Editor’s Note: After a 40-year career in dramatic arts, Dr. Leon Van Dyke retired from the University of South Alabama recently. Lagniappe writer Tim Borland profiled him in the August 7 Lagniappe cover story (https://lagniappemobile.com/cover-story-drama-chair-exits-stage-career-finale-usa/). Dr. Van Dyke has been quite busy since his retirement and sent us an update on his adventures.

How do you like retirement?

I am asked that question often, probably because of the Lagniappe cover story of August 7 – 14. In my neighborhood, they also ask why that story didn’t include material about my “walk?” Simply put, because I made the walk after the piece was written. So, for Lagniappe readers, I will try to describe a bit of what it was like to walk the Camino Santiago, my first retirement adventure. I describe it here, because it was such a really grand experience.

The Camino Santiago is best known to many Americans because they happened to have seen the 2010 movie starring Martin Sheen called, “The Way.” In that film Sheen plays a man making a pilgrimage because he’s suddenly lost his son to a mountain accident in Spain.

Camino Santiago

Photo taken by Dr. Leon Van Dyke on his pilgrimage, as he walked Spain’s Camino Santiago.


The Camino begins in the Pyrenees and then travels across Spain and has been walked for more than 1,000 years by Catholics and pagans alike. The Catholics are making a pilgrimage to the place where the martyred Apostle James’ bones are buried, and around which a cathedral has been built. Since before the 12th century, pilgrims have been walking it, while pagan walks preceding that are shrouded by mystery.

The route I followed is known as Del Norte (the northern route), which has been used as an alternate to the more highly travelled French route seen in the movie. The French route was walked by 150,000 people while the Norte was walked by 13,000 last year. I wasn’t interested in constant companions.

What a crazy way to begin a retirement, eh? Walk for 500 miles, with a pack on my back, along a path that pilgrims have walked since medieval times in order to give myself a chance to contemplate where my path will next lead? (I’ve just finished 45 years of walking one path, I have decided it was time to try a new one, to test where next I should walk. That didn’t seem crazy, but a great choice to me.)

I don’t speak Spanish, though, and haven’t been in Spain since my honeymoon, twenty-five years ago, and my wife was in an especially busy time in her work. If I were to walk, I would be on my own. I sold my wife on my idea.

The drill I followed was as seen in the film; you walk every day carrying your pack, follow yellow arrow shapes or scallop shell way-marks, hopefully to arrive at “albergues” or hostels at each stage of the trip. The albergues have old-fashioned double bunk beds, common showers, toilettes, and are used by other pilgrims from around the world.

The 31 stages of the walk average from 25 to 35 kilometers (15 – 21 miles). The northern route is a slightly more rugged walk over mountains, rocks, with huge changes in altitude through mostly unspoiled rural Spain, and so of the several Caminos it is “the one less travelled.” If I saw 5 people during a day it was a crowd and only 3 were American.

Some who heard of my plans were jealous, liked the idea, and didn’t think my plan crazy at all. As long ago as 1779 when John Adams first discovered the Camino’s existence, he wrote in his diary of wishing to go to make the pilgrimage to Santiago and clearly understood its basis in legend and practice. Saint Francis walked it long before that, 800 years ago this year; and Shirley MacLaine walked it in 1999. Now some, like my sister, hearing of my plan to walk across Spain fell into thinking I was plumb crazy, as always. Others just chalked my adventure up to the kind of “foggy-hippy-dippy Shirley MacLaine image” that accompanies her to this day. I’ve read just today in one of those memes that “there’s a fine line between free spirited and crazy.”

The northern Camino is roughly 500 miles long, follows the Atlantic coast, and its ascents and descents can be severe. The coast of Spain is the most beautiful I have ever seen, combining beaches which would rival our own sugar sand with cliffs or bluffs, that look to be like those of the most rugged coast of Ireland or Maine.

Hiking, which is to say steadily walking for eight hours a day, with a pack of roughly 20 pounds becomes very wearing to the feet, legs, and spirit. It was far tougher than I can say in a family publication, and tougher than I would ever want to admit.

Some days, I’d long for just giving up, sticking out my thumb, or taking a bus. Two of the days I did take a bus; it is allowed, according to the rules of the Dean of the Cathedral at Santiago, who awards a “credential of accomplishment,” or “compostela,” to all who entirely walk the last 100 kilometers.

Those who undertake this journey are called Peregrinos, in Spanish, or Pilgrims, and stay at albergues along the way, having their pilgrim passports stamped at each stage as proof they make the journey. Along with peregrinos there are also cyclegrinos, who do the route on a bike, and a few who are really old school who travel by donkey. I booked a return trip plane ticket for 33 days after my arrival in San Sebastian, the northern coastal city in Spain which was my starting point, and ended up taking all 33 days and 33 nights. On my 70th birthday, I celebrated by walking.

Let me take a moment here, though, with an attempt to describe the nights.

As mentioned, the overnight hostels, called albergues, are open only to those carrying a “pilgrim’s passport.” You carry your own sleeping blanket, soap, clothes, and whatever else you decide essential for your journey. Some of the albergues are modern barracks carved out of former factories. Some, are even old monasteries. One of my favorites dated back to the Knights of the Templar, and an early Cisterian monastic order dating back to 1142. (Sobrado dos Monxes.) In each the dominant sound made by the rag tag bunch is the sound of tired pilgrims sleeping, which often involves some spectacular snoring, as sleeping pilgrims stock up on the rest needed for the next day’s walk. Snores in all languages sound the same. In a damp, dark, medieval ancient monastery, filled with stone arches and shadow, it seems as if the whole world is asleep and a breeze blows through the night that sounds like it has its origins in another time.

Each day’s walk brings its own surprises, sights, sounds, and challenges. At least one day made me weep, not in sadness or pain, but in a pure memory of my own young days. One of the other days it seemed like all of the cow, donkey, sheep, and chicken manure of Spain was contributing to produce clouds of flies swarming around my head. Of some consolation, the cows, sheep, and goats often are free grazing, and there is no need to call for, “more cow bell.” There seemed to be a blissfully correct amount. On my best day the butterflies which are said to migrate along the path of the stars above the Camino were escorting me with their silent wings.

I can’t try to replicate a travelogue of a 33 day walk in this short article. Awesome is overused and doesn’t really do the entire trip justice. This wasn’t just a long walk through a postcard, though, it was more. It was also a walk which was filled with metaphor for me. It was like walking through a poem or a prayer with windmills standing guard.

What made the Camino really extraordinary was not just 500 miles of hiking, butterflies and metaphor, but also the shared time I had to meet and get to know fellow pilgrims who were from Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, England, France, Bulgaria, Japan and Korea. Some pilgrims are friendly and happen to walk for a day or piece of a path with each other. Ton Marchand, for example, a Dutch guy who’s English is better than my Dutch, shared two days of the walk with me. He along with others became not simply fellow pilgrims, but real like minded friends found along “the way.”

What is more important than friends? Of course there exists the very real need to be aware and alert to the turns and twists along the way. I can’t express the way my heart leapt in joy when after a long dry time of seeing no markings and not being at all sure that I may have wandered off the Camino, I would spot a mark. “This way, you’re not lost at all” it would whisper in faint yellow on a fence post or a rock.

I learned a few other great lessons that to be fair should be remembered all along but of course tend to be forgotten in the everyday bustle when we’re rushing along our usual paths. Some of these include: listen, ask, be grateful, don’t over-think, don’t worry, trust that the day will be sufficient to itself. This is especially repeated by pilgrims with the phrase: “the Camino will provide.”

In truth, the Camino couldn’t be traversed without the hospitality and warm generosity of the Spanish people. If I look back at this short list of some of the things I learned on this adventure it turns into those things we should all know all along. Be appreciative, be aware, be simple, don’t go back, and we need to take each day one day at a time. Stop me before I wax trite.

The Camino proved to be a crazy tough walk, and a whole new “way” to remind me of the same path we all share as we make our separate journeys. If we happen to be here in Mobile and know where Old Shell leads, this doesn’t change the important stuff.

I have Lagniappe to thank for the number of people who have been asking what I’m “doing” with my retirement. This is only the beginning of me forming an answer.