Asheville resident Dearing Davis, a licensed clinical social worker and ceramic artist, is taking a sabbatical year to think about her path going forward. In that spirit, she was recently inspired to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile route through northwestern Spain.
As she walked, Davis, who’s in her 30s, stopped to pray in churches and open spaces in villages. She also connected with the folks who’d been walking the longest. “They seemed to be quiet, steady and not caught up with the practical details of where to stay, eat or do their wash,” she says. “They didn’t have that monkey mind.”
Davis is far from the only Western North Carolina resident to succumb to the Camino’s siren song. And some have gone so far as to try to re-create some semblance of that experience right here in Asheville.
Before beginning their own Camino adventure last year, Isaiah Mostheller and Kim LaViolette designed an urban walk through Asheville and posted the route online. Others got involved, and it morphed into a 16-mile trek designed to give people a sense of what a typical day on the Camino is like. The idea is to show that walking 16 miles around town is not as hard as it might sound and is definitely less challenging than hiking that same distance in the woods.
But even when hard times inevitably arise, the Way will offer sustenance, Camino walkers believe. Once on her trek through Spain, Davis came down with “the Camino crud,” a bad cold that’s all too familiar to pilgrims. “I stayed in a hotel alone, feeling sick and isolated. When I started walking, I came upon a little spa, curated garden and food stall. The owner even had peanut butter as part of a gorgeous display of food and drink.” He made her red ginger tea with real ginger, which he peeled himself. “The Camino provides,” Davis says simply, echoing a sentiment shared by many of her fellow walkers.
For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have been walking to Santiago de Campostela, where the remains of St. James the Apostle are said to be buried. The relics were rediscovered and authenticated in the ninth century. Beginning in the 11th century, a cathedral was built over the site of the tomb, and in the Middle Ages, Santiago rivaled Rome and Jerusalem as a pilgrimage destination.
The Reformation and Age of Enlightenment saw a tremendous decrease in the number of people undertaking pilgrimages, but the practice never totally died. It picked up again after World War II, and more recently when celebrities such as Paulo Coelho (author of The Alchemist) and Shirley MacLaine walked the Camino and published accounts of their experiences. When the movie The Way was released in 2010, the Camino de Santiago went mainstream. The film follows four pilgrims on the Camino Frances, still the most popular route, which runs from St. Jean Pied de Port in southwest France across the Pyrenees and into Spain.
Medieval pilgrims came from all over Europe, however, and a network of Camino trails developed from as far away as Finland. They were identified by a scallop shell, still the symbol of a Camino walker. These days, there’s good infrastructure — including yellow arrow blazes, inexpensive albergues (hostels) and cafés — that attracts walkers from around the globe, including a sizable WNC contingent.
Follow the call
Asheville native Tom Sanders, a local Camino pioneer, led four other hikers on the Camino Frances in 2007, including retired Grove Park Inn executive Don Walton, who notes, “Tom could speak Spanish.” Together, the men became the Five Amigos.
The next year, with one change of amigo, they covered a different trail in Europe. All told, Walton has walked seven Caminos, including routes in Germany, Switzerland, France and Portugal. On the Via Francigena, he walked from France to Rome.
Initially, the veteran hiker admits, part of the Camino’s appeal was that “I didn’t have to sleep on the ground, like on the Appalachian Trail. In Europe, we always sleep in a bed, have coffee at 10 a.m., beer at 3 p.m. and dinner at 7 p.m. My last pilgrimage is always the best!”
Some walkers aren’t even sure what prompts them to follow the call. “It was just something I had to do,” says Rebecca Gallo, who teaches eighth-grade math, science and world cultures at the Key School at Carolina Day. “When I got there, I realized I was walking it to find out if God would be OK with me if I decided to leave the Catholic Church in which I grew up.”
An answer wasn’t long in coming, she recalls. “By the third day, I knew it was fine for me to leave the Catholic Church. God and I were still good,” she says. “Eventually I found my way to the Center for Spiritual Living in Asheville.”
In 2012, a group of experienced pilgrims, planners and dreamers launched the WNC chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino. APOC members meet up at the REI store once a month for presentations on the practical, spiritual, cultural and religious aspects of the pilgrimage route. Experienced walkers say the most frequently asked questions are: How much did your backpack weigh? How many miles a day did you cover?
Almost no one carries a fully loaded backpack, with tent, stove and heavy sleeping bag. Instead, the experience falls somewhere between day hiking and backpacking, AT-style. Here in WNC, hiking 10-12 miles on steep paths over 6,000-foot peaks makes for a strenuous, satisfying day. But Camino trails are typically a mix of rolling hills, small villages, footpaths, green verges and quiet roads, more like the Piedmont portion of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Camino trail guides assume that walkers will cover about 15-18 miles a day.
Inspired by Mostheller and LaViolette’s urban walk, the local APOC chapter adapted it to fashion the 16-mile Asheville Camino. Greenways are the backbone of the trek, which begins at the Visitor Center on Montford Avenue, winds through the River Arts District and West Asheville, and follows greenways along the French Broad River and Hominy Creek. From Biltmore Avenue, it climbs up to Beaucatcher Mountain before ending at the Basilica of St. Lawrence — this is a Camino, after all. Along the way, the group stops for coffee and lunch. They’re hoping to get city approval to blaze the route.
The WNC chapter offers one guided walk per month, and a second route is under development. This fall, the chapter hosted Camino groups from Atlanta and Raleigh for weekends of hiking and social time. Members walked the route and dined in restaurants with a Spanish or Galician theme. In keeping with the Camino tradition, the out-of-towners stayed at the Sweet Peas Hostel on Rankin Avenue.
The right path
Asheville native Annie Erbsen walked the Camino 10 years ago at age 23. Erbsen says she did it because “it called to me, and I answered. I didn’t know why, because I’m not remotely religious: I come from three generations of nonpracticing Jews.”
Erbsen says like most young people who walk the Camino, when she started, she walked too fast and approached it like an athlete. “I injured myself, ending up with giant infected blisters on my right foot and a raging fever. I had to stop for a few days and met an Italian man, Gianluca [De Bacco], who helped me find a place to stay in town,” she says. “We forged an instant connection over coffee. We ended up getting married — and still are.”
But the Camino can also be a vehicle for those contemplating new directions later in life. Asheville attorney Frank Goldsmith says he used the walk “to help me make a decision on what I wanted to do professionally in the remaining years of my career. You’re free from all distractions: Your job is just to walk.” As a Jewish man, he connected with the history and culture of Spain, where Jews had lived for centuries before being expelled in 1492. “After all, James was a Jewish visitor to Spain,” he says.
When Priscilla Richter committed to walk the Camino last year, she had no idea that she would end up officially converting to Catholicism at the Basilica of St. Lawrence just two weeks before the start of her pilgrimage. After completing her walk, she came back to Black Mountain for about a year and is now spending a year at a Carmelite monastery in Erie, Pa., “where I live, work, play and pray with sisters who are very active in social justice efforts. I don’t think I’d be here if I hadn’t done the Camino.”
Danny Bernstein is an active member of the WNC chapter of APOC. She’s walked two Caminos and is planning her third trek next year.