From their home in Tupelo, the shoes took Sheri and her husband Frank through fields and over mountains along the 500-mile El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, a route that snakes through the French and Spanish countryside, terminating at the hallowed ground of St. James’s burial place.
“The idea of taking a journey to a sacred spot drew me to the trek,” Sheri said. “I know it’s cliche to say ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination,’ but that saying is so true.”
Sheri learned about El Camino de Santiago - Spanish for “The Way of St. James” – from a book by Joyce Rupp called “Walk in a Relaxed Manner,” and was further intrigued by the 2010 film entitled “The Way,” which is filmed on the trail.
“Sheri said she wanted to take a long trip and I thought she meant to a beach,” Frank said. “I was a little apprehensive at first.”
However, after much persuading, planning, and training, the Boettchers set out on their journey in September 2012.
With their shoes and boots laced tight, Frank and Sheri began their trek from the port of Saint Jean in France. Signs bearing a scallop shell – the insignia of El Camino de Santiago – led the Boettchers and other pilgrims from village to village. They spent the night at small hostels stationed at intervals along the trails, which provided a shower and a cot for the night.
“The hostels were very basic and often crowded, but after walking all day – we averaged about 14 miles a day – we were so glad to have a bed,” Sheri said.
Frank said traveling light was key. The Boettchers took essentially two sets of clothes: one to walk in and one for the next day.
“We washed them at the hostels and hung them to dry, but if they were still wet in the morning, we would hang them from our packs,” he said.
Frank noted that every town had a church, and, whether basic and humble or large and grand, each one was beautiful. He said the village residents were very fond of the pilgrims, many cafes and restaurants featuring a “pilgrim’s menu” with hearty, healthy portions. “Buen Camino” – a bid to “have a good journey” – was a common exchange among pilgrims and natives.
“The pilgrims come to the villages and spend money, so they embrace them,” Frank said. “But the best part were the other pilgrims. They come from all over the world. You may walk with someone a while before separating, and just when you think you aren’t going to see them again, you run into them.”
Sheri said it was very rare to find someone walking the trail alone.
“You see couples, friends, siblings, fathers and sons, and you get to know them,” she said. “We met people of every place you can imagine, Americans, Slovenians, British, you name it.”
Whenever the Boettchers encountered an obstacle, another pilgrim always happened to come along who could lead them in the right direction.
“One Sunday Frank woke up sick and we took him to the emergency room at 7 a.m. No one could speak English, but this woman comes in with a sprained ankle who could translate for us.” Sheri said.
“Another time we weren’t sure how to get to our next check point and we were standing talking about it and a couple said ‘come on, we’ll show you the way,’ Frank said.
Sheri said it was a commonplace tradition for pilgrims to leave mementos at certain landmarks along the trail, such as at La Cruz de Ferro, a large iron cross between the French towns of Foncebadon and Manjarin.
“In medieval times, pilgrims left stones as penance, but now people leave all sorts of mementos in prayer for people in their life who are having a tough time,” Sheri said.
The Boettchers brought and left photos of their fathers, who both died of cancer in 1998.
The Way of St. James ends at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Galicia, Spain. It is a tradition for pilgrims to conclude their journey by hugging a seated sculpture of St. James.
Returning home, the Boettchers carried with them their trusty walking sticks, purchased on the Way, bearing the scallop shell insignia. They also were awarded certificates for completing the trail, validated by stamps on their pilgrim’s passport from each check point along the way.
Perhaps above all, the Boettchers returned with a new peace of mind.“There is no set schedule, no plan past the end of the day at the next checkpoint,” Frank said. “You’re forced to live in the moment, not about what’s happening next week, and you bring a little of that back with you. The things you thought were terribly important you realize is just busy work.”
To others considering making the trip, the Boettchers said the most important things are the right pair of shoes and the right backpack.