Peggy McCarthy’s pilgrimage never really began, and never really ended. Even while walking on the familiar Salmon Creek Greenway Trail, checking on baby turtles and eagles along the way, she recites Buddhist chants of gratitude and sees every step as part of a spiritual journey.
McCarthy, 80, embarked in mid-March on what was meant to be the trip of her lifetime: She flew to Portugal to meet a friend and walk part of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient trail that has become popular with spiritual seekers in modern times.
Almost as soon as she arrived, Europe started shutting down to slow the transmission of COVID-19. McCarthy and her friend did some pre-pilgrimage sightseeing, then realized they’d better flee for home while they still could.
The adventure amounted to a test of the “attitude of gratitude” McCarthy has cultivated in recent years, she said. Passing the test wasn’t hard, fortunately, and today the Lake Shore Athletic Club yoga and senior fitness instructor is happy to be home near Salmon Creek, where she appreciates the slow pace and quiet of nature. (She’s not looking forward to the return of airplanes overhead and car noise all around, she added.)
McCarthy walks for miles most days, she said, and is determined to return to the Camino again — probably next year or whenever it’s possible.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for 40 years,” she said. “My daughters know, even if I’m in a wheelchair, they’re going to get me to Portugal.”
McCarthy’s beliefs about past lives and reincarnation are a strong pull, she said.
“I have always felt very drawn to Portugal,” she said. “I feel I will walk into a village and know I lived there before.”
You may have little use for such fanciful ideas, but there’s no denying McCarthy’s remarkable real-world fitness; check out her practical tips for Columbian readers on this page.
McCarthy said she’s amused to be receiving check-in calls these days from Kaiser Permanente, asking if she has suffered any falls. It’s a reasonable question for any 80-year-old, she agreed, but McCarthy’s answer always is: “I do yoga. I have great balance. I don’t fall down.”
While McCarthy embraces spirituality, she also takes science seriously. The Arizona native studied microbiology and worked as an immunologist, health researcher and writer. More recently, she spent six stressful years leading the Southwest Washington chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots peer-support and advocacy group.
It was vital work, but it took its toll. McCarthy was tired, stressed out and impatient when she stepped down, she said. When Lake Shore Athletic Club asked her to give a health talk for seniors last fall, she realized the topic had to be her new angle on life: gratitude.
“Gratitude makes the world so different,” she said. “I know I have become kinder and more helpful. I’m not getting impatient the way I was.”
Buddhist chants are the soundtrack for every walk she takes, she said. “Three hours of focus on gratitude, that’s a long time,” she said. “It changes your brain.”
McCarthy took that brain-changing plan with her as she flew to Lisbon, Portugal, on March 10 to meet a friend and get ready for their pilgrimage.
“It was going to be all about gratitude,” she said.
The new coronavirus had other plans: It was going to be all about disruption and improvisation.
During the flight, McCarthy enjoyed hours of conversation with a native Portuguese speaker from Brazil who had been working in New Jersey. Then she discovered the downside of that nice cross-cultural connection.
“As she pronounced the S, Z and SH sounds … I realized she was spitting small droplets all over me,” McCarthy wrote in an email account of her trip.
Lisbon was already shutting down when McCarthy arrived. She spent a couple of days seeing sights and sitting on a park bench watching parents actively playing with their children.
“Very unlike the U.S., where every adult seems to be plugged in and totally inattentive … or the children are also plugged in,” she wrote.
By the time McCarthy boarded a train to the city of Oporto, where she’d meet her friend and begin their pilgrimage, she wasn’t feeling well.
“I was coughing, had a runny nose and sore throat,” she said.
She covered up with scarves and her elbow, and sat away from other train passengers, she said.
McCarthy and her friend obtained their walking documents and explored Oporto. They absorbed some of the signature fado folk music that’s associated with that port city — melancholic songs of hardship, longing and loss that originated with wives and families of local sailors.
“I wanted to see the statues of women left behind, which are the root of fado music,” McCarthy said.
So she and her friend took a bus to a sculpture garden at a coastal park.
“These huge stone sculptures nearly brought me to my knees,” she wrote. The sculpted faces of the women “were filled with grief and longing for the men who had gone to sea and might or might not come back. … The ability of the carvers to put so much emotion into these rough-cut stones certainly equals Michelangelo’s carvings of the Madonna.”
McCarthy suspects she was so affected because, in a previous life, she was one of those wives.
Easy decision, difficult journey
It was the night before McCarthy and her friend were supposed to start their pilgrimage. Restaurants and hotels were closing down, and the duo found dinner in a hotel bar. That’s when McCarthy’s daughter called in a panic, saying that President Donald Trump had announced the imminent closure of U.S. borders.
McCarthy still wasn’t sure what to do. Then she met a dejected Camino pilgrim who had been turned back at the Spanish border, now closed due to the pandemic.
There was nowhere to go, nowhere to eat and nowhere to stay. Now, the decision to return to the U.S. was easy. McCarthy and friend managed to book flights to Dubai and then Seattle.
Her granddaughter picked her up, and McCarthy rode home to Vancouver “masked and gloved” in the back seat to avoid sharing any air, she said. She spent the next two weeks “in quarantine, coughing, sneezing, aching a bit with chills, unable to get tested. … I await the antibody test someday to see if I am COVID positive.”
McCarthy keeps walking miles per day, staying in shape and focusing on gratitude for everything from the people she met on this unexpected adventure to the baby eagles and turtles she loves to track at Salmon Creek. She even writes gratitude-themed stories inspired by what she notices in nature, she said.
“Without that attitude, maybe I would have walked on (despite the closures). Maybe I would have said, ‘The hell with that, nothing’s going to stop me.’ Who knows what kind of trouble I might have gotten into?” she wondered with a chuckle.
“This is a break. I can do whatever I want,” she said. “This is a gift, right now.”