Summer Journeys: The Rhythm of the Road

For more than 1,000 years, pilgrims have journeyed across Europe, through Spain, to the northwest Galician city of Santiago de Compostela where, it is said, the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great rest in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a 500-mile network of ancient pilgrim routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. Each year, upwards of 300,000 pilgrims travel all or part of the Camino. This summer, Spanish Teacher Jon Bender was among them. 

Jon began his journey in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a historic town in the Pyrenean foothills of southwestern France. 

 “In the past 800 years, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port has become the most popular departure point for walking to Santiago,” Jon says. “There are other routes that start in places like Portugal, or that take you along the northern Atlantic coast. There is a way that gets you up through central Spain and joins the Camino Francés, which is the route that I took.”

The Camino Francés begins with a 17-mile (27 km) hike straight up the Pyrenees. 

“The first stop is a place called Roncesvalles; it is in Spain across the French border,” Jon explains. “There is a monastery there that has existed for centuries, where there is a mass blessing the pilgrims every evening at 8 pm—it is at that hour because it takes most people all day to get up there. The night I arrived, the Bishop of Pamplona presided over the mass.”

After the mass, all of the travelers are invited to the front of the church for the blessing, which is given in the native language of every pilgrim who has registered to stay the night in Roncesvalles. Jon met pilgrims from all corners of the world on his journey. In Roncesvalles, he met a Taftie: James Langlois ’61was a fellow pilgrim on the Camino traveling across Spain with his wife for the second time.

“Coming down out of the Pyrenees in steady, cold rain, I was struggling to get warm as we headed for the evening pilgrims’ mass,” James says, “so I donned my Taft sweatshirt. Jon asked me about it and we ended up comparing a few notes about the Taft of 60 years ago and the Taft of today. As isolated a corner of the world as we were in, it somehow seemed normal to me that a couple of Tafties, separated by half a century, would settle into a comfortable conversation.  It was a brief, pleasant surprise and helped warm me up as much as the sweatshirt did.”

For nearly two weeks, Jon hiked the dirt paths, village roadways, and wooded trails that make up the Camino. He left France with a honeymooning couple from Poland, shared the road with German travelers, and walked many, many miles completely alone. Most days he covered 12 or 13 miles; occasionally he traveled as many as 20. 

“Despite meeting as many people as I did, there are still long stretches of the road where you’re just by yourself—on a path through the woods for kilometers where you don’t see another person,” says Jon. “That becomes a time for reflection, of contemplation. You fall into the rhythm of the road, and feel a real connection with the people who have been doing it for over a thousand years. ”

Many of those people are at crossroads, thresholds, or milestones in their lives. Others follow the Camino as a form of spiritual path or consider the journey a retreat for their spiritual growth. 

 “Everyone I met or who had done it has their own reasons for doing it. Some people really clearly define it. For me, it was the combination of a physical challenge, always the desire to maintain my spoken Spanish, particularly with native speakers, and certainly to explore the historical aspects of it,” Jon notes. “It wasn’t a religious pilgrimage for me, but I don’t think that there’s a way to do it and not be grabbed by just the simple history and religious aspects of it. You cannot help but be affected by being in the presence of these churches and the things that you see in the small towns and villages, and the contemplative nature of the walk. Along the way, you quickly shed what you don’t need. That minimalism—the stripping away of most of the modern life stuff—is so elemental, and religious in its own right.”

Jon’s travels along the Camino de Santiago were funded in part by The Lance Odden Summer Sabbatical Teacher's Fund, The Palamar Fellowships, and The Sheppard Family Grant.

 Lance Odden Summer Sabbatical Teacher’s Fund: In recognition of the outstanding contributions that Lance Odden and so many other teachers have made to the Taft student body, the Class of 1968 established the Lance Odden Summer Sabbatical Teacher’s Fund, whose purpose is to finance a summer sabbatical for teacher education. Recognizing that the future success of Taft hinges on the foresight of its teachers in anticipating the future process of education, the primary goal of the fund is to develop new course designs for subsequent school years. Other uses are determined from time to time by the Headmaster, in consultation with key advisors of his choosing, subject to the requirement that it only be used for teacher summer sabbatical programs. Whenever possible the program should alternate each year between the sciences and humanities.

Palamar Fellowships, established in 1998 in memory of Dr. Paul Lovett-Janison, Taft master from 1942 to 1969, by Mary Palamar, grandmother of Randal ’64 and Richard ’68, supports mid-career faculty who show particular promise of developing as master teachers.

Sheppard Family Grant, established in 2008, was made possible through a bequest from John W. Sheppard ’28, a memorial gift from the Taft Class of 1928, and ongoing support from the families of John W. Sheppard Jr. ’64 and J. Wade Sheppard III ’86. The award is given annually to one or more faculty members whose commitment to the whole student exemplifies the underlying philosophy of a Taft education, demonstrates passion for their academic discipline, shows a profound caring for the emotional and intellectual life of students, and makes a positive difference in the Taft community through teaching excellence. This grant allows faculty to take advantage of opportunities through travel, study, or any experience that might bring further enrichment back to the Taft community.