Walking the ancient path / Hillsboro couple treks the 300-mile ?Way of St. James??in Spain

Keith and Judy Harder hold a photo taken during their 310-mile walk along the Camino de Santiago last April and May. The couple spent 27 days walking across Spain along the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago. Janae Rempel / Free Press

For many people, life can be described as a journey. Destinations come and go, milestones are reached and goals are met.

For one Hillsboro couple, a 300-mile trek across Spain led to the realization that sometimes the journey becomes less about the destination and more about the spaces in between.

Keith and Judy Harder first set foot on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain in late April.

The couple spent nearly a month walking the ancient pilgrimage route?known in English as the Way of St. James and depicted in the 2010 film, ?The Way.?

?People have been walking it for more than 1,000 years,? Keith Harder said. ?It centers around the legend or the belief on a part of many people that the bones of Saint James are buried in Santiago.

?It became a place where people would go for renewal or for healing or for penance.?

Many marked trails lead to Santiago. The Harders chose to begin their journey in the Spanish town of Burgos.

Over the next 27 days, they walked 310 miles to Santiago, covering an average of 12 miles per day.

?People do it for spiritual or personal reasons or just the adventure of it,? Judy Harder said. ?Everyone has their own motivation. The nature of the walk and the scenery and meeting so many people and its history make it a little more than just a recreational adventure.?


Both in their retirement?Keith from denominational ministry with Mennonite Church USA and Judy from directing theater at Tabor College?the couple saw the pilgrimage as an opportunity to spend meaningful time together.

?We had already been enjoying hiking, and we heard about it from some friends that piqued our interest,? Judy said. ?It just seemed to be the right time.?

The couple began taking longer hikes in preparation for the physical nature of the journey.

?We walked around the reservoir and walked out in the country,? Judy said. ?We must?ve looked pretty silly in the Flint Hills with our backpacks and walking sticks.?

They also hiked a 50-mile section of the Katy Trail, which crosses Missouri from St. Louis nearly to Kansas City.

One week, they walked 10 miles a day, but not until they reached Spain did they walk more consecutive days than five.

Keith and Judy Harder pause for a photo by a pair of yellow arrows marking the trail along the Camino de Santiago. The couple hiked more than 300 miles across Spain along the ancient pilgrimage route in April and May. Courtesy Photo

The journey

On a typical day on the Camino, the Harders hit the trail by 7:30 a.m., carrying all their supplies on their back, including snacks, water, an extra change of clothes, rain gear and a first-aid kit.

Keith said carrying the backpacks, especially while climbing in altitude, provided the biggest challenge.

?I carried about 20 pounds and Judy carried about 12,? he said. ?That adds a whole other dimension to the climbing.?

The terrain changed as they went.

?The first half was very flat, so it felt very much like Kansas with lots of wheat growing,? Keith said. ?But the last half was really mountainous, much more so than I was anticipating.?

The trail crossed a mountain pass, and one day the hike involved a 2,000-foot increase in elevation. The highest point was about 5,000 feet, Keith said.

Temperatures hovered in the 70s, with only a few days in the 90s or days of rain.

Villages were spaced every 5 to 10 miles along the route, and by mid-morning the couple would pause for a break at a cafe to enjoy a pastry, some fruit or the Spanish specialty, caf? con leche.

By mid-afternoon, after hiking between six to eight hours, the Harders would find a place to settle for the night. Accommodations along the trail ranged from hostels to bed-and-breakfasts.

?We?d wash our clothes, take a hot shower, maybe take a little nap,? Keith said. ?Then (we?d) have the rest of the day to basically interact with people or explore the village.?

The evening would end with a large evening meal and bedtime around 9 p.m.

Along the way, the Harders said they met people from 40 countries. The camaraderie was a highlight of the experience.

?People are really curious where you?re from, what you do, why are you doing this,? Keith said. ?You might walk with somebody for half an hour and then they?d move on, and then you might meet them again two days later.?

Spanish culture

The Harders enjoyed catching a glimpse of the Spanish way of life in the villages they passed.

?One thing that was really interesting to me is how we were just walking through the everyday lives of Spanish people that lived along the trail, which was mostly farming,? Keith said. ?The first 100 miles was wheat and barley, but it was mostly wheat.

?They had plowed up everything. Very rocky soil. Wheat was growing. It was on both sides of the path as far as you could see.?

Wind turbines were also plentiful.

?Spain doesn?t have any oil or energy resources, so they?ve invested very heavily in renewable solar and wind power.?

The Harders also experienced the laid-back lifestyle of the locals.

?The Spaniards, of course, are famous for their siestas and everything is closed, especially in the small villages, from 3-5 p.m., including cafes and restaurants,? Keith said. ?They often would not start serving their evening meal until 7 or 8. But in the larger cities, we could usually find a restaurant that served meals all day.?

Journey?s end

The Harders arrived at the Camino?s end, the cathedral in Santiago, on Pentecost Sunday. There, they attended a Pilgrims? Mass, which Judy described as ?a beautiful service.?

As one last leg of the trip, the Harders traveled by bus to Finisterre along the Atlantic Ocean, a final stopping point for many travelers on the Camino de Santiago.

?We still are in awe that we accomplished it in some ways,? Judy said. ?We knew we could take long walks, but 27 days in a row, we weren?t sure.?

In many ways, the journey became symbolic of relinquishing control.

?The experience (stretched) my capacity to trust that I didn?t have to plan everything or control everything, but to really intentionally become more vulnerable to the hospitality of others,? Keith said. ?That sense of, ?It?s going to work out, it?s going to be OK.??

It also epitomized the ability to slow down and enjoy the journey.

?It?s just a different kind of experience when you?re not rushing to get someplace,? Keith said. ?To learn to be present in the moment is a wonderful experience.

?It?s just kind of focused on putting one step in front of another, and it?s amazing how far you can get by doing that.?

by Janae Rempel

The Free Press

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