Each year, thousands of people from all over the world make the journey of the Camino de Santiago, or “way of St. James,” to the Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James were discovered in the ninth century.
Many take the 500-mile route beginning at the St. Jean Pied de Port in France – which is the most popular route – for spiritual connection. Others simply go for the adventure of the 30-or-so-day pilgrimage.
For Madison native and Ole Miss student Hope Engle, it was a mixture of both.
Engle first applied to go on a mission trip to Calcutta, India, with the Catholic campus ministry FOCUS at Ole Miss to work with the Missionary of Charities where Mother Teresa served in poor communities.
“However, due to the competitiveness and God knowing what my soul truly needed, he presented me with the opportunity to walk with him and twelve others for three weeks,” Engle said.
The group also traveled with a priest, Joseph Michael Minuth, who performed mass with them each day on their three-week journey.
Due to the amount of time it takes to walk the entire Camino de Santiago, Engle and the others began at Leon to walk 220 miles out of the 500.
“At first the idea of the Camino was fascinating, getting to travel to the other side of the world to backpack a spiritual route that has been travelled by thousands before me and to the destination of Santiago where the remains of St. James are said to rest,” Engle said. “However, after accepting the invitation to take on this journey, fear and discouragement started to sink in.”
She was worried about her ability physically, but after doing a bit of training – and praying – and finding the perfect hiking boots, she was ready.
Several times she dressed out in her hiking boots and full backpack and walked the track near her home to prepare.
“Our first couple days from Leon started in fairly empty gravel roads,” she said. “As the days continued, we rose in elevation and they all started to blend together, and we encountered downpours of rain and even hail.”
Each day, they set out around 6 or 7 a.m. and spent the first few hours each day in silence and reflection.
“Silence is a gift that is vastly underrated in our world today,” Engle said. “Whether you are listening for God’s voice or not, it is crucial for our mental health in detaching from the busy, chaotic loudness of our lives. To be still, and silence our thoughts, and just listen.”
They would stop for prayer in many beautiful gothic chapels, cathedrals and monasteries along the way. Each night, they stayed in an albergues, similar to hostels, where they enjoyed many pilgrim’s meals.
At one point, they arrived in a city where a Eucharistic miracle is said to have happened in the 13th Century in the city of O Cebreiro.
Along the way, each picked up rocks to carry as “a reminder of the burdens we all carry” and the need to let them go. Engle symbolically laid her rock down at the Cruz de Ferro, where many pilgrims have done the same for many years.
The Cruz de Ferro means “iron cross” and is located between the towns of Foncebadon and Manjarin. The iron cross is surrounded by a large pile of stones, which many pilgrims have brought from their homelands to lay down at the cross.
There are many theories as to where the cross came from and how the tradition of placing stones at its base began, but the tradition now carries a symbolic meaning as people physically place their “burdens” they’ve carried for miles before the cross.
“I think the best and my most favorite part of the Camino is this idea of the spiritual life physically manifesting itself in a pilgrimage,” Engle said. “Everyone along the way is so much more genuine and non-judgmental. It is a journey that mirrors and reflects authenticity and inclusion between the whole world.”
The people she met along the way and their conversations are some of Engle’s favorite memories from her journey, including a couple of British women who take vacation time each year to walk a portion of the Camino. After five years, they were finally completing the full walk.
“It is crazy how just 3 days on the Camino can feel like three years of knowing someone,” Engle said. “I definitely have bonds with the people I encountered that do not compare to the ones back home solely because we experienced and walked parts of the Camino together.”
“Life is so much easier to enjoy and fully be present while walking on the Camino,” she added. “There are no meetings to be at, no job to perform at, kids or school to worry about. You have one goal and so does everyone else: Santiago and The Cathedral. Everyone has the same end goal, but it is on their own timeframe and each person faces their own struggles.”
She also enjoyed the company of her classmates from Ole Miss and said she could not have finished the journey without them.
“We were strangers at the start and family by the end,” she said. “We did lots of laughing, crying, praying, sharing, eating "mas pan" (more bread), popping blisters, just a little bit of complaining and of course lots of walking. When things got difficult, we were there to lean on each other and with that we experience so much grace and love that will guide me and forever change my perspective.”
Engle hopes to one day return and walk the Camino again. She said she couldn’t do so without the essentials, including a broken in pair of hiking boots, small wallet, passport, hiking pack, hydration pack and a small, light sleeping bag.
As for her wardrobe for those three weeks, she packed two pairs of shorts, one pair of pants, one set of clothes to sleep in, two shirts, two headbands, two pairs of tall, wool hiking socks and two pairs of silk socks to put on first.
Each night, she washed her clothes at the albergues and hung them on a clothesline to dry.
Other necessities include sunscreen, soap to wash everything from body to clothes, clothes pins and other hygiene products such as a toothbrush and toothpaste.