One night, lost in the Spanish Pyrenees, Neve McJoynt-Agbayani and her five children could see a rescue team looking for them – on the wrong mountain.
But while they didn’t know where they were, the Agbayanis weren’t looking for rescuers to find them. It was well after midnight, and they were tired and cold, so they kept going, walking another hour and a half in the dark before finding a spot to camp, resigned to sort it out in the light of day. Nearly all tucked into their sleeping bags, they saw the rescue team pull up and accepted a lift back closer to the trail, though it would end up adding kilometers to their trip.
That was the low point, if one can call it that, of the family’s 1,000-mile, three-month hike through France and Spain, a pilgrimage in name and possibly in meaning as the family accomplished something few do on the Camino de Santiago: They finished.
Rather than hikers, everyone on the Camino is a pilgrim, whether they’re religious or not, by virtue of the trail’s roots in a thousand-year-old tradition of pilgrimages across Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in western Spain, where the bones of St. James are said to be housed.
Neve McJoynt-Agbayani said one in six pilgrims ends up making it to the cathedral, so statistically, only one in her family of six should have made it. Instead, they all did, from 18-year-old Reichen to 9-year-old Aynsleigh.
The Agbayanis hiked from Aug. 24 to Nov. 24, from Le Puy in south-central France to Spain’s Atlantic coast. Neve had hiked two routes by herself but this time did it with most of her family, bringing Reichen and Aynsleigh and Karsh, 15, Tristan, 13, Bronwyn, 11, while husband Steve and special-needs son Loftin stayed home in Clayton.
Her first trip three years before followed the quick death of a friend from cancer, which jolted Neve into the spirit of grand gestures and seizing life while it’s there. On this trip with her family, she said she got to know her children better as people, and liked what she saw.
“It was beautiful; you’re literally just with your kids for 24 hours a day, talking to your kids all day long,” McJoynt-Agbayani said. “Really, I left this camino feeling so content with my children. I really know, if something were to happen, they would be fine. My children are very, very strong.”
The group’s journey stitched together two popular routes, from Le Puy to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port in France and from Irun to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, connecting the two with an improvised route through the Pyrenees Mountains. Along the way they slept in 1,000-year-old chapels, in pastures under the stars, in rooms with dozens of strangers and bunkbeds, in belltowers and in a barn full of slightly annoyed animals. They passed through vineyards and beaches and found the plains in Spain where it rains.
They built up a reputation that often preceded them into the next town, with other hikers eager to hear about the mom with the five kids taking on the trail. The Agbayanis’ trip did little to dispel any notions of the European countryside as some idyllic fairytale land, dotted with doe-eyed cows and a friendly dog in every village.
“We were almost treated like celebrities, people saying, ‘You’re the American mom with the five kids,’ ” Neve said. “Two gals came up to us in one village, and one said, ‘I want to help you.’ She had parked her car and had a big grin on her face. I said we didn’t need any help, but she said she had a teepee she wanted us to sleep in. ... So we slept in the teepee in their pasture, and in the morning, the man brought hot crepes out to us to eat in the teepee.”
As anyone who has been hiking can attest, food is a big deal. Thoughts often wander to the meal that comes at the end of the day and the snacks that come along the way, offering physical and sometimes spiritual sustenance. Karsh said the family often foraged for their meals, making pumpkin soup from wild pumpkins and improvising trail mix.
“The first month, you’re very hungry,” Karsh said. “I really enjoyed learning how to cook nuts and things like that, roasting chestnuts and stuff like that. My brothers and I really liked hazelnuts, and we’d take rocks and crack them open as we walked.”
A walk in the woods is nearly always more than a walk in the woods. Reichen turned 18 the day the family landed back in the United States and recognized the trip as something precious before he goes to college next year. He said he found himself being more the older brother than perhaps ever before.
“I learned that I’m more of a leader in certain ways, making sure everyone is safe during the night, helping set up hammocks and making sure everyone is comfortable before I started to set up mine,” Reichen said.
Sleeping in hostels and camping in fields made the $1,000 per person plane tickets the most expensive part of the trip, and Neve said they probably spent less in France and Spain each day than they would have spent in North Carolina. Along the way they also benefited from some degree of trail magic. Sometimes when sit-down meals would break the bank and sandwich fixings were hard to find, a friar happening by might offer a meal of fish and potatoes and cheesecake.
“You’re blessed on the Camino,” Reichen said. “The Camino will provide.”
The Agbayani kids are home-schooled, and Neve said they “overschooled” in the summer and are in high gear right now. While four months might seem like a long time away from the traditional classroom, the family viewed it as a different type of education.
“It’s funny, a lot of people would ask about schooling, about how they could miss four months, but other people would answer them for us and say, ‘Can you get any better schooling than this?’ ” Neve said. (The hike itself was three months; the family spent a couple of weeks before and after the hike in Europe.)
Of the people who started in Le Puy, Neve said she hadn’t heard of any who made it to the end. She said grown, healthy men “dropped like flies” up and down the trail, yet her band of kids made it largely without a hitch.
“I think we were a force to be reckoned with,” Neve said. “Knowing we had each other was important. It can be easier to quit when you’re by yourself, when you get lonely; it’s like an excuse is just handed to you. Quitting never came up for us.”