For Pelham couple, trip on sacred European route proves life-changing

Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2014

Douglas Challenger and Laurie Stamell of Pelham recently got back from an 800-mile walk through France and Spain and still become overwhelmed with emotion as they describe the trip. It encompassed life-changing events from Challenger’s mother’s death to their engagement, all while they shepherded eight college students through towns and mountains and seemingly endless wheat fields.

“It was a very powerful experience,” said Stamell.

The walk they took is a pilgrimage many Europeans spend their lives hoping to do.

“I think a lot of people will say they are trying to discover their more authentic self,” by making the journey, said Challenger.

This not the first time Challenger, 57, a sociology professor and documentary filmmaker at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, and Stamell, 57, a nurse and filmmaker, have made the trek, which dates back to Medieval times. It’s called the Camino de Santiago, and for over a thousand years Europeans have set out from their front doors and walked various routes and through Spain to get to the end point in Santiago de Compostela. The destination was a Catholic shrine that marked the place where, according to legend, the remains of St. James were discovered in 813. A cathedral stands on that spot.

Why the trek has been such a strong draw throughout the ages is a question to ponder. Challenger said there are many theories, from the pull of ancient hunting grounds to the way the stars of the Milky Way light the way.

“We all have our theories,” said Stamell.

This was Challenger’s third trip, the first was a soul-searching journey in 2007. This trek, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 26, was the couple’s second together leading students in a 12½-week study abroad program. That program includes intensive instruction in Spanish, a seminar with Challenger on the history and culture of the route and then the walk itself. It requires the students to leave cellphones and computers behind, carry one change of clothing and essentials in packs on their backs, sleep in bunks in often crowded hostels and deal with sore feet, sweltering temperatures, long rainy stretches and bed bugs.

“There’s a lot of suffering in it,” said Challenger.

This video is from the trip Doug Challenger and Laurie Stamell took with students in 2011.


But for the students, mostly 19 or 20 years old, it is a journey toward independence and self-discovery. They gain confidence, direction and maturity, he said. “The physical and mental challenges mean a lot to them. They often say, I can do anything now. I just walked across a country.”

For Challenger and Stamell, it has meant figuring out their relationship and discovering a new joint career path to pursue.

“They often say the Camino begins when you return home,” Challenger said. After his first trek, “I came back with a lot of things to think about.” The most important concerned his feelings for Stamell, who he had just started dating. A second was deciding to learn to make films, which has become a sideline for the couple.

The main route, which Challenger and Stamell took, runs inland through northern Spain, which they approached through a training hike in France. Called the Camino Frances, it has a network of hostels, some run by the Catholic Church, some by former pilgrims, others by those seeking to earn a bit of money (most charge between 5 and 10 euros a night to stay there, Challenger said.) Many countries, including the United States, have Camino pilgrim societies which issue “passports” which are needed to stay at these places. To receive a passport, a donation may be made but is not required. Camino Frances, Challenger said, has become quite crowded. Other paths are less so, but lack the helpful infrastructure. The pilgrimage has experienced a renaissance of sorts in the last 30 years, said Challenger, with a quarter of a million people walking it each year on its various paths.

Why? “That’s what we’d like to know,” said Stamell.

Some believe that those who walk it will experience physical or psychological healing, or a magnetic field pulling them along. Washing oft-injured feet in the springs is said to take pain away.

“That’s a little too new agey for me,” said Challenger. But still, he admits, “The path has a magical quality.”

For one thing, he and Stamell agree, people will turn up to lend a hand at critical moments.

“When walking along the Camino, you don’t have much with you,” Stamell said. And then somebody gets sick or somebody needs help. “I’m not a religious person, but it’s like an angel appears out of nowhere and gives you what you need.”

Stamell’s example of that brings sobs as she relates a story of getting lost on her first day on the 2011 trip as she led nine students. Challenger had had to make a detour to take two sick young men to a hospital — one had a bad sinus infection, the other chest pains.

Anyway, it was stifling 100 degrees, the group had become confused following route markers and everyone was tired and running out of water.

“We were walking, walking, walking and we found ourselves along a highway and there was nobody to ask for help,” said Stamell. Her fear was mounting, as the walkers had been lost for over four hours. And then, down a hill, the group spotted a house with people in the yard. “We yelled,” Stamell said. “They could see we were in trouble.” The people gave them water and set them back on track. “It was a rocky start,” said Stamell, “but I learned that things work out.”

World-wide bonds

Trekkers are of all faiths or those who have no religion at all take to the trails, said Challenger. They are of all ages, come from all over the world and have a wide ranges of reasons for walking, though some do travel by horse, donkey or bicycle.

There are those going through major life-changes, retirement, divorce, career shifts — or are seeking them, Challenger said. Some are searching for soulmates. Others want answers to personal quandaries, or are simply fulfilling a life-long desire to make the physical journey. Others have fatal diseases and are wishing, or praying for healing, others who are terminally ill simply want one last challenge.

Age, class, ethnicity mean nothing on the trail, he said.

“You are free from the roles and responsibilities at home and the status that goes with that,” he said. “We are all equals doing this thing and the ordeal everyone is enduring leads to a bond.”

That bond compels people to share their personal stories and offer insight into others’ lives, Challenger said. Often pilgrims connect and walk together for long stretches, or hook up for short distances, but frequently bump into each other again on the trail or in a hostel.

That, said Challenger can be therapeutic. It was for him.

Inner turmoil

The first time he took the trip alone at age 51, he had serious mid-life questions himself. He was twice divorced, childless and had just starting dating Stamell. Both contra dance musicians, they met at a fiddle and dance camp in upper state New York in 2005. There was an attraction, but Challenger knew that if he pursued a romantic relationship with Stamell, who was also divorced, he would never have children of his own. She had four grown daughters.

Aside from seeking time for introspection, Challenger wanted to see if the walk would work for the university’s study abroad program. Franklin Pierce had long had another walking through Europe program that for various reasons had become outdated and Challenger was proposing a new one.

On the trip Challenger met a German man, who, after hearing the professor’s story offered relationship advice: “He said Doug, this is perfect for you.”

“I realized that I had missed the boat for having children of my own. But I ought to be grateful for Laurie and her children in my life.”

On the last trip, he carried a diamond ring in his backpack and proposed in Leon after sending the students on ahead.

And then, a few days later, he got word that his mother, who had been ill, passed away. He had to leave Stamell and the students behind for a week, while he returned home.

It’s a trip he certainly won’t forget.

In testimonials included in a video Challenger and Stamell have made that is posted on YouTube, students talk about how the Camino pilgrimage has helped them get to know themselves, shaken them out of their comfort zones, showed them they could conquer steep challenges, provided breathtaking vistas and taught them to be alone with their thoughts.

For him and Stamell, the long preparation for the walks, which are offered every other year, is worth the effort it takes to stay in physical shape, prepare the students and take care of countless details.

“Watching these students go through the transformation is a teacher’s dream,” Challenger said. “There’s nothing more meaningful than doing something like this.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at


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