BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — For many, walking the 400-mile, 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route between Pamplona and Santiago de Compostela in Spain is a spiritual journey, a lifelong goal, a fitness challenge or all three.
For AW grads and siblings Laura Kemp, Clif Vaughan and David Vaughan, the five-week adventure along the camino – the Spanish word for “road” – was an opportunity to reconnect and reboot.
“This is the most time we’ve spent together since I was 12 years old. We met so many people on the camino that were surprised that three siblings could go on a trip this long and still be talking to each other,” laughed 57-year-old David.
After graduating from Anthony Wayne High School in 1983, David thought he would be a Spanish teacher, so he spent a year in Spain. While there, he became interested in diplomacy and then ended up in law school.
“I got diverted for 30 years,” said David, who recently retired from work as a lawyer and is applying for jobs as a Spanish teacher in Florida. “I always wanted to do the camino from a cultural perspective.”
Clif, a 1980 graduate, is an engineer and a flight student at Bowling Green State University.
“I’m just a crazy person. I heard it was 710 kilometers,” Clif laughed, adding that he wanted to learn about the culture, the history, the people and the food.
Laura, a 1978 graduate, wrapped up a career as a nurse midwife three years ago.
“I was open to spending a lot of time meditating while walking, meeting new people and having new experiences,” Laura said. “It was getting outside my daily routine and spending time with my siblings.”
So when David suggested the trip last year, the three agreed and began planning for the rigors of walking 10 to 18 miles a day.
“Walking the camino without training is a recipe for disaster – especially at our age,” David said.
Laura began walking more each day until she was putting in 60 miles a week.
“I listened to a lot of audio books, like The Count of Monte Cristo,” she said, referring to the 1844 classic.
Clif, a Scout leader, joined the Troop 97 teens as they trained for the rigors of Philmont High Adventure Camp. Dorian Hooker of Pro Day Performance Training had them pushing sleds across the floor and running up and down the Whitehouse sledding hills.
“Clif taught us how to go up the steep incline using the ‘rest step’ that he learned from Boy Scouts,” Laura said. The trio also used hiking poles.
With help from a travel agent, the siblings followed the route through the countryside and small villages of northern Spain, hiking five to seven hours a day. For a small price, they had their luggage transported ahead to their lodgings, so they only needed to carry day packs and a bottle for water. That freed the trio up to enjoy the scenery.
“I really appreciated the farm areas,” Clif said. “They’re very different from us. The farmers don’t live scattered among the fields but in the towns. So it was like being in the wilderness while walking through farm fields.”
“I was impressed by how they move herds of cattle,” said Laura, explaining that the farmer would drive up and open a gate to let the cows out. One day, the exiting bovines started walking straight toward the pilgrims on the road.
“A steer lowered its head and caught Laura’s arm. A Mexican contingent of pilgrims caught it on film. Laura is apparently a social media star in Mexico now,” Clif said.
The villages are historical, with homes and commercial buildings built of stone or masonry from hundreds of years ago. The roads in between could be dirt paths or grassy lanes, but many were Roman roads and bridges built of stone over 1,500 years ago.
“It was interesting being out in nature more, seeing the wildflowers and hearing the birds. It was a part of Spain I’d never seen,” David said.
For Clif, the walk provided a unique sense of accomplishment and peace.
“You would look at the horizon or the mountain, and then you’d walk and look back and say, ‘I hiked that.’ It’s perspective and patience. Not everything has to happen in the moment,” Clif said.
“It’s a slower pace of life when you spend every day walking,” agreed Laura.
Of course, the walk had its challenges. Because they started on April 19, rain and chilly weather were part of those early days. The constant walking also caused a few blisters – and a few unexpected rest days. Other days off were planned in certain towns to allow time to explore historical sites.
Along the way, the trio met people from all over the world: Argentina, England, Germany and Scotland. Some walked alone and others in groups.
Striking up conversations with strangers on the camino was easy, Laura said. Often, the Europeans would ask questions about the United States and wanted to talk about the war in Ukraine – and hoping that Americans would help.
Although English is a common language among the pilgrims and the villagers who welcome the business, David’s fluency in Spanish proved to be valuable.
“When David was in line for the pharmacy, he translated for everyone else in line,” Clif recalled.
When not walking, the trio was able to enjoy local cuisine like octopus with spicy paprika.
“Today, I was eating barnacles. They were very tasty,” Clif said.
“I had roast suckling pig,” Laura said.
At night, restaurants often serve dinner after 8:00 p.m. and all-night parties are common. One morning as the pilgrims left to hike, they saw groups of young people in clubbing clothes heading home after a night on the town.
Hiking the camino can be done on a budget, David said. Younger people often prefer to stay in group hostels and hike longer distances and carry all their gear in backpacks. Others finish the journey in stages as time away from work or school allows.
For many Catholics in particular, the camino is a religious journey and the route includes many shrines and points of worship, as well.
For the Vaughans, the end of the journey provided an opportunity to honor their mom, Jean, who died in January 2020.
Thirty years ago, Jean, their father William, Laura, Clif and his wife Bobbi traveled to Spain to visit David and his wife Sabine. They all visited Santiago.
“Mom was very touched by the cathedral,” Laura said.
So, the three ended the journey by holding a special service at the cathedral in her memory.
Their mom, they agree, would be happy to know that not only are the three siblings still getting along, but that they also completed the journey safely.