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Hit the Road

Local couple tackles 500-mile foot trek in Spain

This chalet in France is situated at the start of the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile trail that winds from St. Jean Pied De Port (one of many starting points throughout Europe) to the cathedral in the city of Santiago. The O’Sheas of San Marcos chose this route because it’s said that St. Francis traveled this path, and as a result, it has become one of the most popular Camino trails. Photos by Tim O'SheaTim and Peggy O’Shea have framed the documents that verify their 500-mile, on-foot pilgrimage via the Camino de Santiago. Every inn, café and business along the way has a unique stamp which pilgrims collect in their “credentials.”  Those who live along the Camino “are very dedicated to it and their culture,” Tim says. “It shows; it’s so clean.” When pilgrims reach trail’s end at the city of Santiago and the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela, credentials are verified and pilgrims receive a certificate written in Latin that confirms they’ve completed the journeyTim and Peggy O’Shea pause in front of the cathedral in Santo Domingo de Calzada, almost halfway between their starting point in southwestern France and the end-point in Santiago in northwest Spain. The route has been traveled by millions of pilgrims since the Middle Ages. Tim O’Shea of San Marcos takes a breather in front of Café Iruna in a plaza in Pamplona, Spain, “a stunning city with great restaurants and food,” he says. “The homes here, as in much of Europe, are small, so people spend a lot of time in the plazas.”This scene in the Pyrenees Mountains spread before Tim and Peggy O’Shea as they began their 500-mile walk to the cathedral in Santiago, Spain.  The trail here rises to almost 4,800 feet. “It was one of our more challenging days,” recounts Tim. “It was an aggressive incline.” It can be cold, wet and foggy, but the O’Sheas were “blessed with sparkling weather.”Peggy O’Shea of San Marcos makes her way up a pebbled street in Rabanal del Camino, a village about two-thirds of the way to Santiago, the end of the 500-mile pilgrimage.  “We left there at 5:30 a.m.,” Tim O’Shea remembers. “It was a long day because of the terrain. Rabanal is very old and very pretty, but very rustic.”Camino pilgrims leaving Pamplona soon arrive at the Alto de Perdon (Mountain of Forgiveness) at about 2,600 feet, where they encounter these large, metal-silhouette sculptures representing pilgrims on foot and horseback. It’s a place where old meets new, Tim O’Shea explains.  “You have the sculptures representing pilgrims who have traveled the Camino for a thousand years, and high-tech wind turbines that supply energy to Pamplona.”

If one were to sum up in numbers the experience that Tim and Peggy O’Shea had walking the legendary Camino de Santiago in Spain, it would look like this: 500 miles; 35 days; 20 miles a day; and two pairs of shoes.
Impressive, but far from a complete picture.
The numbers alone don’t tell of the stunning scenery, majestic cathedrals; quaint towns and cozy inns; friendly and proud people; and all those personal and spiritual insights gained while walking, walking, walking.
“You learn how resilient your body and spirit are,” Peggy says. “Your body and spirit are so tired when you walk into the town or village at the end of the day, but after a shower, a night’s sleep and some food, we would be ready to go the next morning. We really couldn’t wait to get going again.”
Should you not be acquainted with the Camino de Santiago, it is a famed pilgrimage route that begins at various points in Europe, but all roads lead to Santiago, Spain, in the country’s northwest corner. It was one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the Middle Ages, and Santiago is the site of the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela, a shrine to the apostle St. James the Great. Catholic tradition holds that the remains of St. James were carried by boat from Jerusalem and buried here.
The O’Sheas, San Marcos residents, began their long walk at St. Jean Pied De Port, in the far southwestern corner of France.
They chose this route because of its popularity and tradition. The Camino rose to prominence in the 2010 film “The Way,” which starred Martin Sheen. His character made the trip in honor of his son, who had died during the walk. Now up to a quarter-million believers and non-believers follow the path to Santiago each year.
The O’Sheas began considering such a trip after hearing about it from friends.
“We would hear them talk about how they were training and … it started to become something we felt we had to do,” Peggy recounts. “We’ve been walkers for over 30 years and just knew that it would be something we would enjoy.”
For the record, Tim was 64 and Peggy 60 at the time. They planned and they trained, then decided to go for it. They left in mid-September 2014.
“We thought this trip would be a challenge and a great adventure,” Peggy adds. “We both love a challenge.”
They weren’t the oldest ones on the trail, however.
“We met a woman who was about 75 who was on her fourth 500-mile walk,” Tim remembers. “She was leading a group of senior women. She said this trip was the first time she could see the vistas because of bad weather during the other trips.”
The approximately 20 miles a day gave the couple plenty of time to think, to talk, to drink in the silence. Even after being married for 37 years, Peggy says, “we were so surprised at how much we had to talk about. We loved our time together … We felt like a couple of kids again with no worries — just one goal each day, and that was to walk the 15 to 20 miles.”
During the quiet stretches, Tim adds, “you can really have clarity of thought with prayer and meditation.”
The trek did present a few challenges.
“You can’t walk 500 miles without some foot problems,” Peggy acknowledges. “Everyone gets blisters.”
“You’ll jump a shoe size in a few days into the journey,” Tim adds, “and your feet will stay that way until you finish. Feet are the main topic of conversation when you meet other people.”
Another challenge for some is finding a room at day’s end.
“There was this steeple chase when you got within 2 to 3 kilometers (of the town). Some people have to walk to the next town because every place is filled.”
The O’Sheas avoided the stampede by working with a company that booked hotels for them along the entire route.
Having completed the Camino, the O’Sheas treated themselves to five days in Paris, then brought back to San Marcos many lasting memories. Their advice to those considering a similar journey?
Wear good shoes, orthotics if you need them, be ready to handle a few hardships, and be open to new experiences.
“Only two things can go wrong — not starting and not completing the Camino,” Peggy says. “Just go. It’s life-changing — a great time for reflection and beauty. Northern Spain is some of the most beautiful country you’ll ever see. If you are fortunate enough to have the physical ability and to go with your partner-in-life, you are very lucky.”