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1.  The Call

1. The Call

A Chapter by Paul Minor

1.     The Call

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. 

" Albert Einstein

 

I woke up from a trance. I was sitting on the couch, leaning over a plate of Chinese take-out food on the coffee table.  Eyes focused on the television.  A fork-full of chicken stir-fry hung in my right hand, halfway to my mouth. On TV, Larry King interviewed Shirley McClain about her latest book. The book was a memoir about the adventure she had while hiking for a month on a pilgrimage trail in Spain. She referred to the path as “the Camino”.  My inner eye caught a flashed image of myself riding a mountain bike along a ridge in Spain. I felt the rush of inspired possibility of an adventure for myself.  Could I really do something like this?  I filed the idea of riding the Camino in the “things to do someday, maybe when the stars align, but not now” section of my consciousness.  The image of Larry and Shirley and that ridge in Spain faded to nightly news with Anderson Cooper. The possibility faded as well.  I went back to auto-pilot navigation of the ridges of my everyday life.

A few years later, I hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock in Central Texas, about 100 miles from where I live in Austin. This enormous pink granite dome rises over four hundred feet above the surrounding central Texas oak woodland and mesquite grassland. The rock is magical according to the legends of Tonkawa, Apache and Comanche tribes " folklore handed down from a lineage of peoples who had lived in the area for over 10,000 years. 

Near the top of the climb, I bent over to tie a shoelace.  A plastic bottle of water fell out of my cargo pants pocket and rolled down the smooth rock, not stopping until it bounced upon a collection of boulders halfway to the bottom, several hundred feet down.   A woman coming up the rock moved to retrieve the bottle and kept climbing.  I watched her make her way up to join me at the summit.  She was using trekking poles. 

When she was within earshot I said, “Thanks for rescuing the water.  Those poles look like they’re working great for you.”

“They work really well.” She held them both in one hand as she handed me the water bottle.  The bottle was leaking water from a couple tiny punctures.  I squeezed a little stream of water into my mouth.  “I’m training for a five week hike on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, have you heard of it?” she asked.  I had.

“It’s great that you’re able to take off for that long!” I said. 

“Oh, I’m retiring in a month.  I’ve worked for the State of Texas for 30 years.  The timing is perfect for me.  I can’t wait to go!”

I smiled, “Congratulations!” 

“Thank you!”  She looked up and I followed her gaze.  Rain clouds drifted across the distant sky, dragging their shadows across the landscape.  I bid Trekking Pole Woman farewell and walked to the highest point of the rock. 

At the highest point, I turned slowly, rotating a full 360 degrees -- once with my eyes open, and once with them closed.  I stood on top of a prehistoric magma chamber that extends deep underground.  A billion years ago, this magma chamber may have powered volcanoes on the surface high above it.  The magma cooled and crystallized over the millennia.  The surrounding sedimentary rock weathered away.  And now I stood four hundred feet above the terrain; on the exposed tip of a gigantic structure of crystallized quartz, mica, and feldspar that lives under much of Central Texas; the heart of Texas.    

On my drive back from Enchanted Rock, I thought about myself embarking on a Camino trek. My knee-jerk reaction was to identify the reasons why this sort of adventure was not for me. For example, a long backpacking trip seemed too painful. The tendons that stretch along the outside of my legs from the hip to the knee (iliotibial, or “I-T bands”) tended to get inflamed rather easily.

But then I remembered my original thought from years prior " the image of riding the Camino on a mountain bike. Perhaps I can mountain bike the Camino? 

I had never thought of myself as an athlete; it had been years since I had ridden a bike; and I had never ridden more than a few miles at one time. I remember being the last one to be picked for a team for a game of dodge-ball in fifth grade physical education class. This was at the gym of St. Mary’s School in the Canal Zone, Panama.

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It was 1977, and the Canal Zone existed as a territory of the U.S. within the Republic of Panama.  The territory was a ten-mile wide strip of land containing the Panama Canal is it runs fifty miles to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  “The Land Divided, The World United” was the motto on the Canal Zone coat of arms.  The days of the Canal Zone as an American political enclave were numbered. 

In a classroom discussion at St. Mary’s School, we contemplated the experience of being fifth grade students at a school located in territory whose government would soon transition from the United States of America to the Republic of Panama.  We would have a front row seat to the implementation of treaties between the two governments.

And then it was time for gym class.

The gym teacher selected the two team captains for a game of dodge-ball.  We were in the basketball court of the YMCA, just next door to the school.  The team captains proceeded to select team members from among my classmates.  They called out names:  “Thomas”, “Victor”, “Rebecca”, “Theresa”, “Sandy”, “Carlos”.  I realized I was going to be the last to be selected for a team " with good reason. I was routinely the last one to cross the finish line in races. And I was the skinniest kid in the bunch.  

The whistle blew and the game began.  I kept out of the way as much as possible. It was my first time playing this game.  Kids who failed to dodge an opposing team member’s thrown ball, had to exit to the bleachers and sit out the remainder of the game. If you threw a ball and it was caught by someone on the opposing team, then you were also out of the game.

Suddenly I realized I was the last team member left on my team and the bleachers were full of my classmates watching every move. There were three players left on the opposing team. I caught one ball that was thrown at me, sending an opposing player to the bleachers. I managed to take another player out, when he tried to catch the ball I threw at him and fumbled. I was now in a one-on-one dodge ball duel with Emory " a straight-A student.  And the athletic captain of the opposing team.

            Emory came at me holding a ball, arms cocked and ready to throw. I managed to reach another ball and hold it up in time to deflect Emory’s thrown ball. The ball bounced out of the way. I was now within three feet of Emory. I held the ball overhead and brought it down. Emory stepped in close to me and dropped, my thrown ball passing harmlessly over his head. We sprinted off to grab the loose balls for another volley. I reached a ball first and heaved it at him, grunting with the effort. It was a desperate “Hail Mary” throw with little chance of success.  The ball arced towards him. Emory was already moving away from it. The ball landed on a foot and he stumbled to the floor. I had won the game. After being the last one selected for a team.  The feeling of triumph over the odds roused goose-bumps in me.  I had inspired myself.

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            Fifth-grade dodge ball redemption notwithstanding, I was not an athlete. High-intensity gym workouts make me nauseous. I once threw up after a trial martial arts class. I did not make it to the toilet in time and had to use the sink. I spent the next fifteen minutes cleaning up vomit with toilet paper…there were no paper towels. I was too embarrassed to make it back to that martial arts class after the initial trial.

The idea of mountain-biking 500 miles fell so far outside my comfort zone that I might as well declare an intention to climb Mount Everest. And then there were the logistics of a solo adventure in another country:  Where was I going to stay?  Was I going to rent a bike in Spain, and if so, how do I get it to the starting point and how do I return it?  How much time would I need?  Would I be able to take off work?  What do I need to bring?  What is the weather going to be like? Is the trail marked?  Do I need a GPS device?  What if I get sick?  How do I bail out if I want it to be over with?  How do I throw in the towel?   

            Preparation for this journey would mean I would have to reinvent myself as an endurance athlete. This seemed like a positive outcome for a mid-life crisis bike ride.  At 41 years old, I could not think of anything else I was currently doing in my safe and content life that was as exciting to contemplate as this quest.  

            I found myself reading about the Camino and its history on the internet. I studied maps of the Camino. The Camino called to me with a subtle sensation that something within me would not be satisfied if I declined this quest.  Perhaps I would capture a feeling of triumph once more, like that fifth-grade dodge ball game. Perhaps I would simply have a fun time and create new memories. Perhaps I would be completely transformed.  I answered the call.

                                    



© 2014 Paul Minor


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Emilio Estevez made a movie about the trail to Camino. Was based on McClain's book, also (I think).
Still, I think you have a talent for story.

Posted 5 Years Ago



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Added on July 13, 2014
Last Updated on August 14, 2014