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Lander Students Conquer Arduous Pilgrimage Route in Europe

December 18, 2015

El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is a network of pilgrimage routes, winding across Europe, leading to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, whose cathedral is the burial place of the apostle St. James.

In the Middle Ages, Santiago was one of the top three Christian destinations behind Rome and Jerusalem, as millions of pilgrims, prompted by religious faith, hiked hundreds of miles on the Camino to reach the cathedral.

According to American Pilgrims on the Camino, pilgrimages reached their peak in the Middle Ages then tapered off, but in the mid-1980s, there was a resurgence of interest. In 2014, the Camino drew over 200,000 hikers. It is a religious experience for many while others do it to challenge their physical and mental endurance.

Lander University Spanish professor Dr. Carlos Mentley has left his footprints on the Camino. The director of Lander’s Study Abroad program, Mentley is a recognized pilgrimage expert and former board chair of the American pilgrims organization, and he has hiked the Camino 15 times since 2003. On several occasions, students from Lander and Erskine College accompanied him.

In May of this year, he and five students in Lander’s Honors College stepped off on an odyssey on a Camino trail, beginning in west central Spain, crossing into northern Portugal and merging with one of the busier and more popular routes leading to Santiago. In fact, they walked 75 miles beyond Santiago to the coast. Why the extra distance? Mentley explained, “The road doesn’t end until there’s no more road, and the road ends at the ocean.”

In preparing students for the trip, Mentley told them, “Like all good pilgrims, we will live out of our backpacks. Everything that we need we will carry, but no tents, no pots and pans.” He said the group slept each night in hostels called albergues or in inexpensive small hotels that offer accommodations specifically for Camino pilgrims.

The five students who accompanied Mentley were: Jennifer Vassy, a senior biology major from Gaffney; Ettele Toole, of Evans, Ga., a senior majoring in political science; Kenneil Mitchell, of Columbia, a senior mass communication major; and junior Michael Austin Norryce, of Abbeville, a computer information systems major. The fifth student, Stephen Sanders, of Greenwood, graduated this year with a degree in English. The Camino experience satisfied the Honors College’s break away requirement.

Before heading overseas, the students engaged in exercise routines, including hiking, to prepare themselves physically for what awaited them. They encountered a challenge almost immediately after arriving in Spain: a heat wave that drove temperatures into the upper 90s. For four grueling days, they lumbered on in oppressive heat. Later, they stopped for a couple of days early to rest and recover from blisters and a variety of aches and pains, but Mentley said the students toughed it out. “They never complained. I could not have asked for a better group to walk with.”

Jennifer Vassy said the first few days took a toll on her physically and mentally. “My feet ached and my body hurt, and I questioned if I could finish the walk.” But she pushed herself and discovered the strength to go on. Vassy said the group built meaningful relationships with other hikers they met. “They became like family,” she said.

It was purely adventure that attracted Michael Norryce but, soon after starting out, it became a spiritual experience. He said, “I found God on the Camino and with that came peace of mind.” He added, “I felt God while I walked each day, and He became a reassuring factor that let me know I was going to be okay.” Norryce said he would cherish the experience for the rest of his life.

For Kenneil Mitchell, the trip was a chance for a spiritual awakening after the death of his grandfather. “I walked for him and felt his presence in my heart.” He said the Camino was a test of his patience and will to finish, and finish he did. Mitchell was one of the few Blacks on the pilgrimage. He said he expected Camino hikers to focus on the person rather than a person’s color, and he wasn’t disappointed. He described the pilgrimage as “my biggest triumph.”

In October, Mentley and the students attended the international Symposium on Pilgrimage Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and participated in a discussion titled “Doing Pilgrimage Studies: From the Classroom to the Camino and Back.”

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Lander University students prepare to step off on their 500-mile hike on El Camino de Santiago. From left, standing, Stephen Sanders, of Greenwood; Ettele Toole, of Evans, Ga.; and Jennifer Vassy, of Gaffney. Kneeling: Michael Norryce, of Abbeville, left, and Kenneil Mitchell, of Columbia.

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Lander Professor of Spanish Dr. Carlos Mentley, a pilgrimage and Camino expert, escorted the Lander students on their journey.