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Most people have a list of things they would like to do before they die, but few people actually do items on that list three times. Peg and Russ Hall are two of those rare people.
Four years ago, the couple saw a photo of his sister and brother-in-law sitting next to a picturesque river in Spain, raising their glasses of wine.
“At first, we thought they were nuts,” Peg said. The two had never heard of El Camino.
She and Russ were newly retired and “looking for new careers,” something that was a challenge and an opportunity to get into shape. When they heard more about El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage in northern Spain, they were game.
Unlike the Appalachian Trail, there is no one route. Trails begin in Portugal, France and Southern Spain that converge on the North Atlantic town of Santiago de Compostela.
And, unlike trails in the Appalachians, “There is a little of everything,” according to Peg. There are the mountainous Pyrenees and the flat plains of waving wheat and poppies, mixed with hills and steps built into the mountains, mixed with a few forest-like areas.
It has been a popular Christian pilgrim route for more than ten centuries, according to John Brierley’s book, “Camino de Santiago.” Although the numbers of walkers (or pilgrims) have increased tenfold in the past ten years, it is estimated that “this is still less than half the estimated pilgrims that walked the Camino each year during the medieval period.”
In the 2001, actress Shirley McClain brought attention to the pilgrimage with her book, “El Camino, A journey of the spirit.” Peg and Russ Hall don’t consider themselves pilgrims and almost flinch at the word, however, Peg said trhe two are proud to be “doing at 68 what you could not do at 40.”
The Halls pilgramages took place in the springs of 2008, 2009 and 2011, and each time they trained daily, for months, to get in shape. They learned how to use walking sticks to help take the weight off their knees, researching and weighing every single thing they would have to carry. The trips took about three weeks each.
They can tell you (down to the ounce) how much a Ziplock bag of 25 safety pins weighs. Peg carried about 15 pounds of gear, including water, and Russ carried around 17 to 20.
Of special note: Safety pins and Ziplock bags are the two items you cannot leave home without before setting out on El Camino. And in their cases: a Kindle each - 8 ounces – including the charger.
Peg and Russ are often asked questions like, “Was it scary? Was it dangerous? Were you afraid of terrorists, getting lost, running out of water? In general, the answer is “no.”
However, they said the most dangerous thing they encountered was bicycles. Most of the way, vehicles, bikes and walkers are segregated on different roads or paths. But sometimes the bikes and walkers have to share the path, and the bikes, according to the Halls, don’t make a sound until they are right on you. There was more than one near collision.
The second most dangerous thing was crossing a little bridge they had to share with several 18 wheeler trucks. Russ said, “It was the worst ten minutes.” For him, another bad day was stepping into a slippery mud puddle and breaking his ankle—He had no idea it was broken and kept on walking, not realizing the damage until the trip was over.
But if you ask Russ Hall to tell you about the best day, he said, “ I couldn’t answer the best day.” There were so many.
For Peg, the best days came often and involved wind, sun, poppies and standing at the crest of a hill, knowing that “all that” was before her to experience. Sometimes, she would climb on top of a picnic table and shriek with joy, she admitted.
They now have about 650 miles of El Camino under their walking boots and have not ruled out another trip. They have considered sites farther north, such as Ireland, for a different sort of walking tour. But El Camino keeps luring them back.
To see and read more about their adventures, go to PegAndRuss.blogspot.com or visit AmericanPilgrims.com for more information about El Camino.