“’Life always teaches us more than the road to Santiago does,’ he answered. ‘But we don’t have much faith in what life teaches us.’”
– Paulo Coelho

Several years ago my sister, Gloria, mentioned the Camino to me. I started reading about it and knew immediately I wanted to walk the 500+ miles of The French Way to Santiago de Compostela someday. In 2018, I made a commitment to myself that it would be the year of my Camino, and it was–618 miles in 35 days. I began training in February, walking in different combinations of shoes and socks, and acquiring the supplies I would carry with me.

I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port on July 19 and started the next day. Before leaving, I felt nauseous–not sick but filled with anxiety. Three years earlier I attempted to walk the 187 miles of the C&O Canal, but was unable to do so because of blisters and injured feet. The nagging fear of another failure was causing anxiety, but I had learned from my prior experience and had properly trained for this one.

The first day was the most difficult. I walked 16.24 miles with an elevation gain of 4,554 feet. I met travelers from Germany, Austria and Hungary, who became what I referred to as The Fellowship. They were what I needed that first day. There were many days I walked with some of them for part of the day and there were many days I did not see any of them. But I developed strong bonds with all of them.

Words cannot express how incredible this experience was. There is something special, spiritual, and powerful about walking a great distance with a 20+ pound backpack every day. For 35 days, my job was to get up, pack my backpack, start walking, get some food along the way, find a room and bed in a distant town, hand wash my clothes, eat dinner, and go to bed. Of course, each day also entailed accepting the “gifts” of the Camino, such as blisters, muscle soreness, other pilgrims, insights and lessons, etc. I knew people who walked in immense pain, some who had to quit because of infected blisters, others who could not be away from work or family for the time it takes to finish the path. I even heard of two deaths on the Camino during the time I was walking.

For me, I developed blisters (everyone does) but nothing significant, and there were sore-muscle days. But the things I learned from failure, the training I completed, and the experimentation of shoes and socks protected me. In fact, the shoes died after 26 days but the miracle of duct tape applied every two days got me through until the end.

Completing my Camino gave me an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Of course, I was grateful that I was physically able to complete the pilgrimage and grateful that my mind, body and spirit was soaring every day. I am also grateful for the team and clients at Bernhardt Wealth Management who helped make it possible for me to be away from the office for 49 days. And I am grateful for all of my family and friends who kept me in their thoughts and prayers. All of those combined to give me the best experience of my life.

After returning from my journey, we held the fifth Celebration of Profiles in Success. In addition to the annual award presentation to a leader demonstrating character, chemistry and caring, we were also honored to hear from Profiles alum, Bill Carteaux, President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association. A leader whose industry was significantly affected by the Great Recession and a two-time cancer survivor, Bill shared insight he gained as a result of tough choices he had to make during difficult times in his life. His emotional talk centered around persistence, courage and gratitude even when it seems there’s little to be thankful for. He ended with an announcement that just days earlier he learned that his cancer was back for a third time.

“Love, life and leadership are choices you make every day,” Bill told us. “The real work of love, life and leadership comes down to making a decision to do that work; to put in the hours and the time and the sweat to make these things a priority and a part of your life that benefits everybody, not just you.”

A few weeks later, Bill passed. While saddened for his family, I was moved by a sense of gratitude. Grateful for the opportunity to have met Bill. Grateful to have written his story in Profiles. And grateful that I was able to hear him speak so eloquently one final time. I found myself remembering a particular day on my Camino. While walking I happened to notice all the ant trails weaving across the roads in front of me. I grew up on a farm, so I knew ants travel in a line. But for some reason my eyes were opened clearly to the beauty of their tiny trails moving right in front of me. That was how Bill chose to live his life; observing and appreciating all the little things in this world.

Researchers have alerted us to the importance of gratitude–its positive impact on our mental and physical wellbeing, as well as our connectedness with others. I believe it can transform a job into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. So, just as Bill encouraged us, I also urge you pay attention to the small details in your day, your career and your life. Pause, appreciate and choose to keep going.

Thank you for allowing me to share my Camino with you. Please visit https://www.facebook.com/Gordon.J.Bernhardt to see pictures and read more about my trek. Because I am committed to keeping alive the appreciation for my life – big and small – I’d like to thank the Profiles community for the tremendous gifts I’ve received from my interviews with these individuals. Each have influenced me in ways that I’ll never be able to repay, but for which I’m truly grateful.

Read Bill Carteaux’s profile on page 21. Then ask yourself; “What is keeping me from appreciating what is right in front of me? Am I paying attention to the small things? Do I demonstrate gratitude in a way that lifts those around me?”

I love my Camino, but our day to day lives can teach us just as much if we allow it.

Gordon J. Bernhardt
President and Founder
Bernhardt Wealth Management, Inc.