Chester woman finds renewal on Spain's Camino

New Hampshire Union Leader
August 01. 2018 9:43PM

Colby Millsaps and Maverick celebrate at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the end of their 500-mile pilgrimage. (COURTESY)

Colby Millsaps woke up at 5 a.m. Thursday, her 21st birthday, gathered her gear and walked the last mile to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

She lay down in the square before the 13th-century church, which purportedly houses the remains of the apostle St. James the Elder, and watched the sun rise over the stone spires. Maverick, her year-old German shepherd, sat beside her.

They had been 40 days and 500 miles on the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain — over mountains, through cities, on roads once walked by Roman soldiers — and like the Romans they’d done it by foot.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to top that,” Millsaps said, remembering the sight.

The Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, has inspired books and movies. Pilgrims have walked the route for centuries, some for its religious meaning, others for the vistas and the stories.

Millsaps, of Chester, and Maverick set out on the journey from St. Jean Pied de Port, in southwestern France, on June 21. Six months earlier, after years of struggling with depression, she had been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward with suicidal thoughts.

“I decided that this summer I was going to do it and it was going to be my way to kick depression,” Millsaps said Wednesday in a phone interview from the road. She and Maverick were walking again, this time on the additional 55-mile path west to Cape Finisterre, once considered by the Romans to be the end of the world.

As one might expect, reaching that goal hasn’t been easy.
Colby Millsaps of Chester and her dog, Maverick, near the end of her pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. (COURTESY)

Grueling 20-mile days in bad weather with bad thoughts made her question why she ever thought the trip was a good idea. Day 23 was rock bottom, Millsaps admitted in her nightly journaling on social media. Unlike the other entries, accompanied by dozens of pictures and videos, Millsaps only posted one photo for the dozens of friends, family, and strangers tracking her progress: a dead tree under storm clouds.

But the dark days also brought out the “Camino angels,” Millsaps said.

After one difficult day, she decided Maverick wasn’t up for any more walking. They stopped in a town, and went from hostel to hostel looking for a bed. None of them would allow dogs. Nobody would even let her pitch a tent in their field.

Millsaps and Maverick slept on the sidewalk for an hour, and she cried. They were nearly ready to give up and strike out for the next town.

“Then this woman offered me her bed, saw me sobbing there, and said ‘You’re going to stay in my house tonight,’” Millsaps said. “It’s funny how things just kind of tend to work out.”

Every night of the pilgrimage, Millsaps video-chatted with her mother, Corie, back in Chester.

“I see a true happiness in her eyes, even through the struggles,” Corie Millsaps said. “When she comes home, there’s not going to be an obstacle that she can’t overcome.”

She wasn’t as worried as some mothers might be if their 20-year-old daughter announced a plan to walk across Europe.

“When Colby says she’s going to do something, she does it,” Corie Millsaps said.

After all, in November Millsaps had completed another lofty goal — self-publishing her first novel, “Crossing Lines.” The book has already sold hundreds of copies online.

Millsaps is on track to reach the end of her pilgrimage, Cape Finisterre, today. She then plans to spend a week in Barcelona before continuing on to Paris to meet up with her family. Then, finally, she’ll return to New Hampshire in time for the new school year at Pinkerton Academy, where she works.

“I definitely think (the pilgrimage) has changed my idea on what’s important in life and what I want to focus on in life,” she said. “I have a ‘work hard enough that you get to play’ mentality. When I come back, I want to be able to focus on things that make life worth living.”

That means family, kayaking, fishing, and of course, hiking with Maverick.

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