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Walking 500 miles on the El Camino

By on March 29, 2018 in Travel with 2 Comments

Both women agree they would have liked time to explore more – but afternoon stops did give them time to stroll some local neighborhoods, like this old arched street in Cirauqui, Spain.

By Susan Lagsdin

Last year — from Aug. 21 to Sept. 26 — Wenatchee friends Bonnie Fortner and Debbie Gurnard took a really long walk.

Since 812 A.D., hardy Catholics on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James in the city of Santiago do Compostela have hiked 500 miles through three mountain passes from France across the roof of Spain. In our times, their trail also serves those seeking adventure and affirmation, last year attracting 270,000 people from around the world.

Bonnie and Debbie were two of them.

Bonnie, just retired from her sales position at Stemilt Growers, was motivated to take El Camino de Santiago four years ago after reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and then seeing the Martin Sheen film, The Way, about a modern pilgrimage.

She knew who she wanted by her side: her friend since Wenatchee High School, class of 1968. (“Having someone say, ‘I can’t imagine doing this with anyone but you,’ said Debbie, “is a really strong incentive.”) But it wasn’t until Debbie retired from managing Eagle Transfer that they had time to make the 37-day walk a reality.

From the start, they knew they would be two women alone on an arduous hike, so they trained their bodies seriously, did copious research and shopped wisely to beat their self-imposed 15-pound carry limit.

Then they flew to France, hefted their backpacks at St. Jean Pied de Port and headed west.

With no need for camping gear, they were able to walk 13 miles a day at a comfortable pace in what they recall as perfect weather, with just one day too hot, one rainy.

Euros and credit cards — they averaged $50 US dollars a day — were easy to use. Their husbands, family and friends were always on alert via cell and social media updates, a convenience other travelers may eschew, but which they relied on happily.

The two women debriefed from their journey this fall in a Pybus class and were delighted that a few people, emboldened by their enthusiasm as well as their comfort and health pointers, considered replicating their trip. They love sharing what they learned about the towns, about the trail and about themselves.

Even though there are hundreds of people somewhere on the trail behind you and ahead of you, and even though your walking partner is by your side, “You are essentially all alone with your thoughts for hours a day,” said Debbie of the personal revelations that came to her on the journey. “Every single step you take alone.”

Bonnie learned that she was strong, physically and mentally. “Getting up every morning and walking again and again… and again. I just did it. You can’t think ‘500 miles.’ You have to think of the next village just down the trail.”

“I had more perseverance than I thought I would have. At the start, I really couldn’t imagine that I would make the whole trip,” Debbie said. “And I had to figure out how to do a lot of things I’d never done before.”

At one critical point in their 37-day trek, Debbie, whose foot needed medical attention, said to Bonnie, “I must be the very worst walking partner you could ever have chosen!” Not so, she was reassured — she was the very best.

That glitch in their hike, an ER visit in a foreign city for Debbie (alone) and a continuation on the arduous path for Bonnie (alone) was something they took literally in stride. By then they had great confidence in themselves and in the kindness of strangers. As they say in the region “The Camino will provide.”

One might log about 15 miles a day on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails, on a blue highway walkabout of the USA, on our own Loop Trail (or on a gym treadmill for the boredom-tolerant). But this route is radically different.

Debbie and Bonnie’s description of the trip highlights two distinct qualities.

First, though the trail is well marked by a yellow arrow, a symbolic shell, or both, it is not easy. Guidebooks indicate that it’s mostly level, but they had lots of ups and downs most days.

And the rocks, fallen timber and general roughness of the trail bed itself was dismaying at times. Bonnie said, “One long section was an old creek bed. We thought they (their recommended Altra running shoes) would last 500 miles, but we needed duct tape at the end.”

Something else they didn’t know was that the trail intersects with four big cities, and that urban sidewalk hiking, slogging a few miles off the course to find a hotel after a day of tough terrain, is exhausting.

But the newness of the rural views was exciting.

Bonnie said, “Every time we’d crest a hill or turn a corner, something really interesting was there — whether it was a long green valley or a little settlement…” Precise elevation maps with time/distance guides led them surely to every resting bench, every town.

Another important distinction is that the Camino is a major source of pride, and revenue, for the dozens of villages along the ancient walking route, and they are very comfortable hosting hundreds of strangers daily for much of the year.

The phrase we’d use is “tourist town,” but, Debbie said, “These places are really quaint, with lots of flowers, tiny side streets, fountains, beautiful churches and tiny old shops and bistros.”

Every village along the way, some just 100 people small, provides food, drink and lodging for foot travelers, with hospitality honed over centuries. The women cited a range of affordable accommodations from dormitory to private suite, super-clean public bathrooms, price-fixe “pilgrim dinners” in every restaurant, a car service to haul your backpack to the next alberge or hostel, good pharmacies and mini-marts. Official Camino passports, issued at their point of entry, were stamped at every overnight stop.

“One thing I wish we’d done,” Bonnie said, “is take a few extra days to just relax, just look around.” (They had flight arrival and much-anticipated reunion dates with their husbands, so they kept to their original rigorous plan.)

Conviviality and cooperation characterized all their interactions on the trail, they both agreed, with not a hint of danger anywhere, any time. There wasn’t an actual group, rather recurring sightings of familiar faces and natural friendly gatherings for drinks and meals.

It’s an extremely goal-oriented subset of travelers, one reveling in its commonality, so it’s easy to see why organizations of former Camino-walkers have sprung up all over the world and on the internet.

Fellow travelers were too numerous to name. They included a Spaniard who was immensely helpful one city day with directions and a week later was spotted at a mountain café where they finally had time to thank him, and an elderly solo hiker who flew home for her grandson’s funeral and then returned shortly thereafter to finish the route.

Debbie said, “And then there was that 20-year old girl, fit and buff, who walked with us the first day, didn’t like it much, took a bus into town and didn’t come back.”

These friends (whose Facebook signoff was “Santiago Sisters”) are justifiably proud to have completed their own private pilgrimage on one of the most revered, and surprisingly rigorous, trails in the world.

They’re stronger and smarter, more resourceful than they ever knew, and they gained a deep appreciation of the love of their mates. As couples, all four WHS grads, they will continue to golf and camp and socialize together.

And Bonnie and Debbie will probably always be up for a walk, just the two of them.

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  1. Jane Baldock says:

    Having just finished the last phase of The French Way of the Camino, I must correct you in referencing only Catholics on The Way. In fact, I wonder if Catholics might not be the majority of walkers. It is a truly compelling, personal journey and anyone can feel at home with the thousands of fellow “peregrinos,” (pilgrims), walking and biking with them.

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