CHATHAM – When Susan Carroll and Jamie Neithold-Nash set out on a special sojourn in Spain this spring, little did they know a painted rock seen along their trek would sum up their trip perfectly: A Traveler is a human being on a spiritual journey. A Pilgrim is a spiritual being on a human journey. While the pair's shared journey along the Camino Walk had its share of human moments, both Nash and Carroll agree that the best part was its spirit.
Initially, the friends—Carroll a longtime manager at Chatham's Candy Manor and Nash a local chiropractor—considered visiting Southern France, but couldn't find an excursion that allowed them the freedom to properly explore their surroundings that they desired. Then they found out about the Camino de Santiago, or Camino Walk, which, depending upon one's travel time, fitness level, and purpose, takes walkers and hikers anywhere from 100 kilometers to more than 700.
Carroll and Nash, who joined another friend from Germany, opted for a 200-kilometer section of the French Way, a pilgrimage that's been completed by scores of Christians for more than 800 years and takes modern-day pilgrims from Ponferrada to Santiago de Compostela.
“Traditionally it's kind of an offshoot from Israel,” said Nash. “This one became protected by the Knights of the Templar. In the full hike, people cross over the Pyrenees and hike for roughly a month to six weeks.”
Since Carroll and Nash didn't have that kind of time, they chose a tour of 10 days through Fresco Tours, which Carroll said was exactly what the trio was seeking.
“It just came together so perfectly,” Carroll said, adding that the actual trip differed slightly from what she'd imagined. “It was totally different than what we previously thought. I assumed we'd hike every day, all day, 15-18 miles and have to bring food and water with us for the whole day.”
Instead, their luggage was transported from place to place by the travel company, while the route took walkers through towns every few miles where they found food, coffee, and restrooms, as well as locals eager to support walkers on their journeys by offering kind words and free water, as well as passport stamps, though not what you'd expect.
“When you sign up to do this, you get these passports where everywhere you go you get a stamp,” said Nash. “In restaurants, hotels, churches, even on the side of the road people will give you stamps.”
“People would get really creative and use wax or a little shell, or a flower,” added Carroll. “It was amazing. The stamps were all different. It's almost like they pride themselves on their stamps.”
The residents along the route were also among the friendliest people Carroll and Nash had met, which made the challenges of the trip, such as ill-fitting hiking shoes and lots of walking on varied surfaces, seem less significant, though language barriers made for some comedic moments along the way. In one instance, while exploring Ponferrada, the trio found their way into a small chapel that happened to be the residence of a sect of cloistered nuns who communicated with the outside world using something akin to a Lazy Susan built into a wall, which Nash spun excitedly.
“The next thing I know this Sister comes in through the front door and says, 'Can I help you?'” Nash said.
“We thought we were in trouble,” Carroll added as both women giggled at the memory.
Though the nuns rarely spoke to visitors, the gracious Sister welcomed the three women and offered them the opportunity to see the chapel, a tiny but mystical room with a domed skylight that cast a vibrant beam of light into an otherwise dusky space. Before the women left, the Sister blessed them.
“It was so beautiful,” said Nash. “We just knew we were getting blessed for our big journey.”
Once they set out, they were armed with all manner of support, from tips given to them by Camino veteran and friend Tom Rafferty to hints offered by residents along the way, which proved immensely helpful in guiding them to a safer section of the trail when the weather turned wet.
The biggest challenge regarding the trip has been finding the right words to describe it, especially since it was far more than a vacation for Carroll and Nash.
“They say that you walk the way for yourself and you gain forgiveness,” said Nash. “It was a great chance for me to work through stuff that I was working through, and get a centeredness. I feel like I really got to know myself in a strong way. What I have now is just a better sense of being here with my soul purpose. My sense of Me is stronger because of this.”
“St. James, who is buried in the cathedral (at Santiago de Compostela), is the Saint of Forgiveness,” said Carroll. “I knew I was going through a lot of changes and thinking about that. I needed to process a few things that were going on in my life. I love to walk, so this was pretty perfect for me to be able to do that. The whole forgiveness thing really just struck me.”
Although the pair has been back on U.S. soil for a while, the impact of the Camino continues to resonate. Both easily recall the spectacular beauty of where they walked, the kindness of strangers in spite of differing languages, the peal of church bells that heralded their arrival at another charming locale, and the importance of connecting with one's deepest self.
“When I walk every day, I go back to that and think about how the walk is taking the time, like a little mini Camino,” said Carroll. “We have so many beautiful places to walk here. You have that time just to center yourself. To think about what you're about, what you're doing, and what's most important. It's really pretty special. Your Camino is with you all the time.”