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the granny files

The year I turned 19, I used all my Christmas present money to splurge on a pair of knee-high caramel-coloured riding boots from Le Chateau in Montreal. I loved them so much that I hated the idea of letting winter slush stain the soft leather. Instead, I continued to wear my leaky and clunky old boots to and from class and treated my new ones like slippers. As soon as I got back to my student digs, I slipped them on, zipped them up and padded around in my boots – even under my nightgown.

I don't know what happened to those boots, but decades later, I realize I feel the same passion for my new granny-style hiking boots. Blue, waterproof, roomy enough for my orthotics, high enough to support my wobbly ankles, I bought them to walk the Camino from Porto, Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. My goal was to visit the tomb of Saint James the apostle, the patron saint of Spain and of pilgrims. (Over the centuries, he has been appropriated for other purposes, including as a slayer of the Infidel, but I prefer his earlier incarnation.)

"Why are you walking the Camino?" friends and family asked incredulously. The answers were both vague and complicated. Ages ago, I had been to the wine cellars of Porto to write a magazine article and in 1993 I had gone to Santiago as a delegate to the PEN International Congress at which Salman Rushdie, still under a fatwa for his novel, The Satanic Verses, made a surprise appearance in support of freedom of expression.

But I had never travelled the distance in between, especially not on foot, so when a walking friend suggested we do it, I said why not? If not this decade when? (That's the same thing I say to my grown children about babies: if you want me to be an active granny, best to have them sooner rather than later.)

Unlike the backpacking era of my caramel boots, I was determined to avoid hitchhiking, hostels and bed bugs. After walking all day, I wanted clean sheets and delicious food. I got that and more after I signed on for a literary trek. The plan was to hike nearly 18 kilometres a day (on average), stay in luxury inns and hotels, and engage in existential discussions about the oeuvre of Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot and the like over a glass or three of Vinho Verde before a delicious dinner in a local restaurant every night.

Being a rebellious sort, I made my own reading list, which included On Trails by Robert Moor, a veteran through-hiker on the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. At one point in his intriguing book, Moor differentiates between a path, which extends forward, and a trail, which streams behind you like a tail. By contrast, I imagined the Camino as both a path to discovery – spiritual, religious, emotional or physical – and as a trail that pilgrims have been leaving for others to follow for centuries. Moor agreed, writing in an e-mail that "the path plainly leaves its mark on every person who walks it." Conversely, he argues, "every person who walks the path leaves a mark on it," and in building a "communal understanding of its sacred importance" every footstep, "no matter how clumsy, is a kind of blessing." That interpretation appealed to me.

I had no fancy transformational goals or ambitions to set a path for my grandchildren when I started out on the Portuguese Camino. I simply wanted to see if I had the stamina to walk the more than 150 kilometres from Porto to Santiago, the independence to execute a trip without my husband of more than 45 years, and the collegiality to survive nine walking days and nights in the company of three friends and many strangers. There were 16 trekkers, many of them also grandparents, in our predominately female group: two married couples, a few divorcees, at least one widow, and plenty of women like me, whose husbands had responded to the notion of walking the Camino with some variation of "are you kidding?" After six days of walking in temperatures hovering at almost 40 C on all kinds of terrain, including a steep 400-metre ascent and several zig-zagging declines, I still love my boots – my feet not so much. I have always taken pride in the fact that I have no callouses, bunions or corns. Now I realize that vanity was nearly my downfall because my feet, which are absurdly prone to blisters, are a poisoned gift. As I hobbled along, with wounds sprouting up and down my left heel – like a settlement colony with many outposts – I ruefully remembered my mother complaining that I was her most thin-skinned child. Clearly, she had been speaking literally as well as metaphorically.

And yet my weakness was my first bond with my group of pilgrims, several of whom were on the shady side of 70 and inspired me to keep trekking. Others initiated me into the wonders of blister bandages, duct tape (to insulate heels and toes or, as one pilgrim demonstrated, an ingenious wrap to keep the soles of her boots from flapping in the heat), and bag balm (a moisturizer for lubricating chapped cow udders, which works equally well on feet).

For days on end, we joked, commiserated, traded life experiences about grandchildren, formed friendships, or simply kept silent, as we put one weary foot in front of another. Did I attain a state of grace – whatever that is? Too soon to tell. I'm not finished walking the Camino, but I'm hoping reaching the end will be like childbirth: the labour pains are quickly forgotten in the rapture of holding the newborn baby.

As for next year, I'm already thinking of seizing another day by climbing Machu Picchu. My boots should be nicely broken in by then.

Elsa Nega needs a bone marrow transplant to beat the leukemia that has struck the mother of two. But the registry of donors carries relatively few fellow Africans for her to find a compatible donor.