Palisadian Carol Sanborn Makes a Journey of Spirit

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer

For 15 years, Carol Sanborn imagined taking a pilgrimage to northern Spain. She sought to walk the same route as travelers since the Middle Ages who traversed hundreds of miles over several weeks to reach the legendary burial place of apostle St. James in Santiago.

Until this spring, Sanborn, the director of pastoral ministry at Corpus Christi Church, had too many responsibilities to take six weeks off to make the journey, which she first read about in Shirley MacLaine’s book, The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit.

However, “the history, the spirituality, the challenge and the quiet” of the Camino called to Sanborn. The 62-year-old Palisadian kept a scallop shell, the symbol for the trail and the fisherman St. James, hanging from her kitchen window to inspire her.

Carol Sanborn in Muxía, Spain, on a windy day with the Atlantic Ocean behind her. Photo: Carol Sanborn

Carol Sanborn in Muxía, Spain, on a windy day with the Atlantic Ocean behind her.
Photo: Carol Sanborn

This year, the timing was finally right. “Everybody who needed something faded into the distance, and so this spot opened up,” Sanborn said. Her husband, Scott, and grown children, Jessica, 29, Eric, 27 and Ander, 24, agreed to meet her in Spain after her walk ended, so she packed her backpack and off she went.

Since the Ninth century, the pilgrimage has been taken by kings, queens, noblemen and commoners, including Charlemagne and St. Francis. Sanborn strove to make the journey, which she began in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, in a traditional manner without booking a room or a tour, but instead “having total faith that there would be a bed somewhere, that people would help me out.” And they did.

Along the trail, which is partially a rocky dirt path through the Pyrenees with only occasional hostels miles apart, Sanborn made new friends, including a woman who had lost her son to suicide, a young Dane whose hiking shoes hurt her feet so badly that she had to complete the trip in Birkenstocks, and a man whose marriage had fallen apart.

Sanborn felt connected not only to these current pilgrims but also to the many travelers who had come before them. “You certainly felt like you weren’t alone,” she said. “You have a real sense that you’re walking the same path of over a thousand years of history. Sometimes you have that sense that I can’t even imagine all the other people who put their foot here. What was their story? It was very, very powerful.”

Along the way, Sanborn shed pounds from her backpack, which began the walk packed with 34 pounds, including her sleeping bag. “I do not need all this stuff,” she realized and eventually let go of about 11 pounds of items. “That is so metaphoric for life.”

A tunnel on Carol Sanborn’s 620-mile odyssey along the Camino de Santiago. Photo: Carol Sanborn

A tunnel on Carol Sanborn’s 620-mile odyssey along the Camino de Santiago.
Photo: Carol Sanborn

Carrying the pack, though, never bothered her. “You just get used to it. It’s just what you do.” And her body held up well, with not even a blister during the 620-mile journey, which started with a 16-mile hike on the first day.

Sanborn mostly stayed at hostels, called albergues in Spanish, which could house as many as 80 people in bunk beds in one room, but usually held between 20 to 40 pilgrims. The cost was only 8-10 euros per night, and the hungry travelers who ate about 8,000 calories a day also often enjoyed a three-course pilgrim’s meal in the evening for 8 euros. Sandwiches might cost 1-3 euros, while breakfast was 2 euros.

Mass at the Cathedral de Santiago in Spain with 13 bishops and priests and thousands of peregrines (pilgrims). Photo: Carol Sanborn

Mass at the Cathedral de Santiago in Spain with 13 bishops and priests and thousands of peregrines (pilgrims). Photo: Carol Sanborn

“It’s the cheapest vacation in the world,” said Sanborn, who each day never spent more than 30-35 euros on food and lodging. One night, the only albergue was full, and to find a bed, she and a new friend caught a ride with a traveling lottery salesman to the next town about 10 miles away. Then in the morning, Sanborn walked 10 miles back to the first town, so she could walk the whole route. “I didn’t want to miss an inch of it,” she said.

One muddy day and a new walking friend, a retired cattle hoof trimmer from Minnesota. Photo: Carol Sanborn

One muddy day and a new walking friend, a retired cattle hoof trimmer from Minnesota. Photo: Carol Sanborn

As Sanborn walked, sometimes alone and sometimes with new friends, she met people of all religions and from countries all over the world, including Korea, Japan, China, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Iraq and the many countries of Europe. “It just was so amazing to find out how much we all had in common,” Sanborn said. “It was also a very humbling experience to start out alone and find yourself in this international community.”

Some were purists, who traveled in the traditional way that Sanborn cherished, while others had a travel agent book the entire trip with taxis to hotels each evening. Others did the journey as an athletic event, working to do large numbers of miles each day, while some took tour buses and dropped into the trip for a few miles at the most scenic parts.
“Some of the purists were kind of judgmental about it,” Sanborn said. “As time went on, we suspended judgment and realized that everybody had their journey.”

Carol Sanborn drinks from the wine fountain at a monastery.

Carol Sanborn drinks from the wine fountain at a monastery.

Even scientist and writer Stephen Hawking has done part of the Camino in his wheelchair, while actors Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez took to the trail when creating a fictional movie about it, The Way.

One thing Sanborn noticed that the planners did miss was some of the journey’s spontaneity, which might include a festive event at the albergue or the joy of a com- munal dinner. For her, “it was an exercise in suspending expectation. You woke up each morning being totally open to what might happen that day, whether it would be rain, whether it would be a mountain, whether it would be someone you met who slowed you down,because they needed a little bit more.”

Along the way, Sanborn encountered people with jobs ranging from a high school biology teacher to a retired cattle-hoof trimmer. The journey was an equalizer. When a pilgrim arrived at the albergue for the night, “it didn’t matter whether you were a bank president or a busboy or a student or a senior partner in some law firm, you were given a receipt, got a bunk bed, maybe it had a window, maybe not. We were all treated the same.”

Although anyone can make the trek, Sanborn,who has climbed Mt. Whitney and done the three-day Avon walk twice, found it surprisingly challenging, especially through the Pyrenees. They traversed mountain ridges and climbed over boulders, on a road that was not paved for the “vast majority of the time.”

“Once or twice a day you would see a marker of someone who died—sometimes in 2014 or 2013,” Sanborn said. “You can understand how easy it would be for something to go wrong.”

The Spaniards who live along the trail try to help. Some put out baskets of fruit with invitations to help yourself. One woman made fresh tortillas and stood in front of her house handing them out. “The people who live along the Camino see themselves as having a responsibility to be hospitable,” Sanborn said.

Sometimes sheep were fellow travelers on the Camino de Santiago. Photo: Carol Sanborn

Sometimes sheep were fellow travelers on the Camino de Santiago. Photo: Carol Sanborn

Eventually, she walked into Santiago, where the cathedral has a section set aside for pilgrims. She sat in the front row for the ceremony, which features a huge incense lamp that is swung back and forth through the cathedral to cleanse the church because traditionally the arriving pilgrims smelled so bad from their travels.

“It just gave me goosebumps,” Sanborn said of witnessing the ritual that she had read about and seen in videos. She thought, “I cannot believe that I’m here . . . I just can’t believe that I’m actually doing this.”

She even went further than the destination of the cathedral in Santiago to visit Muxía and Finisterre, Spain’s westernmost point, and she received certificates commemorating all three journeys. During their travels, pilgrims carry a passport-type document where they get stamps from each stop to receive a certificate at the end. The certificates are treasured mementos, and the memories have infused Sanford’s life since she returned. “People cooperate and people care and people share and people are just totally present,” she said. “They’re not worried about what’s going to happen tomorrow and what happened yesterday. It was just amazing.”

Sanborn discussed her journey at Corpus Christi Church on Sept. 30. She will also present in October, date to be decided.

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