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Local woman walks 500 miles through Spain

 

Jaci Gross, (Miss G) gets her certificate at Santiago, Spain, for finishing a 500-mile hike across France and Northern Spain last summer. She completed the task in 37 days, and has her eyes set on a similar hike in the near future, this one across Portugal to Santiago.

A good pair of walking shoes and a cot at night.

Those were the essentials for Miss G's 500-mile trek last summer on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain.

"Miss G" is Jaci Gross, a 16-year teacher at Lake Roosevelt Elementary School, where students know her affectionately by that name.

Her long trek, actually a pilgrimage, traced the centuries-long route from the Pyrenees Mountains in France, across Northern Spain, and finally ending at Santiago.

It is the route of St. James (the apostle) that has lured pilgrims for centuries along the route of rugged mountains, long stretches of lowlands and finally to the resting place of St. James.

The 500-mile trek took 37 days, including one of those days in a local hospital to treat blistered soles before getting back on the trail again.

That's about the distance from Coulee Dam through Yakima, through Portland, then 178 miles south to Roseburg, Oregon.

The route is more than a trail. It winds its way across Northern Spain, in and out of very small and ancient villages along the way.

What would inspire a person to take such a trek?

"I saw a piece on Oprah, 'The Way' with Martin Sheen, and then the documentary 'Six Ways to Santiago,'" she said.

She was hooked!

Alone, and with little knowledge of what she was getting into, Miss G flew to Paris and then traveled to St. Jean Pied de Port, where her trek had its French beginnings.

Gross had some basic French language skills, but suddenly found herself in the Basque Separatist area, where she was confronted with a real language test, and that test followed her all across Northern Spain, where very little English is spoken.

Villages where "pilgrims" have visited for centuries were every 15 to 20 kilometers apart - and just the right distances for a day hike and an overnight stay.

No tents or heavy burdens in these backpacks.

"I was usually so exhausted after walking each day that I collapsed on the hostel cots at night," Gross said.

It was looking down and keeping one foot in front of the other the whole trip, Gross acknowledged.

Gross joined companions from Denmark and Alabama, and they were together frequently on the trail. In such a short time, those fellow travelers have "become the closest of friends," Gross stated.

Her backpack, totaling 23 pounds, held one change of clothing, an extra pair of shoes, a guide book and a rock.

A rock?

It was the tradition of pilgrims to carry a rock, representing a burden in their own life, and then leave it at a small village, Cruz de Fero, along the route.

Her extra shoes were given to a Danish woman who was suffering from blisters along the way, cutting her backpack load by a couple of pounds.

A typical day included rising at 6 a.m., and hitting the trail by 7. At 11 a.m., it was time for food, then at 3 p.m. a stop at a local hostel. At 7, Gross stated, it was the evening meal and then the cot.

"The terrain in the beginning was brutal," Gross said. "The trails in the Pyrenees were incredibly steep and treacherous ... Sheep, cows and horses atop the massive green mountains were breathtaking and seemingly unreal."

But Gross found the next stage of the trail, called the "Meseta," the most difficult. "It was hot, often in the 90's," she said.

One day she walked 17 miles with nothing in between.

Heat caused blisters to form. "Heat exhaustion, infection and blisters were common, and volunteer doctors were located in the villages to help people," Gross said.

Popping blisters, using antibiotic spray and wrapping her feet became part of the daily routine.

But blisters finally caught up to Gross in Sahugun, Spain, where she lost a day for hospital attention to her feet.

"This was the lowest point for me on the trail," Gross said.

The final stage of the trail was the "Spiritual Stage," Gross acknowledged.

Gross got her first look at Santiago about four miles out at a place called the "Mountain of Hope."

At Santiago, Gross entered the cathedral that housed the body of St. James. "We could look at the actual body," Gross explained.

Pilgrims must register for the Camino Trail hike. They are sent a pilgrim's passport, and at each stop along the way it is stamped. Finishing the journey, they present their stamped passports, then receive a certificate noting the completion of the 500-mile trek.

Gross walked with some Danish women part of the way. And there's talk of Gross returning to the area, this time taking the trail to Santiago from Portugal, a far shorter route.

How do you train for a 500-mile hike?

"I did a 15-hour hike of the Half Dome, Yosemite National Park once, but hardly a test of surviving," Gross stated.

Encounters along the way will probably provide the most lasting memories, Gross said, noting that the people were so friendly.

The village people have welcomed pilgrims with a "Buen Camino" greeting along the route for centuries. "Everyone was helpful, from the stays in the albergues (pilgrimage hostels that provided cots) and the food," Gross said. The overnight cots cost from nothing to $10 a night.

Gross carried a rock in her backpack, representing a personal burden, and left it atop a huge pile of rocks left by pilgrims across the centuries at Cruz de Fero. Rocks have been placed under this towering cross for over 2,000 years.

Gross started with $1,000 and ended 37 days later with $50.

She communicated through Facebook, and regularly received messages from friends and family.

In addition to the Danish friends she made, one day she walked with Dr. Christopher MacGregor, who is a pioneer in the field of organ transplantation.

Is there another long hike ahead? "I would do it again in a heartbeat," Gross stated.

Meanwhile she takes walks. A "walk" to Gross is a 13-mile hike up in the Coulee hills. Just a few days ago, she took a walk, this time from her Coulee Dam home, to Wilbur.

Have you ever walked to Wilbur?

Miss G's adventure has inspired Tammy Norris, a secretary at the elementary school, to set her sights on the Santiago trek in 2018, where she also will hear the familiar pilgrim's greeting "Buen Camino" from the villagers along the way.

How does Norris plan to prepare for it? Walking - a lot!

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