Sammy Cunningham-Darrah, Colin Lozito, Savannah Nesbitt, Kirsten Halbur, Hannah Swanson, Hank Sweeney, Dal Nesbitt, and Cade Nesbitt, all members of Ginny Knapp’s advanced Spanish class, hiked 91 miles of El Camino from Pedrasita to Santiago through the northwestern region of Spain called Galicia, as the last part of their three-week trip to Spain in April.
El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is the ancient pilgrimage route to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Santiago where the remains of St. James are buried. The trail spans northern Spain. For these students, both the dreaded hills and constant camaraderie of the trail are part of an adventure they will not soon forget.
“To all of us it’s a place of meaning,” said Savannah Nesbitt.
“When you’re hiking the El Camino, you don’t really think about it,” said Lozito. “But when you reach the last hostel, you realize what you did, and that you hiked that far.”
The hike was the last part of the biannual Spanish trip begun by former Spanish teacher Karen Molina in 2009. The trip consists of a home stay with foreign exchange students who had attended TVHS in the fall, and culminates with the El Camino hike.
The first Spain trip was in 2009, after Molina’s daughter, traveling in Europe, hiked the Camino from France to Santiago. Molina asked her daughter to take pictures and take note of places to stay along the way. Molina kept the idea in the back of her head, and upon planning a student exchange, she also planned what has now become a biannual event.
“I think it’s very exciting that they still do this trip,” said Molina, who retired in 2011. “It’s a wonderful experience for the students, especially the home stay. When the students go to Madrid they see the hustle and bustle of a cosmopolitan city, but when they’re in the Galicia region they get to see the small towns.”
This year’s group stayed with exchange students from the Madrid suburb of Logos who had stayed and schooled with the TVHS students the previous fall. While they did not get to go to their Spanish friends’ schools, they spent their days visiting cities, towns, and landmarks, and getting a feel for the way of life. This included the royal palace, the Escorial where Spanish kings are buried, and the Madrid Olympics, where local schools competed in a variety of sports, and the Wildcat representatives were able to cheer on their Logos friends.
After a six-hour bus ride north, Knapp’s class was ready to hike the El Camino, physically speaking, but they had no idea what was in store. As Cade Nesbitt summarized, “You don’t question what you see on the El Camino after the first couple days.” “You’re not surprised by anything you see after the first couple days,” added Cunningham-Darrah.
Each day the group would wake up in a new hostel, sometimes with 110 other travelers and other times just six, leaving by 7 am for the next leg of their journey. Their first day was peanuts compared to the laie daily strain, hiking only four kilometers on a paved road. From then on the daily toll was eight hours and between 20 and 25 km. on dirt paths, rocky terrain, through farmlands, up and down numerous hills, and through small towns where the group was tempted to buy souvenirs, but dared not add weight to their packs other than the groceries they picked up. “The trail flattens out closer to Santiago, but you go up a hill and down into the next valley over and over,” said Lozito.
A close group of friends, Knapp’s class kept sane through constant conversation, listening to music, and meeting other hikers who all bring the same traditional greeting: “Bueno Camino.” They all carried their pilgrims’ passports stamped twice daily to prove their accomplishments, and custom painted scallop shells which act as a metaphorical accessory for travelers hoping to reach Santiago. “You see people you recognize from other parts of the Camino and you pass each other and see that they’re still doing it, and you make friends along the way” said Savannah Nesbitt. “The closer you get to Santiago, the more people you meet,” added Swanson. “I think we saw people in Santiago that we had seen at that first hostel.”
Each town and each hostel brought a new experience, a new meal, and new people. But there were tough times along the way, as fatigue and impatience set in, and their new hiking boots started to take their toll, along with the straps of their backpacks. Cade Nesbitt was forced to wear long sleeves and pants in the 77-degree heat due to severe sunburn. “With every kilometer there is a stone that tells you how far you are from Santiago, so you start from 90 and you think you hike for so long and you see one that says 87 and it got painful watching them go by,” said Cade Nesbitt. “You see a hill sometimes and you just want to cry.”
When the high school hikers finally came to their destination however, they had an overwhelming feeling of achievement, accompanied by what Cunningham-Darrah described as a “Where do we go now?” feeling. The crew visited the massive 800-year-old church, where they left stones to mark a piece of themselves they wanted to leave behind. They stood in line to hug the statue of St. James, (another tradition) and then, it was time to shop. As Twin Valley athletic director and trip chaperone Buddy Hayford said, “These guys can shop. It was a serious priority.”
This was Hayford’s third trip to Spain, making him an amateur tour guide for the group, knowing where to eat, and the Plan B’s should they be necessary.“ This group was excellent,” said Hayford. “I knew going in to the hike that we had a real athletic group, and I knew there would be few issues. It was the fewest blisters of any group I’ve been with. The best part was seeing these guys arrive in Santiago. It’s really special every time.”
Knapp said the trip provides the students with challenges they’ve never experienced, and will never forget. “They bonded and had a fantastic time,” said Knapp. “This trip has different challenges, and when they come back they have a new appreciation for the people and culture they experienced.”
Lozito for one said he would go back in a heartbeat. “I would do it all over again. During the hike you want it to be over, but when you get there you feel so accomplished.”
“Being there when you were with some of your best friends, it was the best part,” said Cunningham-Darrah. “You create a lot of inside jokes and a lot of memories.”