Xavier Magazine

Pilgrim’s Promise

The journey began at a little town on the French side of the Pyrenees, crossed into Spain and wound along a worn dirt path westward toward the burial grounds of St. James on the Spanish coast. Tom VonderBrink didn’t carry much, though he had about 500 miles to go on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

What he did carry, however, were the well-wishes of those back home who were supporting his walk to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. Having retired in 2014, VonderBrink chose to walk the Camino de Santiago to reflect on the next stage of his life and raise about $3,000 for Alzheimer’s research. The disease had claimed both the mother and oldest sister of his wife, Kathy.

“As the pilgrims say, everything you need is in your backpack,” VonderBrink says about his walk along the historic trail, also known as the Way of St. James. “And obviously, the corollary to that is, if it’s not in your backpack, you don’t need it.”

He began on May 11 after 12 weeks of training. The 66-year-old Cincinnatian wanted to be able to walk the sometimes mountainous route comfortably. Others he met along the way weren’t so fortunate.

“There were a lot of people who either didn’t complete it, or had serious issues—knee problems, hip problems, were out of breath, blisters, because they were not properly prepared,” he says. “I wanted to go through the walk being able to talk to people and listen to people.”

VonderBrink, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Xavier in 1972 and his MBA in 1997, enjoyed having the time to talk to people he met and observe where he’d been and where he was going. He recorded his days on a blog called, noting for example the places his official Credencial travel card was stamped at hotels and town halls along the way in order to receive the certificate of completion. He wrote about people he met from Canada and Australia, swam in a cold creek with a guy from Germany, walked through a forest near Arre and spent the night in Pamplona (think Running of the Bulls).

VonderBrink finished his journey on June 18—after 39 days averaging 15 miles a day. One of his most memorable moments was participating in the tradition of laying a stone from home beneath an iron cross toward the end of the trail. “Suddenly, you get a little lighter, and that’s a wonderful thing.”  

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