Melissa Peters and Jenniffer Powers were tired, hungry, and mentally exhausted after a day of walking more than a dozen miles in an unfamiliar terrain. When they arrived at the town they thought would be their resting place for the night, they were told all of the rooms in the village were full. They would have to press on until they reached the next town.
The students, both seniors at the University of Mary Washington, were in the midst of a 500-mile walk in Spain known as the Camino de Santiago. Often a religious pilgrimage, the walk draws thousands of tourists from around the world each year. For Peters and Powers, the Camino, as it is often called, was a journey of faith and an exercise in simplicity.
“Your faith is strengthened every day because you realize everything is out of your control,” Peters, a psychology major, said. “You have the backpack on your back and the boots on your feet.”
It took the pair 34 days to walk the Camino this summer, carrying all of their provisions in 20-pound backpacks every step of the way.
“It is definitely a physical feat, but you realize as you go how mental it is,” Peters said. “The first day you have to cross the Pyrenees Mountains, which is a challenging physical experience. Even with the best shoes you get blisters. It’s about learning how to push through the pain.”
For Peters, who plans to graduate in December, thinking back to the long nights at UMW’s Relay for Life helped motivate her to continue when the trail got tough.
Peters is an adviser for Relay for Life, an annual all-night fundraiser for cancer research and patient programs, after spending two years as an event co-chair.
Despite the challenges, whether at Relay or on the Camino, “it is all always worth it,” she said.
Both students received a certificate, known as a compostela, when they reached their destination in Santiago. The real reward, they said, was in the friends they met along the way and the ability to find inner peace in times of stress and hardship.
Now that they are both back in their routines on campus, Powers and Peters know that the journey has impacted them beyond their expectations.
“I don’t think I had a profound, ‘I’m totally different person’ kind of moment, but I think that I have a different perspective than I did before,” Powers, a historic preservation major, said. “Overall I think I learned not to be so anxious. I had to just go with the flow so to speak every day when I was on the Camino, and translating that to my everyday life is certainly a lesson I learned.”