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Halifax County Couple Walks 500 Miles, Gets Engaged

For local Halifax County residents Lee Sandstead and Rebecca Raab, this was their summer.  They just walked 500 miles in 28 days—and got engaged.

“This wasn’t the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” said Sandstead, “but it was pretty near close.  And that’s the engagement!” he added with a laugh.

Sandstead and Raab walked along the ancient European pilgrimage route known as the Way of Saint James. 

Starting around the time of Charlemagne, the Way was and continues to be a series of pilgrimage routes extending across Europe and ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain where the bones of St. James the Apostle are rumored to be interred.  Today, the most popular part of the route is the last 500 miles. 

Starting in the Pyrenees in Southern France and ending in Santiago, this last stretch extends the entire length of Northern Spain.

“In its heyday,” said Raab, “the Way--or the Camino de Santiago as it is known to Europeans--had nearly one-million pilgrims per year seeking salvation in the bones of St. James.”

Today, those numbers barely top 100,000 pilgrims per year walking at least the last 60 miles into Santiago, which the Catholic Church says is the bare-minimum requirement to have sins forgiven and time in purgatory either dramatically reduced or completely forgiven.

“But one cannot think of the Way as religious to our modern society,” Raab added.  “Today, the majority of people we met were simply on vacation—the most unique, challenging and rewarding vacation they will ever take!”

And what does the modern-day pilgrim do along the Way?

“We walk,” said Sandstead.  “Everyone has different expectations of what the Way is going to be.  Some think it is a 500-mile sightseeing tour of dramatic landscapes, Romanesque chapels and Gothic cathedrals. 

Others think it is a 500-mile coffee crawl from café to café, or a great way to eat all you want and still lose weight, or a deeply-religious journey.  In a sense, all of these are right, but the one element that is always there is walking.

And oh do you walk!”

Both Sandstead and Raab averaged 18 miles per day of walking in full packs, and both remained largely uninjured.  Each attributes this to their conditioning in Halifax County before leaving.

“Our conditioning for our pilgrimage was one of the most beautiful aspects of our entire trip,” said Sandstead. “Not only did we prepare ourselves for Spain, but we learned to see the beauty of Halifax County in its simplest of details; details we miss by driving.  For instance, we once walked 16 miles from South Boston to Gatrell’s Cowboy Up in Virgilina for a great lunch.  We walked roads that neither of us have ever driven and saw farms, houses and churches that we never would have seen unless we walked.”

Sandstead recorded the trip through Spain in both photography and through his journal.

“By the end of the day, we were all so exhausted that the few pilgrims who kept journals only scribbled a smattering of sentences here and there,” said Sandstead.

Here is an example of one of his longest entries:

Day 3: Raced from Larrasoaña to Cizur Menor. Said we would never race others like this. Yet did anyway.
Left in the dark of the morning.  First pilgrims to arrive at destination.  Beat the French.  Sat in the tiny Templar church dedicated to St. John and thought about life.  Took as many pictures as I could. Love photography more than ever.  Cold as ever up here. Rebecca and I have worked into our routines of getting to our destination; showering, then washing clothes, then lots of food.  Pamplona interesting to see how other city cultures live.  Parks closed and gearing up for summer season. In June, it still seems to be their early spring up here.  Everyone is freezing.

Rebecca gives her toe socks to a hurt pilgrim; she is an angel.

When Sandstead and Raab arrived in the city of Santiago de Compostela—their ending point—they knew they would continue to the coastal town Finisterra, extending their 28-days of walking another three and adding another 50 miles to their 500. 

Until 1492, Finisterra was considered by the West to be “the end of the earth.”  Romans would vacation near this small town, and many legionnaires retired here believing it was where the material world met the spiritual. 

In medieval times, Finisterra became important to the Way, because it was where pilgrims ritually bathed and prepared themselves for the return pilgrimage home.

What’s next for these two?  They are planning a June 2011 wedding on the Banister River.  For their honeymoon, they will spend a few days to themselves, and then walk the section of the Way that starts in southern Portugal and ends in Santiago, Spain.

“Many people congratulated us on a ‘trip of a lifetime,’” said Raab.  “But we loved this Camino so much—and met such great life-long friends—that we want to do some section of the pilgrimage every year for the rest of our lives.  And we sincerely hope that friends and family will make this trek to experience the Camino with us.”

Using his own photography and journal entries, Sandstead will be delivering a new talk on the Way of St. James to the Convergence Art Guild.  Details to be announced shortly.  The soon-to-be Mrs. Lee Sandstead will participate in the Q&A.