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Stellarton man walks 796-kilometre trail

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The longest, most arduous route of Spain’s legendary pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, is 796 kms long and Stellarton’s Kirby Coolen walked it every step of the way.

With orthotics in his hiking boots, a backpack containing a sleeping bag, three t-shirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks and two pairs of shorts as well as emergency cash, travel papers and a USB stick in a StashBelt, he arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the trail in the foothills of the Pyrenees’ mountain range.

“I decided to do it five years ago. I’d grown up in the United Church, reading, singing and preaching, so I was thinking in terms of a spiritual experience, a time to walk and think. I retired from Nova Scotia Community College in June and on Aug. 11, I flew to Spain,” said Coolen.

Painstaking in his research, Coolen joined the Canadian Company of Pilgrims, a non-denominational volunteer group that supports people who choose to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela or The Way of St. James the Apostle, who, according to legend, is buried in north-western Spain. In 2015, 260,000 pilgrims completed the Camino and while guidebooks suggest walkers try to cover 20 to 25 kms a day, Coolen’s plan was always to take more time.

“Many pilgrims are pushed for time, but I had no schedule and no budget. I gave myself two months for the experience and finished in seven weeks,” he said.

His first few days were spent walking with a friend who soon had to bow out because of health issues.

“Knowledge-wise, I was well prepared, but nothing prepared me for the steepness of the hills, the challenge of keeping going. The road varied from a good surface to gravel to grass and it got higher and higher, steeper and steeper. It was unbelievably hard and there were points where if a taxi had come by and offered me a drive, I’d have jumped in,” he said.

Gradually, though, Coolen acclimatized and found his pace.

“I was posting my progress on Facebook and friends and co-workers gave me tremendous encouragement. That’s something I hadn’t expected, but I became very grateful for the support.”

Each day when Coolen arrived at an albergue – a hostel specifically for pilgrims – he had his Canadian and his pilgrim passports stamped and found a bunk, a place to shower and, if he was lucky, a scrub board to wash his clothes and a clothesline.

“I usually started walking about 5:45 a.m. because Spain in August is very, very hot. I’d wear a headlamp in the early morning and about two hours later, I’d stop for breakfast and a café con leche if I could find a place along the trail.”

Every morning, he received an e-mail from his wife Rhea with a tune to start him on his way. It might be something Spanish, a hymn or their favourite, Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle. Sometimes he walked alone, but often he shared the walk with pilgrims from across Europe, Canada and the U.S.

“I met quite a few people I’m still in contact with. Sometimes we talked and sometimes we didn’t share a language. I learned to make it my walk and I enjoyed the company, but also the solitude.”

He dropped in to many churches along the route, including a couple of monasteries.

“I have a little Spanish and it improved along the way, but I felt very, very comfortable in the churches whether I understood what was going on or not.”

Several times he had to get medical aid for foot blisters and once he was hospitalized with a stomach virus.

“The medical system treated me well. After I was released from hospital, I checked into a hotel for a day to get my strength back and then I was back on the trail.”

At the five-week mark, Coolen was ready to come home.  

“I hadn’t gone there with the need to complete the trail. I had seen so much and met so many people that I felt I’d already gotten so much from the experience. I was Skyping with my family and was missing a second grandchild’s birthday and I wanted to go home.”  

That’s when he learned of the death of a friend, Kathy Skoke Fortin.

“I thought long and hard and decided I would finish the walk for her so I went back out for another two weeks.”

To Coolen’s chagrin, the first torturous mountains were not the last and he, with an abiding fear of heights, was confronted with all manner of bridges.

“Twice pilgrims helped me across bridges and once a farmer showed me a way around a rope catwalk bridge, but I was alone outside Santiago when I came to my last bridge. I didn’t conquer my fear of heights but I got across it.”

He arrived at the end of the trail alone, walking quietly into Santiago, then lining up for hours to get his credentials – one certificate indicating he had completed the trail and another verifying he had walked every step. He also joined 1,000 pilgrims and parishioners at a Mass in a Santiago cathedral.

“For me, the celebration was more the next day when I went to meet friends who I had walked with earlier as they walked into in Santiago.”

Coolen is in the process of culling his 1,300 photos of Roman bridges, jousting fields, religious parades, olive groves, albergues, roadside snack bars, churches, wine-making and friends met along the Camino.

“This trip is going to stay with me a long time. Every morning when I take the dog out for a walk, I’m reliving being back on the trail. I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for, but it was an amazing experience.”

 

Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at r.maceachern@ns.sympatico.ca.

With orthotics in his hiking boots, a backpack containing a sleeping bag, three t-shirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks and two pairs of shorts as well as emergency cash, travel papers and a USB stick in a StashBelt, he arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the trail in the foothills of the Pyrenees’ mountain range.

“I decided to do it five years ago. I’d grown up in the United Church, reading, singing and preaching, so I was thinking in terms of a spiritual experience, a time to walk and think. I retired from Nova Scotia Community College in June and on Aug. 11, I flew to Spain,” said Coolen.

Painstaking in his research, Coolen joined the Canadian Company of Pilgrims, a non-denominational volunteer group that supports people who choose to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela or The Way of St. James the Apostle, who, according to legend, is buried in north-western Spain. In 2015, 260,000 pilgrims completed the Camino and while guidebooks suggest walkers try to cover 20 to 25 kms a day, Coolen’s plan was always to take more time.

“Many pilgrims are pushed for time, but I had no schedule and no budget. I gave myself two months for the experience and finished in seven weeks,” he said.

His first few days were spent walking with a friend who soon had to bow out because of health issues.

“Knowledge-wise, I was well prepared, but nothing prepared me for the steepness of the hills, the challenge of keeping going. The road varied from a good surface to gravel to grass and it got higher and higher, steeper and steeper. It was unbelievably hard and there were points where if a taxi had come by and offered me a drive, I’d have jumped in,” he said.

Gradually, though, Coolen acclimatized and found his pace.

“I was posting my progress on Facebook and friends and co-workers gave me tremendous encouragement. That’s something I hadn’t expected, but I became very grateful for the support.”

Each day when Coolen arrived at an albergue – a hostel specifically for pilgrims – he had his Canadian and his pilgrim passports stamped and found a bunk, a place to shower and, if he was lucky, a scrub board to wash his clothes and a clothesline.

“I usually started walking about 5:45 a.m. because Spain in August is very, very hot. I’d wear a headlamp in the early morning and about two hours later, I’d stop for breakfast and a café con leche if I could find a place along the trail.”

Every morning, he received an e-mail from his wife Rhea with a tune to start him on his way. It might be something Spanish, a hymn or their favourite, Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle. Sometimes he walked alone, but often he shared the walk with pilgrims from across Europe, Canada and the U.S.

“I met quite a few people I’m still in contact with. Sometimes we talked and sometimes we didn’t share a language. I learned to make it my walk and I enjoyed the company, but also the solitude.”

He dropped in to many churches along the route, including a couple of monasteries.

“I have a little Spanish and it improved along the way, but I felt very, very comfortable in the churches whether I understood what was going on or not.”

Several times he had to get medical aid for foot blisters and once he was hospitalized with a stomach virus.

“The medical system treated me well. After I was released from hospital, I checked into a hotel for a day to get my strength back and then I was back on the trail.”

At the five-week mark, Coolen was ready to come home.  

“I hadn’t gone there with the need to complete the trail. I had seen so much and met so many people that I felt I’d already gotten so much from the experience. I was Skyping with my family and was missing a second grandchild’s birthday and I wanted to go home.”  

That’s when he learned of the death of a friend, Kathy Skoke Fortin.

“I thought long and hard and decided I would finish the walk for her so I went back out for another two weeks.”

To Coolen’s chagrin, the first torturous mountains were not the last and he, with an abiding fear of heights, was confronted with all manner of bridges.

“Twice pilgrims helped me across bridges and once a farmer showed me a way around a rope catwalk bridge, but I was alone outside Santiago when I came to my last bridge. I didn’t conquer my fear of heights but I got across it.”

He arrived at the end of the trail alone, walking quietly into Santiago, then lining up for hours to get his credentials – one certificate indicating he had completed the trail and another verifying he had walked every step. He also joined 1,000 pilgrims and parishioners at a Mass in a Santiago cathedral.

“For me, the celebration was more the next day when I went to meet friends who I had walked with earlier as they walked into in Santiago.”

Coolen is in the process of culling his 1,300 photos of Roman bridges, jousting fields, religious parades, olive groves, albergues, roadside snack bars, churches, wine-making and friends met along the Camino.

“This trip is going to stay with me a long time. Every morning when I take the dog out for a walk, I’m reliving being back on the trail. I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for, but it was an amazing experience.”

 

Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at r.maceachern@ns.sympatico.ca.

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