Next virtual trek – my plan didn’t work out

I know this sequence of posts is way off the primary topic of this blog but this will be the last one (on this topic, at least for a while).

When I last left you hanging I described the method I was going to use to acquire an accurate table of distances, fairly closely space (e.g. 3-6km) along the Via Podiensis so I could spend the next year or so on treadmill piling up miles to then “take” a virtual trek. My plan was to use a couple of GPS tracks I found online to get an accurate distance along the entire trail and then pick intermediate spots for my table and know their distances.

Since the software I have on my PC only covers the USA my only available tool (at least in initial plan) was Google Maps (or later tried Google Earth which has more features).  I quickly learned two things: 1) the high resolutions (4000 waypoints) GPS track was very tedious to enter (all manually) into Google Directions which has a limit of 10 points along a route and thus I was getting less than 1km of trail for 5 minutes or so of work, 2) every now and then, but in minor ways Google didn’t want to generate precisely the same route as I could see on the map where I could display the entire track (but not get any distances).

So I switched to the lower resolution track (only 500 points, visually on the maps it’s a bunch of line segments that don’t precisely follow the road/street/path/trail). But I figured I could find the flaws in that and patch in bits of the high resolution data.

Now in some ways I’m really being OCDish about this. What difference does it make to be highly accurate. Well, consider this, a real walk has to go where the path goes, not in straight lines across country or through someone’s house or yard. And most of the backroads where the Camino goes are not straight super highways but meandering paths. Now if you’ve ever hiked in the real world you know your actual path can be a lot longer than just a compass line on a maps. All those zigs and zags add up. The small set of straight line segments would probably be off, in total distance, by hundreds of kilometers. IOW, not much use for accurately converting treadmill miles to a location on the ground in France.

But not to worry, Google knows this and so it actually follows the road between two points on the road. And while it does a bit of rounding in the distance that’s still going to be fairly accurate.

So other than being a tedious process my preliminary results showed, at the cost of more time than I’d hoped, I could get a fairly accurate route.


I was manually entered a set of points, having worked out a record keeping procedure for doing all this and everything was fine and, then, the next point, probably only 50m from the previous with a road showing in map mode and even clearer in satellite photo mode and Google routes this round-about path, about a kilometer that was essentially a giant U-turn to reach that point from the other direction!

No sometimes, at least here doing geodashing in the midwest, that’s exactly what one has to do. Yes there is a road on the map and yes you can see it in the satellite photos and NO you can’t go that way because there is a gate or a damaged bridge or whatever. But presumably the GPS track I’m using means that person who recorded the track DID go that way so it’s possible.

After more experimenting I eventually discovered that what I’m seeing is gaps in the Google underlying database, i.e. some abstracted mathematical description of all the possible roads/paths/trails they know. And in that database you can’t get from point A to point B, at least not just going forward.

So after reading manuals and searching online I eventually discovered (I think) there is no way to solve this. So electronic mapping systems let you manually enter “vias”, i.e. some line segment that connects two bits of road together. That software is letting you use your knowledge (you can go that way) to override their database that can’t allow you to go that way.

But Google isn’t designed for complex routing issues. It’s designed for ordinary users to do simple things and thus doesn’t clutter up its UI with all sorts of advanced features. I encountered this with my standard USA mapping application (now defunct as the company was bought out and their products dropped; I won’t mention the name). That program was for “pros”, people who had complex navigation problems. For a while it was the only car-based solution but gradually the dashboard GPS came out and also, of course, Google Maps on smartphones. Those solutions are generally much easier to use, but they are “dumbed-down” relative to people with complex navigation requirements, which of course is a very tiny fraction of the market that they can afford to ignore.

So after searching for other solutions (there are a few other online mapping systems, but most have even less data than Google) it appears, like my route on the map, I just can’t get there.

As someone so often says, “SAD”.

So that means I have to use the one other data source I have which has two problems: 1) the distances between the 34 overnight stops are rounded off and add up to about 50km less than the known distance of the route (which, often, there are multiple answers to that to be found, but all the distances are greater), and, 2) there are just the 34 waypoints which will takes weeks for me to reach each (yes, the trekkers do them in a day, but I couldn’t imagine doing 20 miles / 6 hours on the treadmill in a day).

Plus my purpose in all this is a “virtual” trek. I did learn that Google has lots of detailed data at short distance intervals, restaurants, hotels, gîtes (the French equivalent of alburgues) and other points of interest. So I need all that detail to “see” what the trek would look like. It turns out that only doing relatively short daily distances on treadmill allowed me to follow (where available) the entire streetview (so literally walk into a town and look around). I have lots of experience looking at satellite photos (though mostly in plains and midwest US which doesn’t look much like France, or even Spain) but online satphotos aren’t the high resolution spy photos so often you can’t “see” very much. And looking at the roof of a house or building is much less interesting than looking at it at ground level.

So while I can use the table I did find, just for statistical purposes, I’m going to have to really guess (from zooming in on GPS track displayed in Google Earth, unless I can figure out how to load KML files into Google Maps) where I am. It’s not going to be pretty and that’s a bummer that make take too much “fun” out of my virtual trek to just bother.

At least one thing, though, is I can take a look at some French restaurants and while I’m not interesting in trying to build a translation app for that at least I can see lots of pretty pictures of food (already seen some, first course in France seems to routinely be pâté not cured meats as in Spain).

So with all this discussion out of the way I can get back to my regular topic, menus in Spain, since Santiago has a ton of restaurants, some with online menus I can decode.


Next virtual trek

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I had completed my virtual trek of the Camino de Santiago. That is, I take mileage I accumulate on my treadmill in the basement and convert it to locations along the Camino. Google Maps and Streetviews then provide a good “look” at the route.

Why do I do this? First, I want to actually learn as much as I can about walking the Camino and my relatively low daily distances on the treadmill are easy to follow on Google Maps, also allowing me to find restaurants and albergues along the Camino and study their photos and menus to learn more about food, or generally something about what walking the Camino would be like. Second, using a treadmill is boring so I need some sort of incentive – knowing I’m just a short distance, along the route of my virtual trek, to a particular POI (Point of Interest) on a map gives me motivation to do a bit more on the treadmill.

So now that I’ve “finished” the Camino what do I do?

Now I put “finished” in quotes because the data I have for the Camino’s route (and thus distances along the route) is somewhat uncertain. I found a Google Earth GPS track of the Camino and used that for while, but whoever set that up didn’t renew their Google license (for embedded maps in webpages) and it failed. So I found another route. And guess what, they’re not the same.

There’s an old joke that a man who has just one watch “knows” what time it is, but a man with two watches isn’t sure, i.e. different sources of data almost always disagree. Also, until my latest exercise I didn’t try to get distances along the Camino directly from the GPS data but instead from a table I found on the Net. I did enough analysis to confirm that table seemed relatively accurate and so used that data to declare I had “finished” the Camino.

But two new items for me. While I had learned that “Camino” itself is a vague term (there are many routes of the Camino) I didn’t realize that the Camino Frances (the most popular route) doesn’t actually start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port; that’s just the most popular starting point resulting in about an 800km walk. Instead that particular Camino really can start various places in France, but most commonly in Le Puy-en-Velay France (and then that segment goes by the name, Via Podiensis). Adding that segment (and also going past Santiago to Fisterra) turns the walk into a 1000 mile trek, not just the <500 miles of the conventional route.

So now I have an obvious extension to the Camino to use as my new virtual trek, the entire 1000 mile distance which will give me something to do on my treadmill for another year. So that gives me a new project, figure out the distances along the Via Podiensis. Right away (and I’ll describe this in more detail in a followon post) I found several GPS tracks but all of those have some “issues” as to figuring out distances and milestone waypoints. I also found, at a website that does escorted walks, a table of distances between the 34 overnight stops they make. But that route is: a) not exactly the detailed route of the Via Podiensis, and, b) the distances are round numbers whose sum of all the segments is about 80km less than various sources claim is the total distance.

Now people actually walking the Via Podiensis could care less about all this; they’ll find the route (possibly with some misdirection) and get to their destination. But I need as accurate as I can create route and table of distances to do my conversion from miles on the treadmill to locations in France.  And so that’s what I’m working on now and will report in a short while.

Fortunately I have plotted about the first 40km and as I’m now only (on cumulative treadmill distances) about 2km past Santiago I can restart my virtual trek for at least a couple of weeks while I figure the rest out from the multiple sources I have (and perhaps even more I might find).

Now how do I do this?

I have a long history with GPS and GPS tracks and I’ll bore you, Dear Reader (and record for myself) some details.

I first learned about GPS when I was working at a small startup in Silicon Valley and one of the engineers was recruited to go work at a new startup, Trimble. I’d never heard of this (or GPS) but learned an ex-HPer, named Trimble, had started the company and was recruiting colleagues he’d known at HP (now in the diaspora of former HP employees populating all the other startups). At that time GPS was a military technology and had a hugely expensive system (in nuclear submarines) but Trimble believed this could be re-engineered for a consumer (albeit only professionals) technology. Later, in another company I used to ride my bike to work and I often noticed people with huge backpacks and an attached 6′ long stick with electronics  on top. I didn’t know it at the time but these engineers were testing the early Trimble prototypes.

So fast forward about a decade and when I first moved to Nebraska I was going crazy in the winters (having been spoiled by California) and so just set out driving south, eventually ending up in Big Bend National Park. Driving solo and trying to read a paper map was nearly impossible so I was in the market for a better alternative. A bit of research revealed that GPSr (the ‘r’ is for ‘receiver’) had truly been reduced to consumer (affordable) level and so I bought my first laptop and the DeLorme GPSr and its software. The world of automated navigation was opened to me.

While the laptop worked fine in the car (I had to also discover “inverters”, then uncommon to power the laptop) but was useless for walking. That led me to discover handheld GPSr’s, in particular the early Garmin eTrek models which I bought at the original Cabellas (in Sydney Nebraska) and used for the first time hiking in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, learning an important first lesson, use the GPSr to record the location of your car so you can get back to it.

All this led me to the world of geodashing, one of the various geo-xxx “sports” in the earliest days of consumer GPS where they were still rare and so enthusiasts would find a way to make a game of using a GPS. Over time I learned more about mapping and especially the early satphotos to use to study a place one might go, where despite roads being shown on the electronic maps (the data was crummy back then) might not really exist. Over the years I got better and better at using these tools, which eventually led me to my first “virtual” trek.

Now raw GPS tracks are usually pretty messy data. For instance, here’s a set of tracks, made over multiple days (since time affects GPS accuracy) of a corner near my house.

or even this set of tracks including the driveway of my house (the red lines are actual paths of the streets as taken from a surveyed map) – note all the scatter in the data, this will come up as an issue in my next post.

Each GPS has various options for recording data and as you can see in this image (I recorded the maximum data) there is a lot of variability. IOW, early on, with my own experiments I came to look at GPS tracks with a bit of skepticism. So tracks I found on the Net I know are not quite right.

So with all this practice and knowledge I set out to create my first virtual trek, the Pacific Crest Trail (which, btw, I did “finish”, as in do the necessary distance on my treadmill). This was years ago and I don’t remember the details but I remember writing my own code to convert the KML (Google Earth) file I’d found into Delorme “route” info. I quickly learned that Delorme couldn’t handle the entire PCT as a single “route” so I had to break it in pieces.

BUT, the key thing was Delorme could convert the waypoints (fortunately closely spaced) to distances. Given the PCT doesn’t follow any “roads” the routing within Delorme itself was useless, but I found a way to get distances from the GPS track and from that I could then convert my cumulative treadmill distances to location. Of course I used Google Earth to “view” the PCT, but: a) at that time Google hadn’t done Streetview yet, and, b) the PCT is a wilderness trail that doesn’t follow any “roads” in the Delorme database. But Delorme was designed to use (the Topo) version for people doing outdoor recreations and thus was happy to have routes that didn’t follow any known paths in their database and still get distances.

So all of this led to where I am now. I hoped to repeat the process but knowing: a) there is a lot more and newer information, mostly from Google, and, b) Delorme only has detailed maps for the USA. So now I had to find a new way to replicate the process I used for the PCT and apply it to the Via Podiensis.

And I’ll end this post with this, to be continued with the explanation of the process I am discovering (still having to experiment some) for Via Podiensis which eventually means I’ll have what I need: a fairly precise table of distances (at roughly 10km intervals) that actually follows the roads, paths and even off-road trails (not known to Google, but I can guess some). It’s a tedious process but for me, with my weird obsessions, an interesting exercise in itself with the ultimate outcome (still a hope but fairly sure I can do it) to create what I need for another ~750km of virtual trek.


Santiago is only the destination

I’ve been busy, mostly doing lots of actual learning of Spanish (instead of my original goal of just translating menus in Spain) but I’ve kept up my exercise, both bicycle and treadmill. I translate my distance on the treadmill to distance along the Camino de Santiago. Since I only do a short mileage per day I can follow, in detail, on Google Maps the route. I have a list of distances along the Camino (presumably correct, but after all I found it on the Net which makes it a bit suspect for accuracy) and so now I can announce that I’ve created the trip from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela, 494.86 miles, just under 800km (the road sign at the start of the movie The Way showed 800km).

Now a “virtual” trek along the Camino may sound silly, but here’s my point: 1) I’m not in Spain so I can’t actually do the Camino, 2) I need a reason to pound out exercise miles in my basement (with the “hope” that being in shape means I could do a real walk) and converting miles to locations along the Camino provides an incentive, and, 3) if nothing else I can at least see what I might encounter along the way, as poor a substitute that satellite photos, human geotagged photos and Google StreetView might provide. But as Joost says, “a man can dream!”.

So now I’ve “seen” everything along the Camino, or did I? Like most people I thought the Camino was just that 800km from French border to NW Spain. Yes, I learned there are numerous Camino routes. When Spain was under Moorish conquest the route became the Camino del Norte, a more rugged (and frankly more interesting,to me) route. But why is the route just Spain? Sure in theory it’s to reach St. James but there are lots of routes pilgrims can take.

Now just a bit more on my stats. As the movie says “I started my pilgrimage” on 22Nov2017 (rather that’s when I started with my current file of records, I’d actually done 42.2 miles before then). And you might say, awfully slow there old chap. Yep, my average daily distance is a tiny fraction of what a real trek requires. All I can say in defense is that I’ve also done 10435.9 miles on my stationary bike at the same time, a bit more impressive 25.3 miles a day since starting my virtual Camino. IOW, I could have done the Camino about 20 times (or 10 there and back) on my back in the same time it took me to “walk” it.

But why did I label my post as I did?

It turns out I’ve been reading a fun little Kindle book “The Journey in Between” by Keith Foskett. Of the various stories (movies, documentaries) I’ve seen about the Camino this one was interesting. It’s the personal story of a young Brit who since a young age just loves walking. The Camino had none of the usual interest to him, just a good walking route. And as I’ve now learned he started another 740 km (various measures of the distance exist) Before St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in Le Puy France. He has an interesting story of his personal journey so I’ll let you read that for yourself, but I just want to include two tidbits:

relative to the idea that “Santiago is only the destination”

There is no defining event, no sudden enlightenment. I needed to live in the moment, enjoy the journey.


The text summarized my journey. My mindset at the beginning was simple: El Camino had a start and an end. Begin at Le Puy en Velay, finish in Santiago, and complete the challenge. But I realized that the answers lay between those points; neither end mattered.

I’ve wondered why I’ve become so fascinated with the Camino and probably until I try to do it I won’t know. But like Keith (Fozzie) I too have liked to walk my entire life. I grew up in Montana where at least at a kid level I could take long walks. In high school I read of Hemingway talking about hiking near Red Lodge Montana and wanted to go (my parents were not so accommodating on my impulses). I climbed Mt. Washington in bad weather once I started college in Boston. I did my first backpacking trip in the middle of a hurricane. I gradually got better equipment and more skill and have tested myself against the Sierra, the Cascades and the Rockies.

Backpacking or even just wilderness hiking is way different than the Camino. But both emphasize self-sufficiency and rising to cope with whatever comes your way. The Camino (or other long walks in Europe) are oriented to frequent stops in towns and lots of encounters with people whereas the long walks in the USA (Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail – I’ve done segments of each) are more remote, with fewer creature comforts. Albergues in Spain (or Gîtes in France as I’ve just learned from Fozzie’s book) may be a bit rough but it’s not quite the same as really sleeping on the ground.

But what is it about walking? Sure, lots of people do the Camino for religious or spiritual reasons, the original reason. But today most do it for some other purpose. It’s not as crazy as the mobs on Everest now with a few dying due to overcrowding, but somehow we humans like to get out and move around, and push ourselves into more difficult efforts than we thought we could do. But again, why?

I think the real think about walking, even the short hikes I do on a couple of local trails is just our sense of time and space and, most important, of ourselves changes from the life we normally lead. A good walk may take 6 hours in a distance a car moves in 15 minutes, but how different is the experience. Humans evolved to react to our environment at the pace of walking, not cars or planes, or even bicycles. Somehow the rhythmic thing of one foot in front of another changes us.

And time changes. The constant hurry of our normal world is now replaced by a loss of sense of time. Time is measured by when scenery changes, when someone else is on the path, approaching in the distance, getting larger and larger, then saying hello, and then gone, all in more time than the typical business meeting. Time is when I reach the bend I can see ahead. And time is a lot, hours of walking, more of a single thing than we normally do. And mostly solitary. Even if walking with companions talking is only some of the time. We spend more time with just ourselves than we do in any other event, except perhaps sleeping.

And then somehow physical exertion, being very aware of our bodies (especially aches and pains), the slow passing of time, the building of fatigue (or hunger or thirst or needing to pee) just become our focus. The other stuff falls away.

So the most meaningless part of my “virtual” Camino is not disconnecting with normal life and connecting with life on the road. I’ve known this well enough, in my multi-day backpacks and bikepacks, to understand what it means. And somehow it is compelling.

The Camino, for me, is not as enticing as it was before I did my “virtual” version of it. I’ve looked at enough of the path (often a gravel path right next to a highway with lots of traffic and no shade,  I have a place nearby, called the Cowboy Trail, that can provide that) to reduce the glamour. I’ve read enough accounts, books and online diaries, to see some of the bad, or just the mundane, along with the good. My illusions are less, my enthusiasm is less.

But the wanderlust is still there. One point of the Camino, for someone who does just want to take a long walk, is all the accommodations for pilgrims. Being able to stop at night, find food along the way, etc. fits my age better than my backpacking days. When I did my first bike camping trip, along the California coast, I quickly saw some advantages over backpacking. I had to stay at campgrounds (not just on any piece of ground) and those are near towns. So forget lugging food. Unpack the gear from the bike, set up the tent, and head to town, not just for heavy (none of the freeze dried nearly inedible stuff) food but also a nice bottle of wine, unthinkable to carry on a multiday backpack. So the idea of carrying even less, as in trekking on the Camino, sounds pretty good. Sleeping in a bad bunk bed in a dormitory, not so much.

So I still haven’t found my dream (and also, at this point in my life, “bucket list”) walk, but I’ll keep looking. The people who do the Camino have a letdown when they’re done, often finding an excuse to go further (or perhaps reverse course and go back where they started). Because the destination is not a place, it’s a state of mind, and it’s not a time, it’s forever. The geodashing I do has a slogan “getting there is all the fun”. Anyone on the Camino would understand this.

estoy de vuelta de Oklahoma

I had some family business in Oklahoma and so planned some other sightseeing for about a week. But things didn’t work out. I read that this has been the most rain over twelve ever recorded for the USA. Certainly I can personally attest to that around here. So what is normally hot and dry and dusty area was a swamp. Two different Interstate highways were closed. But I did get to my farm and check out the grass (all it grows) and the wind turbine (which was really turning, but we didn’t get cancer or see any “carnage” of dead birds so I don’t know which wind turbine Trumpidot visited to see such things but in the real world it’s all lies). But that aside.

What does any mean for the primary topic of this blog. Well first I also visited my birth town of Amarillo Texas. Never when I lived there did I know: a) amarillo is Spanish for yellow, and, b) it’s not pronounced ama-rell-o. And the original state was really Tejas and later anglicized to Texas. And we visited Palo Duro Canyon which was just a name to me, as in ‘hard stick’ as Google translates and Wikipedia confirms but I see no connection with that place. But the point is a great deal of names for things in Texas are from Spanish which of course makes sense as Texas was part of Spain, then Mexico, longer than it has been part of the USA, something most Texans choose to ignore. So I grew up surrounded by Spanish but was hardly aware of it. Later I spent most of my professional life in California. By that time I knew the first town I lived in, Palo Alto, and the next, Los Altos, certainly were Spanish names and that the main street of both, El Camino Real, were Spanish. It was a long time after living there that I learned Los Gatos was named for the mountain lions.  So in some ways it’s remarkable to me that it’s taken me 71 years to really attempt to learn Spanish.

I planned to keep up my language study on Duolingo on the trip but I’d started a process of recording exactly what drills I did, first in an Excel spreadsheet and then in an app I wrote. Both were working fine when I transferred these over to the laptop we use exclusively for travel. Of course, when I needed them both failed. I had the source code of my app, but my development environment was expired and I’d lost all the passwords, then my Office 365, while not expired, demanded a login and I didn’t have that password. So with no way to record my study in Spanish I essentially stopped doing it. I did a few drills in French and German just to keep up my “streak”, but basically I lost about 6 days.

And I’m amazed at then how much I forgot. Certainly I remembered 98% but several words I’d used in drills just before leaving on the trip I could no longer recall.

I’ve been grappling with this for a while. Duolingo does a lot of repetition, especially if you do every drill in every exercise (instead of testing out) but then there isn’t a lot of repetition of previous material. I had already developed an app to counter this, something I could use daily to refresh my memory, but since it was just vocabulary drill (glorified flashcards) that wasn’t enough. So I wanted to repeat entire drills (usually 20 individual questions) to also deal with grammar, word order, gender and verb conjugation. But a lot of repetition of previously learned material cuts into learning new material. For me it’s not so much a question of time, which I have in sufficient quantity, as merely endurance, i.e. I can only take so much language study each day.

And in development my app to manage what Duolingo material I’d do I also did a simulation and my first results in that indicated it would take nearly two years to complete the full Duolingo “tree” (their entire course which puts you somewhere in the A2 (CERF) range). With the initial algorithm I had for also including repetition it shot out to more than three years to finish. Given I’d like to visit some Spanish speaking country sooner than that it means: a) I have to carefully ratio repetition, just enough to retain what I’ve learned, and, b) actually increase my daily effort. To stay on schedule, i.e. aim at the big picture each day requires more than casual attention so my app, with all the data recording, statistical analysis and prediction is necessary, at least for someone like me to make the right daily progress toward a long term goal.

So I’ll leave you with a trail photo. While this is up in the mountains of Wyoming we saw a lot of this on this trip, including some flooding over the roads too much to cross at all.



Still plugging along

Despite a lack of posts recently I’m still around and plugging along on my virtual trek. I seem to have injured my left toes so I had to back off on intensity of workouts. So to get roughly the same amount of calories burned I have to go a longer distance so actually my pace has picked up a bit. So I’ve reach 427.0 miles and seem to be near the tiny village of Peruscallo heading to Morgade. The Camino, since Ponferrada seems to have nicer facilities and certainly has nicer scenery. The comparable here would be like going east where it has more precipitation. Instead of looking like western Nebraska now this part of Galicia looks a lot like northern Missouri, the natural environment that is since the human part looks nothing like anything around here.

So in keeping with the thread of this post I’ll add a few more trail pictures of an area that is radically different than anything you’d find on the Camino.

First up, here’s the trail (this one I’ve actually walked):

This is the St. Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park in Texas. You can see a few people on the trail headed into the canyon. The trail only goes a relatively short distance before a deadend but is a spectacular hike. Often you can also see many canoes on the river, which just happens to the the Rio Grande. IOW, the left side of the picture is Mexico. If the insane and ugly wall ever got built they couldn’t put it in the middle of the river so instead this trail would be lost forever (or have a gate in the wall so tourists can visit but then what’s the point of a wall with a hole in it).

So here’s an image of where the cars go (you could hike that road but I wouldn’t advise it).

Same river and you’re looking north, the USA side. Now try to imagine where you’d put a wall there. And no one would ever get to enjoy this spectacular sight-seeing drive in Texas.

Now the previous two pictures are along the river where there is a lot of greenery. But just a bit further north (and in this case also west) this is more what this area looks like:

I never really cared for or appreciated deserts until I visited the Big Bend area but it can be quite spectacular. At this time of year there are few flowers but on my first visit it had been an unusually wet winter and the wildflowers were overwhelming and gorgeous. Many places you can just walk out in the desert (outside the US National Park and the Texas State Park it’s all private land and not advisable to walk as locals don’t care for strangers and everyone has guns). But you have to be really careful and watch your step, first to avoid damaging the quite fragile growing things, but also, since almost every growing thing has thorns to avoid damaging yourself!

BTW: In case you’re wondering about my learning Spanish and studying menus in Spain, yes, I’m still doing it. In fact I’ve reached level 22 in Spanish at Duolingo.

Back to menus; a big project

My primary purpose for this blog is to record my progress in developing an application to translate menus in Spain. I worked diligently on this for about nine months but then got into some side-trips in other projects. But now I’m trying to get back to that primary objective.

For 78 days now I’ve also been trying to actually learn Spanish via the nice online application, Duolingo. While this diverted me from my primary task it has been useful. My sister always thought my idea was silly and that instead I should just learn the language. That’s not a bad idea but it looked harder (and more time consuming) than my primary limited work just to read menus, based on the assumption I’d soon be heading to Spain to tour along the route of the Camino de Santiago. Therefore I needed results sooner than I could learn the language.

To build my application I’d first need a large corpus of terms from menus with accurate English equivalents. To do that I’d import the text from websites into a working document and crunch through all the terms. Often that gave me some interesting observations that I was converting to posts, hopefully also interesting to my readers. Obviously there are going to be mistakes in manually collating data so my corpus needed to be carefully curated, with the terms and my “guesses” at translation with a “confidence” factor. Then via the large corpus I could extract the accurate equivalent Spanish to English translations I’d need for the application.

That’s a long slog so a couple of times I went ahead and created a minimally curated “glossary” which I have as a page here at this site. In my searches I found a number of glossaries, or even dictionaries in Spanish, covering food. Years ago when I first got interested in these I just extracted all the glossaries I could find and manually collated them into a single glossary. It was a mess!

The trouble is that food terms in Spanish (my searches) yield results that either don’t apply to Spain’s food dialect or were just wrong. After all any other person who compiles glossaries makes mistakes too. Or I’d make mistakes extracting and collating them. And my lack of any fluency in Spanish meant I often misinterpreted the raw material I was attempting to organize. That previous experience convinced me I needed to be very precise about collating material AND focused on Spain as the source of the raw material and so my idea about creating a corpus evolved.

But in nearly a year I still don’t have that corpus. And without it I can’t build my application. And in the meantime I needed to get some “drill” code done since I reached the point where I was forgetting more than I was learning. And while Duolingo is fairly good for learning Spanish it’s not as good for repeating previous lessons (and their vocabulary). And repetition is the key to learning a language. So I found myself forgetting vocabulary I’d once before acquired.

So I set out to build a drill application, which has some of the same elements I’d need in the translation application. And like compiling glossaries I’ve done this also, in the past – the first time for Italian food terms. So I’ve built drill programs before with only limited success.

The key to a drill program is to be efficient and force me to do repetitions of the vocabulary I know the least well. That’s harder than it sounds. Plus most of the types of drill I did (glorified flashcards, a common language learning technique) took so much time that as my vocabulary grew my repetition, of any particular word, got less and less frequent. Even with an hour a day I could only repeat a fraction of the vocabulary I’d acquired.

So I had some ideas how to improve this and make the drill more efficient. But I needed data even to do the programming. So I fairly quickly assembled the glossary I posted at this blog without being too concerned about its accuracy.

So with that lengthy background now I can describe what I’ve more recently done and the “big project” I’m now doing. I built my first version of the drill application centered around the Duolingo vocabulary. As I’d do each lesson I would fairly careful assemble the “database” (a complex XML) to feed the feed program. For my Duo vocabulary that now contains about 1100 “terms” and 1400 “forms” of those terms. By forms I mean the usual four spellings of adjectives (in Spanish both gender and number) and the first set of conjugations for verbs. Getting all that going for Duo vocabulary drills got me a fairly useful and efficient drill program which is helpful as a supplement to Duolingo.

So then using that code and crunching the glossary I’d assembled here I started on the food terms. And that was a bit of a mess because the glossary sucked.

So to fix this I went back to my 30 or so working documents of all the menus I’d processed. Rather than the more difficult chore of extracting material for a well curated corpus I just quickly (a couple of days) just extracted all the accumulated Spanish. That’s a tedious chore but it does reveal some of the problems of getting “raw” material from the websites. Naturally I found lots of spelling mistakes (easier for me to recognize now that I know a little Spanish) but also the inconsistencies in gender and sometimes number. Also many instances of words are very inconsistent on the use of accents in the Spanish words. My Duolingo study also let me learn the rule that accents sometimes change (for real, not typos) in certain circumstances.

So once I’d compiled all my “words” from all menus I had about 10,000 “raw” bits that I was able to clean up, de-duplicate and consolidate (like all the forms of adjectives under a single “term”) and ended up with about 5500 lines.

Then in a separate process I took the latest (v3.3) copy of my glossary and then combined that with about six other glossaries. That was a chore and resulted in about 4000 entries.

So then I combined these, all the glossary “words” and all the menu “words” and started going through all that by hand. I’m now down with everything through M (since I sort all 9000 or so lines into alphabetic order). I’ve done a few hundred “fixes” to my glossary and about 100 additions. But more importantly all those changes are in my XML “database” for the drill program. With a bit of code I can then extract from that XML to create text I can paste into the glossary page here.

So when I’m finally done with all that tedious manual work I can update my glossary and it will be a big change so I’ll make that the v4.0 version which I believe will be quite a bit better than my current v3.3 but not as good as a curated corpus needs to be. And, really my glossary will then mostly contain words that exist in reference sources (several online dictionaries I use) and/or reconciliation with the other glossaries I found.

Please note, therefore, than my word product is fully derivative from many sources and my editorial work and thus constitutes “original” work. I’m quite conscious of never (almost never) posting anything in this blog that would violate copyright, i.e. the wholesale use of someone else’s glossary.

And now all my material is synchronized – my XML database for the drill program, my derived glossary with reconciliation to other glossaries or reference sources, and I’m only including terms in either place that I’ve found in menus so my product is more closely aligned with Spain dialect and I can exclude other Spanish food terms.

Now, while that isn’t done, I’m back into the code for my drill program. In the case of my Duolingo vocabulary I feed into the drill program I (mostly) know that vocabulary by memory. Duolingo is divided into lessons (aka skills) that require 40 actual drills (to pass the skill and unlock the next one) which means about 800 individual drills. At Duolingo I’ve now done 16,843 “XPs” over 31 skills. On average each skill introduces around 30 words (forms actually). So when I do my “refresh my memory” drills with that vocabulary I have relatively few words I ever mark as uncertain, or worse, “I’m wrong” or “I’m clueless” (really forgot). That means all the scoring I’ve done with that vocabulary has relatively few “errors” and my aggregate score on most terms is 100%.

In contrast I’m much worse on my new food vocabulary. As I’d work on menus I’d “learn” many words, but since I had almost no repetition of those (the most common words appear on many menus so that was my repetition) and I’d done none of my own drill. Now that I have something to feed my drill program I’m getting a lot more “bad” scores. That’s good and bad. It’s bad because it means I don’t know those words very well, by memory. It’s good because now all the scoring of the drills I record in the XML has a lot more data than the drills on Duolingo vocabulary.

So that means back to programming. How do I consolidate tens of thousands of individual drills into some sort of metric that rates each word in the vocabulary as to how well I know it (and/or don’t confuse similar terms). Because I want to drill myself on what I know the least. I don’t very much need to drill on carne or aqua or cerveza or a few hundred other food words and I don’t want to waste the limited time I have for drills (even less than my free time because drill is tedious and I can only tolerate a certain amount each day). So that’s now the algorithms I’m trying to develop so my drill program is even more efficient and therefore more useful.

So while I thought I’d be done with this by now I have probably another week to finish cleaning up my food vocabulary and enhancing up my drill program.  But once I’m done with that I can spend 15-30 minutes every day (or most days) so I get more of the food vocabulary into longer-term memory along with a growing Duolingo vocabulary. Thus I’d hope to have reasonable fluency within a few months so soon I may need to head to some Spanish speaking country to test myself.

Now, note, all this is “reading” (and less “writing”) Spanish. Hearing or speaking is an entirely different problem. But without mastery over much of the vocabulary actual conversation is pretty hopeless. I’d originally assumed I’d have no more audible Spanish than a few phrases and the rest I’d do through reading (plenty of time to study a menu, have to be fast to have conversation).

Now, finally, all this I’m just doing for myself, other than relating some hopefully “interesting” tidbits here in the blog. While I’ve built many software products over my working life all this I’m just doing for myself. But at least, as a derivative from this work, I do hope to end up with the best glossary for food terms in Spain here at this blog as my contribution to others who might need this.


Something different

One problem with a virtual trek is that I don’t get an chance to take my own photos. I can’t post photos of other people so I can only talk about my “trek”. So photos to follow, but a little preface (scroll down if you’re impatient for the good stuff).

Well, actually I do go places. And I take photos. I very much enjoy the posts of loyal readers with fantastic photos, places I’d love to see, but at least I can experience through other people’s postings. So here’s a few to return the favor.

So, I recently got a new computer and I really wanted a new and fresh set of photos for my screen saver on my new large display. So I dug into my archive of over 40,000 photos to pick a few of the best. It was an adventure to look back over almost 20 years and a variety of digital cameras.

And while Spain, my current interest, is not much like Texas, there is some resemblance. When I first moved to Nebraska from the San Francisco Bay Area (Los Altos to be specific) I was really depressed. Withing an hour of my old house I could find, even on foot, beautiful country. Within a few more hours I could either be cross-country skiing or sipping wine in Napa or riding my bike along the Pacific Coast. In contrast even 6-8 hours of driving from Omaha it’s still just cornfields. So I went crazy, also given it is winter in Nebraska, and I threw my backpacking gear in the car and headed south. Three days later I found myself in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Now I get to say anything I want about Texas because I was born there in a city called Amarillo, needless to say nowhere near the correct Spanish pronunciation of the adjective, ‘yellow’. Texas is a huge state, probably bigger than Spain, so I’d never been to Big Bend and it was a thrill to visit. Later I convinced my wife that visiting some place where I’d been sleeping in a tent on the ground was still a fun vacation.

As many of my loyal Readers are not from the USA, you might still know that our insane president (pretender) wants to build a wall along the USA and Mexico border. Actually there is a “barrier” on most of the border except Texas. Folks in Texas hate “imminent domain” so even putting up fences has run into local opposition. But the real “barrier” is nature, fierce, but beautiful.

But far more important a big chunk of the US/Mexican border is a fantastically beautiful place, either the National Park  or the Texas State Park. Twice I’ve visited this area and the second time I had a digital camera so here are so photos to give you feel for this beautiful place AND how impossible the terrain is for any sort of hordes crossing the border. I’m not sure I’ve seen any border that is LESS possible for easy crossing. And it would be horrible to spoil the beauty of this area with an utterly useless Wall just to make MAGAs in Michigan (who’ve never been anywhere near the border) happy.

So here are my photos, please ENJOY this beautiful place. And for once I can contribute something to see.

Ick. There is something I don’t understand about posting photos. These photos look like a blurry mess, but not what I have in my files (these are originally 15Mpixel files from a Nikon). I’m trying various things to make them look like I see them, not sure what WordPress needs.

Here are a couple of scenic vistas in the general vicinity of the border:

Actually this isn’t quite near the border, it’s the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park but that’s where I was for this fantastic sunrise (it is about 5AM and a long exposure). Chisos Basis is the only accommodation in the park and is surrounded by mountains on all sides. The air is incredibly clear, and, of course dry (it is desert) so sunrises and sunsets are fantastic.

Do I mention you can see the sky here. My photos don’t even come close to the experience you can have, standing in the desert and seeing sky everywhere.

But now we come to the border.

From the US side this is looking north, in Texas State Park, with the Rio Grande behind us.

(Note: these photos look crummy to me, but they’re not all blurry like I see them as I make this post. I guess I don’t understand how to incorporate good photos in WordPress – click on the photo for a better one, but still much lower resolution than my original).

You can just barely see the river here, but this is a hint of surrounding country.

And here it is = the border, the Rio Grande – you can see the streams of immigrants flooding across. They come well equipped with climbing gear.

Again does that look like the kind of river you’re going to see a migrant caravan of women and children rushing across? Go luck kids.

A few miles down the river, still rough country – great sightseeing on the highway on the US side, pretty rough country with miles of desert on the Mexican side.

Here the Rio Grande might be easy to cross, but

here, not some much. This is the St Elena Gorge, as awesome cleft with steep cliffs on both sides of the border. When I first went to Big Bend my parents, who were “snowbirds” (people in cold climates with RVs who head to warmer climes near the border) warned my about Mexicans stealing my car. When I saw this gorge my reaction was – GOOD LUCK. A huge expanse of fierce desert to get to this gorge and then technical rock climbing to get to the US side. Hey, anyone intrepid enough to make that journey can steal my car! Needless to say there were no car thieves and anyone except USA tourists anywhere near this spot.

Maybe this crossing is lot easier, but still seriously demanding of outdoor skills.

And in case these barriers are not discouraging here’s a few other things you would face.


Amazing, this guy, about the size of my hand was just sauntering across the highway. Supposedly they’re fairly gentle but I wouldn’t want to put that idea to the test.

And, just more fun

These are called “horse crippler” cactus, and for good reason. Anyone daring this part of the world needs serious boots (and a good eye not to step on these).

A few times in my life I just zipped through the southwestern deserts of the USA but when I finally visited, slowly, on foot, these areas I was stunned at their beauty, something you have to see close up and in sync with nature.

The idea of putting a 10m high wall across this country, despite its stupidity for all the other reasons, is a criminal offense against the sanctity of nature. Spain has its beautiful spots, which I still hope to see, but the USA has fantastic spots as well.

Now, these photos are yucky, so I’m going to see if I can make them look better, more like I see them (I do have a rather good Nikon camera to shoot this stuff, not some two-bit cellphone camera).

Still chugging along the Camino, still learning Spanish

I’ve been so much buried in digressions I haven’t had any time to post. You might remember that my project, which is the primary subject of this blog, is to find as many menus as possible from restaurants in Spain, figure out what they “mean” (not just purely translate), build up a corpus of menu terminology to drive the creation of an application to translate menus.

So much for that, as I haven’t been doing any of that for about a month. In addition I continue to do stationary exercise in my basement to try to stay in shape and/or control my weight (lose a little ideally) and potentially build up to a real walk. So I take my mileage on a treadmill and convert it to a location along the Camino (the French route). While I’ve kept up exercise I’ve meanwhile been digressing into another area that has interfered with my primary goals.

But nonetheless I can report that I’m now at mile 368.9, having covered 21 miles thus far in January. That may not sound like much, given most peregrinos can do 12-20 miles/day but I’ve also done 480 miles in just January on stationary bike or the entire Camino.

So I had planned to do a post when I was around 344 miles, which is then near the cruz de ferro, which as Henri Sebastian (in the movie The Way) says is a place of much significance. For those of you who watched the movie or especially those of you who have actually walked the Camino you know cruz de ferro is a small iron cross at the top of tall wooden pole with a bunch of pebbles at the base. The idea is that pilgrims carry a stone from there starting location and then deposit it along with a prayer. The location happens to also be almost the highest point along the entire route.

It all looks very quaint in the movie but looking at that location via my “virtual” walk (i.e. looking at Google Maps, satellite views and the geotagged photos Google shows; you can search for ‘cruz de ferro’ and see what I’m talking about, I don’t reproduce photos from online sources due to implied copyright) it’s not quite the same as the image of the movie. The site is near a major road and is surrounded by parking lots and picnic areas. The cross itself is unimpressive so only interesting due to its historical perspective. Plus visitors leave a lot of mess at the site so again it’s not so quaint.

Also in the movie a collection of rustic signposts is shown. It turns out that’s just a short distance from the cross in the town of Manjarín (you can search for this to see). It appears to be part of a somewhat bizarre albergue/bar near all those signs, the Manjarín Encomienda Templaria.  That too is a bit less quaint than the movie made it look. So much for fiction.

And this raises an interesting point that I couple with other observations. A “virtual” walk certainly isn’t the same as a real one, but I’ve “seen” enough to get a much better understanding of what the Camino is like. And, frankly, a lot of it isn’t that great. The people who have the spiritual connection to the route don’t care, but for merely a “tourist” who’d like a more physical experience than riding tour buses I now question whether I’d really want to ever walk the Camino.

Or at least the classic (aka French) route. So now I’ve begun to focus on Camino del Norte route. What is still appealing to me is visiting the northern (Atlantic) coast of Spain, from France to Galacia. The country looks prettier (certainly greener) and I think the food would be better. Since my wife doesn’t want to do the walking as a compromise we’ll do part tourist stuff (driving, hitting hot spots like Bilboa) and then some more rural touring in the vicinity of the Camino del Norte and thus have some of the same experience.

But that’s in the future.  Now as to the digressions that are bogging me down.

My original idea was that I could merely focus on a mechanical aid to “translate” the written menus without actually learning Spanish. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn Spanish, I just saw that as too difficult. My sister (RIP) disagreed with my idea and said I should learn the language. So as I recently posted I’ve started to do that since I suspect some conversation with camareros  (waiters) would be required.

But I’m not going to fill this blog with many comments about my efforts. Any reader interested in that language has a lot better resources than I can provide. And my personal issues with it are mostly a digression so I don’t want to fill this blog with my adventures. But I’ll mention a bit.

As I previously posted I found what first appeared to be a good resource for learning a bit of conversational Spanish, which I do think I’d need to be able to order in restaurants. So I’m doing the Duolingo online study and have had decent results, thus far (up to about 600 words now, still struggling with verbs, of course). But as useful as Duolingo is I find that I fairly quickly master their “skills” (aka lessons) but then almost as fast forget most of what I learned. Without repeating some of the vocabulary (or having some other way to practice) I forget.

So, naturally, given an entire lifetime of developing software I began to think about building my own drills. I’ve done this before, several times in fact. Basically I’ve built software “flash cards” but with “intelligent” repetition, where I’ve developed some, not so good, algorithms to maximize drill on the vocabulary (or to some degree grammar) on what I’m not getting. Now learning vocabulary and grammar are helpful but speaking, and worse, hearing Spanish is tough. Duolingo helps a bit for hearing, but Spanish is a language my ear/brain simply don’t get. First of all, most Spanish speakers speak really quickly (this, I’ve found from online sources, is well known in comparison to other languages). And even with Duolingo, the full speed recorded sentences that I have to either translate or simply write what I hear, I miss lots of little bits. I have a terrible time hearing the gender or verb tenses which can be critical. I figure I can botch my pronunciation, as well as gender or conjugation, and probably still be understood, but hearing any response is really going to be tough. But the better I know the vocabulary, without a big mental delay to translate in my head, the more likely I can understand the spoken part. Fortunately there are many Spanish language TV channels in my cable subscription, often with good subtitling, so I have some opportunity, beyond Duolingo, to “practice” hearing, which will be more important to me than actually speaking well.

So, of course I started working on my own software to supplement Duolingo. That does have advantages over just using online courses. To write software one really has to understand some of the structure of the language (“teaching” something to a computer is a good way to find out what I do and don’t understand). So, for instance, I just finished, after considerable study and coding, how to do all the conjugations of regular verbs. And I’ve extracted all the vocabulary I’m learning in Duolingo to put into drills as well. So, IOW, I’ve switched from learning about menus to learning the language to writing code to help me learn the language. Hence, the “digressions” that have diverted my time from my original goal.

But I’m beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel (plus my coding skills were rusty, so doing my menu translation app will now be a bit easier) and maybe I can get back to my original plan and more, hopefully, interesting posts about menus, instead of my experience with learning Spanish or writing programs.

So stay tuned when I get back on track.


Virtual trek landscape observations

This isn’t a Spain food post but is my observations, via remote means, about my virtual trek along the Camino. I’ve mentioned that, as an incentive to exercise, I convert miles I do on the treadmill in the basement to position along the GPS track I have of the Camino de Santiago. I then use Google’s Streetview and satellite images to try to “see” what the trek actually looks at where I’m “at”.

What triggered this post was my searching for restaurants along the trek that have online menus. I’ve reached Ledigos in Palencia province of Castilla y León  autonomous community. I’ve been trekking across Palencia for over a month now (an actual trek would be a few weeks). Ledigos has a few places to eat but nothing online I can analyze.  That’s been true of all the various towns along this stretch of the Camino.

In my previous post I talked about extracting Spanish food terms from various online lists. This is useful for expanding the corpus I’m building to then have code extract an extensive vocabulary that would be useful in interpreting menus in Spain and deciding what to (or not to) order. Lists are helpful but not very interesting to process. The Spanish terms with English definitions/translations are just mindless mechanical work (automating processing these lists is very difficult). I don’t mind tedium of this kind of processing but I don’t learn much. The dictionaries or glossaries that are entirely in Spanish are a bit more interesting since I use machine translation of the Spanish to English and often these translations require additional investigation to find out what the terms really mean. That’s a bit more interesting and helps me learn a bit (not just mindlessly accumulate raw data).

But restaurant menus are far more interesting. They often use terms that defy machine translation and thus require a lot of investigation. Thus I learn a lot from these. So being a bit bored with processing lists and not finding any online menus along this stretch of the Camino I used Google maps to find larger towns that are more likely to have menus to see. In the province of Palencia there are not many of these towns; in fact, only the city of Palencia is large enough to provide some online material. And that’s what I’m working on in my food terms part of my adventure and will have some posts on those menus.

So searching the map of Palencia revealed even more of the landscape than I’ve “seen” along my virtual trek. And, frankly, what I see is hot, dry, dusty and boring countryside with sleepy little nondescript towns. A real trek on this stretch would not be very interesting.

Here in Nebraska I have access to three trekking trails that are rural and would require more than a day to walk. First is the nearby MoPac, a rails-to-trails conversion that starts about 20 miles west of Lincoln and goes into the city. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this concept the right-of-way that was granted to build railroads often reverts back to state when the railroad is abandoned. While the railroad was operating the route was transformed to level with gentle curves, either filling in depressions or cutting grades through hills. Here there are numerous small streams so the railroad required bridges and those can be refurbished to provide the walking path. So the MoPac (and others) make for easy and sometimes pleasant walking. Since many of these railroad routes were built when train engines still burned coal (or even wood) there is usually additional area along the side of the tracks so embers didn’t ignite crops or houses. So today the MoPac is overgrown with “wild” brush and trees, often 50m or so on both sides of the trail. As a result hiking is often in the shade, something definitely not the case in Palencia. But there are non-shady stretches along the MoPac that can be seriously hot in summer with intense sun.

A second trail is the Wabash, another rails-to-trails in Iowa. It starts on the south edge of Council Bluffs and continues all the way to Missouri, nearly 70 miles, so more than a day hike. This trails is even more overgrown and shaded than the MoPac. So despite being surrounded by farms, usually within 50m of the trail, it feels more like wilderness. The Wabash goes through a number of towns and a few of those now have refreshment (but not overnight lodging) for trekkers. Doing the entire length of Wabash would take multiple days (possibly doable in one day on a bike, although biking speed on the unpaved trail is much lower than paved road biking, so doing the entire Wabash is harder than doing a Century ride). Thus a trekker would need vehicle support at the end of each day to find lodging. This contrasts with the Camino which has lodging, water and food at convenient daily hiking intervals, undoubtedly one of the main appeals of the Camino, all the infrastructure to support peregrinos.

In segments (and recording with my GPSr) I’ve done the full length of both of these trails and very much appreciate that the states chose to use the abandoned right-of-way for recreation. But in some ways I view these trails as practice (or an appetizer) for a real long-distance trek.

So now I’ll tie this together with Palencia. A third long-distance trail is the Cowboy Trail. Nominally (except it’s unfinished) it could be the longest trekking trail in the US. It’s a bit longer drive for me to reach it (I can get to MoPac or Wabash in an hour) so I don’t normally consider hiking any of it. But the Cowboy Trail is right next to a highway I driven multiple times. So it turns out the Cowboy Trail is very similar to the Camino, at least the long stretch in Castilla y León and especially Palencia province. It has little shade and so also is hot and dry and flat and passes through either monotonous fields of corn or soybeans and further west (even drier) through pasture land. It looks a LOT like the Palencia stretch of the Camino.

In my other hobby I do an online recreation called Geodashing.  This involves trying to reach completely random “dashpoints”, just a latitude and longitude. Geodashing requires getting within 100m of the coordinates without trespassing on private land so I take each month’s new set of dashpoint (about 30,000 each month, worldwide) and analyze if I can reach them (i.e. drive close, often on very remote and sometimes poor roads). As a consequence, having done this for over 10 years, I’m pretty good at analyzing countryside by satellite photos and sometimes Google Streetviews. Looking down from space on features on the ground takes some practice to imagine what there is at ground level. So I’ve had lots of practice with this and thus far doing the same for the Camino route I think I have a good idea of what is around the Camino route. For the Camino there are actually far more Streetview paths (the Google cars seem to have gone on all the little roads in Spain, more so than here in the Great Plains). I’m sure it would be difference to experience it for real but I think I have a good idea about the landscape.

I first learned of the Camino de Santiago from the movie The Way. Later I learned there are actually many branches of the Camino and so more correctly the part of the Camino I’m following is The French Way, aka, Camino Francés. While this is a very ancient pilgrimage route it was closed during the Moorish occupation of Spain but now is the most popular route. The movie makes the Camino far more visually appealing since it mostly shows scenes in Navarra and Galacia; both of these are wetter (thus greener and often wooded, more like wilderness backpacking trails) and have significant topography (i.e. the Pyrenees). But the bulk of the French Way is actually in flat and boring farm country. While the crops in Spain are different than the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska farmland is farmland and not the appealing scenery of other parts of the Camino.

But wrapping this long post up I want to comment on another interesting feature. That is the relative lack of human habitation outside the small towns.

Several decades ago I did an organized bicycle trip through southern Germany and Austria. Many people on that ride were from the midwest US so we discussed differences between rural areas in Germany vs the US. A very pronounced and obvious difference was the lack of farmhouses out among the fields. It seemed, since on a bike we notice hills, that all the farmers lived in small towns on hills and only crops are present in the bottomlands. At first we speculated this was a historical defensive choice as farming is many centuries older than in the US and Europe had a whole flock of wars. But we later learned the more obvious answer was that hills are drained and dry and so not very good for crops so houses were built there leaving the better-watered areas just for crops.

So that is another very noticeable difference between the three tails I described here in Nebraska and the Camino. When you can see beyond tree cover there are farmhouses everywhere on the Nebraska trails. And from the satellite and Streetview images there are almost none in Spain, just like Germany. The other really noticeable difference (which is correlated with lack of farmhouses) is that fields here are much larger and usually quite regular. This is a consequence of the land policies in the US where the government acquired vast tracts of “empty” land (as the sarcasm goes, “stolen fair and square” from the original peoples) and made these easily available to homesteaders. Thus, at least west of Ohio, most of the farm country in midwest US has a grid of roads (many now abandoned but still visible in satviews) on one mile spacing, aka, “section lines”. A section in the US is 640 acres or one square mile. In fact, an completely different geographical reference system is used, known a township/range and section than longitude or latitude.

The homestead act allow people to acquire a quarter section (160 acres) often free or at least very cheaply. So often each square mile had four farm houses, now with many abandoned. Unlike the irregular patchwork quilt of fields I see in Palencia fields here are almost entirely regular (not true in the older parts of the US, i.e. the eastern states).

In the US those original homesteads have mostly been consolidated into larger blocks of land. With automation it’s entirely feasible (and economically necessary) to farm at least an entire section if not several sections. At the time when this land was originally opened (19th century) such large farms were not feasible.

I happen to know all this as I am in the process of obtaining title to a “small” farm in Oklahoma where my mother’s family lived. That farm is a mere 80 acres, 1/2 of the original tract of the typical quarter section of land grants. Before WWII it was feasible for a family to live on such a small farm, raising some crops for income and others for personal consumption. The titles to the land I will inherit are a mess, stretching back to the early 20th century. But one feature of land ownership, now reversed with “corporate” farming, was original tracts get divided through inheritance. So my little 80 acre farm will have three owners (once all the legal process is completed). My father’s family farm was divided among 14 owners. So in the US there are these two competing trends, dividing larger tracts into smaller ones and then (usually through sale by heirs who don’t want the farm or small farmers who can’t economically farm such a small tract) into much larger tracts.

Now looking at the aerial view of Palencia it’s clear the process of subdividing land has been going on a very long time and thus creates the patchwork quilt of small tracts. When I toured Portugal two decades ago, especially in the area south of Lisbon the “modern” trend typical here in the US was occurring. Small farms were not economically viable once Portugal joined the EU so small tracts were being consolidated into larger ones. Much of the farm country south of Lisbon looks a lot like the midwest US. In fact, I was surprised to see the center pivot irrigation systems sprouting up with equipment that was produced in Nebraska (the origin of the invention of center pivot irrigation, now home to most of the producers of that system). Palencia seems to have escaped this consolidation process but I suspect some of the competitive economic pressures of the EU will lead to more consolidation in Spain as well.

So the lack of farmhouses actually out on the land is, I speculate, primarily economic (not defense). Land is simply too valuable to waste by building even just farmhouses on it. So the farmers live in the small villages in a more urban land use pattern. Since the farms are still small in Palencia there are many villages, as there were in Germany as I found one my bike ride there.

Having so many villages, often just a few kilometers apart, was very handy for our ride in Germany. Most of the towns had at least a gasthaus and often a market and/or a bakery. This made obtaining food and water easy. If a town didn’t have what we needed the next town was 20 minutes away. But that’s on a bike. Walking the towns are a couple of hours apart and of course that’s what I’m seeing on the Camino. Most of the small towns on that route have one or more albergues. It wouldn’t surprise me that on peak days peregrinos out number the local citizens. When I was looking off the Camino in Palencia the amount of lodging and restaurants, in the villages, declined, for the obvious reason they wouldn’t have many customers.

Now this is where I can make another comparison observation. Through geodashing I’ve been through a large number of small villages, mostly here in the Great Plains. And these villages are wasting away. If they were big enough to have some shops the now nearby Walmart (outside the taxing authority of the town) has driven those out of business (now Amazon is helping finish the job as seeing delivery trucks in the middle of nowhere is now much more common than when I first started geodashing). So these towns are dying. As a result they have few resources, either food or lodging for travelers. So along the three trails I described here long-distance self-supported trekking is basically impossible.

So what does all this mean? For me it has reduced my interest in doing the Camino. Too much of the route is this boring and hot/dry countryside with boring little towns (from Streetview also with many abandoned buildings like towns here in the midwest). Simply not very interesting.

Now the Camino was really not for recreational tourism. Its origin was the religious notion of pilgrimage. Where the route was interesting or the towns were interesting is mostly irrelevant from the classical pilgrimage POV. But all those little towns with resources for trekkers has meant most modern pilgrims are largely doing recreational tourism. And that would have been my focus. In my younger days I did quite a bit of backpacking on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. Well my days of sleeping on the ground and eating freeze-dried food are over, my old bones want a bed and hot food. So a long hike on wilderness trails in the US was not on my agenda. So seeing the movie, The Way, I thought the Camino looked like a great alternative. Also with lodging and food the backpack can be a lot lighter than my wilderness backpacking. So it looked attractive.

But now, after my virtual trek, it looks less interesting. Spain is still appealing but I suspect I’d do my conventional tourism (with a car and mostly cities) if I get the chance to go. So I might see bits of the Camino (as I have the Cowboy Trail here) but I doubt I’ll walk it. This is disappointing to me to see the reality of the Camino as rather different than the romanticized view of the movie. The Camino can still be great, certainly as religious or spiritual pilgrimage or as a way to meet a lot of people with the many hours of trekking as an opportunity for conversation. But I was looking at it more like doing the Appalachian Trail but with beds and restaurants. And I think that’s what I’ve learned – too much of the trail would be just hot and dusty and tiring. Many people find the Appalachian Trail fairly boring, often called the “green tunnel”. While there is some spectacular scenery much of the AT is just walking through dense trees with no sights visible. The Pacific Crest Trail, OTOH, is much higher and much of it (at least the California stretch where I’ve backpacked) is dry and so there are some grand vistas.

So it’s all a question of what goals one has for a walk. I liked the Pacific Crest Trail but am now too old to do that. And now it looks like the Camino is out too.

So where do I look now?

Still moving, sadly

I used some of this title line back in a post on June 27 where I described that slowdown in both work on the vocabulary and my physical exertions.  However this month, August, was even worse both in terms of my progress, posting and personal life.

I’m not mugging for sympathy but last Saturday I was attending services for my sister, my only sibling, who died from pancreatic cancer on August 22nd.  There is a connection between her and my work on Spanish culinary terms which I’ll explain. Fortunately I was able to visit her while she was still lucid for her last (77th) birthday. Her death the day after my birthday was a shock. It was all very sudden. She loved her life and was looking forward to more of it – it’s not fair.

My sister loved travel. She had recently covered two places in the world she’d missed, Russia and India. She really only had one place left on her bucket list, Peru. Unlike me she’d been in Spain multiple times. IIRC her first visit was as a chaperone, cheerleader and tutor for her college’s football team, on one of those goodwill type visits of US sports teams to play exhibition games with European teams.

The reason my sister applies to this blog is that I had discussed with her my interest in learning to read restaurant menus in Spain, under the assumption that some day I would be doing it in person. She thought my idea was wrong; instead she advocated learning conversational Spanish so I could query the servers about the food. Her idea was one she had lived. She was more interested in food in Mexico but also learning Spanish. She made three trips, either to a Spanish-only cooking school or to live with families as process of learning “native” Spanish. She worked very hard at it (it was her fifth language). She even found Spanish speakers in her hometown in Ohio and shared cross-teaching where she’d help them with English and they’d help her with Spanish. In addition to Mexico she traveled to Puerto Rico primarily for restaurant visits but also she’d been to Guatemala (again with food but primarily art interest) and was learning Venezuelan cuisine from her friends in Ohio.

So she did what she advocated for me. But I never told her an anecdote about her Spanish. I have a sister-in-law who works on educational materials for ESL (English as a Second Language). She knows some Spanish but isn’t fluent. But her work brings her in contact with many native speakers. And she has a ear for languages. She had gone on a group trip to Oaxaca that my sister had organized and so observed her speaking to the locals. She joked that my sister’s accent was so bad she was barely understandable to native speakers. My sister had a PhD in English Literature and was very academically inclined, so naturally she had mastered grammar and vocabulary. But when it came to speaking she wasn’t great.

Now this anecdote also had a bearing on me. Just before I left California 20 years ago I had enrolled in Spanish classes. I’d gotten some books, a couple of DVDs and had tried to learn Spanish on my own. It was a complete failure. Having some conversational ability in Spanish, in California and some other parts of the USA is a survival skill. Most of the people I might hire as skilled labor for projects around my home had minimal English knowledge and so my being somewhat fluent in Spanish would have been helpful to discuss the work. Also on various bike rides I ended up in towns where the only language spoken was Spanish. But alas I have no talent for languages. I did learn some French and some German and could barely get by (using French in Quebec and German in Germany and Austria). But I just could never either hear or speak the sounds needed for Spanish. I sometimes watch Spanish TV programs here and the words go by so fast I catch almost nothing. It’s a hard language for me. OTOH, the written part is not so bad. Frankly it’s easier than either French or German and so I can do the “book learning” part of Spanish, much like my sister. But I suspect my accent would be far worse than hers and no one would understand me. So I’ll persist in my project focused on written materials, i.e. restaurant menus.

So that’s enough on that subject, why then am I labeling this post about my progress on my virtual trek. Despite spending most of August either driving or at my sister’s house I did manage to get some miles in.  As I mentioned in my previous post I was doing around 25 miles/month in the early months of the year but had fallen to about 14 miles/month. So in August I did manage 17.55 miles. Of course this is nothing compared to the requirements of pilgrimage on the Camino, literally my monthly amounts being around the requirement PER DAY! to complete the Camino in the standard time. But to my defense I also did 355 miles on stationary bike even in the few days I was at my home with my exercise equipment. And August was the end of my most recent year of records and so I’ve done 5698 miles of biking which isn’t too bad. In California where I regularly did recreational rides as well as commuting to work on a bike I only did about 4000 miles a year and that was 25 years younger than now.

In fact, even though walking seems the best way to do the Camino I am reconsidering whether I might try it on a bike instead. I once did a two week escorted trip in Germany where we averaged about 50 miles a day. But there the overnight stops were arranged and luggage was carried in the sag wagon. For the Camino it’s a bit tougher, both to find lodging (and even food) and carry cargo. I have done one bike camping trip along the California coast, again in the 50 mile/day range. Having all my camping gear on the bike made the riding more challenging (even requiring walking too very steep hills despite my low gears that had always worked, even in the Sierra Nevada climbs). It was quite a bit harder than an escorted trip. Of course all sorts of escorted trips exist for the Camino so maybe I’ll be realistic and do one of those.

So on the last day of August I did reach another destination along the Camino at 245.63 miles, the small town of Calzadilla de la Cueza. There are a couple of albergues (and some private rooms) and perhaps one restaurant (no online menu to translate). But what was a bit interesting was the previous stop with lodging and food was 10 miles earlier. On a bike that’s no big deal but on foot, if one had arrived at Carrión de los Condes and discovered there were no spaces continuing on to Calzadilla de la Cueza would be difficult. That is one of the challenges I see with my doing the Camino solo. I’m not quite as flexible as I was 50 years ago and so being relatively certain I have a reasonable place for overnight is pretty critical. So this gap I covered in August is the longest I’ve encountered thus far.

And this is one of the appeals of the Camino. It’s so popular there is a lot of infrastructure to support trekkers. In contrast the California coast (or even worse the trip across America) can have vast distances with little facilities, even water can be a challenge. OTOH, biking in Germany was fine as the distances between towns was a easy ride and there were many towns. BUT local customs matter – Germany had weekday ruhetags (rest days) and arriving in a town on that day, forget staying in the local gasthof. So a solo traveler can find themselves in a bit of a jam.

So again I may have to consider an escorted trip as my days of solo travel may be past.

So I hope to do a bit better this month on both my treadmill and biking distances. The visits to my sister interrupted my schedule but at least the last one where she was alive I will cherish and be happy I wasn’t on the Camino and unable to see her one last time. I will be glad to be home and exercising rather than that very sad traveling.