The Rain in Spain…

May 18-19, 2019

An aria from joyous birds greeted us as we stepped out the door! Though rain had poured much of the night, morning brought clouds and sun playing an enthusiastic game of tag.

We hiked as a threesome – Jay, me, and a new friend from Slovenia, Alenka. When the owner of Pensión El-La had called ahead to Larrasoaña to make reservations, she had only found one available room, which had three beds. Alenka had been listening, and suggested that we share the room. We delightedly agreed.

I assumed that Alenka would hike her own pace and meet us in the afternoon at the Pensión Peregrino in Larrasoaña. After all, no one hikes as slowly as I do! Alenka assumed that we would hike the day together since we would be spending the night in the same room.

“We hike very slowly,” Jay warned her. “Once we were passed by a worm!”

Alenka laughed. “It will be good for me to slow down. I am trying to learn to take time for noticing things.” And so, the three of us happily dawdled along, noticing many scenes of beauty, especially flowers!

Fortunately for us, Alenka’s English was very good. Slovenian is an amazingly inscrutable language!

Alenka tried to teach me the Slovenian word for rose: vrtnica. I practiced for two days, and still mangled the pronunciation!

I’m wondering if Shakespeare also struggled with the Slovenian word before he penned his immortal quote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Fortunately, we could enjoy the flowers whether we knew the names or not!

From domesticated rose to wild rose, the flowers shouted their glory!

We saw a good deal of Friday’s rain on Saturday and Sunday, in the form of glowering clouds, dripping branches across the trail, and rushing, roaring, rising run-off!

Around noon on Saturday, a Gothic bridge brought us across the Rio Arga and into the town of Zubiri. Our guidebook informed us that “Zubiri” is from the Basque word meaning “town of the bridge”.

Much to our delight, we were just in time to see a group in cultural costume parading down the street, making incredible rhythmic music with huge clanging bells tied to their waists!

Jay took a short video.

When I later described the costumes to the host of Pensión Peregrino, he showed me a large map of Navarre. “Those clothes are from the extreme northern part of Navarre,” he explained. “I have no idea why they were parading in Zubiri today!”

Sunday brought even more flooding as the Camino followed the course of the Río Arga. Once, the river spilled over its banks, requiring us to wade up to our knees in a quiet muddy backwater.

Crossing the Río Ulzama near Villava gave us a great appreciation of medieval bridges resisting rushing water, and providing protection to passing pedestrians. Jay took a video to show the water’s fierce force!

Coming into Pamplona, we passed a park near the Río Arga. Jay laughed, “Today the tables are for turtles!”

The medieval walls of Pamplona gave us a sense of walking through time.

A chill ran up my spine as I walked through the Portal de Francia. Who knew how many footsteps were mingling with mine!

It was a relief to reach our hostel Sunday night and hang up wet socks. The weather report promised sun for Monday. I looked forward to another day of adventure!

Vocabulary Lesson and Decisions

May 16-17, 2019

I woke with a sore throat, running sinuses, and a headache. A night of little sleep at the largest municipal albergue on the Camino made me wonder about our plans to save money and live the “real pilgrim experience”.

‘I will feel better once I begin walking,’ I optimistically comforted myself. A third beautiful sunshiny day gave me no choice but to enjoy our hike to the utmost.

Each kilometer brought unusual sights to enjoy. Here are a few from the day.

Church of San Nicolás de Bari in Burgette. Notice the trees, whose limbs are harvested each spring!

Watering trough in Espinal.

Wildflowers!

Concrete “stepping stones” led us across a tributary of the Erro River.

Much as I enjoyed our walk, by early afternoon I couldn’t ignore my tired body’s demand for rest. We entered the small town of Viscarret and began looking for a place to stay. With no municipal albergue available in this village, we were glad to see signs telling us to ask at the bar (cafe) for a pensión (privately run hostel).

When we wistfully asked the owner of Pensión El-La if she had any private rooms, she smiled. “You are in luck. I have one room with bed for two people.” She then led us up three flights of stairs to a charming chamber tucked under the eaves, with a lovely bucolic view.

View from the third story.

Once we had showered and rested, it was time for me to find the grocery store (supermercado).

At the opposite end of town, I bashfully opened the door and peered inside. An older woman sat at the counter beside the cash register.

“Hola,” I essayed.

“Abrir! Abrir!” Unsmiling, she gestured crypticly to me.

Startled, I stepped inside and closed the door.

“No! Abrir! Abrir!” Her hand gestures became larger and a bit frantic.

I stared, my hand on the door handle, wondering what to do!

The woman became more agitated, and the volume of her voice rose as she repeated, “Abrir! Abrir!” over and over. Finally she gave up, put her head in her hands and muttered “Aie! Peregrinos!” (Pilgrims!)

Just then a younger woman came from the back of the store. The older woman launched into a torrent of Spanish. The young woman smiled at me and gestured to the door handle, which I gripped in a nervous chokehold. Reassured by her smile, but still confused, I timidly opened the door. At that instant, a man with incredibly dirty hands mounted the steps and walked through the opened door. Comprehension dawned in my poor muddled brain! Not the easiest way to learn a new vocabulary word, but now I know that ‘Abrir!’ means ‘Open!’

Back at the Pensión El-La, Jay and I enjoyed visiting with other pilgrims in the common room while we ate groceries from the supermercado.

Comfortable chairs welcome pilgrims.

A storm, predicted for the next day, gave me and Jay food for thought.

“Pensión El-La is so comfortable. Maybe we should just stay here a day,” Jay suggested.

“I don’t know. We’ve only hiked three days so far. Still, maybe this sore throat would ease with an extra day of sleep.” I could feel myself giving into the idea of luxury.

“It looks like the rain will be the worst tomorrow, then perhaps ease off the following days. It makes sense to take a little time now, instead of pushing too hard and paying for it later.” Jay put a practical spin on our thoughts of delay.

“This is our first time in Europe together. You’ve said we shouldn’t rush. It’s important to be flexible and open to other ideas. But is it ok if we delay so much we don’t even make it to Santiago?” I wanted to be sure we were thinking the same about this adventure.

“Yes! We will not be destination driven! Let’s live in the present.” Jay confirmed my thoughts. We might not make it to Santiago before my next orthodontic appointment in Seattle, but we would enjoy each day.

The next day dawned to serious rain drumming on the roof, running off the eaves, soaking into the ground. I was delighted to have a day in the warm, dry hostel, nursing my sore throat and packed sinuses. In the late morning, the owner of the hostel kindly took me to a ‘farmacia’ (pharmacy) in a larger town. She also came inside to help me find a decongestant. Her help with translation was invaluable!

Back at the hostel, we happily watched the rain, falling in straight sheets of water. The owner also helped us make reservations for the next night, in the small town of Larrasoaña, just nine miles away. With the decongestant clearing my sinuses, I felt very hopeful about enjoying a wet hike tomorrow.

Over the Pyrenees!

May 15, 2019

At 9:00 a.m. of our second Camino day, our shuttle dropped us at the Statue de la Vierge de Biakorri, last seen yesterday afternoon. I gave the statue a little wave, whispering, “I’m so glad you watch over the shepherds in this beautiful alpine section of the earth.”

La Vierge de Biakorri

The sun kissed our hat brims as blue sky arched overhead. Cool breezes playfully slipped between jacket and neck. Amazing weather escorted us through the Pyrenees.

The track led past empty grass covered slopes with an occasional herd of sheep seen far away across the undulating green.

A couple hours of walking brought us to the edge of a stand of trees. Jay, consulting the guidebook, told me we would be hiking through the largest stand of beech trees in Europe. I took a picture of the beginning of this awesome forest.

Beech trees!

Our path followed ancient tracks used by shepherds and armies. As we entered the beech forest, our feet were cushioned by several inches of leaves. What a treat!

At Lepoeder Pass, we were rewarded with another outstanding view. Our path then took a steep plunge, dropping 1,500 feet of elevation in two miles.

Ronceveaux has welcomed pilgrims since the 12th century. The church and dormitories see tens of thousands of seekers each year.

First glimpse of the pilgrim haven of Ronceveaux.

When we arrived, the entryway was jammed with tired, dirty hikers. Two hundred pilgrims had crossed the Pyrenees on this beautiful day, and they all had hopes of renting a bed for their tired bodies. We were given a colored tag by harried volunteers, and told that we had about an hour’s wait until our color group was called. A sign on the wall summed up the situation in five languages: “Be calm. You will be helped.”

Eventually, eight euros each gave us beds for the night. Eight bunks (16 beds) crowded into our room, with barely enough space to squeeze between, especially while toting a pack. A bathroom with two toilets, two sinks, and two tiny shower stalls served about 40 people at our end of the building. Everything was sparkling clean, and I enjoyed my very fast shower!

At 7:00 p.m. we went to another part of the complex for a pilgrim dinner (10 euros each). With dizzying efficiency, two hundred people were served a well cooked meal of zucchini soup, pasta with tomato sauce, fish, french fries, and cake for dessert. I took a picture of part of the room.

Following dinner, a special pilgrim mass was offered at the cathedral. Four priests presided, singing part of the ceremony with harmonious voices. I’m sad to say that I couldn’t understand any of the Spanish. Nevertheless, it was interesting to observe, and the cathedral was truly beautiful.

Though I was mentally prepared to sleep in a room full of strangers, the reality of so many bodies in such a small space made me wonder if I would ever fall asleep. Fortunately, exhaustion took over, and I knew nothing until morning. Not exactly a restful night, but certainly a good way to bring home the connection between our modern life and 12th century pilgrims.

Two nights, fifteen miles, and a mountain range made a good start to our Camino de Santiago adventure!

Into the Pyrenees!

May 13 – 14, 2019

We arrived at St Jean Pied-du-Port via train early in the afternoon. Partially enclosed by medieval ramparts, the small town gives an overwhelming impression of red roofs and clean white walls with tidy red trim.

St Jean Pied-du-Port, France

We followed narrow cobbled streets to the Association les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques (a.k.a. the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Information Office!) A large crowd spilled out the office door, maybe thirty people, patiently waiting in a ragged line. Jay and I squeezed inside, set our packs against the wall, and joined the throng. All of us were “pilgrims”, seeking a “pilgrim passport” which would enable us to stay at municipal hostels for a small fee on the journey to Santiago de Compostela. In a variety of languages, five volunteers at a long table composedly gave information, treating each person with dignified excitement, seemingly happy to help this horde of clueless people begin their dream.

The man who assisted us spoke English, French, and Italian! He gave us our “passports”, cardboard brochures divided with grids of lines. He explained that we would get these documents stamped at each hostel, thereby proving that we had walked the whole Camino.

When we asked our helper for directions to the Gite Zazpiak, where we had made reservations on line, we learned to our surprise that the hostel was 1.5 kilometers out of town!

“You can easily walk there. Follow the yellow shells marking the Camino. You will make a jog across a major road, keep going, then turn left at the white building with red trim.” He paused to see if we appreciated his irony. ALL the buildings were white with red trim! “Don’t worry,” he reassured us. “There will be a sign. After you turn left, continue about half a kilometer. Your hostel will be the second white building with red trim!” With that, he stamped our pilgrim passport and sent us merrily on our way.

Our first pilgrim passport stamp!

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Streamers of sunrise greeted us on our first day of walking. Happily, we ate “petit dejeuner” (coffee/tea, bread, jam) at our hostel, then set off, ready for adventure!

The guidebook suggested pilgrims should hike to Roncesvilles the first day, 15 miles away, over several passes through the Pyrenees Mountains. Though this is a reasonable length on the Appalachian Trail, I felt doubtful of my stamina, even with a light, ten pound, pack. Fortunately, Jay, following advice from former pilgrims in Seattle, had arranged a slack pack for our first two days.

Our path followed very steep, tiny mountain roads, climbing 3,600 feet. Sheep, goats, cows, horses, pilgrims, and cars all shared the same route. The pilgrims were, by far, the most numerous and least predictable denizens of the road!

As we walked, we noticed cow bells ringing almost continuously in the clear mountain air. “It’s a Basque Bovine Bell Choir,” Jay joked. Later we realized sheep, goats, horses, and burros also wear bells.

We’d been hiking for a couple of hours when we came to a small cafe, the Fermé Ithurburia. It’s terrace invited us to stop for coffee/tea and a fabulous view. We also ate sardines and cheese, our staple trail food. Petit dejeuner had been a bit too petite for our walking appetites!

Terrace of the Fermé Ithurburia

We were lucky enough to see three Basque shepherds unloading a whole truckload of sheep. Later, the noisy herd passed us on the road. Yes, sheep, along with everyone else, can walk faster than me!

Our day of hiking ended at the Statue de la Vierge de Biakorri. This statue of the Virgin Mary is said to watch over shepherds and their flocks. From there, we caught our pre-arranged shuttle back to St Jean Pied-du-Port.

65 steep and uneven stone steps along the medieval wall led to the peak of St Jean Pied-du-Port.

Jay walks past arrow slits in the wall.
This gate in the town wall has another protector of the Basque countryside, the mythological Basajaun.

After exploring the medieval castle walls, we returned to the Gite Zazpiak where we were served an incredibly excellent meal cooked by a talented chef. Tomorrow the van will take us back to the Statue de la Vierge de Biakorri, and we’ll continue crossing the Pyrenees!

Here is a short video of of the Black-faced Manech sheep passing us today.

A New Adventure Dawns

May 11, 2019

As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.

-Rumi

As spring exuberantly bounced into our lives, I knew Seattle winter hibernation was coming to a close.

Much as I longed to be on the trail again, my body wasn’t quite ready to carry a full pack. Jay, still dealing with emotions from the accident, couldn’t see sleeping in a tent yet. Obviously, we needed a new adventure.

We had often discussed hiking in Europe, and many friends had suggested that we hike the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied-du-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Jay’s uncle gave a piece of rare advice, “If you have a dream, the time to do it is now.”

First we spent some time with my family in Tennessee. It had been a year since we’d seen them. As we hiked the Maryville College woods, I gloried in the spring flowers!

Trilliums captured the sunshine.

Now, here we are in Spain, getting ready for another pilgrimage. It’s been three weeks since I’ve practiced carrying a backpack. It will be interesting to see what it’s like to become a hiker again!

Here we are in Barcelona, on our way to hike the Camino de Santiago!

Seattle Wildlife

April 18, 2019

Winter and early spring have flown by as we explored Seattle. Opportunities to observe wildlife were surprisingly abundant in the midst of this fascinating “big city”.

One day we hiked around Green Lake which boasts a wide flat asphalt and gravel path, quite popular with groups of families and friends.

As we ambled along, several crows flew past, cawing raucously. Suddenly, a small black object whizzed by my ear, bouncing upon the pavement ahead of me.

“The crows are cracking nuts!” Jay exclaimed.

Amazed, I stopped to watch. Another crow flew overhead, dropping it’s black booty. The nut ricocheted from the pavement, thick husk splitting, shell cracking into three pieces with an audible snap. The crow quickly landed, grasping the largest piece and pecking hungrily at the nutmeat inside. A hovering flock mate scooped up a second portion of the nut, winging to a tree branch to enjoy his purloined snack.

Curious, I picked up the third chunk of nut. A woody hull clung to the outside, with a small bit of pithy seed nestled deep inside the tough corrugated shell.

“It’s a black walnut!” I exclaimed in surprise, tinged with a bit of awe. As a child, I remembered using a hammer to pound black walnuts in our backyard. Often, the indestructible seed would bound away from my hammer, refusing to deliver up its delectable nut meat.

‘Amazing!’ I thought. ‘The crows use pavement and altitude to shatter the shells. I wonder how they learned!’

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For much of the winter, we lived in a tiny furnished apartment near the Lake Washington Ship Canal at the foot of Queen Anne Hill. Our second story front window gave us a view of trees and ivy, the perfect habitat for squirrels.

One morning as I ate breakfast, two squirrels ran along our railing. One squirrel gave a prodigious leap from the railing to a tree trunk. He landed with a lung emptying “whump”, clinging spread-eagled to the bark. The second squirrel chose a longer, less athletic route to the tree. The two looked at each other round the trunk, then turned and scampered the length of a branch, vaulting to the roof. I heard their footsteps drum a duet across our ceiling – thumpety, thumpety, thump, thump!

Squirrel busily living life!

Another morning several inches of snow covered twigs and branches in an extravagance of frozen crystals. A scurrying squirrel ran down a tree trunk, then leaped for an overhanging low branch, fat with globules of clinging snowflakes. Much to the squirrel’s surprise, his thick target was actually a whippy bough, scarcely half a centimeter in diameter. The squirrel’s grasp missed, and he hurtled several feet to the ground in a shower of loose snowflakes as the tricky tree limb bounded upwards!

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Living near the ship canal gave us ample opportunity to observe wildlife. We enjoyed the evening show of cormorant roosting. After spending all day on the water happily swimming and fishing, the first hint of evening brought a flock of ungainly black feathered bodies. I never did discover why the cormorants liked one particular tree in a line of what seemed to me to be identical trees. But each evening a loud squabbling hullabaloo ensued as bird after bird landed upon the tree, only to be chased by the birds already there. It was quite a sight! The show would last for about an hour, until all were settled to everyone’s satisfaction, each bird an equidistant space from it’s flockmates. Each night the tree became adorned with a burden of black bundles, wings, bills, and legs tucked into shapeless blobs perched upon its branches.

The show begins!

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One day as we walked by the canal, we noticed a small tree with a freshly chewed section of bark missing from its trunk. “There must be beaver in this city!” Jay observed in surprise.

A couple days later, the sapling was gone, only a shin high trunk with a few wood shavings to show where it had been. I peered into the canal, and sure enough, the tree was laying in the water, one end perched upon a few rocks at the base of the embankment.

A few days passed, and the tree had been gnawed in half, all the branches stripped from its trunk. These were efficient beavers!

Another beaver-chewed tree received protection from park personnel.

It reminded me of a story my father, a church camp director, tells of beavers damming a lake by the camp lodge. My father would have been happy to leave them in peace, except they were so enthusiastic, they kept raising the lake level and flooding the lodge basement.

“Periodically I’d have to go down and rip out their dam,” I remember my dad saying. “They didn’t just use branches. I’d find coat hangers, pieces of pipe, barbed wire fencing. Once I even had to pull out a railroad tie they had taken from the nearby train track! It was quite a chore!”

“I seem to remember you coming back from one of those forays, covered in mud, and saying that those beavers had figured out how to use your neighbor’s backhoe, and had made the dam almost impregnable,” I joined in his reminiscing.

“Well,” my father’s eyes twinkled. “That part might have been just a story.”

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In March, we moved from the apartment at the base of Queen Anne Hill to pet sit in a house at the top of Magnolia Hill. Our wandering territory changed to include daily visits to the Ballard (Hiram M. Chittenden) Locks and hikes in Discovery Park.

One day as Jay rounded a corner of the path to the locks, a sleek river otter slid over the bank and slithered down the hill to the water! It seemed incredible that an animal which normally seeks empty bits of nature would make his home right in the middle of a very busy shipping canal! When Jay mentioned seeing the otter to a janitor cleaning the restroom, he was told, “Oh yes, there’s two resident families that live here year round. They’ve been known to get upset if tourists didn’t take their pictures.”

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In early April, as we were hiking through Discovery Park, both Jay and I saw a large roundish animal scurry into the bushes. We stopped, wondering what we had just seen. Too small for a muskrat, tail too short for a squirrel, too fat for a weasel … what could it be?

A lady walking her dog came by, and her dog stopped, arrested by the invisible smell of the mystery animal.

“Your dog knows that some kind of brown, furry, roundish animal just scurried into the bushes here,” Jay told her. “We don’t know what it was.”

Just then the animal reappeared, poking it’s head between two ferns. It then proceeded to calmly harvest a large mouthful of plant stems, holding the ends in his mouth, dragging the rest of the stems behind him.

“It’s a mountain beaver,” the dog walker told us. “We’ve got one in our yard.”

We watched, fascinated, as the mountain beaver disappeared back into his ferns, dragging a sheaf of long greenery behind him.

Later I read that they like to stack cut stems in front of their dens. These animals have been traced back 40 million years, and are the last survivors of their species. They can eat many plants that are poisonous to others.

A diorama in the Discovery Park Visitor Center shows the mountain beaver.

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We often saw sea lions, snakes, lizards, bald eagles, coots, golden eye ducks, American widgeons, Canada geese, greater scaups, mallards, great blue herons, seagulls, and once we saw a barred owl. As spring advanced, the woods became alive with birds staking out their territory. We heard robins, song sparrows, Pacific wrens, towhees, juncos, chickadees, northern flickers, and pileated woodpeckers. The last day of walking in Discovery Park, Jay heard a varied thrush. Truly, Seattle is home to some fantastic wildlife.

Living in Limbo

February 11, 2019

Six months ago, a crashing tree branch interrupted our Pacific Crest Trail hike. After choosing foot travel as a major form of transportation for many weeks, we entered the city of Seattle by ambulance.

Thus, our time of limbo began. Recovery in the hospital quickly led to more recovery time in an apartment near the hospital. As I healed, we progressed to visiting family in Oregon, returning regularly to Seattle to check in with the doctors.

That rogue tree branch had dealt quite a wallop. I felt as if I were in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the fractured occipital condyle and carotid artery pseudoaneurysm to heal in order for the surgeon to reassemble the eight pieces of my jaw.

While in Seattle, we explored our new home.

A ride on the ferry provided a porpoise eye view of the Seattle skyline.

The Fremont Troll, one of the better known denizens of the city, lurked beneath a bridge.

Christmas sparkles enhanced an already gorgeous winter sunset peeking between skyscrapers.

Who could resist playing next to the fountain at the Seattle Center?

One day we saw dancers getting filmed in front of a street mural.

A tugboat pushed a barge full of gravel through the Ballard (Hiram M. Chittenden) Locks, much to our delight.

One charming result of limbo time included meeting old friends and hikers from our travels. I still giggle when I think of the dinner conversation we had with Specs, a 2017 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, now living in Seattle.

We traded tales of experiences on the trail. Specs described the odd looks given by other hikers each evening when he pulled out his after-dinner wine, packaged in a juice box with a sippy straw!

“It’s wonderful how hiking a long trail makes one appreciate the finer things in life,” I exclaimed.

Specs burst out laughing. “Yes, the perspective gained on the Appalachian Trail is what makes one designate things like wine in juice boxes as ‘finer things’ of life!”

Each time I visited the neurosurgeon, he told me my body was healing admirably, and then he’d send me off to go heal some more. When the neck brace was removed in December, I celebrated! Maybe now, four months after the accident, I would get my jaw operation!

I could scarcely contain my joy to be rid of the neck brace!

The craniofacial surgeon had other ideas. “The broken pieces in your jaw bone have grown together. Yes, there is nerve damage, and yes, none of your teeth meet, but your body has been creating new bone. We could operate, but it would put your healing back a good bit.”

“But I can’t chew, with my teeth not meeting,” I told him.

“I think orthodontics might help,” he told me. “It’s been such a long time since the accident, it might be better to look at different answers.”

He sent me to an orthodontist who had much experience with trauma victims. She was sure she could give me chewing capabilities again, possibly without surgery at all!

My mouth was measured and x-rayed and photographed. Teeth molds were made. Our most recent visit brought the fascination of seeing a digital model of my skull, with the jaw healed crooked and none of the teeth meeting.

Jay put my thoughts into words. “One wouldn’t even know how to begin to get those teeth aligned properly.”

The nurse responded encouragingly, “That’s why we have Dr. Chen! She’ll be using all this to make a plan for your teeth.”

This uncertain period, awaiting decisions and action, is almost over. My braces should arrive the last week of February, and I’ll embark on the final phase of healing. The orthodontist estimates it will take two years to put my teeth in order.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy a bit of winter in Seattle. And begin making plans for more adventures in the spring!

City people, in general, don’t talk or even smile at one another when walking. But with snow came new opportunities. I found a temporary friend.