A 500 mile spiritual journey across Spain
The old saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
And for Ellie Callahan, 41, of Blue Earth, there was a deep determination to see her solo trip to Spain all the way through. She had a strong will to see ‘The Way.’
Callahan chose to trek the 500 miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains to the culmination point of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route at Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
“El Camino de Santiago” is translated to “The Way of Saint James” and has been a pilgrimage for Christians for hundreds of years. It is said to be one of the most important Christian pilgrimages.
Saint James was one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus and is considered to be the first apostle to be martyred. He is also known as James the Great and is the patron saint of Spaniards. And, “The Way of Saint James” or “El Camino De Santiago” is said to be the original path of pilgrimage to bring St. James’ remains to his homeland after his death.
Fast forward a couple thousand years to 2016 and you will find Callahan reading a book called, “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman who Saved the Appalachian Trail.” It was this book by Ben Montgomery that helped Callahan realize something.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like that hike a trail like the Appalachian Trail, and here’s this lady at 60 who’s walking this path all by herself,” says Callahan. “And it made me think…what’s stopping me? If she can do it, I’m sure I can.”
Callahan says she enjoys running and does so daily, but she also knew the Appalachian Trail seemed a bit more challenging than she would have liked, and had little emotional attachment for her.
However, upon further research, Callahan found Camino de Santiago and knew she wanted to take the 500 mile Spanish pilgrimage. And so she began her research of all things relating to her pilgrimage.
“Before the actual trip, I was incredibly scared,” says Callahan who set off for Spain on May 11 of this year. “I had to go on three plane rides, a bus, multiple trails and I didn’t know French or Spanish. It was incredibly difficult trying to figure out where my flight gates were when signs were in a different language and everyone spoke a different language.”
But it was the thought of walking ancient Roman roads, seeing the Pyraneese mountains and, most importantly, taking her sorrows and transgressions to the cross that kept her determination strong.
“Along ‘The Way,’ there is a place called The Iron Cross,” says Callahan. “You are supposed to bring a rock from your home. One that you carry with you your entire length until you reach the cross. It’s to signify the burdens and sorrows you always carry with you, and when you get to the cross, you leave your burdens, your sorrows, and your rock there at the cross.”
Callahan describes her visit at the cross. She said she had been walking all day with two traveling friends, just two of many she would meet on her journey, and she knew the cross was just a bit more of a jaunt up a hill.
“It was like seven at night, but the sun doesn’t set there until 11 p.m., and it had been a hard day. I was actually pushed up a mountain by my two travel buddies, but something told me I had to go right then and there,” says Callahan. “So, I just started walking and while I was walking I was thinking, ‘am I really doing this? Am I going to the cross?’ And I looked behind me and saw how far I’d already walked from where we were camped and I said ‘yep, I’m going.'”
Callahan describes the scene as she approached the cross as it came into view over the horizon.
“I just started to cry. I was bawling. And I knew that this moment would be an intimate one, which is probably why I chose to go when I?did,” she says.
And as Callahan reached the foot of the cross, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her rock which she brought from home. The rock she kept by her side along with her passport and her Pilgrim’s passport, a special passport made specifically for the trek to Santiago de Compostela.
“I tried to think of every burden I had felt in my life, and every sorrow that hurt me. I pulled the rock from my pocket and left it at the cross,” says Callahan. “And there were no other distractions around, it was an odd feeling a good feeling.”
All along the pilgrimage path are markers and stones and arrows to help pilgrims along the way. Most of the markers are subtle, says Callahan, which made things a bit more adventurous when not knowing where to go. However, a good majority of those markers are set with a sea scallop shell.
The story of the shell begins with the pilgrims who originally made the journey. They collected the shells along the way to prove they had taken the path of St. James. And the original legend states that the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallops. Either way, it has become the symbol of Camino de Santiago.
Bear in mind this is no trip to the beach. Callahan spent two weeks hiking through the Pyraneese mountains, alone, with another week to complete the trek.
“I’m so thankful I went. I am thankful for such understanding employers who allowed me to take that time off,” she says. “I wanted to prove I could do this, and I had to convince myself a few times. There were so many burdens I wanted to leave at the cross and I did. By myself.”
Which, by the way, was unplanned. Callahan had a friend who had been planning to go with, but was unable to make it close to the time of their leave.
“It was just another thing to leave at the cross,” she says.
Callahan says the highlights of the trip, besides the scenery and the profound spiritual experiences she had, were the unexpected friendships she created with complete strangers along the way.
“We were all going on the same path and we would run into familiar travels along different stops and at our hostels where we would stay during the evenings,” she says. “It was hard work. Your feet get so swollen from walking and one bad blister could send you home.”
However, it wasn’t the blisters or the sore feet she remembered during her evenings at the hostels she stayed, it was the friendships.
‘Buen Camino.’ That’s how everyone greets everyone else who come to walk the path. Callahan says she never knew if the companions she traveled with would be by her side for five minutes or five days, but there was something unique about the friendships she made.
“Over there, people are blatantly honest with you from the get-go. Around here, there really is somewhat of a false niceness but over there? They’ll tell you how they feel. Maybe it’s the vulnerability of the journey itself, I don’t know,” says Callahan. “But, in this short amount of time, you’re making really deep connections with strangers. It’s incredible.”
But, Callahan adds, she never would have made friends with travel buddies Madaline from Finland, Samantha from India and Benjamin from Germany, all three of whom helped celebrate her birthday a few days early.
It was her last day with her friends and she wanted to put the idea of being apart from her travel companions in the back of her mind. She suggested having her friends sing a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Samantha cooked an Indian meal of epic delight for the group of friends, while Madaline sang a beautiful Finnish song and brought wine, and Benjamin?
“Benjamin didn’t know how to sing at all, but he did his best,” she laughed. “It was the best birthday I ever had, and it wasn’t even technically my birthday.”
And it was Callahan’s actual birthday when she returned to the United States.
Nine-hour walking days through mountains and uneven roads, hot temperatures, and no Wi-Fi in sight. Just a walking path, fellow pilgrims, two passports and a rock.
“Don’t let your fears stop you,” says Callahan when asked what her advice is to those considering a trip like this. “There is so much to figure out about the trip, but it can be done. And don’t be in a rush to get where you are going. Fear took over a little bit for me on parts of the journey I was so focused on getting to the next hostel by nightfall, I didn’t pay enough attention to the scenery. Smiles, not miles.”
She also adds she learned how important being genuine with people was for her.
“I have never been that close to people in such a short amount of time, not even back here at home where I have my family and friends,” she says.
“Don’t over plan,” she explains. “The Camino provides, is what the pilgrims would say frequently. Whatever happens is going to happen.”
Callahan says the hardest part now is getting back to regular life. After returning on June 25, she says it has been hard to engage with people especially after being so closely connected to her friends on The Way.
“I want to be that bright light in someone’s day,” she says. “I want to help other people feel that feeling I felt on my trip. And here in the U.S., sometimes you get a return when you act with kindness and sometimes you don’t. It’s learning to be okay with it.”
Callahan is now determined to be a light in the darkness for others; perhaps she now has a will because of The Way.