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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023

Grace With Every Step

Local women begin grueling pilgrimage

Shelia Pridgen isn’t sure if St. James is buried at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

But in case he is, Pridgen wants to be as close to the apostle as possible.

Pridgen left Shreveport on Sept. 17 to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 491-mile trek up, over and down mountains. Her pilgrimage is expected to take 33 days – plus a couple of rest days along the way – ending at the cathedral in the town of Galicia.

“I’m a faith-based person,” Pridgen said a few days before flying from Shreveport to Paris. From there, she and her walking partner, Phyllis Lewis, will take a train to Bayonne, spend the night, then take another train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. That’s where they will start their walk on Sept. 20.

“Once I started reading about the Camino, my first inclination was that it’s a rumor, and there’s no way to prove (St. James) was or wasn’t (buried there). My best understanding is that St. James was martyred and killed somewhere else. For a long time, no one really knew where he was buried. This is my understanding – somebody believed they unearthed (St. James’) remains. I don’t know which pope, but I believe there was a pope that commissioned (St. James’) bones to be brought to Spain, and, therefore, he is now the patron saint of Spain, and supposedly buried at this church.”

Pridgen has wanted to make this walk since a friend gave her a firsthand account in 2018.

“I retired, so I had the time. I said if I’m going to do it, I need to do it before I get too old – before my arthritis gets worse.”

Pridgen and Lewis (retired from the Shreveport Police Department) won’t be doing any sightseeing, shopping or staying in luxury hotels.

“When you get to the starting point, you go to the Catholic church, and the priest will give you a pilgrimage passport, known as the Pilgrim Passport,” Pridgen explained. “He blesses the passport and your journey. You need this pilgrim passport to prove you really are a pilgrim. That allows you to stay in hostels along the way, just for pilgrims, and it’s not very expensive. To keep tourists from trying to get a cheap vacation, you have to have the Pilgrim’s Passport.”

Walking almost 500 miles over sometimes difficult terrain isn’t something you get off the couch and do. The 67-year-old Pridgen has been training since last January.

“I was a big ol’ couch potato, so I had to start just walking. We started in January just trying to get to a mile. We built up to two miles, four or five days a week, then three miles a couple of days a week, then four miles. We tried to do four miles five days a week.”

Eventually, Pridgen and Lewis were walking 10-15 miles a day.

“However, we were training for mountains, so about six weeks (before leaving) we started walking in parking garages – eight to 10 miles in a parking garage – to simulate the mountains one or two days a week. Then we walked flat. When it was hot, we walked in the malls – mostly St. Vincent and some at Pierre Bossier. When it wasn’t so hot, we would walk the (Arthur Ray) Teague Parkway.”

Pridgen wouldn’t be surprised if her training weren’t more grueling than the walk.

“We walk 15.4 miles the very first day up the mountain. That in itself will be a challenge. The second day, we start descending, but then there are other mountains that we go up and down and up and down, all the way across that (Pyrenees) mountain range. It takes several days to make it through that mountain range.”

Pridgen won’t be pulling a Samsonite.

She’s only bringing a backpack, which will have nothing more than the essentials.

“A true pilgrim carries all of his stuff. He doesn’t put it in a taxi and have it shipped ahead of him. He carries everything he needs.”

For Pridgen, those needs include a lightweight sleeping bag (hostels don’t provide bed linens), a water bladder, three pairs of pants (two thin, one long), eight pairs of socks, four pairs of underwear and sports bras, Band-Aids and a Swiss army knife.

“You sleep in the clothes you wear the next day, so every day when you’re done walking, you shower and wash your clothes in the shower if (the hostel) doesn’t have amenities – a washer and dryer. Everything has to dry fast, so you string a little line on the bunk bed you’re assigned, and your clothes dry overnight.”

When Pridgen arrives at the cathedral Oct. 25 or 26, she’s not sure how she will feel.

“I can just tell you what other people have told me. I’ve done some research and watched some YouTube videos of people when they get there. They’re overwhelmed. They are overcome with emotion. They cry. They pray. They kneel. They celebrate – ‘Oh, my God, I made it.’ I anticipate that because I’m kind of emotional. I anticipate I will be overjoyed, overwhelmed and overemotional.”

There is one thing of which Pridgen is certain.

“If (Phyllis) has to drag me with a rope, or if I have to drag her with a rope, we are going to the finish line walking it. Grace with every step.”


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