Theresa Fersch, ’09, used to eschew exercise. She wasn’t an outdoors lover, hadn’t traveled very far afield and was skeptical about so-called life-changing adventures.
Then she headed off on a hike.
It wasn’t just any hike, it was a 500-mile trek on one of the world’s most famous trails. For two months, Fersch walked from St Jean Pied de Port, France, over the Pyrenees and across Spain along the pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago. That journey has now become a book, "Sunrise in Spain."
“When you walk 20 miles a day, you have a lot of time to reflect,” Fersch said. “I had heard it was transformational, but I didn’t really believe it. In the end, though, it was a spiritual experience for me.”
While on that 2015 trek, Fersch maintained a blog that friends, family and colleagues could access. The blog morphed into the self-published book, which became available in October 2016. It is praised in online reviews for being honest—and even raw. It carries some of the countless photos Fersch took with her phone along the trail. Details, as well as a video of her trip, are found on Fersch’s website, www.theresascamino.com/.
Fersch, who lives with her husband, Brian, on a five-acre property in Hollis, New Hampshire, grew up in Hagerstown, Maryland. She received a Bachelor of Science in sociology from Shepherd University, a small liberal arts university in West Virginia, before pursuing an MBA at University of Maryland University College (UMUC). She works in project management for MITRE Corp., a federally funded research and development center that grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratories in the late 1950s.
The Camino de Santiago trip was Fersch’s response to her husband’s seven-month trek along the Appalachian Trail. “Brian came home and told me that I should do something like it,” Fersch said. “But the Appalachian Trail didn’t call to me the same way it did to him.”
After reading and research, she opted for the epic European trek that ends at a cathedral dedicated to St. James (or Santiago, in Spanish) in northwest Spain.
Fersch went alone. She’d heard the trail—or camino—had a strong infrastructure: lots of little towns along the way with places to eat and sleep. She’d never been to France or Spain and she spoke no Spanish but she’d read that the trail drew many women hiking solo.
“You walk through wheat fields and vineyards, though royal Spanish towns. You eat about five or six times a day, and you drink wine and sangria along the way. You journal and blog and post pictures on Facebook,” said Fersch, who is 36. “And you bond with your trail family.”
A trail family refers to trekkers who hike together for stretches. Sometimes they walk together for a few hours. Other times they walk together for days. Fersch walked with one German hiker, Nikolai Jelgin, for 21 days, crossing 200 miles.
“Trail families are the most amazing thing ever,” Fersch said. “You start walking and eventually find people walking at your pace. You talk to them for awhile. Sometimes you walk ahead, sometimes they walk ahead. Then you bump into them again when you are on the trail later.”
The friendship with Jelgin has survived beyond the trek. His trip to see Fersch and her husband in late February will mark the German man’s first visit to the United States.
The first days of the trail were physically grueling. Then, like most other hikers, Fersch found herself struggling mentally. “You’re so far from home. And you really have to push yourself to keep going,” she explained.
In a strange twist, her worst trail moment also turned out to be her best. She had infected blisters on her feet and a doctor told her to take a three-day break. Her trail family continued ahead. Alone, she contracted the stomach flu.
“I was so sick and injured that I didn’t even know what town I was in,” Fersch said. “A hiker from Germany who was staying in the same hostel woke me up every couple of hours to make sure I drank something.” Then, without her knowledge, he paid for a private room for her at a local hotel and helped move her there.
“He had food and water and a map for me. He had circled all the places I would need to know to find my way out-of-town. He gave me a hug, said goodbye and I never saw him again,” she said. “I don’t know who this guy was but he embodied the spirit of the Camino.”
Writing the book helped Fersch readjust to being back home.
“A lot of long-distance hikers can attest to the fact that … most people come back and have some sort of depression,” Fersch said. “First, there is the sudden lack of physical activity. You’re not walking 20 miles a day anymore. I went from being outside in the sun every day to being inside at a desk for 10 hours a day.”
And she grieved the loss of her trail family.
She also missed the simplicity of trail life, where you eat, walk, sleep and repeat and your time is spent in conversation or contemplation. “I went all day reflecting on what my purpose was in life to coming home and trying to figure out what shirt matched what pants,” she said.
Still, tucked among those re-entry challenges were happy lessons. For example, Fersch now adheres to a rigorous workout schedule and spends more time outdoors.
“One of the biggest takeaways from my trip was the value of connecting with the people around you,” she said. “I now put more effort into my friendships. And my marriage became stronger.”
She addresses these issues in her book and in presentations at libraries, academic associations and before other groups.
“Most of the people I present to are probably not going to hike the Camino,” said Fersch, who is now searching for her next adventure. “My wish for them is that they find something that inspires them as much as the Camino inspired me.”