Ron Briery and Beppe Sala have endured their share of physical and mental challenges in the past four weeks. From battling pelting rain to mending the aching blisters on their feet, the duo has remained focused on one goal — hiking between California’s missions from San Diego to Sonoma.
Briery, a 1963 Arroyo Grande High School graduate, and Sala, a retired aeronautical engineer from Italy, began their statewide trek March 1. They plan to finish April 27. So far, they’re on schedule.
On Thursday, the pair reached the middle point of their trip — Mission San Miguel. They’ve journeyed through cities and along creeks and let Highway 101 guide them along what’s left of the old El Camino Real.
“The historical part of this is what we’re especially interested in,” Briery said by cellphone Wednesday after stopping at a local grocery store for some lunch. “The hike is a challenge, and that’s neat, too, but to see the towns that have grown up around the missions is what’s really amazing.”
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El Camino Real was originally designed to connect California’s 21 missions by day trip to each, about 600 miles total. Because the men avoid walking on Highway 101, their trip is extended to about 800 miles.
Briery, now living in Eagle Point, Ore., met Sala after hiking in Spain a few years back. When he returned home, Briery planned a quest through California using Google Maps.
“When I found it had a walking map option, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Briery said with a laugh.
He mapped step-by-step directions on how to walk no more than 20 miles a day. He drove his planned route to make sure.
“It’s all just putting it together piece by piece,” he said. “It’s been a labor of love.”
The quest differs for Briery, 65, and Sala, 62.
Sala is walking for the pilgrimage, which is a spiritual journey. Briery is walking to embrace history.
“Stories from the past stick with me now because I can get a picture of where it happened,” he said. But both encourage others to start their own walking journeys.
“You get up, you eat, you walk, cool your feet off and eat some lunch, walk again, eat and go to sleep,” Briery said. “Life is just that simple. It’s not too bad.”
They also learn tricks along the way. Sala pierces his blisters with a threaded needle so the thread allows the blister to drain.
Despite the pain, walking the whole way is important, he said.
In the 45-mile trek from Lompoc to Oceano, there were no campsites or motels, so they would ride from their stopping point at the end of each daytrip to amenities and then ride back the next morning to pick up from where they left off.
Learning from the land, and other people, is also a highlight, Briery said.
Others the pair met shared stories of their own pilgrimages.
Some said they had taken rides offered by passersby “and then they took a bus to go back to where they skipped so they could walk it because they felt guilty,” Briery recalled.