Tag Archives: Young Pilgrims

A Counting Rhyme for Small Pilgrims

I spend a lot of time with my two-year-old nephew. Between library books and his own collection, we’ve read a ridiculously huge number of counting books.

So just for fun, I decided to go through my photos to see if I’d be able to write and illustrate my own counting rhyme. Here’s the result. (In a few pictures, you have to really look to get the right number.)

* * *

[Chemin de Saint-Jacques]
One road that meanders toward Compostela.

[Yellow arrows]
Two arrows pointing, their colour is yellow.

[In the abbey at Conques]
Three steps well worn by tired pilgrim feet.

Four beds and four pilgrims who’re ready to sleep.

[Backpacks in Carrión de los Condes]
Five backpacks waiting outside of a store.

Pilgrim Sculpture in Burguete
Six pilgrims walking; they say they don’t snore.

[Shells over Washroom, Albergue Ave Fénix]
Seven large shells, adorning a wall.

[Climbing the Alto del Perdón]
Eight tired pilgrims, trying not to fall.

[Candles in a church in Saint-Alban-sur-Limognole]
Nine candles burning in a church—and then:

[Boots in the Grañon refugio]
Ten boot pairs waiting to walk out again.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:14 pm
, ,
Comments Off on A Counting Rhyme for Small Pilgrims

High School Students Prepare for the Camino

[Sabrina and Adriana E.]

Sabrina E. and her twin sister Adriana are two of four Springfield High School students who will be walking the Camino Francés this summer.
Photo courtesy James March.

Springfield High School student Sabrina E. isn’t completely sure why she’s going to be walking the Camino Francés this summer, but she knows she’s going to get something out of the experience.

“I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but I feel like it’s going to be something good,” she tells me as we chat over Skype.

But she’s scared, too.

“It’s a large step, from being at home all summer long to being away from my mom for forty days,” she says.

I think the furthest I’ve gone without my mom was to Idaho, and that’s only eight hours away. So this is huge compared to that.

But that’s not going to stop her, or any of the three other students from Springfield, Oregon who are preparing to walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago or Finisterre (they’re not quite sure where they’ll finish) this summer with two teachers.

History teacher James March said he chose the four students—all girls—for the trip from their response to his questions.

[James March]

Springfield history teacher James March, during last summer's bike trip along the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Photo courtesy James March.

He would ask, “What are you doing this summer? Do you want to do a trip?”

“And they would say yes before they thought about it,” he says.

They said yes from a gut feeling…. That was my litmus test.

James is a veteran of the Pacific Crest Trail and other long hikes. After he began teaching at Springfield High School, he decided to involve students in his trips.

“I figured it was about time to share that experience with students, that long distance sort of ‘get to know yourself’ sort of trip,” he explains.

And so last summer, he and four students cycled 5,340 kilometres (3,318 miles) on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

As soon as he returned to school last autumn, students started asking about the next trip. James selected the four students, and gave them a choice: the Camino Francés, or the 88 Temple pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku, Japan.

Sabrina and the other three students researched the two pilgrimage routes. Even though James was pushing to go to Japan, they chose Spain.

Why the Camino Francés?

For Sabrina, looking at pictures helped her decide.

I think it honestly was … just the views of everything. And I’ve watched so many movies with Spain in it that I thought it’d be great just to actually see what was there.

She’s especially excited to see the cathedrals, as it’ll be a great experience to see the buildings she’s learned so much about.


Deija Z. (Grade 10).
Photo courtesy James March.

In a brochure the students are creating to give to friends and family, Grade 10 student Deija Z. writes that she’s always wanted to go to Europe.

“I know [the Camino] will be hard,” she continues, “but I am going to try my best.”

Auna G. writes in the same brochure that she dreams of travelling the world.

And as for the Camino: “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for me and I could not pass it up!”

The students—and their teachers—have been doing their research, and already have a good idea of what they’re preparing for.

Because of the timing of their holidays, they’ll have to walk in summer. At first, James was a little worried about the pilgrim crowds.

“I’ve done trips like this completely alone, where you don’t see people for three days,” he says.

And I know this is going to be a completely different experience. But I think it’ll be good, too. Because I think part of what we’ll all get is that cultural experience of staying at hostels and meeting people from all around the world. Having that sort of experience is something I’m looking forward to just for myself, not only for [the students].

James figures they’ll tackle the Pyrenees in a single day, as long as he’s sure they won’t hurt themselves.

“I think it’d be fun for them to get the idea of it physically right off the bat,” he says.

I think it’s kind of nice to [have] a big eye-opening experience on the first day. This is going to be our body and mind trip, and we’ll get the body thing done right away.

James outlines more of his philosophy as a teacher/chaperone on the trip in an e-mail he sends me after our chat. He aims, he writes, to have the students make the daily logistical decisions throughout their Camino.

I hope they are successful at it, but I also want them to screw up a bit and I’m perfectly fine letting them do so. Of course, if they are risking life and limb, I will offer my humble advice, but I want them to own this experience. Basically, I want the opposite of a strict itinerary, where they can follow their noses, rest when they feel appropriate, push when they feel good, and, like you said, stay in Santiago for a couple of days because they just want to.

I did the same thing [on the cycling trip] last year and if I think back, one of my favourite moments of the trip was realizing in the middle of nowhere Montana that I didn’t necessarily need to be there for them to successfully get home.

The pilgrim students and teachers have just solidified their plans, and there’ll be time for physical training later. The focus now is on fundraising.


Auna G. (Grade 10).
Photo courtesy James March.

The students are from what James describes as “a poor school, a poor district, a high-needs community.” The school district won’t be funding any of the trip.

So the prospective pilgrims will be asking friends and families for help, and are looking into bake sales and other fundraising opportunities.

James has also set up a project on the DonorsChoose.org website, where people around the world can pitch in to help buy the students’ backpacks.

“I wanted them to get something that was nice, and something to be proud of,” he explains.

There have been a number of donors so far, but there’s still US $480.45 to go. James says if they don’t quite reach the $745.45 goal, he’ll pitch in a few hundred dollars to make up the complete amount.

One of the reasons for the Camino trip is to represent Springfield High School.

Last year’s bike journey got the school positive press, James says.

We want to do something similar again, and keep showing that our school is doing really interesting and fun things. That’s the main motivating factor behind this.

“And the experience itself, pretty much,” Sabrina adds.

Just being able to get out there and not sit at home all summer long doing nothing. We’re actually going to do something worthwhile.

* * *

The students are going to blog about their journey, and have already started blogging about their preparations. Check out the Millers on the Way to learn what they’re up to.

You can learn more about their trip—and/or make a donation to help with their backpacks— at the DonorsChoose.org website.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:28 pm
, ,
Comments Off on High School Students Prepare for the Camino

Interview With a Winter Pilgrim: Johanna Qualmann

[Johanna Qualmann on the Camino]

Johanna Qualmann on the Camino.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

Johanna Qualmann was seventeen and just out of high school when she and Ariel, one of her best friends, flew out of a summery New South Wales, Australia for a winter walk across Spain. The two walked out of Roncesvalles on November 27, 2009, and reached Santiago just before New Year’s.

Although they skipped two segments (one because of a blizzard), they walked almost every step of the approximately 760-kilometre route, at times through serious snow. Johanna documented her wintry walk on her blog, which gives an idea of what the Camino is like in winter, and also shows Johanna’s internal journey.

She started her walk lonely and in pain, with aching feet and blisters. On her seventh day, after detailing her injuries, she wrote, “It’s been a week now and nothing is getting easier, just harder every day.”

But the journey did get easier. By the next day, writing from Santo Domingo, she opened her blog post with: “I am in such I good mood I should be ashamed of myself.”

I recently interviewed Johanna, who is back home in Australia after her extended stay in Europe, through e-mail. She told me about her experience, and gave some advice for winter pilgrims and young people who are interested in doing the trail. I hope you enjoy reading about her experiences as much as I have.

Anna-Marie Krahn: You say on your blog you thought the writers you learned about the Camino from were crazy, but three months later you were hooked on the idea of going. What made you change your mind?

Johanna Qualmann: I still don’t know. For some reason the topic was so fascinating (and crazy) that I started researching, and the more I read, the more I wanted to go myself. It was one of those things that just felt right once I found out about it.

In your first few blog entries, you talk about being lonely, but it sounds like eventually you enjoyed the relatively small number of pilgrims on the route in winter. What was it like having so few others to share the experience with? Do you think it would have been different (worse) if you’d hadn’t had at least one constant companion?

At the beginning, everything was still really new, painful, and exhausting. The first two days I didn’t socialise much because I just didn’t have the energy or the language to. We only met a few other pilgrims, and all of them were grown men. For someone who never even had male friends at school, it was a bit daunting. (Funnily enough though, I never felt unsafe.)

It took a while for me to figure out how to talk to people in a social way in that situation, but after the first week we made some really close friends, like a big family of uncles almost!

Ariel and I met another girl from Australia, Rachel, who was our age, and we walked together for the first two weeks. She had to leave in León. After that we walked with an Australian man, Charlie, and his German friend Thomas, until Santiago. I really enjoyed walking together, and separately, talking while walking. The few people we met were enough for me.

I’d imagine in the winter you talked with locals more, since there were so few pilgrims. What was that like, considering you spoke very little Spanish?

We didn’t really talk to locals at all, seeing as our Spanish was non-existent. Sometimes we would be stopped by little old Spanish men who would talk to us really quickly and confusingly and somehow not seem to grasp that we didn’t speak the language. We managed a couple of words here and there, though. Mainly we stuck to ourselves and our little groups.


The mountain route between Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

What was your best experience on the Camino?

Probably my best experience was walking the hard route over the mountains from Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce. The temperatures were below zero, the mountains were covered in snow, the sun was shining like mad. It was the most beautiful day on the whole walk. After that, I’d have to say the first day, when everything was beautiful and foresty and new and exciting. (Actually, every day was like that!)

Your worst experience?

My worst experience physically was the seventh day of walking, which was simply the culmination of every ache and pain I had. You can read about it in my blog—I was just dying. However, the people around me were all really lovely and the hospitalero took amazing care of my feet after exclaiming in horror!

Emotionally, my worst moment was when we decided to skip a section between Astorga and Ponferrada because of heavy snow. Ariel was really sick that day, and when we found the albergue in Ponferrada it was only 11 a.m. or so. We went up to some person and I tried
to explain that Ariel needed a bed to sleep in now because she was really sick, and he just shooed us away. I think we just sat down outside the door and cried. But then the volunteer hospitalero came out (and spoke English, thank heavens!) and let us inside and everything. He was our camino angel that day. Funnily enough, Angel was his actual name as well. And he spoke nine languages because he was a professor of linguistics in Granada.

What was the best thing about walking in winter? The worst?

The winter walking overall was amazing. Some of the landscapes were pretty bleak, but some were spectacular, especially when it started to snow. The best part was the small number of pilgrims, no rush to get beds at all. The worst would have been that I did walk through some very deep snow all day, and it did get very cold and wet after a few hours!

[After Vega de Valcarce]

After Vega de Valcarce.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

What was it like walking in the cold and snow?

While I was walking, I rarely got cold. For the first half of the camino the temperatures were in the plus range, probably with a maximum of 6 degrees [Celsius] or so. Often I’d start with my beanie, gloves and fleece buff on, and then take them off after an hour or so. My hands got very warm while walking, strangely. The rest of me only ever got hot when walking uphill, so it was very comfortable going! In León it started to get very cold, down to zero and below that. That was when it got cold when we stopped for food breaks, we had to keep moving.

When it started to snow I put my second fleece jumper on under my jacket. My jacket was quite waterproof to start with, but with a lot of snow it got soaked too, so I took to plastic ponchos and rain jackets over the top. As the snow got deeper it was quite hard going, slippery at times due to slush on roads and ice. My hardest walk was up to O’Cebreiro, where I trudged the 8km uphill from Vega in 30cm snow and a blizzard. I walked in Thomas and Charlie’s footsteps, step by step. Those 8km took us all 4 and a half hours!

Did you ever have trouble finding accommodations in the winter, or figuring out what was open? When I was walking in November, none of the information on open or closed refugios seemed to be totally accurate.

This is the only issue with walking in the winter season. A lot of albergues were closed, and we were forced to keep walking to the next one, like my first day when I wanted to stay in Zubiri but had to keep going to Larrasoana. Some albergues also had the issue that they were very cold, especially the dorms. One example would be the albergue Ave
Fenix in Villafranca—while it was very hippy-like and friendly, it was cold! The dorm didn’t have heating, and the showers, while gloriously hot, were basically open air. Which is an experience when it’s -5 degrees [Celsius] out…. The pilgrim forum helped a lot with open albergues though, a group of people walking before us had made a list of everything open and shut!

Would you recommend walking in the winter to others?

Definitely. It’s an amazing experience.

How much clothing did you bring, and was it enough to keep you warm?

OK, so here’s what I wore most of the time, varying a little due to actual temperatures:

  • Top: Long sleeved thermal shirt, long-sleeved wicking poly or wool/poly blend shirt, quite thick fleece jacket, rain/wind jacket.
  • Bottom: Thermal pants/long johns, hiking pants, liner socks, wool socks, boots, waterproof pants if necessary.
  • When it snowed, I sometimes also wore my second (large!) fleece jumper over my fleece jacket. I was toasty warm.

Is there any extra gear winter pilgrims should bring? Is there anything they might think necessary that they should really leave behind?

I would definitely recommend getting good gaiters for snow, which I didn’t have, and an ALTUS poncho, which Ariel bought in Leon for herself. It was amazing, kept all the rain off and the snow as well, though we did have to brush snow off it every now and then! I had two pairs of all my clothes items, and it was good to have the second jumper for the evenings, to change into. I would also really love to bring a little spiral immersion heater for tea and soup. Charlie had a little gas stove with him—while I wouldn’t take one myself, those hot cups of tea in the snow were amazing.

[Gaudi's palace]

Gaudi's palace in Astorga.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

Is there any other advice you’d give winter pilgrims?

Don’t be scared to bring a little extra clothing, even if it seems excessive, snow makes things wet and dry things are wonderful at the end of a long day. A warm sleeping bag is a must, regardless of the weight!!!

As a 17-year-old woman, did you ever feel unsafe?

Never. I felt completely safe, all the time. It was just the energy around the camino, the pilgrim vibe. I knew nothing could happen to me. And it didn’t.

Was the Camino a good thing to do as part of a post-high school “gap year?” Would you recommend it to other young people?

I definitely would. It’s not easy, you do need guts to do it, but it’s a thousand times more rewarding than going to the coast and getting drunk for a week. Which is what most people from my area do!

Were your parents worried about you doing the Camino? What would you say to families who are worried about their children walking the Camino soon after high school?

I think my parents were worried, but they also knew that I was tough and sensible and that I would be fine. I think it must be hard for parents, but walking the camino is far more safe than any other travel or outing. Everyone watches out for you, and you’re never really alone.

Communication is pretty easy too, telephoning and emailing and blogging.

After you had to turn back to Astorga because of the snow, and take the bus to Ponferrada, you wrote that it was: “A test of the Camino and I had failed to overcome the obstacle for the first time,” and that you felt “like a cheat, a non-pilgrim.” But after that, you seemed to change your mind: “The snow is not a test of whether or not I can brave the cold and wet and slogging, but whether I can make the decision not to and still be a pilgrim. After all, this is my camino, and every decision I make will be the right one to make.” How do you feel about that experience now?

It was a tough day and decision to make. In the end, we chose to skip the mountains and the heavy snow there because a) Ariel was sick and b) we had no experience with snow and mountains. At the time, it did feel like failing, but after a while I realised that I had made the right decision, and that it didn’t make me any less of a pilgrim for bussing one section. After all, I think I definitely made up for it with some of the sections I did walk!

It all just came down to me—this was my journey and whatever way I decide to do it will be right. It was quite a cathartic moment while walking.

At the end of one of your posts (after the poem that’s written on that wall along the Camino), you say, “You know how people always say that it’s the intention that counts? It’s not. It’s just doing it.” What exactly did you mean by that?

What I realised at that point was that I was actually in Spain, I had walked over 600km, and I was walking the camino. And the feeling I got from doing that was comparable to nothing else. I thought of all the people out there who put things off, who think about issues but don’t act, who want to walk but don’t, who want to change, but never do.

That’s where that thought came from. I was doing it, not wanting to, not meaning to, not planning to and putting it off. I was just doing it. And that was the most important thing about the experience.

[Pilgrim statue]

Pilgrim statue at O'Cebreiro.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

You said in your blog, after finishing your Camino: “I can’t say I’ve gone through a massive, dramatic catharsis either. But yes, something has changed, and it’s getting more apparent the further I am away from my Camino. There is something. It’s not big, and it’s not dramatic, and I can’t even put my finger on exactly what it is. But the experience itself was great enough to leave something a little bit different. Just a little bit.”

It’s interesting—that’s exactly how I felt, and still feel, about my own trip. Do you still feel the same way now, almost a year after you walked out of Roncesvalles?

For a while, immediately after the camino, I was both happy to be finished, and longing to keep walking. (My mind did the longing, my feet did the refusing!) While I was travelling after that, though, I distanced myself from the camino again, I stopped blogging, visiting the forum, reading other people’s experiences.

It’s only recently, since being home again, that I am starting to immerse myself in the post-camino experience again. And now I’m longing again, wishing that I was walking again, craving the mindset and the landscapes and the routine. The camino is so secure and routine. You wake up, walk, eat, walk, eat, talk, explore, nurse feet, sleep. It’s beautiful and simple. There’s a purpose and a meaning. You know that at the end of the day there will be a bed waiting for you and pilgrim friends to cook with and talk to. I miss that. A lot. I think I always will.

But of course, I’m planning my next walk already—Le Puy to Finisterre, after I finish my Bachelor of Arts at university! It’s only three years….

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:40 pm
, , , , ,