PHOTO SUBMITTED / Patrick Mooney of Brookhaven is shown here on his first day hiking the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route traveled by millions since the Middle Ages. The Pyrenees Mountains are shown in the background.
PHOTO SUBMITTED / Patrick Mooney of Brookhaven is shown here on his first day hiking the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route traveled by millions since the Middle Ages. The Pyrenees Mountains are shown in the background.

Destination: Adventure: Brookhaven native makes tracks – and a pilgrimage – across Spain

Published 11:00pm Saturday, February 1, 2014

It’s 8 a.m. on an August morning in St. Jean Pied du Port, France, a small town enclosed by crumbling walls close to the Spanish border. Lincoln County native Patrick Mooney has overslept at his albergue (that’s a hostel), and he’s looking for an ATM so he can buy a loaf of bread – and start a 500-mile cross-county hike.

Camino Journal: Day One

I wandered around the city, stumbling over medieval walls, a medieval church, two medieval bridges, and at last the ATM. It worked out well, though, because otherwise I wouldn’t have seen St. Jean.

Not a bad morning for a guy who dreams of one day becoming a professor of medieval history. In fact, it’s his passion for that subject that led the recent Ole Miss graduate to attempt the “Camino de Santiago” in the first place.

Recognized as one of the most famous networks of long-distance trails in the world, the Camino de Santiago winds through Europe and ends at the supposed tomb of St. James in northwest Spain. For many who have walked its paths, the journey is a spiritual pilgrimage. Mooney can appreciate that aspect as well.

“I couldn’t pass up the chance to do a pilgrimage that tens of millions of other believers have done through the centuries,” he says.

The history/classics double major also admits the trip helped him decide whether or not he really wanted to spend the next several years in graduate school getting a PhD.

After weeks immersed in a sublime setting of ancient cathedrals, castles, and museums, it’s no wonder Mooney plans to start classes this fall.

“Most European cities have two parts or layers,” he explains. “The ‘old city’ is the part that was there during the Middle Ages or even before. The new city is what grew up around it since then. I loved stepping back in time and going from one layer into another.”

Mooney chose what is called the Camino Frances for his own particular trek, a route that begins in St. Jean, France, and crosses Spain. Carrying a backpack and a Spanish phrasebook, the Eagle Scout set out on what would be a 35-day journey over the Pyrenees Mountains and through desert-like plains and lush forests. Along the way he encountered dozens of villages and hundreds of fellow pilgrims from all over the world. He even bumped into some SEC football-loving Southerners.

Camino Journal: Day 21

It was fun being able to talk “normal” for a bit. Here’s what I mean:

(Me talking with English beginners) “Will you both go look at the city?”

(Me talking with non-Southerners) “You guys about to go sightsee?”

(Me talking with other Southerners) “Y’all fixin’a go sightseein’?”

Mooney spent most evenings as a guest in albegues strategically located along the path route. In addition to offering dormitories, some of these pilgrim-only facilities also serve meals. Mooney kept family and friends updated on his adventures through Facebook and skyping whenever Internet was available.

He reached the official end of the Camino de Santiago – the doors of the city’s cathedral – on Sept. 29 of last year.

“At noon each day, pilgrims cram into the cathedral for a service that priests conduct in various languages,” Mooney explains. “A nun led us in singing a hymn, and hundreds of voices lifted together in unison.” He also tells of a five-foot tall incense burner (a botafumeiro) that was suspended by ropes from the top of the cathedral. “It swung in a 100-foot arc above the crowd, filing the air with a sweet aroma. It even overpowered the smell of us trail-worn pilgrims.”

After spending an extra day sightseeing in Santiago, Mooney decided a few more miles wouldn’t hurt him. The town of Finisterre on Spain’s coastline was just a three-day hike away.

Camino Journal: October 3, 2013

Made it to Finisterre! I hiked out to the lighthouse on a small peninsula, the westernmost point in Spain. The view was incredibly beautiful. Steep rocky cliff sides all around and a great view of the Atlantic. It was the perfect way to end the Camino. It’s been an amazing adventure and I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to do it.