Friday, March 20, 2015

I'll Push You

Justin and Patrick
Last night Robin and I attended a Camino presentation at the University of Portland. The presenters were Justin Skeesuck, and Patrick Gray. Both of these men, close friends from childhood, traveled the Camino Frances last summer. Justin sat in a specially designed wheelchair, and Patrick pushed him. They started in St. Jean Pied de Port, crossed over the Pyrenees on the Route Napoleon, and continued on 500 miles to Santiago. It sounds so easy when it is stated that way, but as you might surmise, it was far from an easy journey.  They were traveling with a small film crew who just did the filming, no pushing. The pushing, and pulling, was left to Patrick. One of the film clips they showed was of Patrick and an enlisted helper trying to get Justin up and over the Pyrenees. The mud was deep and slippery, and the task at hand just seemed utterly impossible. Why even try to go further? How could this possibly be done? These thoughts were crossing their minds when they encountered a local Basque man walking on the mountain. Justin was out of his chair and stretched out on the ground, while the others were trying to catch their breath after carrying Justin in a sling when they could no longer take both him and the chair together. The man walked over to Justin, stood astride of him and started gently slapping him on the face as if trying to revive him. Justin looked up and heard the man saying something like, "Anything is possible, or "Make the possible out of the impossible." Justin, as if coming out of a dream, then knew something had changed, and together, recommitting to the journey, the small ad hoc team pressed on to Roncesvalles where they arrived 13.5 hours after leaving St. Jean.

Their story is filled with such occurrences. They quickly realized that they would never make it to Santiago without help. Keep in mind that Justin has very little mobility and needed help with all the usual daily chores including bathing, feeding, and going to the bathroom. Patrick was his primary caregiver and happily assisted Justin, but this was after pushing a 250 pound chair (including the weight of Justin) all day long. But, as those of us who have walked the Camino know, help just seems to arrive when you most need it. What they discovered was that as they went along people would just ask to help them. Some would push and pull for an hour or two, and collapse exhausted, unable to help any more. Others would stay with them for days. And so it went day after day as they inched their way towards Santiago. Camino angels arrived and relief was found even in their most desperate moments. At one point a group of 17 fellow pilgrims helped them up to the summit of O' Cebreiro. Some pushed and pulled while others carried the backpacks of those helping with the wheelchair. It was an amazing expression of love, compassion, and joy. Also, it is important to note how well Justin received this assistance. We can imagine how easy it would be to feel crushing guilt as you sat in a chair watching all these people really struggling to move you along while you literally could not move a finger to help them. But, Justin's humbleness transcended that guilt. It was his gift of humility to them that helped many others offer their gift of assistance to him. It all just worked. It was never easy, but it just worked.

Yes, they made it to Santiago. One might say it was a miracle, but there they were arriving in front of the cathedral and into the arms of their waiting wives. The impossible had happened. Both Patrick and Justin admit that they discovered that the Camino is not about the destination, not about chasing a goal, but rather it is about the community that is formed around pilgrims traveling together. We seem to be better at accepting people for who they are on the Camino then we do at home. True community must have room for everyone even those who we might, and probably would, shun at home. We are always too quick to select friends based on how they reflect who we are.  It is in our brokenness, that healing and love are found. It is the wounded and marginalized that show us the path to grace. In a loving community, even the least among us, has a place at the table. It is there that we learn to share our humanity, and to joyfully embrace, care for, and nurture all those who find their way to us. When we succeed we are all better for it.

Last summer, two humble pilgrims set out on a seemingly impossible journey and found themselves unexpectedly bathed in the astonishing light of a loving community of fellow travelers who simply said, yes, I'll help push you. It was with those simple words, from so many people, that the impossible became possible. Those encounters, I feel safe in saying, have transformed both Justin and Patrick, and all those who walked with, and helped them. The reaffirmation of the goodness that dwells within all of us is a powerful reminder that we can create our own "Camino miracles" by opening our hearts and listening for those faint voices that all too frequently get lost in the noise of our busy daily lives. Many are calling out to us, but how frequently do we say, yes, I'll help (push) you. The day you do, everything changes. Miracles do happen just ask Patrick and Justin.

On a side note, Robin and I were sitting just behind them at the pilgrim mass in Santiago the day that they arrived. We had just recently arrived from Le Puy, and had a chance to say hello and congratulate them. Lot's of smiling faces at mass that day.

A film of their journey along the Camino Frances entitled "I'll Push You" is now in development. Please visit their website at,, for more information.

Buen Camino

Friday, March 6, 2015


Fort Vancouver near our home
The days, since returning from Spain, have been spent reconnecting to our home life. Although we were only gone for just over a month, returning from a Camino always seems a bit like emerging from a time warp. The way of the pilgrim is so different that it does require a sort of reorientation upon returning home. Having the freedom to get up when you want, do something else other than walking, not obsessing over the weather, eating and drinking what you please are all simple choices that we take for granted. These become distant, but tantalizing, recollections once you are on the Camino trail. The discipline required to cover long distances, in all kinds of weather, does limit certain freedoms, but less familiar freedoms also appear as offsets. In short you adopt a less complicated lifestyle characterized by a tighter focus, with fewer distractions, and an overwhelming desire to stay warm and dry. Whatever lifestyle limitations are necessary to walk a Camino are more than offset by the hope engendered by the Way, and all that you encounter while walking it.

Yes, we all love our comfort, but it can cut a groove in our lives that causes us to get stuck. The willingness to step outside of our comfort zone and put many of our favorite pleasures on hold is not a bad thing. In fact, it is absolutely a good thing, a healthy thing. I guess that in part explains why Robin and I continue to return. Camino life is not always easy but it nurtures the mind, the body, and the soul. It also allows you to experience people in uniquely interesting ways. Robin and I are always warmed by the kindness of strangers, and humbled by their generosity. Every time we walk we add more to our blessings list than we could ever have hoped to imagine. Yes, there is also venality (very little), but so what. Humans will be human after all. It is how you choose to process those disappointments that allows you to grow, and move on. But, that is all part of any Camino.

The Camino Ignaciano captured all the things I have mentioned above, but seemed to be a richer experience than our previous Caminos. It certainly wasn't anything physical, although the scenery was pretty stunning in parts. It was more metaphysical. Robin is fond of quoting someone who said, "When the student is ready the teacher appears." I think this lies at the core of why the Ignaciano route touched us the way it did. Our hearts were simply more open to the discoveries of this pilgrimage. It was very much a solitary walk as we counted only 12 Santiago bound pilgrims when we passed, eastbound, through LogroƱo. We never encountered a single other pilgrim on the Ignaciano route for the 27 days we walked it. We were left with our thoughts, reflections, musings, and prayers for long periods of time. Did this occasion a more open heart? Perhaps, but I find it is always difficult to triangulate the origin of these things. Sometimes you just find yourself in a certain state of mind that is hard to explain (the Spirit blows where it will), but you feel blessed. I think I will just leave it there.

We are continuing to enjoy life at home and the unseasonably mild and dry weather we returned to. We still take daily walks (usually 5 miles instead of 15), Robin is happily back singing with her choir at St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland, and creating wonderful dinners in our kitchen, our local American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC) Portlandia Chapter continues to grow, and we are actively involved in that. We have also committed to spending a month in Santiago, starting June 12th, volunteering with The Camino Chaplaincy (English language masses) at the cathedral. Please stop by and say hello if you are in Santiago. I feel confident that our Camino journey will continue, but for now Robin and I are simply enjoying the peace of being at peace.

Buen camino to all who are setting out.