My friend, Maureen (Mo), is preparing to take a pilgrimage.
I confess that I’m a little jealous - I wish I could join her. But mostly, I’m excited that she’ll soon be walking the St. James Pilgrimage Trail across northern Spain, something we’ve both dreamed of doing since we first learned about the spiritual journey while hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 1997.
St. James Way (The Way) is the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where Saint James’ remains are believed to be buried. The Way has existed for over 1000 years, and was a key Christian pilgrimage during medieval times.
Traditionally, pilgrimages began at one’s home, setting off from the doorstep on foot or donkey, and ended at the pilgrimage site.
In modern times, pilgrims come from all over the world to walk The Way, often taking one of the main routes beginning in France, the Pyrenees Mountains, or Portugal.
I remember the evening Mo and I first learned of The Way.
After a full day of hiking through a late spring snowstorm, Mo, Kirby (my dog), and I - soaking wet and chilled to the bone - stumbled into a Great Smoky Mountains National Park hikers’ shelter after dark.
Because of the plentiful and fearless black bears, hikers are required to stay in the shelters or designated campgrounds and follow instructions to keep food out of Yogi’s reach.
Most AT shelters are pretty much the same - three walls and a roof with some type of wooden sleeping platforms. Shelters in the Smokies sport one unique and crucial feature - a 6-foot high chain link fence wraps around the small buildings. Hikers lock themselves inside the cage to keep bears from crawling into bed with them while they sleep.
That night, because of the surprise snow, the “inn” was full. Thankfully, we arrived just in time to claim the last few inches of available space. Soggy hikers were packed onto the 3 levels of sleeping platforms like sardines in a can. The infamous shelter mice scurried up and over our sleeping bags. Black bears, dusted with fresh snow, sat outside of our cage, studying us like we were some interesting animals at the zoo and sniffing the air as if we not only looked like sardines, but smelled like them too.
That’s when an elderly man, known as “Sailor Bob” to his fellow hikers, stood up and began telling a story from his time as a pilgrim on the Way of Saint James.
“The Santiago de Compostela was such a pleasant walk,” he told his captive audience. “The weather was sunny, breezy, warm. We slept on cots in hostels, churches, and monasteries almost every night. And every day, people offered us bread and cheese and wine, wanting to support us on our journey because they could not make it themselves...”
Everyone in the shelter moaned at such pleasant thoughts.
The next morning many hikers, including Mo and myself, hitchhiked into Gatlinburg to rent hotel rooms to dry out clothing and gear, shower, eat, and finally warm up.
After hearing Sailor Bob’s glorious description of the perfect trail in some faraway land, a couple that we met on the AT actually jumped on a plane and flew from Tennessee to Spain. They only had a month off of work to hike and thought they’d see if the grass was truly greener (and warmer) there - I often wonder if it really was.
Anytime the going gets tough - on trail or in real life - Mo and I always think of Sailor Bob’s tantalizing description of his pilgrimage experience and say, “Well, we can always go walk the Saint James Trail...”
We joke, knowing that no trail in life is without obstacles, but still we both hope to someday make the spiritual pilgrimage - snow or shine.
A few weeks ago, Mo called to tell me she decided to take our dream walk.
“Now’s the time for me,” she said, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to join her. “I have the time and I’m healthy...”
“Yes!” Go!” I told her.
Life is short - we all must make our pilgrimages while we are able.
And, hopefully, she’ll have at least a few days of “Sailor Bob” weather along The Way.
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