Shortly before he turned 50 years old, Louie DeArias made the first in a series of life-changing pacts with his good friend Alan Hergert.
At the time, they were on a trip to Spain and Portugal and heard about the sacred Catholic pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. The journey has many routes, the most well known being a stretch of 500 miles from the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Travelers have walked these routes for more than 900 years, and they were originally intended as a way to bypass purgatory and go straight into heaven. “Literally, millions of people have done this walk,” says DeArias.
But for DeArias and Hergert, the allure was less about avoiding purgatory and more about exploring the landscape, meeting new people and digging into their roots, as both have familial connections to the region.
DeArias, whose grandparents were from Spain, says it was an intriguing idea right off the bat, and being fortunate enough to retire at an early age from Pricewaterhouse Coopers, he had the time. But then there was the physical element.
“It was almost a joke at first,” DeArias says, adding that the five-week trip is no slouch of a hike, averaging 16 to 17 miles a day with a 20-pound pack. DeArias admits at the time he was overweight and out of shape, and thought to himself, “You’re going to walk 500 miles?”
“But before we knew it, we bought plane tickets and started training,” he says. And he takes his pacts seriously.
DeArias did most of his training in the Cascades, where hikers can get a good mix of elevation and endurance. “I’m ready when I can do three days in a row of 15 miles in the mountains,” he says. “Because the thing about these walks is that they are day after day, so you have to train for that.”
After all the training, in the fall of 2005, DeArias and Hergert boarded a plane for a journey they would never forget. For five weeks, they walked, tasted the food and wine, and meet a lot of people, a few of which they still keep in touch with today.
“On our first trip, we met people in very small villages that were probably related to us based on name and region. They opened their doors and we had dinners with them,” he says. “It was very special.”
To top it off, the group also raised $74,000 for American Heart Association.
It was also during that first trip that a second pact was made. Along the way, they met an 86-year old German doctor who still often made the pilgrimage.
“That’s when we jokingly said we’d start doing these walks during the fall of every other year until we were 87 years old.”
The two friends have made good on their promise ever since, and every other year they take a new route (there are hundreds across Europe) to Santiago de Compostelo, one of which was a remarkable 700 miles. They are planning their fifth walk this fall.
At times they have invited other friends and family on their trips and DeArias says it adds another dimension to the fun. But no matter what, the two of them will go for as many years as possible.
“Some people do it for religious reasons, to mark certain life events, physical reasons, for meeting people, tasting foods and wines of the regions, or, like us, all the above,” he says.
Now with all this mileage under his belt, he’s got a piece of advice or two for other adventurers interested in attempting a journey of this nature. For starters, he has found it helpful to break down the trip into three parts.
“First there’s the anticipation, the training and the researching. Then, there’s the journey itself where you are meeting new people and seeing new places. And then there’s the high at the end, the sense of accomplishment.”
Breaking it down into parts helps make the trip more accessible. And he says there are plenty of guidebooks travelers can read and follow to map out the actual route. The biggest lessons DeArias learned were about gear.
“Most people take way too much stuff. You really don’t need that much to do this,” he says. “Doing laundry systematically is key.”
As for what his friends and family members think of his extensive travels and growing ambitions to take more trips, he says they don’t always get it, but love that he is happy.
“They think I’m crazy. You can’t explain it; it’s a passion. You start doing it, and it’s easy to start loving it.”
the gear list
DeArias advises bringing clothing that is drip dry because you wash it at night and need it to be dry by the morning. If you bring cotton jeans, they will never dry. “I also see a lot of people making mistakes with their shoes and socks too. Blisters can be a big problem,” he says
* All end in Santiago de Compostela