Reverend Gardner and Students Make 355 Mile Pilgrimage through Spain

Reverend Anne Gardner and her wife Beth O’ Connor trekked across Spain on a modern-day pilgrimage alongside recent alumni Sascha Strand ’10 and Meredith Rahman ’10 over the summer. Gardner and Strand started the journey in Pamplona, Spain in June and walked for 37 days and 355 miles to reach Santiago. Rahman and O’Connor accompanied them for 14 days up to Burgos, Spain. The pilgrimage followed the El Camino path, which almost spans the entire width of Spain and ends at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. James in Santiago. According to Gardner, People make the walk in order to pay homage to the apostle St. James, the patron saint of Spain, whose remains are supposedly interred in a crypt underneath the church. The group intended for the pilgrimage to allow self-reflection within a sacred setting. Rahman said, “The two main mantras of the trip were “go slow” and “let go”. Team Camino wanted to leave the tensions of our jobs or studies and reconnect with others. We wanted to slow our pace of life and just live from yellow arrow to yellow arrow (Camino trail markers).” The group organized the trip last year. They received Abbot Academy grants, the Faculty Development Organization, and Gardner’s church, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts to fund their journey. Though the members of the group came from radically different backgrounds and religions, they decided on El Camino as their destination. “When we left, we had no idea what we were getting into,” said O’Connor. Rahman said, “As a Muslim, I was less familiar with the mainly Catholic rituals on the Camino. To me religion is a method of creating a community. One can worship any sort of sacred entity, but in the end we are all people seeking goodness. On El Camino I connected with people from all around the world and discussed philosophies while hiking on medieval streets from town to town. It was an opportunity to reevaluate my moral standards and mentally prepare for college.” Gardner was also interested in looking to El Camino as a potential program for students and alumni to travel, learn and ruminate. “Last year the three of us discussed doing this pilgrimage as a prospective alumni trip. It would be a way for the Religion and Philosophy department to stay in contact with alumni and for them to bond while engaging in a physically and spiritually challenging experience. I’m not sure where the alumni trip stands now in terms of plausibility, but our notes from this summer’s trip will influence Andover’s final decision,” said Rahman. During the trip, the travelers were faced with many challenges. The travelers had to receive credentials from the state proving their purpose in order to be allowed to stay in designated pilgrim housing. O’Connor said, “The hostels were really rudimentary shelters that housed travelers like us. The fee was between five and fifteen dollars a night, and it was really just a place to sleep. It was very rough.” Gardner added, “The walking wore on your body, and when you got so worn down, you got to see the stuff that is underneath your surface. It teaches you a lot about yourself, and about the kinds of comforts you miss away from home, because you are carrying only everything you need on your back.” The group slept in bunks or on floor mats, positioned about a foot and a half apart. Without the luxury of bathrooms, the pilgrims would go for weeks on end without washing their clothes or themselves. Square meals were also not readily available. The pilgrims would commence walking at 6 am everyday, stopping at 2 pm when they would try to find food. “Every town that we walked through had about 40 people. They were villages, with no contemporary stores. We would try to find a fruit stand, cheese, fresh bread or ham. But, in that kind of heat, your hunger dissipates. Dehydration was the bigger issue. You didn’t know when you would find water next, so we carried 2 liters each,” said Gardner. They hiked 12 miles a day, on average through tough terrain, confronted by mud, heat, and bugs. Portions of the trail also included the Pyrenees Mountains. “Taking the journey would allow me to take stock of my life. I would have the time and opportunity to be out in the world doing something physical, and give me a chance to think about how grateful I am to have such a wonderful life on a gorgeous landscape with some of the people I love the most,” said Gardner. The group arrived in Spain 50 days before Gardner’s 50th birthday. “I wanted to mark it. It was worthy of such an important benchmark, because, for the very first time, I had a summer off since the age of 12 or 13. We thought we could do something out of the box, something that other people wouldn’t ever dream about. This would mark that birthday in an authentic way, as physical and emotional challenge,” said Gardner. “The most difficult part of El Camino was saying goodbye to [Gardner] and Sascha in Spain when I left to go back to the States. I intend to return and finish at least the last 100Km,” said Rahman.