When Lydia Atchley, Senior Conservation Biology Major, and Rebecca Dalton, Senior TESL Major, stepped off the plane in Paris, France on a hot summer day this past June, they had no idea what awaited them along the dusty road to Santiago.
For centuries, religious devotees have tread the path from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to the Spanish destination of Santiago de Compostela, and the tomb of St. James, in a pilgrimage known simply as El Camino (The Way).
One of the oldest and most popular pilgrimages since the Middle Ages, the arduous trail attracts backpackers from all over the world seeking to participate in the symbolically rich journey for spiritual, religious or recreational reasons.
“Since I first learned about El Camino in Spanish class six years ago, I’ve wanted to do it myself,” said Dalton. “While everyone I met there had their own personal reasons for doing the Camino, most seemed to be at some type of crossroads in their life and were taking this time to reevaluate and figure out their next chapter. It was funny, I asked a lot of people why they were walking the Camino and the most common answer was they needed a break. So, ironically, they decided to walk 500 miles.”
The 500-mile trek to Santiago covers a variety of terrain ranging from lush coast-lands to miles of vast expanse and wheat fields under the scorching heat of the Spanish sun. It is divided into three sections: the first part symbolizing birth, the second death and the third rebirth.
“The middle third of the trail is known as ‘Meseta,’” said Atchley. “It is the section of the trail that symbolizes death. There were days when we would wake up at 3 a.m. and walk until 3:30 p.m., just to escape the relentless heat.”
From the violent virus that threatened to slow their progress, to the companionship of fellow travelers from all over the world whom Atchley and Dalton came to identify as their “trail family”, the unexpected moments along the trail made the pilgrimage to Santiago one of the most refining and fulfilling trips Dalton and Atchley have taken to date.
“At one point I was so sick, I felt like I was dying,” said Atchley. “We only had three kilometers left until the hostel and members of my trail family were dragging me the last few kilometers. If not for them I might be dead somewhere on the side of a road in Spain.”
The memories made along the trail, the hardships endured and the relationships forged continue to impact the way that Dalton and Atchley see the world as they settle back into their final year at Union.
“I learned more about the world and the people who live in it from one month on the Camino than I ever could have by staying in the United States,” Dalton said.