By Ned Cantwell
Visitors to Ruidoso are familiar with the racetrack, the golf courses, the gambling halls. While enjoying the cool mountain breezes, they might also have dined at Log Cabin, the town’s popular breakfast headquarters.
Blain Dern, who will be 78 in January, started the restaurant in 1989 and sold it to daughter Michele 10 years later. This summer he decided to take a walk. In Spain. No, wait a minute, not IN Spain. Across Spain.
Don’t be bragging to Blain about your daily two-mile stroll in 80-degree weather with a cool, trailing breeze. Dern’s walkathon began in St. John, France, and ended in Santiago, 522 grueling miles, day after agonizing day beginning the first of May and ending June 20.
Think temperatures from the 30s to the 90s, some terrain flat and tranquil, other trails that would give a mountain goat pause. His bloody toes attest to steep, rocky descents.
Think walking as many as 17 miles a day because that’s what it takes to get to the next town.
Think leaving the hostel each morning strapped to a 30-pound backpack carrying rain gear, an extra pair of pants, three pair of underwear, four sets of socks, three shirts, an extra pair of shoes, a heavy shirt, towel and wash cloth, and medicine.
You are carrying a cell phone only because your daughters insisted.
The first two days required a 12-mile hike straight up the Pyrenees mountain slope that left Dern wondering if “I was walking to heaven.”
The five miles downhill was just as tortuous. Both days featured heavy wind, pouring rain and sleet, and fog. He began to understand why many people who start this journey never finish.
There were desperate times, alone and overcome with dysentery in a forest, the only choices to lie there and die or force himself to get back on the trail.
As a fellow retiree who thinks a particularly challenging day means driving to the post office twice, I couldn’t help wondering. If this is Blain’s idea of fun, why not just stay home and drive a nail through his palm?
And that, really, is the point of the summer adventure. This was not supposed to be fun. It wasn’t a sightseeing trip. It wasn’t to prove he is a fit and courageous 77-year-old.
No, this one was for God. Except when going up hills so steep he could do nothing but gasp, every moment of his Camino de Santiago pilgrimage was filled with prayer.
In addition to Michele, Blain’s children are Joe in North Carolina, Elaine in Southern California, and Colette in Montana. It was during a visit to Montana last year Dern was inspired to make his religious pilgrimage, dedicating it as a prayerful sacrifice for world peace and the intentions of Mary, the mother of God.
He admits his children’s reaction was mixed. One can imagine them thinking, “gee, Dad, how about a nice Christian cruise?”
A lifelong Christian, Blain is a cradle Catholic whose spiritual existence deteriorated to ho-hum until something in his life went right. He doesn’t remember what occasioned the transformation or exactly when it happened, but about 15 years ago God shot to number one on the Dern Priority List.
His day starts with an hour of prayer followed by Biblical and other spiritual reading. He is a fixture at St. Eleanor’s Catholic Church at Saturday evening Mass, as well as the noon Mass each day. A rosary is his constant companion. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus.
If you somehow are getting the idea Blain Dern is the unkempt, bearded guy you see in the park, mumbling nonsense, draped in a sheet and holding a Jesus sign, think again. Blain is a guy other guys want to share a beer with. And if trouble is brewing, you want him in your foxhole. I tend to think he has connections, if you get my drift.
Over 50 days Blain survived nasty weather, fatigue, loneliness, gypsies, illness. But he didn’t finish the walk on his feet. Having reached Santiago, his blood sugar dropped and so did he.
He passed out.
They revived the modern-day pilgrim, gave him a Coke, the Certificate of Completion he had earned by reaching Santiago, and sent him on a bus the last few miles to the finish line at Finisterre.
Ned Cantwell — firstname.lastname@example.org — is a writer who lives in Ruidoso.