SEQUIM — In her mid-20s, Danni Breen made the leap across the ocean to Italy, working for food. Four decades later, on another transatlantic trip, she looked to feed her soul.
The Camino de Santiago — described as a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James (in Spanish, Santiago) in Santiago de Compostela — is for many travelers a religious endeavor.
But for Breen, a real estate agent in Sequim, the 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino that she completed this May and June was more about assessing where she is in life.
“[This was to] see where I was and where I wanted to go,” Breen said recently.
“I just want to grow older gracefully, passionately.”
Breen set her sights on the Camino, known as “the Way of St. James,” for a solo trip, but her son convinced her to not travel alone, and as it happened, her friend Mike Schefers had wanted to make the trek as well.
Breen’s Camino experience had an inauspicious start the day before she set foot on the trail: one man had a heart attack (he survived) while another died of heat exhaustion, both while traveling over the Pyrenees mountain range.
“It was, wow, a wake-up call,” Breen said. “You have no idea what’s going to happen.”
She and Mike crossed the Pyrenees on their journey’s first day, but the following day, she said, a rogue wind came up and blew so hard people were physically thrown off the trail. One woman caught in the wind was sporting black eyes and a bruise from her hip to her shinbone 14 days later.
Though the people were knocked down, they got back up, bandaged each other up and resumed walking, Breen said.
“We are all comrades here. All supporters here,” Breen wrote mid-journey. “If you have lost your faith in humanity, walk the Camino. It will change your life.”
The journey from there was less dramatic, Breen said, and it gave her time to think. She said she took a modified vow of silence: she’d talk at dinner but on the trail and on her own, she’d just observe the world silently.
“It was good for me to spend 37 days quietly,” she said.
Breen and her friend used Utracks, a company hosting walking tours that transports bags and supplies from point to point. Breen said she took food and a day pack, but the company set up the hospitality details.
Daily walks were between 12 miles and 23 miles, she said, with a day off now and then. Reservations at each point were set, so the pair needed to complete those miles or they’d lose their spot.
“I walk, do yoga and stay in good shape … but this was a challenge,” Breen said. “If there was a day you didn’t feel like walking, tough luck.”
She said about 20 percent of people of the roughly 2,000 individuals who start the Camino de Santiago each day actually complete the journey. After three or four days, a large number of walkers just up and quit.
Other fellow travelers were dedicated to finishing the journey, she noted. One pair in particular, an elderly Italian couple, drew some attention: Breen said the woman was fighting terminal cancer and that, at night, her companion stroked her hand, crying, while she slumbered. Each following day, they got back up and continued the walk, side by side.
“They were just making music, every day,” Breen said.
Breen, who turned 65 while she was on the trail, said she and Mike didn’t walk with anyone in particular, but they would often see familiar faces along their route and began to feel like they were becoming a family. Most travelers were from Spain and Italy and across Europe, but a few were Americans, she said; all ages were represented, too.
Breen said she was fortunate to not have any injuries, not even blisters along the way — a fact she credits to wearing a good pair of shoes (something for which she normally doesn’t splurge), changing socks often and using antiperspirant on her feet.
The food was good, she said — “I did not know what I was ordering,” Breen said, not knowing any Spanish — and the sleep was even better, with shut-eye coming by 8 p.m. most evenings.
Though Breen said she would probably not do the Camino a second time (“there are so many other adventures,” she said) she would recommend the journey to others.
Such travel, she said, helps people learn about other cultures, other foods and tolerance.
“No greed. Nothing negative. Everyone’s sole purpose is to make it to their destination,” she said.
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.