Portrait of a Pilgrim (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

The Plan

We are on our way back to North America after having spent about five weeks in Spain, most of that walking the last 120 kilometres or so of the Camino de Santiago. What was the point of all that, you might ask? Why did we feel the need to drag ourselves, and in the end, a wheelchair, across a chunk of northern Spain? It would be great if I could say something glib like, “Because it was there” or “Because we like to go on vacations with a bit of a twist” but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For one thing, we can’t really afford to just jet off and wander around the Spanish countryside for weeks on end. Usually, we either need to find a way to keep working on the road (Internet access makes this possible, though it can also create huge logistical challenges when connectivity is not quite as good as we need it to be). Even better is when we can find a way to tie a project to a travel destination. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a destination travel article about a place we want to go (or, happen to be going anyway). Sometimes it’s using a destination or activity that takes place in a distant place (climbing, for example) in a book. Taking copious notes, reference photos, or conducting interviews to gather information is a way to write some of the travel costs off as long as the material is used somewhere down the road.

Digital nomad at work in a small cafe in the middle of nowhere.

In the case of this trip along the Camino Frances, though, the intention all along was to write a book about the trip and to find a way to integrate art (Dad’a art in particular). Not only is Dad’s work integrated into the written project, he is also beavering away on a series of works exploring the idea of creating a portrait of a pilgrim to be presented in an exhibition of work.

At the end of a long day of walking, Dad works on a drawing of the Castillo de Pambre

One of the the good things about being a writer or an artist is that all of life becomes a potential source of inspiration. That’s also one of the tough aspects of this type of job. There isn’t really a way to shut life off, close the office door and go home. Everything is raw material and holds the potential of the next great bit of writing or amazing painting. For someone in the arts, each day could be the one where our desire to create something worthwhile is realized. Just the act of living life becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, full of challenges and roadblocks to overcome on the way to coming up with something decent.

When we set off on the road to Santiago we knew we wanted to create something (visual art on Dad’s part, written work from me and Dani), but beyond that we weren’t exactly sure what our story would be. After all, we had plans, but plans never exactly correspond with reality.

The good news is that post trip we have plenty of raw material for a book and Dad is well on his way to creating some very cool pieces unlike anything he has ever done before. The walking together, the conversations in the evenings, the time spent looking at art, watching Dad create art, listening to conversations among other pilgrims, reading about the act of pilgrimage, visiting museums – all that input, that raw material provided a massive amount of information, stimulation, and inspiration. The creative wheels aren’t just turning, they are spinning fast.

We knew that part of the challenge after a trip is coming back and being thrown into real life distractions, so we decided to spend a couple of weeks together after we finished walking to Santiago in order to focus on the project. The process has been as challenging as anything we faced on the journey.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Some of our conversations have been predictable – like comparing notes about various high (and low) points of the trip, but we’ve also talked about mortality, what inspires us, surprises like how much we all liked the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s ode to nature and God in Barcelona, and what makes a great portrait. We’ve asked ourselves a lot of questions about the nature of pilgrimage and what a real pilgrim looks like. We sought out images of pilgrims in art and now, as we begin to write (and Dad continues to work with pen and ink and wax crayon and tempera paint sticks and watercolours) what is emerging is a story about our pilgrimage, but also a meditation on what it means to be a pilgrim – in words and images.

We collected dozens of pilgrim-related images on our trip… this one from the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago.

Dad is also exploring juxtapositions of self portraits with ancient depictions of pilgrims. He’s playing with stylistic twists and bold colour, taking fresh inspiration from time spent in the presence of Gaudi’s work, Picasso’s ever-evolving approaches to art and portraiture, and the many, many pilgrims we have seen in carvings, sculptures, murals, painted, drawn, and etched into stone.

We have been privy to Dad’s creative process in ways that have never been possible before now – living in close quarters for so long there is no way to avoid seeing how he comes up with ideas, starts sketching, restarts, scribbles, and polishes. At the same time, Dani and I have been clicking away on our keyboards.

The artist goes shopping – finding art supplies was easy in Barcelona.

I’ve been working on recreating our journey, integrating notes about art and history found along the way. I’m also trying to figure out the best way to share the conversations Dad and I have had over the past six weeks or so that we’ve been travelling together. Dani is digging deeper into the many moments that make up a pilgrim’s journey, writing a series of reflections and information essays that take the reader behind the scenes on subjects as varied as bedbugs and courier systems. The more we write and draw and talk and question, the more we discover to explore, describe, question and discuss.

Leaving Sarria…

“Is that where we are going?” Dad asks, pointing up.

“Unfortunately,” I answer.

“Oh my God. I haven’t trained for this.”

At one point we all worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say about our trip, that our three creative wells would simultaneously run dry. In fact, the opposite is happening. We all have found so much to explore I’m thinking our bigger task will not be thinking of what to include but what we will need to eventually trim out.

No fears about not having enough reference material!

Dutch Power! (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

Dani and I were trucking along today and about the 6 kilometre mark after leaving our hostel in Salceda a couple of Dutch guys slowed down and insisted in taking a turn in pushing Dad. For a couple of kilometres they stuck with us, chatting away and helping us on all but the steepest of downhills.

Then, it was better for us to hook up our patented “D-brake” system, with Dani behind and connected to the wheelchair with the laundry line and me hanging on to the handles of the chair. As soon as we hit level ground again, though, the fellow from the Netherlands (I can’t believe that throughout the entire time we spent together nobody mentioned names!!!) took over again and kept pushing.

We made excellent time and found out about a documentary film called “I’ll Push You” https://youtu.be/W7gKD3q0-V0 about two friends, one in a wheelchair, who do the Camino together. Turns out one of the Dutch brothers is a Camino-phile. This trip along the French Way is his fourth, his seventh Camino in total. In 2013 he happened to see the guys on their wheelchair trip, stopped and took a photo. Then, recently, he saw their documentary film and (I think) watched it with his brother. And, when the brothers saw us, they immediately wanted to stop and help.

It was pretty cool to hear their stories and share a bit of the journey with them. One of the things we have really missed in our journey so far was the camaraderie so many pilgrims speak of. Our Camino family has been limited to the three of us as moved so much slower than everyone else. Now, though, people don’t pass us nearly so quickly and when they do, it doesn’t throw them off schedule too much to walk with us for a short while and have a chat.

After a couple of kilometres it was time for us to stop for lunch, which was lovely in the warmth of a late autumn afternoon.

The Dutch brothersa continued on their way and then Dani, Dad and I finished up the day here in O Pedrouzo. As soon as I get somewhere where I can stream video, I’ll have to watch “I’ll Push You.” From the trailer, though, it makes our little jaunt look pretty cruisy!

The Kindness of Strangers (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

Albergue Camino Das Orcas

The common cold. A few days of feeling crummy, a runny nose, being irritated with the inconvenience of a cough. But really, it’s not that big a deal. Until you are past 80 and a cold is no longer a small thing to shrug off. A few days ago Dad started sniffling. Then the cough started. And now, several days in, this bug is hitting him hard. The past couple of days have been really tough going, so we had several conversations about what to do next. Send Dad ahead in a cab? Take an extra rest day and try to make time up later? Some combination of cab and walking where Dad went as far as he could and then we called a cab? That sounds reasonable, except a lot of the route is not on a road and given our limited Spanish, it could be tricky to describe which cow field near which hill we had chosen as a potential pickup point in the event Dad needed to be rescued en route.

Yesterday we visited a local hospital – nothing to do with the cold, but rather to get Dad a blood test. He takes blood thinners (post heart valve, he needs to keep things flowing smoothly) and he was due. While we were waiting to be seen, I noticed a couple of wheelchairs standing around in the waiting room and that made me think that perhaps we might be able to find one somewhere we could use to complete the journey.

We decided to see how last night was going to go and then make a decision this morning. At three in the morning I woke up to Dad’s coughing. Awful – persistent and grim-sounding. It didn’t sound like any walking was going to be on the cards. That’s when I really began to fret about where we were possibly going to find a wheelchair. It’s the weekend and Azura is not exactly a metropolis, though it is definitely bigger than many of the teeny one-farm villages we’ve stayed in. I wondered about the hospital and if, with my limited Spanish and Google translate I might be able to convince the to lend us a wheelchair. Then again, given how hard it had been to explain that we needed a common blood test, that seemed unlikely.

We had seen a couple of physiotherapy offices and I thought perhaps they might be able to help. Dani, too, tossed and turned all night and by morning, she was also formulating plans. Over breakfast we hatched a plot… Or first stop was to visit the helpful tourist info centre. The lovely woman on duty there did, indeed, offer suggestions – but because it was Saturday, they involved taking a bus to Santiago about 42 kms away. And, we were told, it was going to be tricky to find anyone open before Monday.

Back at the coffee shop where we had left Dad nursing a cafe con leche, we had a go at Google. We found a website called Accessible Spain Travel accessiblespaintravel.com with a phone number. I called and explained our situation and the very helpful guy at the other end said that he would see what he could find out for us.

Not long after, he texted that everything was closed that might be useful in Arzúa but that he had managed to reach Jose Manuel in Santiago who could meet us at his shop as long as we could get there before 11 am. Though the shop was shut, he was willing to come and meet us and fix us up with a wheelchair. Alas, there was no way to get to Santiago by bus in time, so we sprinted back to the Info Center to find out where we might be able to get a taxi.

Once we figured out where the cabs were, we grabbed Dad and all leaped into the taxi with Pepin, our driver, who not only took us to Santiago, but then waited patiently in the street with Dad while Dani and I waited for Jose Manuel to arrive, let us in in and give us a wheelchair. That process was crazy – no forms to fill out, Jose didn’t even ask for my name – would only take 30 Euros for ten days rental, and wished us well.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver then drove us all the way back to Arzua but then took less than half of what should have been the metered fare.

We were ravenous by the time we got back, so we had lunch and then set off. We experimented with all sorts of travelling variations – Dad pushing the wheelchair for a bit (which was ok on flat terrain and as long as the distances were short), Dani pushing, me pushing. Hills were an adventure. The going in places was steep and not exactly smooth. It took both of us pushing (Dani pushing the wheelchair and me pushing Dani) to get up some of the rough spots. Likewise, going down, it took two of us to slow things down – one of us leaning back against the handles and one pulling back on one of the walking poles we had attached to the back of the wheelchair.

By the time we finished our not-quite 5 kms, we were all bagged! A whole new set of muscles hurts! However, we made it!!! And it looks like we will get all the way to Santiago in one piece, as long as we keep going, don’t rush, and no further afflictions decide to sneak up on us.

One of the delights of the day was the contact we had with locals all along the way. A farmer (83) who walked with us for a bit after turning his cows out to pasture, a number of pilgrims who stopped to cheer us on (and take photos), the hostel-keeper who provided a great ground-floor, fully wheelchair accessible room for us, and a full-time pilgrim travelling with his donkey (worthy of a blog post all his own…)

Despite the physical challenges today (and, earlier, the stress of not knowing how on earth we were going to magically produce a wheelchair), today turned out to be a good day, in large part because of all the small kindnesses shown to us along the way.

That Way! (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com)

I am famous in my family for my ability to get lost. Spectacularly lost. Like, in Canmore (a cute town with half a dozen streets, town where I now live, town in which, yes, I still get lost). Before we set off on this trip there were quite a few jokes about how if anyone could get lost on the Camino it would be me.

Ha! I LOVE how incredibly well marked the route has been. Ever since we spotted our first arrow outside the albergue in Sarria we have never faltered. Occasionally there are a couple of options (a slightly more rural path versus following the road for a bit) but mostly every place where one could possibly get confused has a bright yellow arrow or a stylized shell or an official marker or all three…

Where the path crosses a road, motorists are warned to slow down.

Though we are tracking our progress closely using both google maps and the Nike+ Run app (Dani is using the latter to let her know exactly when she reaches each kilometre mark, at which point she snaps a photo – no people and within 10 steps of the km mark) there is really no need for technology when it comes to figuring out where to go.

Of course, the string of pilgrims stretching as far as the eye can see is another indicator we are heading in the right direction!

Now all I need is for the rest of the world to catch on to the idea of superb way-finding assistance… and maybe I need to figure out where in life I want to be going so the yellow arrows will start to appear whenever I need to see one!

We are finally on the Camino in Spain!

Oh my… while we were away I had terrible trouble posting to this blog for some reason…

Here, then, is a copy (I hope) of a post from October… If this works, I’ll add the few others I managed to post from on the road (over on my other blog… darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

The Chinese proverb sums up how we feel today after finally, finally setting off on our Camino adventure.

After several days of brilliant sun and hot temperatures, we were all relieved when it was cool and a bit foggy as we left the Albergue in Sarria. We were also pretty excited to spot our first yellow arrow and stylized shell indicating we were heading off in the correct direction. I have no idea how many arrows and other way markers we passed today – a lot – but each one is a small message of hope that we were a step closer to our destination.

The cooler temperatures helped mitigate the horror we all felt as we stood at the bottom of the daunting set of stairs that lead up and out of Sarria.

Dad has been training for months, but always on more or less level terrain and never with his daypack.

 

Thank goodness Dani planned today to be a shortish day. The total distance travelled was only about 4km, but it was tough going in places.

The old part of Sarria felt like the perfect place to start our journey, steeped in history and full of albergues and small

restaurants and bars it was also full of pilgrims.

We stopped often so Dad could catch his breath but by the time we started up the final hill leading to the village of Barbadelo Dad was pretty bagged. Dani and I redistributed everything he was carrying between the two of us and insisted on a refuelling break along the way.

At one point as Dad was puffing on his inhaler and looking pained, I thought we had perhaps made a terrible mistake. Much of today’s path was through the woods (yay – shade!!) but that did mean it would have been pretty well impossible to have hailed an ambulance should we have needed one. Various passing pilgrims stopped to ask if all was well or if we needed assistance. Dad waved them off, but I wondered several times if perhaps we needed to reassess and perhaps procure a donkey for Dad to ride for the rest of our journey.

Eventually, the grade lessened and our wooded path opened out into an area of fields and small farms and the going was much easier. By the time we reached Barbadelo, Dad was full of smiles and shocked both Dani and me when he declared the day to have been a lot of fun!

We are not going to set any speed records, that’s for sure, but if we just concentrate on one step at a time, eventually we will make it to our final destination.

Camino tickets BOOKED!!!!!!

There is nothing quite like receiving that email confirming your flight is booked. In this case, the series of emails (Calgary to Paris via Montreal, Paris to Madrid and then various bits and pieces of the return trip plus information about trains within Spain) have triggered a crazy mix of wild excitement and sheer terror.

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Yep – making the final commitment to a big trip is both exhilarating and somewhat unnerving.  Photo by Ian Simmonds on Unsplash

Of course, I’m thrilled that this trip is coming together. Dani (30), Dad (beyond 80) and I (mid-50s) are collaborating on a pretty cool, intergenerational, multidisciplinary project. Spending time on the Camino de Santiago is amazing enough, but along the way, we will also be creating art – visual art (Dad) and writing (Dani, me), and photography (all of us). I’ll also be documenting our journey with video.

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Here’s an oil painting Dad did after his trip to Venice in 2015. I’m so excited to see what will come of our journey to Spain…

Where’s the sheer terror part of all this? Well, we are collaborating on two major projects. The first (not such a big surprise) is a book that will include artwork, photos, and writing (obviously). Then, there’s an exhibition featuring the artwork which will be mounted in conjunction with a series of talks by some combination of the three of us (depending on location and availability). No longer is this simply a stroll in Spain – now we are facing the pressure of making sure we create work that reflects what is turning out to be a rather more nuanced journey than any of us had first imagined. We’ve had conversations about the nature of art and living the creative life, spirituality for skeptics, mortality, and the relationship of people to the environment as discovered through the simple (ancient) act of walking. We’ve also swapped notes on sleeping bag liners, footwear, phone chargers, and wi-fi access. We all love Europe and history and art, so we are also just plain excited about being in a super cool place with other people who are also stoked about being part of a pilgrimage that’s been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.

 

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What is it about old stuff in Europe that makes it so compelling? I snapped this photo on a tiny group tour of the Tour Saint Jacques in Paris earlier this year. Standing up there in the ancient bell tower desperately trying to follow the guide’s all-in-French commentary, I realized just how little I knew about the Camino, this history of the church, and the nature of pilgrimage. Confession time: before we began to think about going, I hadn’t realized that Saint Jacques in France is the same guy as Saint James in English and Saint Iago in Spanish. For pilgrims starting out in Paris, the Tour St. Jacques was likely a stop on the road to Spain.

 

For me, this is also a return to my writing roots – I started out writing newspaper and magazine articles, my favourites of which were inspired by personal experience. That said, for the last couple of decades most of my work has been for children and teenagers so, in some ways, this is my first book (a very, very strange position to be in). Anyone who has set out to write a first book knows just how stressful that can be… Ok, to be honest, every time I set out to write any book it’s stressful. But that’s the subject of another post so I won’t go there again.

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Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

When do we leave? At the end of September (that’s next month!!!! Eeeeek!). The three of us are meeting up in Madrid, which is really where the journey will begin. We’ll be documenting the journey in various places – we all have Instagram accounts (@writergrrrl @from yyj_travel @colinwilliams5615) and blogs (this one plus darkcreekfarm.com/blog for me) as well as my Patreon account (if you become a supporter over there you’ll get access to some bonus material not published anywhere else). I’m also planning to do more over on medium.com – I like their Stories platform as a way to tell a long, linear tale using lots of images. So, sign-up, follow along and stay tuned – this is going to be a fun ride!

Signed copy of Deadpoint (Orca Sports)

I have a limited number of copies of my novel for teens about climbing on hand. Part of the Orca Sports series, the novel sets three kids against a mountain. Price includes shipping within North America and will be signed. Shoot me an email (or leave a comment) and I can personalize a copy for you. Perfect for the adventure-loving teen in your life! ** Please note that once we are on the trail, this offer will disappear because I will be in Spain!!! Yippee!! (for me, that is... not for you if you are hoping to snag a copy before I go).

$13.00

Pushing Forward on All Fronts

After three months of being a writer in Paris (oh, it was fun to just write that phrase!), I am back in the Rocky Mountains with a list of To-Do lists! Part of the problem with being a full-time working writer is that there are always projects in need of my attention. Here’s a quick snapshot of what’s on my desk at the moment…

  1. Final revisions are due for Christmas: From Solstice to Santa (a new title in the Orca Origins series, co-authored with Dani). Because I now live here:

    IMG_7194 Three sisters.jpgand Dani lives here:
    IMG_7543 vancouver island… it’s a little tricky to get together to work on projects. While there are plenty of things we can do at a distance (we have been collaborating for years on all sorts of projects), there are certain tasks that require a large table and spreading out of multiple drafts and sets of editorial comments. I’ll be on the coast at the end of July and we have marathon editing plans. If I sound less than thrilled at the prospect of going through this manuscript one more time, it’s because sometimes these late-in-the-game rewrites aren’t exactly a ton of fun. On the up side, we are writing about Christmas, so how un-jolly could we possibly be about that? Actually, now that I think about it, one of the things we need to do is some final recipe testing. At least we will be well fed during our labours.

  2. Board books for babies! That’s all I will say for now. Except for this… if you ever imagined that writing a book containing very few words for an audience that is more likely to chew on your book than read it is easy… think again. Dani and I have been sending draft manuscripts back and forth and back and forth and back and forth a shocking number of times in order to come up with something reasonable that we can send off to our editor. Stay tuned… more details to come as these titles get further along in their development.
  3. The Camino project! Oh, we are so excited about this one! We’ve been working on writing samples and putting together examples of Dad’s work and fleshing out a proposal as we get closer to setting off on the trip and as the book project becomes clearer in our minds. I think we are booking our airline tickets this week! I’ll be writing a blog post (probably over on the more general blog, but I’ll post a link here, too) about my first experience at an actual Camino site in France. Here’s a teaser image from that experience:

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    Any ideas where this was taken? Leave a comment below… 
  4. Final revisions and captions for Better Together: Creating Community in an Uncertain World are due this month. I’ve had a sneak peek at some early page layouts and this book is going to be GORGEOUS!!!!!!! I can’t wait to post a sample so you can see it, too. This was a really cool book to research as the scope was broad and the subject fascinating. From babies in prisons to leper colonies to the Red Cross and the International Space Station, it was a bit mind-boggling to look at the myriad ways in which people come together for good and how sometimes strong bonding within groups also lies at the heart of some of our most awful conflicts.

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    Doing a bit of research in Paris at Shakespeare and Co., a bookshop that has played a central role in the community of writers for decades… 
  5. Promoting the recent releases… This year has been a busy one with two new titles so far that and another one to come. Café Books here in Canmore hosted an author signing on the weekend. It was HOT but lots of fun to chat with passersby, tourists and locals alike.

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    Trying to stay in the shade during a roasty, toasty book signing event at Café Books in Canmore. My trusty helper, Allegra, did a great job handing out bookmarks and smiles. 
  6. Promoting new titles Part Two: I’m setting up a book giveaway on Goodreads. I’m having trouble posting the widget link… stay tuned as I figure that out (or, navigate over the Goodreads and search for Deadpoint). I don’t think this is live quite yet, but I’ll post an update here on the writing blog when you can go and put your name down for a copy.
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  7. General promo and doing things like looking after my patrons over on Patreon. You, too, could become a patron (if you aren’t already). I had just set this Patreon page up before we had our unexpected trip to Paris, so I haven’t been promoting the concept as much as I should have been. If you are interested in supporting the work of a writer (me) and earning some nifty rewards, click on the link and check it out. It’s easy and as cheap as you’d like to make it and makes a big difference to me.patreon-logoEnjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.
  8. Freelancing… Keep an eye out for Gripped Magazine – there just may be an article in there by me in an issue coming your way soon.
  9. Writing new stuff… I’m busy polishing some essays and articles on subjects like fear of falling, dementia, and being a writer in Paris in the teens (almost a hundred years after Hemingway was writing about being a writer in Paris in the twenties – it’s kind of a thing). Some of those pieces (mine, not Hemingway’s) were workshopped at the quite wonderful Lunchtime Writing Salons hosted by Hazel Manuel. Search for them at meetup.com if you happen to be in Paris and looking for feedback on a bit of writing. I attended several sessions and they were well worth it!

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    The view from Hazel’s place… Fine conversation, interesting writers, good food, occasionally wine… who could ask for more in a writing salon?
  10. The Writing School. Yes, I am still working on this project. If you are interested in signing up for an online writing course, take a minute to put your email address in the box and I’ll let you know when the first courses are available.

    That’s it for now, not because that’s actually all I have on the go but because the number 10 seems like such a logical place to stop. Happy reading and writing, everyone! Until next time…