by Kristen Browning-Blas
Bio: Chandi Wyant, a history professor at Front Range Community College, walked for 30 days on the Via Francigena (fran-CHEE-jee-nah), a medieval pilgrimage route between Canterbury, England, and Rome. Equipped with a 19-pound pack, two walking poles, four sheets of moleskin, two journals and three pens, Wyant left for Italy at the end of May and returned July 13.
The challenge: Last summer, facing a divorce after nearly 10 years of marriage, Wyant traveled to Italy, “the greatest love of my life,” to gain some perspective on her past and find a vision for her future.
“It wasn’t just a vacation,” she says. “It was a trip that had profound meaning for me.”
Two days into the visit last July, while preparing to spend a day on the Tuscan seaside, Wyant fell ill with what she and doctors thought was a virus. “Suddenly everything completely shut down, and it was clear I had to call an ambulance. My appendix had burst, and sepsis was spreading in my system.”
She was so sick that the anesthesiologist’s first words when she awoke from emergency surgery were “era una cosa bruttissima” (“that was really horrendous”).
She spent three weeks in the Italian hospital and another week recovering at a convent before returning to Boulder.
For the next six months, she recuperated from the near-death ordeal and worked through the divorce, blogging about the pain of both (italiandreams.wordpress.com).
But she didn’t get much exercise. Before her illness, Wyant was a fairly active person, doing a hut trip every summer and taking dance classes in the winter.
The idea for the walk: “It sort of dropped out of the blue sky and landed in my brain. I learned this year, for the first time, that it is not only OK to choose my passion, but it is actually the right way to approach life choices. This was a stunning revelation for me, to realize I had never lived my life that way, and to realize that in fact I could,” she says.
Did she consider going from a near- death experience to walking across Italy in less than a year might be a little much?
“There is cause to be concerned that I am not in shape,” she acknowledged in May, days before departing. “But I can walk. I just know this is how I’m going to get strong. I haven’t done training but this walk is how I’m going to get my mind and body back. I feel that I have a very strong spirit and staying alive in that Italian hospital took everything out of me. If I can do that, I can do this walk. I just hope my knees will not give me too much trouble.”
The journey: Less well-known than the Spanish pilgrimage route, Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Via Francigena ranges over asphalt highways and tractor tracks through farmers’ fields.
Before she set out, Wyant wrote her intentions for the walk in a journal: to regain strength in her body, empower her spirit and trust her heart. She took the first steps toward that goal in Fidenza, a town near Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region.
After walking all morning, she stopped for lunch in Costamezzana, a one-restaurant village where the waiter handed her a magazine to read while she feasted on prosciutto, sopressata, pancetta, crepes and fizzy regional white wine. A quote in an article set the tone for the trip: “The journey of the pilgrim is from the head to the heart.”
About halfway through the pilgrimage, Wyant felt a shift: “I stopped thinking about what went wrong with the marriage and stopped having flashbacks to the hospital.”
She learned quickly that the hybrid sandals and lightweight trail runners she thought would be just right for hiking the rolling Appennine Mountains were no match for the miles of pavement along the way. Finding ice for her aching feet was a challenge, but her hiking poles provided essential support.
“My trekking poles were the best item I brought with me. For one, there are vipers in the Italian countryside. I used them to pound the ground in front of me vigorously to warn the snakes,” said Wyant. “And there were a lot of dogs barking ferociously. I could fling a pole out at them.”
By the end of her 30-day walk, Wyant developed plantar fasciitis, a painful heel condition. She let go of the idea of a triumphant stroll into Rome and decided to take the train. She spent extra time with nuns as they sang “Ave Maria” for afternoon prayers in small towns on the route — Bolsena, Montefiascone, Vetralla and Sutri — where convents often host pilgrims.
What she gained (and lost): Wyant walked about 425 kilometers, or 264 miles. She learned that the rule of thumb that your pack should be a fifth of your body weight was wrong, at least for her. She shed as much as she could and found that 13 pounds (about a tenth) was more manageable.
She will return to teaching this fall and update her blog, which she thinks could turn into a book. And she will continue to muse on what she learned as a pellegrina (pilgrim).
“I was tested toward the end because I had to really recognize my body was falling apart and I couldn’t walk the last couple of days into Rome, but my time with the nuns was more valuable to me. Although it took a toll on my body, my spirit got stronger. There’s been a big shift because I love my life again.”