Bryan Steward is 24 years old and is no stranger to hiking. Pretty much as far back as he can remember, his parents would take him into the great outdoors, to places like Colorado and Wyoming, where the hiking was extra rocky with a tall side of vertical. He’s hiked in northern New Jersey and, literally, across the Garden State.
Sounds like a guy who’d relish walking a particular stretch of northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago, doesn’t he? The Camino is 500-mile walking trail from the Pyrenees Mountains to Santiago de Compostela. Thousands have walked it. Ernest Hemingway walked it. And from Aug. 18 to Oct. 2, Steward walked it.
The Camino isn’t known as the toughest walking path in the world. In outdoorsy terms, it’s actually comparatively tame. But its spiritual component is rather legendary. There’s something almost holy about the idea of walking the Camino. Quite a number of trekkers refer to it as a pilgrimage.
Take all that out, it’s still 500 miles on your feet. To put that in perspective, if you were to leave the governor’s office in Trenton, you’d have to walk to Greensboro, North Carolina. And when you got there, you’d still have to do a half-marathon to reach 500 miles.
Perhaps at this point it’s worth mentioning, Steward has Becker muscular dystrophy, or BMD. It’s a degenerative condition that slowly takes over the voluntary muscles. One day, and Steward is under no delusions about it, BMD will put him in a wheelchair. And like his penchant for hiking, Steward has had BMD since he was a boy.
He was diagnosed with BMD around 8 years old. Since then, his muscles have held up, but not without a fight.
“Fight,” in fact, is a good word to describe what’s in Steward. Uncommonly philosophical and wise for his 24 years, Steward is, all things measured, not the type to keep himself from doing anything.
He is, of course, aware of the ethereal timetable his body is under. He doesn’t know when BMD will catch up to him, but he knows he’s not going to sit around and wait for it.
Just before he set off for what would be his 46-day journey across northern Spain, Steward posted a blog through the Muscular Dystrophy Association website that sums up the blend of optimism and realism he espouses. It was titled “Walking 500 Miles While I Still Can,” and features moments like this:
“Knowing that this condition will most likely put me in a wheelchair one day makes me want to stay active and do all I can do while I am still able.”
But it also features moments like this:
“My decision to walk the Camino came from my desire to push myself to the edge of my abilities, to explore new cultures, experience nature and become more spiritually enlightened.”
On a mild October day back in Ewing, it was obvious that Steward’s trip to Spain achieved the desired effect.
“It was such a life-changing experience,” Steward said. “I was terrified, but that was kind of the point. I wanted to be out of my comfort zone.”
Yes, about that. Steward did finish the walk. But remember how it took him 46 days? Usually it takes people about 30 or 35. And remember how the Camino isn’t considered the toughest terrain on Earth? That doesn’t mean it can’t be a bear. And again—it’s 500 miles on your feet.
“When you’re walking you really understand distances,” Steward says.
So it’s safe to say Steward successfully stepped out of his comfort zone. And then just kept stepping.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that Steward went to Spain on his own. He got the okay to take time off from his boss—Steward is a part-time administrative assistant in the Division of Lifelong Learning (a.k.a., non-credit registration) at Mercer County Community College; his boss is operations manager Roseann Cooper—and the supportive-yet-shaky thumbs-up from his parents. But none of his friends could go with him. So Steward did it by himself.
Before continuing here, it needs to be mentioned that Steward can’t thank Cooper enough for giving him the time off. And for her part, Cooper says she and the six other part-timers who work for her were accordingly excited and worried about their colleague’s trip.
“Our responses to his journey ranged from ‘Go for it’ to ‘You are going by yourself?!’” Cooper said.
However, when Steward told them he wanted to do the Camino, she had no intention of dissuading the lad. Such a journey, she said, is “right in line with what we try to do for our students—support them in any way we can to help them achieve their dreams.”
The office agreed to just split up Steward’s work among themselves while he was away. They kept a “Bryan’s Journey” area on the bulletin board, and while he kept them posted with Facebook updates, the crew made his walk front-and-center at work.
“I used one of his first photos from the Camino de Santiago as my screen saver on my work computer until the day he returned,” Cooper said.
When he got back to the office, Steward and his colleagues polished off a celebratory dessert: Oreo cookie cake. Which no doubt helped him add back some of the seven pounds he lost trekking across northern Spain.
And for just how immensely proud he is of his son, Paul Steward said merely this: ‘He’s my new hero.’
It is a minor stretch to suggest that Steward did the whole journey alone. He went to Spain alone, but there are lots of people walking the Camino and staying in hostels at the same time. So Steward met a lot of people along the way. The trouble was that it was often frustrating. Because of his muscular dystrophy, he couldn’t keep up with a lot of people, and so his time with other people took on a strangely transitory quality.
The middle ground in a journey like the Camino can amplify thinking like that. The middle part of the walk is the Maceta, referred to as “the desert” because it’s a long, unbroken stretch of dirt and sand. For Steward, this was the part of the trip that really started screwing with his head.
“[The Maceta] is the easiest part, physically,” Steward said. “But it’s mentally draining. You can look back and see where you were an hour ago, and see where you’ll be in an hour.”
The draining part: You’ll still be in the middle of the Maceta, just as the footprints you left in the sand show you where you were an hour ago. For the intrepid and in-shape, the Maceta is a four-day leg of the Camino. For Steward, it took a couple days longer. And staying on track means constantly ignoring the voice that tells you to give up, go home, and get on the couch, Steward said.
“It’s so easy to just want to give up,” he said. “But I kept reminding myself, ‘I chose to be here.’”
That noble spirit took its share of beatings, from the homesickness wrought by spending yet another night in yet another hostel; from a bout of food poisoning that made him sick for a week; and, of course, from the nagging issues of mobility and endurance stemming from his BMD.
But that uncommonly philosophical side of Bryan Steward grew in response. All those steps out of his comfort zone gave him new appreciation for how challenges affect one’s life and how one’s life responds to those challenges.
Having to carry packs and water got old, but the simplicity of “wake up, walk, eat” became an intoxicating rhythm that put his life back home into clear focus. And the ample time out there by himself brought him unexpected new insights. For instance, he found out this:
“Being strong or weak has no meaning,” Steward said.
Comparing yourself to anyone else, in other words, is a recipe for suffering. You are yourself, and that’s the only ground from which to build. You have to stay focused and mentally present because, as Steward said, “You can’t sleepwalk across the Camino.”
Back in Ewing, barely two days after returning from Spain, Steward said he’d already felt his life change. The change was less perceptible to his father, Paul, who’d barely had time to welcome his son home (with a pizza, because there’s no Jersey pizza in Spain).
The elder Steward said that while he was “incredibly proud” of his son—a definitive upgrade from being constantly worried about him while he was away—the stories had not come out yet; the perspective had not made its way fully into conversations around the house. But Paul is sure the full story will form from drops of conversation here, photos of that there.
He can wait to hear the stories. He never questioned that there’d be lots of them anyway.
“I had no doubt he would complete it ,” Steward said of Bryan. “I was more worried that he’d take longer than expected, but I knew he would complete it.”
And for just how immensely proud he is of his son, Paul Steward said merely this: “He’s my new hero.”
Steward has urged his son to write his experiences in a book, something the younger Steward is enthusiastic about doing. His blog helped raise $500 for the MDA, so he’s not unfamiliar with telling the world his story. He also recorded his trip on video and is considering making a documentary of his journey. The MDA might be willing to help, but there’s nothing concrete in the works quite yet.
As for what’s next, Paul Steward jokes he doesn’t want to know. But Bryan is not taking his future sitting down, even if he likes working in offices. He wants to stay working at MCCC or maybe his alma mater, The College of New Jersey, where he used to work in the IT department while earning his bachelor’s in communications. He knows he wants a full-time job and he knows he wants to work in higher education.
But he also knows he wants to see more of the world, on foot.
“I’m looking forward to another adventure,” he said. “I’ve thought about Mt. Kilimanjaro. Maybe a portion of the Appalachian Trail.”
What’s important to keep in mind is that for the uncommonly philosophical Bryan Steward, these anticipated adventures are not checklist items; not finish lines to cross. They’re much more spiritual than that.
“It’s not a goal,” Steward said. “It’s a journey. Take your time. Even if you crawl.”