It takes a special type of person to undertake a 500-mile ancient Christian pilgrimage on foot. It’s a difficult task, definitely, but hundreds of thousands of these special people walk Spain’s Camino de Santiago every year, and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. To do most of the 500 miles on a unicycle? That’s another type of special. West Hartford’s Ellis Boettger is that person.
The Camino de Santiago winds its way down from the Pyrenees mountains on the border with France, across northern Spain toward the coast of the Galicia region on the Atlantic coast. According to Christian tradition, the area of northwestern Spain where the Camino ends is the final resting place of St. James, one of the 12 apostles. Even though Boettger is not particularly religious himself, he speaks of the Camino de Santiago with an almost religious reverence. He says the Camino calls people to travel it. “It changes you,” he says of his trip in the spring.
The unicycle itself was an afterthought. It was only after he bought his plane ticket that he thought to bring it along. He’d been unicycling for seven years by that point, and in January started training at the West Hartford reservoir, doing 16-mile laps at a time. “I was 100 percent confident, except for the first day,” he says with a chuckle. He says he did about 400 miles of the 500-mile journey on the unicycle. Boettger found the early stretch over the Pyrenees mountains easier than expected, and after that it was smooth sailing on the unicycle.
The 21-year-old political science major in his senior year at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire, says the people he met along the way have changed the way he moves through the world — beyond the one-wheeled cycling, that is. In the town of Astorga, just about the middle of Boettger’s journey, a Swedish woman doing her own Camino trek told Boettger she didn’t think he was a very good listener. He says she told him he tries to be a good listener, but only listens to see what he can add to the conversation later on. Boettger says the remark has changed the way he listens, always mindful now of what the other person is saying.
Perhaps Boettger’s newfound attentiveness to the experience of others is the result of the particular sleeping conditions of the pilgrimage. Along the Camino, most pilgrims stay in albergues, a type of hostel specific to the Camino. The albergues are either run by the government, the local parish, or privately, and mostly feature bunk-bed arrangements. At a cost of $15-$20 for the private-run albergues, pilgrims can get a hot meal, reliable warm water and Wi-Fi.
But these changes — the reflectiveness, the listening — were not instantaneous for Boettger. “I really did not think anything changed about me, until I got back home,” Boettger says. “I was actually pretty bummed, pretty upset, that when I got to the 0.00 [kilometer] marker, I felt like nothing really changed about my life, other than the fact that I completed this.”
It was when he got home that he realized the trip had changed him. He says he feels less judgmental, a lesson we could all use. He said he is now more reflective, pausing to consider more of the world around him.
Of all the things Boettger could credit as inspiration to do a 500-mile trek in Spain, he points to the West Hartford public school language education system. He had been taking Spanish since the fourth grade, and repeated references to the Camino piqued his interest.
And he’s not done yet. Boettger plans to do a shorter version of the Camino in March, and is weighing whether to bring the unicycle, saying there might be snow on the ground, and that he’s “looking for a different experience,” anyhow. Buoyed by his experience on the Camino, Boettger is also considering hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the West, as well as another pilgrimage in Italy.
His advice for those who might want to set off on their own journey along the Camino?
“It opens your eyes, and if you think at all that the Camino might be calling to you, even just a little bit, just do some research. … If you’re up in the air? Do it.”