Bob Barret’s pilgrimage began and ended in mystery.
He was 72. Heading toward the rocking chair, as he put it. In decent health, but growing increasingly aware of his physical limits, worried they were descending.
He longed to take a journey. Alone.
When it was over, he had found not answers to his questions but deeper and more intractable questions. What made him think he could do a thing like that? What made him keep going when reason and his own body and sound medical advice were all advising – ordering – him to stop?
What was he trying to prove? What did he learn? Was it worth it?
After Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Apostle James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Gospel. On Jan. 2, 40, the Virgin Mary appeared to James as he preached on a riverbank. The apparition compelled him to return to Jerusalem, where the king beheaded him. James was the first of Jesus’ apostles to be martyred.
His disciples sailed his remains back to Iberia, where they were buried a few miles inland from the ocean. His bones remain in a reliquary in the cathedral built to house them, in the city that grew from the cathedral: Santiago de Compostela (“Santiago” being a Spanish variant of the Latin “Sanctu Iocobu” – Saint James).
Barret doesn’t really believe the legend. Like a growing number of people these days, he considers himself spiritual but not religious. He was raised Presbyterian in Memphis, then switched to an Episcopal church when he married at 20. As he established a career as a psychologist, Barret tried worship with a number of Christian denominations before he stopped consistently going to church in his 50s.
He explains that he has questions, big questions, about life and faith and purpose, and he knows and accepts that they’re unanswerable, and the search for answers may itself be the answer. So he has little patience for answers that come too easily.
It’s why he doesn’t believe the legend, and why he was as devout as anyone on the pilgrimage to the shrine that may contain nothing.
Once you turn 70, Barret’s older brother Ed told him, it’s all downhill.
Barret didn’t want to hear that. But he had to admit it: He was slowing down. Not only was he not doing things he used to do, he was beginning to accept that he would never do them again. The thought sat with him uneasily in his rocking chair.
He had spent most of his career teaching graduate courses at UNC Charlotte. Now semi-retired, he regularly met a pair of old UNCC colleagues for coffee. They were Quakers, spiritual people. Barret told them about his crisis, about his odd yearning to take a pilgrimage somewhere.
They referred him to someone they knew, a former Secret Service agent, of all things, who had completed El Camino de Santiago – The Way of St. James – a pilgrimage across northern Spain to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago. The most common route begins in the French border town of Saint-John-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenean foothills, crosses the mountains and rides waves of lurching terrain across 735 kilometers, roughly 460 miles.
Pilgrims have taken that route and some variants to St. James’ bones for more than a millennium. But the numbers grew sparse in the 20th century until the mid-1980s, when a priest at a parish along the main route began painting yellow arrows at the tricky points and talking to authorities about the route’s historic significance.
In 1985, fewer than 700 people completed the pilgrimage. Last year, the number approached 200,000: Catholics, Protestants, nonbelievers, Europeans, Americans, Asians, Australians – people looking for a spiritual experience, or a challenging physical one, or some combination.
Barret met the ex-Secret Service guy, Kevin Foley, for coffee. Foley had walked El Camino a few months before and found it challenging to his body and spirit. Barret asked him plenty of questions. Foley explained that it was no romantic trip through beautiful scenery but a hard slog over mountains on a few hours of subpar sleep. Barret accepted this.
Then Foley told him two things that knocked him back.
First: Can you do it? Of course you can.
Second: This thing has been whispering in your ear for years. You may as well go on and do it so it’ll leave you alone.
That was in January. Barret soon joined a group of people who either had finished the camino or planned to go soon. They’d meet every month at a sporting goods store at Northlake Mall.
In late March, Barret began walking around Charlotte with a 20- to 25-pound backpack, what he knew he’d be carrying on the way. He’d start at his home in Dilworth and walk past Queens University of Charlotte, down to SouthPark mall, to Morehead Street, working his way up to 15 miles by August. He figures he walked about 800 miles in training.
Foley would see him on the street, this old guy with his huge backpack. He’d harbored doubts about whether his new friend could summon the physical strength to match his passion for the pilgrimage. When Foley saw Barret training, he thought: Oh, yeah. This guy’s committed. He’s going to pull this off.
As Barret walked, he started another kind of dialogue – not really a conversation, but a kind of continuous acknowledgment. For reasons he still can’t articulate, as he walked, he sensed encouragement from his grandfather and mother, long deceased.
He’d thank them for their presence and keep walking.
Barret had grown up feeling different, disconnected from his two older brothers, but never knew why. It was the South in the 1950s. It was quite a leap, a dangerous one, to even consider the possibility that he was gay. So he did what young men did. He got married.
As he and his wife made their home in Charlotte – moving to other cities for short periods, but always finding their way back – Barret began treating cancer victims and then, beginning in the early 1980s, AIDS patients. This was the age when AIDS was presumed to be a disease of gay men, in some circles God’s judgment on them.
Barret had trouble with that. He began to sense that he related to these men in a way other counselors couldn’t. The thought nagged at him.
He looked closely at himself and at the spirituality that surrounded him every Sunday – not just his church in Charlotte but others he’d attended. Barret tried to reconcile their treatment of gay people, of their rejection of sanctioned partnerships between two loving partners who happened to share a gender, with the ceremonies that allowed congregants to bring in their pets for blessing.
Wait, I can get a blessing for my guppy, he thought, but two loving adults get the church door slammed in their faces?
Barret came out at 47. This was after 20 years of marriage, three children. Barret left his wife in 1988, the church a few years later. He and his ex-wife are friends. His relationship with faith is developing still. And he’s doing what he can, he says, about two of his three daughters. He says they are fundamentalist Christians who disapprove of their father’s homosexuality.
Early in his pilgrimage, his left big toe began hurting horribly. Barret examined the toe after a few days and saw three huge blisters, one of them open and weeping pus. He knew he should see a doctor, but he knew a doctor would order him to stop walking, and the urge to keep walking outweighed the pain.
He kept recognizing people. That’s the best way he can put it. He doesn’t mean he remembered them from another time and place; he knew he had never met these people before. But something in him responded to something in them, and whatever it was in each of them also realized that was happening. Damndest thing.
One of them was a young doctor from Italy who was walking El Camino with a friend. Barret “recognized” the doctor, and vice versa, but not the other fellow. They began walking up a brutal incline that would take hours. Go ahead, Barret told his companions. I’m holding you back. I’ll get there eventually. They would walk ahead.
And then Barret would round a corner, and there they’d be. Bob, you don’t understand, the doctor would say. We’re doing this together.
Bob Barret returned to Charlotte on Sept. 22. It took him a month or so to even decide how to talk about his experience. (It took about the same amount of time for the infection on his foot to clear up. It turned out to be MRSA.)
He still talks with Kevin Foley, who instilled in him the confidence that he could do it.
“I’m exceptionally proud of him,” Foley said. To see Barret evolve from an enthusiastic but doubt-ridden man in his 70s to someone who went more then 400 miles in the mountains, on foot, and gained confidence and spiritual peace from it – “that’s priceless.”
Barret is still on his pilgrimage, in a way, trying to accept rather than comprehend its meaning. But along the way, his foot killing him, Barret decided he needed to see his daughter in Ohio again. He came away feeling grateful. It was, if not the meaning, then the theme of his pilgrimage: gratitude. For all the struggles, the doubt, the upheavals, he’s had an extraordinary life. He wanted his pilgrimage to be an expression of thanks.
But to whom? To what?
“I don’t know! I don’t know,” he said, back in his rocking chair at home. “That’s part of the mystery, isn’t it?”