Imagine walking to New York City and back.
That is about the distance Kathleen McGuinness, 61, of Potomac walked between May 19 and June 23, when she completed the 500-mile pilgrimage known as “The Way” from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago, Spain.
Stories of “The Way” are said to begin when pilgrims leave their home intent on completing the journey to the Cathedral of St. James, Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, but McGuinness said her journey began on May 28, 2012, in Montana.
She was spending a week on a dude ranch in Kalispell, Montana, with friends when she broke her back in several places.
“A horse and I disagreed on which way to go,” McGuinness said. “I got pitched.”
The fall changed her vacation plans. She spent nine days in a hospital in Montana and more than six months rehabilitating at home.
“My recuperation was bed rest and physical therapy,” she said. “I wore a [hard] brace for 3.5 months and used a hospital bed for six months.”
It was during that time, she said, that she decided to walk “The Way,” to make the pilgrimage for physical reasons more than spiritual.
The Way of St. James [El Camino de Santiago] is an ancient pilgrimage to the burial site of St. James the apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galacia, Spain. Pilgrimages reached their peak in the Middle Ages, according to www.americanpilgrims.com, the website of American Pilgrims on the Camino, a nonprofit organization to foster the tradition of the Camino and to provide information to encourage past and future pilgrims. Pilgrims can complete their journey on foot, by bicycle or on horseback.
In June of this year, 29,374 pilgrims were received in the Pilgrim Office in Santiago, which is run by the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese of Santiago, according to the official website of the Pilgrim Office, www.peregrinossantiago.es.
“I’m a goal-driven person,” McGuinness said. “I needed a goal to physically work my back.”
She said she decided on the whole journey because she likes big challenges.
Preparation for the five-week journey included hikes along the C&O Canal near her home and work with a personal trainer to strengthen her back, which was important because she would carry everything she needed in a backpack.
She also read about the different official routes and decided on the Camino Frances, which starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, in the French Pyrenees, because it is the most popular. She got a passport from Americans on the Camino, a “credencial,” or pilgrim’s passport, to document her trip and give access to inexpensive accommodations at “refugios” along the way.
The passport also is important when applying for a certificate of completion in Santiago, she said. Pilgrims have it stamped at inns and cities along the way. It is checked and verified at the end of the trip.
“My hope was to deepen spiritually and to be open to whatever my God would fill me with,” McGuinness said. “I feel transformed. There is something about being fearful, and walking alone, that built a greater faith in me. Faith without fear.”
McGuinness said she walked alone much of the time, except the first and last 100 miles. Her 29-year-old son, Ryan Mahoney of Arlington, Va., started the trip with her. Her daughter, Morgan Mahoney, 24, of Bethesda, joined her for the final 100 miles.
“I didn’t expect either to go when I started,” she said. “Knowing my son would start with me and knowing that my daughter would meet me in Sarria, Spain, meant I couldn’t quit. It inspired me to keep going.”
The first day of the trip was a killer, she said. There was a blizzard as they went up the mountain and they had to take a different path. Nevertheless, she and Ryan walked 19 miles that day.
She said she planned to walk 15 or 16 miles per day and take one rest day each week. Every 10 miles or so, there would be a village, but for several hours, on the days her children were not with her, she said, she walked alone.
“You thought, ‘Why am I here? Why did I think this was such a good idea?,’” she said. “After I got over the fearful part — a woman walking alone, not speaking the language, wondering if I was lost — I really enjoyed it.”
Besides the time spent with her children, she said, the best part of the trip was meeting a virtual United Nations of pilgrims, each with his or her own reason for making the journey.
“You picked up friends along the way,” she said. “You would walk with them for a while, maybe a day or two and [they] kept reappearing. It was like long-lost friends.”
Her favorites, she said, were a young girl named Morgan and her mother Audrey from Vancouver, Canada; a former Buddhist monk, Deva, from England, and David, from Australia, whom she met the first day.
Why do so many people make the journey each year?
“I think for a lot of people, it was seeking adventure, exploring, or spiritual,” she said.
Friends shared information about places to spend the night, things to look for or to avoid, she said. When they were in a city big enough to have WiFi, they would send email messages.
McGuinness said she actually only walked 450 miles of her 500-mile route, because at one point, she developed shin splints and took a bus to a place where she could rest comfortably for a couple of days.
Finding a place to stay each night was not hard because there were several hostels along the route, but McGuinness said that usually meant sleeping dormitory style and sharing a bathroom.
The food was terrific wherever she stayed, she said, and it was fun to go around the table and learn everyone’s name and where they were from. Most pilgrims, she said, spoke English, but most of the people who ran the hostels did not.
Her favorite place along the way was Cruz de Ferro, where a tall cross stands atop a pile of thousands of rocks left by pilgrims over the years.
“You are supposed to bring a rock from home,” McGuinness said. “You are supposed to drop your resentments or regrets.”
She said she brought a rock from her Potomac neighborhood.
McGuinness has no regrets about her pilgrimage. She was very happy to receive her Certificate of Completion when she reached Santiago and presented her passport at the Pilgrim Office.
She plans to get her certificate framed along with her pilgrim passport and pictures of herself with her children during their time along “The Way.”
“I made it. I broke my back a year ago and I made it,” she said. “It’s like you finally reached Mecca.”