Santiago de Compostela: An Interview With Kerry O’Regan
Marika Martinez, owner/operator of Women’s Own Adventure, interviews Kerry O’Regan, retired academic and author, on her journey along ‘The Pilgrim Trail’.
Your walk was an amazing personal achievement,
When did you first think of doing this?
The strange thing it, it just literally popped out of my mouth. I didn’t know I was thinking about it; I hardly knew anything of it. But then, in response to someone’s innocent question about my post-retirement plans, I said, ‘I’m going to walk the Camino’. I guess the idea must have been sitting there somewhere, unbeknownst to me, but it was a surprise when I said it. I had to think about it plenty after that.
What inspired you?
Perhaps everyone needs at least one great adventure in their life, and this was mine. Into my sixties, ending my full-time working life, I think I was seeking some living-out of that metaphorical journey of transition to the next phase of my life. It needed to be big; it needed to be different; it needed to be challenging; it needed to involve the whole of me – physically, emotionally, intellectually, geographically, spiritually. And if I didn’t do it then, I probably never would, and that would have been a shame. I didn’t want to add another item to the list of things I might have done.
Did you have any doubts about succeeding?
I generally have a can-do attitude towards life, but I’d never done anything like this before, so I did have the occasional wobble. The total unknownness of it all, though there was excitement in that too. The physical demands; 750 km is a long way for someone who in their normal life would walk less than an hour a day. I prepared myself, though, and I think that’s important. I read all I could find, talked to people who’d done it, learned some basic Spanish, got good shoes and a pack, and upped my walking to a couple of 4-hour stints a week. I didn’t leave success to chance; I did all I could to make it a likely outcome.
And then when there were challenges on the way – I got sick, fell and cut my head, tired of the crowded albergues – I thought in terms of small goals: ‘I’ll just do the next little thing I can do and not think any further than that’. Life – and the Camino – is made up of tiny steps, each one doable.
And I’d given myself permission to bail out if I needed to; to give it my best shot, but then if it got too hard, to stop or catch a bus for part of the way, and not feel a sense of failure about that. There was that ultimate safety net I allowed myself.
Being a woman on your own, what obstacles did you have to overcome?
Every decision, every challenge, every joy and achievement, was something I had to face on my own. That was a bit scary at times, but liberating as well. There were advantages too; I think it was probably easier to engage with other pilgrims along the way, and I didn’t need to negotiate anything with anyone else. I could go at my pace, in my space, stopping (and starting) whenever and wherever I chose. I even made myself more alone in that, while there was plenty of internet access available along the way, I chose to cut off all communication with friends and family; a kind of 40 days of solitude in the desert.
Having said that, there was a wonderful sense of community among the pilgrims. We looked out for each other. And the Spanish people looked out for us as well. Camino pilgrims have been walking that path for many centuries and the locals seem to feel a sense of responsibility for their care and wellbeing. I felt totally safe.
Did you find age a barrier?
I had thought I might be an oldie, but I wasn’t the oldest person I encountered along the way. Not by a long shot. The age range was incredible: families with young children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged folk and oldies like me or more so. And mostly we interacted freely with each other. Walking the Camino is a very leveling thing – age, nationality, spiritual, social, professional and cultural backgrounds, were all less important than the pilgrim persona we had in common.
My age was an advantage in some ways in that it gave me permission to walk at a more moderate pace than those who were younger and fitter and more accustomed to long-distance walking. I’d say Hola! cheerily to those who strode past and think to myself, ‘Kez, you’re doing great with your 20 km a day – you’ll get to where you get to’.
How did you deal with demands of family while preparing for your adventure?
I live alone and am only responsible for myself on a daily basis, so really, all I had to ‘deal with’ from my family was their support, encouragement and admiration. Not too hard.
Did this achievement help shape your future outlook?
So much. I carry the experience of it with me always. Like having a jewel of great price in my pocket that I feel there all the time and that I can take out and wonder at whenever I wish. The richness of the experience – the countryside, the people, the pilgrim path, the inner journey – and the sense of, whatever it is, yes, I can do it. The deep inner peace. I thought that might fade, but now, a year later, I’ve lost my anxiety about losing it. The recognition of clutter in my life and the delight in shedding that, in living more simply. My latest uncluttering has been to let go of my car. I now walk or ride or go by bus or train. And the sense of things both mattering intensely and mattering nor at all; of caring passionately, but then being able to let go without regret.
You had some very harrowing times during your walk, tell us the worst of them and how did you deal with situation emotionally and physically?
The worst was probably falling and cutting my head badly. One moment I was walking along, the next I was face down in the sharp gravel with blood all over my glasses, and thinking ‘Oh shit!’. I did feel alone then, but not for long. I was soon being tended to by unseen hands, reassured by disembodied voices. Fellow pilgrims ministered first aid, gathered up both me and my belongings, flagged down a passing car, took me into the village, called an ambulance, and stayed with me until I was taken off.
One of the dictums I live by comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘Don’t panic!’, and that was really important then. I couldn’t make the cut go away, so just had to deal with the reality of it. I didn’t know where it was the ambulance had whisked me off to. I had taken out travel insurance, but would I have to pay up front for the ambulance ride and the medical treatment? None of the medical staff spoke English and my Spanish was pretty minimal. What I did know was that I just needed to stop and rest and recover.
My most constant message to myself was ‘C’mon Kez, you can do it’ and I really needed to believe that then. The situation as a whole was overwhelming, so I didn’t try to deal with it all. Just the next little bit, then the next little bit. Instead of feeling like a victim, I thought OK, this is a problem and I can solve it – and I did.
What excites you about life?
The surprises. The unexpected. Living the joy.
How do you view challenges?
I see challenges as problems to be solved, and I really enjoy problem solving. I hate giving up on something and I relish drawing on my creativity to find my own way through a challenging situation.
What has been the hardest challenge you have faced in your life and how did you tackle it?
Probably the breakdown of my marriage after 23 years. Again the same pattern – not being overwhelmed by the enormity of it, but just dealing with the next little bit. Not knowing where that would lead, and not needing to know.
Have you always had an adventurous spirit?
I probably was in my own quiet way, but it took a while for that to emerge. I was a quiet, timid child, though one with a rich imagination. I’ve never been very adventurous physically - no hang-gliding or mountain climbing or such – but the older I’ve got, the more prepared I’ve become to have a go at things. Ordinary things like changing a tyre or tiling a floor. I’m not fearful; I don’t expect bad things to happen – and mostly they don’t.
What is the key to success, is it all about attitude?
It’s a lot about attitude. I really love the Nike slogan – just do it. It’s about being prepared to have a go, and then getting stuck into it. But it’s also about knowing yourself and not setting unrealistic goals. It’s also about knowing what’s important and what’s not, and not sweating the small stuff. It’s about honouring your own strengths and doing it your way, not worrying about whether it’s better or worse than anyone else’s; aiming to achieve your best but accepting that it ain’t gonna be perfect. Fear of failure can be so inhibiting. Take the leap and be philosophical about where you might land. Not taking yourself too seriously. I can’t imagine life without a sense of the ridiculous (especially my own ridiculousness). I laugh a lot.
Where is your favorite place to travel?
I don’t think I have a favourite place. Every place, like every person, is unique, to be enjoyed and wondered at. When I was a child and wanting it to be Christmas or next year or whatever, my mum used to say, ‘The best time is now’. I reckon the best place is here, wherever ‘here’ happens to be.
Where is the most exotic or amazing location you have been?
Probably Tryon Island at the southern end of the Barrier Reef. Years ago a group of us were dropped there for a week. Totally uninhabited except for the wildlife. No fresh water except what we took ourselves, no houses, no shops, no nothing. Bliss.
What is on your TO DO LIST?
Live till I die. I don’t plan in the big picture sense; I’ve never mapped out my life. I just see to the next corner which isn’t too far away. That way the surprises just keep on coming. A year before I walked the Camino I had no idea I’d be doing that.
Do you have a recommended reading list?
Not really. I read a lot and often have a rave about whatever I’m reading at the time. Then my friends might be enticed into reading whatever it is – and will likely scratch their heads and say ‘What…?!’. I think reading’s such a personal thing. If I were to choose a favourite group of authors, I’d probably say mediaeval mystics like Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. And I can almost hear the ‘What…!?’s as I write that.
What is your favorite quote?
There’s a little book of Quaker Advices and Queries, and one of them says, in part, ‘Live adventurously’. You can’t do much better than that. Also something by Piet Heim, ‘The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race’.
Who inspires you?
Anyone who is prepared to live adventurously. Not in a gung ho way, but combined with awe and reverence for the earth and its inhabitants. Especially women who have had the courage to do stuff when that stuff was beyond the limits of what they were ‘allowed’ to do.
My mother was probably the guiding light of my life. I was born in the 40s at a time when women’s roles were defined very differently from men’s, but there was never a hint that there was anything I shouldn’t aspire to because I was female. In fact, I recall when I didn’t come top of the class, my mother saying, ‘Fancy letting a boy beat you!’. A strong message to carry through life.
Finally, what is your advice for women who feel too old to pursue their dreams or are fearful of trying something new?
What’s the worse thing that can happen? Can you live with that? – Go for it!
About Kerry O'Regan:
Kerry O’Regan lives in suburban Adelaide in a house called Girt by Sea. She is a retired academic, a Quaker, a grandmother and unlikely adventurer. At the age of 63 and only moderately fit Kerry made the decision to walk an ancient seven hundred and fifty kilometer pilgrimage across the top of Spain, the Camino de Santiago.
Kerry O’Regan is also an author and she has written about her journey along the Camino de Santiago in her book: The Things My Best Friends Told Me
(A woman sets out to walk the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage across the north of Spain. No longer young, she walks alone, leaving family and friends behind. But she also carries them with her, in the messages they’ve written on her stick. Each day she walks and each day she reads the messages, and muses on them. These are her musings, on the places she sees, the people she meets, the events she lives. They’re whimsical, witty, and wise.
The book is available from Ginninderra Press