By Mimi Pollack
In Spain, there is a famous pilgrimage, called El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a 450-mile walk. Many people have that walk on their bucket list. Here in San Diego, Maggie Espinosa has completed her own version of that peregrination by walking the 800-mile El Camino Real, up the California coast.
Espinosa was inspired by an article in Westways magazine about Ron Briery, a retired music teacher from Oregon, and decided to do the walk herself. She started at the Mission San Diego de Alcala and ended at the Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. She walked to all 21 California Missions and past all 550 mission bells.
Her journey began on Nov. 15, 2013, and ended a year later on Nov. 5 2014. She divided the 800-mile trek into 12 segments, walking approximately 80 miles a month, finishing this feat on her 54th birthday, with her veterinarian husband by her side.
She kept a journal that she wrote in every night while on the road. In it, she chronicled her thoughts and feelings, starting with a short entry the first day to a longer, more thoughtful one by the end. She then turned that journal into her new book, “On a Mission—An 800 Mile Walk to Discover California’s El Camino Real,” which was published this month.
Espinosa was not soul searching, nor is she an endurance athlete. However, she did want to find ways to make this walk not only a proud accomplishment, but also meaningful in her life. To that end, she invited family and friends to join her in the experience. Twenty-five people joined her at different times, including her dog groomer, Tami Dahl, who went twice, her nephews, a Franciscan friar, and an agnostic friend, who not surprisingly had a spiritual moment at the Santa Ines Mission in Solvang.
The walk itself proved to be glorious and difficult. She suffered from numerous blisters and it took her four attempts to find the right shoes. It was physically and mentally taxing. Many times El Camino Real was right on the 101, so she had to be hyper vigilant of passing cars, or find an alternative route close by. It could also be rewarding as she discovered the kindness of many strangers or enjoyed the gorgeous landscape and views that were peaceful and inspiring.
Espinosa’s peregrination also became a way to deal with unexpected tragedy, for it was during this year that her beloved father passed away. While on the walk, she was able to work through her grief and heal. However, her twelve-month walk became a ten-month walk as she had to fly back east for her father’s funeral.
One of the most moving moments in her book takes place in May 2014, ten weeks after her father’s passing. He was in her thoughts as she walked in the Monterey wine country, arriving at the Mission Nuestra Senora de Soledad. Her father was a cardiologist, and on one of the dirt paths, she found a little wooden heart. It was like a sign from her father and a lovely gift!
No doubt he would be proud of Espinosa, a travel writer, and her amazing accomplishment walking El Camino Real.
Mimi Pollack is an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Grossmont College and a freelance writer.