Last month, Rita Silen (’74) took a long walk.
Silen hiked the Camino de Santiago, a traditional pilgrimage route across northern Spain. She covered the final 100 miles of the 500-mile path, traveling through rolling farmland, villages, and urban areas before receiving a Compostela (pilgrim’s certificate) at the Cathedral of Santiago.
While the Camino—which translates as “the Way”—dates back to medieval times, it has undergone an increase in popularity recently, drawing thousands of people every year. Some still undertake it as a purely religious discipline, while others are drawn to different spiritual, emotional, or physical challenges. “No two people embrace the same Camino experience,” Silen says.
For Silen, the Camino was a time of reflection and connection: “For the majority of my Camino, I walked alone, thinking, planning, examining, expressing gratitude. Alone, I was able to welcome anyone who wanted to strike up a conversation, which was common and often associated with my bright orange and white fleece jacket with UT and Tennessee emblems.” She met and talked with fellow pilgrims from throughout Europe and as far away as Australia and Hong Kong. She recalls, “The ubiquitous greeting ‘Buen Camino’ rings out or is whispered with every ounce of breath one can muster each time one pilgrim passes another.” Farmers and others living along the route were often equally encouraging.
Even though she has always been active, Silen describes the physical challenge of the hilly route as intense. She was impressed by her fellow pilgrims: “Ages ranging from 12 to 85 were represented, as were all shapes and sizes.”
The defining moment of the experience was, she says, “the kindness of a total stranger.” While Silen was still six days out from Santiago, a 22-year-old German woman saw her struggling with her footwear and offered up her own well-broken-in boots. “Insisting repeatedly that I could not take her boots, I was tearing up as she was removing them,” Silen remembers. The woman explained that she was leaving the next day for home and would finish her Camino next summer. “She assured me she had sandals in her backpack as she handed me a boot. They fit!
“I managed to get her email address and a selfie of the two of us just before she trotted off, disappearing into an old-growth forest in hiking sandals, as fleetingly as our meeting had begun. I would never have completed the Way, my Camino, without that German angel, who just happened to wear the same size shoe as I do. As any pilgrim will say, the magic of the Camino.”
After completing the Camino, Silen returned to her home in Portland, Oregon, where she is a nurse anesthetist at the VA Medical Center. Next month in Knoxville at the College of Nursing’s annual NightinGala celebration, she’ll be honored with the college’s Dr. Sylvia E. Hart Distinguished Alumni Award. The walk to the podium, at least, will be a short one.