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story.lead_photo.caption Courtesy Photo Every pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago must stop for a passport before beginning. Beth Haller and Carie O'Banion pose outside the pilgrim office in St. Jean Pied de Port France.

For hundreds of years, pilgrims have journeyed to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where one of the 12 apostles, Saint James, was believed to have been buried. Recently, two local women followed in the footsteps of those intrepid Christians on El Camino de Santiago.

Carie O'Banion, a retired teacher, and her friend, Beth Haller, started in France to walk more than 400 miles in about five weeks.


El Camino de Santiago

With Carie O’Banion

When: 9 a.m. Jan. 19

Where: Bella Vista Community Church, 75 E. Lancashire Blvd.

RSVP: 855-1126

Since it's a route that has been in continuous use for more than 12 centuries, El Camino de Santiago doesn't really resemble a North American hiking trail, O'Banion explains. Pilgrims don't camp but rather stop at albergues or hostels along the way. Although they splurged on a nice hotel a couple of nights, during most of their trip O'Banion and Haller stayed in albergues.

Some of the albergues were nice, but some were less so. Often there was a room filled with bunk beds where pilgrims of either sex could spend the night. They realized they liked the accommodations better if the men and women were separated -- because the women don't snore as much.

Near each albergue was a place to get a "pilgrim's meal," simple but filling and reasonably priced. Haller says she especially liked the salads, which were always fresh and always delicious.

Often the meal was served with wine, but the hosts couldn't understand why anyone would want both water and wine. If water was ordered, it came instead of wine but at the same price. O'Banion quickly learned to fill her plastic water bottle before she sat down so she could order wine.

Getting water was never a problem, she says. There were fountains in all the small towns that could be used to fill the plastic bladders they carried in their backpacks, as well as plastic water bottles. Sometimes they stopped in a local grocery store for cookies to eat along the way. Occasionally, they came across vending machines filled with first-aid items for feet. Some doctors would treat a pilgrim with foot problems for free, O'Banion says.

They each carried a pack every day with water and a few pieces of extra clothing. Every night, they rinsed out what they were wearing and let it air dry. They also carried hiking sticks, which helped them navigate the uneven paths.

Meeting people from all over the world was the best thing about the trip for Haller. She's only sorry she didn't take a photo of each one of them. Sometimes the two friends didn't walk together, but they always met for meals.

"I never felt like I wasn't safe," O'Banion says.

Some sections of trail were crowded, but other places were not. Sometimes they passed farmers plowing fields with oxen and antique tools. But they also passed a few abandoned villages where the natives had gone looking for better opportunities.

Early on they crossed the Pyrenees and, while it was a difficult climb, it was worth it to see the views.

"You felt like you were in the 'Sound of Music,'" Haller says.

In the mountains, animals including sheep and horses roamed freely, but each wore a bell.

The trails were marked with concrete markers, which were decorated with a scallop shell and a yellow arrow. In the country, the markers were easy to spot, but in the cities, they might be embedded in the pavement or high up on a building.

During the Middle Ages, people took pilgrimages as penance. Today, many pilgrims are looking for a spiritual experience.

"For me I will say that I decided to walk the Camino for three reasons: 1) spiritual 2) physical and 3) cultural," says O'Banion. "I have been a lifelong Christian (Protestant), and my faith has always been important for me, so yes, the Camino was a wonderful opportunity for meditation and religious conversations with others."

While she did attend a few Masses, O'Banion says she "never saw a church that wasn't Catholic. If I had been fluent in Spanish and had been Catholic, I think the Camino would have been more meaningful spiritually. Attending Mass was nice, but not understanding the language and rituals made me feel a bit removed. At one Mass I attended, the priest called all the pilgrims to the front afterwards and spoke in English to us briefly and came around and blessed us all individually. That was moving to me!"

For Haller and O'Banion, the trip was an adventure; O'Banion calls it "a bit like giving myself a retirement gift." It was also surprisingly affordable. When you have to carry anything you buy, you're not likely to stop for souvenirs, O'Banion jokes.

Just knowing you can do a trip like that is empowering, Haller says.

"Many people say that they come home completely changed after a Camino. I cannot say that was the case for me," O'Banion adds. "But one of the aspects of the Camino that I loved most was the simplicity. Each day, the only responsibility I had was to walk, find a place to eat and sleep, and wash my clothes. That was so empowering and enjoyable. The concept of 'less is more' was certainly a lesson learned on the Camino. And the old idea that 'we are all more the same than we are different' certainly was reinforced for me on the Camino as we met people from all over the world."

The friends are not planning another five-week walk, O'Banion says. She is planning to walk in and out of the Grand Canyon later this year, but that's only a couple of days. Haller is planning a long bike ride with a group of friends this summer.

El Camino de Santiago was a once in a lifetime adventure.

NAN Religion on 01/12/2019

Print Headline: El Camino

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