Timid Anne

In 1971, I took an art history course at the University of Michigan called “Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Road.” The course was taught by an extraordinary professor named Ilene Forsyth. In those years, her scholarship was disparaged by her peers because she had married into the spotlight of her more established husband, George Forsyth. But her zeal and her commitment to studying the intricacies of these small, dear objects was contagious and I fell hard for medieval church architecture in general and medieval sculpture in specific.

She used a two-volume book written by the American medievalist Arthur Kingsley Porter as the basis for the course.Learning about her own work on the sculptural program in the cloister at the monastery at Moissac was just a wonderful bonus. What I could not have known in 1971 was that she would go on to become a very highly respected scholar in her own right and that she would spend the rest of her life exploring every square millimeter of that Moissac cloister.

But Porter’s book was just as extraordinary. As a young scholar himself, being aided by unlimited personal funds, he had traversed Europe in a way most of us do not. He went to Europe as a place the way we might go to Paris or Rome as a place. And because of that broader view, he saw the Camino de Santiago as if it were a thread tying many places together by this common road, this common goal of reaching Santiago de Compostela by walking from one town to the next. Where his predecessors identified schools of art production based on place, like a school of Paris or a school of Rome, he saw that sculpture along the road to Santiago had similar characteristics and perhaps, sculptors and church builders were as itinerant as the pilgrims they served or the troubadours and poets who entertained them.

I was fascinated. As a young art historian myself, the idea that style could travel instead of remain in one location was a game changer in the way I looked at and looked for the subtleties of any given piece of work. Porter believed that if troubadours and poets could travel easily and routinely from one place to the other, maybe when the work was done at one church, sculptors and builders would do the same. This would account for the similarities he identified along The Way: everyone was walking with the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

I kept this in the back of my mind for nearly four decades. Every time I would read something about the pilgrimage road, I would say to myself, “How wonderful to be able to see all of those churches, strung like beads along the road to Santiago.”

And I wouldn’t go. Simply because I determined that I needed three things to appear together in my life in order to be able to go: I needed the time, the money, and someone to travel with. If they didn’t appear at the same time, along with my need to see churches, I figured I’d just wait. So I waited. And I’d read something, hear something about the Camino and repeat the mantra: “I must have three things.” I’d have the money and no time to travel. Or I’d have the time and not the funds. And never once did I have anyone interested in coming along with me. 

Until 2009. That spring, I decided to press my then 19-year-old son into service and I took two weeks off work. I had read up a bit on what to bring, what to leave at home in order to be a successful pilgrim, but I also had decided this was to be more of a reconnaissance mission than anything serious like a full-on pilgrimage. We flew to Paris, visited the Tour St. Jacques, and spent a few days shopping and seeing churches. Then, on to Toulouse, where I finally took a day trip out to Professor Forsyth’s beloved cloister at Moissac. It was glorious.

Just a few days later, we took the train from Toulouse to St. Jean Pied de Port – the most popular starting point for the most popular pilgrimage road, the Camino Frances. We checked into the pilgrim’s office, bought our shells, spent the night in a lovely home, and set out to cross the Pyrenees at dawn the next day. A full twelve hours later, I dragged my sorry self into the tiny town at the other side of the mountains where my son was waiting for me. We were in Spain, we had walked the first stage of the Camino Frances, we were in Roncesvalles. And I was done.

I learned so many valuable lessons in one day walking. I learned that I was still carrying way too much stuff. I learned that I would have to walk at my own pace and not try to keep up with a 19-year-old boy. And I learned that without sufficient motivation, no amount of planning or preparation would get you out the door again the next morning. We took a cab to Pamplona, then a train to Madrid.

But I was hooked. And I knew that now that I had the serious motivation to walk again, I no longer needed anyone to come with me. All I needed was time – because, since I was working full-time, the funds were something I could deal with by putting some money aside.

2010 was a Holy Year. What is that? It’s when the feast day of the Apostle St. James falls on a Sunday and, in his honor, the Cathedral in Santiago opens their Holy Door to allow pilgrims to receive special blessings and to enter the church near the altar. I read an article in the New York Times that said they were getting ready to close it on December 31 and that it would not be opened again until 2021. In that moment, I decided to go. I took two weeks vacation and left on December 25, Christmas Day. It was only a few hours ahead of a devastating blizzard that would close all New York airports for days.

I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Sarria – the starting point of the last 100 km of the Camino Frances. Pilgrims who start in Sarria are eligible to receive the confirming document, the Compostela, saying they had completed the pilgrimage by walking the minimum distance. And I walked for five days, most of the way by myself. I arrived at the Cathedral at 3:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve – only an hour and a half before they closed the door to get ready for the celebration that evening. I did it.

Since then, I have walked from Leon to Santiago with the oldest and youngest of my three daughters, I have walked from Roncesvalles to Burgos with my middle daughter who then went on to walk to Santiago by herself, and most recently, I picked up the trail again in Burgos and walked to Leon. I have worked as a volunteer in the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago and twice at The Abbey, just outside Pamplona. I’ve also worked in an albergue, a pilgrims’ hostel, in Ribadiso, just 40 or so kilometers outside of Santiago.

And through it all, through all of these visits to Spain, I wonder how it was that it took me so long to do this when, in 1971, I was so captivated by the Camino. I think I was more than likely a product of that time. Most women I knew in 1971 did not feel empowered enough to take bold adventures, like hiking across Spain by themselves. And to be fair, the Camino was not nearly as popular as it is now. I also wonder what my younger self would have made of it. I wonder too if I would have become the town crier for the Camino that I am now. I can tell you how frustrating it was that first time, finding out how many of the churches were not open when I walked by. I think that’s ironic.

So, I guess this is just the story of Timid Anne from Niles, Michigan: a young girl who fell for the Camino, and the older lady who actually experienced it. It took me just 38 years to get here. I’d like that that shouldn’t happen to you, too. My hashtag these days is #littleoldladywalking

Photo: the tympanum at Conques, another day trip from Toulouse and the cloister at Moissac


Roncesvalles to Zubiri (2014)

10849890_895806090451930_1025298821835716340_nOn our way out of town, we took a few photos next to the road marker: 790 km to Santiago de Compostela. It’s kind of a rite of passage, I guess, to show the first steps taken in one’s pilgrimage. I like to tell people though, that the pilgrimage starts when you decide to go, when you make your first pronouncement to your family and your friends that you are going to Spain to walk the Camino. Still, that moment when you see the first sign is pretty special if for no other reason you can see how much weight you’ve lost when you get where you’re going and take pictures in front of the cathedral!

It was the first Sunday in Advent.

Walking was uneventful until we got to this stretch of downhill over rock. It had rained a bit and the surface of the rocks was slick, meaning slippery rock after slippery rock. When we finally landed in Zubiri, I wanted to stop at the very first place – which turned out to be quite nice. A pension, with a son who had to ask his mother if it was OK for us to stay. We were not the only pilgrims. In fact, we met later a young man who was walking back from Santiago who stayed at the albergue, closer to town.

We went to find dinner and ended up having breakfast in the same little place the next morning. Unfortunately, I missed packing my second pair of shoes in Zubiri – leaving behind, by accident, the one thing I knew would save my feet. What I learned was two-fold: be sure to pack your shoes if you take them out of your backpack for any reason, and realize that you don’t really need them, after all. I did fine – not fabulous, but just fine.

Remarkably, the next day we’d already be on our way to Pamplona. I was looking forward to photographing the cathedral and shopping at the Camino store there. Neither were open.

NYC to Roncesvalles (2014)


The plan was fairly simple: we would fly from our Thanksgiving visit with my family in Chicago to New York, spend a few hours exchanging our wheelie bags for our backpacks, and then head out to the airport to fly to Madrid. My daughter and I arrived in Newark in the morning and had just enough time to swap out urban holiday gear for back country hiking gear and then head to JFK. If I had it to do again, I think I might want more down time to put myself into a better “Camino is starting now” mindset, but then again, a very long plane ride can do that just as well.

We’d done a good deal of research but in the end it was our instinct and not our research that saved us and got us where we wanted to go. We caught the bus directly from the Madrid airport to Pamplona, planning all the while to take a taxi to our starting point, Roncesvalles, in the Spanish Pyrenees. Everything I had read said there were no buses off-season from Pamplona to Roncesvalles, so when we got to Pamplona, we went looking for a taxi. I had budgeted a fistful of Euros and was prepared, but my very resourceful daughter thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask about buses to Roncesvalles – just in case.

The response: “Yes, that bus leaves in 20 minutes.”

We selected Roncesvalles for a couple of reasons, the most important being that we were walking in December and that path from St. Jean Pied de Port made me nervous. Because my daughter was going to walk the full route, I didn’t want to risk a bad weather delay at the outset holding up her arrival in Santiago. What an unimaginable luxury it would be to walk the Camino on your own terms without return plane tickets or an ever-present calendar in mind.

I had been to Roncesvalles in 2009 with my son, and I was looking for any excuse to go back. We checked into the same hotel I had stayed in with him and it felt like I was picking up where I had left off. The woman at the desk looked vaguely familiar. She recommended that we try the pilgrim’s menu at the local bar and we made plans to go to Mass, then dinner.

Mass in the church at Roncesvalles is lovely, I’m sure, in any season, but in late November, with everyone bundled in winter clothes, it is like a haven, warmed by prayer and candles. A young woman exited just before Communion to play some music on the speakers and at the end, the priest gestured to us to come to the front of the church for a special pilgrims’ blessing. I’m guessing either our very nice front desk lady from the hotel or our bright hiking clothes tipped him off. It was beautiful and yes, we both cried.

After Mass, we went over to the bar for dinner. The barman told us to sit with the other pilgrims: a serious-looking woman from Korea and two Australian guys, one of whom left early. Dinner was amazing: fish, a potato leek soup, and a cheesecake for dessert. All for 10 Euros with lovely company.

And all the while we were feasting, the same young woman from the Mass music was sitting at the next table showing pictures of Roncesvalles in the snow from her laptop computer.

She announced to us all that she lived in the church, had keys and knew where all the lights were, and did we want to take a tour with her as guide? I could not believe our good fortune! One of my biggest disappointments in all this walking in Spain has been how few churches are open when I walk by and how little opportunity I’d had to explore – and photograph! – these beautiful buildings. We agreed to meet up with her at the albergue.

It turned out, our guide just wants to give tours of Roncesvalles to pilgrims. She took about 5 or 6 of us into the church, the crypt, the cloister, the gallery, and the chapter room and we were able to see spaces in this wonderful place that would only be available on some organized visit. What had appeared to me as a fairly small church with not much around it, was actually a much, much larger series of buildings, the Colegiata, and all of it lies behind, around, and underneath the central church space. After our tour, she served small cups of a local liqueur.

The next morning, we had a great breakfast designed for pilgrims with lots of “pocket” food, like fruit and snacks. We left to start walking and met up with our guide again on our way to the Camino where we exchanged email and Facebook information. She wished us a Buen Camino, I took a couple of photos and we started walking. It was December 1, almost sunny and gorgeous.


Next up: Roncesvalles to Zubiri (2014)