June 2021: Pain, Getting Thrown, Building Endurance

Me, on Toby, June 9th. New gear: wide sun-protection brim added to helmet to guard against the fierce Houston summer sun

Growing up way out in the country, on a plantation being run as a cattle ranch, I lived an isolated life. The other nearby children were all boys. As an introvert, my “tribe,” my go-to support group, consisted of books, my dog, and horses. Being able to saddle up a horse and go for a long ride anytime I wanted to do so was wonderful. Flying down the main plantation road at a full gallop, my heart pumping and adrenaline surging, gave me a thrill in a way nothing else did. As a rider, I was fairly fearless, and more of a horse person than any of my brothers, who seemed to prefer things with motors, like trucks and tractors. I saw the Sunday night Disney two-part series “The Horse Masters” when I was ten. I wanted to go to that riding school. I wanted to learn to ride English-style. I wanted to enter jumping contests. I asked Santa for an English-style saddle for Christmas, and Santa found that I had been a good girl that year and obliged. I still have that saddle; it has accompanied me around the world. The joy of riding was baked into my bones, and the love of horses has only grown stronger over the years. When I found out that it was possible to ride the Camino de Santiago, I couldn’t get the idea of riding it out of my head.

My previous recent posts have set out my plans to repeat a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, but this time on horseback, and to train over the summer of 2021 in order to get ready for that horseback Camino. While I’d done almost no riding since my mid-30s, and certainly no very long rides, I was confident in my ability to ride. I understood horses. I loved them, but I also respected them. In the flight-or-fight division of animals, horses are in the flight category. If something scares them or startles them, their first instinct is to flee, which can mean going from zero to a full-out gallop in a couple of leaps.

My biggest worry in starting this Camino riding adventure was a concern that I would be thrown. As a child, teenager, and adult, I had been thrown many times. It’s a part of riding, a negative aspect that I accepted. I had never been hurt by being thrown. My eldest brother, on the other hand, was thrown off a horse as a teenager and had the misfortunate to land on and then slide down a barbed wire fence. The scars on his back are still with him. Most of us are familiar with the case of Christopher Reeves, thrown while competing in a cross-country event and left a quadriplegic. Even worse, when I was a child, a young man working for my father got thrown in one of our back pastures and suffered a severe head injury. He died. For a cattle ranch, horses are a necessity to work the livestock, and just as riding in a car carries risk, so too does riding.

The thing about being thrown is that the rider is not necessarily at fault or insufficiently trained. If a rider enters a rodeo, or a jumping contest, or chooses a highly spirited horse, of course that rider knows that the chances of being thrown increase exponentially. However, even a sedate trail ride can result in riders being ejected from the saddle. For example, plodding along nose-to-tail with the horse in front, a trail horse might suddenly catch sight, out of the corner of his eye, of something unexpected, and off that horse sprints, sometimes leaving his rider in the dust.

The horses at Cypress Trails Ranch, where I rode over the summer of 2021, were very well trained. Even so, during those months I saw more than one incident when a rider or riders were unhorsed. In the worst incident, I had mounted my preferred horse, Toby, and was waiting in the stable yard for the one-hour 11:00 am trail ride to move out. Suddenly a yell went up, “Hold the horses!” Every available wrangler, intern, and staffer rushed out and grabbed the reins of every horse that had a rider. Then we waited. And waited. An intern, maybe 14 years old, was holding Toby’s reins. I didn’t think I needed to have Toby’s reins held, but I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, so I didn’t say anything. Finally, the penny dropped, and I realized someone must have been thrown and the riderless horse was in flight towards the stable yard.

Sometimes we would just stop and let the horses graze the lush, green grass for a short while. A small reward for the horses. Wrangler Holly Henry on Bobby, June 30

A horse in full flight will spook other nearby horses, whose instinct is to follow the lead of a herd member and flee the danger, whatever it might be. All of us in the stable yard continued waiting. And then waited some more. Looking down, I realized that the intern was standing directly in front of Toby, instead of at his shoulder. Were Toby to bolt, he would run right over the top of the girl. I was telling her to move to the side when the first riderless horse, reins and stirrups wildly flapping, thundered into the stable yard, clearly panicked. The horse next to Toby bunched his muscles preparing to gallop away. An experience wrangler was holding that horse; the wrangler kept the horse from taking off, but an initial leap and subsequent sideways movement made that horse bash into Toby, who just to keep his balance stepped forward. Toby didn’t bolt, and the intern didn’t get run over by a 1,200-pound horse, but it was a close thing for a second or two.

The first horse in flight was followed by a second panicked horse. And a third. Then a fourth and a fifth horse. What in the world had happened? That’s a lot of thrown riders on what was supposed to be a leisurely trail ride. As soon as the five spooked horses were caught by wranglers and led off to calm down, my trail ride headed out. None of the thrown riders had yet walked into the stable yard. We were well into the trail ride when I spotted an all-terrain vehicle loaded with a driver and five passengers. Everyone looked fine.

With large areas of county land open to riders, two or three groups of riders can be in the same general area but still be far apart. Though this photo flattens the landscape, the land actually dips down a slope and then rises up again. Sticking to a horse at full gallop heading down a slippery slope can be a challenge for anyone.

It was a while before I heard the story. One horse on one trail ride had spooked and bolted, taking along a second horse, with both riders falling off. It so happened that there was a second group of trail riders across a large open area. The two spooked horses headed for the safety of their mates in the other trail ride, crashing into the line of trail riders, causing three more horses to bolt and three more riders to get thrown.

Leilani Shelton on Wizard and her cousin Nevaeh Shelton on Oakie, June 23. After being thrown, Leilani picked herself up, remounted, and finished the ride.

While that was the most dramatic incident I saw at Cypress Trails, it was hardly the only incident. On two other trail rides, I saw riders unseated. The first time, a deer crashed out of the woods and ran right into a horse named Wizard, causing the horse to lunge out of the way, which in turn left his rider, in a Wile E. Coyote moment, hanging in the air before hitting the ground. To the rider’s credit, she picked herself up and immediately remounted. No screams, no tears, no demands to return to the stable yard. I was so impressed with this novice rider that I posted a photo of her on my Instagram page. The second time I saw a rider unseated, the reason for the horse to suddenly jump forward was not at all clear. That rider also picked himself up and got right back on his horse.

I know I’m a good rider, with excellent balance and strong knees for gripping. I know I am very good at “reading” a horse: ear position, the bunching of muscles prior to a run, head location. A horse with his head thrown up and his ears pinned back is getting ready to fight with another horse, for example. A rider can see this, and prepare for it. Other times, however, sudden bolts give the rider no advance warning.

All of these incidents kept fresh in the forefront of my mind the danger of being thrown. As a younger woman, I wouldn’t have worried about it so much, but now, old, overweight, and out of shape, I was very worried. If anything could derail my horseback Camino, it would probably be an injury from being thrown.

Or at least that was my thinking before July. In accordance with my master plan, my intention was to increase the number of hours that I would ride each month: from two per riding day in May to three in June to four in July. For June that would be a one-hour, one-on-one ride with a wrangler plus a two-hour trail ride every day I was at Cypress Trails. By the end of May, however, after 20 hours in the saddle, I was still experiencing intense pain when I rode.

Wrangler Mark Fischer on Boomer, June 5. The bank behind them was strewn with yellow wildflowers.

The pattern of the pain was always the same. For the first half-hour of the first ride, I felt wonderful. It was fabulous to be back on a horse, out in nature, with summer beauty all around me. At about thirty minutes into the first ride, the pain started. Hips, thighs, knees, shins, ankles, feet—all of them hurt, with the pain intensifying over time. By the end of the second thirty minutes, I was in such pain that all I wanted to do was dismount and walk back to the stable yard, but dismounting was a problem and besides I had to work through this pain in order to build up my stamina for the Camino horseback pilgrimage. When the wrangler signaled that it was time to head back, I was always more than ready. I then took an hour-long break before my second hour-long ride. The strange thing to me was that after dismounting and resting a bit, the pain stopped. Something about riding was causing the problem, and I thought at first that it was just that my muscles needed to stretch out for riding.

Tracy Sugg, who works the Cypress Trails booking desk, and behind her Cypress Trails manager Kate Orum, on Beau, June 23

In mid-May, I had booked my June rides, increasing the trail rides from a one-hour to a two-hour ride. Towards the end of the month, I talked over my situation with Tracy Sugg, who was working the Cypress Trails check-in desk. She suggested I change to an hour-and-a-half trail ride rather than a two-hour ride as a way to ease into the longer time in the saddle. That sounded like a great suggestion to me, so she rebooked my June trail rides for the shorter time.

On my first June hour-and-a-half ride, I knew I was in trouble. My pain continued to follow the same pattern, and by the time the first 60 minutes had passed I was in great pain, yet I had another 30 minutes to go. When I got back to the stable yard, I knew I wasn’t yet ready to increase my time in the saddle, but I was still hopeful that my muscles would stretch out during June.

That hope was gradually dashed as each June day of riding went by. By the end of the month, with 40 hours of riding completed, I was really worried. Nothing was improving. How would I ever be able to ride four to six hours per day for five days straight on the Camino? Almost every day that I rode, I considered dropping the whole idea of a horseback Camino. Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a stubborn streak, so I refused to give up. Something was clearly wrong, and I suspected the problem started in my right hip. The pain seemed to radiate down from there. I called and made an appointment with my general practitioner.

June was a difficult month in terms of riding, but it brought its own pleasures too. Those first halcyon minutes of pain-free riding. Exercising (at last!). Getting to know the Cypress Trails staff and horses. Getting out of the house in the middle of the pandemic.

Me on Toby, riding in the rain, June 28. Rainy days are at least cool. Notice my new purple water-carrier, replacing my fanny pack.

Both May and June in Houston were extremely wet months. Whether rainy or clear, booked rides head out on schedule. The only times rides get cancelled are when lightning is striking nearby, since a rider atop a horse, particularly on open ground, constitutes an excellent target for a lightning strike, and indeed one rider and horse were hit by lightning over the summer (but luckily they were more shocked than injured).

With all of the rain, the trails were muddy everywhere and had canon-high mud in some places. Mud is slippery, even for a horse with the stability of four legs, and slipping and sliding can be disconcerting for a rider, particularly on an up or down slope. As for the alternative—using gravel paths–the horses generally hate it, since their hooves are designed to walk on dirt; a sharp stone can hurt the sensitive part of their hoof as much as it would hurt a human foot. The best surface for riding in rainy weather, sand, was only available on some east-side trails, which got ruled out for a separate reason.

On the west side, the choice was either mud or gravel, which the horses don’t like.

June in Houston is prime horse fly season. If you have never seen a horse fly, it is about twenty times the size of a regular fly. Huge, fat, and just waiting to land on your horse (or you) and suck blood, horse flies have been known to drive horses loco, making them buck or bolt in an effort to dislodge the horse flies. A horse’s tail is great for switching away horse flies, but a tail can’t reach everywhere on the horse’s body, such under his belly. Cypress Trails horses were sprayed with an anti-horse fly concoction during horse fly season, and knowledgeable riders doused themselves with Off or a similar repellant, but even so the horse flies managed to land and bite. I received several bites in June on places hard for me to reach or see, like my back or underarm. Painful in the instant, the bites I got caused subsequent swelling, redness, and itching for two weeks or more. Based on years of experience, Darolyn Butler, owner of Cypress Trails, banned rides from the heavily shaded trails east of the stable that were populated with hordes of horse flies. That meant from June through mid-July, all rides had to be on the west-side trails.

In the full daylight of the west-side trails, the number of horse flies decreased, but the sun, even at 9:00 am, could be brutal, and by 11:00 am it was not wise to go out without water. I had ordered a small caddy that I could strap to the saddle in order to carry a bottle of water, my phone, car keys, and sun glasses, replacing the fanny pack which I had found to be cumbersome.

Given the copious June rain and despite the hot sun, instead of dry, hard ground, the west-side trails were churned up and very muddy. This led to a strange situation on many days—intense heat from above coupled with slow-to-dry mud below. In the choice between horse flies or heat and mud, everyone agreed with the decision to stick to the west-side trails.

Taking into account all of these negative aspects—the fear of being thrown, the pain, the mud, the horse flies, the sun—why did I continue? The peace and beauty of the first 30 pain-free minutes on horseback made it all seem worthwhile. Leaning over to pat Toby’s neck, smelling his horse smell, looking at the yellow and blue wild flowers dotting the landscape, watching a butterfly flit among the flowers, trying to identify the birds soaring overhead—these were all magical moments that I didn’t want to give up. At least not yet. At least not until I absolutely had to do so. I still wanted to have one last, great, memorable riding experience. After all, it was bred in my bones and stuck in my head.

In the Beginning: May 2021

A view of the stable yard at Cypress Trails. Note the mounting block. I had to graduate to this smaller block from a much higher one.

Having decided to ride the Camino in the fall of 2021, and hoping that the new vaccinations against COVID would permit travel to begin again, I knew that I needed to start training for the ride. I grew up riding western-style on my father’s horses; I always loved horses—their smell, the feel of their skin, their beauty. After leaving home for boarding school in my mid-teens, my ability to ride became limited since I didn’t have access to a horse. It was a great pleasure at my first two overseas posts, Israel and Paraguay, to be able to resume riding on a regular basis. I took classes in English-style riding and even jumping. That was in my 30s. I hadn’t ridden much since then; life got in the way. When traveling out west to national parks, I would always book a trail ride—but those occasions were few. On my last trail ride, I was very uncomfortable after a couple of hours and thought, “my riding days are over.” Ten or so years later, I retired to Houston. When visitors came to town, I would frequently book a trail ride for them, but I didn’t ride myself.

So how in the heck did I think I could manage a horseback Camino? I guess it was a form of stubbornness. I wanted to make my second Camino a horseback Camino, and I’d explore that option as long as I could.

Cypress Trails owner Darolyn Butler and her daughter CC

Destiny smiled on me. I contacted Cypress Trails Ranch, the only outfit I knew of in the greater Houston area that offered trail rides, as opposed to classes in an arena. I spoke to the owner, Darolyn Butler, who it turns out, competes in endurance riding events. We discussed my goals and what Cypress Trails offered, and I signed on for a monthly lease option that offered ten lessons and unlimited trail rides. Darolyn suggested that I begin with a one-hour lesson, take a break, then go for a one-hour trail ride. That sounded like a great plan to me. On May 1st, I went for my first rides.

My initial plan was gradually to build up my endurance in the saddle. I knew that horseback Caminos meant six or more hours riding each day, so I planned for two hours of riding per day spent at Cypress Trails in May, three hours in June, and four hours in July. By then, I hoped to have built up my endurance to the point that I could manage whatever the Camino required.

May 1st, 2021, my first day at Cypress Trails. Note my old-fashioned riding helmet and awkward Fanny pack.

Darolyn herself took me out for my first “lesson.” I didn’t really need to learn how to ride, but the lessons gave me one-on-one time with different Cypress Trails wranglers. I could ask all sorts of questions about all sorts of topics. For example, I grew up around rodeos, and I loved watching equitation and show jumping competitions, but I knew nothing about endurance racing, in which a number of the Cypress Trails staffers compete.

Darolyn Butler, always doing at least two things at once, here eating while riding. Darolyn has been a fount of good advice.

That first day of riding was an eye-opener. Mounting from the ground was impossible for me. Luckily Cypress Trails had several heights of mounting blocks. Riding for even an hour caused not just discomfort but actual pain—hips, thighs, knees, shins, ankles. That first ride seemed like it would never end. And then I had to dismount. What an embarrassment! Three wranglers ran over to help. One stood at the horse’s head to hold him steady, one stationed himself beside me on the left to keep me from falling, and one more came over at my request. Despite a couple of attempts, I couldn’t get my right leg up and over the horse’s back and the cantle of the saddle, so I asked the third wrangler to push my leg up and over. I was mortified, but I had to get off!

On a trail ride. Usually a wrangler will ride at the head of the line and another will flank the group. For a very large group, a third wrangler will ride drag.

After dismounting, I had to sit on the mounting block steps for a while to recover.  My legs were shaking, sweat was pouring off me, I felt unsteady. Darolyn rushed out with a liquid she highly recommended to replenish electrolytes. After a short while I was able to walk to the stable to rest for an hour before going on the scheduled one-hour trail ride. The difficult mount, developing pain over the hour-long ride, and embarrassing dismount repeated themselves for the trail ride.

I thought about throwing in the towel that very first day. Who was I kidding? Old, way overweight, out of shape—this was never going to work. Why go through the pain and embarrassment? One inducement to keep trying was that I had paid for a month of riding in advance. Another was the thought that things had to get better since they could hardly get worse (unless of course I got thrown and really hurt myself). A third reason to continue was the encouragement and kindness of the Cypress Trails wranglers and staff. They all praised what they could—that I had good form on the horse, good hands, calmness and confidence once mounted.

I determined to soldier on. As my legs stretched out, I thought, the pain would lessen, then go away. I would improve at mounting and dismounting. I would lose weight before my horseback Camino. That’s what I thought then.

This is Blue. Handsome but a plodder.

Over the first few weeks I rode three different horses. First, Blue. A big, good looking horse—the kind I had always favored—Blue turned out not to be right for me. Trained for trail riding, that’s all he wanted to do—plod along behind another horse. That first day I tried to ride side-by-side with Darolyn so I could hear what she was saying, but Blue was having none of it. Darolyn eventually broke off a tree branch that I could use as a crop, but Blue was still not responsive. I tried Blue once more, with the same results, then knew I wanted to try a different horse.

Me with Dusty. Note the new helmet.

Next, I was offered Dusty as a mount. The wrangler who suggested him said that Dusty had been a top horse when younger but now had slowed down a bit. Still, he remained a good mount. That first time I rode Dusty, he fooled me. He willingly broke into a trot with no urging, so unlike Blue. He seemed to have the right amount of spirit—not enough to cause me to worry about being thrown, but enough that it didn’t feel like I was riding a plow horse. So I asked for Dusty the next couple of times, only to find that my first day on Dusty was an aberration. For whatever reason, he was feeling his oats that first time. Subsequently, he slowed down to the point that I had to do a lot of urging just to get him to keep up with a slow trail ride. Adios, Dusty.

My first day of riding Toby

Next I tried out Toby. A nondescript horse—darkish brown with no markings of any sort—I wouldn’t have picked him out from a herd to ride. I was told he was a Morgan. I grew up riding Quarter Horses; Toby looked quite different from a Quarter Horse, with relatively shorter legs and a very wide, stocky body. Despite his lack of good looks, Toby proved himself to be just the horse I was looking for to ride. Very steady, he was not “spooky,” not shying away or bolting or trying any of the tricks some horses do.  On the other hand, he was very responsive to signals, both leg and voice. Toby willingly walked faster or trotted whenever I asked him to do so. He patiently endured my protracted and awkward dismounts, standing rock steady. I had found my equine partner. I brought him carrots and later peppermints (I never knew before that some horses like peppermints until one of the wranglers told me that Toby did). In return, Toby would knicker when he saw me approaching, which gave me a good feeling.

I should say something about equipment. I took my old riding helmet along with me to Cypress Trails. Darolyn scoffed at it and told me I needed to invest in a new, modern helmet. I did. I had two pairs of beautiful, handmade English riding boots in my closet, but I could no longer use either of them—my feet had gotten bigger and I had put on too much weight. I asked various wranglers for suggestions on boots, and I ordered four different pairs online, all of which I had to return. None of the local western stores had an extra wide boot that would fit. I had some English-style riding pants, but those, too, no longer fit. I went to Cypress Trails in blue jeans and stuck with those, even though Darolyn urged me to get some new riding pants, which, among other advantages, are cooler than jeans in Houston’s summer heat and have special pockets to store a cell phone on the thigh. Vanity, mostly, kept me from buying the new pants, but also the knowledge that I didn’t really need them and would only be using them for a few months. I did invest in a carrier that attaches to the saddle so that I could take along a water bottle and carry my phone without having to wear a fanny pack.

By the end of the month, I had ridden on ten different days for a total of 20 hours on horseback, but my legs still hurt each and every time I rode, making me ready to get off the horse after a half-hour but having to endure another 30 minutes of pain.

The Plan, or Better Said the New Dream

The author on Blue, May 2021

My new plan, or dream, is to ride the Camino de Santiago. I had originally planned to do that last year, in the autumn of 2020, but the pandemic and the closure of the Camino made that plan impossible. I then thought, way back when we all hoped that the pandemic would be over by 2021, to reschedule the ride for spring or summer 2021. That, too, proved impossible. Finally, the European Union announced that its member countries would be reopening borders in June 2021. Hurray! By then I had already returned to riding on a regular basis here in the Houston area. I began searching for horseback Caminos for the autumn.

In a regular year, various outfitters offer many different horseback options. In 2021, with almost no travelers in Spain, outfitters cancelled the great majority of trips. I managed to book one from September 20-26. The new header on this blog shows the route I will taking, basically from near the border with Portugal then heading north to Santiago de Compostela.

I’ll start this new phase of the blog by reviewing developments over the summer.

The Camino Comes to Houston

Have you had the experience of learning a new word that you never came across before, and then in the next few days you see or hear that word several times? I have, and in regards to the Camino I am now having that sort of experience regularly with images connected to the Camino. Obviously, the images have always been present around me, but I never recognized them for what they were before journeying on the Camino.

I experienced this sensation powerfully earlier this month when I rushed to see an exhibit at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts before the exhibit closed on January 3rd. The exhibit opened in March, but I was traveling that month, then I came down with COVID-19, then I spent two months recuperating, and then I obeyed lockdown rules and stayed at home. When the museum announced that it was opening to limited attendance and with full safety precautions, I thought about registering for a timed ticket but put it off. So, in December I realized the exhibit was about to close and scrambled to get one of those limited timed tickets.

Huge photograph of Santiago Cathedral at the start of the exhibit

Thank goodness I went to see “Treasures of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library” before it closed. When I entered the exhibit, the first thing I saw was a giant photograph of Santiago Cathedral. In this pandemic year, when my planned return trip to the Camino had to be scrapped, what a delight it was to come upon this opening scene welcoming all visitors to sample the treasures of Spain. The museum’s label for the photo credited the cathedral to Bernard the Elder, a Spaniard active in the 11th century, and gave the dates for the building of the cathedral as 1075-1211.

Beautiful polychromed statue of St. Martin of Tours

Next, I came upon a lovely statue of St. Martin of Tours. While on the Camino, I had read that St. Martin was one of the favorite saints of the French medieval pilgrims who were streaming along the Camino Francés. Churches bearing his name as well as statues of him can be found all along the Camino.

Glass “Pilgrim Flask” with enamel and gilt

Walking along the Camino, I carried a gourd attached to my backpack, and I noted the gourds in the many, many statues and paintings of St. James and of pilgrims that one sees along the Way. What I never saw in Spain, but was delighted to see in the exhibit, was an exquisite 18th century “pilgrim flask.” I doubt this delicate glass and enamel flask was ever carried on a pilgrimage, but it does remind us that many pilgrims came from wealthy families. Whether rich and poor, all traveled along the Camino to Santiago, each according to his or her station.

Santiago Matamoros, probably originally part of an altar

Of course, I had expected to see masterpieces by Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, and other world-renowned artists. I had not expected, however, to see a fabulous relief by an unknown Mexican artist. It seems it is not only we who travel to Spain to visit St. James, but also St. James who comes to visit us in faraway lands, wearing his wide-brimmed hat. Here, St. James appears as Santiago Matamoros (Moor-Killer). as he does in Santiago Cathedral. It was interesting to learn in the book accompanying the exhibit that St. James was also depicted as Santiago Mataindios (Indian-Killer) elsewhere in Mexican art.

As I wrote in my book Savoring the Camino de Santiago, after finishing the Camino I journeyed on to Madrid and Toledo to visit the Prado and other museums. While not specifically related to the Camino, I was thrilled to see as part of the Hispanic Society’s exhibit Goya’s magnificent portrait of the Duchess of Alba as well as two portraits by Velázquez.

This exhibit has been on a worldwide tour. It started in Madrid at the Prado in 2017, moved on to Mexico City in 2018, stayed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for four months from 2018-2019, and then journeyed to Cincinnati before opening here in Houston in March 2020. It is a pity that its time in Houston has corresponded with the pandemic, for that surely has suppressed the number of Texans who have had the opportunity to see this magnificent exhibit.

For me, having the exhibit in Houston was fortuitous—the next-best-thing to being able to return to Spain and the Camino in 2020. Now, if ever I return to New York City, I will know that the Hispanic Society of America is a destination not to be missed for those who love Spain.

Talking about the Camino

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Hanging Out with a Fellow Author!

On Wednesday, November 4th, 2020, I was the featured speaker for a “Meet the Author” event organized by Rice University’s Friends of Fondren Library group. This event had originally been scheduled for last April, but had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. I was thrilled when the Friends group suggested rescheduling the talk in November as a Zoom meeting. I decided not to make the talk solely about my book, since attendees might not know anything about the Camino. I structured the talk into three parts: the Camino and its history, my 2016 Camino pilgrimage, and my book about that pilgrimage. I had about 130 slides to show the audience, with the slides supporting all three sections of the talk. I didn’t know what to expect, and feared a tiny turnout. Instead, more than 200 folks signed up for the event, and 150 actually tuned in to listen. There were more questions than I could answer during the allotted time, and those questions have given me ideas about how to expand my talk even more, focusing on areas I didn’t address on Wednesday night. I’ll probably have to develop a second version of this talk, covering other aspects. The feedback has all been positive, giving me a Camino boost when so much in the world seems gloomy. Eventually I will be able to post a video of this Zoom event.

Continuing the Dialogue with the Government of Spain

In previous posts on this blog, I published the letter I wrote last autumn to three ministries of the Government of Spain (Development; Culture and Sport; Industry, Trade and Tourism) concerning the Camino de Santiago. Over the next few months following my letter, I received three replies from Spanish government officials. I also posted copies of those three letters, as well as a translation of each of them.

To recap, the first letter, from Ricardo Mar Rupérez, an advisor to the Minister of Development, simply acknowledged receipt of my letter and let me know that he was passing it to an official in another office within the ministry.

The second letter, from Amparo Hernamperez Martin, also with the Ministry of Development, answered a question I had posed in my letter: which ministry was the responsible entity for the Camino de Santiago? Ms. Hernamperez Martin let me know that a coordinating committee called the Consejo Jacobeo (Jacobean Council)—composed of representatives of several ministries plus provincial representatives and chaired by the Minister of Culture—was the entity I was seeking. The purpose of the Consejo was “to facilitate communication” about the Camino among all of the federal and provincial governmental bodies represented on the Jacobean Council.

The third letter came directly from the Jacobean Council and was penned by Adriana Moscoso del Prado Hernández, who is the Secretary for the Council’s Plenary and also the Director General for Cultural Industries and Cooperation. In that letter, Ms. Moscoso del Prado Hernández explained the Jacobean Council more fully and added the information that the Council can also request the participation of civil entities, such as religious, cultural, and academic leaders. She also cited two websites with information about the Camino.

While all three letters were cordial, none of them answered my series of questions except in regard to the question of which entity is in charge of the Camino. That answer did let me know to which entity I should have addressed my letter, the Consejo Jacobeo, but it did not really answer the question of which entity is responsible for the various issues I had raised. While designating a coordinating council is a great idea, who ultimately is responsible? The Consejo coordinates, but which governmental body, for example, is responsible for the signage along the Camino? Who approves the design of the signs? Who decides where to place those signs? Who decides if additional signs are needed, and where? Who goes out and plants those signs in the designated spots?

In response to the first two letters I received from Spanish officials, I recently sent individual replies thanking the senders for their letters and enclosing a copy of my book, Savoring the Camino de Santiago. In response to the third letter, in addition to thanking the sender and enclosing a book, I asked for a further response to four of the questions from my first letter.

Here is my most recent letter.

Ltr to Jacobean Council page 1 5-30-20

Ltr to Jacobean Council page 2 5-30-20

The Camino Provides

Today, I received word that my book has been awarded a silver metal in the category of Travel Essays by the judges for the eLit contest, a prestigious annual competition for books published in a digital format. How happy this makes me!

eLit logoMark1

The award is given for the overall excellence of an eBook–its writing, layout, design, illustrations, cover, topic, relevance, etc.

I have to admit that this spring has not been the best time for me. First, I was very ill for six weeks. Also, my spring marketing plan for the book was shot to kingdom come due to the coronavirus situation. Scheduled speaking dates were cancelled, and any ideas about scheduling in the future are tentative at best. So I was feeling pretty down a week or so ago. In fact, I had one of those “should I give this all up because it doesn’t seem like it’s working” conversations with my co-editor at Bayou City Press.

There is a saying among Camino enthusiasts: “The Camino provides.” I have to say, the Camino has come through for me today! I couldn’t be more thrilled.

And I couldn’t be more grateful to all the folks who contributed to my book: my co-editor, my traveling partner, my cover designer, my illustrator, all my friends who encouraged me to write the book, all my writing group colleagues who had to listen to early chapter drafts. With their help, I wrote and published my book about my Camino journey.

I think I have a bottle of Cava in my fridge, and I think it is going to be popped open tonight! Buen Camino to all my readers!


More from the Gathering of American Pilgrims on the Camino

In previous weeks, I posted an overview of the 2020 Gathering, and then highlights from the Gathering. I’d like to add a few more highlights.

One of the funniest moments, for me, was when the principal coordinator of the Gathering, Sara Gradwohl, and her partner-in-crime, Carmen Marriott, donned a unique sort of homage to the Camino. At once hilarious and a bit surprising, they were the only others at the Gathering besides myself that I remember donning a “costume” of any sort. Their get-ups brought to my mind the classic number in the musical “South Pacific,” when coconuts are used to cover the relevant parts. Maybe one year the organizers of the Gathering could think about holding a costume contest and see what our inventive group can come up with?

Sara in Cockle Shells

I am also still in mini-shock about having been caught in a snow storm. I included a photo of the dock at the Zephyr Point Conference Center in an earlier post, taken on the first day, when the sky was clear and one could see across the lake to the mountains on the other side. The only touch of snow at that time was on those mountain peaks. Then the snow started. Here is what that same dock and view looked like on Sunday. The mountains across the lake are completely invisible.

Dock in Snow

Everyone who reads my blog and/or book knows that I love history. The talks at the Gathering that included Camino history were the most fascinating for me. One talk included a number of slides showing posters used to promote past Holy Years. Here is a photo of one of the slides.


I can’t wait to see what the image for Holy Year 2021 will be!

Our meals during the Gathering were prepared by the Zephyr Point Conference Center staff. Meals were abundant with a lot of choices.  There was always a salad bar option. On our first day there, the staff made a special effort and prepared these special Camino cakes, with the St. James cross on the top. What a treat!


Before the Gathering started, many of the organizers went to great lengths to prepare for it, bringing trunks-full of snacks and other items. One decorative point in our meeting room was the sign below. Sitting in the room each day looking at it, I would wonder, which of these routes should I attempt next? It served as a good reminder that our journey along the Camino is not finished yet!



I mentioned in my last post that the two concerts by Australian singer Dan Mullins were a highlight for everyone. Coming from Texas, I particularly enjoyed hearing Dan’s version of the Willy Nelson classic “You Were Always on My Mind.” Although my own singing is so bad that my toddler son used to beg me not to sing along to “The Wheels Go Round and Round,” I couldn’t  help myself from joining in with Dan. You’ll faintly hear my frog-like voice at certain points of the video. Sorry, Dan!

I also previously mentioned that when Dan launched into “Kumbaya,” everyone stood up and joined in. I was equally enchanted with his song “Somewhere Along the Way.”


Let me end this post with something I brought home with me that I will treasure. In participating in the Silent Auction, I managed to win a fantastic photo of the nave of the church at Roncesvalles. As those who have read my book know, Roncesvalles was one of my favorite places along the Camino–so I am particularly pleased to be the proud owner of this photo. I am going to hang in my Bayou City Press office, near the cockle shell I carried along with me on the Camino, and beside my many books on the Camino and Spain. My photo of the photo doesn’t do justice to the original, but it will give you a sense of the beauty of the original.

Roncesvalles Nave I

I hope these three posts on the 2020 Gathering have been entertaining for those who attended the Gathering, and informative for those who couldn’t make it. Buen Camino to all during this period of the Coronavirus Plague!



Highlights of the 2020 Gathering

In my last post, I wrote about the challenges facing the organizers of the 2020 Camino Gathering—coronavirus multiplied by a snow storm. Those two factors made for a very different Gathering from previous years, a fact that the president of the board of American Pilgrims on the Camino, David Donselar, remarked on, as did others who had previously attended Gatherings.

Despite the challenges faced by the organizers, and the difficult decisions that each of us had to make–such as about whether to go at all given the pandemic underway or about how long to stay given the snow storm—I found the Gathering very worthwhile. Now, some seven weeks after the close of the Gathering and having passed through a very bad six weeks of being ill, I am still glad I attended.

The beautiful schedule arranged by the organizers had numerous, sometimes overlapping events beginning Thursday, March 12, at 3:30 pm and lasting until noon on Sunday, March 15. Unfortunately, a lot of the announced schedule had to be scrapped.

Thursday Highlights

Group Photo: It seems a bit funny to say that having a group photo taken was a highlight—but it was. The number of attendees at the Gathering was at its maximum for the photo, and the jokes and comradeship while we organized ourselves for the photo made me feel the Camino spirit.

Group Photo
Emilio Escudero took this photo, and Dan Donselar shared it

Zephyr Point: The weather was at its best on Thursday and Friday morning, and views of Lake Tahoe were spectacular. The location itself became a character in our Gathering drama.

Zephyr Point
Before the snow began, we had sunshine and clear skies. Across the lake snow-capped mountains are visible.

Putting Faces to Names: It was great to be introduced to the board of American Pilgrims and to begin to match their faces with their names. The board members would be an important resource throughout the following days. They all clearly put their hearts and souls into making the Gathering a success, despite the challenges. All hail the organizers!

Dave Donselar
Dave Donselar, president of the board of American Pilgrims on the Camino.

Friday and Saturday Highlights

By Thursday evening, it became clear that the weather was not going to cooperate, so Sara Gradwohl (the Gathering Chair), Dave Donselar, and other organizers tore up the published schedule for the following days. Their announced goal was to cram as much as possible of the more popular talks and activities into Friday. Friday was accordingly  jam-packed with great activities, and many attendees indeed departed at some point during the day or after the evening’s activities.

I can’t really remember what activities happened on which days, since sessions were being cut and added and there was no printed schedule, but here is my personal list of favorites

George Greenia: Spoke once each day, and both of his talks were great. His first talk, on silence and sound along the Camino, was wonderful. His second presentation focused more on history, and I loved that one, too.

George Greenia
One of many beautiful slides that accompanied talks

Yosmar Martinez on Camino Food : My mouth was watering at each photo.

Barbara Zang and Linnea Hendrickson on the Via Francigena: It was great to learn about a different Camino route, and to hear about its history.

Lynn Talbot on the Camino during the Franco Dictatorship: I love history, and I found this to be a fascinating look into religion in Spain and the Camino as a political tool.

St. James as Avatar
What a lot of history was packed into this talk!

Father Steve Rindahl on Warriors on the Way: I was so glad to learn about this fascinating organization, which uses travel on the Camino as a way to treat post-tramatic stress disorder of veterans.

It was so wonderful to learn about Warriors on the Way

Raffle and Silent Auction: What fun this was! I didn’t do too well in the raffle, but thanks to the Silent Auction I managed to obtain a beautiful photograph of the nave of the Collegiate Church of Santa María in Roncevalles, which I cherish.

Dan Mullins, the Singing Pilgrim: Dan performed both Friday and Saturday nights, and truly both performances were outstanding. His theme song, “Somewhere along the Way” was fabulous. When he actually started singing “Kumbaya” on Saturday night, everyone still in attendance got up to sing and sway. Dan had walked the Camino with his guitar on his back, which is exactly what my son did—so I felt an instant connection with this marvelous Australian who came to share our Gathering.

Dan Mullins Photo
In addition to singing, Dan told some great stories and jokes

I know I am forgetting a lot, so I will probably post again about the Gathering next week.

Buen Camino!


Camino Gathering 2020—The Few, the Hardy, the Foolhardy

I will be posting a few entries about my experience at the 2020 Gathering of American Pilgrims on the Camino, the annual meeting in the United States of Camino enthusiasts. It was my first time to attend the Gathering, and I was very excited about going, fired up about seeing Lake Tahoe for the first time, and eager to present my new book, Savoring the Camino de Santiago, to a Camino audience.

In the days immediately following my trip to the Gathering, I wrote a column for my website (“March Madness” at www.BayouCityPress.com) reporting on three trips I had taken in March, the last of them to the Gathering, held March 12-15, 2020, at Zephyr Point on Lake Tahoe. Much of the following text about the Gathering comes from that column.

Sometimes I have an overactive imagination. In the weeks leading up to the Gathering, and somewhat inspired by all the wacky costumes I had seen at Mardi Gras, I decided to put together a Camino costume, one with elements of what a medieval pilgrim might have worn. I trolled my closet and found a tabard I already had, one decorated with the Jerusalem cross. I ordered a felt hat and attached a Camino shell to it. I had a black cloak I could use. It wasn’t brown and didn’t reach to the floor, but it was a good approximation of the cloak Medieval pilgrims wore. I tried to order a six-foot staff (how am I going to get that on the plane, I wondered), but was unsuccessful in finding one I could buy in time for the Gathering. So, I had my costume: tabard, hat, cloak. I thought of the outfit as a marketing tool, a way to call attention to myself and hence to my book, which covers quite a bit of Camino history.

Gathering Pilgrim Outfit
In costume at my sales table on the balcony, overlooking beautiful Lake Tahoe,  on Friday morning.

Before my trip, I worried much more about putting together my Camino costume than I did about navigating snow, even though “snow flurries” were predicted for the Lake Tahoe area. I briefly rooted around in my closet trying to find a pair of snow boots that I could still wear, and considered taking along a heavy winter coat. “Nah,” I thought. “Too heavy, too bulky, too difficult to take with me. How much snow could there be when it is 80 degrees in Houston?”

Because of the dismal turn out at the writers’ conference that I had attended the week prior to the Gathering, I emailed the coordinator of the Gathering to make sure the Gathering was still going forward. “Yes,” Sara responded immediately, “we’re on. We’ve only had three cancellations so far.” So, I packed my bags, including a large number of copies of my book, hopeful that I would be able to sell them at the Gathering.

Flights to Sacramento from Houston were much more numerous and with better schedules than flights into Reno, so I had opted to fly into Sacramento and rent a car to drive to Zephyr Point, rather than to fly into the much closer Reno airport. Zephyr Point lies right on Lake Tahoe, across the state line from California in Nevada. Even with the longer drive from Sacramento to Zephyr Point, my travel times in going through Sacramento had me departing Houston and arriving at the conference at more appropriate times than would have the few flights into Reno.  Choosing Sacramento over Reno proved to be a fateful decision.

The Houston airport was bustling. My flight to Sacramento was almost full. If people were worried about the coronavirus, you couldn’t prove it by what I saw. Travel seemed to be proceeding as usual.

The journey from the Sacramento airport to the conference site only took me about two and a half hours, even though it was up a twisty mountain road. Some snow, but not much, still blanketed the shady sides of the road as I progressed up the mountain. I got to the meeting site in good time, still in the daylight, but the covered parking spots were already all taken. I had to park my rental SUV in an uncovered spot.

I parked and left my suitcase in the SUV until I could figure out the best unloading site. I didn’t want to heft my suitcase any more times than I absolutely had to. I searched around and found the building with the reception desk for the Gathering. I quickly found out that the Zephyr Point Conference Center was not laid out in a logical manner, with relevant buildings spread out all over a generous campus. By the time I checked in, a welcome reception had already started, to be followed by the 2020 Gathering group photo. I got instructions to my assigned room, which seemed to include a large number of unavoidable steps, and so decided to wait until after the evening’s activities before hauling my belongings to my room.

The events that Thursday evening were great, but I was distracted by not knowing when or how I was going to find my room and drag my heavy suitcase there.

Conference attendance was down. The “only three cancellations” had morphed into many, many more. Conference organizers said there were 150 people present on Thursday night, but I think 120 attendees was closer to the mark. From the first, the conference organizers seemed spooked. Interestingly, the concerns expressed by the organizers had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but rather everything to do with the weather. Giving a nod to the coronavirus, we were urged to “elbow bump” rather than shake hands or hug, and we were asked to help out the  kitchen staff by pitching in and sanitizing tables after meals. Otherwise, we just acted as if everything were normal. We sat close together in sessions and at meals, we shared rooms with strangers, we touched and passed around silent auction, raffle, and sale items. No one wore a mask.

On Friday morning, I awoke eager for the first session to start. The weather was unexpectedly nice, with beautiful views of the lake and encircling mountains through the conference room windows. The beauty of Lake Tahoe was apparent; the location, with mountains ringing the lake, reminded me of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where surrounding volcanoes are reflected in the water.

Lake Views
No snow on the ground on Friday morning, but the mountains across the way still bear snow

Vendors like me, most of us selling books or essential oils or other natural products, were placed outside on the balcony, from where we could enjoy the lovely weather and view but step into the meeting room when sessions began. I wore my full pilgrim regalia. Other conference attendees probably thought I was nuts, but what the heck? Weren’t we all a bit nuts to choose to walk the Camino? I received comments like “Cool hat” and “Nice outfit.” Camino folks are uncommonly kind. The comment I most often got was, “Did you make your outfit?” I guess Camino folks are also determinedly do-it-yourselfers. “No,” I had to reply, “the only thing I did was sew the cockleshell onto my hat.”

Sometime during that Friday, the president of the board of American Pilgrims on the Camino announced that weather conditions were worsening. The forecast for the rest of the weekend, and on into the next week, were poor. There was a window of opportunity to leave that night, so those who could do so might want to leave after the Friday evening events, to get down from the mountain while the roads were still open. Over the course of the day, the whole schedule for Friday and Saturday was reconfigured to try to cram in as much as possible on Friday. Beloved parts of the schedule, such as a silent auction and raffle, were moved up to that evening.

I thought hard about leaving Friday evening. I had just gotten there, my first Gathering, and to leave after only one day would be a big sacrifice. I called United Airlines to see if I could move up my flight, and was told that the wait time to speak to someone was two hours. I didn’t want to wait on hold for two hours and miss the Gathering. If I left, it would be a departure at 9 PM or later. It also meant I would have to drive on a dark, winding, mountainous, snowy road with which I was not unfamiliar. I elected to stay until Saturday, to see how things developed.

The printed schedule for the Gathering had been out the window starting on Friday morning. News reports about the weather—not coronavirus—were eagerly sought by Gathering attendees. Were the roads down the mountain open? Were planes flying? With no television in the guest rooms, we had to go to the internet to seek weather updates. The Zephyr Point representative who attended meals was eagerly sought out for his knowledge of area roads.

I wondered about how many of us would depart after activities on Friday night. On Saturday morning we got a look at who remained. About 50 of us were still in attendance. Conference organizers said we should give ourselves a pat on the back for being the ones who didn’t give up, who kept going when the going got rough, but perhaps we should more accurately have been called the foolhardy.

Walking to Breakfast
Snow started, but at this point it was still a light covering. To get to the dining hall we had to walk up and down, and I didn’t have appropriate boots with me. Fear of falling!

Some panelists who had not departed on Friday night were asked to make second presentations, to cover for the panelists who had not come at all or who had left early. As for the sessions, I particularly liked the ones focusing on history. The chair of American Pilgrims again suggested we might want to take advantage of a window of opportunity and go home on Saturday afternoon. I thought about it, and I again elected to stay another day.

Sat Night Photo
Those of us who stuck it out until Saturday night. Were we the brave, or the foolhardy?

Zephry Point in Snow
Snow, snow everywhere

By Sunday morning the snow had set in for real. It was, indeed, a blizzard, a blizzard for which I was not prepared. I had not packed boots or a heavy coat, but I did have layers I could don. My pilgrim hat, complete with a cockleshell, symbol of the Camino de Santiago, kept the snow off my head. The conference organizers, having maintained all along that the conference would continue through until its scheduled conclusion on Sunday afternoon, with the Board members of the organization staying until Monday or later, now said that the conference was cancelled. They were leaving, and we should, too, though we could stay overnight Sunday if we preferred to wait another day (or more) to see if the weather cleared.

With the snow really coming down on Sunday morning, I was happy to have my Camino hat and cloak

That settled it for me. With no conference underway, and the conference organizers leaving, it was time to get out of Dodge. I went out to the car park and looked at my rental SUV, which was buried in about three feet of snow. Of course there was no ice scraper or snow removal tool in the vehicle. One of the things I had promised myself after my last winter in Washington, DC, was never to shovel a car out of the snow again. But here I was, having to do just that, and without the proper tools. As is said, Woman proposes but God disposes.

Car in Snow
I had already started to dig the car out when I thought to take a photo

Julio, a conference participant with whom I had talked quite a lot, was in even worse shape. His sedan had neither 4-wheel drive nor snow chains, a requirement for driving on mountainous roads once snow started. He borrowed a shovel from the conference center and disinterred his car, then gave me the shovel to use on my SUV. He started off, but was back quickly—his car couldn’t manage the snowy mountain roads. Julio asked me to drive him down to the local Safeway so that he could buy chains, which I did after finishing digging my car out.

That short drive down to the Safeway gave me confidence that my rented SUV could handle the snow. Back at the Zephyr Point Conference Center, I loaded my still-heavy bags into the car-I didn’t sell as many books as I had hoped to the reduced number of attendees–and took off for Sacramento.

I say “took off,” but I should say “crawled.” The first 12 miles were slow, but the traffic was moving. And then, for no discernible reason, the traffic came to a dead halt. I sat, and sat, and sat in my vehicle, turning the engine on and off to defrost the windshield as I searched for news on the radio. Cars in front and behind me also sat there waiting. Occasionally a vehicle would pull out of line and turn around, heading where? Eventually I got out of my SUV and talked to the couple in the car behind me, who had had an opportunity to talk with a passing policeman. The policeman said the road was closed and the wait for it to open might be as long as 10 hours or even longer.

My flight to Houston was on Monday afternoon, so I decided that waiting was just the best thing to do. In the end, a drive that had taken a little over two hours going up the mountain took more than 14 hours to get down. And the irony of course was that I had not departed on Friday evening in large part because I did not want to drive down a treacherous road at night, but in the end that is just what I had to do. Between the long, long wait while the road was closed, and the subsequent creeping down the mountain road at five or 10 mph, I didn’t check into my motel until 12:30 AM on Monday morning.

The Sacramento Airport on Monday afternoon was a changed place. While I had been isolated in the mountains for three days, attitudes about coronavirus had clearly changed. The airport was almost deserted. No one was in the security line. It was so pleasurable to whiz my way through the checkpoints and onto the plane. “This,” I thought, “is what travel must have felt like in the past. Just a select few flying.”

Sacramento Airport
A deserted Sacramento airport on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020

At the time I wrote the “March Madness” column for my website, I was feeling ill, but I had no idea how sick I actually was. I first felt ill on March 17th, my first day back home after the Gathering. I thought I had a head cold, but it turned out to be much, much worse. It is only this past week, a month after falling ill, that I have felt well enough to return to my computer and work.

In this posting, I have recounted the ambience of the Gathering—the situation with coronavirus hovering and snow falling. In my next post, I plan to give readers more about the substance of the Gathering.