Enjoy the Journey

Posted On March 13, 2017

Lessons from the El Camino: Put one foot in front of the other 

By Warren Hughes 

As in much of life, learning to just put one foot in front of the other is the main insight Anna Griswold gained on the famed El Camino de Santiago, says the 74-year-old Columbian of her pilgrimage last fall in Spain. 

Griswold was inspired to undertake her quest after hearing the account of The Rev. Sally Johnston, a retired Episcopal priest, who trekked the El Camino in 2013. For over a thousand years, the Cathedral of St. James in Galicia has been the destination for pilgrims who have hiked there on paths from all over Europe to visit the shrine where, according to legend, the remains of the apostle are entombed. The 500-mile route across Spain from the French border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the most popular. 

 “When I heard Sally’s presentation, it really struck a chord in me,” Griswold said. “I wanted to experience as much of it as feasible for me.” For her journey, she recruited her sister-in-law, a veteran of the trail, who was eager to return, along with two others. The foursome, all senior citizens, had among them a skill set to cover almost any challenge they might encounter along the way - be it psychological, linguistic, spiritual or physical. Griswold is a retired psychologist; her sister in-law, Iowan Esther Smith, 71, is a retired language teacher, fluent in Spanish; Jane Granzow, 80, of Iowa Falls, is a retired Lutheran minister; and Margery Franklin, 73, is retired Illinois pediatrician. 

They set out on the trail in Sarria, Spain on Sept. 11, completing their walk seven days later, averaging about ten miles a day on varying terrain. “If pilgrims start there, they will have walked the minimum distance to obtain the pilgrim’s compostela (certificate of completion) when they arrive in Santiago,” Griswold said. “We actually walked more than 72 miles since our lodging was some distance off the actual trail.” 

A British company, “Walks in Spain,” planned the trip for the group. “They did an excellent job. They transported our luggage, arranged lovely accommodations and were available to assist in any way if needed,” she said.  The route abounded in spectacular scenery, rich in medieval architecture and sweeping vistas, with many cafes along the way.  

The trip planner devised a schedule based on how far the pilgrims felt they could walk each day, an average of about ten miles, over varying and undulating terrain. “We were quite fortunate as we stayed in relative luxury. Our guest houses and inns were all lovely,” she said. “A few were small hotels, but most were country homes converted to accommodations for travelers. Most were furnished very comfortably and with an artistic touch.” 

They had an itinerary for each day, with a description of the terrain and sites of interest. Although their printed guides proved invaluable, Griswold said the scallop shell symbol of the trail was always a welcome sight along the way. The scallop shell is posted not only along the Camino, but also worn by the pilgrims themselves. Most acquire a shell at the beginning of the journey and either sew it on clothes, wear it around the neck or attach it to a backpack.   

As the journey got under way, Griswold said she soon realized there would be little time for inner reflection or lingering fellowship. The focus was on navigating the distance to the final stop for the day. After a meal, she soon was ready for a night’s sleep before getting started early the next morning. Fortunately, she said, there was hardly a mishap except for the occasional rain shower or aching feet.

“I really longed for more time to sit and reflect. I felt a bit pushed to move on toward the destination. I didn’t want to be out trying to find my way after dark. It would have been nice to have been able to sit on a log somewhere and just take it all in,” she said.

While they had each other for company and met other pilgrims along the way, their main goal was reaching Santiago. “Breakfast was included daily and usually we were able to purchase supper either at the lodging or nearby. Most places had very good food. We were most often quite pleased. Of course, we were quite hungry after walking such a long way,” she said.

 “There were some pilgrims who traveled with the same company and were following the same route as we were. Several were from Australia. Along the Camino, occasionally we ran into friendly pilgrims. For sure, if there was a need, people were willing to help. Language did not end up being a tremendous barrier,” she said.

For training, “I really was motivated, which I think is necessary for the commitment I made to see it through,” she noted. “I decided I would start my training for the experience in the early summer and walk at least six miles twice a week in my neighborhood. For me, it was easiest to do that as soon as I woke up. This was the coolest time of the day, although I cannot say that it was cool. We had a number of 100 degree days last summer, so even in the mornings, it was often difficult to do.”  If fact, she wryly attests, her training walks on the streets of famously hot Columbia  often were more arduous than the pleasant fall climate she later experienced in the Spanish countryside.

As for the terrain on the El Camino itself, Griswold said, “There were no high mountains, but there were definitely some taxing climbs. It helped that my fellow travelers were committed to the same journey. At the end of the day, we could have our dinner and glass of wine and celebrate one more day checked off the list.”

The countryside along the trail featured rolling hills with great visibility on most days. “I loved the country houses made of rock or brick. There were farm animals we would see. There were also places where we would walk through woods. Sometimes the Camino path was alongside a country road. Other pilgrims walked along with us every now and then, but it was not crowded,” Griswold said. “We traveled through many small villages and some more populous towns.”

The most memorable moment of the journey was when their group approached the outside of Santiago. “There’s a hill overlooking the city. We saw many pilgrims going over to the hill, so we followed. There on the hill was a large statue of two pilgrims pointing to the Cathedral of Santiago de Campostela. There we could see the cathedral in the distance, a sight for sore eyes and aching feet. The old city of Santiago is lovely and picturesque, and the cathedral is grand in scale and beauty.”

As for would-be pilgrims inspired to embark on the El Camino, Griswold says, “Consider what you can take on physically. There were many young very fit travelers who could manage to walk the entire Camino. Prepare well ahead of time, read the ample literature about the trail and most of all, enjoy the journey.”