Pilgrim reminded of time on ‘the Way’

Nov 15, 2011; Myron B. Pitts, http://www.fayobserver.com

 

Susan “Susu” Cheatwood has always loved Spain.
In 2009, she got a good look at the northern Spanish countryside, trekking nearly 500 miles of hilly terrain in 33 days.
Cheatwood and her friend Gene Logel traveled the way of millions of pilgrims along The Way of St. James, known popularly as El Camino or The Way. The journey is depicted in a movie, “The Way,” playing through Thursday at the Cameo Art House Theatre.
the-wayCheatwood, a retired Spanish teacher, says the movie brought back memories of places she and Logel saw, including the massive Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the town of Galicia, at the journey’s end. The women took part in the noonday pilgrim’s Mass, while a huge, smoky censer swept above their heads.
“I would do it all again,” she says.
Cheatwood had previously been to Spain, having lived there as a child for three years with her Air Force father and family. She got the idea of doing the Camino while visiting her daughter, Claire, who was studying abroad in Spain in 2000.
Nine years passed before Cheatwood figured she would be able to devote the six or so weeks for the journey and find someone to go with her. Her lawyer husband, Phil, could not get so much time off and was skeptical The Way was his cup of tea.
Cheatwood worked on her friend Logel, who now lives in Chapel Hill and who told her once, “I’m looking for a nice challenge in my life.”
“I said, ‘I have one for you,’ ” Cheatwood says.
In a Spanish autumn two years later, the two found themselves in the tiny town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a common starting point for the Camino in the Pyrenees Mountains. The route has been a Christian pilgrimage for 1,000 years.
They received a pilgrim’s passbook to be stamped along the way at various rooming houses, called albergues. They received a shell, a symbol for St. James, to attach to their backpacks.
They walked 17 or 18 miles a day, finishing up in the mid-afternoon. They’d find an albergue, shower and sight-see, then eat dinner. They dined early by Spanish standards but restaurants served “pilgrim’s dinners” to accommodate the albergues, which locked up at 10.
Accommodations ranged from old houses to former churches, where pilgrims slept in close quarters on bunk beds or mattresses for small rates or donations. Pilgrims ranged from the 20s to the 70s and hailed from many countries. They usually shared one large room, regardless of gender, often with access to just two bathrooms. They spent part of their evenings tending to their feet, which incurred big blisters.
Cheatwood says they met two Australian women their first day, and wound up walking the last leg with one of them. Such encounters and reunions were common, as was the welcoming and helpful attitude of the Spaniards.
“It is a very, very simple life,” Cheatwood says, adding that class and political distinctions are erased. “Nothing matters except you’re going to Santiago. It’s a life-changing experience.”

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