Jonathan Nicolosi’s Evolution on the  Camino de Santiago & the Camino Ferristerre in Spain

“We’re all just walking each other home.” – Ram Dass

Inspired by the movie The Way, Knoxvillian Jonathan Nicolosi quickly began preparing for a late summer pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. This long distance hike was to honor his mother who suffers from late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease. After seeking advice and selecting gear with local uber hiker Scott Noethen (cue “Eye of the Tiger” montage music), and breaking in a new pair of trail shoes, Nicolosi took off for a challenging two month adventure that would change his life. After a long international flight to Madrid, a connecting flight to Pamplona, and a bus ride to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, Nicolosi, pudgy and exhausted, commenced his pilgrimage on the popular Camino Frances.

Beginning with the steep and rocky Roncevaux Pass of the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, and crossing into Basque country and beyond, his ego and body were exorcised while coping with the demanding terrain, a late train, getting lost, wild dogs, copious amounts of animal excrement, bedbugs, and a cavernous blister. Through the hard times, Nicolosi was motivated by thoughts of his mother.

“Every day I thought about the emotional pain my mother must feel when she has a moment of lucidity and is frightened because she doesn’t know where she is [an assisted living facility]. If she can do that, then I knew I could finish this pilgrimage. One important symbolic stop along the Camino Frances is the Cruz de Ferro, where one may carry a rock for oneself or another, and lay it down, thus releasing the burdens by losing the weight of the rock. I carried one from my mother’s Alzheimer’s residence in Knoxville all the way to France and 2/3 of the way across Spain where this, the highest spot on the Camino Frances, is at around 1500 meters.”

Hiking the Camino Frances is different from hiking a path like North America’s secluded Appalachian Trail, wherein a hiker must carry his own food, provide his own shelter, and may spend days in solitude. On the Camino Frances, lodging, food, drug stores, internet access, and trashcans were plentiful. The various hostels and hotels did not require advance reservations. Nicolosi spent 50% of his time hiking with other pilgrims, mainly from Spain, Germany, Italy, and France. His knowledge of conversational Spanish came in handy because, “Americans on the Camino were a rarity.” After his physical condition improved and he reached his natural stride, he earned his Spanish trail name “Animo” from bystanders who were impressed with his energy and vitality.

“When I started knocking off big chunks of kilometers, I realized, you should never doubt yourself. Your body, will, and determination go a lot further than your mind believes at times. Willpower and perseverance are amazing things. I only learned that after I caught my true stride.” Trekking over 650 miles with an aggressive stride also trimmed 30 pounds from his waistline.

While planning his itinerary, Nicolosi booked an extra 7 to 10 days for spontaneous sight-seeing and unexpected delays. Even though his severe blister required medical attention and a week of recovery in Pamplona, this diversion did not slow him down. Seeking additional comfort and improved hygienic conditions, he booked a hotel room (hostels only allow one night’s accommodation). He used petroleum jelly and massage to protect his feet from further blistering and swelling. He switched to a light pack while exploring the entire town of Pamplona. This impromptu excursion turned into a unique and pleasant experience.  “On this pilgrimage, I learned to expect nothing and to accept everything.”

Trail life also improved due to new friendships and the kindness of strangers. From sharing meals, to swapping first aid supplies, and seeking advice about the best water supplies, there was always someone new to meet. Early in his trip, Nicolosi had to ask three senior citizen ladies to watch his gear and to awaken him when his late trained arrived. “People were always looking out for each other. I’m still in touch on Facebook with some of the friends I made on the trail.”

Even with another smaller blister forming, Nicolosi says his last 11 kilometers to Santiago “were by far the happiest. I smiled, cried, laughed, sweat, hugged, and learned.” During this time, he came upon a special needs adolescent girl who was delighted with a butterfly she had recently caught. When she accidentally released the butterfly, “her sadness was magnified through her thick glasses. A few seconds later, she turned to me, smiling, and said “hola” in a very happy voice.”

“She encompassed what I had been dealing with on the Camino: meeting people one day, getting to know them, only to have to part ways later, knowing I would most likely never see them again. You live and you lose, but not all those you lose are lost. They are on their own journey as well.”

His pilgrimage officially ended when he touched the door of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, but Nicolosi continued his journey on the onerous yet scenic Camino Ferristerre.  Upon arriving at the Galician coastline a few days later, he says, “I got to stand on the ocean’s edge and feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Reflecting on his hiking experience, Nicolosi says, “While I earned my passport stamps and certificates of completion (Compostelas), it was the people I met from all over the world, and the time to reflect, that makes the Camino what it is. Physically, it was like someone had beaten my body with rocks, but it was worth it. I used to be cocky, but not so much anymore. It changed the way I think about everything. I’ve become much more aware of waste (resources and time). Ten days into his pilgrimage he gave away his cell phone and he didn’t miss it. Impressed with Spain’s leadership in wind power, he is now working outdoors in Knoxville with renewable energy sources.

“This was the best thing I have ever done. Being humbled a thousand times over was a great thing. I needed it. The best advice I could give to anyone contemplating this journey is to travel light, to travel well, and to walk your own walk.” 

For more traveling tips on the Camino Frances, please see KnoxZine’s Facebook page.

What’s in my 32 liter Osprey backpack:

Sunscreen and other small necessities were purchased in Spain.
Most items were purchased locally at River Sports Outfitters and Little River Outfitters.

Copr., Debra Dylan, 2013

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