Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I would walk the Camino de Santiago everyday of my life if...

I didn't actually have to walk.

Segways to Santiago. This is how I'll make my million. 

But then again, as a peregrina (pilgrim), I've been annoyed enough by bicycles on the trail and concerned that there is no room in the inn that I realize Segways would ruin the Camino. 

And so, one must walk. One must walk to experience one of the most amazing experiences that exists on planet Earth. 

Warning Number 1: I feel like this blog post may contain MANY superlatives. What you need to understand is that these often overused words in the English language will not do justice in describing what I have experienced during the past 12 days.

Warning Number 2: This is a really long blog post. I thought of dividing it in parts. But then I thought that you are all smart enough to delegate your time as needed. Read at your own leisure and/or skim. 

During the past week I have wanted to document so many experiences and thoughts that I have had. But then again... I was reminded of my first goal: "Wherever you are, be all there." And since each blog post takes a minimum of an hour to write, I didn't want to take time away from the Camino to stop and write. But I've been reminding myself of things the blogosphere must know about the Camino de Santiago.  So, I'll start with the people: Mis Amigos del Camino. 

I feel like I've been away from the States for 2 years...at least. It's been 19 days. Basically, I've decided that walking 170 miles in 12 days with people from all over the world feels like being transported to another place and time. 

I've also decided that the Camino is like "Invite the World to Dinner" (back two blog posts) on steroids. Nearly every hour of every day I was sharing life with people from around the world.  We talked about our lives, our cultures (the good, bad and different), our politics, our dreams, our problems...  We had a lot to talk about. And we had a lot of time to do it. 

I last posted in the town of Puente la Reina. I had just finished my first day with the Israeli Defense Forces. A week later, I just said goodbye to my good friends Ofir, Itai and Tomer. It's with tears in my eyes as I consider their kindness in letting a lady 10 years older than them tag-along. They shared their chai tea with me during their 9am coffee stop, their canned tuna and sardines for their lunch stop (I've never had sardines. When I asked Ofir exactly what I was eating he reminded me that you eat with your mouth, not with your eyes. And... the teacher is a student.) and a room with me after knowing me for 24 hours. They encouraged me when I was certain my feet couldn't take another step by serenading me on their harmonicas with the Theme from Rocky ...

They carried my boots for me on the last hour of my Camino into Burgos to lighten my load. They taught me an Israeli card game which provided great entertainment in a town that's not even on the map. They provided numerous moments of laughter as I observed them interacting with one another. And today, they gave me a ride to Santander and shared a "Day at the Sea" with me.  The best word I can think of to describe them would be "gentlemen."  I would also say they are kind, caring, chivalrous, generous, encouraging...  I've been truly blessed to spend so much time with them. I hope out paths cross again, hopefully Israel in January... Or that I can attempt to repay their kindness by hosting them in Colorado. 

(I'm not sure you can tell but my English has become much more proper as I attempt to speak in a way that people who use English as a second language can understand.  I'm hoping I can revert back to normal talking eventually.)

Then, somewhere between Puente la Reina and Estella, I met Gorka and Iñigo, friends from Pamplona. And my life has become fuller because of it. I'm pretty sure that I have never laughed more in one week than I have with these two.  Between Iñigo reciting lines from "How I Met Your Mother" (a show I've never seen and one that Gorka calls Iñigo's Bible) and realizing the extent of my OCD as I explain to Gorka that my ex-boyfriends are in alphabetical order by last name (total coincidence, I promise)... I was bent over my trekking poles with laughter numerous times. And many times, that laughter came right when I needed it. One memorable moment: 7am in Logroño. As we left the albuergue and we weren't exactly sure where the Camino continued. I recommended to Gorka that he ask the policemen right in front of us where the Camino was. They kindly explained that there were signs on the street directing us on the way. Really?  I hadn't noticed the, literally, thousands of signs marking the way for the past week. Turns out there was a sign in the middle of the street...about 5 feet away. Nothing like starting the day with a good laugh at ourselves. 

Gorka and I first started our Camino conversation talking about politics and him explaining the Basque Country, ETA, and "The Crisis" (the economic crisis in Spain). Over the next 8 days, we talked about family, friends, dreams, problems, embarrassing moments, more politics, religion, and anything else that came to mind during the hours of walking...such as Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Address. Read it. Good stuff. He may know as much about me as friends I've had for years.  He also served as a guide for all of us, explaining Spanish culture, history and helping to ensure delivery of the first load I sent ahead which included 4 months worth of contacts that were sent from France to Burgos which, this morning, appeared to have ended up in Barcelona.  He has an amazing wife who had encouraged him to walk for a week... and 2 young boys that seem to keep life interesting.  

Iñigo may have the biggest heart of anyone I know. He is like a giant teddy bear and has the smile of the Cheshire Cat. He loves life and the people in his life. He loves to laugh and make others laugh. Today I was thinking about the fact that he is probably everyone's favorite in the car parts factory that he has worked at for the past 15-ish years.  He talks to his mom ever other day and reminds her that he is her favorite kid as well.  With Iñigo, it's was impossible to not be positive. The day Gorka and Iñigo left to start their Camino, Iñigo couldn't find his hat. Gorka let him borrow one. It said "Ferrari" on it. It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  He would stop for coffee breaks and cigarette breaks every hour or so. Gorka and I would keep walking. Some time later Iñigo would stroll by and say "I am a Ferrari" in his broken English. Then he would go on to reserve beds for us at the next albergue and would be waiting for us while he smoked his 15th cigarette of the day. (Which reminds me... The number of people who smoke while on the Camino is astounding. Not sure how people do that... And then pass me.  Humbling indeed.)  I also gave Iñigo the title the "Mayor of the Camino."  One day he was up ahead walking with two little ladies from the town we were approaching. When we stopped in town, they brought Iñigo some fresh figs wrapped in newspaper. As we walked, Iñigo shared them with everyone. He also seemed to know everyone in town, became instant friends with every bartender/cafe barista, and had something nice to say to everyone he passed on the Camino. Iñigo seems to bring light to everyone around him. I've been blessed to spend a week with him on The Way. 

I met Ken from Santa Fe when I sat to rest on the patio of the albergue in Estella. He is an artist and former teacher/professor and now serves as an escort for musical groups traveling to Europe to perform. Super interesting guy who genuinely loves people and is interested in their lives. 

Greg and Melody are from Perth, Australia. I met them at the top of a hill somewhere outside Pamplona as they were stopping for tea.  For the next week, I spotted them at nearly every restaurant or cafe I stopped at as well. They always had a friendly greeting for me. Thy were both super intentional about remembering people's names, which is quite impressive when you consider the number of people you meet along the way. 

I met Marjorie from Atlanta on the steps of the albergue on my second day in Pamplona. I was using the free wifi (pronounced "wee-fee" in Europe) and she rolled in first in the group from the day starting after me. We struck up a conversation about Kilimanjaro, which she had summited a few years ago. Lovely woman who was walking alone and trying to find the balance between taking it easy and ensuring she had a bed, as well as meeting people and finding time for herself. 

Mapi and Juan were the two everyone was trying to figure out. Mapi from Barcelona wins the award for best legs on the Camino. Juan wins the youngest snorer award. Over the course of the week, all of us would piece together different parts of the story to try and figure out the whole story. Here's what we got: Juan, from Andalucia, is unemployed (like 57% of young people in Spain) and began his Camino in June. Apparently the weather was horrible and he wanted to quit, but kept going. Then he met Mapi in Galicia, which is about a week away from Santiago. They walked together and then started from the beginning together a few weeks ago. Mapi is a mid-wife.  After our few conversations, I've decided she would be the perfect person to have by your side while giving birth. She also has a boyfriend in Pamplona (who happens to own a bar that Iñigo goes to).  Juan and Mapi say they are not together... Oh Camino Gossip. 

Pere from Barcelona is my next "International Man of Mystery".  I met him at 7am outside the albuerge in Puente la Reina. And we would chat each time we saw one other. Everytime we parted ways, I said, "See you in the next town."  He would say, "Maybe you will, maybe you won't."  Over pinxtos (equivilant of tapas in northern Spain), he wouldn't tell us his profession so we decided he was in the Spanish Mafia. I started calling him El Jefe, "The Boss."  

Goodbyes. It might be easier to say goodbye on the Camino because the greeting for "goodbye" is the same as the  first time you meet someone: "Buen Camino."  I hope to see many of these people again, but the odds are against it. And even in the small chance that we should meet again, I'm sure it won't be the same. We've met each other in a situation of very unique circumstances, free from distractions, and at a time where you feel the most open and honest. So, my mindset is one in which I've decided to be thankful for the experience I've had, and not dream of trying to recreate at some point in the future. When I come back to walk again, I'll start from the Catherdral in Burgos, and it will be like a whole new Camino. And my new goal will be not to compare it to the first one but to embrace it for what it is. 

Decisions. One great thing about the Camino is that you really have no decisions to make. You might have decided the night before when you will wake up, but even then, that decision is an illusion because the rest of the room decides when you will wake up.  When and where you will eat is pretty obvious, because it is when and where everyone else stops to eat. Where you will sleep is much the same. I guess you can decide if you will talk to others or "Buen Camino" them along the way. And if you should choose to talk to others, you can make the decision about how much to share with others. My Amigos del Camino have indicated that I have no problem in sharing...  But not making decisions has been wonderful. I think about how many decisions I make in a school day and that I've made in the planning stages of this trip and it is a welcome break from the norm. 

A day in the life of a Pilgrim:
You wake when everyone else does. You have to be out of the albergue by 8am. Most are out by 7. You walk from an hour. You stop at the next town for "breakfast": coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a chocolate croissant. You walk. You talk. You think. You walk some more. You grab something for lunch... A bocadillo is common... A baguette with prosciutto. You walk. You start to hope to see your destination soon. Your feet start to hurt. The Israeli Army picks you up. You shuffle into the albuergue and hope there are still beds left. You give them your credentials to stamp (proving you are a pilgrim) and your passport. They give you a bed number. You throw your bag on the floor, find your shower stuff and wash off the dust of the day. You leave with your friends to find a place open for food because you are famished. Conveniently, this time is right in the middle of the Spanish Siesta. (The pilgrim schedule doesn't quite jive with the Schedule of Spain) but there is usually one enterprising person in the town who is making bank. You eat. You check email. You find a place for dinner that offers the Menu del Peregrinos (Pilgrim Menu) which costs about 10 euros and includes 2 courses of food, dessert, bread and wine or water (in many cases, wine costs less than water...shucks). You try to stay awake until 9. Crawl into your bed and hope the snoring doesn't start until after you've fallen asleep. And you get up and do the same the next day. 

Snoring. Oh my. I'm glad ear plugs work for me. Nearly every room as a magnificent snorer. Some rooms have 10 people. Some have 40. Regardless, it's bound to happen that you will be somewhat sleep deprived because of this. Typically, the worst snorer is the first to fall asleep and the first to wake up. My theory is that they realize how bad they were snoring so they want to leave as early as possible to save face. But my last official night on the Camino was the most memorable. We secured the last 5 beds at a 200 bed albuerge in Burgos. We came into the room right when curfew was. The elevator (which was not common) opened right into a room of 40 beds. Immediately we were struck by a symphony of snoring. The only word I can think of to describe it was "magnificent." The "first chair" snorer was on one side of the room. The "conductor" seemed to be sleeping 2 beds away from me. Instead of breaking out in applause, I broke out in uncontrollable laughter and rushed to the bathroom to try to compose myself and not wake everyone else up. But as I left the bathroom, the snoring continued, as did my laughter. I composed myself again, rushed to my bag to grab my ear plugs and avoided eye contact with my friends to avoid another outburst. In the morning I had the realization that the only people I would have woken due to my laughter would had been those causing the laughter. 2 days later, I'm still chuckling. Unreal. 

Surgery. It usually takes 20 minutes for me to get ready in the morning. It soon became apparent that I would need to take on another 20 minutes for proper foot care. Tape to cover blisters on both heals. Blisters developed in both pinky toes. I even got a blister under a blister. Phenomenal!  This leads to losing a significant amount of flesh. And I'm pretty sure I will be in the market for two new pinky toenails in the next few weeks.  On top of that, the bones right below my toes were hurting me pretty bad. I began a pretty strict regimen of what my Aussie friends called Vitamin I: Ibuprofen. I started with 3 Advil at 7am to "stay ahead of the pain."  At 9 another 3 was looking pretty appetizing. I switched to Tylenol at noon and then Advil if needed to get me the rest of the way home. Gorka and Iñigo started to call me an addict. Then we realized that Advil is 200 mg of ibuprofen. One Spanish OTC Ibuprofen is 600 mg.  They took it back. At one particularly difficult moment I stopped in a pharmacy in Los Arcos and a kind pharmacist also gave me some Ibuprofen gel to rub on my feet. Sweet. And then my stomach started to hurt. I wonder why. I began to do a cost/benefit analysis of hurting stomach or hurting feet. Stomach usually came in second. But no worries... I've been ibuprofen free for 2 days now.  

The Spirit of the Camino. All of the albergues are run by volunteers. All of them have been exceptionally helpful. Except one. We were in Logroño and I decided that if I wanted to keep up with my friends I would need to send my bag ahead. I inquired about this often used service and was given a "talking to" by a man (in a neck brace) who claims to have done the Camino 20 times. He asked me, in Spanish, if I had the "Espiritu del Camino". I said yes, of course!  He told me I needed to be suffering to experience the Camino. He went on and on about how the "Espiritu del Camino" does not exist anymore, that there are too many people walking and that they don't get the purpose. Dude. I've been walking and I get the suffering. And I have the Spirit of the Camino. And I am sending my bag on tomorrow. I didn't say that of course but I was thinking it. Peace!

During the day, you ask people how their walk was going. A common response is "poco a poco" which means "little by little."  Poco a poco, my foot. (Pun intended)  Most of these people are just like Iñigo, the Ferrari. My longest stretch by myself was from Puente la Reina till I met Gorka sometime midday. People were passing me like I was standing still. But I was embracing "poco a poco."  I only passed one person. It was a man, somewhere in his 70's, on a steep uphill. I promise when I passed him he was walking with his eyes closed. I didn't want to "Buen Camino" him because I thought I might wake him up from sleep walking. The next day I tried to explain to Iñigo that I have earned the title "La Tortuga" (the turtle) from the story the turtle and the hare. I've actually been calling myself that for years. I like to go slow but don't need any breaks. 

"Si es la guerra, vengan las balas."  This is a phrase Iñigo taught me while drinking some cold ones by the pool in Torres del Rio after one of our hottest days of walking. It means, "If this is war, bring on the bullets."  Some days, I felt like I was walking to my death. Ok... That's a total exaggeration. I was hurting. And the best part of the day was stopping. But I recall thinking that even though many other people were hurting (aka: "Doing the John Wayne") everyone still had a smile. No one was crying or angry because there were always others there to encourage you or to help carry the load.  

And so I told people I did the Camino to get some perspective and set the tone for the year to come. Although I still have much to process, I can say with full confidence that I leave this experience with the perspective that there are amazing people in the world. People who are willing to walk by you for hours a day and want to listen, share, encourage and laugh. In the year to come, I hope to do the same for others as my Camino Amigos have done for me. 

If you ever need to restore your faith in humanity, walk the Camino. And in the full Spirt of the Camino, it must be walked. No Segways allowed. But feel free to send your bag ahead.  

P.S: This picture has earned "wall status" and will be framed on the wall that is the background for the blog you are reading right now. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

I know where I am, but how did I get here?

I keep asking myself this question. 

Right now I'm in a charming little town called Puente la Reina. A few minutes ago, as I was roaming through the street sometime between siesta (when everyone is resting) and paseo (when everyone comes out to walk the street).  I peeked into one of the old churches. This is the third one I've been to in this town, and each is awe-inspiring for different reasons.  The first was a simple stone church where I was the only one. Eerie at first and then I came to welcome the peace and time for prayer.  A few blocks down I walk into another dark church with an unbelievable gold-plated alter piece.  I appreciate the structure and move on. But this last one had glorious sounds coming out of it. I have stumbled upon an acapella choir practice. 8 men and 8 women are performing some of the most beautiful music I cannot understand. But I can at the same time.  They then sing a few bars of "Steal Away" which brought tears to my eyes as I was reminded of hearing the same African American spiritual sung acapella at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on Martin Luther King Day in 2009. The director is demanding and the choir is compliant. How did I get here?

An hour before I grab some tapas at a little bar/hotel recommended by fellow pilgrims. There is a table of 8 lively American cyclists. I laugh at a joke and they ask where I'm from. I say Colorado. So is part of the group... Steamboat and Boulder. One couple is from Santa Barbara by way of Detroit. I say I'm originally from Peoria, Illinois. They say to each other "I wonder if she knows Jera Deal"?  My mouth drops open. She lives in my parents neighborhood and I babysat for their oldest daughter one summer. Jera worked for this guy in Detroit. We both raved about how awesome she is. How did I get here?

This morning I leave the hostel at 6:45 with 3 guys from Israel. They have just finished their 3 years of required military service. Ofir is of Iraqi decent, Tomer is half-Iraqi/half-Hungarian and Katz is Polish. And all three are fully Israeli. From the time we leave Pamplona until our tea stop at the first town we come to, I have a crash course in Israeli history and one perspective in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Fascinating. They share their tea with me.  Later in the day they share their lunch with me: canned tuna, sardines, fish-stuffed red peppers and Nutella on a loaf of toasted bread. Ofir isn't eating because its Yom Kippur. He plans to go big at sunset. How did I get here?

And for video action of the day:

Last night I had dinner with Arnie from Phoenix and Rob from Holland. Both are 67. We share our thoughts about the challenges of the Camino: physical and mental. They tell me what they love about their wives. I share my four goals of my sabbatical.  We are watching all of Pamplona gather on the Plaza Mayor for a Friday evening. We are at Cafe Iruña, Hemingway's Pamplona haunt. How did I get here?

Each morning I wake with some 200 other pilgrims as we all repack our packs for another day on the Camino. Getting started can be rough but then you fall into a rhythm, right about the time you hit the first town in time for a coffee break. We leap frog one another as we each find different times are necessary for a break throughout the day. We greet each other and leave each other with "Buen Camino."  And we are all following the sign of the Camino... A gold shell in a blue sign or a simple yellow arrow. It's impossible to get lost. And we are all going the same direction. How did I get here? 

And this was in the sky this afternoon...

The only answer I can find to my question  is this: 

"There, only by the grace of God, go I."

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dinner with the World

About 3 years ago my senior government students were doing a research project. One student, Ian Bailey, decided to research "world hunger."  At some point in his research, an erroneous Google search led him to a story about a guy named Jim Haynes, an American ex-pat in Paris. Over 20 years ago he began having dinners at his house that grew from 10 people a night to up 70 these days. And anyone is invited. Just email Jim and you are on the list!  Ian thought this was pretty cool and showed the article to me. The concept sounded like my dream come true. Serve good food to great people to create amazing community. Ever since then I've had the idea in the back of my mind.  I actually had one impromptu dinner including my new neighbors I met that morning and one of their friends I did not know, my friends Elise and Sean (now living at my house...I love them and am so thankful to have them there! See my first blog post about them!) and Sean's roommate whom I did not know, and an old teacher friend Ashley Newman and her new boyfriend-now husband Michael, whom I barely knew. I loved it and I think what stopped me from having another was time, money and intentionality. Well... That will be changing as a result of dinner last night.

Of course, when our itinerary evolved to include Paris, I knew dinner with Jim was a must. I emailed him in June and in 5 hours our reservation was confirmed along with directions from the nearest metro stop (including a very precise "39 steps to the big green gate").  My anticipation for this event was pretty significant.  I have maybe verbalized that my purpose for the entire year could be fulfilled in this one evening (just 4 days into the trip) as I learn how this is done. But, on the metro to our destination, Annette asked what my expectations were. Earlier in the day she told me that she's a "worst case scenario" kind on person... meaning... prep yourself for whatever the worst case scenario might be and come to terms with that...and then when the worst doesn't happen you are pleasantly surprised. My response to her question: "Worst case scenario: we meet some crazy people and have an ok meal."  If that was the bar, I was exceptionally pleased with how the evening went... maybe I even did a little heal kick in the air once we turned the corner to go home. 

When we got to the gate, Tina and Steve from Austrailia were waiting as well. Then a jovial Parisian named Jean walked up and began typing the code for the big green gate. It didn't work. He asks if we're going to dinner with Jim.  Yes!  Do we have the code?  Yes!  And thus we met our first dinner companions. 

We were among the first ten to arrive. Jim was seated at the kitchen counter with a long guest list and a pile of envelopes to submit our 30 euro payment. Another man was working at the stove, preparing a chicken in a red sauce of sorts with a side of some seasoned rice (no proper name for the dish is coming to mind). There were already huge bowls of French bread, tortilla chips and an avocado salsa of sorts. It looked and smelled delicious. But we quickly learned that the evening was not about the food. We grabbed a drink and headed outside to the courtyard/patio/walkway to mingle and hear the stories of...

Erica and Katrina, marketers from Belgium... We talked about the difference between United States and European history, Belgium's history of being dominated by every other European nation and traveling to Guatemala. 

Pascal, doctor of pharmacology/ film writer / musician... He asks my favorite age in history, once he discovers my profession. I respond, correctly, with the World War 2 era.  Turns out he just finished a film on the fight over Strasbourg during WWII. Which leads to a discussion on Syria and Iran's new leadership.  Later Pascal serenades us with his guitar. 

David from Australia but has called Paris home for the last 20-some years... He is a regular attendee of dinners with Jim and his happy to introduce everyone to everyone else.  

Jerry and Diana traveling with their daughter Lisa and her husband Sean, from Salt Lake... They are celebrating Diane's 70th and Lisa's 50th with a trip to Paris.  They discovered the cheapest tour of the city is to take Bus Number 69. 

John, the Arabian horse endurance rider from Brisbane/Sydney, New York, Connecticut and sometime Paris, joins the conversation... I learn about the required diet of an endurance horse (only a little grain and a lot grassy hay) as well as other training techniques.  And that synthetic substance abuse can result in a lifetime ban of the sport. According to John there is an endurance horse race within 80 miles of every city in the U.S. News to me!

I go to refill my glass and discover dessert is being served. Pineapple upside down cake a la mode. A volunteer is required to take one dessert up the stairs and to the right to Madame Tussaud (not really but I can remember her name... she was a tiny woman who said many things to me, none of which I understood but was very grateful that she offered to turn the hallway light on so I could safely make it down the stairs). 

Percival, a graphic designer from Pasadena... He described the road rally that took him to all of the old haunts of Van Gogh throughout France that ended in a lovely 3 day stay at a chateau. He was lamenting his imminent return to reality. 

Yve, not Eve, a French filmmaker married to Catherine, an American... She was our cook for the evening and happened to be the very first cook for Jim's dinners. She moved to Paris in 1978 as a college student, found a room in Jim's upstairs studio with 4 others, and exchanged a place to sleep by cooking for Jim's friends. And thus this amazing gathering of people was formed. 

Adelaide, a writer and friend of Jim's, quickly produced a folded piece of paper from her purse, sharing her newest e-book available from Amazon, called "Black Soap"... Something about mysticism and the Basque country.  She claimed that the last book she published was such a hassle and that e-publishing was much easier. 

But our most delightful encounter of the evening was with the last people we met, just a short time before the evening was to come to an end. 

Kimber and Chuck, in law enforcement, from New York, traveling with their daughter Demi, a hunter/jumper trainer and recent grad of Coastal Carolina University.  They wanted to gift their daughter an "experience" for her graduation and this evening in Paris was the perfect opportunity.  They had been to Jim's 4 years before and they said not much about the evening had changed. When we told them our next stop was the Camino, Kimber give Chuck an Elaine Bennis shove and explains that she'd been wanting to do this...  Maybe our stories during the next two weeks will tip the scales in Kimber's favor to convince Chuck that they must take on the challenge. They were wonderful people who were excited for our adventures and gave an encouraging reminder that laughter is one of the most important keys to successful travel. When we met Demi, we informed her that she is so lucky to have such awesome parents. 

 And then Jim and his friends began to shut off the lights. Our amazing night was coming to a close and we were the last to leave. 

I'm doing a mental heal kick as I recount last nights events. And I cannot wait to begin, Invite the World to Dinner in Vail. I'll take reservations for the first 20 people for Sunday, July 6th, and each subsequent Sunday. A $20 contribution is requested to cover costs associated with the meal.  Email me at theashleyweaver@gmail.com.  

Actually, I'm thinking I have room for 19. Ian Bailey will be the guest of honor, as long as he's not too cool to have dinner at his old teacher's house. 

Check out the Magisto movie documenting the evening:

Backpack Wishes and Camino Dreams

Monday, September 9th

We encounter our first known fellow pilgrims as we enter the train station in Bayonne. Others begin to emerge. One thing is clear. We win the award for biggest packs. The award would be won by an even larger margin if one considered body weight to pack weight ratio. And thus our backpack wish is this: that we didn't have them.  As we were standing at the train platform I asked Annette how she felt about backpacking. Her response: "I hate it."  How did I just now learn this?  

Next observation, it appears as though the average age of the typical pilgrim is 65. One of two things can happen given this scenario. Day one will be a very humbling experience as we get schooled by the more, je ne sais pas, more seasoned traveler. Or... Youthful legs will handle the heavier loads and we decide if these folks can do it, we've got this in the bag... a very large bag. 

But we have already determined that we have two questions once we get to the St. Jean Pied de Port Pilgrim Information Center:  Where is the best cheap/free place to stay? And how much does it cost to ship our excess baggage ahead to our likely finish at Burgos? I have decided that 40 euro would be my spending limit for this service. Annette capped it at 80. 

Thursday, September 12

Camino dreams...

This the view I have as I type this blog

That would be my legs up in the air attempting to let the lactic acid drain from my feet. It's bringing back memories of cross country practice.  But I've never had a cross country practice quite like this. So far I've walked about 70km ascended about 1400 meters and descended about 1000 meters. (I've vowed to learn the metric system in my time abroad but until then, my Units Plus App tells me thats 43 miles traveled, 4,593 feet up and 3,280 feet down.) Additionally, I have a large blister that I earned within 2 hours of this trek. I'll spare you the picture but it is the reason I sent my pack on ahead and walked the 25k today in my flip flops. It actually wasn't too bad. (P.S. These are the same boots I wore for my week long backpacking trip with my Young Life girls with very few feet problems. It's not supposed to work this way. It maybe its because I wore nothing but flip flops from  the end if that trip until the beginning of this one. Major bummer.)

And now I'm in Pamplona... City of the Running of the Bulls. Only missed it by a couple of months. We found another post office to lighten our load even more than the box we sent from St. Jean Pied de Port. Then ventured out for "pixtos", the northern Spain equivilant of tapas. 1 euro for a glass of wine and 1 euro for each tapa. Yes, please!  I've decided this is going to be the place of my rest day. I've been torn in deciding to do this as I've LOVED the people we've walked with so far and I'm sad to be saying goodbye and fearful I won't meet as fun of a group when the next wave of peregrinos (pilgrims) hits the city. But, then again, they could be just as fun and then I will have met twice as many fun friends! Here's hoping!

So let me tell you about these friends... Starting in the order we have met them.

First we have Zoltar from Hungary. He sat next to us on the train to St. Jean. Then he was in the bunk next to us atthe  first albuerge (hostel for pilgrims). Then we would leap frog with him all day on Day 1. Until Pamplona we knew nothing about him.  He became the International Man of Mystery. He was short-ish, athletic, tan, had good calves and barely talked. I was pegging him as Bulgarian on Day 1. Others were picking up Uruguay-ian. I decided the mystery needed to be solved. My ice breaking tactic: offer him the best candy in the world. I learned about this candy when traveling to Spain with Jules in 2005 and enjoyed it just as much with Gretchen in 2011. Interestingly enough, this candy plays a roll in some of my best travel stories I have such as the game Jules and I invented called Vienna Splits in which I promised to give Jules one piece of Red Rope (that's my name for it but its a red licorice with a white filling and sweet/sour sugar coating) for each couple walking down the street that she managed to walk between or "split" in Vienna. The game lives on.  And the story with Gretchen ends with me buying my first pair of skinny jeans... I'll leave it at that. Back to the International Man of Mystery...  We had just entered Pamplona and passed him and the 3 South Korean students he was walking with when I stopped to offer them my first purchase of Red Rope. He declined, I insisted, and when he took a piece he formed it into a smile and said "happy!"  Awesome. Turns out Zoltar began his Camino in Pamplona in August, made it to Santiago and on to Finisterre (city on the sea 3 days beyond Santiago), took a train back to St. Jean (where we met him) and had now closed the circuit.  Glad we got the story today otherwise we never would have seen him and he would live on as the International Man of Mystery (which is fun to say... but so is Zoltar). 

Next group of friends: we have a Ron Weasley look-a-like whose real name is Sebastian but friends in Dresden, Germany call him Basti. He's a student taking two weeks to do the Camino. Basti slept in the bunk above Annette in Roncevilles. At 6:15 Annette wakes up and hears from his bunk, "I don't understand!" Annette asks what he's referring to. "I don't understand why all these people must get up before the sun comes up."  Oh sweet, Basti. 

Betty is a nurse from Peru who has been living in Milano, Italy for the last 10 years. She's super sweet and has given good counsel, and some bandages, for my blisters. She turned 40 this year and isn't interested in settling down unless the guy wants to travel the world with her. 

David is a South African (born to a European and Israeli who are now living in New York) but he has been an investment banker in London for the last 8 years. After the camino he plans to return to Capetown to enroll in a masters program on Sustainable Development.  He's probably the one I've talked with the most on the Camino. We walked up hill, through the rain on Day 1 until I "Buen Caminoed" him (a verb which means... It's been nice talking to you but I'm moving on). It really wasn't like that. I just didn't want to stand in the smelly crowded tiny hut on the top of the mountain he stopped at to warm up. 

All of us were side by side in bunks on night one, had dinner together in Roncevilles and walked together many times throughout the last few days. Great people indeed. 

The three of them picked up a third... Nolan from North Carolina. When I first saw him on Day 1, he was charging up the hill with army style pack and boots, a box of OJ in one hand and a liter of water in the other. I met him on the road to Zubiri when I had stopped for a bocadillo (French bread with a slice of prosciutto). He has been traveling North and South America after a stint of teaching English in Japan. His travels include hitchhiking through Wyoming and getting picked up by a caretaker of a nearby ranch which led to a free 2 week stay (as opposed to the truck stops he had been staying in) and subsequently a month at a dairy farm in Nicaragua, family members of the caretaker. He may continue south down the eastern coast of Africa after this or venture east to Russia and on to China. Or maybe a job fair. 

Are you beginning to see why this is the coolest way to spend your day, or 2 weeks or a month. And those are just a few of the hundreds walking the same path with us each day. Imagine the stories there are to tell!!!

We also met Brainard and Brainard Junior or (B1 and B2 as they said to call them). They are from Dublin. This is B2's 4th Camino and his dad's first. He proposed to his wife on his 2nd and they honeymooned on his 3rd. The amount of information I have gleaned from B2 cannot be contained in the space provided. At first I found it annoying but have since come to appreciate his expertise. Although he has told us much about himself including entering the Irish military at age 16, I'm pretty sure I'm not the first to write a blog post about this legendary Camino pilgrim. His dad on the other hand, I can't understand a single word of his Irish English he has spoken to me. Lots of smiling and nodding. 

Speaking of the Irish. They can't get enough of this Camino stuff. They are everywhere. Mike from Dublin slept in the bunk across from me (Frito-Lay shout out little bro: He works for PepsiCo in the Dublin warehouse!). He met up with Greg from Dublin on the train. And last night we had dinner with sisters Liz and Marie from Cork, Ireland. They are walking to celebrate Liz's 30th birthday. Liz is in the bunk next to me tonight and Marie above. We enjoyed pixtos on the town tonight together. Super great girls. And... Liz SAVED me by giving me one of her Compeed patches to cover my blister. This may be the sole reason I can continue on. In the bunks next to us are 3 more middle-aged Irish women and you hear the brogue everywhere!  Love it!

I also shared bunk space with two brothers, Valentine and Benedict from Germany. Last name: Arnold. That's right folks, Benedict Arnold slept in the bunk above me!  I asked if their parents were funny. They said their dad had a sense of humor. No kidding!  They were a trip.  Valentine wants to teach English...of which he knows more slang than I do from watching the Family Guy and other shows. Their one question: how is it possible that the conservative Fox News network also airs a show such as the Family Guy on Fox. I tried I explain the difference. The knowledge of the rest of the world on American politics and pop culture is astounding. But when they asked me to name capitals of various European countries I didn't do to bad...

And then we met our 3 favorite girls from the States.  We first saw them at our very first pit stop on Day 1. I overheard Ande mention to some others she was from Colorado. I decided to postpone making the connection until later on the trail.  Sure enough, I had my chance with about 6km left on Day 1. I told her I heard she was from Colorado. She said she was a raft guide in Buena Vista this summer but is moving to Vail to work for CME when the Camino is over.  For real??  Love this. Vail peeps: Super cool chick might need a place to live next month. If you need a renter, I'll connect you guys. She's the bomb.com. She's camino-ing with her step-sister Lauren from San Luis Obispo, who just finished her nursing degree (and also helped with the carnage of my heal). She is a lovely human being!  There is talk of them meeting up with us in Cuba in May. I love that they started talking about this within 5 minutes of meeting me!  They are doing the whole Camino with their mom/step-mom, Deborah from Phoenix. I would venture to say that Deborah is the most gorgeous woman on the Camino. And she is just as beautiful on the inside. She's been so sweet in making sure I'm taking care of myself. And, she got MAJOR bonus points from Annette when she divulged that she worked for USAA, an amazing insurance company that I'm just now being educated about. They are continuing on but will take a rest day soon and I'm hoping to meet up with them again. 

You can catch a glimpse of the experience from this clip:

Ok... I know this is long. But, I just wanted to introduce you to all my friends. And I know there are some I'm forgetting.  So now you can see why I'm sad to stay behind and lose them. But I'm also considering this day off, a Day of Solitude, which I've vowed to have every month but haven't had since April.  Deep breath... And sigh. 

Ciao for now!

More later...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Meet Annette

I met Annette through our mutual friend Betsy when they were roommates. I remember going over to watch the series finale of The Office (which I had maybe seen 3 times so I was a self-professed poser... but isn't that a little like watching the Super Bowl?) at Betsy's house and struck up a conversation with Annette. I recall thinking to myself: This is a fun chick. I want to be her friend. 

Over the years our paths had repeatedly crossed through Calvary Chapel, weddings, hikes, ECSD events, Moab trips, etc.  Somehow, we ended up planning a road trip to Mount Rushmore with our friend Angie in June of 2011. We named ourselves the "A Team." (Get it? Ashley, Angie, Annette... We're all teachers. We're creative like that.)  Some may recall stories from that trip such as: sleeping in a teepee, questioning the legitimacy of the Crazy Horse Monument (we decided to give the family who is building it the benefit of the doubt), visiting Mount Rushmore at night for the Park Ranger talk and an amazingly inspiring patriotic presentation, a 4 hour stop at Wall Drug (and my photo documentation of every single sign for Wall Drug on the way there... Check out my Facebook album from that one), and an afternoon hike through the Badlands. Oh... and the one time I navigated us through Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the midst of a thunderstorm which turned the dirt road to a mud road in which we encountered a road closed sign ahead or 2 trucks stuck across the road that was our only other way out. Sitting in the back seat was Annette who was oblivious to our plight as she was insisting she knew the correct answer to the trivia question I had just asked about the 5 states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.  Thankfully we lived to tell the tale. And this is our only "extensive" travel experience together. Maybe Angie was wise to decline our invitation to have an "A-Team World Tour."  Instead, we'll be the "A-Duo" ... doesn't have quite the same ring. Any suggestions for what we should call ourselves? 

So last August, Annette and I were hanging out and I said out of the blue... having given no previous thought to the question... "I have a question that I'm scared to ask because I think I know your answer, but what do you think about both taking a year off school and traveling internationally?"  Her response was something like... "You know my answer... I've always wanted to do that but have never wanted to go alone."  And that's where it all began. 

Annette and I both find ourselves husband-less and child-less and have a similar sense of adventure as well as similar world views. With that as our basis, we began to have conversations about what this "sabbatical" year might look like. We set a November date to meet to decide that we were both committing to this endeavor. First we talked about teaching English somewhere for 6 months. Then I decided I did not want to teach at all for a year. At the end of the conversation we decided we would live in Cuzco, Peru for 4 months and see where that led us next. Deal!  As she was leaving my house I said, "Oh, by the way, I am really interested in pursuing being a foster parent when I get back from the trip."  She says, (not in a bad way but in an excited way) "That changes everything!" ...and walks out the door. A few hours later I get an email from her with a link to a blog written by a woman reflecting on her first impressions of the orphanage she was adopting her baby from in Africa... a blog post I could have easily written from my first few hours at the orphanage in Guatemala. 

Side note: Annette has been purposeful in wanting whatever our plans entail for the next year to be something that can improve us, give us skills, or added experience for whatever waits for us upon our return...that this would not just be a year "off"...hence...

Her thought process was that if I'm interested in orphans (which many of you know I am), then I should spend some time at an orphanage. So then we had a plan of 3 months in Africa at an orphanage and 3 months in South America (because I still wanted to go to Peru). We were seeking contacts for orphanages in Africa when we found one based out of Denver. While pursuing that connection, it turned out they also had an children's home in Nepal. Annette proposed time in Nepal instead of Africa...and I was game. And then it turns out that we aren't even going to that children's home but another one we have found through my friend Jordan, who works for Compassion. (He's been super helpful with Nepal, Kilimanjaro and Peru contacts as well... Thanks, Jordan!)  

So now we had two anchor locations for an extended amount of time... Nepal and Peru. The goal was to learn more extensively about the local culture, serve the local people, and be open to wherever The Lord leads us. 

Then the trip became peppered with "bucket list" locations. Annette wanted to climb Kilimanjaro... I was game. For awhile there was talk of a Wagoner/Weaver cousin trek, but sadly, that fizzled out. Maybe "next time."  I've had my sights set on Israel for years... Annette was game. We thought it wise to give ourselves a break from each other mid-trip so I'll be spending Christmas with my cousin, Sarah, and her family in Germany while Annette visits friends in Jordan.  I have been trying to get to Honduras to experience my friends, Claire and Tim's, home on Utila. Spring Break worked for Clair, so I'll be celebrating my 33rd birthday and Easter with her. It's a hop skip and a jump from Guatemala, so I made plans to visit there again. Annette may or may not join me on this part as we have plans again to part ways when I hike Machu Pichu and she heads to Panama (she did Machu Pichu last year...).  Then we added Cuba...just because.  Our most recent addition to the itinerary is actually the first part of the trip. In April, I asked Annette if she wanted to do the Camino de Santiago. Her response: what's that? I explain it is a trek/pilgrimage across northern Spain. This was beginning to sound familiar and she knew people who had done it and wanted to do it herself. Suddenly... We were going to Spain. My one request, let's not fly into Madrid (a horrible night in the ER the last time I was there made me vow never to return... although we are flying out of Madrid...). So we decided Paris would be a lovely way to begin this journey. Why not blow half of our budget in the first 4 days?  Just kidding... kind of. 

And that is the story of how we got to where we are. 

Annette is a middle school music teacher for a feeder school to my high school. She has her MBA and just earned her principal's license. She grew up in Monument, Colorado in an Air Force family (dad, bro, uncle, and cousins have all attended and worked at the Academy).  She has spent the summer hiking 14ers and running a half marathon.  She doesn't know yet that once I arrived in Peoria this summer my only physical activity was walking the neighborhood... about 5 times. That, however, will no longer be a secret when we begin our trek, next Tuesday.  Nothing like "on-the-job training" right? 

I'm looking forward to sharing this experience with Annette. I think we will be great travel buddies. But I'm not naive to think that we won't have conflict. In fact, we've already talked about how we will handle conflict WHEN (not if) it arises. Here's how the scenario might play out: One of us is frustrated. Frustrated friend says: "I need you to listen to me right now."  Translation: "You are getting on my last nerve and I'm about to say something you are not going to want to hear so before you get defensive and freak out, pause, listen to what I have I say, let it sink in, then give a thoughtful and understanding response." This sounds great right now... I'll let you know how the first encounter turns out. Then you can read Annette's version of it on her blog at annettefulloffish.wordpress.com. (If you have time...you will be delightfully entertained as Annette is entertaining.)

What makes me think this is going to be a successful trip with Annette is that through the planning stages we've been COMPLETELY on the same page. And I know we would both agree that God might have something to do with that. She makes a suggestion about lodging or communication strategy and I'm game. I discover a cool travel tip or make a new contact and she's all for it. Again, I realize that planning and reality can be worlds apart ... but I feel like we have a solid foundation to start from. 

So here we are, in Paris, reunited. Annette arrived here after an 18-hour-layover in Reykjavik, Iceland... Jealous!  Let The Journey begin! 

Thoughts Running Through My Brain as I Become a Nomad

Looking Back...

What a special summer. 2 solid months in Peoria surrounded by my family. I really don't have any friends in Peoria to catch up with so all my time has been with family and I kind of like it that way... And so does my mom. 😊

Loved watching my Huddy Buddy learn to roll over, eat "food", and laugh. So thankful for this solid chunk of time I got during his 5th and 6th month of life. It's sad to think it probably won't happen again but I'm thankful for the time I had. Next time I see this sweet face he'll be running around. And Carolyn promised me his first word would be "Ash."  Well... maybe his 3rd... 

Loved quality time with Zack and Carolyn: dinners on the patio, Wine Walk at Junction City, letting Z test his new found culinary skills (I think he thought he was breaking me in for what I might experience abroad by serving me Rocky Mountain Oysters last night) and catching up when they picked up Hudson at the end of the day. I love watching you raise him...he's blessed to have you for parents!

It was super sweet to be around for the festivities of Luke and Rachel's engagement. A year ago, NO ONE in our family could have fathomed Luke would be getting married anytime soon.  But his Dallas office apparently knew better... Most predicted he'd be engaged within a year of moving to Dallas...and he hadn't even met Rachel yet!  Crazy how The Lord brought these two together and I was blessed to get them to myself his past weekend in Aspen. You both have exciting adventures ahead of you. Will be praying for you...  See you on your wedding week!

Ah... My sweet mama. What would I do without my best friend? Not sure that spending every day ... all day...with her will make up for not seeing her for 9 months and challenging communication overseas... Although we do have a Plan A (Skype), B (What's App) and C (Google Voice).  Thanks, Mama, for loving me unconditionally and for all the time you have spent and will spend praying for me. I know this to be the greatest gift a person can give. 

Quality time with my Pops!  I'm not sure why our relationship has been a challenge to both of us... Oh wait... Maybe it's because we are so much alike... But I love that we have come so far in accepting one another the way we are and learning about one another. This summer we came up with a plan to have coffee on the front porch a few mornings a week. I LOVED this time... learning about my Dad, his heart, his experiences, what brings him joy and what challenges him. Already looking forward to 7:20 am on Thursday, May 15!

Grandpa Dale!  This man is incredible!  The week I was backpacking through the Rockies, he was at a dude ranch in Shell, Wyoming. We all agree he came back 10 years younger! And now he's taking off for an east coast cruise.  I hope I'm loving life like he is at age 85 (give or take a few years). He spent the summer making an incredible family heirloom... A table made from fence posts from the farm.  And he managed to fit in a trip with me to the new Riverfront Museum to see the Ansel Adams exhibit. Pretty sure the direct quote as we were driving away was, "Well, don't have to go back there anytime soon" but I cherished the time he shared with me as he talked about his CAT days and seeing downtown change as we walked through the Peoria History exhibit. And his sweet friend, Jo. I'm so thankful for the relationship she has with Gramps and the way she loves our fam. She's a gem!

Grandma and Grandpa Weaver. They have given our family an amazing gift in the community they have created around the farm for my entire lifetime.  And I love that it is being carried on through the generations.  Their love for each other is so sweet.... Grams just reminded him at lunch the other day that she meant it when she said "in sickness and in health."  Not sure who logged more hours at the pool this summer, Grandpa    or the Sutter girls. I hope I am as sweet and content at 90 as he is and that I'm as patient as my Grandma. They are love. 

Pause: if you think that my eyes and nose are dry since I've started writing this post, you are wrong. 

The rest of the Weaver Clan: Chuck and Laurie... Any time I get with them is cherished and they were so generous with their time... Friday mornings at Panera, dinner on the Terrace, lunch at the pool, church with their fam... I always leave with something to think about and be challenged by.  Loved climbing with Annie and Mark and celebrating Travis and his summer of being 21!  The Sutter fam... Love those sweet girls and their parents. I love "Amy chats" at the pool. She's always real... And fun. She's real fun. And the Cagwin family. If it weren't for this summer I'm not sure that I would ever really know my cousin Shelley's girls, Kylie and Ella. And that would have been my loss... BIG TIME. What an awesome duo in their own light. Kylie taught me about raising her cow and Ella shared her humor and zest for life.  Sorry we didn't finish Harry Potter... Can we have a date next spring?  And if you ever want to know about the practice of Bovine Chiropractics... their dad, Jeff is one of the best!  Learning curve was HUGE on that conversation.  Pool time with Katie and Drew...thanks for coming to the rescue with Trav to fix the flat!  And family gatherings at the pool with the rest of my Aunts and Uncles (minus Phyl and Don visiting Sarah in Germany...sad I didn't get more time with them!) and cousins and 1st cousins-once-removed. 

I love that at family gatherings there are 2 sticks of butter placed side by side, the  perfect width to roll your corn on the cob on. 

I discovered that humidity reminds me of the feeling you get when you walk into a sauna. I actually kind of like it. 

I didn't finish any of the 20 books I brought home... Or scan the 20 photo albums I brought home. I know mom will be thrilled to see them still in my room when she gets home. 

That "rest" part of sabbatical... Yeah... Didn't happen. I think I might have to wait til Nepal in October for that. But loved every minute of my non-restful summer. Really... can't think of a minute I didn't like (except for hours on the phone arranging travel plans with Amercan Airlines and ensuring I had health insurance ... only $219 for the year! What?!?). 

Despite what my mom's friends may have thought, I loved Technology Bootcamp with Clair, Kristy and Lindsay. There is hope for learning new things!

Visiting different churches in Peoria made it clear that Christian fellowship is alive. Loved so much about Richwoods, Bradley Epworth, Grace Pres, Northwoods and Bethany. And, in thankful for the spiritual roots that were grown in my life from First United Methodist. Wow... Youth group memories are flooding back. Good stuff. 

And now...

Looking forward. 

I'm going to have very much of a love/hate relationship with this bag...

...and it's contents for the next 9 months.

Only regretful planning is doing a 2 week trek across northern Spain... Starting in the Pyrenees at the BEGINNING of this 9 month adventure.  Already strategizing how to temporarily lighten the load. Uncle Don, might take you up on that Sherpa offer! 

Whoa!  This is actually happening. Almost exactly a year ago I was chatting with my friend Annette after a hike. I said, "I know what your answer will be so I'm afraid to ask, but what do you think about taking a  year off teaching and traveling abroad"?  And now here we are. I'll see her in Paris in 24 hours and the adventure will begin! 

I can't wait for the people I will meet, places I will see, food I will experience, conversations I will have, ways I will be challenged and undoubtably changed...

Which reminds me... I'm really not doing this because I want to change... I am really happy with my life.  But I know that having an experience like this means that change is inevitable... And I must remember goal #2: An Open Heart an aTeachable  Spirit. 

I don't have any keys. I have nothing to lock up. The only things I have to protect will be on my back. Lets hope, especially then, that they will not be take from me.

Many ask what I'm most excited about... I'm excited about it ALL. There is really nothing I'm looking forward to more than another. 

God's provision is amazing and has always been present in my life. A year ago, I would never have dreamed I would have saved the money to do this trip... And yet The Lord has provided... And much through people's generosity that so often came unexpectedly. Thank you, Lord... And thank you generous people!  

I love that after being gifted the book in January, 2003, that I just finished the "40 day challenge" of reading "The Purpose Driven Life" ... yesterday. (So I guess I did finish one book this summer.) The timing is impeccable as I am hoping to use the next nine months to figure out how to use the gifts The Lord has given me to live a purposeful life upon my return. This is going to be fun!  

My flight leaves in 2 hours, so while I normally proof read my blog posts, it's not happening this time. Thanks for being forgiving of typos. 

Next up... "Meet Annette!"  I'm excited to introduce you to my travel buddy! 

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Accidental Tourist

I know this title is the name of a movie.  I don't know what the movie is about.  I just thought of the title when I went on my little roadtrip to the "Mid-South" and on to the "Heartland."   

Which reminds me... I find it interesting how regions get named.  Do a Google search on "Mid-South" and it is specifically referring to Memphis, Tennessee.  Really?  Doesn't "Mid-South" sound like it should encompass a much larger geographic region than just a city?  And is it really "mid"?  Tennessee appears to be the "upper" south. Unless we are talking an east-west orientation, in which case it seems to be more so the "western" south. But "Mid-South"?  Then there is the "Heartland."  It seems Oklahoma, in general, and Oklahoma City, specifically, have appropriately earned this nickname from the series of tragedies the Sooner State has endured. The residents have banded together to help their neighbors out in extraordinary ways in the last 20 years. But, growing up, I thought I was from the "heartland." I mean, Peoria has a TV station with the call letters WHOI, which stands for "We're the Heart Of Illinois."  Sometime in middle school I recall noticing that Illinois is somewhat in the "heart" region of the United States. So my 10-year-old conclusion was that Peoria must be the SUPER Heart of the United States if we were the Heart of Illinois and Illinois was the heart of the U.S.  Not only that, but the church I grew up in advertised as "The Church with a Heart in the Heart of the City."  Maybe God was trying to tell me I should be a cardiologist. Welp, missed my calling on that one. 

Back to being an accidental tourist. My purpose for the roadtrip was to visit my cousin, Olivia, in Memphis on the way to spend a few days with my best friend from Colorado, Julie, who moved to OKC by way of Nashville back in 2009. I had a short time with both of them and was just hoping for some good quality time with them (which is my love language, in case you wanted to know).  We absolutely had that, as well as some unexpected tourist experiences as well, hence the title, accidental tourist... 

On the 7 hour drive to Memphis, the perfect pitstop turned out to be St. Louis.  I decided to pull over and check out the Arch before filling up with gas and food. 

Growing up, my first time to the Gateway To the West was with my mom and my Grandma "B". Grandma LOVED to shop (a trait that I clearly did not inherit) so she planned a shopping trip every year for my mom, Aunt Sarah and Olivia and myself. The first few were to St. Lou where we stayed and shopped at Union Station...a good choice as my mom is not a particularly confident urban driver (the running joke is that she doesn't drive out of her zip code) and limiting city driving was essential to survival.  Although, we did make an excursion to go up the Arch, which I loved!  In fact, the only things I loved about those shopping trips had nothing to do with shopping... like watching the people make fudge at The Fudgery or reading Little House on the Prairie outside the Units store as mom tried on every possible combination of leggings, tunics and waistbands.  Thank you, 1987, for that amazing fashion trend.  And I did get quite good at playing the games in Brookstone. 

We also went down to the Lou for the Missouri Valley Conference Basketball Tournament.  This was when dad was a Bradley Superfan. I loved those weekends of non-stop basketball.  Mom would have rather been shopping. But again, we made it up the Arch.  

So these were the memories that came flooding back as I stopped to snap this pic of the arch a few weeks ago. 

Next stop was Memphis.  I had never been!  Liv managed to plan a weekend that I called "All Memphis Has to Offer in 36 Hours."  

We hit the ground running with dinner at Central BBQ.  Apparently it is a Memphis staple and I could see why. This ended up being the first of what became an impromptu BBQ tour as well. I love me some pulled pork. Moe's Original has set the bar high but I'm happy to compare. Central got the job done. 

Throughout the summer there are free concerts at the Levitt Shell (right by the zoo).  Since I missed my favorite summertime activity in Vail, free Tuesday night concerts, I was happy to attend. And... there was supposedly a surprise special guest. When we arrived it was packed.  Apparently the secret wasn't so secret as Norah Jones showed up for a few songs. Great vibe on a summer night in Memphis. 

Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast at Liv's cute little home, then ventured to the Farmer's Market... another of my favorite things.  We experienced some great people watching and an amazing blueberry scone. 

Olivia's boyfriend, Brian, joined us for the rest of the day's tourist attractions starting with The Rock and Soul Museum.  Loved it. Take-away: amazing to see how white and black culture melded in this city through music and the people who brought it there from the share-cropping fields. 

Feeling inspired, we headed to Beale Street. My only knowledge of Beale comes from Marc Cohn's song "Walking in Memphis", which I may have been singing under my breathe during much of my visit.

We grabbed a bite at Silky O'Sullivans ... chosen for the live Blues that was being played, and maybe because of the "Irish Diving Goats."  Don't worry animal lovers, no goats jumped off the platform. Also had pulled pork there...really not worthy of the world class BBQ tour I was on.

We then took in a little bit of Memphis history by perusing A. Schwab Dry Goods Store. It was basically a more gimmicky version of a Cracker Barrel store (if you can imagine that), but fun nonetheless. 

As we were leaving downtown, we made a stop by the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It is now the Civil Rights Museum.  This place is quite a reminder of how the course of history can be impacted so powerfully by one person.  Let's keep the dream alive! 

Next stop: The Peabody Hotel.  We saw The Ducks, people.  What a random tradition that started back in the 1920's...and has generated LOTS of revenue I'm sure, especially from people staking out a seat in the lobby bar, waiting for the duck parade at 5pm. Ducks were fun, but loved the conversation with Liv and Brian, as Brian (a Nashville native) explained to me why some southerners dress their little boys in seersucker onesies with embroidered chests all while sporting a bowl cut that left me, the non-native, guessing if the cute little toddler was really a boy or a girl. Apparently, it's an expression of love.  Still working through that one. 

By this point we were a little touristed out, so Liv and I headed for home with a detour of frozen yogurt for dinner from Yolo.  Then we joined her roommate in watching "42."  I tend to see about 4 movies a year... Glad this one made the cut. 

And my tour of Memphis ended by going to church with Liv and Brian on Sunday morning. Liv has been attending Fellowship Memphis for awhile and I can see why. They say that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in our country. I'm happy to say that Fellowship is doing their part to change that. The service started with a Hispanic worship leader playing gospel music, backed up by 3 amazing African-American women. Then the lead pastor, Bryan Loritts, also African-American, brought an awesome message on Habakuk 2, in regards to the church's 10 year anniversary and talking about where they've been and where they are going. He tag-teamed it with the teaching pastor, who was white. The fellowship, worship and the word were all awesome. 

I hopped into my car for my next 7 hour trek to Oklahoma City feeling challenged, loved and full of life. 

And then I experienced I-40 through Arkansas.  

I have never before had such prolonged road rage. As part of my therapy for the PTSD that was caused from this stretch of highway, I've decided it best to not rehash all the bad thoughts I was having towards humanity.  So I'll just advise you to avoid I-40 from Memphis to Little Rock, at all costs. 

I was needing a pitstop... food, gas and a mental distraction. I "Yelped" for food in Little Rock and guess what I found? Award winning BBQ from Whole Hog Cafe. Yes, please!  

And then I thought about the only "attraction" I know of in Little Rock: Little Rock Central High School, where 9 African American students integrated the high school in 1957 with the protection of the National Guard under the orders of President Eisenhower. (Remember, I'm a history teacher). Google Maps told me I was 10 minutes away.  When will I ever be back in Little Rock? I decided to "seize the carp."

When I pulled up to the school, which is a behemoth, I was surprised that there was a National Park building across the street to commemorate the site.  As I walked up to the school, I was surprised to see students coming in and out...on a Sunday. Turns out students were registering for classes. I was able to sneak in and take a glance down the hall. It seemed as though cool things were happening there. I then went back for a quick tour of the museum/welcome center. The journey those brave 9 students endured was quite amazing... and this was just a tiny slice of the experience of many throughout the Civil Rights Movement. When I look back at how far our nation has come in 60 years, it brings me hope that humanity can learn to judge people "not by the color of their skin but the content of their character."  And yet, we have a long ways to go...

Back on the road to Oklahoma. I knew Oklahoma was the home to many Native American tribes as it was the end of the Trail of Tears, but I was struck by just how many tribes were displaced as I drove on I-40. Every 10 miles or so I was reminded that I was leaving one tribal territory and entering another. And I was reminded of another disgraceful note in our nation's history book. We absolutely have much to be proud of as a country but the treatment of Native Americans is not one of them. Ugh. 

So I rolled into OKC and was greeted by 3 sweet faces on the front porch waiting for me. It was so good to see sweet Jasmine, who immediately gifted me with one of her home grown sweet banana peppers, Rye, who was proud to introduce me to Bob the Turtle and then discovered how much fun it was to torture me with his froggies...as I let out an uncontrollable squeal each time the frog left his tiny grip, and Jules, whose hug reminded me of how deep our friendship was during the time we shared in Vail.  And I loved being able to pick up where we left off, as I'm not the best at keeping in touch with long distance friends. Once the kids were tucked in, we caught up til 2 am and were reminded that two little munchkins would be awake in a very short 5 hours. We decided we could leave a little to talk about over the next few days. 

On Monday morning I had my first observation of home schooling. Julie has found an awesome, but intense, online charter school curriculum. Rye, who is 6, is supposed to go through 30 hours a week of school. After observing Jules and Rye for 30 minutes, it was clear to me that I would never have the patience to home school my kids. A roomful of 30 high school seniors... no problem! My hat's off to Jules and many other parents out there who have made the choice to be fully responsible for their child's education. 

Although I know I will never be as laid back of a parent as Jules is, I hope to attempt to have at least a fraction of the fun she manages to have with her children. Laughter, joy and memorable experiences are never in shortage at the Haller household, and it really is a beautiful thing. I would be lying though if I didn't have to pick up my jaw at the number of kids coming in and out of her house. One evening, while catching up with Rick, no fewer than 8 kids came in and out of the house, helping themselves to drinks from the kitchen, toys and games of tag. And then one father came in, with a flashlight (it was nearing 9pm) looking for his two kids. I looked at Rick wide-eyed. He said "this is nothing."  Of course, knowing Jules' penchant for fun, it does not surprise me that her house would be the neighborhood hangout. I'm still in awe. 

Jules and I were able to escape for the evening. (Thanks, Rick!) My only tourist request was to go to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site of the OKC bombing in 1995. We were able to get the last few tickets in to the museum that evening and then toured the memorial. Again, I was reminded of a dark day in or nation's history, when I would have been in the 8th grade. But the theme was clear: the people of Oklahoma know how to comfort one another in their darkest hour, a theme that was unfortunately replayed this spring with one of the most powerful tornadoes in our nation's history striking just 2 miles from Julie's house.

We finished off the evening with dinner in Bricktown, a great revitalization of downtown OKC. 

Tuesday we spent nearly the entire day at the Oklahoma City Science Museum. It was awesome!  Basically, any lesson you could imagine in science was turned into some sort of hands on learning.  Not sure who was more intrigued, me or Rye. 

And my visit to OKC ended with dinner out on Lake Hefner at the Hefner Grill. If you drove there blindfolded, you would have thought you were on Lake Michigan or something. It was delightful! 

After a sweet time in prayer, which has become a tradition of sorts when Jules and I meet, I was headed back to the Heart of Illinois. Ten hours on the road left me much time to contemplate the many blessings in my life: loving family, sweet friendships, the ability to live independently and have the means to travel, the gift of learning from history, the blessing of Christian fellowship no matter where you are, mixed CD's and my brothers iPod, Starbucks and the feeling of approaching the Illinois river with the Peoria skyline in view (it really is quite impressive for a Midwestern town). 

And so, a trip that I'd hope would just be a good time of reconnecting with friends and family turned out to be so much more. Who knew Memohis, Little Rock and Oklahoma City had so much to offer?  

What's the favorite thing about your city?  Maybe next time I'm passing through I'll try to be a not-so-accidental tourist.