West Hartford >> A unicycle draws attention anywhere, but such a site is extremely rare on the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile Christian pilgrimage route through northwestern Spain. Yet, Ellis Boettger, a member of the St. Anselm College class of 2017, took his “mountain unicycle” on the long and amazing journey during his 2016 spring semester.
“The Camino,” a World Heritage Site, also known as the Way of St. James, is one of many pilgrimage routes to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the region of Galicia where, according to tradition, the remains of the saint are buried. Many travel the route, which dates back to the Middle Ages, as a retreat for spiritual growth. According to legend, St. James’ remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried at the cathedral. (Santiago is the local Galician dialect for the Latin, Sancti Iacobi, Saint James.) St. James is said to have been martyred by beheading in Jerusalem in 44 AD. According to Spanish legend, he had spent time preaching the gospel in Spain, but returned to Judaea upon seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary on the bank of the Ebro River.
Boettger, 21, spent 28 days dedicated to introspection, but he also took time to meet others and to learn about the myriad of people who make the trip each year. All the while, he rode his unicycle, which had been wrapped in a trash bag with duct tape during his flight overseas. It also served as a conversation-starter.
Though he originally intended to walk the distance, Boettger said “I’d been unicycling for seven years and taking Spanish lessons for 13. After buying my plane ticket, the idea of the unicycle came to me; it is a big part of who I am and I thought it would make this trip my own. I started training 12 to 27 miles a day.”
“It was a personal journey; I thought it would be an introspective trip so I went alone, the first trip I had ever taken by myself,” he said.
But, Boettger, a politics major learned one makes friends on the route from the minute one hits the trail, and continually thereafter - especially if you’re pedaling a one-wheeled vehicle.
“People cheered when they saw me coming. Mountain bikers loved it; I couldn’t count how many selfies they took with me.”
Even without the unicycle, he said, “People talk to you as soon as you meet. It’s the most popular hiking trail in the world and everyone wants to share.” He reported that as many as 1500 people reach the end of the trail each day.
Though he did walk part of the time, Boettger said his unicycle training helped, especially during the ride back down the long, steep hill to the Cruz de Fero (Cross of Iron).
“I was warned not to do it, but I had to. And it turned out to be the most amazing part of the route,” he said.
How long is the Camino? There’s no one answer as the trail is said to begin at each trekker’s door, which for Boettger is West Hartford, CT.
Unlike the Appalachian Trail in the United States, the Camino goes from Spanish town to town, where Boettger reported staying in “alberques,” a type of hostel unique to the traveling pilgrim.
Surprisingly to Boettger, he didn’t feel accomplished when he reached the Santiago de Compostela, the formal end of the trek or even at the “bonus” destination, Cape Finisterre, commonly said to be Spain’s westernmost point once known as “the end of the earth.”
“I expected to feel like ‘my journey is done’ but instead I wondered if I had done this at the right time of my life. Others made the trip for a loved one, to deal with a personal crisis, as a relief from pressure...”
“I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the journey until I returned to the U.S. Once home, I realized things had changed. I find I’m more understanding and patient. I hope my story can help interest people into doing the pilgrimage. Everyone should do it.”
Boettger returned with the shell of a sea scallop, a symbol of the Camino de Santiago, as the trek is a fundamentally a walk to the ocean. The many photos he took with his traditional film camera are now the basis of an independent study in photography, but the camera itself did not survive. It broke on the last day of his trip. The photos, preserved on film, were salvaged, perhaps a fitting end to a traditional journey.