By Daniel McSweeney
Moving to England from Canada has decidedly opened our eyes to considering yet more new adventures when our current UK experiences are over. That’s why we were fascinated with the ‘derring-do’ of an old friend from Sudbury, Ontario, Terry Gray, who last year at age 65 walked an amazing 800 kilometers in 49 days across the legendary ‘Camino de Santiago’ in northern Spain.
The ‘Camino’ is a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage that has inspired people to seek adventure and ‘find themselves’ in the process. Its’ origins are rooted in an ancient pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain; traditionally known as ‘The Way of St. James.’ It’s been portrayed in movies; books and magazines including National Geographic. Pilgrims leave their ‘regular life’ behind and embrace the unfamiliar and the unknown returning home usually with a different view of the world.
This storied journey of discovery starts in southern France at the base of the Pyrenees; an expedition beckoning pilgrims to traverse gentle hills; imposing mountain terrain, rivers and streams and desert-like flat lands where the heat can be stifling. These ‘pilgrims’ come from across the world from widely varying walks of life; including Canadians like Terry. About 40 per cent walk the Camino for spiritual reasons; others ‘do it as a lark.’
About 180,000 people follow this trail each year; some seeking inner peace; others testing themselves physically and mentally under the Spanish sun. About 10 per cent of the pilgrims walk the entire trail each year; others just parts of it. It’s all highly organized where pilgrims dutifully register at a ‘Pilgrim Office’ so they can stay at the many hostels or ‘alburgees’ along the way.
Signing up ensures they can take advantage of pilgrim rates for food and secure access to medical services. And at the end, they receive a certificate verifying how much of the Camino they have covered. Terry kindly shared his experiences about the Camino while visiting us in England with his wife Barbara. His is a story of discovery, enhanced self-awareness and heart-warming camaraderie.
Getting ‘outside the box’
Terry Gray is a retired business professor at Cambrian College in Sudbury. He also worked closely with Sandra over the years when she was in the midst of her career with Inco Limited in Thompson, Manitoba; now a part of the Brazilian mining giant ‘Vale.’ His 49-day trek over the Camino was something he had dreamed about 10 years earlier when he was 54 and had earned his MBA.
Receiving that degree he says ‘took me out of the box academically,’ and inspired him to explore walking the El Camino. His core motivation was overcoming ‘fear of the unknown,’ and the Camino fit nicely into that category of unfamiliarity.
Terry was in fact quite athletic in his younger years; a cross-country runner; an avid skier and golfer. Time and lifestyle though took its toll on him as it does for most people; his medium-height frame weighing in at about 190 pounds; and his size 38 pants struggling to contain his expanding girth. I asked Terry ‘would walking for a month and a half over rough Spanish terrain really be the tonic that he needed at his stage of life?
He assured me that the Camino de Santiago was just the remedy; although there were days he had serious doubts. “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t tell many people of my plans,” says Terry. “I worried what they might think if I didn’t finish it. The folks I told though were quite positive and said things like ‘good on you; go for it Terry.”
When he walked in his neighborhood loaded down with a back pack, people were openly curious. “What are you doing?” they asked like he had two heads. “When I told them I was conditioning myself for a several hundred kilometer long walk across Spain, some questioned my sanity. I think a few walked away muttering under their breath; he’s really lost his marbles.”
The importance of preparation
Terry is adamant that preparation for taking such a walk is crucial. When he went to Florida for his annual March golf trip, he walked 15 to 20 kilometers a day over relatively flat surfaces in the Sunshine State. And when he returned to Sudbury, he practiced over a much rougher terrain that is the rugged albeit beautiful landscape of northern Ontario.
“Six weeks before leaving, I hauled around 25 to 28 pounds in my pack; increasingly adding weight with every walk.” He admits it wasn’t until two weeks before he left that he finally realized he could “actually do this.” And all through the physical preparation, he watched movies, read books, and surfed the internet for information.
It was, he says, all about being prepared; making the right plans for this challenging journey. Terry notes that people who walk the trail ‘as a lark’ are often the ones who get into trouble. “They jump on a train or plane and hit the trail with little preparation. They soon head home with blisters; a myriad of aches and pains and wonder why they ever chose to attempt the trail.”
In fact the vast majority of walkers only last between two and six days on the trail.
Terry made sure he had all he needed in the way of supplies; and equally important he left behind what was not essential. Before he left on the journey, he had accumulated 42 pounds of gear, but cut it in half for the trek.He emphasizes the need for good hiking boots (about one and a half sizes larger than your normal size) because feet swell on the trail.
He says casual, comfortable evening footwear is also essential when off the trail; allowing time for walking boots and socks to dry. He also stresses the importance of light nylon socks to wear inside heavy socks; a wonderful way of minimizing blisters that can be a killer on the trail.
And without a doubt, he says a high quality ‘properly fitted backpack’ with internal bladder to carry water is essential. Positioned properly in accordance with the wearer’s unique body configuration, “sometimes you hardly know you are carrying anything on your back.” He also says you need good quality trekking poles – and of course toiletries, medications and clothing essentials for both hot and cold weather.
With all his gear and paperwork in place, he flew from Sudbury to Toronto and caught a flight to Madrid. From there he took a train to Pamplona followed by a cab ride to St. Jean where he registered as a pilgrim. And so his pilgrimage began.
What have I done?
“At the end of the first day, I was completely exhausted,” says Terry who had walked only eight kilometres, but had climbed some 900 metres over that distance. “That night I really questioned my sanity. I looked around and realized I was possibly the third oldest person there. I wondered oh my, what have I done?’
And then the next day, trekking downhill was even worse with lots of clay, loose gravel and chunks of rocks. He likens that morning to skiing in the snow down a challenging black diamond run, only in slow motion. “You plant a pole here, take another step, and plant a pole yet and again.”
Over the next few days, he got into the rhythm of the trail; some parts challenging; others simply relaxing and beautiful. “At times you walk up steep mountains; at other times you wander through picturesque valleys. You need to be always reading the sky and keeping an eye on changing weather conditions.
If you don’t, you can get yourself into trouble like freezing to death on the trail; or keeling over from heat exhaustion. Consider that when it rains heavily and the steep parts of the trail become slippery, you have to accept that you must hunker down in a town or village until conditions improve. There are risks associated with the journey. In 2015, sadly 13 fatalities occurred, 7 while Terry was on the Camino.
Terry says one of the best parts of walking the El Camino is meeting people from all over the world. The first night in a hostel, he looked around the dining room and there were 40 people from 24 different countries. Everyone, he says, are part of ‘one big family’ drawn together by the spirit of the pilgrimage.
Not once, he added, did he feel uncomfortable with any of his fellow pilgrims; people simply took care of each other and were more than willing to lend a helping hand if someone encountered difficulties. “At one alburgee, there were 12 cell phones all left on a table being charged. Nobody thought anything of it. It’s all part of being pilgrims where there is a strong sense of fellowship on the trail.”
The hostels, many run by former pilgrims, are “immaculately clean” including the washrooms. Pilgrims sleep together either in rooms or dormitories; facilities capable of bedding down 10 to 220 travelers. Rooms are inexpensive ranging from seven to 10 Euros a night. And the food, he says while gleefully rubbing his hands together was delicious and plentiful.
In spite of the trail bounty, Terry shed 25 pounds and increased his lung capacity by “something like 30 per cent.” He still struggles with a few foot problems; but my sense is any painful twinges remind him of what a great time he had.
He is quick to admit though that not every day was roses and chocolates. While edging down a decline, he slipped and twisted his ankle forcing him to stay put for a few days until it healed. And then one hot day on a 28-km long desert-like flatland part of the trail, a re-fill station ran out of water; and he and other weary pilgrims were parched in the 32-degree Celsius weather.
“I can’t ever remember being that thirsty. I can say without hesitation that the remaining three kilometers were the longest I have ever walked.”
The experiences that he ranks amongst the best are people oriented memories of the wonderful friends he made; those he traveled with for days on end and others who appeared on the scene briefly and then melded into the pilgrimage. Consider the ‘minstrel’ from Germany; the couple from South Korea in their mid-70’s; the doctor who treated pilgrim’s blisters and told them to ‘smarten up’ or they would not be treated again.
Then there was lady from England with an exceedingly ‘strong fashion sense’ that ‘only lasted a week.’ And then there was a memorable evening of sitting around a campfire singing songs with a group of Germans who welcomed him into their gathering as if they had known each other forever.
Terry harbors feelings of perhaps of ambivalence about one of his fellow pilgrims; someone who inspired him to finish the journey. He learned later that his friend had a rather colorful past. He was even the focus of an investigative journalism program on television; a showdown in front of the cameras between his friend and a room full of women allegedly ‘done wrong.’
“I don’t know where he is now, and in spite of all that’s come out about him; he was a good friend to me. He clearly had some medical training and prescribed exercises that really helped me complete the journey. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
As for the Spaniards along the way, Terry says they were wonderful.
“They couldn’t do enough for you. They understand the importance of the trail and welcome pilgrims with open arms. One hot day, an elderly lady in this little town spotted me coming down the hill. By the time I got to her, she had come out of her house with a plate of fruit and some lemonade. In Spanish, she says, ‘Have a seat. Have some shade. It looks like you need some food.’ And when I was finished, she gave me a big hug.”
Terry also notes that people worried about insects, snakes and the quality of water along the trail need not fret. “There were lots of animals of course, including dogs and such; but not one came out chasing after me. Bugs also were not a problem and the quality of drinking water was excellent. It is by no means an easy journey; it is one though that if you go prepared with eyes wide open, it can be the experience of a lifetime.”
Terry was officially credited with completing 775 kilometres. At the end of the trail, he was overwhelmed by what he describes as ‘an E and O’ experience.’ “The ‘E ‘is for ‘empty’ because of sadness that the walk was over; and the ‘O’ for ‘overflowing’ because I was filled with satisfaction about what I had accomplished. I was basking in both a tremendous high and a tremendous low simultaneously.”
He says without reservation that walking the Camino was the best experience in his entire life. “It allowed me to kick out the sides of my box, something everyone should do if at all possible. I would go back in an instant. I get excited every time I talk about it.” I don’t know if we have the energy to walk in Terry’s Camino footsteps; but listening to his stories gets us excited too. It tempts us to throw caution to the wind, and wander the Camino. If that doesn’t happen, we might don our backpacks and hike the trails of Scotland or Wales.
(There is a wealth of literature available on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Check out other ‘blogs’ written by Camino pilgrims. I highly recommend watching the Hollywood movie ‘The Way’ starring Martin Sheen. It’s a compelling story that also provides spectacular images of the landscape pilgrims encounter on their journey of discovery under the Spanish sun.)