Our Time on the Great Road

Author: Kate Russell


The day had been one of our best, rigorous but delightful. Under a saturated blue sky, we had logged nearly 18 miles, passing through mountains awash in heather, yellow broom and white gorse.

Now darkness settled over our 21st day of walking across the northern reaches of Spain on the Camino de Santiago trail. As with most evenings, our loosely organized group was enjoying dinner, this time in a cafe in the city of Ponferrada. We struck up a conversation with a couple at a nearby table, pilgrims like ourselves. They introduced themselves as Canadians. When I said I was an American, they were surprised.

“We’ve met almost no Yanks on the trail,” the man said. I agreed. “Actually,” I replied, “I’ve met more Koreans.”

He thought for a second or two then said, “I did hear about three older guys from the U.S., friends who do bike trips together and are now walking the Camino, although we haven’t run into them.” I laughed and raised my hand. I was one of the three. Such is the intimacy of pilgrims. My friends and I had become one of the storylines along the Camino de Santiago.

Apparently it was a storyline with some appeal. We three “older guys,” all in our mid-60s, were Lee Stewart and me from the Midwest and Joe Lawton from Palmer, Alaska. We were joined by Garry Eastman, a publishing colleague of mine from Melbourne, Australia.

Graying and/or balding—although relatively fit—we saw the Camino as a challenging undertaking, a good gig with which to celebrate retirement, actual or impending. Lee, Joe and I had met in the 1970s while teaching in Guam. We had stayed in touch over the years, and in the last decade we had done some biking together.

So it came about in the spring of 2007 that I compressed my world into a 16-pound backpack and, with these friends of 30 or more years, became a pilgrim. We set out to walk this ancient pilgrimage route that winds its way from the Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela, a major Christian pilgrimage destination. There legend holds the Apostle James the Greater is buried. Starting in the mountain village of Roncesvalles, close by the French border, we walked westward for 500 miles.

We had no guides, no porters, no support vehicles, not even reservations in hostels at our daily destinations. We allowed ourselves about 35 days and simply set out one Friday in April following way markers—ceramic tiles of all sizes and shapes with bright yellow arrows set in a royal blue field.

Once underway, we quickly linked up with a group of mostly Brits who themselves had met while waiting for their luggage in the airport in Biarritz, France. As with Chaucer’s “nine and twenty” who gathered in Southwark to go to Canterbury, we “fell into fellowship.”

A spiritual quest
Through years of wishful thinking and months of planning, the object of my quest was never just Santiago. Because of a long interest in the spirituality of place, my destination was the Camino itself, a 500-mile ribbon walk stretching into the daily horizon, beckoning me not to get to Santiago, but to go to Santiago. I wished not solely to visit the burial place of a friend of Jesus but to experience this great road hallowed by millions of timeless footfalls.

During Christendom, a pilgrimage to Santiago was solely a religious act, motivated by the promise of God’s special blessing, the forgiveness of sins, healing of an ailment or a pass into heaven. Sometimes it was a penance given at confession. Occasionally it was a sentence meted out for a crime, serious or minor. Pilgrims would simply walk from their villages across Europe to such gathering places as Paris, Antwerp or Arles, then make their way in groups across Europe to the Pyrenees. Once in Spain most would merge onto what was known as the Camino Francés and the final 500 miles to Santiago. Since they would return by the same route, the pilgrimage often took a year out of their lives.

For many it is still solely a religious act, but as The Lonely Planet Guide to Spain explains, modern pilgrims also walk the Camino “for the art, the physical challenge, the gorgeous ever-changing landscapes, to decide what’s next in life, take a spiritual or religious journey, enjoy a cheap holiday, or to work out a mid-life crisis: inevitably, they end up having the adventure of a lifetime.” Upward of 100,000 people a year in this, the 21st century, choose to walk this ancient route.

Lee, Joe, Garry and I each had our individual reasons for walking. Mine were varied: to reflect on the gifts of my life and the opportunities, as well as the inevitable diminishments, that lie ahead; to experience the spiritual benefits of walking both with friends and in solitude; and to expand my comfort zone through a physical and mental challenge. That experience unfolded as one of companionship and contemplation—long stretches of lively companionship, long stretches of calming silence.

Our patterns were quickly set in the early days. We established a loose discipline of starting before 7 a.m. with a set destination and walking, on average, 16 miles a day. We’d walk alone and with others, link up with different walking mates at cafes and lunch stops. Once at our destination we’d check into a dormitory-style hostel, called an _albergue_—a hostel for walking and cycling pilgrims only—claim or be assigned a bed, get cleaned up, do laundry, hang out and explore the town, then gather for a late afternoon respite of wine, bread, cheese and chorizo.

Such routines were social. We shared knowledge and supplies, stories and advice. People we met on the track we’d see in the albergues. People we’d meet in the albergues we’d then see on the road. The environment of mutual support and common purpose encouraged almost instant bonding.

Our evening dinners became decompression sessions, boisterous events of wide-ranging conversation fueled by good Spanish red. One night, a couple days after we had celebrated my 66th birthday, Joe apologized for our noise to two men at a nearby table. A father and son duo, the older man identified himself as a classics professor at a university in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I never thought I’d be listening to conversation in a bar in Spain about Horace, Juvenal, Chaucer and Borat.”

Restless nights
On the very first night we encountered the plague of the Camino. Put 10 to 80 pilgrims in a dormitory room, and a few will snore and many will sleep badly. A monumental offender was a large fellow named Giovanni. He was an unlikely trekker, overweight and in poor physical condition. He pulled a wheeled suitcase and would strap it to his back on difficult terrain. We once saw him soaking his tired feet, shoes on, in a cold mountain stream. He responded cheerfully to our greetings and encouragement.

As affable as he was on the trail, he was a pariah in the albergues. His snoring would erupt in great, episodic bursts that would build and fade with no meter. During our first night at the monastery hostel in Roncesvalles, he drove Garry to the hallway in pursuit of sleep. Two nights later he struck again, and a dozen bleary-eyed pilgrims set off exhausted in the morning. The next night I walked into my dorm room of about 20 and said I had seen Giovanni checking in downstairs. Word spread across several languages, and people quickly threw their gear on empty beds so he would think the room was full and move on. He did. In fact, we didn’t see him for several days.

Then one rainy afternoon, as we walked over some high, expansive hills, with the red-dirt Camino unfolding in the distance, we spotted him walking along a paved road several hundred yards away wearing a large yellow poncho. He found an access path and made his way to us. We asked where he had been. He said he knew his snoring was keeping people awake, so he had been staying in private hotels. Like most of the pilgrims, he too was concerned about others.

Occasionally a dark reality touched us. On my first day of walking we came upon a body on the narrow track outside the small mountain hamlet of Linzoan. Two police officers stood by, having draped the dead man in a foil blanket. Jill, one of our British companions who also could speak Spanish, learned that he was 54-year-old from Madrid, a pilgrim taking a break between jobs. A week earlier, and perhaps 20 miles behind us, a British walker had died of exposure in a sudden snowstorm in the Roldan Pass.

Muddy times
The first 10 days of walking brought us to Burgos, where it snowed. We had started on a lovely, warm spring day in the Pyrenees, walked westward into increasing daily heat that peaked in the 90s for two days then started to drop. The rain clouds rolled in from the Bay of Biscay, 70 to 80 miles to the north, and stayed with us for five days. The first day was the worst as we walked in driving downpour and through six miles of thick, red mud. Fortunately I was with Kevin, a bear of a storytelling Celt and an experienced walker. He’d leave big, flat footprints in the mud that I would step into and avoid much of the goo.

The rain and mud lasted five days—off and on. But the temperatures declined steadily until we woke up to the snow in Burgos. Fortunately we had already decided to take a day off to see the old city and do laundry in the two-star hotel we had splurged on. It was May Day, so not much was open. We resorted to doing our laundry in the bathtub and hanging it all around the hotel room. We did find a lively tapas bar in the old city where we spent the afternoon celebrating the 42nd birthday of Matt, one of our British companions.

Although we took only one day off, the rest was rejuvenating. For 165 miles we had made our way on foot through mountains and across flats over all manner of trail and track; in near freezing cold and dusty 90-degree heat; through sheeted rain and sloppy mud; up and down slick, slippery scree and into the face of hat-stripping winds.

Navigating such conditions was difficult but satisfying, which was more than we could say for the din of urban life on the approach to Burgos. Heavy truck traffic, dangerous road crossings, factories, commercial outlets and unsmiling residents offered an appalling contrast to the remote countryside.

Aches and pains
We arrived in Terradillos de Templarios on Day 16. This town sits isolated at the crest of a small rise on the Spanish plains, called the meseta, nearly halfway across the Camino. In the Middle Ages the Knights Templar made it a patrol outpost, and not much has happened there since. Among the few remaining buildings were a shuttered and bolted church and a family-run albergue. It was a welcoming place after a 16-plus mile walk in the face of stiff winds. It had a washer and dryer, a pleasant courtyard where we enjoyed the late afternoon sun, plenty of hot water for showers, and only five or six guests to a room.

Sadly, Lee, our chief mischief-maker and cheerleader, was to return home the next day for his son’s graduation from an MBA program. Eight or nine of us gathered at a table with a couple of bottles of wine for a proper goodbye, and he reminded us that he had done an iron-man triathlon to celebrate his 60th birthday. “I prepared for months, went out and did it one Saturday, then went home and licked my wounds.”

Always the teacher, he said the Camino was in many ways more difficult. “You get up every morning, not just one day, and start walking again. You’re the real iron-men,” he told us.

Not many felt that way the next morning. Three had been violently ill during the night. Garry got hit the worst. He got a ride to nearby Sahagún then took a train to Leon, where he could rest for a couple of days before we met up with him. Kevin, the Scot, slept in, then walked six miles to Sahagún with me and caught a train to our next destination. Lee, also indisposed, walked to Sahagún and took a train to Madrid to catch his flight home.

I linked up with Jill for the rest of the day. She had tripped over a chair leg a week or more before and pulled a groin muscle. Determined to get to Santiago, she pushed on in growing pain. Then she developed a foot problem. Our afternoon was marked by the constant refrain “Oh, bloody hell!” Two days later, on the advice of a doctor in Leon, she would hang up her walking shoes and leave for home. We knew only too well that injury and physical and mental fatigue claimed fellow pilgrims daily, but Jill was one of us. We were her “10 little Indians” and would miss this experienced, tenacious walker, as well as her regular botany lessons.

And Joe was getting restless. A lean-legged former marathoner, he wanted to to do “some 25-mile days.” In some ways, knowing he needed to strike out was difficult for me. He was a lively travel companion, and it had been his encouragement that had gotten me off the bench and onto the Camino in the first place. I also understood that we all had to walk our own Camino. Two days past Leon he pulled ahead and, in an amazing feat of endurance, walked to Santiago, tacked on 60 miles to the Atlantic, then took a bus back to Santiago to be there the day before our arrival.

Regaining focus
In those days I got caught up in just getting to Santiago, to counting the days. It was due in part to adverse weather. Also some of the Brits had earlier arrival dates in Santiago and were picking up the pace. In the six days since Burgos we had averaged 19 miles a day, compared to 14 prior to that. Over strong, dark coffee and so-so rolls—what lamely passes for a Spanish breakfast—Garry and I talked about being on what seemed to have become a forced march.

Garry, however, also talked about our reasons, some of them faith-based, for undertaking this difficult endeavor. He helped me realize I had lost my focus. I resolved to savor each day for what it offered. The next day we took an alternate 14-mile route to Mazariffe, in part because the paella at the albergue was supposed to be so good. I was back on track, literally and figuratively.

At Ponferrada, Kevin, the last of the Brits, pushed on while Garry and I, ahead of schedule, took two days off in order to wait for his wife, Lynne, and my friend Charlie Hayes ’65, so they would have a full week of walking. We were soon a new group that also included Shannon, a Lutheran minister from Seattle, and Carol from Quebec, whom we linked up with after Leon. Again the Camino meant for instant bonding.

A walking retreat
In the spirit of a pilgrimage, I tried to make my Camino a walking retreat but wasn’t sure how walking as a spiritual practice would unfold for me. How could a piously impaired man undertake such an endeavor? Attend Mass or say the rosary daily, or read the liturgy of the hours? Probably not practical. But then I don’t think spirituality is confined to a life lived in relative silence in a mountain monastery; nor is prayer only the recitation of set formulas or participation in public worship. Rather, prayer and spirituality are lived daily in our work, our play, our deeds, our relationships—with God, with loved ones, with friends.

My spiritual exercise became simply to work at walking the best I possibly could. As the medieval monk Walter Hilton tells us, the discipline of the physical life enables spiritual results. My contemplation involved walking well for someone specific every day—focusing on my relationship with a loved one, a friend, someone who influenced or shaped me. The long quiet stretches gave me a chance to reflect on how each has enriched my life while I also examined the kind of husband, father, son, friend or colleague I’ve been.

The result was a long, linear prayer, a process revealing my life’s pleasant successes as well as its disquieting failures. It also provided an enriched appreciation of these same loved ones, friends and acquaintances. It was all set against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, expansive vineyards, endless fields of new oats, wheat and rapeseed, medieval villages marked by ancient stone work, steep climbs through mountain passes, such modern cities as Pamplona, Burgos and Leon, and sweeping vistas of poppies, heather, gorse, lavender and broom.

I cherished the long walking silences. They enabled a kind of detached view of self. I liked what I saw of my physical self—a 60-something walking well, fit, quickly trail-hardened, and successfully negotiating the unknown and unfamiliar.

The view of my interior self was not as pleasant. Loneliness took a toll as I experienced my longest separation from Sue, my wife of 42 years. I learned that I needed to evaluate habits of the mind, to develop the healthy thoughts and discard the toxic.

A pilgrimage is, after all, a journey of self-discovery, an attempt to recover the true self from beneath our constructs of layers and masks. What is discovered must then be acted upon. The journey doesn’t end at the pilgrims’ Mass in the Saint James Cathedral or with a certificate of completion. As the poet R.S. Thomas reminds us:

bq. The point of traveling is not To arrive but to return home Laden with pollen you shall work up Into honey the mind feeds on.

My walking was neither an act of devotion nor an act of piety, but it was every bit a spiritual experience. During the walk, I stopped periodically to look back and get a different perspective on where I had come from. Now it’s all about the perspective from looking back. The journey works on me and in me, challenging my status quo. If I could manage for five weeks on the trail with 16 pounds of stuff—including a pack and a sleeping bag—how much stuff do I really need to lead a balanced life? How can I adapt the discipline of the Camino, the excitement of waking every morning with a new destination over unknown terrain?

In part I’ve learned not to ask myself what needs to be done on any given day but rather to ask, “What are its possibilities?” And I learned that I genuinely like to walk and now try to do about five miles daily. In that effort I’ve found the lovely reflective time I could rarely find in the rush of family living and career building. I realize that walking the Camino was a microcosm for life itself. I did well on some counts, not so well on others.

Spires lead the way


Thirty-five days after starting, we arrived in Santiago. I was elated that we were there and sad that it would all soon be a memory. Our last hours unfolded slowly through the outskirts of the city, into commercial areas and eventually into the old city. We kept looking for the cathedral spires to lead the way to our destination. Somewhere at the end of a narrow street they reached skyward.

A few more blocks along streets shadowed and fronted by old stone buildings, and we were in the Plaza Obradoiro, exchanging hand slaps, hugs and congratulations. We soaked it all in at the west entrance of the cathedral amid dozens of other pilgrims with their telltale backpacks, broad-brimmed hats and walking poles. Garry and I could hardly believe we’d walked the distance and were suitably proud of ourselves.

Garry, Lynne and Charlie headed to the hotel for showers and rest. I wanted to enjoy the moment a bit more and hoped to meet Sue there as planned. I leaned against the ancient cathedral wall, waiting, pack on the stone pavement, when she seemed to materialize in front of me. A long warm embrace erased weeks of loneliness. “You did it. I’m so proud of you!”

“Yeah, I did it. I finally did it. And I’ve got a few good miles left.” A perfect arrival.

An Irish blessing
In the moments after the others had left the plaza for their hotel I had climbed the long cathedral steps, vaguely aware that millions had done the same for more than 1,000 years. Hot and tired, I entered, walked past Master Mateo’s Portico de la Gloria, an internal archway that has welcomed pilgrims since it was added in the 13th century, and found a quiet spot to cool down and relax. I sat and reflected on my motivations for walking 500 miles and felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and gratitude.

I knew I now shared a buen camino bond of accomplishment with friends both old and new. On one level buen camino means have a good journey, used with almost the same intent as “have a good day.” On a deeper level it conveys the understanding of the camaraderie of mutual support and sharing. The result is a unique fellowship, now preserved in remembrance.

The four of us who started out together will see each other again; we’ll cycle, go to the theater and travel together as we have in the past. And we’ll share the memories of our time on the great road. Memories that include the kindness of strangers, the openness of the locals who welcomed us and the new friends we made along the way—memories that will survive the reality that we may never meet again.

Alone in the cathedral, I read from a small book of psalms I had carried. I thought of a day, weeks and miles ago on the way over the expansive hills of La Rioja. It had rained heavily the previous day, and we had slogged through red mud for hours. The new day had started with more of the same, but around midmorning, as we tracked up a long, open pull, the clouds gave way to spreading patches of blue. The wind picked up at our backs. We could see the red-dirt Camino, spotted with walkers, unfolding miles ahead over the broad, rolling hills. It cut through multi-shaded fields of green—early wheat, oats or barley—occasionally interspersed by bright yellow rapeseed plots.

I realized I was walking the Irish Blessing—the wind was at my back, all things were green for me, the road rose up to meet me and God held me in the palm of his hands.

In the early days of our walking, one of our group referred to a prescient passage from Jeremiah: “Yahweh says: ‘Stand by the roads, and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your soul.’”


Frank Cunningham worked at Ave Maria Press for 27 years where he retired as president and publisher in 2005.

Photos by Garry Eastman.