The following story is about a spiritual pilgrimage through Portugal and Spain.
Susan Peters, the main author of the account, has a spinal cord injury and is a full time wheelchair user. Her story of spiritual renewal, physical daring and warmhearted camaraderie makes me want to return to Europe to travel “The Way” like she did. It must have been such a beautiful experience. See if you agree…
With Duct-Tape and Daring: Elated Friends Complete Rugged Wheelchair Adventure
By: Susan Peters with Sunny Roller
The Camino de Santigo or “Way of St. James” is a mostly mountainous route that adventure travelers take to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Tradition has it that the remains of Jesus’ apostle, James, are buried at this cathedral in northwestern Spain. Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and many others set out each year from a variety of popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to the sacred site. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel, as their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey. Learning this, I decided to try it last Fall–using my wheelchair.
I’ve been a manual wheelchair user due to paraplegia from a spinal cord injury for 40 of my 68 years and I am still looking for adventure and mountains to climb. So, when a friend of mine suggested that I test my audacity and dare to set off on a wheeling expedition for hundreds of miles along the Camino de Santiago, in Europe, my eyes lit up. In need of personal renewal and sparked by the possibilities of this expedition, I made a commitment to travel “The Way.” Not just for its physical challenges, but also to rejuvenate my zest for life.
Soon I had recruited my hardy crew of four people–two hired guides from Portuguese Green Walks and two great friends. After avidly planning the trip’s daily itinerary, off we flew to Portugal on September 25th.There are many different routes to choose for this strenuous pilgrimage to St. James’ resting place, but to receive the certificate for traveling The Way, one must clock at least 120 kilometers and stay on a route marked with yellow arrows. I selected the Portuguese way, beginning in the city of Valenca then along ancient paths north into Spain. Once I determined the route, the hard part was convincing people it could be done by wheelchair. Wrapped up in this initial challenge was actually finding a set of strong-willed, committed, physically-able helpers who not only believed it could be done, but also wanted to go. They were out there. I just had to look.
Excited and ready to roll at the starting point, I immediately confronted several dozen stone steps leading down-down-down to a narrow ancient path and then a dirt trail. That was when reality hit me–this excursion would not be the slightest bit easy. Every hotel was slightly different; so I was glad I had my friends with me to help with shower and toilet transfers, which was the hardest part of the trip, really. By day seven, the rough terrain had snapped off all of the metal screws on my front foot plate, and I had to continue the journey with a wheelchair that was partially duct-taped together. As we pushed ahead, we came across so many gorgeous sites that also became challenging delights. We walked and rolled through bustling ancient towns and pastoral cow pastures. We forded streams and bumped over bridges only a few inches wider than the wheelchair.
Pushing and pulling, we climbed steep hills and zig-zagged our way down rugged, bumpy Roman roads that had been laid in ancient times using boulders or giant stones. Not easy or comfortable to roll over.
In spite of the obstacles we bashed up against from start to finish, this adventure through Portugal and Spain exceeded every one of my dreams. All along the way, human warmth and camaraderie carried us. I met pilgrims from the U.S., Brazil, Korea, New Zealand, Serbia, and from other parts of Europe.
With spontaneous chances to intermingle every day, fellow sojourners and I took delight in sharing warm companionship and stories of our trek. The people who live along the Camino wanted to commune and gave me a joyful sense of belonging. They energized us with constant encouragement, welcoming smiles, and nourishment of all kinds. And they shared so much–from replenishing my water supply, to enfolding us in big bear hugs, to sharing important secrets about the trails ahead.
With each new dawn I felt a fresh sense of renewal and restoration. As we continued to walk and roll along the rocky hillsides and over singing woodland rivers, my companions and I came to hear The Way’s new harmonies that seemed to be caroling just for us. We sang and danced. We hugged trees. We savored delicious hot meals–oysters, clams, rice, sausage, kale soup and Portuguese wine graciously served up at our wayside inns. We happily stopped at so many shrines and churches along the way, praying for the power of love to heal our world’s wounded.
After 120 kilometers, we arrived in Santiago at noon on day ten of our journey, just in time for Mass at the cathedral. Quickly escorted to a front row seat, I was elated to experience the famous incense burner dramatically swinging right above my head. Suspended and swaying back and forth from a very long rope through the resplendent cathedral over hundreds of pious onlookers, its wafting smoke and scent seemed to cleanse and coat us with a mystical sense of comfort and reassurance.
It was also my 68th birthday that day. So after the mass, we found a cozy outdoor café. With wine glasses clinking, we heartily celebrated our successful journey AND my birthday. A moment I’ll always remember. We did it! I did it! It was a wonderful feeling as we jubilantly turned ourselves into a lively Spanish fiesta.
I enthusiastically encourage others who use a wheelchair to consider taking the Camino de Santiago. I was so thankful that my therapist had suggested I take a FreeWheel for my chair. (See photo below.) It’s an attachment that enables your wheelchair casters to be lifted off the ground, turning your chair into a three-wheeler, so you simply roll over any obstacle: curbs, dirt trails, grass, gravel, snow, and sand. I couldn’t have gotten along without it. (To learn more go to https://www.gofreewheel.com/)
When you go, strong friends, a FreeWheel, patience and perseverance are a must. Also remember to pack rain gear, a wheelchair repair kit, and layered clothing. If I can do it at my age, with arthritis and brittle bones, you can too.
For more information contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Susan Peters, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor Emerita at Michigan State University, College of Education. As a Fulbright Scholar and educational consultant for Ministries of Education, the World Bank, and UNESCO, her work focuses on inclusive education policy and practice for people with disabilities in cross-cultural and international perspectives.|
In 2011 Martin Sheen starred in a movie titled THE WAY about one man’s journey to the cathedral. THE WAY is a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends and the challenges we face while navigating this ever-changing and complicated world. Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son (played by Emilio Estevez). Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage “The Way of St. James” to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him. Through unexpected and oftentimes amusing experiences along THE WAY, Tom discovers the difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.” It is well worth watching.
Check it out here:
The above story by Susan Peters, Ph.D. was first published in the Spring/Summer 2016 newsletter, SCI Access. Distributed annually by the University of Michigan (U-M) Spinal Cord Injury Model System within the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, SCI Access is sent to 1200 readers in Michigan and across the country. For more information about this program that focuses on people who are living with a spinal cord injury, see their U-M website: http://pmr.med.umich.edu/SCIMS
Thanks for Reading!
Want to add an adventure like this to your own To-Do List?
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