Lots of people take a walk to clear their heads, but have you ever walked over 600 miles to do it? On a misty gray morning in the summer of 2018, Gordon Bernhardt set out from a small town in the French Pyrenees to walk the ancient pilgrim route of Camino de Santiago, seeking clarity for his business, his relationships, and his priorities in life. The lessons he learned as a Peregrino of Pilgrim ranged from insights on financial advising and investing to the importance of noticing the tiniest details of each day, like the ant trails winding across the path at his feet or the smiling sunflower that light into steps in the middle of a hot summer day. 

An investing book like no other, Buen Camino: What a Hike through Spain Taught Me about Investing and Life will remind you that although we’re all walking a different path, we’re all headed for a common destination. This is The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host, Frank Garza. Today I’m joined by Gordon Bernhardt, author of a brand new book Buen Camino: What a Hike through Spain Taught Me about Investing and Life. 

Gordon, welcome to the show.

Gordon Bernhardt: Thank you, Frank. I’ll start off by saying Buen Camino.

Frank Garza: I know what that means. I know Spanish, more or less. So I’m very familiar with that term. Of course, it’s the name of your book. So to start, I’d love to hear a little bit about your background and how that led to you writing this book?

Gordon’s Background

Gordon Bernhardt: There’s two things probably know about my background. One is that I’m a farm boy from Nebraska. I grew up with just in a situation, not a lot of money, but my work ethic, my values were formed by my parents and just the experiences on the farm. As I walked in Spain in 2018, there was a lot of time I did reflect upon that walk. The work I do; I moved to Washington, DC area in 1981. The work I’ve done; I created a company in 1994, called Bernhardt Wealth Management, and the work we do with our clients is to again, help them make smart decisions about their money and help them be their guide through their journey through life and reach the goals that they want to do. 

As I was walking this walk in Spain, I also reflected a lot about the work we do for our clients. It was amazing, just the things that came to mind that emphasized the value we perform for our clients in the journey, the importance of what we do, and how closely that walk tied to what we do. At some point, I’m sure I’ll tell you a little bit more about that, but that’s my background.

Frank Garza: I guess, we should have an opening when you said “Buen Camino,” we talked about, for folks who don’t know what that saying means, can you explain that?

Gordon Bernhardt: Sure. I walked in 2018 the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It’s an ancient pilgrimage has its roots in Christianity or Catholicism, because the Apostle James is reported to be buried in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. So around the 800 AD, his body was thought to be found and a Cathedral was built near that spot. Christians from all over Europe would take a pilgrimage to pay homage to the Apostle James. Obviously, centuries have passed since that time, but people still do walk that trail or multiple different trails. It’s a lot different today than it was obviously in 800 AD because your pilgrimage started when you left your house, whereas I flew into Paris, took a bus and train to a corner of France and started walking the next day across the Pyrenees. 

The common term that we all shared with each other on the Camino — so if I’m walking with another peregrino, which is a pilgrim, if I was walking with them, and we parted ways, we probably ended our conversation by saying “Buen Camino” which is just again, it’s a wish for good travels, happy travels, have a great journey. If you’re walking through a village, a Spaniard probably said the same thing, because it was clear that they knew who the pilgrims were and who the locals were. So it’s that common term, it’s like us saying, “Have a great day.” 

Buen Camino was that term that you just extended to basically wish the person you’re with or wish somebody else a great day. The book was titled that, because that ties very much into what we do for our clients in some respects. Every email and letter that I send out today doesn’t end with sincerely your best regards. It ends with Buen Camino.

Frank Garza: You told me a little bit about the history of the Camino de Santiago. Tell me a little bit more about the trail. How far is it? How long does it take? What kind of people, fellow travelers do you see on the trail, that sort of thing?

The Camino de Santiago Trail

Gordon Bernhardt: Obviously, it’s very popular in Europe, probably a small percentage of Americans know about the trail. It became more popular a few years ago, when Emilio Estevez and his father, Martin Sheen, were in a movie called The Way. It was a movie directed by Emilio Estevez and his father starred in the movie — I think that made the trail more popular from Americans. There was a spike in Americans, I believe, following that movie when it came out. 

The trail itself, there’s multiple trails to get to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the Apostle James is reported to be buried. Again, you could walk from anywhere. One of my good friends that I met on day one of my walk, he actually started walking from his home in Austria. Now, that doesn’t happen very often. The most pilgrims flew in to begin at various spots. I had a good friend who started his pilgrimage, probably just inside the French border. I started in that French village called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and crossed the Pyrenees the very first day. That’s the start of the French way. 

Now, there’s the Portuguese way that I believe, begins in Lisbon. There’s multiple paths that one could take and one could fly into Burgos, fly into any part in Spain and just begin wherever they were inclined to begin. I started the French way, [which] is the most popular route. That began in that small village in France, and then walked across northern Spain, through the Meseta and eventually to the Cathedral in Spain. That’s about 500 miles from that French village, with again, different elevation gains and losses. I plan on taking 31 days. Now, it’s not a race. So a person can take as long as they want, or as fast as they want. 

In fact, I met one person who, man, he was probably walking 40, 50, 60 miles a day. That was his Camino. He was actually, he was a very religious person, but he was really going at this at a very fast pace. I mean, most guidebooks probably have about around 30 days to walk that part in France, to the cathedral. For many, that’s the end of it, because you’ve reached now the cathedral, you’ve concelebrated, you had your pilgrimage — which I didn’t want to do, but I also wanted to walk to the ocean. I didn’t consider my pilgrimage complete until I left the cathedral the next day. Then I walked another four days to a small village on the coastline called Finisterre. The reason I wanted to get there was that means the end of the world in the Roman days, so I felt like, I want to start in France. I wanted to end at the end of the world. My journey was 35 days, 618 miles.

Frank Garza: Sounds amazing. You touched on this a little bit earlier, but you saw a lot of correlations between themes or things you learned on the hike and how that correlates to your day-to-day work and wealth management. I want to touch on some of those. You have a chapter called “The Inner Journey”. One of the things you talk about is getting rid of excess baggage and lightening your load so to speak. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you did that on the trail and how does that correlate to your work as a wealth manager?

The Inner Journey: What Is Really Important?

Gordon Bernhardt: Yes. The importance of lightening the load is very important like Camino. As I was preparing for the Camino, everything I read basically said, begin carry as little as possible. I met people, heard of people, read about people who didn’t take that to heart and they began to carry more on the journey, and then they eventually lighten their load. 

So the journey begins. The advice is to take only what you know you need. So keep your backpack as light as possible. There’s even stories of people who will cut off part of the toothbrush just save that little bit of weight. I’ve heard people also — most of us are going to walk with a guidebook — they’ll have maps and have some descriptions of some of the villages that we can go through. I’ve heard of people also ripping page by page by page out every day to begin, so they don’t have to carry that excess weight along the way. 

The principle here is simply, as we go through life, what’s really important? And sometimes we carry this baggage — and the baggage that could be things — that could be we are caught up in things that really aren’t that important. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a nice house, a fancy house. Again, we all have to live the life that we are meant to live in an authentic fashion, but what’s really important in terms of the possessions we have, the relationships we have, and to focus in on the things that are important, the things that are meaningful to us, the things that are going to make a difference in the lives of the people we love. That’s what we mean by lightening the load.

Frank Garza: Okay, later on in the book, there’s a chapter called, “We’re All Peregrino’s”. There’s a quote, I want to read from that, “When we become preoccupied, we fail to notice so much that is going on around us. Most critically, perhaps we fail to notice the people in our lives.” So can you just expand upon this, and again how you experienced that on the trail and how you think that applies to life?

Gordon Bernhardt: Yeah. That was an important part. If I recall correctly, I think I’d begin that chapter by, really in the days before I was to fly to Paris. I’m very focused, very preoccupied with the things that I need to do in the last day or two here in the office or in Northern Virginia. So I mentioned in the story that my staff, unbeknownst to me, was planning — I didn’t start this, of course, with the story — but they just happened to be planning a surprise party. Now I had all these plans. I was going to get my hair cut a little bit shorter than I normally get it cut, because I was going to be gone for several weeks. I scheduled my haircut. I planned to go home to spray my backpack and my sleeping bag. It can air out a little bit with some bug spray, because occasionally, you do hear incidents of bedbugs along the way. Again, I wanted to minimize that as much as possible. 

I had all these things that I meant to accomplish that day and they kept getting disrupted. The barber called me up and asked me if he could move the haircut from 10:30 to two o’clock. I was irritated by that, because my plan, I need to keep my plan on track. Of course the team was trying to make it, that I was here in the office at time. I told him that absolutely impossible, that goes somebody else to get a haircut. He complied, I got my hair cut, went home, my team said a client happened to stop by the office who’s a very valued friend, a longtime friend of mine and a client. 

Again, I was just a little bit irritated by the fact that my friend was swinging by. So I come into the office and again, the little things, there was some smiles, but I just didn’t notice that. I was focused on again, getting things done. I came in, and lo and behold, walked into the surprise party, which I swore nobody would ever be able to do that with me, but the point was here, I was so preoccupied with my life. I wasn’t paying attention to the little details and sometimes it’s just the details through life that we should focus upon, and that was quite evident through much of the parts. 

I remember a story of, again, just walking on the second day and walking through pastures and how again, growing up on a farm, I’d see a gate open with livestock in there that a Peregrino left open. Again, to me, that was a little detail; you should close the gate behind you. Yes, we’re all Peregrinos. We’re all on a journey through life. I think through life — in life, we all need good traveling companions that will one, again, close the gate, help us along the way. I think from a standpoint of again, wealth management perspective, we know the value that we provide to our clients by being there for them, to be their reliable and dependable traveling companion on their journey through life.

Frank Garza: Later on, you have a chapter called, “The Day the Bubble Burst”. I always, I’ve thought that whole chapter was going to be about the markets at first, but to actually start with a story about your shoe. Can you share that story and then again, how that applies to your financial planning?

The Day the Bubble Burst

Gordon Bernhardt: Sure. “The Day that Bubble Burst”; so we automatically think — least if we were adults, probably at the start of 2000, when the tech bubble burst, and I do refer to that in the chapter, but The Day the Bubble Burst, for me was basically, I think, on day nine of my hike. I had bought a pair of shoes. A trail running shoe in the salesman said, one of the features of this shoe is that there’s a bubble in the heel, and the manufacturer put it there, because that would help then give you an additional little bit of a cushion. Again, I tried seven different pairs of shoes on as I was preparing for my walk to see what shoes were more comfortable on my feet, but on day nine of my walk, I heard that bubble burst. I was walking and there was a pop. 

Immediately, I’m again fearful of what’s that going to mean? Because I picked a pair of shoes they were comfortable to start off with, and will that impact the rest of the journey in some way? Eventually, I just had to put it outside my mind, because again, if I thought about it too much [the] fear [would] become rooted and you would just again [be] cautiously wondering, is this journey going to be disrupted because of this bubble burst? Unfortunately, it didn’t, but actually, long story short, I think the bubble made the shoe less strong in some respects so about nine days left on the hike, I noticed that the hole went all the way through the shoe. I didn’t notice with the orthotic I had it there, but as a result, dirt was coming in. So it did create a flaw, I think, in the manufacture of that shoe in the long run. 

The investment principles here — we do talk about that tech bubble in March of 2000. We talked about one of the most, biggest bubbles was a Tulip Mania bubble in the 1600s and that investors as a whole need to be wary of fads. I bought this shoe. I think the bubble was a fad. It’s a nice, I think sales feature, but when you really think about it, again, the structure of the shoe was weakened, because of the bubble. I bought a fad [because it] sounded great and as investors, often we just don’t know about the product that we’re being sold. Is that a feature that just is made there to make us buy it or is it really that helpful? We have to be careful on our financial journey through life.

Frank Garza: Okay, another chapter title I really liked was, “Bussing My Own Table”. Why did you name that chapter like that? What’s the lesson from that chapter?

Bussing My Own Table

Gordon Bernhardt: My routine on the Camino was to probably start walking about 6:30 in the morning when it was still dark. I try to walk eight or nine miles grab a breakfast along the way, and then continue walking until I probably reached the destination at some point middle of the afternoon, then I’d find a hotel. So, that was my routine. That mid-morning meal was an important meal for me, because that provided me fuel to get through, again, the rest of that day’s journey where I would then find some food. I happened to be sitting in in a small cafe and not thinking about it. 

Yet most of the villages you walk through, by the way, are small. There are some significant towns or cities that you walk through, but most of the villages are again, quite small and many of them are dependent upon the pilgrim trade, so to speak as walking through and buying food, finding a bed to stay in the village. So it was just natural for me. I ordered my food and when I was done, I just picked up my coffee cup, my plate, my fork and spoon and knife and took it back to a central spot and to leave it. Again, the proprietor of this hotel was a woman, was busy and the fact that I did that, she was so overjoyed. She said “Mucho gracias, mucho gracias.” She said it so many times and to me it wasn’t a big deal, but for her it meant a lot.

She gave me so much joy, because I walked probably in a much lighter fashion, because the fact that this little action I did made her day, but she really made my day by giving me that gift of mucho gracias. The principle there is simply, is again, how can we find ways to give back? Sometimes a simple “hi”, a smile along the way. If you’re waiting in a grocery store line. Why not? Again, give a friendly greeting to somebody in front of you or behind you or the checkout person. Smile, be friendly, look at ways to give back to those around you. That was the principle in this chapter. 

I did mention in this chapter about the importance of smiles. I was walking along one day, and there was a wheat field on my left and on the side of this wheat field was one lone sunflower. I’m pretty sure it was the owner of the field that probably planted the sunflower, which surprised me if he does it every year. As the head of that sunflower matured, he picked out some of the seeds so that as it continued to grow, it filled in, and then you had a smile. Everybody that I shared that photo with, whether I shared it on social media, it made so many people’s day and it still makes my day, because it is one of my favorite photos from the Camino. Again, the importance of smiles, the importance of giving back, just be friendly to everyone around you.

Frank Garza: Yeah, the photo is pretty shocking. I heard you mentioned it earlier in the book, but then when I actually came to the part where I saw the photo, that almost looks fake, because it’s just such a perfect smile on the sunflower. Well, Gordon, this has been such a pleasure, and congratulations on putting this book out into the world. The book is called Buen Camino: What a Hike through Spain Taught Me about Investing and Life. Before we wrap up, there’s just a few more things I’d like to ask you about. The first one is, where can people find you?

Gordon Bernhardt: My company’s website is bernhardtwealth.com. I am in the process of creating a website at gordonjbernhardt.com. I’ll have more of my photos on that website, including the photos that are in the book, so one can always check out gordonjbernhardt.com to again, bernhardtwealth.com for my business.

Frank Garza: Okay. Then finally, I loved how your book ended. You and I were talking about this a little bit before we started the recording, but would you be willing to just share that last part of the book, as we wrap up this podcast? 

Gordon Bernhardt: Yeah. Thank you, Frank. The book closes in a meaningful way — at least it does to me, because again, this journey was transformational for me. It touched my heart, it reinforced in my mind what’s really important, and there were things I already knew, but it did reinforce it. It reinforced how we serve our clients, our commitment to our clients. The book ends in three short paragraphs. Again, it speaks to the heart of this. I think it is an appropriate way to close this podcast, so here it goes. 

“So, as we reach the end of this journey together, I can hardly do better, by way of parting words than to return to the ideas with which I started this book. We are all fellow travelers, whether we are walking together on a road in Spain, working in tandem toward a goal in a business, or living side-by-side in a family. We have come from many places, but we are all traveling to reach the same place, which is understanding and fitting into our place in this world and in the lives of those dearest to us, all of us, whether we realize it or not, are on a journey towards self-understanding, significance and meaning. I hope that you are not only aware of your journey, but also deeply committed to it. I hope that you are able to see the exceeding value of each moment and that you can receive the gifts that each day brings. Above all, I hope that your journey goes well. Buen Camino.”