By Jeanie Keogh
Hilary Whitmey covered nearly 250km of the Camino de Santiago, following yellow arrows and scallop shells painted on rocks, fences and roadways that mark the path. Known in English as The Way of St. James, the 780km pilgrimage has been trodden for 1000 years and attracts more than 100,000 people annually.
Her sky was coming tumbling down: she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004 at the age of 47. Less than a year later, she was following in the footsteps of the famous Christian apostle St. James, nightly staying in pilgrim hostels – called albergues – where she rubbed down her feet with bag balm to prevent them from blistering and hand-washing and drying the one change of clothes she carried with her.
Some walk for the sheer physical pleasure or historic adventure, others undertake it as a religious journey or spiritual quest, still more are travelers or environmentalists.
For Hilary, it was to find the strength to come to terms with a life-changing illness that would see her body physically deteriorate.
It was a strange decision, she said, because at the time, she hated walking. “It didn’t go fast enough,” said the former crown attorney and single mother.
Meeting with a group of women from her church, they trekked a leisurely 5km for two months to train for the traditional route that begins in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, France and ends on the west coast of Spain in Finisterre. The conditioning proved to be enough to get their muscles primed for the walk.
As the departure date drew nearer, she incrementally added boulders or books to her backpack to simulate the weight she would carry for the two-week voyage. One woman had to withdraw from the commitment due to a back injury and the other was in the advanced stages of cancer. Hilary ended up on a flight with one other woman she barely knew.
Going into the trip, Hilary wasn’t afraid that the Camino would be too challenging, that her backpack would be too heavy, that she might injure herself or not get along with the talkative woman who would accompany her. What weighed most on her mind was how she would face her new life.
“I hadn’t told anybody, not even my family. My biggest fear at that time was that it would define me and people would only know me as a person with Parkinson’s so I didn’t want anyone to know. I wanted to hang onto the last vestiges of Hilary,” she said.
It turned out that Parkinson’s wouldn’t be the only thing to change her.
On the Camino, Hilary encountered many people who were similarly searching and finding meaning for whatever difficulties they were going through.
“It affected the way I encounter people. I deal with them differently now. I learned on the Camino that everyone has something they’re trying to overcome. One fellow didn’t have an arm and he didn’t say anything but I sensed maybe that was something. One fellow, a psychologist, told me about an illness he had where he couldn’t speak for several months and he was told it was stress-related,” she said.
When the walk was physically challenging, they stopped short of their destination and found another albergue. The section of the trail that lead over the Pyrenees mountains was the most challenging and, since it was early in the trip and the trail was slippery, they opted to take a bus.
“The worst was the hills. Before O Cebreiro was the most challenging. I was sometimes hot and tired and cranky, especially on a hill.”
Coming home in peak physical and emotional shape, Hilary wondered whether she would be able to carry the experience into her day-to-day reality.
“I didn’t expect to be healed, but I came away more at peace with the diagnosis,” she said.
What she now had was a new friend in her Camino partner and a meditative exercise to turn to when she wanted to remember her passage as the illness advanced.
Hilary went from Astorga to Santiago de Compostela, a distance of 228 km in October 2005. In early 2006, she told her only son, Adam, the secret she silently wrestled with through the peaks and valleys of the Camino. In 2008, she returned with her Camino partner to complete the 264 km portion of the journey from St. Jean to Burgos. However, a lower leg injury prevented her from finishing and she took a bus for the last 10 km.
Looking back at pictures seven years later, her heart trembles more than the tremors that have overtaken her body and reduced her to walking with a cane and with the help of someone’s arm.
She would love to do it all again, all 780km of it, start to finish.