Journey of 500 miles

Coy Gibson and James Armstrong were never at a loss for things to do at Carolina. Both served in Student Government and were resident mentors; Gibson was active in the Carolina Leadership Initiative, and Armstrong led a double life as Cocky, the university’s beloved mascot.

The two became fast friends in college, graduated in May 2014 and now they’re in the middle of a 500-mile journey on foot across northern Spain called El Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. The popular pilgrimage originated in the Middle Ages and still attracts participants from around the world, many of them eager to experience the contemplative perspective that comes with the 500-mile walk.

 @UofSC caught up with Gibson and Armstrong about a third of the way through their journey, which is on track to finish June 20.

What inspired your quest to walk El Camino de Santiago?

Gibson: I first heard about the Camino from the movie “The Way,” featuring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. My father and uncles talked about how we should go, but when it came to planning the actual trip, their jobs impeded them from committing. I saw this as a lesson in itself — that I better go now rather than plan for "one day” that might not come. That's when James Armstrong and I began discussing it, well into spring of our senior year. Faith began playing a much larger role the more we learned about the Camino. James and I actually re-engaged our respective faith communities (James is Catholic, I’m Lutheran) in preparation for the Camino. For me, the Camino is grounded in discernment. Will I live a purpose-driven life? What does that look like for me? The time on the Camino lends well to digging deeper into one's own internal reflection. It's still about the challenge of being able walk 500 miles, but I'd be remiss not to say it's also about the people of all ages we meet along the way.

Armstrong: A week after graduating I watched a few movies on Netflix that friends had recommended and one of those movies was “The Way.” In the movie Martin Sheen plays a character who hikes the same route we're hiking, and I was instantly inspired to embark on a similarly challenging adventure. That was my introduction to El Camino de Santiago de Compostella and I thought of it as something I could see myself doing at some point in my lifetime. What I didn't realize was that in the span of a year I would have already embarked on a faith journey that framed Camino perfectly. My faith journey has had a lot of twists and turns — let's just say Cocky taught me what it means to love and opened my eyes to the importance of faith. Cocky introduced me to people who were living examples of the Gospels, and Cocky introduced me to people who gave me a reason to pray. And that's not all, Cocky also taught me how to survive walking many hours a day in extreme heat with over 30 pounds of equipment!

What is it about a pilgrimage that helps you to further the sense of self discovery?

Gibson: For me, this pilgrimage is symbolic of life in total but played out in five weeks over 500 miles. We are all wanderers through life, meeting fellow travelers at different crossroads along the way, learning good tidbits that help at some points and distilled wisdom from those who have gone this way before. We enjoy the company of others as well as appreciate the importance of taking time for ourselves. The ongoing, welcomed hardship invoked from a pilgrimage ultimately breaks down the walls we build in our lives and in our minds and leads us to question our most fundamental beliefs, assess our value systems and test our faith.

Armstrong: I think of a pilgrimage as a journey to find yourself. I've met a new part of myself each day on the Camino. There's something liberating about carrying everything you need to survive on your back and living in the moment each and every day. In my personal belief, God is in and through all things, including in and through me. In removing all distractions and embarking on this journey, I've gone deeper and deeper inside myself and closer to God. Spiritually being connected with your creator, your ancestors, through a common experience can truly have an impact on your relationship with God — however you see or define him.

Any mundane aggravations or unexpected moments of joy on the hike?

Gibson: The aggravations: shower heads; sleeping in rooms with 200 people;  taking care of your feet; carrying everything you need on your back (which is humbling — the whole process is humbling); the descents — they’re the most difficult part of the trip because it hurts the knees as you go down hills; snoring but you get used to it.

The joys: the people, always new, weaving in and out of the walk; the Camino way: people helping other people because it's the right thing to do; sharing meals with others from incredible backgrounds and with all sorts of stories; simple things, sunlight, wind, flowers, church bells, walking stick, water, a blanket.

Armstrong: Joys: I have learned how to stick to a budget for the first time in my life, it has been liberating! I have heard rooster crows at least once every day — each crow is a beautiful reminder of USC. I love learning about languages that are foreign to me, and communicating beyond language barriers with people from all over the world. There's no better feeling than finishing an eight-hour walk, taking off your shoes and socks and enjoying a shower. At that point, even ice cold showers are delightful. Two things are integral to my perseverance through the challenges of each day: my walking stick and prayer.

Aggravations: Earplugs are a myth, not only can you still hear snores, but your ears are just left feeling uncomfortable. Silence is rare (which makes it all the more valuable!). The language barrier is tough when people aren't willing to step outside their language. (I've had a little practice at communicating without words). I have taken clean clothes for granted, laundry is an everyday thing on the Camino, hand-washing your clothes each and every day!

What are your plans once the pilgrimage is concluded?

Gibson: I've applied to the Moore School of Business for a Masters in International Business to begin this fall. I'm interested in the interaction between government and business, as well as how business can create social good and social utility. This includes the concepts of corporate social responsibility, triple bottom line or social justice. I can see myself managing or working with international projects/programs with diverse intercultural teams. In the short term, I can also see myself teaching English abroad. And, no doubt, sharing my Camino experience with anyone who will listen.

Armstrong: I have thought a lot about religious conflicts in the past two weeks, and I have posed the question "Given that the three Abrahamic religions each believe there is one God, how can belief in the same being/presence inspire so much war, terrorism and hate?" I think it would be a great thesis topic, but I need to do some more research on programs in peace and conflict resolution upon my return to the states. 

Immediately following my pilgrimage, I will be visiting friends and family that are in Europe, including my uncle who lives in Monaco. Upon my return to the States, I would like find a way to be involved with youth or young adult ministry while discerning a graduate studies program, and I will be looking for a dog. The plan is to name my dog "El Camino" so I can walk El Camino every day. 

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