By Jennifer Karmarkar The Orange County Register
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Love this story of several generations of women making a pilgrimage together across the Camino Santiago de Compostela in Spain. What a spectacular way to celebrate the strength of the women in one special family. The Orange County Register
Barbara Benun can tell you how many steps there are to the top of the Eiffel Tower. She's climbed all 710, and she's taken thousands of steps across the Great Wall of China.
"After that, the hill up to Stater Bros. is nothing!" the 85-year-old joked.
Benun is a familiar figure on the sidewalks of Laguna Woods, where she's lived for 13 years. She walks to the mall, to the grocery store, and even to neighboring Lake Forest to do errands.
On Friday, Benun will embark on another adventure on foot when she, her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter begin a six-day trek over the last 115 kilometers (about 71 miles) of the Camino Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
The foursome will walk in the footsteps of religious pilgrims who've traversed the network of ancient routes to the tomb of St. James since the 9th century.
Benun may be among the few to carry her provisions in a Mickey Mouse backpack.
"She's definitely a free spirit. She has a very open mind," said Donna English, 59, Benun's look-alike daughter and frequent travel companion.
Benun came across the walk -- known as St. James Way -- on an internet search. After watching the movie "The Way" starring Martin Sheen, she and English were hooked.
English's daughter, Michelle Schleich, and her granddaughter, Reagan, jumped at the chance to go along.
"I was surprised Shelley jumped right at it," said English, also of Laguna Woods. "She didn't hem or haw."
Schleich, 35, said she feels blessed to be able to experience the walk with the most important women in her life.
"It's not every day that four generations can get together, travel halfway across the world and experience a modern-day pilgrimage such as this."
Reagan, a seventh-grader, is "more than excited," Schleich said. "Once she found out that she was going on the trip she petitioned her counselor so she could take Spanish for two terms."
After meeting in Chicago (the Schleichs live in Oregon), the four will fly to Madrid, then to Santiago. From there it's a three-hour bus ride to Valenca, Portugal, where they begin the walk, which ends back in Santiago.
Nights will be spent in two- to four-star hotels arranged by a tour company.
"All I want is a bed and a private bathroom," Benun said. "Other than that I can handle anything."
The foursome plan to lunch on fruit and cheese purchased in villages along their route. Dinners will be served family-style at the hotels, shared with other pilgrims making the walk.
"I think it's going to be fun just seeing what we experience," English said. "Not having so many expectations, and just enough information so we don't get lost."
Following a program recommended by the tour company, they will walk 10 to 13 miles each day.
To prepare, Benun and English work out three times a week at their clubhouse fitness center. Both participated in the Laguna Hills Memorial Day Run/Walk last month with backpacks fully loaded.
Benun ran the 10K in one hour and 50 minutes, but wasn't happy with her time.
"I have never met a more determined, independent and adventurous woman," Schleich said about her grandmother. "I'm quite sure that she could out-walk me during this trip -- she's done it before."
Schleich recalled a summertime trip from her grandmother's Costa Mesa home to Newport Beach on foot, about 12 miles round trip.
"Unfortunately, the walk back is what I mostly remember," she said. "I remember telling grandma that she needed to get the car because if I was going to walk any further my legs would give out. Of course she laughed, and of course didn't let us stop."
Adventure is nothing new to Benun, who ticked off the names of countries she's visited like she was reciting a grocery list. She's hung out with giraffes in Africa and faced gun-toting guards in Jordan.
Last year, Benun was among the first Americans to visit Cuba after the restrictions were lifted.
Still on her bucket list? Times Square on New Year's Eve.
"My mother thought playing bridge was the ultimate adventure," Benun laughed. "My whole family thinks I'm crazy."