This weekend marks the end of a remarkable pilgrimage for six young women from Santa Barbara Middle School, who battled hail and heat in walking more than 100 kilometers through northern Spain. The 8th and 9th grade girls, with the help of one San Marcos High School senior and three adult chaperones, traveled for nearly two weeks along El Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, the route taken by thousands of religious pilgrims and globe-trotting adventurers every year to the place where St. James’ bones are supposedly buried. And it was much more than just an ancient, spiritually charged walk – the girls connected with Santa Barbara’s past as well, visiting the town of Novales in Cantabria, the birthplace of the city’s Spanish forefather Jose De la Guerra.
“We started off in the exact spot where Jose left when he was 13,” said trip organizer Jim Brady, founder of Educational Safaris and assistant headmaster at SBMS. De la Guerra was sent off to Mexico by his father, worked in Mexico City for a time with his uncle, and then joined the military. That led to his post in Santa Barbara and “the rest is history,” explained Brady, who reported about the trip on Friday, April 4, over his iPhone while admiring a grain silo he estimated to be more than 800 years old.
From Novales, they walked an ancient route into the mountains that was used when the Moors were attacking the Christians. Then the group of 10 drove through the mountains, and stopped about 60 kilometers outside of Santiago. It took them four days to complete the pilgrimage, and they walked about nine miles each day alongside Christian devotees and history-loving tourists.
The path – whose stones are “literally concave” from so many years of usage, said Brady – ends at the ornate Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. It being Galicia, the former home of Celts, travelers are greeted with the sound of bagpipes. On Friday, the group powered on past the cathedral and toward the coast, until they reached Cabo Finisterre, once considered by Europeans to be the end of the world.
“It’s a powerful journey,” said Brady, who visited the route in 1976 and has been trying to organize such a trip with his students for the past 30 years.
Legend has it that St. James, after Jesus’ execution, went out to spread the word. He made it all the way to the Iberian peninsula, a region populated at the time by pagan Celts. Upon returning to Jerusalem years later, he was beheaded, and his remains were placed upon a stone boat, which floated to the mythical end of the earth.
“That’s where we were today,” said Brady, referring to Cabo Finisterre, the place where someone later claimed to have found the saint’s bones. The bones were then buried at the lowest point in the region, upon which the Cathedral de Santiago was built. Brady described the cathedral itself as “phenomenal,” adding that the group was scheduled to attend high mass there at noon on Saturday.
Along the way, as they trudged nine or so miles per day, Brady challenged the girls to think of what it means to be a pilgrim and to ask themselves what they believed in. He said that the trip reached an intellectual peak on Friday, while sitting atop Cabo Finisterre.
“We were talking about the meaning of faith and belief,” he explained. “What was it that got pilgrims to come out here to the end of the world?” That led to a deep discussion of faith and personal. “And on the other side of it,” explained Brady, they asked, “What went on in Jose De la Guerra’s mind when he went the other way and never came back?”
So will he lead the trip again next year? “Almost for sure,” said Brady.
The group was scheduled to return to Santa Barbara around 2 a.m. on Monday morning, which means that they might miss the first day back from spring break. Surely, their teachers will agree that such a trip probably warrants missing one day of school.
For their own reports and photos, go here.