Saturday, May 20, 2006
About seven years ago, John Hussey came to a realization that has forever changed his life. “I was out in the west elk hunting, when I realized that I just loved to wander in the woods…so I put down my rifle and started walking.”
That’s when Hussey discovered backpacking. Over the past years, he has learned many ways to make his hikes more interesting and enjoyable, including packing a lightweight alcohol stove, pre-mailing himself rations that he’d pick up along his route, and that wearing wool socks are actually cooler than cotton. He’s learned that for the really long journeys, he must first break in his walking sandals unless he plans to accept the blisters he’s likely to get. He has learned that some areas of the USA are still safe for hitchhikers, and that at 63, he is not too old to cross the Continental Divide on foot.
Still, nothing he had learned in his previous years of backpacking and hiking could prepare him for the lessons he would learn on his modern pilgrimage: the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known as the “Way to Santiago” where Saint James the Greater was buried after his martyrdom. To Christians, only Jerusalem and the Vatican are considered more holy than Santiago de Compostela.
For more than 1,000 years, pilgrims by the millions have traveled the 600 mile footpaths from points in France to a remote tomb in Spain, seeking retribution for their sins. Today, the quest for self-knowledge, personal and spiritual improvement, and cultural diversity lead modern pilgrims along the same paths.
John Hussey is one such pilgrim. There are many paths, or ways to Santiago, with four major routes that have been marked and celebrated over the centuries. Hussey chose to cross the Pyrenees in France, and then joined other pilgrims as the path narrowed to a single trail across northern Spain.
“There was one point where the path had been walked so many times, that it was worn down below actual ground level. The ground level was above my head! I was on the path, but the grass was over my head,” marveled Hussey who took over 600 pictures of his adventure.
“It was the most amazing thing I have ever done. It took me 5 weeks to walk 600 miles.”
Over the years, people of all ages and conditions have made the pilgrimage, including those in wheelchairs or walkers. Hussey remarked that he never felt unsafe on his pilgrimage.
“People see you walking the path, with your backpack and your staff, and they know you are a pilgrim and they take care of you,” he said. Hostels, or refugios, which only take donations, and special pilgrim menus mean that pilgrims need only carry 10% of their body weight in gear, and can always find inexpensive room and board. Hussey only slept outdoors once during his month-long adventure.
Hussey, who has lived in Cocoa more than thirty years, feels that the pilgrimage is a life changing event that he would love to do again.
“On the Camino, they live brotherly love. You want to help everyone else. Complete strangers will attend to your needs. I am fluent in Spanish, which helps but a deaf mute could do this.”
He said that even though people from all over the world come to do the pilgrimage, when he made his, he was the only American on the path. Thirty to forty people “sort of stay together,” said Hussey who was as anxious to tell about the simplest thrills of his pilgrimage as he was to walk the same footpaths as Charlemagne and Saint Frances of Assisi.
“I was in a hostel one night and looked up at the ceiling. I saw how crooked the beams were and I thought that whoever did this was a poor builder, then I realized that who ever built it did it all by hand. He cut the trees himself, and he cut the beam out of wood by hand, with an axe. I shined my light overhead and I could see the cut marks in the beam. As crooked as it was, it had been holding the roof on that house for more than six centuries. The man, his children, and great-grandchildren had all passed away, but his building was still standing and protecting me from the night.”
Hussey is eager to tell the story of his pilgrimage and to share his many photographs. He has spoken at the Cocoa Beach Library, and is planning more speaking engagements,
“Everything was amazing! It’s within everyone’s grasp. It is strenuous, but anybody can do it. Being a backpacker helped, but you don’t have to be in great shape to do it. There was a Mexican woman who used a walker on the pilgrimage with me. The Camino and its passengers are more important than the destination- the journey is the reward.”
Hussey encourages everyone who may be interested in learning more about his personal pilgrimage, or who may want information about doing his or her own pilgrimage to contact him.
For more information, email John Hussey at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or call him at 321-631-0017.