Berkshire Camino invokes a contemporary pilgrimage

Mindy Miraglia set a painted stone on a mound of stones. She was standing at a high point in the Léon mountains where people have come for hundreds or thousands of years, since the Celts lived here.

She carried her stone here from home. In Lee, in a rock garden near the town green, she often sees brightly painted pebbles set out as an invitation. Setting one on a hill in northern in northern Spain, she was following a ritual that draws people from around the world.

“It’s a symbolic milestone,” she said. The idea is to carry a rock and leave it here as a tangible representation of a burden you want to let go.

Above the stones stands a pole 15 feet high, holding the Cruz de Fero, a small, clearly visible iron cross. In deep snow, it would have marked the way for travelers since the 9th century, and in a new way it still does.

Miraglia was walking on El Camino de Santiago.

It was once the route from the French border and the Pyrenees across 500 miles to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the relics of St. James, a few miles inland from the Atlantic.

A web of trails converge, and people walk from one town to the next. Hundreds of thousands of people walk part or all of the way each year. For many of them, she said, it is not a matter of faith but a time for reflection. They are looking for a kind of connection or clarity, for some element of a word rarely translated into the 21st century — pilgrimage.

She wants to bring that spirit to the Berkshires. 

As the pandemic keeps people in many countries from making the trek to Spain, this summer and fall she is hiking in her own hills. She is launching Berkshire Camino, a new entrepreneurial venture, and she will explore Lee and Lenox in the first of an expanding series of guided walks.

She is creating and curating the routes, linking trails and quiet back roads, often involving elements of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council’s High Road.

People come to the Camino from all over the world, she said. They recognize each other by the backpack and boots and a scallop shell many of them wear. 

“You feel a kinship,” she said. “You know you’re there for the same reason. … It’s like people at a protest or a vigil.”

They share a purpose. 

“They don’t ask a lot about where you come from,” she said. “You’re in the moment. People start out with the big things. About two minutes in, they’ll ask why are you doing this.”

And people will answer, because my spouse died. I lost my job. It’s a life-changing time.

She came at a turning point in her own life, she said. She first walked the Camino in 2018. She had come from Arizona to the Berkshires, where she grew up, to work with Kripalu on a project involving yoga and scientific research, and as it wound up, she found herself needing time to step outside her daily life and see it clearly.

On the Camino, people people pare down to essentials.

They walk open to the weather. If it rains, they will walk in the rain and get wet, and dry off as they go.

Miraglia carried one small bag with one change of clothes. She would stay the night at an auberge, she said, a simple and inexpensive bed for the night. She would wake for a quick breakfast and set out at 6 a.m. After a two or three hours of walking, she might stop for cafe con leche and a chocolate croissant, for energy.

By early afternoon, she would have found her hostel for the next night. Some people make the choice spontaneously, she said. They say they’re testing the experience and the universe, being present, being thankful. She often saved a space ahead, so she would know in the morning where she would sleep that night. 

When she reached it, she would take a shower and wash her spare set of clothes, and hang them to dry before bed.

The Camino can feel in many ways like the Appalachian Trail, she said — and yet she does not know anything like it in the U.S. This country has long and beautiful trails, but they often keep to the woods and the ridges.

On the Camino she found a community, from the day she stepped onto the trail. People often come to walk alone, she said. But as they walk they often find company. 

They run into people walking before and behind. They meet in the long open stretches, taking photos of cows in pasture.

“You’ll think you’ll never see them again,” she said, “… and then you’ll be walking through a big city like Léon and see them sitting at a café table. There’s an open-ness, a spirit people bring.”

On one of her first nights, on her first walk, she was alone in a small town. She found an Italian restaurant, early in the evening on Spanish time, where people rest in the heat of the day and cities wake up after dark.

Waiting for it to open, she found herself talking with a couple who spoke Italian and no English. They were walking the Way too, and they invited her to join them for dinner. More family joined them, and one spoke some English. They wound up sitting around the table with Google Translate, laughing.

She still talks with them almost every day online.

“The magic is the people you meet on the trail,” she said.

At the end of her second walk, she stayed in Madrid with a U.S. ex-pat in her 70s, Carolyn Baurle. They met on the trail, and when Miraglia had to stop for an injury, her new acquaintance offered her a place to rest.

“It was like finding a mother,” she said.

Her host showed her the city, invited her in, cooked for her. They celebrated a birthday in a restaurant with a view over the rooftops. And they are still friends.

She wants to create that kind of connection here.

She will work with guides who have the experience of steeping themselves in quiet retreats and teaching yoga. She wants to create a space where people can talk about why they have come, she said, and speak honestly, and consider questions that matter to them, knowing that the people around them will respect them. 

“This is something Kripalu does well,” she said, “to create a feeling of safety in a group, where people can be authentic and talk from the heart.”

Her focus gives the Berkshire Camino its own feel, she said, not a family walk to look for salamanders or tadpoles, not forest bathing, but its own kind of exploration and connection to people and place.

“People want that,” she said, in Covid-19, more than ever.

From a stone bench set up by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, Berkshire Camino walkerslook across the valley toward Parsons Marsh.
Photo by Kate Abbott

From a stone bench set up by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, Berkshire Camino walkerslook across the valley toward Parsons Marsh.

The Camino has just begin to re-open to visitors from some countries — but not the U.S. People around the world are waiting for the chance to walk there again, Miraglia said. 

It has called to people for centuries.

In the 800s, most of Spain was culturally part of the Arab world. It had become the center of the Umayyad empire. Arabic was the language of poetry and music, science and mathematics. In the south, in Cordóba, the library near the Great Mosque held 400,000 books, and scholars came across the Maghreb and from Egypt and Baghdad.

In the north, in Galicia, the cathedral became known as the resting place of St. James, the apostle. His bones are said to be interred there. And people began to travel long distances to see them.

Miraglia has been to the cathedral and seen the bronze sculpture of the saint. It is a ritual for walkers to come up from behind and hold him, she said. Her Berkshire Camino is not aligned with any one faith, though people are welcome to bring their own into their experience of it. For some it may feel spiritual. For some it may feel like an adventure.

“For some people it’s a physical challenge,” she said. Some people want to push themselves, “… which the Camino does in every possible way. It shows us where we’re strong and where we’re weak. You see yourself under a microscope. I didn’t realize how resilient I am, and stubborn about being resilient. I will find a way. I will keep rising up every day.”

“Seeing that is helping me launch this business.”

She walked 10 to 12 miles a day on the pilgrim road, and she had never known she could. In some stretches she might see a small town every few miles, she said, but in others, walking in the countryside through farms and vineyards, she could walk all day in long, flat stretches of desert and farmland.

Now she looks out from her house in Lee and knows how far she can walk from there.

Her Berkshire Camino walks will cover about five miles at a time, moving from one town to another across the Berkshires. She and a guide will lead groups of about eight people, she said.

One of her first walks sets out from downtown Lee and up to the new creamery store at High Lawn Farm. Here the walkers can pause for a sip of water at the outdoor tables and watch the calves in the pasture. They can look out across the valley and sample new flavors of ice cream.

They go on down to Laurel Lake, where a dirt road connects to trails through Edith Wharton’s gardens at the Mount, and then up Kemble Street, past Shakespeare & Company, to downtown Lenox.

She is plotting out new routes up and down the county, and she is working with the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, as they piece together the High Road — an ongoing project to weave a network of trails connecting towns across the Berkshires.

The BNRC is now planning to open the first section of the High Road in 2021, she said. Their new Mahanna Cobble Trail on Bousquet in Pittsfield will connect as far as Yokun Ridge in Lenox.

This summer and fall, Miraglia is collaborating with them as she creates her own walks, incorporating a stone bench they have set up for a rest or a board walk out on Parsons Marsh.

On her second walk in late July, she begins at Tanglewood and leads her company up Undermountain Road. It is a hot, bright day with a light breeze, and the sky is cloudless. Queen Anne’s Lace and chicory are blooming along the shoulder. At Stonover Farm, the ducks are resting in the shade.  

The walkers head gently and steadily along, moving naturally into pairs. They are talking quietly through their masks about the changes they have seen in this unprecedented year, the uncertainty of the future and the family they miss and may not see again until the pandemic is gone.

They turn uphill past a riding stable. A woman is leading a child on horseback through the fields. When the walkers pause for water, they can look out across the fields to the marsh and measure how far they have come.

Higher on this hill they will turn into Kennedy Park and climb to a meeting of trails and come down again to the northern edge of town near Chocolate Springs, On a Roll and the Arcadian Shop.

Miraglia wants to expand these trips and connect them, she said, so that people can walk two in one day, resting at lunchtime — and eventually so that they can walk across the county and across several days. She wants to give depth to them.

“When people walk the Camino, they will have researched it and aspired to it for years,” she said.

And they carried it with them for years afterward, sometimes tangibly. She recalls a small book she carried like a passport and collected new stamps every day, as a tangible record of each step on the way. Those confirmations came to have weight for her.

“They are ritual moments,” she said.

People often come away from a Camino feeling moved and changed, she said, and they often go back. They come away with connections. She has friends now across the U.S., in Spain, Italy, and some want to come and walk here with her and help her to get this new venture going.

And people come away from the Camino with an awareness of living mindfully. 

People will often come home and go through their closets, she said, and clean out the house. They will feel newly connected to what feels essential and uncluttered in their lives.

She often feels a similar energy here.

“This is why people come to the Berkshires,” she said. “There’s a feeling here and a belief that they can find healing energy. It’s why people have lived here for hundreds of years.”

It’s why travelers have come to natural springs and Shaker communities have imagined lives of shared work and clear minds and equality.

On one of her first new walks this summer, she led her group to pause for a time on the platform in Parsons Marsh, and they stood (respectfully spread out) looking across the cattails to the lily pads. A redwing blackbird called in the reeds. Bullfrogs commented in the shallows.

In the water a weathered tree stands like a pole, and at the top a heron’s nest. By now the young birds will be getting ready to fly.

Parsons Marsh in Lenox gleams in the sun on a Berkshire Camino guided walk in late July.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Parsons Marsh in Lenox gleams in the sun on a Berkshire Camino guided walk in late July.

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