Wednesday, 31 August 2011

In praise of slow: day 12

This morning Pepe woke us up at 6.25 by blasting an epic orchestral spanish march into our room via a loudspeaker. I was so deep in sleep it took a while for me to realise that it wasn't the apocalypse it was just time to get up. A sign on our door said breakfast was served at 6.45 and Pepe was clearly uncomfortable that we were still pottering in our room at 6.50. He all but shoved us out the front door as soon as we finished breakfast; insisting we put our shoes on outside and passing out sticks to us as we hobbled on our way. As much as we all bonded over dinner last night nothing was disturbing his regimental timetable.

Time is different on the camino. A day is like a week or more in the 'real' world. Each day feels very long but fully lived. Each day I feel younger but as if I have been living for many more years.

A romance has blossomed between two people in our group. They met yesterday, had there first lovers tif today and I half expect them to be married tomorrow and with child the day after. I'm getting a little high on the loving feeling between them just by being in their presence.

Today we met with some familiar faces from other parts of the camino, people who we thought had gone on ahead or we'd left behind. It was like meeting your family again. We are in such a group consciousness here we hardly need to speak to each other anymore. We know exactly how the other is feeling. Its so beautiful to be able to share in this experience together. it's more real than everyday reality. It's impossible not to feel 100% alive. Maybe that is why people keep returning and do it again and again. To feel alive. Fully alive. Living in totality and squeezing every last drop out of every single moment. Each moment becoming timeless.

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Location:Epinosa del camino to Ages

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Good company; day 11

People do the camino for many reasons. Some to remember who they are, some to forget. Some do it to clear their mind, others to listen to God. Some use the time to think about how they want to change their life, make decisions, go in a new direction.

A lot of pilgrims say it is important to have very specific intentions, this keeps you resolute when the road gets tough. Others say to be intention-less; that the road will show you whatever it is you need to see and what lessons you need to learn. Either way, one thing is for sure, the people you meet on the camino and the time you spend with them is magical. Often when you walk with a fellow pilgrim you don't knowhow long you will be walking with them for or even if you will ever see them again. These encounters are simply a sharing of two cups over-flowing. No expectations. No favours in the favour bank. No tit for tat. No trying to achieve anything or get something out of it.

Today I walked in silence for 4 golden hours with Stefanie. We caught up with a crazy south Korean guy who is learning Spanish through song. So far he's learnt la cucaracha and sings it at the top of his voice wherever he goes. In the afternoon I lunched with Leona and Pedro in Belorado and we walked together to the one horse town of Epinosa del camino where Liz had booked us into and was awaiting us. We laughed and joked along the way.

We stayed in an albergue exclusively for pilgrims run by Pepe. Pepe and Pedro have done the camino many times before and had lots of stories to share with us. Pepe initially did the camino because he wanted to find love. After he finished the camino he found love but when he decided to give up his job as a carpenter and set up the Albergue on the road he lost her. He's been providing food and shelter to about 900 pilgrims a year for the last 5 years. This sweet, white-bearded, gentle man from cataluna had one piece of advice for us; don't do the camino quickly. It's not a race. Take your time and take everything into you feel along the way into your heart. It's not something we can follow entirely. We have work to return to; planes to catch. It's all relative though. Some people have set the goal of walking 40k on some days to make up the time. Others want to test themselves physically and do 30+k a day. To me that's madness and seems to lead to injury. Theres one story going round of a pilgrim who turned up late one night in Pamplona. He looked deranged when he arrived at the refugio. He couldn't speak or move And just kept blinking madly. Eventually they got it out of him that he had walked all the way from sant Jean; 67k in one go!

We reckon Pepe is a templar knight but is being humble about it. He has red templar crosses, antiques and memorabilia everywhere. Pepe has one other piece of advice to give me before we all go to bed; people think that when they get to Santiago de compostela it is the end of the camino; but it is just the beginning of another camino. As I walk this path which apparently runs over a major ley line and certainly that has been walked by thousands of pilgrims before me I recognise that what makes all caminos so joyful is the chance to share it with the people you meet along the way.

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Location:Grunon - Epinosa del camino

Monday, 29 August 2011

Candlelit prayers; day 10

Our journey took us to a parochial refugio in grunon that was part of the huge church. Run by volunteers and surviving solely on donations it is an exceptional place. The donations box is always left open. Pilgrims can put in or take out if they are in need. This is a place to stay, share in a homemade dinner and breakfast and feel part of a very special community.

40 of us shared a wonderful dinner together tonight after a short mass. At 10 pm we had the opportunity to take a secret passage to the top of the church and share in candlelit prayers led by the refugios' volunteers. It is beautiful and the people's generosity is humbling.

We are sleeping on mattresses in the attic of the church. A small window above my head opens out to the night sky filled with stars, the church steeple and a huge stork's nest at the top of the steeple. The gentle selfless people who run this refugio make this place feel like home. It's a very special place. After walking dusty roads in the sweltering heat it is a very welcome refuge.

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Location:Azafra - grunon

Sunday, 28 August 2011

An open heart; day 9

I'm beginning to really love the time leading up to sunrise. The yoga I do calls this time amrit vela; sweet nectar time. I've enjoyed dawns before but when you are walking through it and out in the countryside it is spectacular. Every Dawn is different. Every day the canvass being painted around us changes. Sometimes very dramatically. Watching the canvass is like watching your feelings on the road; they also change all the time. Yesterday I was really angry when I got to Logrono because I got lost and ended up circling the city a few times. I could feel the heat building up inside of my body until it reached my head. How could I miss the sign? Why isn't it better signposted. Why do i find mysel walking more than i have to? Ten minutes later I was sitting in a bar drinking freshly squeezed orange juice looking out at the sign for the camino without a care in the world. An hour later I was disappointed I had so far still to go. An hour after that I was euphoric I had arrived. Life is a constant state of flux.

The kindness of the people you meet on the road is melting my heart. Yesterday I got talking to a local who did the camino four years ago. He had to stop before he reached Santiago because of tendinitis. He gave me loads of advice about what to do to treat my feet and where to stay. As I was leaving he asked me if I needed anything if so he would drive to where I was staying and drop it off. Countless people wish you well along the way, "buen camino", offer you directions when you're looking lost and share their own camino stories. Today a german guy I was walking with called Dete, taught me how to hold my walking sticks in such a way that my upper body took pressure and weight from my legs and feet. Leona was given a lift by a Spanish couple who saw her struggling to find a taxi (she's finally giving her feet a rest). People are amazing. They naturally want to share; advice, stories, experiences, their breakfast. I think this is what is meant by communion. It didn't seem this way for me sometimes in London. But maybe this journey is teaching me to meet people with an open, trusting heart. In doing so an open trusting heart tends to reflect back at you. The previous night I had been suspicious of Dete because he was cheeky... Even our opinions of another can change in the blink of an eye if you're not holding on to your preconceptions.

In the evening, over dinner, the topic of conversation with fellow pilgrims got serious, deep, a little heavy. Are we responsible for other people's happiness? Do we have to harden our hearts to live in this 'dog eat dog' world? A big debate raged and I sat on the periphery. A few years ago I would have been in the thick of it expressing my opinions with force. I'm not so into trying to change people's minds these days. I'm not so sure you can. I believe I can change my own though. I believe I'm responsible for my own happiness. I'm learning how others' happiness is not my responsibility. I'm learning to walk and live that on the camino. I'm learning to grow up finally.

I've covered 199.6km. Taking into account getting lost I think I'm safely over the 200km mark actually. 1/4 of the way through. Just a beginner at all this really. A beginner trying to keep an open heart.

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Location:Navarrete to Azofra

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Wild woman: day 8

I am travelling with two wild, free, independent, fearless, women. They fill their lives to the brim. It's an honour to know them and walk with them.

None of us know what the camino holds for us. Best laid plans can go awry but equally we find ourselves exceeding our own expectations, going beyond, rising to challenges we thought were insurmountable.

It is impossible to do something like this and not learn something about yourself, others, the world. We are learning something every day. Experience is the great teacher; the only teacher.

As in life each and every one of us has our own personal camino through which we learn our own personal lessons. Today I learnt to listen to myself more. To trust myself more. To judge others and myself less. And sitting in a bar in Logrono and later settling down to sleep in a decadent hotel bed in lazarete (after the previous night's prison-like refugio) I remembered how beautiful music is. I love the hypnotic walking mantra 'crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch' the sand and stones beneath my feet but after 6 or so hours of that music is e even more sweet: even if it's keeping you awake at night.

Tomorrow sees the return of the ruck sack after 3 days walking without it. This snail is ready to put its shell back on. And this wild woman is ready for another day of 'walking things out'.

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Location:Viana - Navarete

Friday, 26 August 2011

Live your dream; day 7

Last night we stayed in an albergue with the sweetest vibe. All over the walls pilgrims had written motos and painted camino scenes. It was so chilled. We slept in the attic with it's rustic ceiling under the thick wooden beams. There were only five of us up there and after Liz woke the snorer up by lightly kicking his foot he made a concerted effort to keep schtum. The silence, the mattress and the chance to spend an hour treating my feet made all the difference. So... my feet. Well they aren't good but they aren't bad in the scheme of things. I have two blisters on each heel and two on the side of the ball, the size of chocolate minstrels but not as appetising. The are bulbous and were packed with fluid. I was hesitant to pop them as they were covered in compeed (a pilgrim essential). It's like another layer of plastic skin, preventative in theory. Once you have it on, you leave it on, and it doesn't come off. If you blister underneath it I think you have two options... Rip the compeed off, along with the offending blister (not for me), or push needle through compeed and skin, make a little hole and drain. I did the later and prayed. By morning my four main blisters had gone down dramatically and the rest of my feet were swollen. But I had the best walk of my camino so far. Yes, I now have a blister on a blister but my feet overall are feeling the best yet and I no longer feel like someone has taken a hammer to every bone in them. Yes. I am now obsessed with feet and chemists in a way that only a fellow pilgrim can understand. We talk about our feet the way football fanatics talk about the last game.

The foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles; all of which were screaming in agony over the last six days. 1/4 of all the bones in the human body are in your feet. These poor sods didnt ask to carry me the last 180km in just 7 days but they have. As i now know more than ever when these bones are out of alignment, so is the rest of the body. You try to compensate and you put your knee or your hip out.

One last thing about feet and them I promise to go easy on the foot situation: Leona was advised by her sporty brothers that one way to treat blisters was to cut the skin off and then superglue it back on again. This is what footballers do apparently!!!

OK, now I've got all of that out of my system.

Today's walk was amazing! Now that most of the pain has gone I could really enjoy the walk today. The storm clouds were brewing and we were rained on in the morning which gave Liz, Leona and I the opportunity to have a long chat in a quiet bar. We have laughed so much since we started this camino. I don't actually know how Leona has been able to with her feet but it is a testament to her spirit. It seems to be the best way to deal with suffering.

The rain changed the colours of the scenery dramatically. Dark purple skies, emerald green trees contrasting against yellow fields and towns of eulithic limestone. It was beautiful. The rain was purifying and changed everyone's energy. I drank in the colours, the smells, the feel of the rain on my skin. All was more intense today.

This camino is so real. It makes you realise that god is in the stones, in the sky, in the fields and in turn all of that is a part of you and me. It is so simple, down to earth so mundane so unpretentious.

Today Leona met a mother and her 14 year old son on the last day of their camino. She told me he looked like a man today. She asked him what he had learned on the camino and he replied; how to talk to people. Magical.

I write this as I sit on the floor of our auberge with Spanish and Germans milling around us about to sleep in tri-tiered bunk beds. Outside the stunning viana with it's open, vibrant, laid-back atmosphere, magnificent buildings and numerous portals. As I read on the Walls of the last albergue:
No suenes tu vida, vive tu sueno.

This road is making me so real

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Location:Los Arcos - Viana

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Love and fear: day 6

Jacotrans are gods. They transported our ruck sacks from la estella to Los arcos for 7 euros. Having no rucksacks was like being given little wings on our heels; not big enough to fly but just enough to fight gravity. It really helped to take the weight and attention away from the heat and onto the stunning surroundings. Yellow fields, dark green trees, orange and ocre sunflowers; it's all very van gogh looking around here. Truly beautiful countryside dotted with giant haystacks, olive groves, vineyards, raspberry bushes, aromatic fennel, pyramid hills and huge golden churches. Liz who we've been walking with for the last few days has given Leona and I a scallop shell necklace which was so touching and motivating to continue. It is so wonderful to listen to Liz's stories about her time on a vippasana retreat, her work and her travels.
In the parching Heat of the mid day sun I came across Za. She poured cooling water over my head. She is an amazing American lady who in her sixty's has decided to travel around the world with her husband; initially by boat and now in a van. She is planning to walk the camino and then maybe continue on to turkey. We talked about the road, religion, spirituality, life, death and dying. She reminded me that all the negative things that people do are always rooted in fear, and all the positive things that people do, are Always rooted in love. It's a good question to ask yourself before you do anything. Am I doing this out of fear or out of love? My feelings About giving up on the road are Always rooted in fear. My feelings of continuing are always rooted in love. I felt so honoured to have some time with wise Za.

This road has got me into feeling and out of thinking. Into my body and out of my head. I feel so close and loved and loving towards my husband, parents, friends. I feel so blessed to be meeting with the people along the road, they are like family.

I'm glad the fear didn't hold me back and I followed my irrational, illogical, all wise, all intuitive heart and started this camino. What a privilege it is to walk with these people, to be able to connect with nature, to be stripped down to the essentials, to feel the pull of the road and all those who have walked before you, drawing you forward when you want to give up. Love is stronger than fear.

Location:La estella to Los arcos

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

When 2.3 km really means +5 km day 5

Today was meant to be the shortest walk so far but for many it was the hardest physically. This was not helped by the misleading sign at the end of the hike which said 2.3 km to go when really it was 5 km. Leona, Liz and I have decided to give ourselves a treat tomorrow and send our bags on. We've also stocked up at the pharmacy (you've got to wonder when a town the size of la estella has 12 chemists... How much business the pilgrims are bringing in) so we are hoping for a better day tomorrow. Frankly today was purgatory until I got to the refugio and slept for an hour. Sleep is so healing.... Zzzz zzzz

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Location:Puente de la reina - la estella

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

It's starting to get surreal: day 4

I thought we were leaving the madness behind when we left Pamplona- a city where they race bulls through the narrow cobbled streets for fun- but we are all starting to get a bit delirious with the heat, the task ahead, the pain. Today a girl who is having problems with her feet decided to strap sanitary towels to the soles of her new sandals because they were no less lacerating than the boots that she left behind in Pamplona. An Italian guy who began the pilgrimage earmarked as the group eye candy has, after injuring his knee on day one, destroyed his feet on day two and giving himself grade 1 sunburn (becausa heya I ama italiano I no needa di suncream!) is now walking round with a massive eye patch after scratching his eye with something during the night. It should be noted he also plans to do the whole pilgrimage in 20 days (it's a push at 32) to get back for a wedding... At this rate he'll be lucky if he's alive! Leona's feet are freaking me out now. She has no skin left on the ball of her left foot. I watch her thread an iodine soaked needle and and string through them and I feel light headed. My feet are starting to blister too but only slightly due to new shoes but my toes are singing with relief that they are no longer being sardined into the boots. If I had blisters like hers I'd be in a&e.
Tonight we met Michael, who did the whole camino last year and is doing it again this year with his father, George, of 70 odd. They are walking to raise money for prostrate cancer, which George survived. Michael lost 6 toenails last time he did it and he is happy if he only loses 4 this time. His argument is there is no celebration without sacrifice. I can't argue with him. On some level I feel 100 times more alive after a day of torturous walking.

Leona reckons we all have to have some kind of cross to bare. Pilgrim veterans say the first two weeks are physical torture and the second are emotional. Death or cake? Mmm I think I'll have death please!

We all have to have something driving us to keep going. I'm just not sure we know exactly what that is sometimes.

Today I did 25km in six hours including inclines and declines. A few of the competitive types in the group got a little irked that slow coach Tania got to the next stage before them. Tortoise and hare baby!
Whatever the speed or the cross we are carrying, one thing I would say is I feel protected... Blessed?? Like the big man upstairs is looking after us all. In my time of need someone is always their on the today when I was thinking about eating the 'blueberries' that I found by the side of the sunflower fields. A Spanish couple arrived at the scene just in time to tell me they were potentially something a little more sinister. So the walking wounded brigade continue tomorrow, god willing to the next stage. I'm going to continue to chant and pray my way through the pain, heat and tiredness. It definitely worked for me this time.

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Location:Pamplona to puerta de la reina

Monday, 22 August 2011

Somos locos perdidos: day 3

Today was a day for getting lost. It happened an hour in at about 7 am. I was walking with Kati, a german girl and we missed a sign. It was a blessing in disguise because it meant we joined up with a bigger group and I got to meet Marianne and Jim a couple from the Rockies who were great company. It did mean we walked an extra half an hour and that means a lot in a 7hour walk. I noticed little of the camino today. I was busy talking, listening or focusing on getting to Pamplona so that I could dump my oppressive boots and buy trainers that would let my toes live. I've started to notice that most of the walkers are women. The men tend to be on bike or horse. The horse riders look like cowboys and sound like they smoke 80 marlboro reds a day. I've had two big realisations since I've been on the camino. 1) you are always alone and you are never alone. It is both simultaneously. I felt that right through to my bones. 2) whenever I do anything at someone else's pace; it doesn't work for me. I have to go at my pace; on the road and in life. Similarly listening to others advice when it conflicts with what I feel is fatal; the boots are a painful reminder of that.

Nearing Pamplona I got chatting to an Octogenarian local who decided to walk the last 30 minutes with me. He cried as we said good bye and asked me to pray for him. He's done the road many times himself and seemed to relish the excuse ti walk a part of it again. Unfortunately, when he ushered me across the Magdalena bridge he sent me in the wrong direction to the albergue Jesus y Maria and I wasted another 30 minutes finding it in the soaring heat of the city. When Leona came to find me I saw her blisters had grown to the size of a small country. They are actually shocking. When other pilgrims see them you see the colour drain from there faces. The refugio is great. It's amazing how grateful you become for the little things in life on this journey: somewhere to rest your head, the shade of a tree, a cool breeze, food, sleep and shelter. We bought Asics a size bigger than normal to accommodate our swollen feet and headed to a pinchos bar (Michelin starred and heaving with a ceiling of pata negra no less). This walk is making us both emotional. We ate, drank, cried and laughed in turns, hobbled back to the refugio and called it a day. The sound of people russling in there ruck sacks, whispering and climbing up ladders to the top bunk are becoming familiar now and strangely comforting and more and more things are becoming superfluous. Tomorrow we'll see how the feet are and decide from there.

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Location:Zubiri to Pamplona

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Along came the blisters

It was a hard day today but I managed to keep to a good pace only a couple of hours behind Leona. In the morning the group i was in was jumped on by a group of young revellers who were still out partying as we set off. They were in good spirits and got us off to a good start. I spent the rest of the morning walking with a lovely couple john and teresa from Austria who retired last year and decided to take the opportunity to do the camino as soon as possible. I really admired that. John, was complaining about a stone in his shoe so when we stopped by a river he took his shoe off and produced a stone a size of a hazelnut. I was horrified and for ages he kept up the ruse until eventually he fessed up to the joke and produced the real offender: not much bigger than a grain of sand. By the end of today there was some serious blister action going on. Worst of all from Leona. The whole of the ball of both feet turned into giant blisters that popped on the way down. People are suffering but everyone is good humoured about there aches and pains and supportive of each other. A lovely south African woman, Liz produced some magic Chinese remedy to spray onto my bruised little toes in the hour of my need bless her. The day ended with another pilgrims dinner, this time including pimentones rellenas for me. This refugio is nowhere near as pristine as the last one and it's top bunk again tonight but I think I'll really sleep no matter how hard people snore.
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Location:Roncevalle to Zubiri

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Baptism of fire day 1

Nervously leaving sant jean pied du port in darkness we stopped off at the church to say a little prayer, through the spanish gate and on upwards. After a euphoric 3 hour trek uphill with me feeling giddy with bliss we decided to continue from orrison to - 25 km in total mainly uphill with a steep decline to end. I can only really describe it like a baptism of fire for me. It was tough and I was slow but the scenery was breath-taking. We ascended through mists of confusion, over lush green mountain tops. We were followed by butterflies of transformation, passed dewy spiders' webs and descended through silent endless forest. Sometimes I talked to the animals and insects along the way, sometimes they answered me back like the horse that stood in my way and suggested an easier incline. I could almost feel my heart melting as i breathed in the nature all around me. And of course there were some wonderful people along the way. The French guy who runs a little tuck shop at the French / Spanish border in the middle of the pyrennes. 50 cents for a boiled egg (I swear that was the best egg of my life!) He lives in his tuck shop van for three months a year racking up a daily tally of pilgrim nationalities on the side of it (100 today alone). When I was all but spent on yet another sharp incline I found a biscuit wrapped in a see through bag and taped to a pilgrim post with a post it note saying love from Leona! Turns out it was from a Dutch couple that were walking up ahead and had got talking to Leona and left the biscuit for me. A biscuit has never made me cry before but that one did. I eventually reached roncevalles a few hours behind Leona. we went to the mass for the pilgrims with a blessing said in at least 9 languages. Had a pilgrims dinner and then hit the sack in the beautiful new and totally spotless refugios. Yes the snoring pilgrim reputation is true. This is one stamp in my pilgrims passport that was very well earned. here's hoping my very sad toes miraculously recover over night.

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Friday, 19 August 2011

Here we are

Today we arrived at St Jean pied de port via bus from biarritz (flying over the beautiful coast line it was tempting to stay) to Bayonne and then SNCF from Bayonne to SJPP. Stunning scenery from train window: lush green hills, azure skies and foamy rushing rivers. We managed to get spectacularly lost (my fault) on arrival (yes, i know, already) trying to find the pilgrims passport office and on finding it a lengthy conversation in 3 languages ensued. We've already met a bundle of pilgrims, men on bikes, women on foot, mainly Irish. Staying in the most gorgeous hotel of destiny; Itzalpea. Gold walls, oak beds lots of beautiful little touches. It will be a bit more simple from here on in. Had a generous pilgrims supper with the lovely Pat, Myra and Mary: super Irish ladies. This town has exceeded my expectations in it's gorgeousness. Its nice to be far away from the london rush hour, the baggage checks at Stansted airport, the yellow plastic fuselage of Ryan air planes. My soul has been thirsty for this for a long time. Looking forward to starting the road tomorrow.
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Location:St Jean pied de port

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Taking it slow...

Yesterday I walked from home, SE19 to Charring Cross. I did the 7.5miles in 2.5hours. Walking through London is a completely different experience to traveling through it on a bus/tube/train/motorbike/taxi. You get more of a sense of how its made up of a patchwork of vibrant and culturally diverse towns and communities. The energy, sounds, pace and smells change as you move from one street to the next.

There's something about walking that helps me work things out, or should I say 'walk things out'. I was talking about this with the lovely Antoinette and Robert this week. They've recently set up yoga sweet yoga at Harmony Harbour (where I'm currently teaching kundalini yoga) and its one of those precious corners of London where you can find a copy of Positive News. This quarter's issue contains an article by Adam Weymouth, a young man who walked through 12 countries, from the village of Whiteparish, near Salisbury, to Istanbul. That's 5000km and it took him 8 months. It makes the Camino seem like a shlep to the corner store for a pint of milk.

Adam refers to an idea from Rebecca Solnit's book, Wanderlust. Our minds work at 3 miles per hour - the speed we walk at - so our increasing obsession with speed is fracturing our minds and our connection to each other and the land. That rings true to me. Since reading In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore about 4 years ago I've struggled to justify the relentless pace of city life in the 21st century. It will be interesting to see what slowing down on the road does to my perspective.

While I welcome the chance to slow down and take stock I'm also daunted by the enormity of the pending journey. If I start to feel anxious I think about Adam Weymouth's 5000km hike, or Satish Kumar's 8000 mile peace walk and it gives me a sense of perspective. Or I think of the (much faster paced) marathon monks of Japan who cover 80km a day for 100 days. They hardly sleep, eat or stop to catch their breath and they do it all in agonizingly uncomfortable footwear.  How lucky I am to be able to take it slow, get some perspective and get back in touch with the land and the trees in the company of a good friend while wearing boots that were made for walking.