By CHRIS FASOLINO Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Fields full of yellow sunflowers. Shepherds tending flocks. Lighthouses perched on lonely shores.
Those were some of the sights that Antonio Perez of Plattsburgh saw as he spent 35 days walking through Spain along a medieval pilgrimage road.
Perez, a school psychologist at Beekmantown Middle School and adjunct faculty instructor at SUNY Plattsburgh, made the journey this past summer.
He began in southern France, crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and continued across northern Spain to the city of Santiago.
The route that he took, known as El Camino de Santiago, has been traveled by religious pilgrims since the Middle Ages.
“People embark for religious, spiritual, cultural and personal reasons,” Perez said.
“One young man from France was trying to decide whether to continue in a relationship he had been in for 20 years.”
That pilgrim felt the walk would give him the chance to contemplate the matter and make the decision.
Another traveler was commemorating his fifth year of being drug-free.
Perez became aware of a sense of camaraderie among travelers, as they were hoping to finish the walk but sometimes had to stop for physical reasons.
Indeed, he himself found it to be a test of endurance at times — but that, he felt, was part of its appeal.
The most difficult part of the journey came as he tried to make his way through La Meseta. It was summer, and he faced “unbearable heat.”
La Meseta, he said, “is the driest, most barren section — very little water for miles. And it is without any sort of refuge from the heat.”
Temperatures reached 100 degrees. The sky above was a deep blue.
To make it through, some travelers would begin walking at 4 a.m. to try to avoid the heat of the sun.
The water Perez carried with him soon tasted like bathwater — it could provide liquid, but it was too warm to provide any sense of relief.
He had very little food, he was alone, and he did not know when he would reach the next village.
“There was nothing to do but to put one foot in front of the other.”
Paradoxically, Perez felt very calm in the situation — since there was nothing he could do about it except to continue walking, it seemed as if he had “no worries.”
‘EAT, SLEEP, WALK’
He made it through La Meseta but discovered that, in making such a journey, “the smallest things become the most difficult things.”
Perez developed blisters that temporarily prevented him from walking at all. His feet were treated for infection.
Even now, months later, he said, “my Achilles tendon still has not fully recovered.”
Despite the hardships, Perez enjoyed the simplicity of those days.
“Everything you own is on your back. Life is very simple. You eat, you sleep, you walk.”
At times, he was able to enjoy excellent food. The Spartan conditions of La Meseta were replaced by bountiful feasts at Santiago.
The city is known for its seafood, he said, and he enjoyed “huge plates of lobsters, shrimp, squid and octopus.”
The octopus was prepared with garlic and olive oil.
“Talk about gastronomic delights!”
‘TIME TO SELF-REFLECT’
Perez continued walking beyond Santiago, concluding his trek at Finisterre on the Atlantic coast.
As he approached the end of his long walk, he saw rolling hills and farmland and observed shepherds with staffs in their hands, watching their sheep.
Near the coast were cliff-side dwellings and small fishing villages.
At the edge of the Atlantic was the Finisterre lighthouse — a beacon for sailors at a place once known as “the ends of the Earth” for its location at the edge of the European continent.
Despite all the hardships and challenges, Perez valued the journey, in part because it gave him “time to walk, time to contemplate, time to self-reflect.”
In today’s fast-paced world, he fears, “we’ve lost sight of that.”