By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – The Way of St. James has attracted pilgrims since the Middle Ages.
“They’ve been doing this walk since the year 900. Popes have done it. Kings have done it,” said Anita Bryan, 68, of Tupelo. “You were supposed to make a pilgrimage before you died, but if you died on the pilgrimage, that was even better.”
From late August to early October, Bryan became another in a long line of pilgrims to trek el Camino de Santiago. Memorials to those who died are placed throughout the route. Nine people died on the Way this year, and two lost their lives when Bryan was on it.
“It can be dangerous, especially near the highways,” she said.
Byran walked some 500 miles from the French border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
“It was so hot. It was hot like it is in Mississippi,” she said. “I had a 20-pound pack on my back. The terrain was really rocky. You’re not walking on level ground. Your feet slide around in your boots. And the elevation … I didn’t really like the elevation.”
Her friend, Julie Hines, joined her for the first couple of weeks but returned to Northeast Mississippi when her vacation time ran out.
“At first, I felt bad that Julie had to go back and miss all the fun,” she said, “but later I thought, she was lucky. She could go back.”
Bryan would rather define her experience by friendships made, than by hardships endured. She met people from all over the world who were drawn to the Way of St. James for their own reasons. The people were friendly, and language was never a problem.
“Early on, it was hard for me. I didn’t know how to do my backpack,” Bryan said.
A woman came up from behind and asked if Bryan spoke English, then asked to fix her backpack.
“She pulled everything out and replaced it and adjusted the straps. I put it back on. I couldn’t even feel my pack,” Bryan said, smiling in relief at the memory. “She was my Camino angel.”
Meant to be
A Tupelo High School alumna and grandmother to 12, Bryan is an active woman, who practices with a swim team at 5 a.m. three days a week. She also visits the North Mississippi Medical Center Wellness Center two days a week.
She and a friend walked the Tour du Mont Blanc a few years ago. It’s a 112-mile route that passes through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France.
Bryan had such a good time with that adventure she started looking for another challenge. A couple of things converged to put her on the Way of St. James.
First, she teaches English as a second language to immigrants.
“A lot of my students are from Mexico,” she said. “In order to identify with them more, I started going to Mexico for two or three weeks each year to take Spanish lessons there.”
She also got a nudge from Emilio Esteves, who starred in “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” in the 1980s. He wrote and directed the 2010 movie, “The Way,” which starred his father, Martin Sheen.
“The movie comes out,” Bryan said, “and all of the sudden, it was clear to me that this is why I was taking Spanish lessons and teaching ESL.”
One foot after another
Bryan trained for her trip by hiking the trail along the Natchez Trace that goes from the Visitors Center to the Chickasaw Village. It’s a 12-mile round trip.
“I didn’t train on hills as much as I should have,” she said. “To tell the truth, it was harder than I thought it would be.”
Going up and down the hills offered gorgeous views of ancient Spanish villages, but it caused her feet to shift in her boots.
“I had so many blisters, which sort of surprised me because I’d been training in my boots since January,” she said. “After a few days, you put your shoes on and your blisters hurt for five minutes and then don’t hurt anymore.”
At rest stops along the way, locals helped the pilgrims with their blisters. One woman stuck a needle under Bryan’s toenail until it came out at the cuticle.
“She said, ‘Did it hurt?’ I said, ‘No,’” Bryan recalled. “That meant the nails were already dead.”
During her trek, she went through cities, towns and villages. Some seemed like ghosts towns with no people visible. At other places, hospitality abounded.
“At the end of one day, we walked up on this man who spoke Spanish. He motioned for us to follow him,” she said. “We turned the corner and this town was celebrating the 150th anniversary of something.
“They had all this food. They had cakes and bread and fruit, and they were sharing it all with us. We were pilgrims. We were ‘peregrinos.’”
Early in the walk, there was a Catholic mass for the pilgrims, and Bryan was asked to do a reading in English.
“The priest had it written in different languages,” she said. “For about a week, I would pass people and they’d say, you were the one who read at the mass. They recognized me.”
She made friends along the Way. One was from Germany, another was from New Jersey, and another was a professional chef who cooked for the group on occasion.
They had breakfast together in the mornings and met in the evenings to refuel on carbohydrates, but tended to drift apart during the days, as they found their own rhythms on the road.
“If you were eating with someone and finished, you’d get up and start walking,” she said. “They’d be behind you, five minutes or whatever. They’d catch up when you stopped.”
Her husband, Hudson Bryan, stayed at home, but the pair were in contact each day.
“One of the guys was from Denmark. He wanted John Deere caps,” Hudson Bryan said. “He wanted to be a redneck.”
“I don’t think he knew it was a derogatory term,” Bryan said.
She had an Ole Miss hat and soon realized it didn’t protect her ears from the Spanish sun.
“Everybody wanted that Ole Miss hat,” Hudson Bryan said.
The man from Denmark offered to trade his wide-brimmed hat for hers, then a woman from Australia offered to buy it.
“I traded it to the guy,” she said. “I didn’t want to take her money, and I really needed a different hat.”
More to come
The same friend who accompanied Bryan on the Tour du Mont Blanc joined her for the last few days on the Way. The weather shifted as they approached Santiago.
“It was raining cats and dogs. The wind was blowing and the trees were bending over,” Bryan said. “It didn’t matter because it was almost over and I was walking.”
No one set up a finish line across the road for pilgrims to break through, but there was quite a sight.
“You just walk there, and when you get there, here’s the cathedral, this amazing cathedral,” she said. “You walk there and here it is. It’s over. I was just walking, and it was like, I don’t have to walk any more.”
On the trail when the terrain was at its trickiest, Bryan thought about all the pilgrims who’d gone before her over the centuries.
“I thought, At least I’m going to a place and not having to sleep on the ground,” she said.
Even so, there were times when el Camino de Santiago threatened to be too much.
“I was walking the Roman Road – oh, goodness. All the rocks were turning under my feet. It was just so hot,” she said. “That night, after we ate, I would think, Was it really that hard? I remember saying to my friends, ‘I’m never doing this again.’”
Bryan hasn’t forgotten those words, but she doesn’t plan to live by them. The people from around the world that she met on the Way have become Facebook friends, and they haven’t been idle.
“We’re sort of like a family. We’ll do a trip again,” she said. “As soon as we got home, we started planning the next one.”