Four long-time friends, all experienced marathon runners, say their most challenging trek so far has been walking—covering nearly 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St. James). Last year the local retirees walked through the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France and across Spain, through raging rainstorms and 90-degree heat, carrying backpacks with minimal supplies.
And they can’t wait to do it again.
“In a heartbeat!” says Margie Mahle, 69, a retired nurse practitioner from Kettering, who learned about the Camino in 2019 at a Dayton outfitter store where presenters who had walked the Camino spoke about the hundreds of thousands of walkers who annually traverse the many Camino routes that all end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
“If they can do it, I can,” Mahle said she thought. And she started talking to her running club friends, including Norm Essman, 70, a former Economic Development Director for the City of Dayton. He had had the Camino on his radar for years.
“I thought it was fascinating,” he says. “That’s like walking from Dayton to New York City.”
Persis Elwood of Miami Township and Gail Krentz of Springboro, both 65 and retired from the federal government, were also intrigued. Elwood had hiked with Mahle in Machu Pichu and Patagonia. Krentz, a veteran of 27 marathons, thought it was a great way to celebrate her recent retirement
Then Covid closed the Camino. When it opened in 2021, Essman attempted the walk, but the Camino closed again after he had only trekked 75 miles.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Unfazed, the friends were ready to try in 2022. Essman, Mahle and Elwood were prepared to walk about 500 miles in six weeks; Krentz decided to join them for the last 200 miles.
The four studied Camino guidebooks and itineraries, and they discussed what they learned during regular meetings. Then came a month of seven- to 10-mile practice hikes through area parks like Hills & Dales MetroPark and Caesar’s Creek State Park, walking with weighted backpacks and breaking in new hiking boots or running shoes.
Backpacks carry everything needed. Camino accommodations are often hostels offering little more than bunk beds with paper sheets and a communal bathroom/shower. Guidebooks suggested packs weigh no more than 15-17 pounds: two to three sets of clothing, rain gear, microfiber towel, lightweight sleep sheet instead of a sleeping bag, plus toiletries and first aid supplies. Even toilet paper. Robyn Essman, Norm’s wife of 45 years, hand stitched Camino patches on the four backpacks. Father Angelo Anthony blessed the backpacks at Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
“I weighed everything that went into my backpack many times,” laughs Elwood. She, Mahle and Essman settled on special bar soap for body and hair because liquids were too heavy. Krentz packed sample size toiletries.
All Camino walkers need credencials, or paper pilgrim passports, stamped at each village, hostel and other sites. The passports are proof the walkers completed the journey and must be shown at hostels for entry. Essman had his from 2021. To save time, Mahle and Elwood got theirs by mail before their flight.
Shared Bathrooms But Exceptional Food
Last August, Essman flew into Madrid, and Mahle and Elwood to Paris to begin. Since Essman had completed 75 miles, he began walking in Pamplona, Spain. Mahle and Elwood started the French Way in St. Jean Pied de Porte at the edge of the Pyrenees. They met after a week.
“The Pyrenees were beautiful and green, and you could hear the cowbells miles away,” says Elwood, who added the high altitudes only bothered her for about an hour.
“It was so much more than I hoped for,” she says. During communal dinners each evening, people from around the world shared their reasons for walking. One group invited Mahle and Elwood to join their cell phone Messenger group and to stay in touch along the way. “We eventually met people from 31 different countries. We’re still in touch.”
After connecting with Essman, the friends settled into a daily routine: Up at 6 a.m. Pack and fill water bottles. Coffee and small breakfast, then start walking, sometimes before sunrise. After several hours, they stopped for a second breakfast with more coffee, a chocolate croissant, and perhaps another passport stamp.
Mahle says they tried to be at the evening stop by about 3 p.m.—to check in early and get a bottom bunk when the hostel was first-come, first-serve.
“You took a shower, changed into clean clothes and hand washed your sweaty clothes in the laundry sink,” says Essman. After hanging wet laundry on the clotheslines outside, it was time for a communal dinner: fresh, regional produce, cheeses and meat or seafood. Even regional wines.
“It was straight from villagers’ gardens or vineyards,” adds Mahle. And so affordable. The friends agreed it was easy to eat each day on about 20 euros.
“I could live forever on their coffee and croissants,” says Krentz, who joined her friends in León, Spain. Plus tapas and paella were plentiful in village pubs.
In the hostels called albergues, bunk beds were often unisex dormitory style. There was a waiting line at the laundry sink. Even bathrooms were sometimes unisex, though the toilets and lukewarm showers had stalls to protect privacy. Still the friends noticed some other cultures were much less modest. “We saw some interesting tattoos,” laughs Krentz.
Internet was readily available, and What’s App made staying in touch back home via cell phone simple. Elwood and Mahle also took time every evening to reserve accommodations about a week ahead.
A Humbling Experience
The four friends trekked about 15-18 miles a day, sometimes 20, always following the scallop shell pointers. Each day was a time for reflection. Krentz had daily prayer time, and Essman noted he prayed at least one rosary a day. It wasn’t a race, Essman stressed. You learn to stop and smell the roses, he said. “As you walk along, you slowly shed what’s not important.”
“There’s a peace that comes from it,” Ellwood says of the pastoral setting that wound through forests, farmlands, vineyards and the vast Meseta, the flat plains of Spain. “Sometimes you just had to stop and look at it. It was beautiful beginning to end. The Eucalyptus trees smelled wonderful, and the forests seemed so enchanted you wondered if elves lived there.”
Pilgrims from around the world, all taking the same path, looking deep within themselves. “The Camino is a great leveler,” adds Mahle. “It doesn’t matter your status. You all walk the same steps.”
They stopped at the Cruz de Ferro, a weathered iron cross where walkers leave stones from home to honor loved ones and cast away worries. Mahle left two stones: One for family and friends and one for herself. “You leave your burdens on the stones.”
Sometimes their route led across 90-degree-baked plains without water stops for miles. As the journey stretched into October, chilly nights and occasional stormy days made walking down hills covered with “rocks the size of dinner plates,” treacherous, says Essman. “Gravity is never your friend. But when the rain blows sideways, you just put your head down and keep walking. It’s a very humbling experience.”
Next Stop: Portugal
The miles ended at the gilded Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where a bagpiper played to welcome walkers finishing their pilgrimages. After one last communal dinner with the pilgrims they grew to know along the route, the four friends headed home. But they think about their trip often.
“I’ve become much more grateful for what God has created,” says Krentz. “I’m much more thankful for what I have.”
Mahle agrees. “Now I want to live much more simply—to enjoy the simple things like sharing coffee with a friend.”
“I know now what’s important to me,” says Ellwood. “I don’t let little things bother me.” Plus both she and Essman say they also share a greater appreciation of other peoples and cultures. “We all have the same inner feelings, the same wants and needs,” he explains.
Now the four friends are talking about another Camino walk, this one along the coast of Portugal. Maybe this year. Maybe in 2024. But definitely soon.
“The Camino calls you back,” says Mahle.
For more on the Camino de Santiago, there are many guided tour options and multiple web sites. For more details on Camino history and current walking routes, go to the Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camino_de_Santiago#
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