For Amber Hunter, the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile ancient pilgrimage from France to Spain, was an adventure that had always waited on her bucket list.
When she decided to make the trip in the spring of 2014, her sister, Tonya King, surprised her by deciding to go as well. The sisters were just a new backpack and a plane ticket away from a life-changing experience.
Hunter, 51, and King, 49, walked the Camino in 2014, from the end of May to July.
“It was a struggle from the very beginning,” Hunter said, adding that the first two weeks are the most difficult.
For Hunter, whose children are grown and moved out, the trip was more than just a chance to see Europe.
“I needed something to help me get on with my life,” she said.
The sisters, both employees at Wild Birds Unlimited in downtown Gig Harbor, trained sporadically for about a month before they left.
“We didn’t train enough,” Hunter said.
With blisters and sore muscles a daily part of the hike, she isn’t sure that there is enough training that could be done to prepare for the Camino.
“You become stronger physically as well as spiritually,” she said. “You don’t realize your strength until you can keep walking through the pain.”
The pair set off for their trip without a tour guide or plans more concrete than a plane ticket to Paris, and a train trip to the beginning of the trek.
“We just winged the whole trip,” said Hunter, laughing.
But there was never a moment through their trip that the pair felt unsafe or unsupported by the people they encountered.
“You saw the good in people. It makes you feel better about humankind,” she said. “It made me realize that traveling is far safer and easier than I’d thought.”
The pair averaged walking about 16 1/2 miles a day, finishing the Camino in 32 days.
“Everything slows down. In a car you can travel 16 miles in just a few minutes,” the 51-year-old said. “That takes all day walking. You see everything ... you breathe.”
The sisters encountered many other groups of walkers and several people who had undertaken the trip solo. Throughout the month-long trek they saw these once-strangers grow and change with the challenges.
“(The Camino) transforms everybody who does it, if you want it to,” she said.
Their father, Art Larson, has seen nothing but positive changes in his daughters since returning from their trip.
“Both girls have come back with a world knowledge of other places and people,” he said. “They’re both more gregarious.”
The sisters also felt that transformation in their relationship, seeing sides of each other that they hadn’t seen before. They insist they’re now closer than ever.
The Camino is a pilgrimage route dating back to the Middle Ages. There are multiple starting points for the Camino through France and Spain, with the routes ending at the Cathedral of Santiago (St. James in English) in Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain.
The sisters’ plane tickets were the most expensive part of their trip and the average daily cost of food and lodging was around $25, Hunter said.
Hunter hopes to walk the Camino again someday.
“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve done since I’ve had children,” she said. “It was life changing. I want everyone to do it.”
Larson echoes her statement. “(The Camino) was absolutely, positively life changing for both of my daughters.”