Smithfield resident undertakes month-long pilgrimage hiking famed El Camino trail

Smithfield resident undertakes month-long pilgrimage hiking famed El Camino trail

The scallop shell is an iconic symbol on the El Camino de Santiago trail – it serves as a good luck charm, a guide, and a symbol of the pilgrim’s journey. (Photos courtesy of David Sheehan)

SMITHFIELD – While students and staff were still meandering home on the last day of classes at Burrillville High School in June, history teacher David Sheehan was hopping on a plane to begin a pilgrimage in Portugal.

The Smithfield resident was eager to begin his month-long journey hiking the El Camino de Santiago, a journey that begins in Lisbon, Portugal and passes through centuries-old villages that all lead to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain.

Since his teenage years, Sheehan had wanted to hike the famed 500-mile trail composed of ancient pilgrim routes across Europe all converging in Santiago.

“There was something about that idea of traveling and walking that kind of distance,” he said.

Words often fail those who have hiked the El Camino, said Sheehan. The feeling of hiking hundreds of miles, walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims, sleeping inside 500-year-old monasteries is all hard to describe.

But each day on the trail was rather routine.

“You strip down to the basics,” Sheehan said.

Wake, walk, eat, sleep, repeat.

In other ways, life on the trail is far from routine.

Sheehan met hikers from all over the world and often walked alongside them for days, swapping stories with citizens of Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Denmark.

Each person was hiking the trail for a different reason. Some enjoy paying respect to the religious symbols and institutions dotting the path. Others walk to test mental fortitude, spend time along with their thoughts, or find peace.

Sheehan said that though people may walk in groups along the trail, “the philosophy is, ‘Everyone walks alone.’”

“Everyone hikes their own El Camino,” he said.

But he did experience the “El Camino spirit,” or the selfless camaraderie rumored to exist between fellow hikers.

On one blisteringly hot day, where temperatures soared to100 degrees, Sheehan had run out of water. It didn’t take long before a friendly Austrian man biking the trail stopped to share his own supply.

Sheehan paid the favor forward when, on a later leg of the trip, he stopped to assist a hiker whose feet were sore and blistered from the rough terrain. Sheehan helped carry the hiker’s backpack until they reached a nearby town, in true “El Camino spirit.”

As a history teacher, Sheehan reveled at the “beautifully restored” architecture in the hilltops of Portugal and Spain.

He had nightcaps in a 1500s farmhouse, the restored home of a nobleman, and a Franciscan monastery built 800 years ago.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” he said.

Having finished hiking the trail ahead of schedule, Sheehan also walked to Finisterre, the medieval “end of the world.” In Roman times, this peninsula on the west coast of Spain was thought to be the end of the known world.

As Sheehan scrolls through photos of the sunset at Finisterre – the sky aglow with bright shades of orange and pink, beams of sunshine piercing through rolling clouds – he says, “It’s not hard to believe in that moment.”

Back in Rhode Island with more than 600 miles logged overseas, Sheehan says he believes his journey has just begun.

“The Camino begins when you return home,” he said.

DAVID Sheehan stands at Finisterre, known as “the end of the known word” in ancient Roman times.


I am a 66 year old Johnston women who will begin hiking the Camino Frances on Sept 7. Happy to read this story and Hope to experience some of the Camino magic.

A friend sent me the link to this article. I am happy to see that a fellow Rhode Islander has enjoyed the Camino. I am currently on the Camino Frances in Astorga, Spain. I started in Leon where I finished last year. This year I will make it to Santiago. It is a life changing experience. And for the record I am well past retirement age, a woman, traveling alone. Nuttin to it! Buen Camino!