Last fall, I left my home in Vermont to walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim track that stretches across 500 miles in northern Spain. I had heard from former pilgrims that hiking this trail had changed their lives; long a hiker, I had never experienced a life-changing hike, but I welcomed the idea.
For the past seven years, I had been caring for my husband, Tom, as he succumbed to frontal temporal lobe dementia; a few months before my departure for Spain I had to place him in residential care. By that point, I was so in need of help myself that the promise of pilgrimage felt not so much like a life-changing opportunity as a life-saving one.
Tom and I had enjoyed many long-distance walks, and I vowed that when he did not know me anymore, I would walk the Camino. My reasons reflected my personal crossroads: Move my body, mind, and spirit toward strength and wellness; learn life lessons—physical, emotional, and spiritual; think and write to clarify my thoughts. The most important reason was the last one. I wrote 16 chapters of my Camino story as I walked, and I am much clearer about who I am and how I wish to live my life as I edge closer to the end of it. I am also a much healthier and happier person and better able to oversee Tom’s care.
It is a tradition for Camino pilgrims to leave stones or personal items at altars while walking the trail; such acts are meant to symbolize giving up one’s heavy burdens along the way. After a week on the Camino, I realized I was still emotionally carrying Tom. I went into a small, ancient chapel and made an altar for Tom with his baseball cap, a scallop shell (symbol of the Camino), a rose I had picked outside, and a lighted candle. Then I sat and talked to him through tears, explaining that this hike was really hard and carrying him was too much for me—that I had cared for him after his diagnosis because I wanted to, and I had done the best job I could. I told him that I loved him and would continue to ensure he got the best care possible as long as he lived. Then, with a lighter heart, I walked outside.
From that point, I had other talks with Tom along the way, telling my geography-major husband about the topography, climate, human history, and culture of the land I was walking through. I tried to interpret for him all I was learning from my nightly reading, sensing from nature, and feeling spiritually.
As in real life, some days were pretty miserable, especially during a stretch of drenching rain and gale force winds while hiking over the Leon Mountains. Other days were full of sunshine and ripe grapes on vines within reach of walking pilgrims. Scrambling up the steep side of a mesa in the dark to greet the sunrise at the top and gingerly picking my way down a slippery, rocky gully through a chestnut forest were taxing but satisfying adventures and inspirational experiences with nature.
Now back home, I use my “pilgrim soul” to handle life’s continuing challenges and opportunities. I’ve come to grips with my emotions about Tom’s cruel disease. I was thrilled that I was physically able to complete the Camino de Santiago, but of greater importance was the spiritual journey and my emotional healing. The pervasive positivity of hikers on the Camino is expressed every day by meeting and leaving each other with a hearty “Buen Camino: May you find what you are searching for.” I have done just that. And it has changed my life.
Susie Davis Patterson ’67 is a longtime journal keeper and retired teacher. She has served as the 1967 class correspondent for the magazine for 27 years.