That famous “journey of 1,000 miles” begins not just with a single step, but also with a good pair of boots.
“It’s very important to get the boots in time and break them in,” said Eamon “Jock” McLaughlin, a Carndonagh man long living in Letterkenny.
Next month, Eamon will begin the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the legendary Way of St. James that stretches 790 kilometres from the village of St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, the Galician capital.
The camino has been a pilgrim’s way for more than 1,000 years, and in medieval times hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year made the journey to the place where legend holds that St. James was buried.
While people have traced the route through history, by the 1980s there were only a relatively few arriving in Santiago each year. But in the years since, the route has again risen in popularity. The Council of Europe declared the camino the first European Cultural Route in 1987 and Unesco has proclaimed the camino a World Heritage Site.
These days, tens of thousands of people are said to walk all or part of the camino each year.
Eamon and his wife, Patricia, said that people’s reasons for undertaking the hike are as varied as the people themselves. Eamon said many people he has spoken to about the camino have said it was a deeply religious experience, though Eamon said he wouldn’t be a deeply religious man. He is walking the camino for personal reasons.
“Lots of people do it for their own reasons,” Eamon said.
“Everyone gets something different from it,” Patricia said.
Eamon had planned to walk the camino in 2013 but in January he was made redundant at Medisize in Letterkenny, a company he was with for 29 years, most recently as a team leader.
“I decided to bring it ahead,” he said of his walk. “This is the best opportunity I’d ever have to do it.”
The camino was something Eamon had read about years earlier. He was always an athletic walker, and he and a Medisize colleague often talked about walks they wanted to take, those walks that would be on their “bucket list”. The trail to Macchu Pichu in the Peruvian Andes was one of them. The camino was another.
Eamon had not thought about doing the walk for charity until he spoke with another Medisize colleague, Alastair McKinney, who is also chairperson of the Donegal branch of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.
“And he said, ‘If you’re walking 800 kilometres, you might as well raise some money,’” Eamon recalled. Eamon also has a personal reason for supporting the society: His mother, Agnes McLaughlin, died four years ago at age 93 after struggling with Alzheimer’s for about 13 years.
“I think anybody who has been through caring for someone with Alzheimer’s knows how difficult it is,” he said. His siblings also support the society: Eamon’s sister Rosie and musician Michael Gallagher raised thousands of euro for the society through the release of their CD, “Memories”; his sisters Anna, Teish and Mary run a charity shop every year in Inishowen to benefit the society in Agnes’ memory.
Eamon’s brother Billy and his brother-in-law, Pat McArt, Inishowen editor of the Derry Journal, will join Eamon for the first week of walking. After that he’s on his own.
Eamon, originally from Carndonagh, and Patricia, originally from Greencastle, will be married 29 years in August and have three sons and two daughters. Eamon said that when he first told his children of his plans, “I think initially they thought daddy’s cracked”. But they have learned more about the camino since then.
“They think it’s great -- they really do,” he said.
So does Patricia, who teaches computers at the Donegal Vocational Education Committee adult education centre. She will not make the trip but has been encouraging Eamon. “I think it’s great,” she said.
Sponsorship cards for Eamon’s walk are available in shops around Letterkenny, and Eamon may also organise a collection in the town. “I’m not putting anyone under particular pressure -- it’s basically family and friends,” Eamon said.
Eamon has been going to the gym to train and is walking about 12 miles a day. He expects it will take him 32 days to complete the camino, and that’s walking about 18 miles a day, every day.
Those who have experience with the camino recommend that walkers take it easy the first couple of days. Eamon said it is recommended that they walk from 6 to 10 am with a break then for a couple of hours, and another three or four hours’ walk in the evening. He expects to arrive at his hostel accommodation at about 5 or 6 pm each day and “lights out” at each hostel comes at 10 pm.
Those who walk the camino carry everything with them, which Eamon said will limit his clothing basically to whatever he is wearing and a change of clothes.
The camino draws people “apparently every nationality you can think of,” Eamon said. Sometimes people walk with one group of people for some miles, maybe with another group later in the day, or maybe they walk on their own, taking in the scenery and their thoughts. “You put your headphones on and keep walking,” Eamon said.
But there are no lie-ins. The hostels, which sleep up to 100 people or more in large dormitory conditions, “turf you out at 6 am,” Eamon said.
People who complete the journey and have their camino “passport” stamped along the way receive a certificate, “and hopefully I’ll come back with all that,” Eamon said.
Still, even after he arrives at Santiago he plans to keep walking. The three-day Camino de Finisterre brings people from Santiago to Spain’s west coast. The name Finisterre is telling: “They used to think it was the end of the world,” Eamon said, with one of his easy grins.
Eamon plans to blog from the camino; he’s on Facebook now and Patricia will train him in how best to use the site. He has been working these recent weeks in Limerick, a three-week consultancy with a medical company there, and said, “Once I’m back from Spain I’m back in the market again.”
Asked what he hoped to bring back from the experience Eamon paused. “That’s a hard question,” he said.
“I’m not looking for any great revelation to come out of it,” he said. He knows that some people claim their camino experience changed their attitude toward life.
“I don’t know,” Eamon said. There was another easy grin before he added, “I’ll let you know.”
The Alzheimer Society can be reached on a confidential national helpline, 1800 341341.