Top Ten Lessons Learned on the Camino Trail: Personal Reflections

  1. I can go for days without any computer, tablet or phone connectivity. I can and I did. The world did not end. Who knew?
  1. I cannot plan everything. Even I (who previously thought that spontaneity was for slackers) have begun to realize that improvisation is often the most challenging and rewarding commitment of all.
  1. Music is a powerful tool. Numerous studies have repeatedly found music to boost mood, memory, learning, immune systems and performance (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3). After successfully using music to get me up the most difficult climbs, I am now a devout believer!
  1. I am an extroverted introvert. I love building connections with others (the Camino provides an ideal environment for this). I also need my alone time (once again, the Camino provides).
  1. The journey (heavily) outweighs the destination. Our deepest and fondest memories are not of where we ended up each day, but how we got there, who we met, and what transpired along the way.
  1. I need fewer material goods than I had realized. Excess stuff merely serves to weigh down the body, the spirit and the mind.
  1. I can achieve more than I ever believed I could. I simply need to start by putting one foot in front of the other (and one word down on my page)!
  1. On the Camino, kindness was the rule, never the exception. If kindness can be the norm on the Camino, can we also not make it the rule in our daily lives?
  1. There is incredible serenity in living life more slowly. (Just ask Eugene!)
  1. For some inexplicable reason, I have been blessed to meet and marry the most incredible person that I have ever known. This is a lesson that I already knew well, and it was continually reinforced on our travels. When the road became tough, Richard earnestly offered to carry my backpack with his. Although I never took him up on this, the offer alone made my pack feel much lighter. When my toes became battered and bruised, from too much rapid downhill, Richard lent me his hiking sandals and carried my boots. More importantly, without the distractions of home (and technology), we discussed our future, reminisced about the past, admired each other strengths and laughed…a lot!

For these reasons and more, we will be back.  In just over a year, Richard will turn seventy. It is our current plan, God willing, to return to where we left off in Najera and complete the remaining 600 kilometers from there.

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To be continued in September 2017! (In the meantime, I will go back to my regular weekly posts…now, what will I do with all of that free time?)

Days 9 & 10 – Bilbao: A Change of Pace

Our one-and-a-half days in Bilbao were exactly what we needed before the long flight home. Although my mind would not shut down (even when it was supposed to be in sleep mode) my legs instantly became heavy. I was extremely glad to have that first half day to humour the parts of my body that wished to do nothing but loaf.

That gave us one full day to explore the sights, sounds, and tastes of Bilbao. Sadly, it was a holiday Monday so many places, including the famed Guggenheim Museum, were closed (sacrilege, I know—but we still enjoyed viewing the museum grounds which in themselves were incredible). We meandered the many narrow streets, wandering through little parks and plazas, marveling at both the quaint shops and the striking churches as we went.

Grand old buildings stood beside sleek modern ones striking a vivid contrast between old and new. That scenery was in complete harmony with the local people who dotted the streets and parks, especially in the evenings. Young and old–traditional and trendy– met and mingled, chatted, ate pinchos and took their time. No one seemed to be in a hurry. Their restful, relaxed attitude was contagious, and just what the doctor ordered.

Serendipitously, we came across an amazing little restaurant, with absolutely the best pizza that either of us had ever tasted. “Yeah, right,” I can hear you thinking. But it was true. The absolute best – so much so that one bite alone was worth the entire trip to Bilbao (well…almost)! See photo below.

It was a lovely day and a half, and we were glad that we had had the extra time visit that amazing city. But…we already missed the trail!

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La Tagliatella. Calle Licenciado Poza, 55, 48013 Bilbao
+34 944 27 81 81      http://www.latagliatella.es/restaurantes/latagliatella-bilbao-licenciadopoza

 

Day 8 — Los Arcos to Najera (29.6K): A Change of Plans

Although we repeatedly told ourselves that we had no set goal as to where we would end up on the trail – that may have been true for the day-to-day – but we did secretly have an ultimate goal to arrive in Najera for our finish. Now with only 30 K to go, and relatively flat paths ahead of us, we were confident that we would achieve our target.

To add to our self-assurance, we had a fantastic start to the day. At a small breakfast café, with absolutely amazing pastry, we caught up with Mimi and Sarah (frequent roommates) as well as Steve and Kim (who we had met during our first night in Saint-Jean and were hoping to run into again). It was like ‘old home week’ and the conditions were set for a perfect day!

For no reason in particular, it turned out that the day was, in fact, not perfect. Nothing horrible – but nothing great. And Richard, who seldom complains, complained a great deal. The paths, while flat, were very rocky, and not a good match for Richard’s Canadian West Coast (sandy trail) hiking boots. On top of that, our route was mostly alongside a highway – definitely not Richard’s thing. Finally, as fate would have it, Richard’s Camino Trail Guidebook (which he both relied upon and adored) fell out of his backpack and could not be found. We also went for quite a long stretch without lunch. After the Eugene Levy fiasco we had not purchased a sandwich to go – so now we were left with our emergency Tic Tacs (aka breath mints)!

The day did improve. The Angels, as well as Mimi and Sarah, were at our Auberge that evening – and we ran into Steve and Kim again at dinner. The Camino unites its walkers in powerful ways, and that bond is incredible. Still, Richard’s sore feet, and my blisters, lingered.

You know that look when lovers glance at each other and history changes? We were always going to walk this trail for nine days. It had been solidly planned. Then, that evening in our auberge, as we prepared our things for the day ahead, I jokingly said to Richard: “Instead of walking to Santo Domingo tomorrow, we could take the bus to Bilbao one day early.” Then, without any other words spoken between us, that facetious statement became the plan. In the morning, we went through our usual trail-preparation routine, but instead of following the Camino shells to Santo Domingo, we had a leisurely breakfast…and then waited for the bus to Bilbao.

Perhaps it was because we already had our bus route to Bilboa sketched out in our heads, or because of the long list of things that we  wanted to see there. Perhaps it was our jointly sore feet, or simply the fact that we both knew the  end was near. Whatever the reason, I folded up my hiking poles and we boarded the bus. There was no turning back.

Auberge el Pegrino, Najera, c/San Fernando, 90, 26300, Najera, LaRioja, +34 941 896 027, 10 euros

Feature Photo: Richard and me with the Angels — Grace, Karen and Yvonne (Left to Right)

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Sarah and Mimi

 

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Steve and Kim

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Birte (we last saw here the day before in Navarrete, but wished to include her here)

Day 7 – Los Arcos to Logrono (28.2 K): Eugene Levy, the Sandwich Maker

It is said that the ‘Camino provides’, and that it gives each individual the lesson(s) that h/she needs. Although I have begun to chill a bit (well…at least for me), patience is still a virtue to which I can only aspire. Seven kilometers outside of Los Arcos, we reached a small town, Sansol (population: 108). We decided to do a quick stop for a coffee and washroom break. As we reviewed our map, Richard advised that it may be a few hours before we would reach the next town, Viana, where we could have lunch. “Probably prudent to get a sandwich to go,” I suggested aloud. As I can be a bit cranky when hungry, Richard quickly agreed. Back to the counter I went with my order.

Now, imagine if you will, Eugene Levy, in all comedic pantomime splendor attempting to make a sandwich as SLOWLY as humanly possible. This will give you the best possible picture of what ensued. First, he saunters over to the tomatoes, carefully examining each one. Then saunters back to the baguettes — examines the bread, reexamines the tomato, firmly shake his head, and saunters back over to the tomatoes, now choosing a slightly smaller one. He raises his renowned eyebrows and characteristically wrings his hands as if to say “I can’t work under this pressure”. I seriously expected Catherine O’Hara to waltz in anytime! Then he goes back to the bread, slicing slowly. Then washes his knife (for the love of all things holy…it was only bread!) and then even more slowly slices the cheese (insert more aggravating knife washing here) and then the tomato. I wanted to scream! I wanted to jump behind the counter and finish making the sandwich myself. Sensing my impatience only seemed to slow Eugene down further. I gritted my teeth and waited.

When the pantomime show was finally over. I paid for my sandwich, grabbed my hiking poles, nodded to Richard and literally flew down the eleven-kilometer trail, fueled by pent up frustration. Although I did that trail in record time (for me), I also acquired four new blisters. “Slow down, Donna,” I could hear the Camino whisper.

When we finally reached Viana (in plenty of time for lunch), there was a huge Bull Run Festival in progress. We bumped into our Camino Angels there, and because they were ready to leave, they gave us their show-side seats where we had a great view of the festivities!

BTW – The Eugene Levy sandwich was incredibly delicious (fresh baguette, generous layers of thinly sliced cheese, a perfectly chosen tomato, salt, pepper and superior quality olive oil).

Albergue Logrono, Capitan Gallarza, 10 (La Rioja), Tel:941254226, info@alberguelogrono.es,  www.alberguelogrono.es. We splurged for a private room, 30 euros.

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It was always exhilarating to see a new town on the horizon…even though I knew that it meant a steep climb was soon coming!

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Bull Run Festivities in Viana

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Private room splurge!

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Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, Canadian comedic actors. Photo credit: www.latimes.com.

 

Day 6 – Lorca to Los Arcos (29.5 K): A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Wine, and Thou

(with apologies to Persian philosopher/poet, Omar Khayyam)

The Camino Frances is rich with intriguing surprises and delights. Today’s route was an exceptional example. Just outside of Estella, we reached the renowned Camino Wine Fountain, Fuente del Vino. It was built in 1991 and belongs to the Bodegas Irache winery. The adjoining monastery is said to have been the first pilgrim hostel on the Camino, and thus the fountain is meant to pay homage to the generosity shown to early travellers. The fountain is open daily between 8 a.m and 8 p.m. and is limited to a total of 100 liters of free wine each day (source).

A nearby sign reads:

“Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.”

Although we were not travelling all of the way to Santiago, we were not ones to turn down strength and vitality (or free wine)! We filled up part of Richard’s small water bottle. The wine was surprisingly delicious….so much so that I accidentally left my hiking poles behind. Not a worry, the five-minute run back to get them (as Richard laughed underneath a shady tree…wine in hand) was totally worth it!

Because we were walking long days, without the vitality of youth, we (okay, maybe just me), did not always take full advantage of exploring many of the places of interest that each stop on the Camino offered. The Church of Santa Maria Los Arcos was the exception and is well worth a lingered visit, and a mention here. It was built and renovated between the 12th and 18th centuries and includes Romanesque, Protogothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture (source). However, even with little knowledge of these time periods or influences, the church’s intricate and breathtaking beauty serves to capture and humble even the most unsuspecting visitor who peers through its doors.

Church of Santa Maria Los Arcos, Plaza de Santa Maria,                        Tel: 948441004 – 649909514

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I should  approach Marc Lefebvre, the Mayor of Parksville, about having a similar fountain placed in our town. It would be great for tourism!

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Casa de la Abuela
Plaza de la Fruta 8
31210, Los Arcos, Navarra
Tel: +34 948 64 02 50
contacts@casadelaabuela.com
www.casaadeleabuela.com
Breakfast:3.50 euros includes coffee/tea, juice, toast, cereal, hard-boiled egg and homemade cake!                                                             Photo Credit:  http://www.alberguescaminosantiago.com

 

 

 

Day 5 – Zariquiegui to Lorca (27.1 K): Building Community

I must confess, my pen and paper notes started to become a bit sloppy at this time. Our days (although each unique) began to blur together.  I do remember starting this day by climbing  200 meters over two kilometers and then descending 300 meters over the next four-and-a-half. Although there was a cool photo op at the top of our ascent, as well as a food van to help console my self-pity, my whole body screamed, “when will there be an end to this merciless  up and down?”

What I also remember, even more clearly, and much more fondly, is that when we finally crawled into our auberge late that afternoon, our Camino Angels were there. As the Angels had left Zariquiegui about the same time as us, I asked when they got in. “A wee bit ago,” Karen replied softly, compassionately downplaying their much earlier arrival.  I blinked and looked again. Yup, the Angels looked fresh, well-rested and ready to conquer the world. This was a stark contrast to our haggard exhaustion. But once again, it was incredible what a hot shower and a warm Spanish meal could mend.
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“As there is a terrific kitchen here, we’ll fix you breakfast in the morning,” Grace offered. “Eggs and toast okay?”

It was more than okay. It was like a mini-miracle!

Noel (who we had met previously), as well as Mark and Angela, also shared that Auberge and breakfast with us. The laughter, chatter, and stories continued long after the toast, eggs and coffee had run dry.

Although she was staying at an auberge across the road, I also need to mention Birte here. I have been remiss not to mention her previously. We met her in our auberge that first night in Saint-Jean. We were walking similar lengths of the trail each day, so we sometimes walked together. Birte had just finished high school. Her mother had always wanted to walk the Camino, but now, for a variety of reasons, was not able to fulfill that dream. Birte was making this pilgrimage for her mother, and for herself. She was bright, fit and determined. We admired her grit and her resolve.

This is one of the incredible offerings of the Camino – the strong community that you build with others who a mere few days prior, were total strangers.

La Bodega del Camino (we highly recommend it)
C/Placeta, 8
+34 948 541 327
info@labodegadelcamino.com
http://www.labodegadelcamino.com
8 euros per bed, 20 euros for private room (with shared bathroom)

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Our reward for another tough climb: a very cool photo op!

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La Bodega del Camino

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La Bodega del Camino (attached) Bar and Restaurant

Day 4 – Larrasoana to Zariquiegui (25.7 K): We Should have Listened to the Bartender!

Because we had pushed on past Roncesvalles, we were not on the typical path of ‘stages’ for the Camino Frances. That meant we stayed in smaller towns most nights–which worked perfectly for us. The downside was that during the hottest part of the day we were walking sections of the trail that were much better suited to cooler mornings. The road from Pamplona to Zariquiegui was no exception. It was seven kilometers of LONG road with little or no shade. When we stopped in Cizur Menor to fill up our water bottles (the last spot to get food/drink/bed before Zariquigui), the bartender looked at us with disbelief. “You continuing the Camino now?” he asked. We nodded. “Bad idea. Too hot” he warned. “We’ll be all right,” I said, rechecking our water supply.  He then mumbled something under his breath. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t complimentary.  “He’s used to siestas,” I thought to myself.  And as his bar was one of the few places around that offered food and rooms, his words may have been somewhat self-serving. Still, his warning did serve to mess with my mind a bit. As we walked the remaining seven kilometers in the 36-degree Celsius heat, with almost no shade, and rationing our sips of water, I began to fear that the bartender might have been right. It was a hard climb halfway up the Alto de Perdon (that same section of trail would have been MUCH easier in the cool morning air).

But as we arrived at The Albergue San Andres, and were surrounded by other die-hard hikers (several whom we had met previously, including our ‘Camino Angels’) we knew that we had made the right choice. And as we quickly learned, there is nothing like a hot shower and a great meal shared with good company to nourish the soul and renew the spirit.

Albergue San Andres, C / Camino de Santiago, 4, Zariquiegui (Navarra) Tel: 948 35 38 76 info@algerguezariquiegui.com, www.alberguezariquiegui.com

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What was the weather like that afternoon? As Robin William said,
 “Hot! Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest thing (was) my shorts. I could cook things in it!” (source)

Day 3 – Espinal to Larrasoana (30 K): Somebody Lied!

Somebody lied. Or else I honestly was not paying enough attention. I had (repeatedly) heard that Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles was the most difficult part of the entire Camino Frances and after that, the path was much easier. Visions of flat, smooth trails danced through my mind. For me, that conception could not have been more untrue. The trail continued to have relentless ups and rocky downs. I breathed deep yoga breaths. I cranked up the music on my iPhone and let it blast:

“And no one else has ever shown me how to see the world the way I see it now. Oh, I, I never saw blue like that before.” (Shawn Colvin)

The music combined with the incredible scenery (and the deep yoga breaths) created a full mind-body symphony that definitely helped to get me through more uphill, especially the vicious little climbs that tend to appear right before the town that you are desperately trying to reach. Why are so many Spanish towns built atop massive hills?? I know the answer. But still!!

That night we stayed at the Municipal Auberge in Larrasoana. 38 beds in one room, and rather tight quarters. This would have been fine if all of our roommates were hiking the Camino, and thus on the same early-to-bed, early-to-rise, schedule. Unfortunately not. Two guitar-carrying dudes stumbled in at 1:30 a.m. and very loudly tried to fit the exceedingly tight, disposable sheets onto the slippery, blue plastic mattresses. At six a.m., when all others were up and preparing for the day, the guitar dudes were quite grumpy about the light being switched on. “Shut your eyes, and then it will be dark” cooed Grace, a charming young Irish school teacher. We later spent three more nights sharing a room with Grace and her friends, Yvonne and Karen. For us, they became our Camino Angels. More on that later!

Albergue de Peregrinos Municipal de Larrasoana
Calle San Nicolas, Esterbar, Navarre
Tel.:+34 605505489
Tel.:+34 948304288
8 euros per bed

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Fun little surprises along the way, like this…

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and this, definitely helped get me through some of the more difficult legs of the journey!

Day 2 – Orrison to Espinal (24.3 K): Getting the Hang of It!

When we left Orrison early in the morning with a planned 18 kilometers ahead of us, I felt like a true pilgrim, a great explorer…I knew that I was about to take part in an incredible quest. Walking through orchards, past quaint country houses, looking up to the mountain meadows, knowing that I was in the Pyrenees, I was in absolute awe and wonder…that is for the first hour or so! And then we climbed and climbed and climbed. The incline was ruthless. My five-and-a-half kilogram pack seemed to expand in both size and weight. My legs were unamused. Millions upon millions of people have taken part in this walk since the Middle Ages. Many of those who walk this area of the trail complete twenty-six (or more) kilometers in one day. Was I crazy to think that I could do this? “Slow and steady wins the race,” Richard reminded. I wanted to slug him.

Then, as we reached the peak of our climb at 1450 meters, a small group of us spontaneously gathered and high-fived one another. It was invigorating! My exhaustion instantly turned into an incredible feeling of self-satisfaction. And then I looked down at the rocky decent through a dense forest. The Pilgrim’s Office had advised an alternate roadside route that was deemed to be “less treacherous.” I don’t know about you, but ‘treacherous’ is not a word that I want to hear when I am hiking (or ever, actually). I looked at Richard, took a deep breath, grabbed my hiking poles and down the rocky forest trail I went. It actually was amazing! After begrudging the steep steps uphill, my whole being shouted “I LOVE downhill” and down, down, down I swiftly went! I must insert that this section is definitely not everyone’s favorite part of the trail. In fact, Richard thought that this hour-plus portion was far worse than both yesterday’s and today’s uphill climbs combined. Afterwards, my battered toes (from constantly being pounded against the inside of my boots) were raw and tender (and two of them are still black because of it). But for my spirit, it was exhilarating, and a great confidence builder–so much so that we decided to push on for seven extra kilometers staying the night in Espinal, instead of the planned Roncesvalles.

Hostal Rural Haizea                                                                                                   Saroiberri, 2, 31694                                                                                                         Espinal-Auzperri                                                                                                              12 euros for a bed                                                                                                      Breakfast, lunch and dinner available                                                                     We highly recommend this accommodation

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Statue ‘Vierge d’Orisson’, said to be carried all the way from Lourdes, by shepherds.

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The sharp descent! Photo Credit: Wise Pilgrim Guides, App

 

Day 1 – Orisson, France (8 K): Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Being the research nerd that I am, I spent countless hours reading a multitude of details about the Camino Frances and watching YouTube videos of the trail. (I know, in a previous post I said I wouldn’t over-research, but you already knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself, didn’t you?) I had repeatedly read that the uphill hike from Saint-Jean to just before Roncesvalles was brutal…and that the sharp descent back down was even worse. As I read, I continually had to battle fear and self-doubt (and I definitely had to quit watching YouTube videos)!

Many hikers starting in Saint-Jean walk the 26-kilometers in one day to Roncesvalles. But there is an option for those wishing a shorter first-day hike, and that is to start with just eight-kilometers and spend the night in Orisson. The catch is that you usually need to book, and pay, In advance. After much toing and froing (as well as advice from our friend, Louise) we pre-booked. Similar to the evening before, a booking included a full dinner, salad, dessert, wine, bed and breakfast, as well as a formal introduction to all other guests (35 euros per person). Unlike the night before, all guests were handed a SINGLE token for a five-minute (lukewarm) shower. Advice from Richard: if using a lush shampoo/soap bar, in a metal container, be sure to open the container FIRST before inserting your token (we could all hear him cursing as he struggled to open the tin as the shower meter clicked on)!

Would we stay in Orisson again? Although it offered good food, spectacular views, great company and a solid rest after a truly tough three-hour hike (the equivalent to climbing 126 flights of stairs) if doing this route a second time, we would just stop for lunch in Orisson and then push on to Roncesvalles. But we did meet some great people during our stay there. One woman, Lisa, was hiking alone with a 35-day supply of insulin in her large pack. Her determination, and positive attitude made me cringe about the whining I had been doing.

Family members from Los Angeles (parents, a middle-schooler and a high-schooler)  were walking just two days of the trail, in conjunction with a larger trip to Europe.  I had noticed them on the path from Saint-Jean as they each had relatively light packs, and one of them was carrying a pink cardboard pastry box! When we met them, they joked that their packs were mostly filled with snacks. As we departed for the steep climb and sharp descent into Orisson, I wondered how this family could make the tough journey ahead in just tennis shoes and no hiking poles (not to mention the cardboard pastry box)! The two girls (avid softball players) were well ahead of us most of time, passing out cookies to weary hikers and taking full advantage of photo ops (as shown above).

So, for us, Orisson was definitely meant to be. I look forward to remaining in touch with this very engaging family. After leaving the trail, they went on to Zaragoza, Cordoba, and Granada (where they spent the night in a cave). When I last heard from them, they had just finished hiking in Caminito del Rey. Yup, definitely very cool!

Refuge Orisson, Refuge.orisson@wanadoo.fr,                                               00 33 559491 303 or 00 33 681497 956

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As Orrison is an approximate three-hour hike from Saint-Jean, staying there does give you plenty of time to relax, have a refreshment (or two) and enjoy the spectacular views!

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And time to do your laundry,

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before enjoying the delicious group dinner,

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and finally getting your bed ready for the night (not to mention the luxurious five-minute shower)!

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A simple graph of the  climb–both behind us–and ahead of us. Please stay tuned as we continue our journey. (Photo Credit: Wise Pilgram Guides, App)