Sobriety is the the greatest gift I ever gave myself. The following is a chapter from A Million Steps. Have a Merry Christmas!!
On the fourth day of my trek, I departed the facility by 6:30. The day before, I had purchased my second walking stick, a longer one that was more in tune with my size. As I stopped at the designated area for boots, poles, and walking sticks, I was able to give my old one to a new acquaintance. At the time, I had no inkling about my future attachment to the new walking tool.
My Black Diamond Storm headlamp soon shone on a stellar Monument al Peregrino. This particular statue stands where two popular Camino routes (Camino Francés and Camino Aragones) become one en route to Santiago. Just down the road, I crossed a bridge with six arches spanning the Arga River. This Roman masterpiece remains unchanged from its origin around the eleventh century.
As I crossed, I imagined the ranks of Romans and millions of pilgrims who crossed before me. I felt an attachment to my predecessors and became charged with the energy they left behind.
I was walking in the footsteps of two million people and leaving my own prints as a welcome mat to those who would follow me. Knowing that these people had been here allowed me to feel a connection to a community when none was present. Even though I walked by myself 80% of the time, I was never alone.
While walking along the dark road in a complete state of peace and happiness, it suddenly dawned on me that this entire experience would cease to exist upon my arrival in Santiago. This may sound obvious, but like a young man, one rarely concedes that there is an end to everything. In that instant, I looked at my future with a much different perspective. Instead of worrying about whether I was physically or mentally up to the challenge, instead of wondering if I would successfully complete the trip, I viewed the remainder of my time as roughly 25 more joyous days of meeting new people, lavishing in nature, enjoying the scenery, eating new foods, and learning many lessons from this powerful path.
I came upon long-haired Olivier from France. He sat on stone stairs above a small Roman bridge with water trickling over rocks below. Because I speak no French, he made the kind effort to speak English to me. I could see his mind spinning as he forced unfamiliar words out of his mouth with a beautiful accent.
“Kooooooort, mi freend. Please must you join me for some breakfast,” he said with a Cheshire cat grin under the hood of his brimmed hat. “I have juice and chorizo.”
“Olivier, it is always a pleasure to see you,” I replied. “Your table is ideal, and it would be a luxury to dine with you this morning.”
“You must eeeeeet and dreeeeeeenk until you are full. Walking without food will make you not have good Camino experience,” he urged.
I sat next to him. He handed me a hunk of dry bread, a knife, and a foot-long slab of chorizo sausage. Like most sandwiches in Spain, there was no tomato, no mayonnaise, no mustard, no sprouts, no lettuce, no cheese, no onions, no lettuce, or any other item available at a local Subway shop.
As we ate, he passed over a large plastic bottle of juice to share. I was pretty excited about taking a big gulp, but looking at the label, realized it was sangría. Even when I did drink alcohol, it was never out of a gigantic bottle at nine in the morning while eating dry bread filled with spicy sausage. This close call made me laugh. I explained why I must decline, then asked Olivier to pose with the jug for a photo.
Alcohol was a major force in my life until I was 37 years old. Although I had been sober for 12 years before starting my Camino pilgrimage, the long hours of solitude and walking in Spain gave me new insights into those years of my life.
My dad was a functional alcoholic to the nth degree. He was a partner in the largest law firm in Idaho and recognized as one of the sharpest in the entire Northwest. He paraded around the high-end social and political circles in town. I remember meeting many United States Senators and candidates at political fundraisers held in his living room.
It wasn’t until my high school years that the first cracks began to show in his veneer. These cracks ultimately became gaping crevices. His law firm fell into turmoil and he left with a handful of other men to start a new practice. I thought it was a courageous move on his part, but it turned out that he was forced to leave due to his dependence on Smirnoff. He never missed a beat and achieved great financial success with his new firm. On a personal level, he torched many bridges with some long-term business partners.
Like all good kids in my neighborhood, my friends and I collectively discovered Heineken, Maui Wowie, and Marlboro Reds during middle school. As a young overachiever, I excelled in all three categories. I played some sports but my passion was getting inebriated and trying to unsnap bras. A compass and topographical map would have helped with the latter crusade. When I was 13, I fudged my age to get a job washing dishes at a local Mexican restaurant named Poco-Poco. Within a year, I was a waiter and making some big bucks as a high school freshman.
I sustained employment in the restaurant industry throughout high school and college. I especially loved being a waiter. It gave me a chance to get paid for being part of other people’s celebrations. There is a lot of freedom associated with making $100 per night in tips and not being responsible for paying tuition, room, or board. As part of my parents’ divorce when I was in third grade, Dad was saddled with our college expenses.
In high school, I always had a job, always had good grades, and was always the first in line to refill my beer at parties. It seems that the alcohol and functional genes were transferred to me at birth. By my senior year, I was drinking on a regular basis and knocking down 20 Marlboros a day. After high school, I went to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.
Just like the previous 12 years of schooling, college was a breeze. With a decent amount of dedication, I flew through with a high GPA. My summer jobs included an internship with an Idaho senator in Washington D.C. and a stint as a ranch hand at my fraternity brother’s ranch in Maui, Hawaii. I graduated with a business degree in the standard four years. During college, my dad’s second wife initiated a divorce. A trend of relationship issues had developed, but it obviously had nothing to do with whiskey.
I remember picking my dad up at Sea-Tac airport the day before my college graduation. He was very anxious to get to the hotel and encouraged me to break multiple traffic laws to accommodate his goal. The brief drive ended at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Tacoma. We bypassed the check-in desk, left the bags in the car, and sprinted to the bar. He ordered two double shots of Wild Turkey. Before the toast, he gave me a nice card and stock certificate for 100 shares of Ohio Edison. He strongly suggested that I reinvest the dividends. With that, we clanked our overflowing shot glasses and imbibed. With a supersized smile, he informed me that I was officially “off the payroll.”
It was always fun to party with my dad. Throughout college and my early business career, he was the life of the party. Everyone liked his charisma. He felt like another good drinking buddy with the added benefit of a seemingly unlimited credit card. Throughout this entire period, Dad graduated from being a functional alcoholic to a very dysfunctional man. During his life, he tried and failed rehab at least five times. He married four times.
In late May of 2001, my brother called me with news that turned my world upside down. My father had been admitted to a local hospital. His liver was completely shot, and it was just a short period of time before the rest of his organs would cease to function. I remember one visit to the hospital in particular. My father looked very small in his bed. Seeing my hero slowly shrivel was tough, but the yellow tint of his skin made the entire experience a surreal one. He died a few days later on June 10, 2001.
At that moment, I decided that I would not depart the planet in a similar fashion and gave up all drinking and smoking. I developed a recovery ecosystem of healthy activities and exceptionally supportive friends. I was extremely fortunate and never lapsed or experienced any urge to continue with either habit.
It took about 12 months for the entrenched clouds to clear. I slept extra-long and hard for the first six months. Twelve hours of shut-eye became a common practice. Daily exercise also helped my recovery, I am certain. Even when I had been drinking and smoking way too much, I had spent an hour a day playing racquetball, taking aerobics classes, and doing lots of cardio exercise. I think my crafty mind decided to pursue fitness as another source of self-delusion. How could a successful young executive with a passion for fitness be an alcoholic? After quitting, I increased my daily exercise time to two hours per day and began bicycling.
Everyone has a different experience quitting, and I am truly thankful that mine did not come with a lingering desire to repeat any of my past behaviors. The thought that prevented any relapse was simple. What would be the positive benefit of having one drink or cigarette? It would not make me richer, smarter, better looking, or have any other tangible benefit. I assured myself that the immediate gratification would simply lead to a desire to have another and another followed by another. I closed the basement door and poured cement to prevent reentry.
When I stopped drinking, the reflections were quite astounding. I started thinking and feeling again. While stuck in the fog of alcohol, I had no ability to see that it completely permeated my life. I was like a person wrapped in a big wad of blankets who could not feel the chill of winter due to the insulation. Alcohol prevented feelings from penetrating my head, heart, and soul. Booze infiltrated 99% of social occasions and was usually a precursor to most activities. What else would one do at a tailgate party? Dinner without wine…are you kidding? Friday night…bring it on.
I think alcohol halted my emotional development in my early teenage years. At the end of the fog-clearing stage, I began to grow as a person. This personal journey—before, during, and after the Camino—is much more fulfilling than booze, and it has no end.
Since quitting alcohol in 2001, wine has touched my lips in miniscule quantities just three times. Each time was with Roberta when she was enjoying a very unique vintage. Fortunately, these wine tastings did not ignite a flame to exit sobriety.
I encountered wine often on the Camino. We walked alongside many vineyards. Spain is one of the world’s top producers of wine, which was served with every dinner. Although many of my companions enjoyed a glass or two each day, it was easy for me to drink water or fruit juice or coffee instead. However, on the day I breakfasted with Olivier, my sangría companion, wine was offered in a way I never expected.
I found myself at the Irache Wine Fountain on the Camino. Most villages have a public fountain where travelers can fill their water bottles. The Irache fountain is connected to a winery and offers both a tap for agua and one for vino. A sign on the wall, translated into English, states “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.”
I debated for a few minutes then decided to imbibe a few drops. I began the ritual by untying my scallop shell from the backpack and placing it under the tap. I made a healthy wish and pulled on the handle that allows for the free flow of wine.
To my complete astonishment, nothing rolled out of the silver faucet. No wine for me. Nada. The cosmos had sent a clear message! All alone and in front of the winery, I could not stop smiling and laughing.
Again, I was fortunate. Several of my traveling companions drank too much on some evenings and suffered hangovers the next day. Pilgrims walk with addictions of all kinds on the Camino. In The Way, the 2011 movie starring Martin Sheen, two of his pilgrim companions struggled unsuccessfully with smoking and over-eating.
Toward the end of day four, I ran into two beautiful women from Washington state. Joyce, with gray hair under her baseball cap, had a smile I can still see to this day. Two years before, at age 68, she decided to walk the Camino. One year before her departure to Spain, her 65-year-old friend, Ella decided to join her. Pretty adventurous on her part because she did not have a history of exercise and needed to shed some excess weight.
Joyce seemed to have a nice network of female friends, and she spoke about them as if they were family. She pointed out an odd ornament with many different colored ribbons on her pack, explaining that it was a traveling object shared with seven close friends. Whenever someone takes a grand adventure, the colorful item accompanies the lucky traveler. I tried to imagine the unbelievable things that this inanimate object had seen on these special trips.
Joyce and Ella planned to walk to Finisterre, a coastal community 87 kilometers past Santiago, for a special purpose. In her pack Joyce carried the cremains of a college friend, which they intended to pour into the Atlantic Ocean. Although this was also a scene in the movie, The Way, Joyce had made her plan well before the film released.
The village in Villamayor de Monjardín was tiny, with less than 150 residents. The small albergue offered just 24 beds to provide rest for me and my fellow walkers. Fortunately, I received one of the last three beds for the night. About 30 minutes later, Joyce and Ella arrived to fill the house. Our room had five beds and a private lanai with spectacular views of the town square, a twelfth-century church tower, and the surrounding agricultural lands. The other two roommates in our parish hostel were, of course, Joseph and Merry.
Unfortunately, while enjoying the view, I witnessed many pilgrims arriving at the front door with a look of relief for completing the day. Little did they know that the hostel had no additional beds. They were given an option to sleep outside or walk another eight kilometers to the next village. It was sad to see strangers turned away, but it was downright painful to see Olivier and Peter denied entrance. They both made lemonade from lemons and prepared to sleep under the stars. The people who ran the hostel did their best to provide the “under the stars” group with padding and blankets.
For a small fee, the albergue provided a group dinner and breakfast at three large tables in a quaint room with open windows. This was a new experience and only happened two more times down the road. Volunteers from Holland ran the facility and were one week into their two-week commitment. Thanks to their generous labors, we all enjoyed a nice meal of mixed greens, lentil soup, spaghetti with vegetables, and apple cobbler. I sat between Ella and Joyce.
At the end of the evening, I received another priceless gift from a new friend. Joyce told me to open my hand. She took an inch-long yellow arrow pin from her hat, and placed it in my palm.