When Montpelier's Skye Forest decided to take on an adventure this spring by walking part of the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain, she knew she’d have to get into shape. Forest, 65, trained for the experience by carrying a backpack and walking seven to 10 miles a day from her Winter Street home to the Red Hen Bakery on Route 2. She chose the bakery as her destination “because there was a reward at the end.” Some days she walked home and “sometimes I took the bus back,” she said.
Forest, a retired teacher, traveled to northern Spain to walk from April 27 to May 16. In all she walked for 14 days averaging 16 miles a day for a total of 228 miles of the 500 mile total journey. “I walked less than half the way but did walk 83 kilometers beyond the city of Santiago to the ocean called the Finisterre,” she said.
The Camino de Santiago is a Catholic pilgrimage. The focal point and namesake of the Camino de Santiago is the city of Santiago de Compostela, located in Spain's far northwest. During the Middle Ages, the Camino was responsible for the largest movement of people in Europe: millions of people, rich and poor, made their way to Santiago de Compostela, where the pilgrim Mass and certificate of pilgrimage ensured they would spend less time in purgatory. The symbol of the walk was a scallop shell. Articles about the pilgrimage abound and the 2010 movie, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen, dramatizes the walk.
Previously, Forest had walked from Stowe to Montreal in 2013 as part of the Gross National Happiness Movement.
According to her research, 51 percent of walkers are men and 49 percent women. Fifty-five percent are between 30 and 60 years old and 44 percent of the walkers are Spanish. The latest figures from 2017 count 301,000 people making the pilgrimage. “Many Vermonters have done this,” she said.
Before she left Vermont, Forest said she “had to get my body tuned up by my chiropractor and take injections of steroids in my knees so I could walk.” She took arthritis medicine with her and rubbed Vicks Vapo-Rub on her feet. “I did not get a blister, the only one of the people I met on the walk who didn’t.”
Even with medicines and training she said she was “really worried that I couldn’t finish a day.” She hired a backpack transport service at a cost of $5 a day every other day to bring her pack to her night’s destination. “I was carrying 27 pounds. It was heavy for me.”
Forest wasn’t sure what kind of terrain she would encounter and what surprised her “was that it is not flat, it is either ascending or descending and varies from muddy boulder to paved path and from boulders over a river to gravel.” Terrain aside, Forest found the scenery “incredibly beautiful.”
She began in Villafranca and traveled east to west on what is called “the French Way.” This route is taken by 60 percent of those who walk to the cathedral.
The walkers, be they pilgrims or tourists, often stay in an “albergue” a pilgrim shelter or hostel with bunkbeds, spaced along the route. “All of them provided a bunk bed, some heat, warm showers, some food, and all had a snoring contest,” Forest quipped.
Forest said the food was good, and the cost of a meal was around $10, with local wine “given free with pilgrim meals.” She said she spent about $30 a day while walking.
A typical day found her rising in the dark around 5 to 6 a.m., wearing the clothes she slept in so as not to disturb others still asleep. She wore a headlamp in the dark and did this to have quiet time on the trail. “It’s magical to see the sun rise,” she said.
Forest walked eight to nine hours a day, a pace of two mph, and stopped to take photos and drink coffee along the way. While not a practicing Catholic she considers herself spiritual and was inspired by the walk to take communion on Mother’s Day in the Muxia church located beside the ocean.
She said there was an important life lesson learned in the 14-day experience. “I learned that I treasure my solitude, and that I can navigate any terrain and situation.”
“I thought a lot about life and death and have plans for my own life,” Forest said, “which is living well until I die.” She learned “to treasure my relationships even more that I did.”
There were few English speakers to encounter and thus she did not spend a lot of time talking to the other walkers. “Because contemplation is part of the journey you say “good journey” or “buen camino” and leave it at that. Many people come to have a quiet walk and that is respected. I learned that being in nature so many hours a day had a profound effect on me. Walking is very meditative and I had not been in nature that many hours a day for so many days.”
Forest earned the Campostella Certificate given to pilgrims who walked at least 100 kilometers when she reached Santiago. Pilgrims prove that they walked that far by obtaining a Pilgrim Passport and getting it stamped along the route.
In reflection, Forest considers the experience a highlight of her life. “I would recommend the walk highly,” she said, but cautioned that one needs careful preparation and packing. “I would encourage people to spend periods of time alone and in silence without somebody at your side. Even if you travel with someone you might want to walk alone. The trail is well marked so you can meet up with them at day’s end.”