Walking El Camino Real

Walking El Camino Real - many travel California's historic mission route, but by motor vehicle. We found four pilgrims who have walked part of this trail and interview one of them to find out more about this journey.

Walking El Camino Real group photo

The Walking El Camino Real group: (L-R) Martha Lopez, Ben Lopez, Lin Galea and Jean McCoy.

For those unfamiliar with it, the El Camino Real (the Royal Road) and sometimes called the California Mission Trail, is the nearly 700 mile route which connects the 21 Spanish missions from Mission San Diego in the south to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma in the north.

It was first trod by the Franciscan missionaries, especially Fr. Junipero Serra, other explorers and later settlers to the area.

This summer we became aware of a group of walkers who have undertaken to walk the entire El Camino Real. Curious to find out more about this endeavor, I contacted Lin Galea, one of the walkers who graciously granted me the following interview:

Please tell us a bit about yourself, and your walking companions.

How did you meet each other?

Lin: There were four of us: Martha Lopez, her brother Ben Lopez and a friend from Nevada, Jean McCoy . We have all walked the Camino de Santiago (in Spain) multiple times and all of us have served as volunteer hospitaleros in the refugios in Spain. In addition, last year Martha and I, along with two other Camino friends, walked the via Francigena, an old pilgrims route, from Canterbury to Rome.

Besides raising two boys, I did a variety of things: secretary in various departments at the UC School of Medicine at San Francisco (County Hospital), proprietress of a childrens shop called Kidstuff; real estate for some years, and for the ten years prior to retirement my husband and I were resident managers of a beautiful, highrise condominium association on Russian Hill in San Francisco.

We are now back in our home in the Noe Valley neighborhood in San Francisco where, when I'm not off on a walk somewhere or doting on my 8 year old grandson or our 17 year old dog, I'm joyfully plotting the next bed in my vegetable garden.

Walking the El Camino Real near Burlingame

Walking El Camino Real - Burlingame

How did this walk come about?

Lin: I had been thinking about this walk for some years. After recovering from our four-month long walk in Europe, I happened to mentioned it to Martha. She and her brother jumped at it. We are not wilderness walkers. We would like to have the experience one has in Europe of walking from village to village. Although the route is not there yet, and the distances between towns are greater here than in Europe, we hope that by the example of our walking, it will inspire others so that one day there will be a continuous, safe, interesting, walk all the way between the 21 missions.

How did you choose your route?

Lin: We tried to find ways that are pleasant, safe and as close as possible to the original routes between the missions. Due to traffic congestion and sprawl, it is a challenge.

One of the El Camino Real marker bells in Los Gatos

Walking El Camino Real - under a marker bell in Los Gatos

How far did you walk each day?

Lin: We walk 10 to 20 miles per day, depending on the circumstances. Ideally, we would like to have arrangements similar to what exists along the Camino in Spain where there are places to stay at convenient intervals. Unfortunately, that does not yet exist along the Mission trail. At present, unless you really rough it and carry a tent, stove, etc, it is sometimes necessary to get a lift to the end-of-the day’s stop.

What was the best part of the trip?

Lin: For me, it was the parts that were close to nature: the walk from Marina to Carmel, later, along River Road with the fields on one side and vines on the other; and walking to Mission San Antonio and from there to Mission San Miguel.

Walking the El Camino Real near Marina

Walking El Camino Real - Monterey walking trail near Marina

What was the worst part of your trip?

Lin: Bear Creek Road, a short but treacherous three mile, steep, winding, busy narrow stretch of road between Lexington Dam and Summit Road, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Also the route between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo.

How did people react to you?

Lin: When people hear that we are walking between the Missions, they are surprised and even disbelieving. They often ask us why we are doing it. But after thinking about it, they become interested and ask how they can be involved.

A secluded pathway somewhere along the El Camino Real

Walking El Camino Real - a green trail

What kind of hospitality did you receive?

Lin: It depends on the circumstances. When staying at motels and other public places, it’s normal. However, when we stay at the Missions, the priests and staff are very welcoming and very enthusiastic. We had really warm welcomes from both Joan, the administrator at Mission San Antonio, and Father Larry at San Miguel.

What sort of things did you have to carry?

Lin: When we are walking without car back-up, we carry everything in a backpack including a tent and sleeping bag plus water and food for the day. More frequently, we stay at places that do not require camping.

JoanMcCoy at the Mission San Jose

Walking El Camino Real - Jean McCoy at Mission San Jose

What did you eat along the way?

Lin: We managed to find great food all along the way. It helped that we were walking with folks who knew the area and knew where to find good, reasonable food.

Do you have to be young to do this walk?

Lin: I don’t think so. Just young at heart. We are all senior citizens.

What is the purpose of a pilgrimage? And why make a pilgrimage?

Lin: It is personal and different for each participant.

Pilgrimage gives a sense of purpose to the walk. It can be religious or spiritual or for other personal reasons. The missions create a focus and an opportunity to reflect on the history of our state, the efforts of the missionaries, and the sacrifices that were made by the native Americans. For me, it is all of these things plus the opportunity to be close to nature.

Walking the El Camino Real somewhere near San Luis Obispo

Walking El Camino Real - Ben somewhere near San Luis Obispo

What are the similarities between the Camino in Spain and here in California? Differences?

Lin: The similarities pertain to the idea of a walking route. While the mission walk can be done going north or south, the Camino in Spain is unidirectional, with the objective to reach Santiago de Compostela. Those who walk it for religious reasons, receive a benefit for their effort. All who walk the Camino for at least 100 km receive the Compostela – the certificate of completion. Also, it is a much older route and has acquired hundreds of years of culture, myths, stories, and history. In addition, large parts of the route in Spain are very unpopulated and/or very rural. It is not uncommon to see sights such as old women in black walking cows along cobble stone paths and other everyday farm activities that we don’t normally see here. Basically, the walk in California is in early days of being rediscovered and feels very much like it is in a state of infancy, certainly with its own history, but not yet a walking history. In contrast, along the Camino, there are places and/or people that one encounters that are legendary and mythic. This walk does not have that aspect yet. But it could.

The El Camino Real near Mission San Antonio

Walking El Camino Real - a rustic scene near Mission San Antonio

From what I’ve read, there seems to be a bond that’s established between the “peregrinos” who’ve walked the camino in Spain. Tell us about that if you would.

Lin: This is a big subject and could be the topic of one whole interview. People do have unique and profound experiences while on the Camino. It seems to stem from what one is working on in their life: perhaps a major life change, retirement, the end of schooling, overcoming an illness, the loss of a spouse or child, a disappointment. The majority of folks go on the Camino alone, and it may be the first time in their life they have undertaken doing something alone. The walking and the solitude are conducive to a spiritual opening and introspection. Plus, the generosity one finds along the way as well as the support of fellow pilgrims create a sense of things being different from normal. Personally, I think it is a combination of many things: what I have mentioned above, plus the simplicity of living out of a backpack with only the things you absolutely need, being in a very different element, including a foreign language, being separated from family and friends, the rhythm of walking and being in nature, the freedom from one’s normal routine, and, for some, it is a real physical struggle to accomplish the walking. The variety of experiences that one hears about are so unique that it is difficult to generalize them.

Walking the El Camino Real near Lake Nacimiento

Walking El Camino Real - Ben and Jean on the trail near Lake Nacimiento

What can people do to help establish the Camino trail here?

Lin: When I first walked the Camino (ed., in Spain), there were very few places to stay, but one could count on finding something at the end of each day – lodging and food. As the Camino gained in popularity, small villages, churches and towns began to realize that there were benefits to providing for the pilgrims. Now, there are all types of places available for pilgrims to stay. In California, the revival of the Mission Walk is in its infancy. When folks hear about it, their response is very positive. But for people who are not familiar with the experience of the Camino, it will take some educating as to what walkers need and what benefits there could be for communities along the route. In cities, people walking need reasonable lodging. Fortunately, in places like San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Monterey, there are good hostels. In many areas, however, there is no lodging available within a reasonable day’s walk or at a reasonable price. We are hoping that as the word spreads, missions or churches or other community groups will organize simple lodging. All of the members of our group have served as hosts in the hostels in Spain. We would be happy to help and or advise folks on how to set up and run a simple refuge. If anyone is interested, I would encourage and welcome them to contact me.

An example of a credencial or pilgrim's passport used on the Camino Santiago in Spain. It is stamped at hostels and other waypoints.

Walking El Camino Real - A "credencial" or pilgrim's passport used on the Camino de Santiago.

Is there a map of the best route?

Lin: There is one printed description of the route by Ron Briery ("California Mission Walk ~ A Hiker's Guide to California's 21 Missions Along El Camino Real" by Ron Briery now available. Ron is now sharing his experiences via an up-to-date guide with information about the route, the missions, and lodging options all along the way. Anyone who would like to purchase a copy ($15.00 including postage and handling) can contact Ron at: rdbriery@yahoo.com.)

There is an on-line map that is in progress by Stephanie Dodaro (link opens in new window) who walked the El Camino this spring.

I’ve been working at tweaking the areas that we have walked, but I would welcome any help from local folks in finding good, safe and pleasant routes. You can visit our Facebook site at Walking El Camino Real de California. (opens in new window).

A Pilgrim Credential produced by Walking the El Camino Real de California

The cover of the Pilgrim Credential that the walkers created for the purpose of documenting stops along the way

What are your future plans for walking or for promoting this route?

Lin: Good that you asked this question. I will be walking with a group of six starting starting October 12th, from Santa Clara. Some of us are hoping, time permitting, to make it as far as San Miguel. Then, next March, an expansion of our 2012 group will be resuming our walk at Mission San Luis Obispo, continuing on to Santa Barbara. In the meantime, I would be happy to talk to groups about the walk. In January, I should be ready to do slide show talks.

Can you recommend any other good sources of information?

Lin: The California Mission Studies Association is a very good resource for information on the the missions and that historical period.

Discover-Central-California would like to thank Lin Galea and the other walkers for their courage in undertaking the renewal of the El Camino Real as an hospitable walking trail and for this interview about Walking El Camino Real.

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Walking the El Camino Real group at Mission Soledad

Walking El Camino Real group at Mission Soledad in the Salinas Valley

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