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One Wheeling the Camino de Santiago

November 07, 2016

Chip Underhill
Communications and Marketing
(603) 641-7326 (Desk)
cunderhill@anselm.edu

Ellis BoettgerEllis Boettger took a highly unusual trip during a semester off last spring, and now he has told his tale to the Saint Anselm College community in a presentation as part of the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month on October 27 in Alumni Hall.

A unicycle draws attention anywhere, but on the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile Christian pilgriage route through northwestern Spain? The senior politics major took his "mountain unicycle," wrapped for an overseas flight with garbage bags and duct tape, on his 28-day trek.

"The Camino" is customarily traveled as a means of spiritual growth, and Boettger confirms, "It was a personal journey; I thought it would be an introspective trip so I went alone – and it was the first time I traveled alone." However, as it turns out, Boettger did not lack for companionship along the way.

"People talk to you as soon as you meet. It's the most popular hiking trail in the world and everyone wants to share," he says, as many as 1500 people are ending the trail every day.

It's also easy to meet people when you're on a unicycle. "People cheered when they saw me coming. Mountain bikers loved it; I couldn't count how many selfies they took with me."

How long is the Camino? There's no one answer, as the route is known popularly to begin at your door, which is West Hartford, Conn. for Boettger. In fact, though, the Camino de Santiago is made up of dozens of routes leading to Santiago, Spain. There, pilgrims may visit the shrine of the Apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Unlike the Appalachian Trail in the United States, the Camino goes from Spanish town to town, where Boettger stayed in "alberques," a type of hostel unique to the traveling pilgrim.

Originally, Boettger intended to walk the route, but says, "I'd been unicycling for seven years and taking Spanish lessons for 13 years. After buying my plane ticket, the idea of the unicycle came to me; it is a big part of me and would make this trip my own. I started training 12-27 miles a day."

That training especially helped on the long, steep hill which he ascended to get to the Cruz de Fero, a huge iron cross and hilltop landmark visited by many pilgrims.

"I was warned not do it - but I had to," he says. It was "the most amazing part of the route" that he unicycled (although he says he did walk a fair amount).

Surprisingly to Boettger, he didn't feel accomplished when he reached the Santiago de Compostela, the formal end of the trek, or even the "bonus" destination, Cape Finisterre, commonly said to be Spain's westernmost point and known as "the end of the earth."

"I expected to feel like 'my journey is done' but instead I wondered if I had done this at the right time of my life. Others made the trip for a loved one, to deal with a personal crisis, as a relief from pressure. I didn't realize the magnitude of the journey until I returned to the U.S." There, he felt, "Things had changed. I find I'm more understanding and patient. I hope my story can help interest people into doing it. Everyone should do it."

Boettger returned with the shell of a sea scallop, a symbol of the Camino as the trek is a fundamentally a walk to the ocean. The many photos he took are now the basis of an independent study in Photography, but his camera is not: it broke on the last day of his trip.

At Saint Anselm, Boettger is a Kevin B. Harrington Student Ambassador with the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, president of the Ultimate Frisbee team, and a volunteer at the Making Community Connections charter school in Manchester, N.H.

In the future, he envisions "being on the media side of politics; something unbiased and thought provoking." And there or elsewhere, Boettger says his trip will remain a formative experience.

"The Camino will always be with me. I will be walking it throughout my life, not just last summer. It's made me look at people differently and given me a better sense at where my priorities should lie."

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