Since the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrims have trekked along a network of trails in northern Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the apostle Saint James are said to be buried. In more recent times, the 500-mile Camino de Santiago Trail has become popular with hiking enthusiasts from all over the world. So before Aviva Thal ’18 began a semester of study at the Vassar-Wesleyan program in Madrid, she decided to hike the Camino to get to the first destination on her itinerary.
Thal, a Hispanic studies major from Jackson, WY, learned orientation classes for the program would be given in Santiago de Compostela. “I live near Grand Teton National Park, and I’ve done a lot of hiking, ” Thal explains. “When I found out where my orientation was being held, hiking the trial seemed like a good fit.”
Thal’s journey began just over the French border in the Pyrenees and continued through flat plains of northern Spain. She was able to travel light, carrying all of her gear in a backpack, because there are small hotels and hostels along the trail and camping equipment isn’t necessary.
After she conquered the steep terrain in the Pyrenees, the major challenge for the rest of the trip was the heat—and caring for her feet. “Blisters are a common conversation starter among people on the trail,” Thal says. “And because temperatures reach into the 90s in mid-afternoon, it’s best to start at sunrise and find a place to stay by 1 or 2 in the afternoon.” One her most daunting challenges, she says, was coping with the monotony of walking through wheat fields day after day. “It was a different kind of endurance test,” she says.
Thal sometimes chose to walk by herself, but she often encountered groups of hikers and shared the journey with them for a few days. “There were some Catholics who were doing the trip for religious reasons, but many hikers were doing it for other reasons—a divorce, the loss of a loved one. It was odd sharing intimate details of your life with people as you walked with them, and then they’d leave and you knew you’d never see them again.”
Thal says one man she met was making the pilgrimage on behalf of his grandparents. “He told me they had always wanted to make the pilgrimage, but now they were too old to do it, so he carried a photo of the two of them and took pictures of it with various landmarks along the way,” she says.
The day before she arrived in Santiago, Thal joined up with a man in his 60s, and they walked into the town together. “We got there a little after sunrise, and we cried together, this man three times my age whom I’d never met before,” she says.
Thal says one lasting image she will carry with her from the trip is the yellow arrows painted on rocks and trees that point the way. “It’s nice, sometimes, not to have to make any decisions,” she says. “You just let your life flow and follow those yellow arrows.”