Carolyn Gillespie – A Modern-Day Pilgrim on the Camino De Santiago

Santiago de Compostela basilica, Photo by Jo Kassis 

Pilgrim: A traveler that is taken seriously – Ambrose Bierce

Throughout history, women have been taking pilgrimages and spiritual journeys. Often these journeys involve sacrifice, trials, and difficulty. I recently came across a book by a Scottish woman, Carolyn (Kari) Gillespie, who made a pilgrimage with her friend Ali along the Camino De Santiago (the Way of St. James). Her walking journey of 560 miles over 40 days took her through northwest Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the reputed burial place of St. James, the apostle. She and her friend Ali were both 46 when they made the pilgrimage.

On the Camino

Kari and her friend Ali and another friend Jenny started out their journey at St. Jean Pied de Port. After a year’s preparation, Kari was nervous. She said, “I am not cut out for this. I have never done anything brave or impressive. I have lived a safe life and taken no chances.” But the Camino was tugging at her.

They got pilgrim passports before they started, to be stamped at places along the way to get a certificate of completion at the basilica in Santiago.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As they headed out of the starting point, just a few miles from the French border with Spain, they saw their first scallop shell way marker (a symbol of St. James), reminding them that “we were part of something bigger than ourselves.” Kari said a silent prayer, asking for strength, determination, and blister-free feet.

Kari was looking forward to a journey of solitude, with “time and space to sift through the muddle inside my head, to figuring out where the rest of my life was heading.” It turned out to be much more social, as they met other pilgrims on the way. Small groups would start early in the morning, meet mid-morning for coffee, then maybe lunch or an early dinner mid-afternoon.

There was an ever-shifting cast of characters around them while they walked and at the albergues (hostels/ way stations) each night. Many were primitive communal living that mixed up both sexes in various sizes of bunk beds. That usually meant shared bathrooms and many people snoring each night. Ali (a physiotherapist) would spend time every evening helping other travelers, giving them back rubs, and dealing with blistered feet and aching backs.

Although Kari and Ali felt safe throughout the trip, there was still danger. A traveler named Harriet told them about being accosted by a man when she was walking alone through some woods. She pushed him off with her walking poles and ran. “I had felt so strong,” she said, “and he made me feel so vulnerable.”

You might have chuckled about Kari’s concern about blisters, but feet and leg pains were a big problem for many on the Camino. About three-fourths of the way through, Kari began having leg pains that Ali suspected were tendonitis. There was no time to stop, and Ali helped by bandaging her leg, but a few days before the end that had to stop, because her skin was too raw to be bandaged. Kari managed to keep going, but every step was painful.

Kari spent time thinking about the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk. “…for me, the stillness of the Way and the rhythm of my steps were almost hypnotic and often the walk became a kind of meditation. In some barely perceptible way, my consciousness was altered.”

Cape Finesterre (Lands End) via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, they made it to the cathedral and received their certificates of completion. Did the experience change Kari’s life? I’m not sure. I’ll let you read the book and decide for yourself.

More Information on the Camino de Santiago Experience

Kari’s book  Pilgrim: Finding a New Way on the Camino de Santiago is available on Amazon, but I couldn’t find it in any library.

There are lots of tours of the Camino, including bicycle tours and self-guided experiences, from a few days to several weeks. The most-traveled route is the last 60 miles, which will get you a pilgrim certificate. (The one Kari and Ali took was the black route shown on the map.

If you want to do a walking tour of the Camino in style, consider Duperier’s Authentic Journeys for a luxury Camino experience. Or you could do your own tour using a list of albergues as a guide.

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