GazetteXtra Print Article Logo URL: http://www.tampabay.com/news/aging/Meet-two-women-whose-feet-feats-include-walking-the-Camino-de-Santiago-a-500-mile-pilgrimage-across-Spain_165531868


Meet two women whose feet feats include walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain

By Patti Ewald, Times Correspondent
The scallop shell is a symbol of the Camino de Santiago. (Courtesy of Sue Sedlachek)

There are two things to know if you are thinking about walking 500 miles.

Make sure your shoes are comfortable and make sure your backpack is light. That’s the best advice two veteran hikers and transplanted Midwesterners now living in Tierra Verde can give. And, they should know.

Sue Sedlachek, 66, and Marilyn Vohs, 69, walk and walk and then they walk some more. They used to be snowbirds but they sold their summer home in Milwaukee so they would have more money and time to see the world.

And, to them, the only way to do that is on foot.

In 2013, they walked the Camino de Santiago, a 42-day, 500-mile pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port, located at the border between France and Spain, to the shrine of the apostle, Saint James the Great, on the Atlantic Coast in Santiago, Spain.

They recently gave a talk on their feet feat at Eckerd College’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, an education program designed for older adults.

Retracing a route of ancient pilgrims to the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) may have been their greatest achievement, but it certainly wasn’t the first physical accomplishment of the two retired accountants who met in 1989 while working at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colo.

Their progress has been slow and steady, starting with hiking around Colorado.

• In 2006, they hiked 4 miles from Vail Mountain Ski Resort to Minturn, Colo., and trekked 8 miles along the Mosca Trail in southern Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park.

• In 2007, they walked 9 miles on Peaks Trail from Breckenridge to Frisco, Colo., and made the first of three 12-mile hikes from Lake McDonald Lodge to Sperry Chalet in Montana’s Glacier National Park. They repeated that trek in 2009 and 2014.

• In 2009, they hiked 12 miles around Glacier National Park, including along the Highline Trail from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet.

• In 2011, they made the first of their multiple-day, long-distance hikes, walking 96 miles along Scotland’s long-distance footpath, the West Highland Way. That was where Sue learned about the Camino de Santiago, which they walked in 2013. (They took the Camino Frances route.)

• In 2015, they returned to hike another leg of Camino de Santiago routes, this time in France, walking 450 miles from Le Puy en Velay to St. Jean Pied de Port.

• In 2016, they headed north, hiking the 10-mile Cape Split Hike in Nova Scotia, Canada, and trails in Newfoundland.

• Last year, they survived the August heat trekking the Bright Angel Trail, 9 miles down and 9 miles back up the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. They are doing it again in January, when it won’t be so hot.

Their big trip this year will be in October, when they travel as Road Scholars to explore the Grand Canyon for five days, traversing all sorts of terrain and elevation changes from Havasu Canyon to Granite Gorge. Then, in the evenings, as part of the Road Scholar program, there will be educational discussions on things like geology and preserving Native American heritage.

Crossing Spain

Sue and Marilyn, both looking healthy and outdoorsy and much younger than their years, explained from their sixth-floor condo overlooking the Don CeSar Hotel what a typical day was like on the road to Santiago.

Before they left, they took many mini-hikes of 5 or 6 miles with their gear on to get used to it — and to make sure their shoes were comfortable. They agreed to take it slow, walk at their own pace and stop and rest when necessary to avoid the painful blisters that are common among long-distance hikers.

"I was a little nervous in the beginning," Marilyn said, "but we made the decision ahead of time to do what we could." If they hated it, they said, they would just spend their time in Spain another way.

They wanted to challenge themselves, not kill themselves. They walked, mostly in silence, from 4 to 12 miles a day along the route, some of it on dirt trails, some of it along a highway or through the streets of a town. They walked through vineyards and fields of sunflowers and through fields and plains so vast they joked they were in Kansas.

"We would get up in the albergue (hostel) and be out the door by 7 a.m.," Sue said.

"We usually got fruit the day before so we’d have something to eat but we would usually walk for an hour or so before stopping for breakfast," Marilyn said.

There was always competition for places to stay. The albergues, which could be four women in a room or barracks filled with dozens of men and women, filled up quickly so they usually stopped walking about 2 p.m. to make sure they had a place to stay.

It cost between $7 and $15 to stay in an albergue and another $10 to $15 for dinner, which generally consisted of a salad, a main course, dessert and "wine or water." (Yes, they said, they drank a lot of good wine there, especially rioja, for which the region is known.)

"We had a guidebook that showed the next place to stay so we would check it out and see how far we had to go to get there. If it was too far, we stopped," Marilyn said.

"Some hosts were kind," Sue said. "They had dishpans full of water and Epsom salt."

"You try to soak your feet whenever you have a chance," Marilyn said.

By 4 p.m., they had showered and had done their laundry, washing the few clothes they brought by hand.

They knew a little Spanish and most albergues had someone who knew English. If not, they could find another hiker who did speak Spanish to help them communicate.

They would scope out their next day’s walk and have dinner, usually in the alberques, by around 7 p.m. Sue would transfer the notes she had made during the day in her iPod (yes, old-school) into her blog, walkaboutwithsue.blogspot.com. Then, early to bed to rest up for the next day.

Getting along for a month with only the things that you could carry made them appreciate a simpler life.

"We realized how little you really need," Sue said. "You just don’t need all this stuff."

Contact Patti Ewald at [email protected]