- The following first appeared in the summer 2014 issue of HER, a regional newspaper insert.
Martha Taylor and Lester Gillespie can’t remember who first decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile pilgrimage that begins on the edge of northern France, runs through northern Spain, and ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where a shrine to the apostle St. James is located.
Taylor, a former nun and retired human services nurse, grew up in a large Catholic family from Indiana. She remembers reading Shirley Maclaine’s 2000 travel memoir, The Camino: A Journey of Spirit, and saying to herself, ‘I’m going to do that.’ Gillespie started reading blogs written by people who had life-changing experiences walking El Camino de Santiago, which translates in English to “The Way of St. James.”
Gillespie was interested in the adventure and a non-tourist way to the see the Spanish countryside. Taylor, who says she has always loved walking, was also interested in adventure, but as a former Catholic nun who lived in East Africa and then Lebanon during civil war, she decided to make her walk a prayer for peace. “It was the big battleground of the Moors and the Christians,” she said about the region. “And these kinds of wars are still going on today.”
The couple – who met in Takoma Park, Maryland, and moved to Floyd in 1997 – flew to France in May of 2011 to begin their walking journey, which would take 40 days. Beginning at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, they walked with others from all over the world, following the Camino’s yellow arrow markers through highways, pathways, ancient Roman roads, and through a variety of terrains. The train to the starting village was filled with hikers with backpacks and even a few bikes, Taylor remembered.
Throughout the centuries pilgrims have made pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela (of which there are a number of routes) mostly looking for miracles, Taylor explained. Today, pilgrims walk for a variety of reasons, including spiritual adventure, as a physical challenge and for personal reflection or retreat from the modern world. In 1985 a little over 2,000 pilgrims walked the Camino. In 1995 that number was 19,000, and by 2005 it had jumped to 93,000. The Way, a popular 2010 movie about the Camino, starring Martin Sheen and Emillo Estevez, has likely contributed to recent increased interest.
Making a list of what to pack for a 500 mile walk has to be well planned in advance and take into account what not to pack. “They say not to carry more than 10% of your body weight,” said Taylor, whose pack weighed 11 pounds.
Apart from the clothes she wore – leggings, a shirt, hiking boots and socks, a windbreaker and fleece jacket (which doubled as a pillow), and a wide brimmed hat – Taylor carried one change of clothes and sandals, a sleeping bag, a lightweight raincoat, a quick dry towel, earplugs, a small flashlight, a water bottle, ibuprofen, clothespins, her passport and insurance card. Taylor kept a journal, which also had to be carried, and an I-Pod that she used as a camera and which she also could skype with. One of the most important things in her backpack was blister protection and remedies. “You’re going to get them,” she said.
The Camino pilgrims, or peregrinos, are supported by a network of hostels along walking routes, which run from the simplest of accommodations in someone’s home to large institutional dormitory-style hostels. At each hostel the pilgrim’s Camino passport is stamped, giving them a documented record of their journey. On the first day of Taylor and Gillespie’s walk, the hostel they stopped at was full, so they slept in the back yard in one of the provided tents. The second night they took refuge in a large 500 bed hostel. The third night they slept on mattresses in a gymnasium full of pilgrims, and on another occasion they had a single room in an old convent that Taylor described as “lovely.”
On a typical day, Taylor and Gillespie walked 10 to 12 miles and started walking around 6:30 a.m. “It was so beautiful and quiet, and sometimes the moon was still up.” Taylor described how groups of people zipped past like cars and others walked alone in silence. “There were days when you hardly saw anyone.”
They walked through large towns and cities, like the old-walled city of Pamplona, known for running bulls. Mostly, they walked through small villages, passing vineyards, almond orchards and small farms. In one village they came across “a charming” Old World festival procession. Because Spain generously uses renewable energy, they also saw lots of wind mills and solar panels. “The air was clean,” Taylor said.
Taylor and Gillespie got lost a couple of times, but more often were waved back on track by helpful villagers. “Buen Camino” (happy walk) was the common greeting given and received along the way. By 1:00 each day they arrived at their planned destination, which was timed for hostel check-in.
After check-in (if the hostel wasn’t full), they would wash out their clothing, shower and look for a café or grocery. In some small villages there were no grocery stores or cafés and the hostels provided tiendas (little stores) and meals. Everything closed down from 2:00 – 5:00 for Siesta, so it was important to plan around that.
The cost of hostels averaged around $10 and meals provided by hostels were about $9 (paid in Euros), a reduced price for pilgrims. When kitchens were available, hikers sometimes cooked for each other and shared meals. “The wine was cheap and good. In the evening we’d sit around visiting with people and it flowed freely,” Taylor said. She appreciated the fellowship of other hikers, as well as the honor system everyone abided by. She described how you could leave your backpack to hold a place in line during check-ins and no-one would touch it.
Access to water was important and water fountains could be found almost everywhere, Taylor said. “We just kept filling our water bottles. You can’t
carry very much because it’s so heavy.” She often walked with an orange in
one hand and an apple in the other, saying the fruit sustained her in between meals. Their go-to food was ham and cheese sandwiches. “You could get them almost everywhere and the Spanish cheeses were wonderful.”
On one occasion, the couple got sick from bad water and had to divert their walk to find a clinic. Another time, Taylor was euphoric that she was able to reach The Bank of Floyd via skype and get her credit card reactivated after she punched her ATM number in wrong (because the number system was
different) and it invalidated her card. Throughout the experience she was grateful for her Spanish speaking skills.
Gillepsie’s lung capacity, which is compromised by emphysema, got better as he walked and Taylor was amazed that she didn’t get a migraine in 40 days. She experienced a heightened sense of intuition and guidance, but meltdowns happened too. “The smallest things become so huge. I left my hat at one of the hostels and I cried,” she said.
At the pilgrimage destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a ceremonious Pilgrims Mass is held each day, which includes a welcoming of pilgrims who have completed the Camino walk. Taylor described the impressive Catholic church and the famous incense burner (botafumeiro) that hangs on ropes from the ceiling and takes six people to swing.
“We’ve talked about doing it again. That’s how much we loved it,” said Taylor, who is currently a massage therapist and a member of the Floyd Heartsong Singers, a group that brings song to the bedside of the terminally ill. “But we’d do it differently,” she continued. “We’d probably walk two weeks at a time, the way many Europeans on vacation do.”
When asked if she experienced re-entry culture shock after 40 days on foot and living out of a backpack, Taylor replied, “You realize how little you need. It’s always a great lesson to recognize that, although it’s nice to have things, I can do without many of them.” – Colleen Redman
Photos: 1. Martha at home in her garden. 2. Climbing the PyreneesMountains in France on the first day on the Camino. It was rainy and cold. 3. Martha and Lester with only 60 miles left to go to get to their destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. 4. Pilgrims lined up with backpacks waiting for a hostel to open. 5. Martha wearing one of her sun hats in a Village in Spain. 6. A Camino dinner with other pilgrims. Martha is pictured in the right hand corner. 7. Taylor had never backpacked before walking the Camino. She had also never created a mosaic before creating this one in the home she and Gillespie built in Floyd at an intentional community of eight families. ____Our World Tuesday