MaryAnn Ferrin, a retired Utah school teacher with years of pain, work and caretaking behind her, decided to do something new for herself. At 59, she could have taken up golf or knitting. She could have gone on a shopping spree or a cruise.

She walked across Spain instead.

She walked 500 miles.

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, they call it — the Way of St. James. It is considered one of the world's great pilgrimages. By definition, a pilgrimage is a long journey to a distant land through hard circumstances that leaves the pilgrim richer for the experience. It was all of that for MaryAnn. She left her cares, along with a rock from Utah, on a mountaintop.

People have been making this pilgrimage for a thousand years. The journey begins in northeastern Spain, at the base of the Pyrenees on the border it shares with France. It takes travelers west all the way to the Atlantic, to Santiago de Compostela, where tradition has it that the remains of St. James were buried. Among those who have made the journey are St. Francis of Assisi and Geoffrey Chaucer.

For 35 days, MaryAnn walked with a handful of strangers from other countries and a couple of guides. They walked 12 to 20 miles a day, up and down mountains, through chestnut orchards and forests of Eucalyptus and pine and over barren plains and passing through villages. They slept in hotels or monasteries. They ate in restaurants and taverns.

"Every night something was sore," she says, "and I wondered if I could make it."

It was arduous, but it wasn't the most difficult thing she ever did.

She watched her husband battle MS for 18 years. He was her high school sweetheart. His name was Bard — what better name for the husband of an English teacher? — and they were married 35 years. She taught and mentored high school students for nearly three decades; he was a ranger for state parks. They raised two daughters together. MaryAnn managed to teach and care for Bard when the disease was at its worst, and they suffered together.

"The last four or five years were really tough," she recalls.

Bard succumbed four years ago. Mary Ann retired from teaching earlier this year. Her husband and job gone, MaryAnn found herself at a crossroads.

"I was starting the last quarter of my life," she says. "I wanted to get my mind straight. I had been a teacher and a caretaker of others. Now it was time to do something for myself."

For years she had read about the pilgrimage, and then suddenly one day she did it. The day before the deadline, she signed up for the trip, then flew off to Spain last month alone. She ruminated on her life as she hiked. Free of phone calls and TV and errands and to-do lists, there was plenty of time for reflection. She celebrated her 59th birthday and the anniversary of Bard's death on the trail.

"It was time to put all of it to rest a little," she explains with an English teacher's eloquence. "It felt like I was doing that. It was time to enjoy the rest of my life. I was having to redo everything. He was always that one person who was a witness to my life. He was the only person who knows me. And now he was gone. I didn't have him and I didn't have teaching either. It was time to start over."

One of the traditions of the pilgrimage is to bring a rock from home and place it on top of a mountain near the town of Ponferrada. MaryAnn packed a rock from the back yard of her home and left it on the mountain next to an iron cross. It is a symbolic act of leaving one's burdens, trials and sins behind, of letting them go and moving on.

"It felt like that for me, like I was putting it all to rest," she says. "Walking off that mountain, I felt jubilant. I felt free. I felt like I could go on and have a good life."

She is already planning her next adventure in the rest of her life. She is going to travel to Poland and Germany and visit many of the historic sites. This time she won't be walking.

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Send e-mail to