by Maureen Bell Field ’65, Peg Rooney Hall ’65, Blanche Malankowski-Smith ’65
El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage trail in Europe. People have been walking it since the ninth century, and they still are. The film The Way (2010) attracted a lot of attention to the Spanish section, named the Camino Francés because it comes from France.
If you are considering walking it, you won’t be the first Nazareth alumni “pilgrims.” The three of us, all Class of 1965, have each gone. Why would we do it? Here are our stories.
Longtime hikers, my husband David and I embarked on the 200-mile walk from Leon to Santiago de Compostela in spring 2011 mostly for adventure. Because it was such a great experience, we returned to walk the remaining 300 miles of the Camino Francés from Roncesvalles to Leon in fall 2012.
I enjoyed walking alone and with others through the beautiful vineyards, farms, villages, and mountains with much time to think about successes, failures, relationships, and future hopes and dreams. The evening services at village churches added spiritual and religious dimensions, especially vespers sung in Gregorian chant by Rabanal’s German monks.
The people we met from 40 countries and six continents were highlights of our Camino: multilingual Romeo learned his many languages from former girlfriends; Estonian Twe took three days to hike 14 miles and was having the time of her life; South African Gabby walked 30 miles every day, causing shin splints; American ex-priest Dan was on his ninth Camino; German Ingrid from Australia was deciding if she should marry her Italian boyfriend; Australian Brian and his 16-year-old daughter lived in the moment with no home to return to; the “dead butterfly” who intended to walk 500 miles took the bus after the first day.
Before departing for the Camino, friends said, “You call that a vacation!” In reality it was one of my best vacations, but more importantly, it was a life-changing experience. I learned and am still learning to enjoy the moment, roll with the punches, slow down and smell the flowers, be kind to all, and slow to anger. I enjoy corresponding with and hope to visit my Camino friends from around the world.
I had heard about the Camino more than 10 years ago when I read Shirley MacLaine’s book The Camino. And the thought that I might someday walk the trail stayed with me. As I approached my 65th birthday, I felt it was time to simply say thank you. I was happily married, had three fabulous adult children, a gratifying and successful career in teaching, and I was healthy. Walking the Camino in gratitude seemed like the perfect fit. Still, it took another three years before I actually got on the plane to Madrid with my husband and daughter Colleen to begin the walk.
Was I nervous? Of course! My husband, although blind, is incredibly fit, and my daughter is a tri-athlete. The first afternoon of walking only four and a half miles over a “rise” left me exhausted. Serious thoughts of “What were you thinking?” were winning out over “I am so thankful for this wonderful life.” Slowly, we got in a rhythm, and the magic of the pilgrimage took over. We preferred staying in the traditional albergues (bunk bed housing), resting together with other pilgrims. For me this was the unexpected gift of the Camino, walking together, in the same direction, with people from all over the world, speaking in foreign tongues but always with the greeting, “Buen Camino.”
Starting my adult life in the early ’60s at Nazareth, with the camaraderie and community of gifted and talented women, was an early and unexpected gift. When we reached Santiago, I turned to my daughter and said, “We did it—we finished the Camino.” And she, in her early wisdom, replied, “No, Mom, we have just begun.” And so we have. Life is a pilgrimage—a continuing journey of unexpected gifts.
My husband Russ’s medieval-historian sister lured us to our first Camino hike with stories and pictures. We now have hiked parts of it six times. Last year, we were volunteer “hospitaleros” for two weeks in a pilgrim hostel, doing all the welcoming, cleaning, and service for the pilgrims. In part we keep going back because the Camino meets all our vacation preferences: Interstate driving —no. Ten pounds to lose when we get home—no. Floating a loan to cover the cost—no. Moving at our own pace—yes. Birds, frogs, forests, fields, culture, legends—yes. Cheese and wine—yes. Bragging rights—yes.
But it is much more than that. I love the idea of walking in the footsteps of centuries of past pilgrims. And the Camino is a challenge . . . to do when I am older than 65 what I would never have dreamed of doing in my 20s. (When I was at Nazareth, I considered it an expedition to walk to Pittsford to play bridge over a pitcher of beer on Friday afternoons.)
I walk the Camino for the beauty of the countryside, the challenge for my body, the peace it brings to my mind, how it fills up my spirit. The Camino makes me grateful for all I have, and thankful to myself for being there. I walk it because I can, and maybe next year I won’t be able to.
How has the Camino changed me, you ask? I know I am more adventuresome than I used to be. I am better at adapting and adjusting to whatever the universe throws to me . . . snow in May, triple rainbows over Santiago, broken bones along the trail, fields of wildflowers. Slowness pleases me more and stresses me less. Odd people intrigue me. The Camino filled up my imagination with stories and led me to spin a tale about its magic. Now that is something I never thought I would do.
For all three of us, the Camino was more than a vacation. It was slow journeying. Moving on foot from town to town, we cherished birds, grass, lizards, people, maybe even ghosts. We listened to stories from all over the world. The stories were different, disjointed, disconnected. Regardless, they flowed together, connecting Camino pilgrims past, present, and future … not unlike the connection among Nazareth students through the years. We hope many of you have the chance to make this pilgrimage. Buen Camino!
Maureen Bell Field '65 and husband David
Blanche Malankowski-Smith '65
Peg Rooney Hall '65 and husband Russ
For more on hiking the Camino, check out Peg's books at lighthallbooks.com.