek help…in this case, GPS kept us on track.
Categories: Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

#10 – Favorite Photo Countdown 2018

This photo perfectly captures the contrasting landscapes that challenged us as we walked Italy’s The Way of St. Francis last spring.

Runner-up:

Looking back at a section of the Umbrian Mountains that The Way of St. Francis led us through the previous day.
Categories: Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Way of St. Francis: Reflections from our journey

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We were rewarded with our testimonium Friday at the Vatican. Our bodies are happy we reached the end of the Way of St. Francis. Our minds are swirling as we reflect.

The numbers from our trek: 23 days walking, 258 miles (415 km) afoot, 79,923 feet of elevation.

Toughest trek yet: What made it more difficult than Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Scotland’s West Highland Way, and the Alps’ Tour du Mont Blanc? We loved the Camino, but it is a stroll in the park comparatively. The Camino is longer, but the surfaces here test shoes and your body much more. And the climbing and descending are relentless and treacherous at times. There are rarely nice bars for a break. Mont Blanc had more elevation per day, but it was “only” 110 miles, and we didn’t carry everything on our backs in the Alps.

Best trek? For us, it is almost like saying which son we love most. We hold all four treks close to our hearts. They all have special qualities and memories.

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Camaraderie: We saw fewer fellow St. Francis trekkers in 23 days than we saw in just one typical morning in Spain. On many days in Italy, we saw no fellow trekkers. We befriended a few fellow “pilgrims” now and then, but just for a day or two.

La Verna to Rome: Of the trekkers we talked to, all were walking a shorter section of the Way of St. Francis than La Verna to Rome, which we walked. Some were doing a few days, intending to return another year. We met more people going to Assisi, Francis’ home, than to Rome. Francis walked to Rome to get the pope’s blessing for his work.

Who does this trek? From our small sample, most were much younger than us. Two were Canadian, the rest Europeans. No Americans. This trek attracts people who enjoy solitude.

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English? Most trekkers knew some English. The storekeepers and bar and restaurant servers, not so much. Many of our lodging hosts also did not speak English. Most were gracious in helping us with our limited Italian. Pantomimes helped. Lots of smiles and laughs as we all struggled to communicate.

Italian people: In village after village, bar after bar, hotel after hotel, people wanted to help us. A small crowd came to our rescue when we had trouble getting in the front door at a B&B. A young woman in a bar dropped everything to make us an early dinner of fresh pizzas.

So many proprietors went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. Several times, we had trouble contacting our accommodation host when we arrived. Each time, local people volunteered to track them down for us. And they go about life with such passion!

Pilgrimage: This trek is designed to follow St. Francis’ steps to Rome. There are many churches and other sites where pilgrims can honor his memory and work.

The next Camino? The Way of St. Francis is gradually becoming better known, but I can’t see it attracting big crowds. Most people probably don’t want to work so hard and there are other trails that are better designed for leisure trekking. Accommodations are not as plentiful and are far more spread out than some treks, especially the Camino de Santiago. The Italian path is rough and at times disappears. Too much asphalt for many folks. But, I can see parts of it, such as Gubbio to Assisi, becoming more popular.

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Finding the way: We could not have done this trek without the help of Sandy Brown, author of the Cicerone guidebook and Facebook forum. He answered Sue’s questions while we were on the trek. He gave directions to downloading maps, which were critical to finding our way using GPS and Galileo Pro. We are so grateful for Sandy’s help!

Expensive? This trek does not offer as many opportunities to get by on the cheap, like the Camino de Santiago does. There are some monasteries, convents and hostels that offer inexpensive lodging, though. Pilgrims usually need to phone ahead at such places to arrange arrival time. We stayed in B&Bs, hotels, and one agriturisimo. Nothing fancy, but all had private baths and were clean. Many were in small villages and a few were in a building far from town. We paid from 50 to 90 euro a night, and almost all included continental breakfast. Rome is the exception…we opted for location and a bit of luxury, so we are paying more.

Explorers? At times, the trail was so remote and without fellow trekkers that we felt like explorers. The mountains of Umbria are higher and more rugged than we expected.

Greetings by locals: In Spain, many people greeted us as we passed. The Camino is the economic life for their communities and has such history and tradition. The Way of St. Francis lacks that sense of community, but when we greeted locals, they almost always returned our outreach. Some drivers honked and waved. A few seemed to honk to tell us to get off the road. One truck driver swerved and stopped to block a loose dog that was barking at us. He yelled at the dog to leave the pellegrinos alone.

Booking.com: We used the website for most of our rooms and we learned to start with “booking.com” when we arrived.

Weather: The sun followed us the first two weeks, making some afternoons uncomfortably warm. Rain and thunderstorms threatened the rest of the way. Thankfully, we got stronger and faster, allowing us to beat torrential afternoon thunder and lightening storms. We walked in rain several times. Spring flowers were abundant almost the entire way. I would not attempt this walk during Italy’s hot summer.

Distances: It is incredible how far our feet took us. We would turn around after walking a few miles from the village where we stayed and it appeared so far away. It doesn’t work at the end of a long day, though. The town on the hilltop looks so close, but it takes forever to reach it. By then we were exhausted and so ready for a hot shower.

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The way to travel: For us, trekking is the best way to see a country and get to know its culture. We see villages and experience views we could only get by walking. It slows down and simplifies life. It is empowering to get by with so little. We feel fortunate to be healthy enough to do treks.

In the end, was it worth it? The Way of St. Francis was so many things to us. It tested us like no other experience has. When we arrived at the Santiago Cathedral in Spain, I felt strong emotion. Thursday, I was happy to stand before St. Peter’s Basilica, but I had little deep reaction. Later, as we sat on a building ledge at the Vatican, I folded my trekking poles and tied them to my pack for the first time in a month. Out of nowhere, I was overcome. That’s why I walk.

Categories: The Way of Saint Francis, The Way of St Francis | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Way of St. Francis: The End is Near

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Reg blazed another trail through the tall grass and thistle today, our last day of walking through the countryside.  Tomorrow we’ll aim our boots towards Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, a ten mile walk that will officially complete our journey.

Categories: The Way of Saint Francis, The Way of St Francis | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Way of St. Francis: A deserted pilgrimage

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The red line has led us through trials and celebrations, more medieval villages than we can count, and memorable meetings with gracious Italians brimming with enthusiasm. We have met friendly and fascinating fellow trekkers, but many days we have not seen even one. We have yet to meet another American walker. We have not talked to anyone going as far as we hope to go.

How far have we come? After 20 days of trekking on the Way of St. Francis, we have come 226 miles with our backpacks (and many more exploring places without them, especially on rest days). More than 71,000 feet of elevation change, including 6,000 on Sunday. The steepness has been a surprise — there have been times it has been so steep that it has been difficult to stand when we stopped to take a breath.

A few scenes from the past two days:

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The bridge carrying highway travelers reminds us Rome is near, but the trail quickly takes us back into remote places.

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The guidebook today said to turn left at the fountain and two pine trees, but for us it was time for lunch.

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We are staying Monday in Montelibretti, barely visible from its mountaintop perch.

The Way of St. Francis is unique and especially tough, but it shares one characteristic with the other long treks we have done: the closer we get to finishing, the more we don’t want it to end.

 

Categories: The Way of Saint Francis, The Way of St Francis | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Way of St. Francis: Are We There Yet?

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The dawn of a new day found us three days out from our last rest day in Rieti, with just three more days to walk until we reach Rome, our final destination.  Our feet are tired, our hips are sore and barking dogs are getting on our nerves.

But we’re still doing it…uphill and down, along miles of ribbon-thin trails through wet thigh-high grass, trails of sticky, gooey mud and trails so steep they must be paved to keep from washing away…and we are having the time of our lives!

But, there are still miles to go and much to see before we’ll feel lucky enough to relax and truly celebrate.

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Categories: The Way of Saint Francis, The Way of St Francis | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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