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Journey starts with one step

George Gazarek of Accokeek, who will hike a 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain, is accepting pledges to benefit Congregation Sha’are Shalom. Checks can be made out to Congregation Sha’are Shalom and sent to the synagogue at 18 Henry Ford Circle, Waldorf, MD 20602. Note on the check “El Camino.” Gazarek will update his blog — — during the hike, which he’ll start Sept. 14.

George Gazarek tried to consider all angles before he decided to embark on what could be a spiritual journey of a lifetime.

The Accokeek resident will spend more than 30 days hiking el Camino de Santiago — the Way of St. James — in Northern Spain.

The more than 500-mile ancient pilgrimage will start in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, and conclude at Santiago de Compostela, a cathedral where the remains of St. James are believed to lie, in Galicia, Spain.

Gazarek, the new president of Congregation Sha’are Shalom, will accept pledges to benefit the Waldorf synagogue, where more than 50 families in Southern Maryland attend services.

“We were all pretty ... surprised would be an understatement,” said Paul McVinney, an 11-year member of the temple. “500 miles is an ambitious project, but we’re all cheering him on.”

The trip is not a fundraising gambit.

It’s a journey that is not only taxing for the body — hikers typically walk up to 15 miles a day — but for the spirit, as well.

“At some point on the Camino, you break down and start crying,” said Gazarek, 71, who has read accounts from pilgrims and a handful of books documenting the experience, which focused on the spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage.

He said along the way, you start to realize how you depend on others along your life journey.

Generations of families who live along the Camino have been supporting pilgrims for thousands of years, Gazarek said.

The trail goes through a few big cities, but mostly small towns.

He was introduced to the Camino by a Martin Sheen movie, “The Way,” about a man making the pilgrimage to honor his late son, who died while on the trek.

“It got me excited about it,” Gazarek said.

After watching the movie several times, he told his wife Rose that the hike was something he’d like to do, and she encouraged him.

Gazarek is a lifelong runner who participated in marathons and half-marathons, but the Camino will be a different feat.

He had to lay out the pros and cons.

Some of the pros include “I would experience France and Spain,” “Thirty-three days of reflection” and “I could use it to raise money for temple.”

While the cons were “It would cost thousands of dollars,” “Community showers and sleeping” and “I would miss High Holidays.”

The biggest con could be “It may kill me,” but the pro that rang out was “It will be a personal spiritual journey.”

One of the hurdles he was facing was the language barrier.

While he is looking forward to meeting new people, Gazarek said his Spanish is a little rusty. He signed up for an online program but fell behind in the lessons.

“It is my weak link,” Gazarek said. “But, the Camino ... they say when you need something along the way, the Camino will provide it for you.”

The Camino might be working for Gazarek before he even boards a plane.

His brother-in-law, Victor Soto of Arizona, is fluent in Spanish and volunteered to go along on the trip.

Gazarek, who has charted his itinerary by the day — including lunch stops — has most of the planning taken care of. Soto will serve as the translator for the pair.

“Together, we’re the perfect couple,” said Gazarek, who has been training for the trip by walking across the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge with his full backpack.

He will fly into St. Jean on Sept. 13 and start the hike the following day after resting up.

He has allotted about 15 miles a day — barring severe weather — to the hike and will bunk with other pilgrims at hostels and boarding houses along the trail.

Broken-in hiking boots, a change of clothes, a rain jacket and pants, socks, sleeping bag, a pair of sandals and water bottles are all he’s carrying. Gazarek will do laundry each night after getting to a boarding house and hope the clothes dry before starting the walk the next morning.

He plans to pick up a walking stick at the start of the journey, along with a scallop shell emblem that most pilgrims wear on their packs to show they are hiking the Camino.

He aims to keep friends and family informed of his progress on his blog,

Gazarek said between 200,000 and 300,000 people start the trek every year, but not all from St. Jean, and not all for religious or spiritual purposes.

“It means something different to everybody,” he said. “They come from every country in the world,” he said, adding that it doesn’t matter if a person is a CEO or a janitor.

On the Camino, everyone is equal.

“They’re all in the same boat,” Gazarek said. “We all have blisters on our feet ... we’re all sleeping with 50 other people in dorms.”

Many think the walk is only for Catholics or Christians, but it started out as a pagan pilgrimage when people believed Cape Finisterre, the last stop on the walk, marked the end of the world.

“That’s the legend,” Gazarek said. “And like most things, it takes a lot of faith.”

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims sought forgiveness for their sins, Gazarek wrote in a letter explaining why he was going to hike the Camino.

“The Camino remains, for many, a quest a faith,” he wrote. “Others begin with no spiritual impetus in mind, but nevertheless are drawn to examine their personal beliefs and life purpose. And others are in it for the intense physical challenge. Whatever their motivation, no one can predict just how their path will unfold, who they will meet, what personal demons or angels they will face, or what transformations they will undergo by the trail’s end.”