By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
Susan and George Scritchfield don’t take your average, typical trips.
Their getaways have a meaning, a purpose.
Like the one they recently took to El Camino de Santiago, or the Walk of St. James, that ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.
“This is one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in the world,” Susan Scritchfield said.
The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with Rome and Jerusalem. It traces the route of the bones of St. James the Elder, one of the apostles, ending at the city of Santiago de Compostela.
Both are in their early 60s. He is retired from Mon Power and she is semi-retired from the WIC program at the Mon County Health Department.
They covered about 14 miles a day of the last 100 miles of the 700-mile pilgrimage.
“It was a rather grueling walk,” she said. They chose to walk so they could receive a compostela, a certificate of accomplishment on completing the Way.
They left on the pilgrimage in early April and spent 10 days there.
“We were following the pilgrimage route of the Cathedral in Santiago, which is dedicated to St. James,” she said. “People for hundreds of years have walked this as a pilgrimage, similar to Canterbury and Rome.”
Santiago is in the northwest section of Spain in Galicia.
“We’ve always liked to be very active,” she said. “Some time ago we’d done a walking trip on the west coast of Ireland. We wanted to do another. There’s this good movie called ‘The Way’ that’s about the camino.”
So she did some research and decided it was for them. They trained by walking more and in bad weather, did a lot of treadmill work inside, she said.
Their trek started in the mountains, where, it being early April, it snowed. Or rained. Either way, they walked. Then nice weather broke.
Their only health issue “was blisters,” she said with a chuckle.
The multicultural group of Americans and Canadians was led by Spanish guides.
“It was a long walk but for a purpose, whether it was your own spirituality or religious or cultural purposes. You don’t have to be a devout Catholic to appreciate what it’s about.
“For me, it was a sense of history. We crossed centuries of tradition. You’re part of a whole community encompassing many, many years. It was quite inspirational,” she said.
“You focus and your mind gets cleared of all that extraneous stuff from when you’re home. It’s a good way to get back to what things are supposed to be.”
The pilgrimage ends at the ornate Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of St. James, the patron saint of the Iberian peninsula, supposedly lie.
“Several legends tell how the apostle’s bones supposedly ended up here. At any rate, the cathedral was built in his honor. St. James is the patron saint of the Iberian peninsula.”
Unlike some pilgrims, they didn’t carry everything on their backs or stay at hostels. They’d arranged to go in a group.
“But the only thing they did was arrange where we stayed and our meals. We walked the entire 100 miles,” she said.
There are several routes. The Scritchfields chose what is called the French Way of the Way of St. James, which enters Galicia from León through the municipality of Pedrafita do Cebreiro and passes through the village of O Cebreiro.
Their trek began in mountains, where it was snowing, but then leveled off. Rain flooded the country roads, which sometimes became too deep in mud to walk.
“We don’t like to make touristy trips,” she said. “We like caravan tours. You learn so much from your guide. We don’t just go and sit in a resort. We want to know everything about where we are. When other people go shopping, we go hiking. We like to incorporate our own interests.
“We were walking the very exact same routes that pilgrims had done for hundreds of years. We did it exactly as they did it. Nothing was high-tech. Nothing changed. Walking through little hamlets, it was like stepping back several centuries.
“Plus you’re challenging yourself in doing this. You’re getting out of your comfort zone. You’re pushing your body to do more than you thought you could. And it’s good for your mind. You can focus on what’s important.”
Theirs was a fun group that created many warm memories, she said.
“We all started together but we went at our own pace and walked by ourselves. We were back with the group for meals and checkpoints. We had camaraderie but weren’t in each other’s faces all the time. We were fine with that.
“That was the perfect way to do it.”
While what she called “pilgrim purists” carried all their gear, the couple took just a day pack.
At night, after the walks, the guides provided all the information they wanted.
“We had the benefit of insider information but we were still doing this on our own. We were not being led by the hand,” she said.
Their idyllic trip was marred by the fatal high-speed train crash at Santiago.
“One woman from Virginia was killed. She and her husband and daughter were going to Santiago to meet their son who had just completed the camino,” Scritchfield said. “It was just so horrible. Knowing how he would feel completing the camino ... that sense of accomplishment ... and then finding out his mother was killed. That affected me.
“We were right outside Santiago. The train was packed with people for the Festival of St. James. A lot of people were going to Santiago for that specifically. I think they canceled the festivities and held a memorial Mass in the cathedral.
“We had ridden that train from Madrid. When it wrecked, it was going way too fast.”
She would love to do the camino again, but there are so many other places she’d like to go first, such as walking the eastern provinces of Canada. Sequoia National Park. Yosemite. Scotland.
Farmers themselves, they felt right at home in the bucolic countryside.
“We were not out of our element at all,” she said.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.