Once-In-A-Lifetime Trip

By Julie Gerke

A once-in-a-lifetime trip for four women with Jacksonville ties brought a deepening of faith and family and a desire for similar, future adventures.

Dessa Vieira Surratt of Jacksonville, her cousins (and Routt Catholic High School grads) Lisa Wooldridge Aultz and Lynne Wooldridge Randolph-Moore, and Lynne’s daughter Elissa Randolph, all of the San Diego metro area, traveled to Spain for a pilgrimage to Camino del Santiago. The women walked more than 100 kilometers of historic paths between Vigo and Santiago, Spain, where they visited a shrine that contains the bones of St. James the Greater.

It was a trip years in the making, and not without an unfortunate last-minute change: another cousin, Terri Wooldridge Benz of Jacksonville, had to bow out of the trip after an accident.

“Some of the walking ways are not a road, not a sidewalk; it’s a walkway,” said Surratt, a retired licensed clinical worker who attends Salem Lutheran Church. “Some were built in 320 BC. There are big cobblestones on some pathways, and some are paved now. All are different: Some are dirt and sand; you walk along coastal routes and some in cities. They’re all different.”

The women started talking about the trip several years ago, and plans were postponed because of COVID. There are several pathways to the shrine from various parts of Europe; the family opted to start in Portugal because its ties to Surratt’s birth family, the Vieiras. That family, among many in Jacksonville, left Madeira Island to escape religious persecution.

“There are different reasons people walk,” Surratt said. “Some are for religious reasons or spiritual reasons, some for sport and some for social. It was a little bit of all of that for us. Certainly, our feet felt different than they’ve ever felt in our life but we made it through. We walked … about 90 miles in seven or eight days.”

The family used an agency to plan the early September trip, to make reservations for daily stops and to move baggage from site to site. Each night, the women stayed in a “casa rural” (rural house or cottage), where local families fed them meals from their gardens and talked to their visitors. During the day, the women carried small packs and might stop for a cappuccino, water, a bite to eat or to wash up at a freshwater spring.

“It’s very rural; there’s a lot of agriculture and beautiful ancient forests,” Surratt said. “It was amazing. … I saw a lot of little hamlets. … Almost every household has chickens, grape vines or fields with grape vines. People were growing their own food, like corn, beautiful tomatoes, squash, beans. …”

Although open to all, pilgrimages are particularly common among the Catholic (the faith of Surratt’s cousins). “We wanted to get the pilgrim certificate,” Surratt said. “You have to [walk] at least 100 kilometers to do that. It’s like a passport; you get it before you go. As you go along the trail, you get all these stamps from churches or bars or restaurants along the way – by the time you get to Santiago, it’s completely packed with all these stamps.”

The cathedral that houses the shrine is “the most beautiful church,” Surratt said, and the Mass for pilgrims is “very moving.”

Pilgrims may travel as families, in groups, as couples or individuals, and are from all over the world, Surratt said.

“We met people from Germany, Switzerland, Hong Kong, a lot of people from several states, Canada, Mexico, Portugal, Ireland. What’s kind of weird is you’re walking in your own group and keep bumping into other groups and [together] you eat and share times and stories. It’s really a neat situation.”

Cousin Lisa Aultz, a legal secretary, was drawn to the pilgrimage for spiritual reasons. “The camino specifically spoke to me and called to me, just as a way to connect to my higher power. I set some specific intentions for myself – to let go some of my old thinking and criticisms of myself, and kind of grow spiritually, connecting with God and nature.”

Surratt and Aultz definitely want another trip, perhaps adding their children or spouses (and for sure, Terri Benz). “It’s something that got into my blood and I miss it,” Aultz said. “Just waking up every morning and walking before the sun comes up. … It’s so peaceful, just an amazing connection. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to [forget it].”

She encouraged others to consider a similar trip. “You only live once,” she said. “Go for the adventure. It was such a great experience for us. … We’re very blessed to be able to have those family connections and be able to do that.”

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