480-mile pilgrimage was three years in the making

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

LANSING — Most people would consider finishing a 480-mile pilgrimage to be an accomplishment.
But with your spouse? A miracle!
All kidding aside, there are few things more rewarding than taking a long, walking pilgrimage across northern Spain with your spouse, say Don and Mary-Theresa Madill, members of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lansing.
From May 29 to July 10, the Madills hiked the way of St. James, known as El Camino de Santiago.
Many people learned about the pilgrimage through the 2010 movie, starring Martin Sheen called “The Way.”
The Camino has been an important pilgrimage for at least 1,000 years. There is one main or major route across northern Spain that is considered “the” Camino, but it is actually the “trunk” of a whole network of routes that fan out all over Europe like the branches of a tree.
The Camino terminates at the Cathedral of St. James in the city of Santiago de Compostella, where the bones of St. James are reputed to be buried.
Everybody’s doing it

After a few centuries of neglect, the Camino’s popularity is now booming and draws pilgrims from all over the world. The Madills heard about the Camino from people they knew who made the journey: their former pastor, Father Michael Stubbs; Don’s former colleague retired Col. George Steger, U.S. Army; and Sister Joan Sue Miller, former community director of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.

“Anyone who wrote a journal about it, we read those, too,” said Mary-  Theresa. “And we did extensive research online.”

They also took some time to plan and think about it.

“We had about three years to think about it,” said Don. “When we first heard about it, I was still working. We waited until I retired and had enough time to make the pilgrimage.”

They wanted to go because they thought it would be a challenge.

“I thought it would be great to have all that quiet and introspection time,” said Mary-Theresa. “No phones, no emails.”

Not quite. They sometimes used a computer at libraries along the way to send reassuring emails back to their daughters.

Don turned 70 just after completing the Camino; Mary-Theresa is 62. They’re in reasonably good shape, thanks to the regular walking they’ve done after Don’s heart attack 10 years ago. Don even runs half-marathons as part of his cardio-conditioning.

They discovered — through research and personal experience — that the Camino is well-supported and (mostly) well-marked.

“If you ever start in the wrong direction, the locals will quickly tell you,” said Don.

“Yes, they’ll run down the block saying, ‘Un momento!’” said Mary-Theresa.

The journey begins

Their journey began at the village of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees mountains, not far from the border with France. The first few days were cold, rainy and muddy. They had to negotiate their way across rocky areas and even fell into the mud. The rest of the way, however, was often flat and on highways.

Traditionally, the Camino is divided into 33 stages, each stage being about 18 miles, a stage a day. This was too long for the Madills, who settled on an average 12 miles a day.

And there are no Porta-Potties on the Camino.

“With some of these villages you’ll be walking and walking, and you know the village is supposed to be coming up, and it’s not, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh,’” said Mary-Theresa.

“And then — this is the most beautiful sight — when you walk over the top of a hill and look down below and there is the tiniest, most beautiful village you’ve ever seen,” she continued.

“And you know they’re going to have a bathroom.”

Unlike a wilderness hike, Camino pilgrims do not have to carry tents, a lot of water or water purification, stoves or food. The Madills carried minimal items — just one change of clothes (which necessitated daily bucket washings of laundry).

But some items were particularly useful: headlamp, zip-off hiking pants, good shoes, wool socks, walking sticks and moleskins. The moleskins patches were used for blisters on their feet. Water sources were plentiful along the way.

The couple did not take along cellphones or any other technology other than their camera — which they lost at the very end of their journey.

Pilgrims have a variety of options for accommodations, ranging (from best to basic) a hotel, casa rural, pensione and albergue. The basic albergue is like a big dorm.

Don and Mary-Theresa decided that at their age it would be nice to have their own bathroom, so they generally stayed in a hotel in the cities or a pensione in other places. Bedbugs, which they feared, did not prove to be a problem.

The food is basic, inexpensive and pretty good. Most places offer a pilgrim’s menu for about $12 a meal, which includes a nice bottle of wine. A typical pilgrim’s meal would offer three dishes to choose from for the main course — rice with seafood and sausage, soup or pasta. There would be a side dish, and then meat or fish. Dessert could be fruit.

“We had the most wonderful fish that I never heard of,” said Mary-Theresa.

Good enoughmfor a do-over

Of course, the whole purpose of the pilgrimage is spiritual in nature. The couple often prayed along the way, and used the daily prayer book, “Give Us This Day.”  They went to daily Mass when possible.

“Early on . . . a few days into our Camino, we went into a church and found the equivalent of this book in Spanish,” said Don. “So we ended up with a Spanish version to go with our English version.”

The highlight of the trip was arriving in Santiago de Compostella and entering the cathedral.

“[We] were walking for 41 days, and it’s like, ‘There it is — it’s wonderful!” said Mary-Theresa. “The cathedral is beautiful, and gorgeous, and gigantic, and you can see it from quite a distance away. “

“And we made it right before noon Mass,” she continued. “Every day, they have a pilgrims’ Mass at noon. And the best part of all is this huge censer, the biggest in the world, and they only use it on special occasions.”

And it just so happened that it was in use.

Was it worth it? For the Madills, the answer was an emphatic “yes” — so much so that they want to go back and take a longer route, maybe the “French way” over the Pyrenees, adding a couple of hundred miles or so.

And they want it to be soon.

“Don said to me, ‘We aren’t getting any younger,’ so we should do it soon,”  said Mary-Theresa.

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