Lifestyle

Pilgrimage with heart

By Ruth Longoria' email='Ruth.Longoria@mi-reporter.com

Peter, Paul and Mary sang about "500 miles" and how far that distance could seem from home. Islander Louie DeArias will be singing a different song -- possibly "The Happy Wanderer" or "500 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" -- as he and a small group of friends hike through the hills of Spain and France later this month on a 500-mile pilgrimage to benefit the American Heart Association.

DeArias is part of Team Santiago de Compostela -- named after the city that ends the pilgrimage. The team last Thursday surpassed its $50,000 fund-raising goal for the Sept. 24 Puget Sound Heart Walk. It plans to keep soliciting money during the next week and, hopefully reach $55,000 or even $60,000, DeArias said.

"This is just so fantastic what Louie and his group are doing," said Jennifer Fox, communications director for the Western Washington Chapter of the American Heart Association. "The average person who does the heart walk raises between $150 and $200. For somebody to take on this kind of pilgrimage and do this much good is awesome." Last year, 10,000 people raised nearly $2.4 million during the Puget Sound Heart Walk. This year, there are 15,000 signed up for the walk, which starts at Qwest Field and closes down the Alaskan Way Viaduct as walkers tread 3.2 miles for the organization's mission of reducing disability and death from cardiovascular diseases and stroke. "This is just so significant," Fox said. "What the Heart Walk does and what Louie and his team are doing will help so much with research in our area. It's important to remember that heart disease is the number one killer of men, women, and (also) children under the age of one. People don't often realize that and this affects all of us in some way." DeArias and his buddies first considered doing the 500-mile pilgrimage a few years ago as a pipe dream suggestion for a way to celebrate turning 50. Three of the men passed the half-century mark last year, the others are in their late 40s.

"We wanted to do something fun and different, and then we decided to do something that would raise money for a good cause," DeArias said. For 25 years, DeArias' team members, who live in various cities across the nation, have gotten together once a year for daylong and longer activities that in earlier times included six Olympic-style events that tested their strength and endurance. Now the men stick to less strenuous activities. "We were a little younger, a little crazier then," DeArias said. Now, the group of five -- three of whom plan to join DeArias and his best friend, Alan Hergert, of Seattle, in Leon, Spain after the first 300 miles -- are at the age they could be thinking about retirement and propping their feet up. Instead, they have spent months training for a walk that could strain much younger men.

To add to the mix, and possibly explain in part their interest in benefiting the American Heart Association, last year one of the men, Kevin Conley of Washington, D.C., had heart surgery following a heart attack a few weeks prior to his 50th birthday. Another of the group, Paul Hines, 46, of Fairfax, Va., is now unsure if he will be able to join his friends for the pilgrimage as he recently went under doctor's care for possible heart problems.

"It's kind of spooky," DeArias said. "Here we are doing this walk for the Heart Association and then the doctors tell Paul he can't train and may not be able to do the walk. I guess this kind of thing can come out of nowhere, and affect anybody." Although DeArias and Hergert have spent time on Mount Rainer and at other high-elevation training areas in the past six months, DeArias does most of his conditioning for the pilgrimage here on the Island. He has mapped out four-, six-, eight-, 10- and 14-mile workout loops. Which one he does depends on his energy level and available time. DeArias and his wife, Karen, have lived on the Island for 14 years. They moved here when their two daughters were young, primarily because of the Island's reputation for excellent schools and because it provided an easy commute to Seattle, where DeArias recently retired from a partnership at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, an accounting firm. DeArias was born in Cuba, and moved with his family to Venezuela when he was a child. The family immigrated to Seattle when DeArias was 11. By 1965, more than 100 of his extended family members had moved to the Puget Sound area. DeArias graduated from Seattle's Shorecrest High School prior to attending the University of Washington, where he earned a bachelor's degree in accounting in 1975. He met Karen during his senior year of high school and the couple married in 1973. They have two daughters, both Mercer Island High School graduates, Jenny Wade and Michelle Razore. Wade and her husband are the parents of DeArias' first grandchild, Austin, who was born in March. Razore and her husband are expecting a baby boy in January. The pilgrimage will have multiple meanings for the 51-year-old grandpa. He was reared in the Catholic church, so he has an appreciation and understanding of the journeys of religious soul-seekers and pilgrims. For centuries, people have followed the trails of the pilgrimage to Santiago, where the body of the apostle, St. James, is said to be buried at the cathedral there. DeArias said he'd known about the trek since he was a child, but only decided to go after mulling the idea over with his buddies. "It's something you hear about, but never think you'd do," DeArias said. "But now, we're doing it." DeArias and Hergert will fly to Paris Sunday and travel by train to the south of France. On Aug. 25, the two will begin their approximately five-week, 500-mile journey from St. Jean Pied de Port. Conley, Himes and Steve Whipple, 48, of Atlanta, Ga., plan to join them on Sept. 16 in Leon for the final 200 miles of the trip. After the first ten miles of strenuous hiking through the Pyrenees Mountains, on Aug. 25, DeArias and Hergert are expected to enter Spain. The men plan to walk about 15 miles a day. They will carry backpacks that weigh about 16 to 18 pounds, in addition to water. Every item of clothing will be chosen for its ability to wash and dry quickly, as well as for being light enough to not add a lot of bulk and weight.

The men will take a small digital camera so they can take pictures along the way and post them to their Web page from Internet cafes along their route. Other than the night in Leon and Sept. 29, when they plan to arrive in Santiago, they haven't made lodging reservations. "We're going to leave things unplanned so we can stay some nights in hospices, or refugios, and some in hotels," DiArias said. "We'll take our time and travel at our own pace." The hospices or refugios (places of refuge) he speaks of are pictured on Internet Web sites as large rooms with bunk beds to accommodate many travelers. Although still simple and offering a minimum of frills, the Santiago pilgrimage has changed some in the past several centuries. In the 12th century, hospices provided pilgrims with free food and lodging. Offering this service was the responsibility of the church, and in particular, the monasteries, according to the European Virtual School history department Web site. Early accommodations also varied in comfort levels and some travelers chose to stay at hospices with beds of straw; whereas others opted for inns where they had to share a bed with another paying guest. Now, accommodations are less rustic, and refugios are available to 21st century travelers on a "pay as you can" basis. Five-star hotels also are available.

"This is going to be kind of fun," DeArias said. "We'll experience the refugios and the expensive, nice hotels. We're kind of lucky to be able to do that." Pilgrims' progress To track the pilgrimage of Louis DeArias and his friends to Santiago de Compostela, go to the Web site: http://homepage.mac.com/neumannfrank/camino/home.htm

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