A hiking family blazes its own spiritual path

Special to The Times

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Spain

I dropped my backpack onto one of the 28 metal cots in the huge, stone-floored room crisscrossed by low, heavy ceiling beams. The cots, draped with identical thin blankets, stood a few inches from one another.

My husband, my son and I were the only guests in this icy room in the Pilgrim Refugio in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Spain. We arrived here at twilight after a 20-mile walk from the village of Ventosa. I had no idea how tired I was, but when the red tile roofs of Santo Domingo appeared in the distance before us, I shouted, "Jerusalem!"

The main bunkroom was already filled with pilgrims and their gear. I recognized a couple of powerful snorers from previous nights on the trail, so I was overjoyed to be taken to an overflow room. I was not so happy to find it unheated.

After a week of hiking we were exhausted, a little sick and bewildered by an unaccustomed dependence on one another. Pat, my husband of not quite two years, Desmond, my 11-year-old son, and I didn't know how to spend every minute together and smoothly resolve every problem. We couldn't even decide which cots to choose.

Last spring, we walked 500 miles on the Camino Frances, a centuries-old pilgrimage route from southern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the bones of St. James the Apostle are said to repose. Pilgrims from all over the world have been walking the trail since the 12th century, but its popularity has surged in recent decades. Many attempt the route with spiritual ambitions; mine were not so defined at first. My family enjoys backpacking, and we wanted to try a long-distance adventure and immerse ourselves in Spanish culture.

I negotiated with Desmond's father, who was ambivalent about letting him go.

"Don't be afraid to quit," he said, reminding me of a favorite Alaskan place name, which translates from Athabascan as "the old lady made it this far." We were reassured to know that we could board a bus or taxi at almost any point along the Camino Frances if our strength flagged.

Our family doctor assured us that Desmond could handle the physical demands of the trek. But how would he maintain his interest? How would he stay motivated over such a long effort?

Tempted by the idea of an extended break from school, Desmond finally cast his lot with us and joined Pat and me on our afternoon training hikes as we logged more than 100 miles in the hills near our home in Fairbanks, Alaska. Often he would walk 100 feet or so behind us, lost in his own thoughts and happy to be alone. Sometimes when I stopped for him, he stopped too, still 100 feet behind me, and waved me on.

In Spain, where we averaged a little more than 16 miles a day, this pattern sometimes repeated itself -- the three of us strung out along a path, freeing ourselves for private mental excursions. At times Desmond and Pat, a mathematician, worked out problems as we walked together. Or I would tell him the biblical stories behind the many shrines and carvings we saw along the route, making up for a gap in his religious education.

We all agreed in advance not to complain about common miseries such as fatigue, hunger, thirst and despair. But we discovered that such creative self-expression helped the hard times go by and even drew us together.

Climbing in the Pyrenees from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, on our first day, I was euphoric. But that afternoon Desmond said to me: "I hate this. Do you like this?"

Two nights later, from a mattress at our refugio, or hostel, he said, "I don't think I can do this." Then he flopped back on the cot and concentrated on his Game Boy. I left the room in despair.

Half an hour later, Pat, who hadn't heard these ominous words, resumed his conversation with Desmond as if nothing was wrong. I watched as Desmond hitched his wagon to Pat's confidence and reenergized his flagging spirit. My son had expressed himself and rebounded. From that moment his confidence grew.

My low point came shortly after that freezing night in Santo Domingo, a week into our trek. Desmond looked at me and said, "Mom, you look terrible."

It was as if he were telling me, "Don't try to pretend -- go ahead and be low!" So I quit fighting my exhaustion and discovered that I, too, could rebound.

A courageous boy

In 31 days we crossed 7 degrees of longitude and walked through a range of terrain and weather, from flat, sunbaked tablelands to the snow and hail of the mountains. We climbed through the wine country of Bierzo and the green farmland of Galicia, which rivals Ireland for the frequency of its rainstorms. We had planned to take a day off occasionally and even ride buses through the industrial suburbs, but Desmond wouldn't hear of it. Sure enough, we all grew stronger, walking every day.

In places the path, tramped by pilgrim feet for nine centuries, was eroded to bedrock or thick muddy clay. When we lost sight of the yellow arrows painted here and there on curbs, rocks, fence posts, trees and garage doors along the path, Pat took out the compass and we walked west until they reappeared. Almost every day we heard exclamations from astonished Spaniards at the sight of such a young pilgrim.

"The boy is going to Santiago? Very courageous!"

We set our own pace by day but often caught up with the same pilgrims in the evenings. We ate and slept with people from Quebec, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, France, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, South Africa and Spain. We looked forward to seeing one another at the refugios.

A Swiss man, walking 1,000 miles from Zurich to the Spanish coast, met up with us in a village plaza with Desmond's raincoat. He had found it in the grass "near the asparagus fields" several miles back and figured it must belong to the boy from Alaska.

At 5 one evening we came to an isolated refugio in the small village of Calzada del Coto. I took one look at the empty concrete bunker, its corners piled with cheap mattresses. "No way," I said. "We will not stay here."

Desmond was furious. He shouldered his backpack and stomped back to the path. We would have to walk at least two more hours to the next village, and he let the adrenaline of anger power him. Things looked grim as Pat and I struggled to keep up.

But the walking and the golden Spanish evening worked a cure. Belled sheep in the fields made music. Anger faded.

At 7 p.m., we stumbled into Bercianos del Real Camino and were greeted by the refugio's caretaker with an embrace and a huge smile. "You're in time for dinner," he said.

Fellow pilgrims, airing their aching feet under lilac trees, waved in greeting, and we sat down to a superb meal: a casserole of rice, sausage and vegetables, salad, fruit and ice cream.

Nearly every night we found a refugio and tried always to be grateful for them, no matter how neglected they looked. The lack of privacy and the noise in the hostels' crowded bunkrooms took some getting used to, but we could not have made the pilgrimage without this tradition of hospitality.

Late one afternoon in the wheat fields, as I set my boots down into the dried clay footprints of pilgrims who had preceded me, it came to me that I was one among thousands. I could see, clearly, a line of men and women through the centuries carrying their best hopes and their regrets for hundreds of miles, one step at a time. The thought flooded me with tenderness and gratitude. It seemed my pack weighed nothing -- that I could float to Santiago.

We didn't buy souvenirs because of their weight, but at the end of our journey in Santiago, I picked up a small plaque of the holy family.

"A little child shall lead them," Pat had said on the trail one day when Desmond's energy and high spirits saw us through a long afternoon. Unexpectedly, I felt blessed in my connection to the three people in that plaque, to those who waited for us back home, and to the two pilgrims next to me.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole's poetry and short fiction have appeared in journals and magazines.

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