A mother and son duo hiked an ancient trail through Spain, covering 500 miles in 33 days with only the possessions they could carry on their backs.
Karla Borders McCarty, originally from Magoffin County, said she first got the bug for backpacking several years back when on vacation with her family.
“We were driving in Pennsylvania somewhere and passed a sign that said ‘Appalachian Trail Crossing,’ so I started looking it up on my phone and said, ‘I’ve got to hike that someday.’”
McCarty said she has been section hiking the Appalachian Trail, with 400 miles under her belt currently. She’s also hiked rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon, but this was her first international hike.
For her most recent adventure, she decided she wanted to tackle the Camino de Santiago, and her son, Jerry Austin McCarty, a 21-year-old senior at University of Louisville, decided he couldn’t pass up the trip, either.
“We had talked about it for a long time and it just hit me that he’s going to be out of college soon and will be starting work, so now was the time,” Karla explained.
Camino de Santiago, known in English as “The Way of Saint James,” is an ancient pilgrimage route that dates back to Medieval times and was most notably the route James the Apostle used, spreading the word of Jesus throughout Spain.
The pair started in France on June 1, at Saint Jean Pied de Port, walking over the French Pyrenees Mountains, then making their way into Spain, where the majority of the route they took runs through.
“Saint Jean is the traditional starting point, and you start by going to the pilgrim’s office, where they give you a pilgrim’s passport to document your journey, getting a stamp at each village along the way,” Karla explained. “When you get to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, they give you a Compostela, which shows that you made the pilgrimage.”
In order to prove they made the journey and get the Compostela, they had to get two stamps a day for the last 100 kilometers.
They also had to get a seashell when they started and tie it to their backpacks to show they were pilgrims making a pilgrimage.
They both described the first two hours of the journey as the roughest, walking in the pouring rain.
“You put on rain gear and just keep going,” Karla said. “You’ve got to keep walking and get to the next place to stay.”
Jerry said the first hour was the only time he second-guessed his decision to take on the Camino de Santiago.
“We just smiled and went with it,” Jerry said. “I think we both were so determined to finish it that we weren’t going to let anything stop us.”
They connected to Wi-Fi whenever they went through villages or data parks, keeping in touch with family along the way, but the rest of the time, they just talked – to each other and other people. On occasion they would listen to music or just walk in silence, but they’re proud of the fact they were able to get along the whole time.
“Zero bickering!” Karla said. “Most of the time, where there was so much to see, we would talk about what we were coming up on or what we had just seen, or about the food we missed from home.”
They mostly ate sandwiches, which they both said got pretty old by the third week, and when they stopped in towns they noticed the differences between American and Spanish foods.
“One night I ordered a hamburger and I was really excited for it,” Karla said. “What I got was ham in the shape of a burger – kind of like Spam. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a hamburger.”
She said there is a tomato/olive oil spread that is often put on sandwiches that they really liked and learned how to ask for, but also noted that “tortilla” meant something totally different there.
“That’s code for a Spanish egg omelet with potato,” Karla said. “It was delicious, but not a tortilla.”
They also had to learn that tuna can find its way on many dishes, including pizza, and how to ask for it to be excluded.
Jerry said by the end he really wanted a steak, even though he’s not much of a beef person, but Karla said she really wanted a biscuit.
“Can’t a girl just get a biscuit?!” she remembered asking numerous mornings when all they could find were croissants.
For lodging, they stayed in albergues, places where backpackers can stay, paying a small fee for a bed and maybe a communal meal, sharing their rooms and tables with people from all over the world.
“The first night we had dinner with around 25 people, from Germany, Tasmania, Ireland, England, South Korea, and Johnson City, Tennessee!” Karla said. “You may go a day or two and not see anyone, but you become a communal family with the other hikers you meet. You can walk with someone a couple of hours and feel like you’ve known them forever.”
Despite not knowing Spanish, or the languages of their fellow pilgrims, the McCarty’s said the language barrier wasn’t much of a problem.
“We know very minimal Spanish – basic words – but that just made it fun,” Jerry said. “We tried to pick up on small words to use and by the end we could order our own food.”
His mom started laughing, “In the beginning there’s a lot of smiling and nodding, then just wondering what they were going to bring you, but it really wasn’t an issue and everyone was so helpful.”
The did learn the common phrase “buen camino,” which translates to “good camino,” and is the universally understood way for pilgrims to say “hello” and “goodbye.”
Jerry said he tried to prepare for the trip by walking around his college campus, but that didn’t even prepare him for walking 6+ hours a day.
“I was most concerned about him since he had never had a backpack on until we got to France,” Karla said. “Your pack weighs about 20 pounds, but he really didn’t have a problem.”
In their backpacks they carried their necessities: a few changes of clothes, their passports, and food for sandwiches.
“You get really attached to your pack,” Karla said. “After we got to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, we had three days to explore where we didn’t have to carry our packs anymore, but you miss it.”
They washed their clothes in sinks at night, tracking down washing machines when they could.
Footcare became a major priority during their hike, since most people end up with blisters and sores, so Karla described taking off their shoes and socks at every stop and even using shopping bags on their feet in their shoes when it rained to keep the moisture at bay.
“You’ve got to keep your socks clean and dry, and we used a lot of Vaseline and Blister Bomb to protect our feet since moisture is the problem, but we were very lucky and had no issues,” Karla said.
They were fortunate to plan their trip during the coolest summer in 40 years, Karla said, with temperatures in the 70s for most of their hike and only three days of normal (over 100 degrees) temperatures.
Other than the first two hours of the hike and the last few days, they said it did not rain much while they were there or it would rain after they were finished for the day.
“We would walk six to eight hours a day, depending on where we were going and the weather, but we would try to plan around it, leaving earlier if it was going to rain later, and averaged 12 to 19 miles a day,” Karla said.
They both said the hike was more difficult that they anticipated, noting that despite being labeled as so, the trail is not flat and it’s not easy.
“It was more challenging than I thought it would be, but I would do it, again, in a heartbeat,” Karla said.
Though the trail was marked with small seashell signs, in cities the route could be a bit confusing, but Karla said the local people were always so helpful.
“People would drive by, honk their horn and point to tell us which way to go,” Karla remembered. “One time a guy on the third floor of a building leaned out his window, spoke something in Spanish, and pointed. They’re very helpful for pilgrims.”
In small villages, they explained that the trail is their main source of economy.
“The smallest village had a population of 35 people, and we stayed in an old monastery built in 1100,” Karla said. “We slept in a room with metal bunkbeds with at least 50 people in the room with us and there were four rooms total.”
Jerry told the story of two men, walking tethered together.
“Mom said, ‘I think one of these guys is blind,’ and we eventually caught up with him and he told us about being retired from the U.S. Army and he was blind. When we got home he was on the Today Show running with the bulls.”
They saw a man in the woods with a falcon, and on another occasion saw a man pass out and hit his head on the floor, blood everywhere, and no one speaking the same language, but trying to help him get medical attention. There was an angry farmer that wasn’t too keen on the pilgrims going through his land. But all in all, they said they never felt unsafe or threatened.
Jerry said he was surprised by how different the culture was there, with small shops, little driving, and people living in villages and the land between the villages preserved for farmlands.
“Everything is smaller there – even the showers are smaller - and they only have what they need, with nothing extravagant,” Jerry remembered.
Karla said one of the highlights of the trip for her was the Cruz de Ferro, or the Iron Cross, explaining that everyone brings stones from home that symbolize burdens.
“They’re heavy, symbolically and actually since you’re carrying it with you, but you lay it down at the cross as a way of giving that burden to God,” Karla said. “So we each brought a rock from somewhere that meant something to us and said a prayer and laid it down, and the pack was lighter. You could feel everybody’s emotions there.”
With the Camino de Santiago’s ties to Christianity, Karla said that was one of their motivations for choosing that particular trail to hike.
“Being able to walk the exact same path as Apostle James did as he spread the word of Jesus across Spain was a deeply spiritual experience,” Karla said. “For that period of time, life was very simple: we walked and we slept. We depended on the graciousness of perfect strangers to guide us, feed us, and house us. We witnessed God's amazing handiwork in the beauty around us and could often stop at small churches for worship in the villages.”
“You research, plan and prepare, and it’s better than you think it’s going to be. I can’t explain it – it’s unlike anything you can explain. The comradery with pilgrims, the culture, I would tell anyone to just do it and don’t wait,” Karla said. “It’s weird that this is something we’ve talked about for so long and it’s already over. Keep your eyes open and live in the moment.”
While Jerry said he’s going to sit out the next big hike, Karla has her sites on Machu Picchu in Peru.