Russell and Jenny Loughmiller wanted to spend some time in another country with their four kids, but they didn’t want just another 10-day European trip.
They also felt their family needed a strong bonding experience, and from those two desires came a remarkable adventure: a 45-day, 550-mile hike along the Camino de Santiago, a famous religious pilgrimage in Spain.
It was an investment in their children, ages seven to 15; “a way to kind of give them an experience that was always in their back pocket,” Jenny said. “We’re just glad they’re still speaking to us at the end.”
The investment paid off. They came home from the late springtime sojourn a changed family. “I would say all of our edges have softened quite a bit toward each other,” she said.
Camino de Santiago in English is “The Way of St. James.” There are many Caminos across Europe, all of which end in Santiago, Spain, where legend has it that the remains of the Apostle St. James are held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Loughmillers hiked the Camino Francés, the most famous path.
Jenny and Russell, who own Muirhead Cannery in The Dalles, scrimped and saved for nearly three years, accumulating gear as it went on sale. Each family member brought just two sets of clothing, walking shoes, a pair of sandals, and a blanket. A microfiber washcloth served as their towel.
Both Jenny and Russell find it hard to sit back and relax. “I don’t feel like we’re tightly wound,” she said, “but we just feel a compulsion to feel like our day is meaningful.”
The Camino offered that meaning.
They walked 13-20 miles a day, starting April 10 and finishing on May 22. Day one, hiking through the Pyrenees, was much harder than expected: “Very, very, very steep,” rainy, cold, and muddy. They were jetlagged to boot.
It got better, but the route was steady hills, with just one five-day flat stretch called the meseta, which means plateau.
“It was also absolutely gorgeous. It was beautiful,” she said of their path through northern Spain. They discovered that walking on dirt is much easier than walking on concrete, the latter of which “felt like we were putting our bodies through a shredder.”
Luckily, most of it was dirt.
Even so, the family variously struggled with plantar fasciitis, hip pain, knee pain that brought tears, blisters and tendonitis, and one episode of heat exhaustion. They ate Ibuprofen “like candy.”
They had a good-sized medical kit, with everything from anti-diarrheal to antihistamine, but mostly they used blister care.
“But overall, it was pretty good,” she said. In fact, it was only once she stopped walking that her body “seized up” with “major muscle tightness” and lower back pain. “I was like, ‘Dang, I want to keep walking because this is worse than the pain I had when I was walking.’”
It took her a month to heal.
On the Camino they lived as frugally as possible, only eating at restaurants a couple of times. Otherwise it was buying cheap food at a local store and staying the night at hostels, called albergues.
Sometimes the albergues were full and they had to keep walking.
Son Rhett, 10, recounted one such day. It was a long, 20-mile day. “I was so disappointed when there wasn’t room in the albergues, and we had to walk a lot farther and through hail and lightning to find a place to stay,” he said.
Russell’s low point was the day he got them lost in Pamplona. “I knew my family was suffering after a long day of walking, and our extra 4 kilometers of wandering on really sore legs and feet was my fault. But, it was also a great day because of the kindness of strangers who helped us find our way and cared for us when we finally arrived at our albergue.”
His highlight was “spending a few hours on my birthday wandering around Logroño with Jenny. We tried a lot of different food, and it was all so, so good. Then stumbling upon the Holy Week parade on our way back was really amazing—the crowds and drums and festive energy were unforgettable.”
A highlight for daughter Anna, age 13, was “Visiting the candy shop in León because it was so cheap. Candy is a very good thing when you’re walking all day. Except I didn’t eat it when we were walking because we took a break that day and spent it lounging on the couch at our Airbnb and watching cartoons in Spanish.”
They started their journey in France, where everyone got a scalloped shell, the symbol of St. James. They tied them to their backpacks.
Jenny has her shell hanging in her art studio now. “The kids, I think theirs are all in their rooms, I’m assuming—I try not to go in there too much.”
They also got a “credencial,” or passport, at the beginning of their trip. They got it stamped at every albergue, and once they presented their filled-out credencial at Santiago, they received their compostela, a document certifying they’ve completed the Camino.
Jenny found Santiago itself a bit of a letdown, crowded and disorienting. They continued several days past Santiago to the beach town of Finisterre, which means end of the earth.
While it is historically a religious pilgrimage, Jenny was surprised to find there wasn’t much of a religious feel to the Camino. “When we were there most of the churches were closed.”
One evening about three months before their trip, Jenny and Russell realized they didn’t have enough money for food and lodging. Their expensive plane tickets were paid for, so they were locked into the trip. She woke up later that night and sat bolt upright in bed with an inspiration: she could create and sell her own artwork.
She’d already done her Hundred Hearts Project, in which she painted 100 hearts to honor women she was grateful for (www.hundredheartsproject.org). She did the math and realized that if she started that day, and sold a painting a day, for the next 100 days at $35 each, she’d make enough to pay for food and lodging.
She created a Facebook page, “Jenny Loughmiller’s Painting a Day for the Camino,” and invited friends to join. She began posting her creations, and put them up for grabs at 7 p.m. each night. Every painting sold, usually within 30 seconds.
She brought her watercolors along on the Camino, and discovered she’s not one for capturing the beautiful landscape, but rather the mundane objects, such as clothespins, that she was grateful for or found interesting.
She posted daily to the group as their trip unfolded. “So what started as this family trip kind of ended up with 200 people who went on the trip with us and funded the trip, and I got to write and post to everybody: ‘This is what you’ve done. You’ve made this happen.’”
“It turned into this amazing community experience and made the whole thing 1,000 times better than if we could’ve afforded it ourselves.”
The kids constantly swung between loving and hating the Camino. “They never flat out refused to walk,” Jenny said. They’d gripe, but then “get on with it. They were so amazing, they were a delight to walk with.”
That’s not to say there weren’t moments. In one post toward the end, she worried her kids “might mutiny.” Or sometimes someone would ask to stop, “And I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve been walking for 10 minutes!’”
The three younger kids, Rita, 7, Anna, and Rhett, attend a small private school and were able to work ahead to finish their studies. Oldest son Grant, 15, then a freshman at The Dalles High School, basically took the third trimester off. They worked with counselors even before school started to ensure he wouldn’t be behind.
He was given PE credit for walking 500 miles. “We had to fight a little bit for it, which I thought was hilarious, but whatever. But they ended up being really gracious with it.”
Jenny wasn’t prepared for how difficult resuming their normal lives was. On the Camino, “our days were so satisfying. They felt so meaningful. It was really incredible how slowing things way down to a walking pace was a much richer life than speeding up and driving at highway pace. You just can’t compare the two. They’re not even the same animal.”
Having been so deep into a simple routine of walking, eating and sleeping, she felt so content. “For the first time that I can remember in my life I could rest without guilt, I could just be fully present in the conversation. I wasn’t thinking about all the things I need to do.”
Once she got home, she started grinding her teeth again, “which I hadn’t realized I had quit doing until I started doing it again.”
She could feel the stress coming on. “Just sinking through the maintenance of our life we have here was way more stressful than I realized after being stress-free for so long.”
It led to a purge of household stuff, including a bunch of dishes. Now each family member has their own set of dishes, which they are responsible for cleaning. “So if they want to leave the oatmeal to harden to concrete in their bowl, they can, it just means they have to scrub it when they want soup.”
She said, “There’s a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, but they’re not mine.”
As they planned their trip, they questioned whether it was a wise investment of money. “It almost felt irresponsible in some ways,” she said. “But actually, we’re never going to get this time with our children back. Our oldest is just three years away from being gone, and then it’s just a domino effect and then they’ll all be gone. It was a now-or-never thing.”
A few people questioned their decision, saying “boy it must be nice to head off on a European vacation.” But “we never once thought about it as a vacation; it was this experience. I don’t want to say it was a hardship, but it definitely was not a beach vacation.”
As for the lessons they learned on the Camino, Russell said, “In order to get somewhere you have to get up every morning and start walking. I’ve reflected back on this lesson many times since returning.”
Rita found fewer people in Spain with earphones in or being on their phones. “I liked that — it was easy to be friends with a lot of people.”
Rhett learned that “There is so much stuff that you don’t need. When we came home, I felt like we had so much stuff. We had so little stuff when we were walking, but we had everything that we needed. It’s nice to have some of the stuff at home, but you don’t actually need it.”
And for Anna, the Camino was a giant infusion of confidence. “Now that the Camino is off the checklist, there is not much left that I feel I can’t do.”