“The Camino provides” is a saying along the Camino de Santiago, known in English as The Way of St. James. It is a network of ancient pilgrim routes across Europe, coming together at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, built over the tomb of St. James the Greater, one of the 12 apostles.
Joe and Miriam Tort from Rumson, New Jersey, members of the Jersey Shore Legatus Chapter, began witnessing that providence the first night of their pilgrimage last year. At the albergue (pilgrim hostel), a woman from Texas lamented that she had forgotten her rosary. Joe reached into his front pack to get his own rosary and realized he had made a mistake in packing. “Hey, I brought two,” he announced. “You can have one of mine.”
That woman became part of their Camino family, 15 fast-friends from four different countries—Australia, Germany, Ireland, and the United States — that all set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela in the foothills of France’s Pyrenees Mountains, along a route 500 miles long through Spain. Other routes range from 62 to 620 miles. It was a physical and spiritual journey through dramatic mountain trails and quaint villages that took 39 days, averaging 15 miles a day.
Strangely enough — although not strange for the Camino — this group of 15 people met up continually along the way. “We’d go days without seeing each other,” Miriam said, “and then we would see each other again.”
The pilgrimage to the remains of St. James, who was beheaded in 44 A.D., was popular during the Middle Ages but slowly declined. By the 20th century, almost no one made the journey. In the 1970s and 1980s, interest sparked again, attracting people for religious reasons as well as for psychological, historical, and physical challenges. The bestselling book The Pilgrimage and movie The Way, in 2008 and 2010, created another surge of interest.
The Torts flew to Paris on August 30, then took a train to their starting point on September 3. They ended on October 11 with only one day off (known as a “zero” day for no mileage, giving Miriam “walker’s guilt”).
The journey actually began three years earlier when Miriam heard about it from someone at the gym, which led her and Joe to watch the movie The Way. They were intrigued. Joe would turn 60 and retire in 2018, the same year the last of their three children— Joseph now 30, Sarah 27, and Andrew 23—would graduate college, so it seemed a perfect time to go.
To prepare, two-mile walks in sneakers along the Jersey shoreline advanced to eight to tenmile walks wearing boots and carrying a backpack, and climbing hills. “But no amount of preparation can fully prepare you for the real thing,” Joe explained. Their routine was to walk 15 miles daily, spend the night in an albergue which was a big room full of bunk beds, do laundry by hand, take a shower, go to Mass in the village, and have dinner with people they had met, very often being members of their Camino family.
The pilgrimage began immediately with steep trails and physical challenges. Joe went the first night without sleep because his bunk was too small for his 6’5” frame. Miriam suffered from blisters. “There were even blisters under my toenails,” she said.
“The first week is hard for everyone,” Miriam said. “Then, by week two or three, blisters heal, and your body adjusts. You’ve played with every strap on your backpack, and it becomes a part of your body. You go to bed sore but recuperate quickly, ready again in the morning—you find your Camino rhythm. Then, out in the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever been in, you start thinking about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, and you talk with other people and hear their stories.”
A favorite memory of Miriam’s was when a group of nine, staying in a very small village hostel, learned no meal would be provided. “We were pretty hungry,” Miriam explained. They had pledged not to use taxis so going to the next village to eat was not possible. The owner called the only other nearby hostel owner who said that after his guests had eaten, they could come by and see what he could find. Fresh garden salad, a loaf of homemade bread, two sausages, leftover tortillas, a jug of wine, and yogurt turned into a feast with leftovers. “It reminded me of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes,” Miriam said.
AT THE END OF THE TRAIL
Their arrival into Santiago was emotional and festive with musicians playing and people yelling and clapping as they entered the city, going through a tunnel to the plaza. “You share that moment with people you met along the way,” Miriam explained. “When we walked into the Cathedral, most of the people in our Camino family walked in within half-an-hour of each other.” Another surprise was that their daughter had business in Madrid, so she met them at the end. “Our happiness was so obvious,” Miriam said. “At dinner, she said, ‘I have to do this!’ She’s planning a trip with a friend in 2020.”
Returning home was an adjustment at first. Mariam was missing the simplicity, but has kept a new appreciation for quiet time and daily Mass. “I loved it on the Camino, so why would I stop?”
Joe said that his biggest change was slowing down. “I find myself in the moment now,” he said. “When I’m with people, I’m with them here, right now.” Joe and Miriam have been together since college, but according to Joe, “walking the Camino was the most bonding thing we have ever done, bar none.” It was not, however, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Next May, their Camino family will reunite in Portugal, where for 150 miles, they will again become pilgrims along The Way. (Joe and Miriam and their entire Camino family have remained friends, via a Facebook group they have set up.)
PATTI ARMSTRONG is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.