Heart of Treasure Valley: Boise man walked 500 miles on an ancient pilgrimage road in Spain

He made new friends from around the world and came home changed

kjones@idahostatesman.comFebruary 3, 2013 

The first part of the trip, they say, is for the body. Walking 18 miles a day is hard on just about everything. Physically, that’s when you get stronger.

The middle part of the trip is for the mind. Walking for 30 days provides a lot of time to reflect on just about anything.

The final part is for the soul. That’s a 500-mile difference from who you were when you began — and therein is the journey.

He says: “ … I had no idea what was going to happen. And I walked it and — oh, my God — what a life-changer.”

For a month in September and October 2012, Kurt Koontz walked El Camino de Santiago — literally, the path of St. James — which was most recently brought into contemporary culture by the movie “The Way.”

But for 1,300 years before the movie, pilgrims have been walking the Camino across Spain to Santiago de Compostela, to the cathedral where the bones of St. James are said to be buried.

“To go on a cruise ship and meet uninteresting people and talk about how cool you are at your job and stuff — zero interest for me.

“To do something like this and end up meeting people from every possible walk of life, people from all over the world — I get tingles telling you about this. …

“I don’t care that 2 million people did this before me. There is never another person who would have the same experiences I had. It’s just like your path in life. We’re all so different; we’re all so unique.”

MORE TO EXPERIENCE

Kurt worked in sales at Micron for nearly a decade and then as a sales consultant with other projects until he retired in 2000. He was 36 years old.

“(I thought) if I keep working, I’m going to end up with a bunch more money. Which is not a bad thing — it’s a good thing. I just think there’s so much more to experience. So I set back one day and said, ‘What’s more important, money or time?’”

He paid off his debts, invested sensibly and now lives a simple, comfortable life. He does volunteer work with Friends in Action and he takes trips, most of which had been, up until now, lengthy bike trips nationally and internationally.

In 2006, he put his bike together in the Amsterdam airport and rode out the front door. He pedaled 2,000 miles and traveled 2,000 miles by train by himself through Europe.

UNKNOWN CALLING

“ … Every day was a highlight. If I would have gone on that trip and said, ‘I can’t wait to get to Switzerland or the French Riviera — what a waste of time. Then you’re always looking forward and you’re never right here. … ”

The walk on the Camino was not a lifelong yearning — although, on the other hand, perhaps everything in his life was leading up to it. Kurt learned about the Camino as a chance comment in a conversation. He remembered “Spain” and “camino,” and the seed was planted. The movie came out; the seed stirred.

“I just knew eventually I was going to do it. … I just kind of knew. I wish I could give you a better answer (as to why), but I really can’t. And then when it was time (several years later), I bought a ticket, and three weeks later, I was there.”

Even back home, Kurt is hard-pressed to explain why the Camino called to him.

“I left here without any judgment whatsoever. I’ll just give you The Beatles’ song: ‘Let it be.’ See what happens. Be open to everything. Be open to the whole experience and just kind of go with it.”

And he’s just as hard-pressed to say precisely what happened to him that was so life-changing.

“Nothing that I learned was new. Everything that I learned were things we all knew. You’re just over there and it just kind of grows deeper roots in you. It becomes more clear.”

Logistically, Kurt flew from Boise to Madrid, took three subways, a train, two bus rides and a taxi to his start in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, 10 miles from Spain. At this time of year, he was one of about 250 people per day to start (during peak summer months that might be 1,000 people). The closer he got to the start, the more and more people with packs that he would see.

“I’m suddenly with all these people who are my new family.”

RE-EVALUATIONS

He carried a pilgrim’s passport that allowed him entry to inexpensive hostels just for walkers, a walking stick (that he named Duran) and a 22-pound pack of sleeping bag and clothing pared to a minimum.

“I was walking along and thought, hey. What could I get rid of in my pack? Do I really need fingernail clippers? No. Do I really need 3 pair of underwear? No, really. … Do I need socks? Yes. Three pair? Not really. …

“I’m already living a minimalist life and I’m thinking about what I don’t need.

“And then, a day later, on a more emotional and spiritual level: What’s not in my pack that I need in my life? Career? … Love? … Family?

“While you’re over there walking, you’ve got nothing but time. So you’re able to spend more time really thinking about these things.”

And he walked. The path — sometimes a road, sometimes a path as wide as the Greenbelt, sometimes single track, or rocky and rugged — is marked by yellow arrows and scallop shells, the symbol of St. John.

SIGNS ON THE WAY

“I didn’t even worry about where the trail was. You just kind of get a faith (that you are going in the right direction) … and every once in a while there would be a yellow arrow to remind you.

“Well, in your life, there are signs everywhere. If we just kind of pay attention to signs and listen to them, you’re going to do OK. You can’t get all tied up in a knot about the stuff you can’t control.”

Kurt walked for six to nine hours a day, usually by himself. (Let’s be clear: Eighteen miles a day is above-average fast.) But his stories are peppered with people he met, the stories they told, the experiences they shared.

“ … I felt like I won the lottery every single day. I thought, ‘Wow. If tomorrow could possibly be as good as today is, then how lucky am I?’ And the next day would be better.”

SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE

There’s Peter, from Germany who gave him — a stranger — the scalloped shell of a pilgrim. There’s 7-year-old Mateo, from France, walking with his parents and younger sister. There’s the Cuban couple who hunts chukkars in Nampa; Mikkel from Denmark, who quit his job to walk the Camino.

“Everybody was equalized on the Camino. Nobody’s rich, nobody’s poor. Nobody has a better car; nobody has better stuff. We all have nothing. … We’re all just a bunch of people from around the world doing whatever we’re doing, trying to get to Santiago.

“ … You don’t talk about your job. You don’t talk about what you have or how cool you are because of your wealth or whatever. It’s just more of an exposure of really who you are.”

A naturally easy-going, outgoing man, Kurt delighted in meeting people. At first he was distraught having to say goodbye all the time. Another Camino lesson.

“I started thinking about it. Relationships end. …Ultimately, we die, so all your relationships end. But instead of focusing on the ending and ‘it’s bad,’ to be able to say, ‘How cool is that? That person came into my life, and how nice it was that we were able to spend that time together.’

“ … And then some of the people you’d say goodbye to, they’d just fizzle back in. … I don’t think there’s anything remotely random about these people who keep coming into your lives.”

There’s Elna from South Africa, who survived rape and harrowing psychological trauma. Penniless, she solicited donations to make the trip. (“If someone tells me, ‘I’m broke and I can’t go on the Camino, I say, ‘Well, Elna did it.’”) There’s Americans Deborah and her father, Harold, who was 82 years old.

“Such a joyous soul. We were together five minutes at best … and here I am, months later, telling about it.

“ … The more I met these people, the more I found out how we’re just all the same throughout the world. There’s no difference. Everybody deals with personal problems, relationship problems, money problems, health problems.

“There’s no us and them. It’s all a big, fine world full of people. That was nice. Really nice.”

‘CONRADUM’

On the last day of the Camino, Kurt walked to the cathedral in Santiago in the pouring rain.

“It didn’t matter; it was the finale. I’d be walking along, I’d just start singing. I’d dance a little bit, literally. … At the same time, I just found myself crying. Each emotion hit me like a wave without notice … I don’t know what made me cry. I didn’t know what made me happy.”

He attended the daily Pilgrim’s Mass in the ancient cathedral, hugged old friends, had his photo taken by tourists because he was a peregrino, a pilgrim. He got his compostela, the certificate of accomplishment, and received his Latin name, Conradum.

“If you’re seeking the meaning of life, you don’t get to kilometer marker 528 where there’s a little magic box that has all the secrets you’re looking for. That doesn’t happen. Nothing big happens — but everything happens. I don’t know if it’s a culmination of these smaller things, but you come out a different person.”

Somewhere along the road, Kurt decided other people needed to know about the Camino. Every day since he’s been back, he’s been writing.

“Before I left, I didn’t know what was going to happen. When I came home, I didn’t know what was going to happen. And now, all of a sudden, I’m penning a book. I never expected that. I never anticipated speaking … but now I have dreams of flying around the country talking to people … about this.

“The journey’s started. And it sure hasn’t ended.”

“ … How could you expect a little 30-day trip to be so overwhelming?”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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