Why choose a pilgrimage on the Via Francigena now? I love the Navy. I always have, always will. But a 20 year career of active-duty service was always the plan.
What comes after that?
I still am not entirely sure. The only thing I know I want to do for certain is strap on a backpack and go on an extended road trip with my mom. Every time I move from one place to another, I take some time off in between duty stations to travel. It is how I reset and clear my head.
In between orders I’ve traveled to the Great Wall, ridden camels in India, admired Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples, traversed all 192 miles on foot across England on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast trail, explored Sweden’s Northern Lights while attached to a reindeer, bicycled across colorful spring tulip fields in the Netherlands, and caught baby alligators at Florida’s roadside tourist attractions.
I was not quite certain how to commemorate the end of 20 years. After hitting 15 years of service, during a phone call home I shared that after I retired I was thinking of hiking Spain’s Camino de Santiago.
It was then that Mom relayed that she had read about a lesser-known pilgrimage of incredible beauty that might be worth considering. There was an ancient pilgrimage created in 990 called the Via Francigena, which tracked the original route of Archbishop Sigeric as he traveled between Canterbury and Rome. Properly done, the pilgrimage runs some 1150 miles, through England, France, Switzerland, and Italy.
“That sounds perfect, Mom! I think I’ll do that after I get out.”
There was a short pause.
“May I come, too?” she asked, very politely.
I stammered sincerely that OF COURSE I’d love her company. I hadn’t thought of asking because of the amount of time involved – close to two months. She reminded me that my seven younger siblings would be mostly grown by the time we did the walk. I hadn’t thought my very responsible mother one for putting on a pack and hitting the road for a prolonged period. I was moved to learn that as a child, she had dreamed of running away with a bike and a container of Tang.
Thus, the original plan was to take this ancient pilgrimage and run off…with my mom.
Via Francigena: T-Minus 4 Years
Although I’m a thrifty person, Mom’s ability to stretch a dollar puts me to shame. She is so thrifty, in fact, that initially there was talk of us sharing a pair of walking sticks. Early on, she terrified me with her enthusiasm for lightweight tents, 3-season sleeping bags and industrial-strength filtration straws.
“Think of unzipping the tent and seeing the sunrise over the Alps! Won’t that be beautiful?”
“Totally,” I replied, trying to hide the desperation in my voice. “But how about we admire the view from inside an air-conditioned hotel window?”
Eventually, we agreed we’d try to do the bulk of our sleeping at hotels and hostels. Still, I have a hunch that if the hotel rate exceeds a certain number, Mom will make a case for wild camping. Should that happen, I am fully prepared to bribe a receptionist.
Although the Navy required me to maintain a certain level of physical fitness, we were both curious about how far we could walk together. During a family visit while I was teaching at Fort Meade, we thought it would be smart to test how far we could walk in one day without any advance training. We awoke at 5:30 a.m., caught an Uber to Mt. Vernon, and busted out 21 miles. She wasn’t just in good shape; she was in phenomenal shape.
While I was delighted at our walking prowess, I felt a twinge of anxiety when I asked where she’d like to stop for breakfast or lunch. She responded that D.C. prices were far too high, and cheerfully reached in her pack to reveal prepacked food. There were multiple ziplocked bags containing homemade cinnamon buns and celery sticks.
Don’t get me wrong. Mom’s cinnamon buns are chock full of gooey, sticky, exuberant joy. They’re DELICIOUS. And it was a surprise to discover how satisfying crunchy celery can be after 10 miles in the heat. But I had a vision of two months in Europe eating food eating pickled or dried food, and asked for assurances that when we got there, we would eat locally.
“Of course! Wines, cheeses, meats, bread, olives…we WILL eat local food.”
Via Francigena: T-Minus 8 months
While my parents were visiting me in Yokosuka, Japan, during my final tour of duty, Dad peered over his laptop.
“This pilgrimage looks interesting. Are you still thinking of retiring and hiking the Via Francigena in August?”
“How far is it, again?”
“Instead of England we’re starting off in the Swiss Alps. So, five hundred, maybe six hundred miles.”
He looked at us. “Would it be okay if I came too?”
We agreed Dad could come. Truth be told, I always thought Dad would join at some point. A Navy veteran himself, he had been stationed in Italy three times during his career. He adored the Italian culture. And since Dad was joining, by default my youngest brother – a strapping 17 year old – was coming as well. The condition was that the gentlemen could only join us once we cleared the Swiss Alps and arrived in Italy. It was to remain a girls’ trip until then.
My parents regularly sent photos of their training. In addition to Aquatic Zumba and yoga, they’d been staying fit with walks. They carefully weighed their packs before each training hike using fish scales. While keenly aware that the tropical beaches of Florida hardly mimic the same conditions as the Swiss Alps, the focus was on stamina. There are a few things I’m concerned about on this trip. My walking companions’ fitness isn’t one of them.
They’re plenty tough.
My last day in uniform was August 14. I’m now on what is known in the military as “terminal leave.” Is this phase bittersweet? Of course! I expected it to be. I love the Navy. I love the men and women I had the honor of serving with. This is the only life I’ve ever known. But after 17 years as a Navy child, 4 years in undergraduate Navy training, and 20 years of active-duty service, it just feels time.
If you say you’re spending two months in Europe, it sound incredibly self-indulgent. Hence, I’ve made a special point of saying I’m going on a pilgrimage with my mother. Really, it’s the same thing.
Mom and I decided to shave off the first half of the Via Francigena walk, which passes through England and France. The reason we are starting adjust before the halfway point is because we need to clear Switzerland’s St. Bernard’s Pass in a hurry. (If we started in England in August, there’s no way we would make it to St. Bernard’s Pass before it closes for safety due to snow in early September.)
Aside from investing in good shoes and sturdy backpacks, the only other items we procured in advance were four “Pilgrim Passports”. Said passports are to serve as evidence of our noble intentions, document our route, AND provide a 10% discount on select regional trains. Almost everything I’m taking with me has been a gift from family and friends. My backpack, socks, and pants came from a brother; one shirt from a sister-in-law; another shirt from an aunt; an emergency whistle from an uncle; and one shirt from my Japanese colleagues.
I’m excited for the Via Francigena journey to begin. The Italians have a saying that I love for embracing the unknown.
In Bocca Al Lupo.
Into the mouth of the wolf. (Good Luck!)
Here we go! Thanks so much for reading – please wish us luck! 😊