BROOKVILLE — “We never considered turning around or stopping,” said Janice Shields, as she recalled her recent pilgrimage in northern Spain.
Shields and her sister, Sandra Augustine of Bradford Woods, began talking about the making the pilgrimage last summer. Shields had studied Spanish at the University of Santiago in 1988. Both saw the movie, “The Way” starring Martin Sheen, which is set in the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, and decided to make the trek. Although people have been making the pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, the route has gained in popularity since “The Way” was released in 2012.
They began their walk June 22 at Saint Jean Pied de Port in northeastern Spain. Over the next 36 days they walked 775 kilometers (nearly 500 miles) to Santiago de Compostela, following the most popular of all the Camino routes in Spain. According to legend, the remains of St. James are buried on the route.
At the beginning of their pilgrimage they received a scalloped shell, the symbol of the pilgrims, used as an identification marker for those on the pilgrimage. They also received a walking stick and a “passport,” which was stamped at various points along the way to prove they had actually completed the pilgrimage. At the end of the walk they had 72 stamps on their passports.
They also carried back packs with their clothes, personal belongings and water. “They weighed about 25 pounds, but the walking sticks helped take a little bit of the weight off,” she said.
Their pilgrimage began in the Pyrenees mountains, then crossed the prairies to the more hilly and mountainous western side of Spain. While they were crossing the prairies Spain was experiencing a heat wave, with daily temperatures “in the 100s,” she said. “We would be soaking wet. At night I would turn my back pack upside down in the albergue so it would dry out by morning. But the humidity was low and there were fountains along the way. One vineyard offered a fountain with water on one side and wine on the other. There was a sign that said ‘if you want to arrive in Santiago full of strength and vitality’ to fill your water bottle with wine!”
Shields said it only rained one day of their adventure, “the second day. It was a thunder and lightning storm while we were walking in the Pyrenees, so we just sat in the woods with our ponchos over us until the storm ended.”
Much of the well-marked route is along paths and dirt roads. “A lot of the path is through agriculture areas, almond trees and hay fields,” she said. At one point in their trek they had to stop and wait while a farmer took his flock of sheep up the path to their new pasture. Some of their paths passed through small towns and others through historical ruins. “In Puente la Reina we crossed a medieval bridge that was built by the queen for the pilgrims,” she said. They also saw statues of pilgrims along the way.
Along the way are many churches, some offering pilgrim masses. “We went to three of them, one in Burgos, one in Leon and one in Santiago,” she said.
They averaged about 23 kilometers each day, some days, when they knew it was going to be hot, starting as early as 6 a.m. But most days they started walking around 7 or 8 a.m. and finished about 4 p.m.
Nights were spent at one of the many albergues (pilgrim hostels) along the way. One of the larger albergues had beds for 300 people. Because “everyone was sweating, everyone was doing laundry. They have tubs where you can wash your clothes by hand and some places had washers and driers, and there were a lot of clothes lines,” she said. “We would eat what is called a Spanish tortilla, which is sliced potatoes with beat-up eggs poured over it and then baked, so it looks like a one-layer cake and then they cut it like a pie. It was really good. We would take breaks along the way for water and ice cream,” she said.
After stopping their journey for the day “we would find a place to stay, take a shower and wash our clothes. Then they had “pilgrim meals which included an appetizer which was like a chef salad, and soup and pasta. The entree was meat, like fish or beef, and french fries, and then dessert like flan or yogurt. I always got ice cream, because it was hot. And you could have wine or water and bread,” she said.
Shields said the highlight of the pilgrimage was the people they met along the way. “I like meeting people,” she said. While making their pilgrimage they met “an Italian couple, a German couple and two guys from South Korea and a father and son from Italy. There was a woman from Sweden who was walking by herself; it is pretty safe to walk by yourself, even if you are a woman. Often at the end of the day in the town where we were staying we would see them again. We kept running into a family with two girls and a boy, probably like junior high age, who were doing it as a family.” She said there were many small groups of pilgrims.
Shields said she and her sister didn’t really do anything special to prepare for the pilgrimage. “I walk a lot, on Pickering Street and the stairs. My sister came up one weekend and we walked the Redbank Valley Trail, and that’s about all we did.”
Next year she hopes to make the pilgrimage which starts in Portugal.
Would she recommend the pilgrimage to others? “Oh, yes!” she said with a smile. “Even if they only did the last 100 kilometres of the pilgrimage, which many people do, they would still get the certificate. You can always walk by yourself for awhile, then you can walk with other people.”
Shields will be sharing more of her story at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 22 at the Arthurs Library in Brookville.