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A hiking family blazes its own spiritual path

Overcoming hardships and defeatist attitude on the Camino Frances between France and Spain bonds mother, stepfather and son.

April 20, 2003|Marjorie Kowalski Cole | Special to The Times

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Spain — Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Spain

I dropped my backpack onto one of the 28 metal cots in the huge, stone-floored room crisscrossed by low, heavy ceiling beams. The cots, draped with identical thin blankets, stood a few inches from one another.

My husband, my son and I were the only guests in this icy room in the Pilgrim Refugio in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Spain. We arrived here at twilight after a 20-mile walk from the village of Ventosa. I had no idea how tired I was, but when the red tile roofs of Santo Domingo appeared in the distance before us, I shouted, "Jerusalem!"

The main bunkroom was already filled with pilgrims and their gear. I recognized a couple of powerful snorers from previous nights on the trail, so I was overjoyed to be taken to an overflow room. I was not so happy to find it unheated.

After a week of hiking we were exhausted, a little sick and bewildered by an unaccustomed dependence on one another. Pat, my husband of not quite two years, Desmond, my 11-year-old son, and I didn't know how to spend every minute together and smoothly resolve every problem. We couldn't even decide which cots to choose.

Last spring, we walked 500 miles on the Camino Frances, a centuries-old pilgrimage route from southern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the bones of St. James the Apostle are said to repose. Pilgrims from all over the world have been walking the trail since the 12th century, but its popularity has surged in recent decades. Many attempt the route with spiritual ambitions; mine were not so defined at first. My family enjoys backpacking, and we wanted to try a long-distance adventure and immerse ourselves in Spanish culture.

I negotiated with Desmond's father, who was ambivalent about letting him go.

"Don't be afraid to quit," he said, reminding me of a favorite Alaskan place name, which translates from Athabascan as "the old lady made it this far." We were reassured to know that we could board a bus or taxi at almost any point along the Camino Frances if our strength flagged.

Our family doctor assured us that Desmond could handle the physical demands of the trek. But how would he maintain his interest? How would he stay motivated over such a long effort?

Tempted by the idea of an extended break from school, Desmond finally cast his lot with us and joined Pat and me on our afternoon training hikes as we logged more than 100 miles in the hills near our home in Fairbanks, Alaska. Often he would walk 100 feet or so behind us, lost in his own thoughts and happy to be alone. Sometimes when I stopped for him, he stopped too, still 100 feet behind me, and waved me on.

In Spain, where we averaged a little more than 16 miles a day, this pattern sometimes repeated itself -- the three of us strung out along a path, freeing ourselves for private mental excursions. At times Desmond and Pat, a mathematician, worked out problems as we walked together. Or I would tell him the biblical stories behind the many shrines and carvings we saw along the route, making up for a gap in his religious education.

We all agreed in advance not to complain about common miseries such as fatigue, hunger, thirst and despair. But we discovered that such creative self-expression helped the hard times go by and even drew us together.

Climbing in the Pyrenees from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, on our first day, I was euphoric. But that afternoon Desmond said to me: "I hate this. Do you like this?"

Two nights later, from a mattress at our refugio, or hostel, he said, "I don't think I can do this." Then he flopped back on the cot and concentrated on his Game Boy. I left the room in despair.

Half an hour later, Pat, who hadn't heard these ominous words, resumed his conversation with Desmond as if nothing was wrong. I watched as Desmond hitched his wagon to Pat's confidence and reenergized his flagging spirit. My son had expressed himself and rebounded. From that moment his confidence grew.

My low point came shortly after that freezing night in Santo Domingo, a week into our trek. Desmond looked at me and said, "Mom, you look terrible."

It was as if he were telling me, "Don't try to pretend -- go ahead and be low!" So I quit fighting my exhaustion and discovered that I, too, could rebound.

A courageous boy

In 31 days we crossed 7 degrees of longitude and walked through a range of terrain and weather, from flat, sunbaked tablelands to the snow and hail of the mountains. We climbed through the wine country of Bierzo and the green farmland of Galicia, which rivals Ireland for the frequency of its rainstorms. We had planned to take a day off occasionally and even ride buses through the industrial suburbs, but Desmond wouldn't hear of it. Sure enough, we all grew stronger, walking every day.

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