A Walk in the Clouds: One Man's Spiritual Awakening

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - Kurt Koontz walks softly and carries a big stick. It's a cherished memento of his spiritual awakening last fall when he walked all 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, "The Way of St. James," in northwestern Spain.

Since the Middle Ages, the Camino has been the chief route of pilgrims traveling to the spectacular cathedral where the remains of the apostle St. James are said to be interred.

"Muslims have Mecca," says Koontz, "Christians have Santiago."

Koontz, though, considers himself to be more spiritual than religious, so he saw walking the Camino as an exercise in self-renewal. When he told friends he was flying to Europe to walk the entire length of "The Way," about half said he was crazy.

"The other half got it," he says. "They understood."

Koontz first flew to France and made his way to a small town in the Pyrenees, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It's the chief starting point for those who plan to walk the entire length of the Camino.

Koontz says the first day's hike was 16 miles and not far along, he found himself high up in the clouds, with a breath-taking view of the valleys below. Before him was Basque country, rugged and picturesque.

"I had a backpack that weighed 22 pounds," says Koontz, "And the very first day it was apparent there were many things I just didn't need."

He gave away a book and a pillow, a nice one. He hadn't realized there would be pillows at most of the hostels he would call home throughout his adventure. He also pared down the clothing he would carry. It made more sense just to wash and dry a few things every night before bed.

For anyone walking the Camino, the weather can often be a deal-breaker, but Koontz says he had sunshine nearly every day.

"I started in the middle of September and ended in the middle of October, so it was a little cooler toward the end," he explains. He had been warned of the heat, especially in the middle stretch, but that was never an issue. Instead, it was the wind.

"Every day it was kind of blowing you sideways," he says with a laugh.

Although in looking back, he sees it was no laughing matter. After a few days, he began to question his decision to walk the entire route.

"I knew I would finish, but I wasn't sure I could have fun doing it every day," he says with a grin.

But then Koontz realized that eventually there would be an end to his walk.

"So, it turned from 'Can I do this for the next 25 days?' to 'I only have 25 days of this left.'"

That epiphany changed his perspective.

Also helping to ease the psychological burden: the people he met along the way.

"I think there are 195 countries in the world. I met people from 35 different countries," he says, a bit surprised at the tally he's just made in his head.

And yet Koontz walked alone about 80 percent of the time. And that gave him the opportunity to review his life and make a few corrections.

He turns thoughtful.

"You have 30 days to spend time by yourself and kind of evaluate a lot of things. I'm making a cognizant effort to give up worrying."

And he had less to worry about than most of the others. Like blisters.

"I saw feet where people had five, six blisters-in between toes, on heels, on the soles of their feet. It was horrific," he says shuddering.

In fact, the physical toll of the undertaking was a great equalizer. There was an esprit de corps that grew among the travelers.

"Nobody was rich. Nobody's poor. You can't have a flashier backpack than the guy next to you. We all stay in the same place," he reflects.

The Camino itself affords even the weariest walker an amazingly intimate tour of the Basque region. One portion might stretch along miles of vineyards while another might offer access to a small village.

The natives, says Koontz, were unusually cordial and always seemed to have plenty of food on hand. The cuisine was heavy on lamb stew, paprika and sweet, red peppers.

And then, one day, Koontz realized he was approaching Santiago and his spiritual quest would soon end.

He walked into town in a downpour, with waves of emotion washing over him.

"I'm just walking along and I find myself with this intense happiness and, two minutes later, I find myself crying," he says.

It was critical that he arrive at the cathedral before noon. That's because every day of the year a special mass is held to celebrate the life and legacy of St. James. It's a spectacle rarely found anywhere else in Christendom.

And now that he's back in Boise, Koontz finds himself on yet another journey. He's writing a book about the experience and hopes to have it published later this year.

But one question still hangs in the air: would he do it again?

While he is the first to recommend the Camino experience to anyone with even a scintilla of interest, Koontz pauses and looks over at his walking stick, the one he named Duran, now propped against the wall of his den.

What possible secret is he about to divulge? Maybe the biggest of all.

"When it was over," he says sheepishly, "I did check into a five-star hotel for three days. It was awesome."