ORLANDO | Three women from Orlando journey El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, each for different reasons. Rose Alagano hoped to honor her deceased brother who was supposed to make the journey with her. Jennifer Powers jumped at the chance to make her second trip and accompany her friend on the original route, the Camino Primitivo. And Carolina Toro simply needed to slow down and take a break from the busyness of daily life.
El Camino is a pilgrimage walk dating to medieval times, ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where the body of Apostle St. James the Great is buried. King Alfonso II was the first to walk the oldest route, the Camino Primitivo, in the ninth century to confirm the remains were indeed those of St. James.
Routes begin from many destinations including France, Germany, Italy, and Poland. There are 15 routes in Spain alone. Our travelers departed from two of these.
For Alagano, the journey from Sarria, Spain to Santiago de Compostela, was bittersweet. She and her brother, Bernie, planned to walk El Camino together. But Bernie died of cancer, and Alagano was unable to attend his funeral due to COVID pandemic restrictions at the time. Distressed by the turn of events, she chose to make the trip in his honor, along with two other friends.
Following double hip replacement a few years ago, Alagano felt she must pace herself and spread the journey over nine days of walking — just eight miles a day — for a total of 73 miles. Yet the trip was not without its challenges. “Even the last section of the route, all of it in Galicia, involves nearly 6,000 feet of ascent and an equal amount of descent, more or less the height of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern United States,” she recounted. “And some days started with a steady uphill trek for more than an hour.
“Walking eight to 10 miles a day for nine consecutive days gave me a lot of time to think what is important to me,” Alagano said. “I was able to unburden myself of some anxiety, fears and anger I felt before the pilgrimage, and I came back with a new perspective in life. I felt peace in my heart.”
Reaching her destination without any blisters or broken bones, she said, “my titanium hips are good, and God provided me with good weather throughout my journey, beautiful people I met.”
After collecting her certificate, given to those who complete at least 62 miles, she had just enough time to attend the celebration of Mass in Santiago’s packed cathedral. Hoping to find a seat, she quickly realized this impossibility. More than 2,000 pilgrims arrived that day and half a million are expected to make the trip this year. She lit a candle for her brother and gave thanks for beautiful weather. Other parts of Spain suffered terrible floods in the same period. She prayed for fellow volunteers and friends back in Orlando.
“It’s time to give thanks and praise to God for such a wonderful pilgrimage,” she said. “Glory and praise to God. My heart was bursting with joy for such a wonderful spiritual journey!”
This was not Powers’ first Camino. Several years ago, she traveled 1,000 miles over two months, only meeting up with a friend for two of those weeks. So when Jorge, Toro’s husband, asked Powers to accompany his wife on a Camino for her 40th birthday because she needed “something spiritual,” Powers jumped at the opportunity.
The adventure of the Camino always called to Toro. She said she needed a boost, exhausted from the daily pace of being a working mom of two young children. She needed something to break the routine and refuel.
Totally trusting her friend to select a route, her only concern was where they might stay. She knew Powers could “sleep in the bushes” if she had to. This was not Toro’s style, who preferred more modern accommodations. So the two stayed in albergues or hostels (often with up to 20 people), monasteries and donativos, donation-based homes of hospitaleros (locals) who welcome pilgrims for a donation.
Camino Primitivo is one of the hardest of all Camino routes. “It’s breathtaking,” recalled Toro, who after the first three days realized the entire route would be strenuous but worth it for “the chance to take a moment to be with oneself, the solitude, the silence, with only the sound of nature.”
Similar to Alagano, she said, “As you walk, a small catharsis begins and you start to unload.”
Recalling the hardest stage, that of Fonsagrada, she laughed. After each steep incline up the mountain, there was a curve. Expectant of a descent upon reaching it, Toro and Powers discovered yet another ascent.
“The Camino is like life, with its ups and downs. And despite how difficult it becomes, as long as you keep an open mind and are disposed to whatever comes, you always reach your goal. You will always arrive. Things will resolve themselves. There will always be people to give you a hand. There is always hope.”
In two places, they received the blessing of pilgrims. At the moment of the blessing, Toro said, “I sobbed and I felt the Holy Spirit, a force that made me cry like a child. It was something incredible. I could not contain myself. I just cried and cried throughout the prayer.
“It’s a moment of an emotional breakdown, spiritual breakdown, of physical breakdown that moves you to tears. It is like a cleansing of all the tears you cannot shed every day. Those come out as well.” She described it, “like a purification of the soul.”
She found the Camino revealed a greater “understanding by having the time to see things another way.” She added, “It helps to finally make sense of things when you look at it in unconventional ways.”
Re-entry to normal life was “a shock”. But she felt the Camino prepared her for that as the path clamored with more pilgrims as its end approached and the scenery became more urban.
“All I have is total gratitude, for everything, for every moment we are living, for being open in order to resolve any problems we were experiencing. It was indescribably beautiful. I want to do it again.”
SAME CAMINO, DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Setting off with just the basics on their backpacks, Powers and Toro began their days by 7:30 a.m., often glimpsing the sunrise. Although this was her second Camino, Powers knew it would be different. The first time she mostly travelled alone. This path would physically require more of her, and she would have company.
Powers walks the Camino because she loves her Catholic faith. “I love our Church. I love the richness of our faith – going on pilgrimage and experiencing that. It speaks to me to imagine the parade of pilgrims that really built Europe going to all the sights through Christendom… I draw strength from that, from going to these old places and imagining the pilgrims that came before and the hardships they would have gone through,” she said.
Powers also appreciated she and Toro share the same faith. “If I walked the Camino with someone who wasn’t Catholic, it would be a different walk. I might hold back a little more, not practicing the way I want to out of respect for the other person. With Carolina I had the freedom to stop at every chapel, look through cracks,” she said.
The two rang chapel bells when they could – three times for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, peered into windows, and placed their hands on church doors to pray.
When the trail became difficult, she prayed a rosary “because it’s very meditative” and it took her mind off her pain. She recalled climbing the highest part of a mountain. “We ended up literally walking through a cloud. It was heavenly. The awe of nature and God comes on display. At the top of those mountains were pilgrim hospitals where locals would once bandage feet, clothe pilgrims, feed them and get them going again. They’re in ruins now, but there are still pilgrims going by these hospitals even though now we go to our ‘albergues’, hostels and hotels,” she noted.
One walking behind, then later ahead, they met people from all over the world. “It’s interesting the camaraderie you build with total strangers,” Powers said. “That’s part of the spirit of the Camino. There’s an openness you might not have even in your own hometown. But on the Camino, you greet one another. You’re likely to see that person again.”
Approaching the end of the trail, she recalled her first experience. Once again, the noise and change of scenery were jarring. Yet, she believes God wanted her to embrace it. “God was saying, this is the spiritual journey. You can’t stay up on the mountaintop the whole time. You must get down around the mud with the people in the valley.”
There’s a phrase, “Salvatore ambulando” which means solved by walking. Jennifer says she believes it is true. “I’ve really experienced that. That’s why the Camino becomes addictive,” she said. One man they encountered walked 100,000 miles of Camino routes.
Their final walk was short so they could arrive at the cathedral in Santiago rested. While waiting for friends made along the way, Powers and Toro lay in the plaza basking in the joy of others.
Celebrating the reunion of fellow pilgrims, they entered the cathedral for the Pilgrim Mass. Eyes glimmering at the recollection, Powers, an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, was able to serve Eucharist to the abundance of pilgrims. “It was fantastic,” she exclaimed. The botafumeiro, a thurible filled with incense suspended 60 feet in the air, swung above the pilgrims’ heads. At full swing it moves more than 40 mph.
“It was absolutely soaring, soaring,” said Powers with visible excitement. “You’re at the feet of where the apostle James was buried. It’s a phenomenal experience. And it’s great to see people, the joy of the people. Maybe they don’t call it the Holy Spirit, although I think it is,” she said.
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, August 18, 2023