About the Author
Brigadier General Thomas J. Edwards (54) recently retired from the Army after 30 years of service and moved to San Antonio, Texas in May of 2022. He is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Military Officers’ Association of America, and the 82d Airborne Division Association. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina, and master’s degrees from Oklahoma University, the Naval War College, and the Army War College. He hiked the Camino Frances with his son, Alexander J. Edwards (21), in 41 days, from July-August 2021.
Do you have more stress today, than a year ago? We find ourselves living in times of extraordinary change. And every year, society becomes increasingly connected and over-stimulated by quicker communications and emerging technologies. The world’s diplomatic, military, social, and economic environments are increasingly volatile and instable. A new war in Europe. Inflation. Natural disasters. Mass shootings. Virus mutations. It feels like a new catastrophe with each day.
The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a “Stress in America” poll in 2022, and unsurprisingly, stress and mental health statistics are worsening for most of us. According to the APA’s poll, 87% of Americans are feeling stressed because of rising inflation in the country, which is up from 59% in August 2021 and 58% in June 2021.
Is there any wonder we feel more stress now? We live in an era undergoing unprecedented amounts of change. Currently, the world economy doubles in size about every 19 years. But before the Industrial Revolution, it took hundreds of years for the world economy to double; and for hundreds of thousands of years before that, growth rates were close to zero.
Too bad there isn’t a magic cure-all for stress. Sure, there are plenty of methods and ways to combat stress. No surprise. We have billion-dollar industries that want to sell us “best ways” to reduce anxieties and stress. Pharmaceutical companies sell cutting-edge medicines to mitigate stress. Fitness and wellness companies sell products and memberships. Even the hospitality industry sells us vacations and recreational packages to escape from our daily routines and stress.
As technology proliferates each year, new tools are commercialized to ease stress: cell-phone apps; virtual reality games; and look-out ahead – artificial intelligence (AI)! We can now say, “Siri” or “Alexa” – “play soothing meditation music” or “set-a-reminder” to voice-activate functions and hold schedules. Today, AI connects to our homes and smart devices. Automatic sensors, lights, and meters. These devices collect and remember data to automatically adjust functions in real time. With AI connectivity, home temperatures are automatically adjusted based on the number of people entering or exiting a room. These modern approaches are designed to help us live our daily lives more effectively and efficiently. And with less stress.
Advanced technology hasn’t eliminated stress. Not yet at least. As a matter of fact, new technologies in some cases create stress. Just ask anyone that remembers life prior to e-mail and smartphones. The point is, despite tech advances, personal stress continues to increase. It is more important than ever for us to identify the “best method(s)” to manage our stress. We need ways to deal with life’s “chronic stresses” – which are often those little worries, anxieties, and challenges that we face daily. Managing high-stress changes and issues are even more critical. These high-stress events are often single big changes, challenges, or situations that bring us overwhelming stress. All at once. Paralyzing stress. What if you had a unique way to deal with these kinds of life stress? I didn’t learn this secret until 2021. It might just work for you too – if you keep an open mind.
Category 5 Stress
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12: 2. New International Version of the Bible
Can you remember a time when stress was so consuming and wicked, you weren’t sure how to handle it? And you didn’t know how to recover? Life is often going great, until it suddenly isn’t.
Big life changes collided for me in 2021. Like a category 5 hurricane, overwhelming stress and change happened as I retired from the military. Did you know that a hurricane’s greatest destruction occurs after landfall? The situation becomes more dangerous and deadly after the eye of the storm passes. A storm’s follow-on water surges can reach levels over 30 feet high. Torrential rains. Massive flooding. Such secondary destruction is the equivalent to situations after big change happens in our lives.
I underestimated the nature of life changes retirement would trigger. Suddenly, I came to a full stop. For 30 years I had followed a familiar and successful pattern in life (professionally and personally). Now, I had zero pattern to follow. Instead, big changes in life were happening —selling a house; building a new house; moving family; marriage and family problems; a 50% income drop; and losing my strong confidence – in life.
In early 2021, I was adjusting to the joys of leaving work stress behind. But then came the storm surge. Abruptly, I learned construction costs were almost doubled for my new home (thank you COVID and supply-chain shortages). Construction was also 7-months behind schedule. A move-in ready house was no longer an option. Household belongings were packed and shipped into long-term storage. We loaded our vehicles with 3 kids, 2 dogs and suitcases to temporarily move into a small furnished house. With credit cards maxing, we dipped into savings and investment accounts. At this same time, my parenting skills had all but collapsed. My 20-year-old announced he was taking a break from college to move back home. My autistic 19-year-old son was having new meltdown episodes. His aggressive behaviors were much more difficult for me to accept or control. And finally, my sweet 12-year-old daughter no longer wanted anything to do with me. It didn’t help that I wanted her cellphone turned off at night by 9:30 pm.
My otherwise happy life spiraled. Into the dirt. Life was dark; and getting darker. I knew it was time to face the music. I needed a new heading forward. That’s when I decided it was time. Time to take a hike.
Taking A Hike
So, I took a hike. Not just any hike. This was the hiking adventure of a lifetime! It came after endless Google and YouTube searches. 3-top hikes were consistently featured:
(1) The Appalachian Trail. This trail covers 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine— and the entire hike takes over 6 months to complete.
(2) The Pacific Crest Trail. This trail runs from Mexico through California, Oregon, Washington, and into Canada—and the entire hike takes over 5 months to complete.
(3) The “Camino de Santiago”. There are 7 different trails or routes in Europe. The most popular one is the “Camino Frances”. It starts in southern France and ends near Spain’s north-west coast—and the entire hike takes a month or so to complete.
The Camino hike appealed to me most. It took less time. It was physically challenging, but not impossible. Best of all, the Camino didn’t require camping or sleeping outdoors. The Army cured me from the need to rough-it. Plus, part of the Camino’s “bucket-list” charm comes from hiking the trail’s amazing villages, towns, and cities. Delicious foods. Superb wines. Spectacular churches. The Camino has it all because of a robust infrastructure that has supported pilgrims (or Peregrinos) for hundreds of years. There are hotels, pensions, albergues, and hostels. Accommodations that provide weary and exhausted hikers with comforting showers and soft beds. Nirvana practically – for hikers battling blisters, sunburns, and sore muscles.
France and Spain re-opened international travel in June 2021. COVID vaccination cards were as important as passports for travel planning. With restrictions lifted, I pressed forward with plans to hike the Camino in July 2021. Stress still wrecked my personal life, but I had saved for this trip. It was also the first time in over 3 decades that my calendar was open for multiple weeks. I knew this hiking trip was either a jacked-up idea, or it would be an audacious means to pull my life back in focus. At a minimum, I figured the Camino was an ideal place to completely unplug. Go on a digital detox. Time to “metal floss” on my life’s big changes.
My oldest son, Alex, asked to join me on the Camino journey. As much as I didn’t like his decision to take a college gap, I was thrilled that he wanted to go on this long hike. Way cool. The Camino would allow us to reconnect and spend quality time. No marathon X-Box gaming sessions for Alex. And no work to keep me from spending time with Alex.
We departed Michigan’s Detroit Metropolitan Airport on July 6th, 2021 and landed in France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. Next, we jumped on a regional connecting flight from Paris to the seaside town of Biarritz, France. There we found a train to take us to the Camino Frances’ starting point—a beautiful French town called St. Jean de Pied de Port.
We next proceeded to hike and backpack our way across France and Spain. It took 41 days, and we covered just over 500 miles. We started in the French Pyrenees Mountains, entered Spain, and eventually hiked through several different regions of Spain— Aragón, Navarre, La Rioja, Castile and Leon, and Galicia. Before the pandemic, 350,000 people annually hiked the Camino Frances (The French Way). Hikers from across the world. Far fewer hikers made the 2021 journey. The pandemic’s protocols were still very much in place. Facemasks were required in public places. Groups of 10 or more were restricted from gathering. Hostels and albergues were re-opening, but at half-capacity (50% occupancy). According to the veteran Camino hikers that we met, 2021 was a unique and distinctive hiking experience.
Nature’s healing power is impossible to describe. The Camino’s diverse landscapes were incredible to hike. We literally crossed mountains, hiked rolling hills, and walked endless miles next to gorgeous vineyards. We backpacked through small towns and large cities, walking an average of six to seven hours each day, anywhere from 15 to 20 miles a day. For these 41 days, Alex called me his human alarm clock. Some days I would get started on our day’s hike ahead of him only to have his young legs catch me by the afternoon. You should have seen the big grin on his face when that would happen. So, yes, sometimes we walked together, and sometimes we didn’t. We often walked with our new Camino friends. Like our friend from Ireland (Anne Gavin), Dutch friend (Rob), Miami, Florida friend (Betty Roca), and Swedish friend (Par). They all walked the Camino for different reasons. Some had set a challenge for themselves; others were there for healing or working through relationships. Most were looking for new perspectives, solutions, and space away. And not all of us pelegrinos had the time or ability to hike the entire Camino route (over a month).
Many hikers were on their summer vacations. They hiked different sections of the Camino trail and came back year after year. We saw the same hikers on the Camino, over and over. If we did not see them walking on the Camino, we ran into them when we stopped to rest overnight. We ate with them, walked with them, and sometimes even stayed at the same hotels and alburgues. But backpackers were not the only travelers on the Camino. Camino nomads often included cyclists and people on horseback. My son called them “discount pilgrims” because he didn’t think it was fair that they earned equal Camino completion credits from the seat of a bike or saddle of a horse. I’m certain these explorers enjoyed the Camino’s soul restoring rewards as well.
For us, the simplicity of daily life on the Camino was the secret. Each day you’d get up, eat, and put your backpack on and keep moving closer to the Camino’s objective—arriving at Santiago de Compostela. At the end of the day, you’d find a place to sleep, get cleaned up, find something to eat, and then grab some shut-eye time. When you’d wake up the next day, you’d do it all over again. Alex called this rhythm the Camino’s “Rinse, Wash and Repeat” cycle. The Camino offers a simple but wonderful way of life. And believe it or not, over time, this repetitive process even helps bring a laser focus on what really matters most to you in life. The longer the distance hiked, the deeper the “mental floss” and time to clear your head. There is another inner experience that happens to hikers on the Camino. You feel dopamine and euphoric rushes from time to time. It comes from the joy of doing something difficult. It comes after hiking to the top of a steep mountain. It happens in quiet moments watching the horses, cows, and sheep grazing next to you as you hike on to mile 10 and 15, etc. Anxieties fade. Physical pains are temporary replaced by feelings of joy and peace.
A 2011 National Public Radio article, “Sheen and Estevez Do Movies The Father-Son ‘Way’”, nicely explained the evolutionary process that hikers experience on the Camino. “You start off with a lot of things you think you’ll need along the way. And as you begin to go along for a few days, you start getting rid of some of the stuff. You realize you’ve overpacked and you don’t need it. And as you go on, you begin the inner journey, the transcendence. As you are going along, you begin to listen to the inner voice, and you begin the transcendence, and you begin to open-up the cells where you’ve kept hidden secrets in the darkness. You start letting go of your judgment, your envy, your anger, all the people that have wronged you all the years of your life locked up in the dungeons of your heart”. I couldn’t agree more.
Given the Camino’s history and location, most Europeans are acquainted with the Camino’s hiking challenge. Americans took greater notice after a popular 2010 movie, The Way.
It was written and directed by Emilio Estevez. And Estevez’s real-life father, Martin Sheen, plays a hiker in the film who backpacks the 500-mile Camino Frances route. I won’t spoil the movie, but it effectively captures the Camino’s impacts—the magic, and the power of taking a long hike to discover new meanings in life.
Santiago de Compostela’s Cathedral is the traditional ending point for the Camino. The Cathedral was constructed in 1075 and is reputed to be the burial place of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. This is the reason so many pilgrims have hiked the Camino over thousands of years. To this day, people hike the Camino for religious purposes. The Camino’s popularity also attracts thousands of non-religious hikers—some people looking for a challenge; others looking to check off an awesome bucket-list life adventure.
Our father-and-son Camino journey didn’t end in Santiago de Compostela. We learned many pilgrims press on to hike another 54 miles west, to a small coastal town, Finisterre. Finisterre derives from the Latin finis terrae, meaning “end of the earth.” (picture 4)
Some say it’s a mythical place. And who doesn’t want to say that they made it “to the end of the earth”? Right? So onward we went—to Finisterre. This time however our journey transitioned to a commercial bus. It was our first time in a motor vehicle in over 41 days. Our “dogs” (feet) were barking way too loud (picture 10 – no caption) to hike for another 3 days.
But we had important family business to conduct in Finisterre. During our Camino journey, we carried a small container with my dad’s cremated ashes. It was the perfect closing for our father-and-son Camino hike. Alex and I released dad’s ashes off the coast of Finisterre. I fondly remember my dad joking that he was the father, and I was his son, but Alex – he was the Holy Terror. (Father-Son-And-Holy Terror)! Emotionally, I pictured my dad looking down from above with his warm smile giving us a thumbs-up—his son and grandson successfully having completed 500 miles together on the Camino de Santiago. Inspiring stuff. Powerful. Meaningful. Special.
Camino Concluding Takeaways.
There are so many takeaways from hiking the Camino. Hiking can rejuvenate and restore the soul! I’ve concisely listed my top Camino takeaways. These ideas may not be new – but they were enlightening to me last year. These concepts remain solid.
- The best things in life aren’t easy
- Show up – You must show up
- Take one step at a time – Just keep moving
- There is always one more hill to climb – You may not see it
- Push comfort zones – for genuine growth and self-discovery
- Pay attention to signs – Going the wrong way adds unnecessary pain
- We all need meaning in our lives – It’s what motivates and keeps us going
- Whenever life gets too complicated – Return to the basics
- Make time to “mental floss” life’s hardest questions
- Take time in life to smell the roses – Look up and enjoy the view
“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” Henry Thoreau
Consider leaving your life’s comfort zone to try something new. Something hard. And something exciting. Hiking the Camino made me stronger in both body and mind. Can you see yourself doing it? Every year, people of all ages and fitness levels challenge themselves by hiking the Camino. Backpacking the Camino in 2021 did more than clear my head. The Camino taught lessons I would never have known without pushing myself.
Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to learn something valuable from within. Test yourself. Tackle life’s stress and tough challenges by putting one foot in front of the other. I challenge you to find out what you are capable of accomplishing. See what taking a hike can teach you about yourself and life in general.
In a way, life is like a long and meandering path before us all. It is full of unexpected turns and up-hill climbs. The uncertainty may scare us, but it can also teach us to value the journey. Perhaps the next time you are stressed out you will – Take a hike!
The father and son team chronicled their daily Camino journey on YouTube, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24iR4ZI1rcQ&list=PLOJcwAsGuCN-nrXUEZDIaFxFMlag2uAyT&index=1