The last 115: A Pilgrimage from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela


August 1, 2011:

When Jon and his ex-Jesuit classmate, Jim Gravois decided to walk the Camino Frances, it was the farthest thing from my mind that I would even consider joining them. In New Orleans for the Jesuit jubilee celebration, I listened as they intently exchanged ideas and made plans over a brunch of chicken and waffles at Luke’s. I thought that the plans would fade as so many do once a wonderful meal is passed, but this one, as they say, “had legs”. I kept hearing the buzz about it month after month and by the time that Jon took up trekking with a backpack in earnest about the Villa Mantua neighborhood, it was in cement. He and Jim committed to meet up at Roncesvalles, the farthest eastern pilgrimage stop of The Way of St. James-or simply The Way-in Spain. The Way actually starts in France at St. Jean Pied de Port, but the Pyrenees mountains presents such a formidable obstacle-especially for novice pilgrims-that many choose the Spanish side as their first point of departure.

Time and perspective have a way of changing and shaping the mind. At first for Jon the Pyrenees presented too much of an obstacle. Age, health and a lifetime of never having done anything remotely like this physically can cast doubts in even the most intrepid souls. However as the time to meet drew near, the notion of not including this monumental start to their pilgrimage became all-consuming for him and his resolve grew. In Lisbon during the weeks prior to starting, Jon bent his will to the task of readying himself for the Pyrenees climb and pushed hard. With his new found confidence he cancelled his plans at the last moment for Roncesvalles and instead made his way to St. Jean Pied du Port. As luck-and omen-would have it, upon entering tavern in town he ran right into Jim. The pilgrimage was thus fated to be complete, all 790 km from St, Jean  Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostela. They did a “trial” walk into the Pyrenees the next day for an hour and with courage at their backs, on August 30th, 2012 at 7:30 am they crossed the bridge and started.

No good deed as they say, goes unpunished. During all of the build-up to this the previous year, Jon’s dear friend from Louisville, Eleanor Bingham-Miller, decided that he needed company and plans were soon afoot. Not everyone could spare the time so Sarria Spain, the last stop on the pilgrimage that one can start at to receive the pilgrimage certificate at the Cathedral in Santiago, was chosen and she and others would join Jim and Jon on the 20th of October to walk the remaining 115 kilometers to arrive in Santiago de Compostela on the 1st of November.

Fast forward to the 9/3/2012:

I have receive the triumphal email proclaiming Jon and Jim’s successful crossing of the Pyrenees! They were high on the accomplishment and were eager to push on to Pamplona, their next stop. And, at that moment while reading the email, a whiff of adventure from that brunch at Luke’s came rushing back:

I didn’t then, but now I really wanted to join them.

I knocked the idea about in my head, trying to dispel it with all sorts of rational reasoning but the thought just wasn’t going away. So on the 5th of September I contacted Eleanor and promptly swore her and her staff to secrecy. I did not want Jon or Jim or anyone else to know that I was planning to join them.  I am sure that something inside was trying to give me a way to save face-a way out if I couldn’t pull it off, but Eleanor was too thrilled. If I had held the door slightly open to back out, she promptly slammed it shut. She was sure that I was going to break and tell them but no, I insisted, this was to be a sworn secret and only shared on a need to know basis which meant only Terri and Gretchen, her assistants were in the know. I only allowed myself a brief window of doubt after sharing my plans.  Whatever reservations I had, after buying plane tickets and a not-so-cheap visit to REI Outfitters, they disappeared. I was going and there was no changing that. But there was one big obstacle ahead of me, mainly I was in no shape to walk 8-10 miles a day carrying a 20+ lb back pack…and I had barely six weeks to get in shape.

On Thursday the 6th, after buying hiking boots and with no time to loose I started my walking regiment. I would have to build rapidly to a comfortable level of endurance and that meant no easing in. I had to just go for it. I drove a four mile, a five mile and a six mile route to mark my progress. My goal was to get to six miles by week three, walking every day and then start with a back pack on week four. A comfortable six mile walk with back pack in one shot should put me in good stead. After that a move up to eight-plus miles should be no problem.

All went well as I did my first two weeks at the four miles and then I bumped it up to five. But by that Sunday my right knee had swelled up like a balloon. My doctor  was to see me that Friday anyway so there was nothing to do but throw an Ace knee support on and continued walking. That Friday he looked at the knee and listened to my Camino plans and how I was going, hell or high water. Before I left the office I had an anti inflammatory and an appointment with my old orthopedic doctor. You see, my knee has history. An X-ray and visit later with him and we had a plan: I was to get an MRI of the knee and see him on the 11th of October. If there was no impeding issues, I would just continue the Meloxicam. If issues persisted, then I would get the knee loaded with cortisone and schedule a better look after I got back. Both of my docs are very supportive and wished me well on the endeavor or as they say in Spain, “Buen Camino!”


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