GHS grad experiences life-changing pilgrimage

Gainesville High School 2019 graduate Ashley Walrath, pictured third from left, recently completed a 178-mile portion of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage through France and Spain. This photo was snapped on the group’s first day in France shortly after Walrath, along with seven other Southwest Baptist University students and a professor, began their walk on the Camino. Photos courtesy Kevin Bailey

Walrath stopped frequently to take photos, including a picture of this horse and colt she encountered near the beginning of her trip.

The Camino de Santiago path that Walrath and her classmates traveled passed through a diverse landscape. The group walked among dense forests, acres of fields, historical city streets and beautiful rolling hills.

The group hiked to this cross near Burgos, Spain, on their last day in Europe. The cross is a famous landmark for those making the pilgrimage, Walrath explained, and many carry a rock all the way to the cross from their origin as a representation of the burdens they carry. By leaving the rock at the base of the cross, they unburden themselves, physically and emotionally.

The cross was also where a Jewish friend, Izzy, left, pictured with Walrath, prayed to Jesus for the first time.

Within 10 days’ time this spring, 18-year-old Ashley Walrath took two walks that forever changed her life. 

The first, a thirty-yard stride across the Gainesville High School graduation stage, was made May 10 to receive her high school diploma. The other began May 20 when her boots hit the ground in France and she hiked a 178-mile portion of the Camino de Santiago, a journey that deeply moved her, as it has done for so many others before her. 

The Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of Saint James,” is a pilgrimage that can begin in many different places throughout Europe. No matter the origin of the journey, all named paths eventually lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where the remains of the Apostle St. James are said to lie. In Medieval times, pilgrims left from the front door of their homes, wherever they lived, walking however far it was to get to the cathedral. In modern days, more than 200,000 people from all over the world make the pilgrimage each year. 

Journeying closer to God 

Walrath, who now attends Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, was one of eight students, accompanied by a professor, who participated in the Camino de Santiago trip offered by SBU’s Center for Global Connections. The group began hiking in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and continued 288 kilometers (178 miles) to Burgos, Spain. The path traveled by the group constitutes approximately 60 percent of the full 500-mile Camino Frances path. 

“I definitely would like to finish the Camino,” Walrath told the Times. Continuing the path would take her from Burgos, Spain, where she left off, to the famed cathedral in Galicia. 

Although Walrath’s trip did not take her all the way  to the cathedral that is traditionally considered the goal of the Camino walk, she says her journey was still one of spiritual, personal and emotional enlightenment. 

“It has definitely changed me,” she said. “Being exposed to so many cultures, so many different people… it’s all very humbling.” 

Walrath says her 15-day walk was filled with other students who became like family and scenery that was, at times, breathtaking. It also gave her time and space away from everyday life to become closer to God and to her thoughts and her own heart. 


No walk in the park

The scenery was beautiful, the conversations meaningful and the path deeply moving, but Walrath says the trek was no walk in the park.

“We woke up between 4 and 5:30 each morning, depending on how hot it was going to be,” she said, explaining that the group tried to leave earlier on hotter days so they could complete their trek before temperatures got too high. “Then we hiked somewhere between 10 and 20 miles a day. We usually ended up at about 13 or 14 [miles in a day].”

Some of her most difficult moments came on her first day of hiking. Hot, tired and with blistered feet, she trudged up the Pyrenees Mountains in France. 

“My faith grew a lot. I sincerely prayed for God to move the mountains so I could stop going up,” she laughed. “We all trusted in God to get us through the day. I think we all came closer to Him.”

It was that faith and trust in something bigger than herself that kept her feet moving, even when they were tired and hurting. With perseverance, each day became a little easier, and the journey became more enjoyable. 

Walrath said the group stayed overnight inalbergues, hostel-type sleeping structures that cater to pilgrims walking the Camino.  

“Usually [it had] bunk beds in a big room or a couple of rooms,” she said. “There was one albergue we stayed at where it was just 1- to 2-inch thick mats on the floor.”

The albergues usually included kitchens where the pilgrims prepared meals, and dining areas where they came together to cook and dine in the evenings. 

They would wake up before dawn each day and eat a little breakfast, “usually croissants with Nutella and bananas and yogurt… Or, some albergues provided toast with jelly in the mornings,” she said. 

After getting a little morning fuel, they would walk. Their path brought them through fields, forested areas, city centers and picturesque villages. 

“We met people and walked and talked with them. I stopped to take photos when I wanted and then kept going,” Walrath said. “For lunch, we would wait until we got to the town we were staying at and get sliced meat and bread to make sandwiches.”

After the short lunch break, they would continue their journey to the next albergue. 

Walrath said she loved being in France and Spain, but there were things about Europe that she had to get used to. 

“Having to rely on hand motions, because you are in a store where the owner doesn’t speak English… and having lights that only stay on for a certain amount of time then automatically shut off made restroom experiences interesting,” she said, laughing again. When asked what the most surprising part of her journey was, she said many surprising things happened on her trip, but “maybe finding out I ate horse meat was the most surprising.”

Another surprise came when a burglar  entered their albergue one night and robbed the group of some of their possessions. 


Back home with a new outlook

The experience included a lot of lighthearted talk and fun, but Walrath says the most vibrant memories of her trip are ones that were felt deep in the students’ hearts. The memory that stands out as the most important involves a 20-year-old pilgrim named Izzy whom the SBU group encountered soon after starting their journey.

“She came from a Jewish family. She never knew the idea of having a relationship with God,” Walrath said. “She continued walking with us, and she was asking questions about beliefs and faith and everything. She spoke with each person on my team. She stayed at the same alburges we were, and she became part of our team.” 

Izzy continued to hike with the group throughout the rest of France and into Spain. After nearly two weeks of hiking together, they were approaching their final destination in Burgos. The team had grown quite close with the girl. On the last day of hiking – a dreary, stormy day – the SBU group and Izzy neared a giant cross. 

“There were bunch of stones at the base of it,” Walrath said. “The story goes that you take a rock from home, and you carry it with you on the Camino until you come to the cross. Then you set the rock, that represents a burden in your life, down at the cross, and you leave it there.”

Just as the team got to the top of the hill to see the cross up close, the rain stopped, the clouds parted and beams of sunlight flooded the area. 

“We went up to the cross a few at a time, praying and thinking. It was powerful,” Walrath said. “When we were all finished, we heard Izzy talking to one of the girls on the team… she walks over and tells the rest of us that she just prayed to Jesus for the first time.”

The group celebrated with Izzy, laughing and hugging the girl. Then the team came together in a huddle, and Izzy led a prayer. 

“She thanked God for bringing us all together and for the journey… If we weren’t already crying because of our own experiences and talking with God at such a special place, then we were because of Izzy! It was such a wonderful moment. I’ll never forget it.”

It was an emotional ending to a soul-searching trip. The team parted from Izzy, and she continued on, walking on toward the final destination, the famed cathedral on the coast of Spain. 

Walrath and her SBU classmates returned home to the USA,  but they all walk into their futures with the spirit of the Camino still in their hearts. 

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