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Staff member walks 140-mile pilgrimage in Spain

At age 66, Garcia finds trek a life-changing experience

For years, Manuel Garcia had heard of “El Camino de Santiago,” the 500-mile passage through Spain that countless pilgrims have walked for more than 1,000 years. He’d even had friends and friends of friends who’d hiked the famous “Way of St. James,” which carves an East to West route, including across the Pyrenees Mountains and into lush countryside. But Garcia, 66, had never thought much about  making the trek himself.

“And then I got the itch and said I would love to do that,” laughed Garcia, director of Computing and Information Technology at UNC’s School of Social Work.

Garcia’s interest in the historic pilgrimage began two years ago when he first viewed the 2010 film, “The Way,” starring actor Martin Sheen. In the movie, Sheen plays an American doctor, who after a tragedy, embarks on the walk to Galicia, a community in northwestern Spain. His destination: Santiago de Compostela Cathedral— a Roman Catholic church where legend has it Saint James the Greater, one of the 12 apostles, is buried.

Garcia, who is originally from South America, immediately began to plan for his own journey. He spoke with a few friends, including one who completed the walk last year. Another friend from Paris eventually agreed to join him. Although El Camino’s pilgrims can select many different legs of the path, Garcia chose to start about 140 miles east of Santiago in the city of Ponferrada. From there, he and his friend followed “Camino Frances,” one of the most traveled routes of the pilgrimage. Their adventure began on April 10 and ended on April 18.

“It was a fantastic, phenomenal experience!” Garcia gushed. “It’s a grueling walk but a worthwhile journey. It was better than my wildest dreams.”

To prepare for what would be the longest hike he’s ever taken, Garcia trained along the American Tobacco Trail—a 22-mile route that connects Durham, Chatham and Wake counties. Each person walks at his or her own pace along El Camino, so Garcia didn’t see the need to overdo it before his trip. Still, he wanted to loosen his limbs and spent a couple of Saturdays pounding the North Carolina trail.

“I usually walked around 11 miles each time and that really was good preparation,” he said. “Yes, the walk is a little bit strenuous, but around the third day, you got used to it. You found your groove.”

Most who make the pilgrimage try to complete 15 miles each day, Garcia said. During the walk, many wear a scallop shell—a historical symbol of the journey—and bring along “passports,” which are stamped as legs of the trail are completed. However, little else is carried or needed. Garcia and his friend learned quickly not to burden their shoulders with backpacks and to rely instead on a service, which delivered their belongings to each town where they rested. Like many walkers, they also chose to eat in the towns along the route and to stay in hostels each night.

“One of the best parts of the experience was staying at the hostels because of all of the different people you met and because they really offered a very communal experience,” he said. “Each night, we would have a wonderful dinner together. We would drink wine and just talk. On the first night, we met a man from France, a German, a couple from Argentina and a lady from Spain. The French guy had been walking since Paris, something like 900 miles at that point. He was my hero.”

El Camino pilgrims bonded easily and looked forward to exchanging stories of their daylong hikes, Garcia said. For many, the journey is a very spiritual experience.

“As you’re walking, you think about how you’re walking along the same road that people have been walking for a thousand years,” he said. “It really gives you time to meditate because most of your walk is by yourself in peace. You don’t really have anything else to do in the day but just think. You think about your life in every single aspect—your life as the head of the family, your life as a young person, the work that you do and your relationships with people and your friends. It’s as peaceful as you can imagine.”

Each day also offered new opportunities to enjoy breath-taking landscapes, including fertile countryside, deep river valleys and farm fields filled with grazing cattle. Although spray-painted yellow arrows on tree trunks and stonewalls mark the entire route, Garcia took a slightly wrong turn one day and found himself circling back along a dirt path he had already traversed. But he didn’t panic. He retraced his steps, found the proper route, and made it to the next town where his friends were waiting and relieved to see him.

Despite all the blisters that formed daily on his feet, Garcia said he was determined to finish the trail. His goal, like that of so many pilgrims before him, was to make it to Galicia and to the cathedral for mass. On April 18, after nine days of walking, his destination was in sight.

“Those moments were very, very satisfying,” Garcia said of arriving at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. “First of all, I accomplished a goal—something I had not planned for, but at my age, I think it was a good effort.”

That night, Garcia and his newfound friends shared a few final stories over a last supper of wine and tapas. “We had a wonderful, wonderful conversation. It was superb­—a very special reunion.”

He also started to plan for his next pilgrimage. Garcia is determined to return to Spain and hopes his two adult children will join him on the next adventure.

“El Camino changed my life,” he said. “And when I retire, I plan to do the whole 500 miles because then, I will have the time.”

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