DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
MARBLE FALLS — With about 500 miles — and the Pyrenees Mountains — ahead of them, Mattie Cryer and Caroline O’Connor shouldered their backpacks and began putting one foot in front of the other May 19 in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France.
Their goal was to hike to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and then push on to the Atlantic Ocean.
The 2013 Marble Falls High School graduates were two of the many people taking part in El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, a popular pilgrimage that stretches across northern Spain. The walk, featured in the movie “The Way” starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, is a Christian pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where tradition has it that St. James is buried. The walk not only attracts Christians but also people of other faiths or none at all.
Cryer and O’Connor began their journey looking forward to the grand adventure. O’Connor, who was taking a gap year before starting Harvard University, had already spent several months in Mexico and South America since graduating high school. Cryer was a freshman at Southwestern University in Georgetown and was looking forward to her first trip to Europe sans her parents.
The great adventure, however, had other plans.
“It was pouring rain,” Cryer said. “The first week it rained, and it was cold. It wasn’t the weather they usually have during this time of year.”
With only minimum rain gear and no cool-weather clothes, the two forged ahead — at first. But as the rain pelted them and hail slammed the landscape, they began having doubts. On top of this, Cryer’s hiking boots were tearing at her feet.
“Why are we doing this?” Cryer recalled asking early on. They could easily hop on a bus and either bypass this portion of the route or call it quits and head back to Madrid. But they weren’t ready to give in.
“Nobody would really care, but we decided this was something we wanted to do,” O’Connor said. “So we kept going.”
On the second day out of Roncesvalles, Spain, the two faced a major problem. The upper route basically took them up a bald-faced mountain during a storm. It wasn’t a good option, so they chose a lower route that led them through a forested path. It offered them a bit more protection from the weather, but as they emerged from the trees, Cryer’s hands showed signs of a reaction to poison ivy.
With everything from the weather, shoes and now poison ivy seeming to plot against them, O’Connor and Cryer considered the trip.
“You couldn’t just call home and ask Mom or Dad for help,” Cryer said. “We were pretty much on our own. You have to take care of yourself.”
As young adults, though still teenagers, the independence and responsibility were rather new, yet welcome. They were stepping out on their own and finding their way over obstacles.
When the two began planning the journey midway through their senior year in high school, it was just something to do, an adventure. Neither anticipated what it would become.
But on El Camino de Santiago, pummeled by rain and hail, bad shoes and poison ivy-covered hands, the two made a decision. They would not take a bus and skip any part of the route, and they definitely weren’t going to call it quits.
“We didn’t want to miss anything,” O’Connor said. “It’s funny. We didn’t think about that before, but the weather happened, and we just decided no matter what, we were going to do this.”
“Whatever obstacle came, we were going to deal with it,” she said. This included getting another pair of shoes. And despite almost daily rains the first five days, the two got up every morning, shouldered their packs and headed out.
And it made all the difference.
“There was something we saw every day that was unique,” O’Connor said. “Even on the really tough days, we’d see something that would just make it all worth it.”
One of the most difficult days came on a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) hike between Rabanal and Ponferrada in Spain. The two had to climb up a mountain and descend back down. The temperatures easily hit the 90-degree mark, making it even more brutal. The hike was taking longer than either anticipated, but in Ponferrada lies Castillo de los Templarios, a Templar castle dating to the 12th century. The two wanted to check out the massive structure but knew it closed at 6 p.m.
On this portion of the walk, hikers can choose to halt short of the regular stop of Ponferrada.
“But we wanted to see the castle,” Cryer said. So the two picked up the pace and trekked into Ponferrada in time to visit the ancient structure. “We took that as a reference point. Any time it got tough and we were having a hard time, we remembered the hike into (Ponferrada), and we knew we could do it.”
While the scenery, cathedrals and castles were incredible, the people they met along the way were just as wonderful. Though they hiked most of the time at their own pace, O’Connor and Cryer regularly met up with a group of about 10 walkers. The group included pilgrims from Brazil, Germany, Canada and Ireland.
“I think it was good to be exposed to the different ideas and perspectives,” O’Connor said.
The two were among some of the youngest pilgrims on the trek, so the others looked out for O’Connor and Cryer, making sure they were OK, even inquiring about Cryer’s shoes and feet.
On Day 34, after hiking seven to nine hours a day, O’Connor and Cryer arrived at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Along the way, at each stop where they overnighted, they got their pilgrims’s passport (or credentials) stamped to indicate they had actually made the journey. But the two weren’t quite done.
While Santiago de Compostela is the official end of the pilgrimage, some decide to continue on to the Spanish coast.
“So we took another few days and walked to the coast,” Cryer said.
With El Camino de Santiago a part of their history, both Cryer and O’Connor view it as a bit more than just “something to do.” While they probably didn’t have any major epiphany, it did change them on some levels.
“One of the things I learned was that I can handle things better on my own,” Cryer said. “You have to become more self-reliant and independent because you are pretty much on your own. You have to deal with the medical problems or things that come up.”
They also learned that obstacles, no matter how daunting they appear or feel at the time, can often lead to the biggest rewards once they are overcome.
“You learn to deal with the obstacle,” O’Connor said. “And you go on.”
And if things get a little rough, they can always recall the hike from Rabanal to Ponferrada because after every rough spot in life, there might be a grand castle waiting.