“It was spectacular.”

That was the assessment of Kim Ruggiero, a Phoenix Catholic who, along with 13 other women, had the adventure of a lifetime this year while hiking an 89-mile trail along the Camino de Santiago through Spain and Portugal. The journey lasted eight days.

“There were streams and forests and vineyards,” Ruggiero said. They passed through hamlets, observed wildlife and gazed at rugged shorelines. Some prayed the rosary or meditated on the beauty and significance of their journey.

“You are so at peace when you’re walking.”

Over the centuries, tens of thousands have hiked the scenic network of trails that cross through lush landscapes in France and Portugal, ending in Northern Spain in the city of Santiago in Compostela. In 2022, more than 400,000 people traversed the well-worn paths.

It’s a spiritual journey with a sturdy physicality not meant for the faint of heart. The first day was the longest. The women hiked 15 miles.

“I think most of us had blisters,” Ruggiero said. “We all brought different things with us to be able to help each other.”

One of the women was a former cardiac care nurse whose husband, an orthopedic surgeon, guided them on managing blister care.

Most of the women in the group were Catholic and many were already friends before taking to the trail. Dr. Maria Chavira, chancellor and vice moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Phoenix, was one of those who made the journey.

Ruggiero asked her to be a spiritual guide for the group. Each day, Chavira would ask someone to read a selection of Scripture. Chavira would then offer a brief reflection.

Julie Nackard, another hiker, said she drew great meaning from the reflections, especially one in which Chavira challenged the women to reflect on compassion, mercy and gratitude. There were some particularly steep hills that day, and Nackard said the three concepts Chavira emphasized became a kind of mantra for her.

Both Nackard and Ruggiero reside in Flagstaff part of the year and many of the women in the group trained in the high-altitude city in preparation for the Camino.

Chavira, who regularly jogs and weight trains, didn’t do any special physical training but, she did focus on being intentional about the spiritual preparation. She said she took extra time in the morning to ponder what God might want to reveal to her during the trip.

“I’m about to walk in the footsteps of St. James. That’s huge,” she remembered thinking.

After the Scripture and reflection each morning, the group walked in silence for 30 minutes.

For a group of women friends who enjoyed chatting with each other as they made their way across the miles, the silence took commitment.

“When you get all these women together, we’re just yappin’, yappin’, yappin’,” Chavira chuckled. As they began their period of silence each day, they noticed they could hear everything.

“You hear their feet, you could hear the birds, you could hear a pianist — because we walked through neighborhoods. You could hear the people, you could hear the leaves,” Chavira said.

“That silence on the road was really palpable.”

As the hike progressed, the women found they enjoyed the times of silent reflection. Those periods of contemplation stretched to an hour or more some days. Nackard said she connected with the beauty of God’s creation.

“I always appreciate the beauty of nature, but I felt the nature that has been there for 2,000 years, pilgrims walking in the same place.

“It’s similar to a pilgrimage in the Holy Land, the beauty of walking in the steps where Jesus walked.”

The group boarded a catamaran at one point and saw 13 crosses, each about two stories high, along the shore and near a river.

The route marks the path the Blessed Virgin Mary took to bring the remains of St. James back to Spain for burial. St. James the Greater, brother of St. John the Evangelist, preached the Gospel in Spain in the first century AD. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he was martyred.

“What kept me going was the journey — the people that were on the journey with me,” Chavira said.

The main thing she said she gained from making the Camino was detachment: from her cell phone, email, thinking about cooking dinner, wearing makeup and doing her hair.

“All the detachment allowed the space for the real true relationship with another person, for that encounter to happen,” Chavira said.

Eating three meals a day together also helped the women grow closer to each other.

“You just learn things about people over meals. You share in that fellowship and life with people.”

Ruggiero said that even when the hiking got intense, she never thought of quitting.

“Knowing that we were all together — the sense of community really helped all of us keep going. Some of us knew each other a little bit and some of us had known each other for decades so it wasn’t an option to not move on.”

“Having all 14 of us together was definitely a sisterhood.”

They arrived in Compostela on Oct. 12, not knowing that it was a national holiday and important feast day for the Church in Spain.

“All of us held hands and we walked into the square where the cathedral is in Santiago,” Ruggiero said.

It was the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, which celebrates the first Marian apparition in Christian history. The apparition took place when St. James the Greater was preaching in Roman Hispania, modern-day Spain.

“A lot of us are definitely Catholic and what we found was the amount of faith and Catholicism in Galicia, Spain — you could literally feel the peace and faith in our entire walk,” Ruggiero said.

They definitely experienced that when they joined in a procession and then entered the church for Mass in Spanish. The priest didn’t recognize them and asked if they were from the U.S. The women said they were, and that led him to note their commitment to their faith during his homily.

The pilgrims also attended Mass in English. The priest asked each one in the crowd of about 75 people to stand, state their name, where they were from and which route they had taken to arrive at the cathedral in Compostela.

Ruggiero, a part-time Flagstaff resident, found out that another pilgrim in the church that day was also from the city in Arizona’s White Mountains.

The priest invited the pilgrims to come to the front of the church, light a candle and state a prayer intention if they wanted to publicly acknowledge the reason for their taking part in the Camino.

Some prayed for a loved one with cancer. Others prayed for peace in the Middle East or for deliverance from addiction.

“There were so many different reasons why people were walking that all of us got super-emotional,” Ruggiero said.

“That, along with knowing that there are so many people that are facing so many hurdles in their life or in other people’s lives and they’re walking for the benefit of others, was just amazing.”

At the end of their journey, the women all held hands and jumped in the air. The months of careful preparation and training had paid off.

“That’s my favorite picture,” Nackard said. “We were there and we were as one. It was beautiful. It definitely deepened friendships.”

Remembering the eight-day adventure, Chavira mulled the fruits of the endeavor.

“Immense joy,” Chavira said. “Joy and gratitude.”