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The road less travelled

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These boots were made for walking: Pete and Annesa Saunders enjoying their time on the 500 mile Camino Trail from France to Spain (Photograph supplied)

Pete and Annesa Saunders didn’t set out on a 500-mile walk to develop greater patience.

They walked the Camino Francés trail from France to Spain last month to raise $25,000 for Impact Mentoring Academy.

The joy they got from learning to stop and smell the roses was an unexpected bonus.

“At the beginning I’d go bounding ahead and leave my wife behind,” Mr Saunders admitted sheepishly. “She was always begging me to slow down. I had to focus on walking at a pace that was comfortable for both of us.”

And coping with Mr Saunders’ poor sense of direction was a test for his wife.

“We had one fight early on,” said Mr Saunders. “It was about directions.”

One evening they were walking to the nearest town to get dinner, with Mrs Saunders reading the map. Mr Saunders complimented her on her navigation skills, then snatched the map.

With Mr Saunders navigating, the 20 minute walk grew.

“I wanted to prove to her that I could follow directions too,” he said. He couldn’t.

“It was getting dark and she got really mad,” he said. It was Mrs Saunders’ turn to walk off ahead and leave him behind.

“Out of pride I wouldn’t give her back the map,” he said. “I just wanted to be her hero.”

In his defence, they did eventually find their way; but it took an hour longer than expected.

“We had a good talk about it the next day,” said Mr Saunders.

“It was a bit contentious to talk about it before that.”

Since returning home on August 25 he’s learning to take life a little easier.

“I’m not speeding through life as much as I did before,” said Mr Saunders, who is finishing up a PhD in men’s studies in California. “Every year I had goals I had to accomplish. I wanted to get my PhD by 35, for example. It all seems a bit silly right now. I have learnt to think more about what is needed in the moment.”

Mr Saunders hasn’t yet reached his target of $25,000. He raised $4,100 from the walk.

“My motto is go big or go home, but I am home now,” he said.

“I still have a little ways to go. There were people who reached out to me that haven’t gotten back to me yet.”

He and his wife took on the long hike to do something for a cause they believed in.

Mr Saunders is a board member at Impact Academy and has acted as a mentor to students there.

“Asking people for money was hard at first,” Mr Saunders said. “I thought what are people going to think if I am begging for money? Then I thought I will be OK begging for money for a cause I really believe in.

“Doing this was really significant for me.”

A lot happened on the long walk.

He celebrated his 33rd birthday along the way, and his beloved grandmother died in Jamaica.

“At that point I almost stopped the walk and came home,” said Mr Saunders.

They were very close.

“That was my worst day,” he said.

“She was the only grandparent I had the privilege of knowing. It was a tough day, but we still had to get to the next point, or all our travel plans would be messed up.

“For a little while I was really sad and I thought about stopping.”

But he decided to keep going when he learnt his grandmother’s funeral wouldn’t happen until after the trip.

“Annesa was my support that day,” he said. “She made sure I stopped when I needed to, and talked when I wanted to. We still accomplished our goals that day, despite the loss.”

Mr Saunders said the first day of the walk was probably the best and most challenging.

“We walked over the Pyrenees,” said Mr Saunders. “We walked for seven hours and it seemed like an endless climb.”

To add to the challenge, it was windy and rainy.

“It set the pace for the rest of the walk,” Mr Saunders said.

“After that, whenever we got to a hill, Annesa would say ‘well, it’s not the Pyrenees’.”

The weather was variable, ranging from cold and wet to oppressively hot.

“One day we walked 25 kilometres in the rain,” Mr Saunders said. “For me it was a beautiful walk.

“I grew up in the country in Jamaica and you ate in the rain and played in the rain. That brought back a lot of good memories for me. The hottest day was about 90F.”

They made many friends on the trip, but were surprised by the lack of racial diversity.

“I think we counted only five black people,” he said.

“I didn’t detect any prejudice or any discriminatory attitudes; it was just an observation. In many of the towns we stopped in we were the only black people there.”

He said there were many days when they thought, ‘oh, can’t we just get there, already’, but the beauty of the Camino kept them going.

Mr Saunders said one of the most attractive stretches was the Meseta, flat plains between Burgos and Astorga, Central Spain.

“We spent four days walking the Meseta,” he said. “You just want to be quiet as you walk. You see greenery and you see the path ahead as far as the eye can see. There are oceans of sunflowers and wheat everywhere. You know you are going to get to the destination eventually, but it seems so endless. You know you have to move forward, and put one foot in front of the other.”

He said finally reaching Santiago de Compostela, Spain, at the end of the walk, was anticlimactic.

“There was a small sense of accomplishment,” he said.

“It wasn’t as big as I expected it to be. Instead, I thought, ‘this is the end of the walk. Now we have to go home’. There was this ending of something.”

But he said it was exciting to come home and put everything they’d learnt into practice.

He hopes to share his experiences with the boys at Impact Academy.

The money raised will help establish a scholarship for primary school-aged boys. Impact currently serves middle and high school students.

Visit Pete’s Facebook page or his blog, petesaunders.org/tag/bermuda/, for more information. Make a donation at www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/help-us-walk-500-miles-for-impact or through HSBC Bank of Bermuda account # 010-836419-001.

Bright and beautiful: a field of sunflowers along the Camino Francés trail from France to Spain (Photograph supplied)
Time to heel: Annesa Saunders attending to blisters along the 500 mile Camino Francés trail from France to Spain (Photograph supplied)
A river runs through it: one of the many beautiful views along the Camino Francés trail from France to Spain (Photograph supplied)
Walk this way: The Camino Francés trail (Photograph supplied)