In the tracks of St. James
WELLMAN—On May 16, John Conway began his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago trail.
“Santiago is Old Spanish for St. James,” Conway said. “Camino de Santiago is the way of or road of St. James.”
St. James was the apostle who traveled along the northern coast of Spain preaching and was responsible for bringing Christianity to that part of Europe, Conway said.
“This is where St. James is buried,” Conway said. “He preached there, went back to Rome, was beheaded and his disciples got his body and brought it back to where he had been preaching.”
People would travel from all over Europe to Santiago to visit where St. James is buried to pray for healing. There were several accounts of people being healed at the site, which led people to travel there, Conway said. These people were called pilgrims.
Growing up in Melrose, Conway remembered the nuns saying around Thanksgiving that the pilgrims in the early American Thanksgiving observation were not the real pilgrims. The nuns said the real pilgrims were the ones who traveled on the Camino de Santiago Trail, Conway said.
It was this memory and a film that helped him with his decision to do the pilgrimage.
“We visited a friend’s home in Oklahoma two years ago, and while we were there we watched “The Way” with Martin Sheen, and I saw that as a sign that I should do this,” Conway said.
He had 18 months to prepare, train, and get things in order on his farm.
Conway walked everywhere on his farm and to the cattle pasture down the road from his house.
“The pasture was three miles from my house, so I would walk there, feed the cattle, and walk back home,” Conway said. “I also walked all winter long to get ready for my trip.”
Conway also notified his clients, who depended on him to feed their cattle, that he would be gone for a long time period, and would get his crops planted before he left.
“Three days before I left for my trip, the last of the cattle went to market and all of the crops were planted,” Conway said.
Once Conway left for Europe he felt a sense of calmness come over him.
“I figured if it was going to rain while I was gone, then it was going to rain,” he said. “I never spent one minute worrying about home. I was amazed at my calmness, but I had a great support group back home.”
He only took the necessities in his hiking pack.
“You take the least you possibly can,” he said.
He packed two shirts, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of shorts, four pairs of hiking socks, and had one pair of hiking boots.
However, when he began his journey he found himself unprepared for the type of weather France was having.
“The first seven days I was there, it either rained or snowed,” Conway said. “I wasn’t prepared for the weather. I ended up buying myself a long pair of pants, rain pants, and another rain poncho.”
He did find himself prepared for the 15 miles that he averaged a day. His day began at 6 a.m. When he was in France he would stop walking around 5 p.m. but in Spain he hoped to be finished by 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., and would look for a place to stay the night.
“I rarely had trouble finding a place,” Conway said. “I would stay in “Gits de top,” which in French means homes with rooms.”
The cost for a room for the night was $20 in Spain and $30 in France. Also, included in the cost was the evening meal, Conway said.
He would pick out snacks that were light and easy to carry with him.
“I used peanuts for my energy snack,” Conway said. “They were cheap, plentiful, and easy to carry. I also ate a lot of fruit. For lunch I would have tuna salad, which was in a tin.”
Along the route Conway would run into other individuals who were on the pilgrimage.
He often had the same reaction when he told them he was doing the whole trip.
“They usually looked at me in disbelief,” he said.
Most of them were Europeans, and for them it was common to walk in 14-day increments and then go home. It would take them sometimes 10 years to finish the pilgrimage.
The topography of the pilgrimage remained unchanged from when people first began walking the trail, Conway said.
“A lot of the roads were earthy and had a lot of dirt and mud on them,” Conway said.
He would walk through cow pastures and vineyards as well, he said. The landowners all knew about the trail and realized people may be walking across their property from time to time.
About a week before reaching Santiago his wife and daughter joined him. They wanted to walk the last part of the journey with him and be with him when he reached Santiago, Conway said.
After he was done with his pilgrimage Conway knew one thing. He will return to do the pilgrimage again.
“The questions is not so much when but with whom,” Conway said.
He has told his 12 grandchildren that when they graduate from high school he will take them on this journey.
“My oldest granddaughter is 12 and she is already planning on it,” Conway said.
There is something he will never forget on his pilgrimage.
“The people,” he said. “The whole time I was over there I never met a jerk. It was incredible. There is an overwhelming feeling of camaraderie for those who are walking along the Camino de Santiago Trail.”