It’s a common scenario across America every spring. High school seniors take time in their busy lives to fit in that necessary period of forced contemplation and rest for… wisdom tooth extraction. Miles Pitman of Coppell, Texas found himself in exactly this position (horizontal) in the spring of 2012, watching movies at home during the mandatory oral-surgery recovery period. While watching reruns of old TV programs might have been an option, Miles chose to watch a movie his dad, Tolbert, had just watched: The Way. This recent movie brings to life the story of a father who walks the Camino de Santiago de Compostela across Spain as a means of making peace with his estranged son—a young man who had died while walking the same historic pilgrimage route. It’s very moving and very lovely. And, yes, it makes you want to put on your hiking shoes and head for Spain.
With graduation on the horizon, and friends envisioning gifts like cars and computers, Miles chose differently: he wanted the gift of pilgrimage. He set his sights on walking the ancient route of Christian pilgrims to the Cathedral in Santiago: the Camino—The Way of St. James. (Since the middle ages, the legend has been held that St. James’ remains were brought by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain and buried on the site of what is today the city of Santiago de Compostela.) Miles’ mother wisely suggested that Miles and his father might consider walking this route together. Two months later, mid-summer in 2012, and with minimal preparation, father and son were lacing up their boots and heading off across Spain—nervous, excited, and ready for the unknown.
The Pitman family lives near Dallas, Texas where Tolbert works as a freelance video editor. Miles’ mother is Catholic and the family’s two boys were raised Catholic. But it wasn’t until Miles began asking questions from his religious education class that Tolbert—raised Presbyterian—thought he had better join the RCIA program to get some answers. Now Catholic, he’s been on fire for the faith ever since.
Considering a religious pilgrimage at age 18 was not out of character for Miles. Says Tolbert: Miles has always seemed a bit on the mature and thoughtful side. He was active in a local YoungLife group more than in his local St. Ann’s youth group because of the small groups, prayer and intimacy of the program. Although Tolbert often plays bass for the St. Ann’s youth mass, Miles prefers more traditional liturgies.
After research and consideration, Miles had pin-pointed the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in Juneau as an ideal place to go to college following his high-school graduation; it was a small community, had lots of outdoor sports, and would be a big change from Texas. But choosing a new direction can be daunting, especially if you’re 18 and thinking about putting 2500 miles between yourself and your family home. It takes some soul-searching and prayer to sort out; in Miles’ case, it took 327 miles on foot across northern Spain.
The Pitmans knew their undertaking was significant. Not only was it a physical challenge, but the financial challenge would be a sacrifice for the entire family as well. Says Tolbert, “we couldn’t afford to go; but, we couldn’t afford not to go.” The chance to spend this time with his son as he considered and prayed about his future was an opportunity of a lifetime.
The most frequented route to the Cathedral in Santiago is the French route, traditionally starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France and running for nearly 500 miles (780 km) west to Santiago de Compostela and typically taking 4 – 6 weeks to walk, carrying only the bare essentials, and relying on local food sources and pilgrim hostels (albergues) along the way. With only 4 weeks set aside to complete their adventure, Miles and Tolbert opted out of the mountainous section that crosses the Pyrenees between the border of France and Spain, and began their pilgrimage in Pamplona, Spain.
It didn’t take many days of walking for Miles to realize that his heavy, mountaineering boots were not ideal Camino footwear. Both he and his father had the complications of blisters and painful feet, but Miles chose to view the pain in his feet as a small sacrifice he could make, and one that would help him slow his teenaged walking pace to better match that of his father’s. He didn’t consider a change of footwear.
The most experienced of pilgrims will say that everyone’s experience of the Camino de Santiago is different; for Miles and Tolbert, the experience quickly centered on their ability to surrender to the present—the present challenges, and the present community. The Pitmans had their share of dire situations along the Camino: painful and swollen legs, blisters, wounds, illness, emergency hospital visits, unplanned rerouting in search of ATMs. But in all these situations they found other pilgrims willing to step in to help in any way that they could, and to assist people they had never met before and were likely never to meet again. Said Tolbert, “I went on the pilgrimage as a father, but I ended up being the one who was taught.” His son time and again proved himself strong and capable, and ready for whatever his future might bring.
For Miles, an experience that could have ended his Camino was made bearable by the help of strangers. Battling illness and suffering from dehydration, Miles collapsed one evening at a hostel about 10 days into their walk. Tolbert needed to get Miles to a hospital, but communicating in Spanish was a problem. A group of Brazilian pilgrims staying in the same hostel thankfully stepped forward with their fluent Spanish and English, and one of them accompanied the Pitmans to the nearest hospital, translating with the medical team and helping Miles get the immediate attention he needed to recover and continue the pilgrimage. In the following weeks of the Camino, Miles and Tolbert never saw the Brazilians again. To Miles, they remain a miracle and an answered prayer.
Often along the Camino, pilgrims find they match paces with fellow pilgrim groups, and forge bonds of companionship along the way as they cross and re-cross paths, often overnighting at the same albergues. They become a tight-knit community. Stories are shared; supplies of moleskin, bandaids, and other essentials are shared. A community of many nationalities shares prayer and reflection. “We couldn’t understand each other when we spoke,” said Tolbert, “but we could when we prayed.”
Miles and Tolbert established a strong friendship with a family from Seattle, and shared the journey as well as the experience of finally—after 327 miles and 29 days on foot—walking into the city of Santiago and approaching the Cathedral together. The memory of these bonds of friendship, strengthened through hardship and shared prayer, are one of the lasting fruits of their pilgrimage.
So was Miles’ prayer answered? Did the pilgrimage bring clarity to his future direction? Miles said that he left Spain with a great peace and contentment with his decision to move to Juneau. And for Tolbert, the memory of spending this special—sacred—time of pilgrimage, prayer and transition with his son will be something he holds forever. The pilgrimage is never over, says Tolbert; the experience becomes a part of you.
This summer, after attending his freshman year at UAS, Miles Pitman is a river-rafting guide on the Mendenhall River in Juneau, and attends St. Paul the Apostle Church in Juneau. His well-worn mountaineering boots will definitely be at home here in Alaska.