An Illinois doctor walks historical Spanish pilgrimage seen in new Martin Sheen film.
JACKSONVILLE, Ill. — Dr. John C. Dailey spent three years readying himself to walk the Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James, in Spain this summer.
But even one of Christendom’s oldest and most traveled pilgrimages still has, as Dailey found out, its physical impediments.
“I lost a few toenails,” recounts Dailey, 71, who practices otolaryngology in Jacksonville. “I had other foot problems. And I was dealing with a nasty skin rash.
“It’s a journey you have to prepare for. It does take its toll. But afterwards, I was really glad I did it.”
Pelegrinos, or pilgrims, have been beating down the path to Santiago de Compostela, the reputed burial place of St. James — one of Christ’s apostles — since the ninth century. In the last couple of decades, the camino has enjoyed renewed interest, attracting more than 270,000 walkers last year, according to an office at the Cathedral of Santiago that tracks such numbers.
A major motion picture, “The Way,” stars Martin Sheen as a father who completes the camino for his son (his real-life son and the film’s director, Emilio Estevez), who dies in the French Pyrenees at the beginning of the camino.
All over the world
Routes to Santiago vary in distance and geography. The longer routes start in the French Pyrenees and total about 500 miles.
Dailey and his grandson, 19-year-old Sean Michael Dailey, a sophomore majoring in engineering at Marquette University, hiked from the town of Sarria to Santiago, covering the distance of about 65 miles. The two averaged walking about 15 miles a day over parts of five days this past August, with each carrying backpacks that weighed 30 to 40 pounds.
A Catholic, John Dailey says the camino has a deep spiritual aspect to it, though it attracts believers and non-believers alike.
“For a lot of people, the spiritual is a major factor,” says Dailey, who prayed the rosary daily during the camino. “It’s a pilgrimage, after all, and along with Rome and Jerusalem, was one of the most important pilgrimages of the Middle Ages.”
The route had added traffic, Dailey says, because World Youth Day was being held in mid-August in Madrid.
“There were a lot of young people doing the pilgrimage enthusiastically,” Dailey says. “We met people from all over the world.”
Each pilgrim secures a credencial, or credential, at the starting point of his or her route. The credencial is stamped at important places along the way — churches or hostels, for example — as a record of where pilgrims visited or stayed along the route.
The credencial is presented to the Pilgrim’s Office at the Cathedral of Santiago, the end of the route, as proof for securing a compostela, or certificate of achievement, which is written in Latin and which Dailey had framed upon his return to Jacksonville.
Dailey and his grandson attended the popular Pilgrim’s Mass at the cathedral, which boasts the famous Botafumeiro, a large thurible for burning incense that swings nearly to the ceiling from a pulley mechanism.
‘Being totally outside reality’
The Jacksonville doctor says he got interested in walking the camino after reading an article in the University of Notre Dame alumni magazine. An avid canoeist, Dailey put off the trip for several years, but after last year shuttering St. John Fisher Forum, a bookselling business he and his wife, Patricia, had operated since 2001, he recruited his grandson to make the pilgrimage with him.
Despite its shorter route — Sarria to Santiago is the shortest possible way for a pilgrim to still earn a compostela — the walk was fraught with physical anxieties.
“It’s an eye-opening experience,” Dailey says. “I recommend it for anyone to test themselves.”
“When people are doing the camino, there’s such a sense of being totally outside reality,” says Kathleen Ashley, a professor of English at the University of Southern Maine and author of “Being A Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago” (Lund Humphries).
“There is a sense of challenge. It’s physically taxing. But there’s a lolling off of every (worry.) There’s a freedom on the camino.”
The route, through northern Spain, is well-traveled, Dailey says, though it’s virtually unknown to Americans. Pilgrims are noticeable by their backpacks, and many wear the traditional scallop shell. (The tradition holds that St. James’ body was being shipped back to Spain, where he preached, and that a vicious storm struck, with his body sinking into the sea. At some point, his body washed ashore, intact, though covered in scallop shells.)
When the route gained traction in the last 25 years, newly painted signs along the route featured the scallop.
“Sometimes you walk through farms or go through towns of various sizes,” Dailey recalls. “Sometimes you walk along highways, and at other times the paths are very narrow. You go up and down hills and then over flatlands.”
While there are modern amenities, Ashley says much of the route is unchanged from the Middle Ages.
“Especially in Spain, it’s not as changed,” she says. “There is a re-entering a very old life.”
Marion Marples, secretary of the Confraternity of St James, a non-denominational charity that supports pilgrims, says people recognize “a spiritual aspect” while walking, even if they don’t quite define it by using words such as “God” or “Christian.”
“People are often nervous about setting out on their own, but they soon feel embraced by the Camino,” Marples said. “At some point, someone will have what we call a ‘St James moment.’ These are the wonderful encounters that take place.”
Dailey says a fraternity built up among the pilgrims.
“People along the camino were very kind,” he says. “I didn’t meet anyone not that way. The longer you’re there, you develop these relationships with people with similar goals. It brings people with like interests together from all over the world. It has a unifying effect.”
And, like many others, Dailey is ready to do the camino again.
“(On this trip), I was glad to see every day end,” Dailey says. “But the next day, we were trudging along again.
“Now I have a desire to do the whole camino. Even though it was physically traumatic recovering from it, I’d prepare myself differently.
“I don’t know what it is. It fulfills a certain need inside that may not be entirely evident.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-622-1788.
About the route
The unofficial starting point for the Camino de Santiago is St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, traveling 780 kilometers (about 485 miles) to Santiago de Compostela. Another popular starting point is Roncesvalles in northern Spain. The last major town on the camino (where pilgrims can earn a compostela, or certificate of achievement) is Sarria, some 66 miles from Santiago.
Statistics of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago2001: 61,418 2002: 68,952 2003: 73,614 2004: 179,944 2005: 93,924 2006: 100,377 2007: 114,026 2008: 125,141 2009: 145,877 2010: 272,703
Source: Archives of Santiago de Compostela
Those who have made the Camino de SantiagoEl Cid Campeador, Castilian military leader (1064) Louis VII of France (1154) St. Francis of Assisi (1214) James III of Scotland and England (1719) Philippe Petain (Marshal Petain) (1939) Pope John XXIII (Giovanni Roncalli) (1957) James Michener (1966) Paulo Coelho (1986)