They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Followed by a bazillion more steps, leading to foot pain and locking hip joints. I added that second part. I’ve been taking more of my journeys by foot these days despite my body’s protestations. When my friend Linda told me she was going to hike El Camino de Santiago in Spain this spring, I was immediately enthusiastic…for her. I wouldn’t do that in a million years, or at least, it would take a million years to get my knees into the kind of shape required for such a long haul. El Camino is 500 miles long, starting in the Pyrenees Mountains and traversing across northern Spain. Linda is allowing five weeks for this monumental task. I feel downright boastful just for knowing her.
I toyed with the idea of creating my own pilgrimage with a more local theme. By some weird coincidence (or divine providence) my friend Tee mentioned an El Camino-type route she found online right here in Asheville. She and another friend had driven the route to check it out and declared it to be doable as it was only 11 miles around town. We had this conversation as we were walking along the sunny streets of my westside neighborhood one afternoon in early February. After the shock of hearing Tee’s interest in an El Camino-type quest, I told her about Linda and her upcoming journey and the inspiration I felt for a similar, yet smaller excursion. Suddenly two ideas clattered into a heap on the street and that shit clicked and took form. “Let’s do it!” we declared.
I began with my usual overthinking method of planning. Tee reigned me in, wishing to keep it as simple as possible. I agreed, though she should have known how the circus in my head works and that, when left on my own, I would be gathering participants, plotting a training strategy, scheduling press releases and designing the T-shirts. Before we even walked a couple of segments of the intended trail, I reneged on my agreement for simplicity.
I originally hadn’t intended for this ramble to be just any old walk. I wanted our endeavor to be in the form of a pilgrimage. There are some requirements, according to most definitions of the word, for one’s journey to qualify as a pilgrimage as opposed to just any ordinary lengthy stroll. In essence, it is a sacred journey toward a place of spiritual significance leading to personal transformation of the cosmic kind. I wasn’t sure if one actually chose an existential goal or merely sought something unnamed whereas the forward momentum of a long hike would allow space for one’s enlightenment to manifest itself.
I did not want to be doing this baby el camino just to get a long walk in, I needed to add an extra, confusing layer of purpose. It was time for my confession to Tee. We (I) needed an agreed upon spiritual destination somewhere along the route of our intended path and an optional personal aspiration. I would wait to mention the T-shirt logo I was in the process of designing. Oh, and I had already decided to change the name of our expedition to something less masculine, but with similar meaning.
A satisfying female, urban equivalent for El Camino might be La Avenida. Then there was the de aspect, as in of something or someone. The famous route is translated as The Way of Saint James, aka St. James the Great, patron saint of Spain whose grave at Santiago de Compostela is the intended target of trekkers who travel one of the many paths leading there. People travel to Asheville for the beer or the mountain scenery, not so much to honor and receive blessings from the local sainthood. Finding an equivalent, a holy or revered personage, seemed a bit daunting. As I started my research for a suitable regional patron saint, Tee and I started our training.
I downloaded the trail map Tee had found and began to assess the roads and trails we would need to conquer. Tee’s desire was to walk the route in smaller sections, then note the many aspects which would affect our success–hills and bathrooms being our biggest concern. Our first segment started at the confluence of Hominy Creek and the French Broad River, which is tucked away down a narrow winding street under some bridges and decidedly off the beaten path. Or at least our beaten paths. Our destination was the dog park (and my car) more than two miles away. We had Tee’s dog Cricket with us. His enthusiasm never waned the entire trip. We met lots of other dogs and their people, making this jaunt more like a social hour than a workout.
That first training walk was entirely along the river, a flat trail used by many local people on a warm and sunny day. We passed through Carrier Park and Riverside Park, both of which provided public comfort stations. This was duly noted in our assessment. We arrived at the dog park quicker than I would have thought. Time and space flew by when there was much conversation to be had, and the fine weather contributed to the ease with which we moved along the trail. This walk, meant to condition our physical bodies, also served as a fact-finding mission. Our downloaded map showed a trail extending past the dog park all the way to the next bridge, but that trail was under construction and not available. We would need to detour at a previous bridge in order to cross the river and continue the route. Sadly, that change in the plan would also eliminate one of the available public restrooms. The journey of 11 miles requires as many pee stops as possible to avoid prolonged, uncomfortable inner sloshings and maintain spiritual focus and morale.
The next segment we agreed to hike was close enough to my house that we started from there, intending to turn around and hike back once we reached our goal. This route was mostly residential, with plenty of residents available for chatting opportunities and even a house showing by a realtor, which we crashed to see if it was a good match for our friend Gina, who is in the process of moving back to Asheville. We meandered downhill for many blocks, making our way to the entrance of the Hominy Creek Greenway, which beckoned seductively with its water and trees and flatness. This was our intended destination and turn around point. Thoughts of the return uphill climb ran off at the sight of that park-like setting, so we pushed on and walked its mile-long length and enjoyed the beauty of the place. We were rewarded with a porta-potty at trail’s end. We took a short rest there, where my mind was free once again to remember and dread the return trip up a very long hill towards home.
Perusing the route map, I noticed we would be facing two long, uphill climbs when we followed the designated path in its entirety. Neither of those hills was the one we were facing on our return trip to my house during this second training session—we only had to walk down it on the full route. I gathered up some gumption and slayed that lengthy, dragon of an incline. We put in about 4 ½ miles by the time we sat down for tea and bagels on my back porch, ready to plan the next section to conquer.
Later that day I installed Google Earth on my computer in order to track our mileage during these conditioning sessions so that I can plot our progress on the spreadsheet I created for this purpose (because a journey, whether of 1,000 miles or 11 miles, deserves well-organized analytical data). Now I’m back to considering what holy site or person we might choose to lend this day-long excursion some pilgrimage panache. I’m doing my best to keep this activity simple, but Tee should know by now that, once committed to the cause, I jump into it as one tightly-wound, wacky package of dedication. One step taken, a whole lot more to go.
Taking the high road,