Auburn couple takes on the world during retirement

Adventures include the ancient Camino de Santiago, among other trails.

Laurie and Dennis Brooke wanted to mark the divide between their working years and their approaching early retirements in an unforgettable way.

If Laurie could have, she’d have done a moon shot, and her affable husband would have been game.

But the moon wasn’t an option just then. So they mulled and puzzled and turned over their options.

“We thought we could do the snowbird thing,” Dennis recalled, “but it didn’t really appeal to us because we just liked the idea of living in different places.”

Then came the evening they watched “The Way,” a film about a man who walks the Camino de Santiago — the ancient, Christian pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Santiago, Spain — carrying the ashes of his son, who had recently died on the trek.

“That just struck me,” said Laurie. “So I said, okay, this is how I want to start retirement. I want this big, wide line between professional and retirement, and the Camino was that.”

Without the dead son’s ashes bit, of course.

“Sounds good, sign me up,” said Dennis, an Auburn native and 1978 Auburn High School graduate.

She is a retired accountant, and he is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and IT technician. They are both superb planners and organizers. And by design, in the five years that passed until their retirements, he at 55 and she at 54, they planned and trained to be ready for the rigors of their adventures.

They flew to France in March 2016 and started their walk the next month. They were 40 days on the trail before they hit Santiago and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

It was a transcendent experience, they said — a radiant fellowship of friends in the making, some there for faith reasons, for others a rolling party, and everything in between.

“You meet people from different cultures, get different perspectives,” said Dennis. “Part of it is when you do something like the Camino, you spend hours walking with people who may have a different political perspective and culture, and you get a chance to know them. You may walk with them for a week or two, and then you won’t see them for a couple weeks, and then you connect with them again.”

“It was 40 days of hiking, and it was nice because some people we’d met up with early on and lost touch with, we reconnected with them, so we all walked in together and wow! It’s a good-sized city, and we’d finally done this, so people were crying and running to people they hadn’t seen for a while, Sue from Australia, Nicole from California. It’s just an incredible sense of accomplishment,” said Dennis.

At night, they slept in albergues, which are European hostels that require pilgrims to show their bona fides.

“You can stay for about 10 Euros a night. You’ll get a bunk bed or bed of some sort, and you’ll get a meal, sometimes,” Laurie said.

“One of the things that’s nice about doing the Camino is staying overnight in a hostel, so you don’t have to carry your tent or cooking gear because you eat breakfast at a restaurant or a bar or a café. That makes it significantly lighter in packing,” said Dennis.

Reaching Santiago, Laurie conceded, was something of a letdown for her.

“Because it was a gray day, it wasn’t a beautiful day. The cathedral is wrapped in scaffolding for preservation, so you expect what all the pictures show, and that wasn’t what was there,” Laurie said.

After the Camino, Dennis and Laurie decided that as long as they were in Europe, they might as well take advantage of the fact. So, they went on to Portugal for three weeks, Ireland for five weeks, Scotland for three weeks, the Isle of Wight for a month, London and its suburbs for another month and then on to Germany for a couple of weeks.

Scotland? Did Dennis wear a kilt?

“Not me, although some of us bought hats,” Dennis said.

At no point in their travels to date have there been any regrets, no “what have we gotten ourselves into?” moments, because of their planning.

Laurie is fond of the phrase “pack on back time,” the meaning of which she unpacks as follows: if you are going to engage in an activity that involves a pack on on your back, you train for that, and you simulate the gear that you are going to use and the miles you are going to cover.

“One of the things we learned was to be physically and mentally prepared, and we had the right equipment,” Dennis said. “Once we’d made the decision and started doing training hikes, we would carry the gear we were going to use. We started off with ponchos, but ponchos don’t work when it’s windy and rainy, so we switched to rain suits.”

During training, Laurie went through five to six pairs of shoes, figuring out what would work, what wouldn’t. Great thing to do before you hit the Camino, or, for that matter, any extended walk.

“Thank God for REI,” said Dennis. “By the time we got there, we’d spent a lot of time wearing the same gear we would be hiking in, figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and we were in good shape. We had a few issues with blisters and tendinitis on the walk, but there were people a lot younger than us who quit. They just weren’t ready.”

Like Sophia, their young friend from Puerto Rico, whose training summed up to a few hours on a treadmill, under a backpack, and who suffered for her miscalculation.

“She assumed she was in really good shape,” said Laurie.

To train, they flew to Sonoma, Calif., with the gear they would need, and for four days hiked through the area from the airport to the beds and breakfasts to their hotel, aware that every day on the Camino, they would be walking about 15 miles.

Turns out, the residents of Sonoma considered them a couple of weirdos.

“No one walks in Sonoma,” said Dennis. “They’re always on bikes or driving, so you go up to this B&B, and you explain you’re going to be walking, and you get there and they go, ‘Oh, where are your bikes?’

And then a little while later, “Did you park?”

One day, they walked into a winery for a wine-tasting, and the woman in charge seated them far away from anyone else.

“After she figured out we were normal and we explained what we were doing, she confessed that she’d seen us a few days before, walking on the side of the road, and she’d called her mom and said, ‘Mom, lock your doors, there’s strangers in the valley!,’” Dennis said with a laugh.

Since the Camino, the couple have done a lot of backpacking, including two other walks: Hadrian’s Wall, a walk across England south of the Scottish border; and the 30-day, Way of St. Francis from the city of Assisi to Rome “where the food is much better than on the Camino de Santiago,” Dennis said.

“Most of our time was in rural Italy, where it’s a little hotter and a bit tougher to find lodging,” Dennis said.

In the winter of 2018, the Brookes were on to Chile and Brazil, where they found a few bummer moments.

“In Chile, somebody ripped a gold necklace off my neck while we were walking down the Central Market,” Laurie said.

One place they do not recommend is Rio de Janeiro, especially during Carnival because of the high crime rate.

“One of our classmates in Spanish club took one look at us, and said, ‘Well, maybe you won’t get mugged,’ which wasn’t very comforting,” Laurie recalled. “In some places, Americans are just fruit on the vine.”

Between their big trips, they came home.

In the winter of 2016, they stayed with his parents, helping to take care of Dennis’ ailing father, and then in 2017, spent four months circumnavigating the United States and exploring old Route 66. In the winter and spring of 2019, they spent three months in the American Southwest.

For the time being, the COVID-19 pandemic has clipped their wings, but they are looking forward to getting back out there and have set their sights on Morocco and Israel.

“We’re holed up here until this mess is over,” said Dennis.

Dennis and Laurie Brooke have posted video and put up relevant info to their Camino experience — the seminal experience on their new life — on a page on their blog:

Laurie and Dennis Brooke at the Vatican Museum after finishing the Camino di St. Francis from Assisi to Rome in October 2019. Courtesy ohoto.
Laurie and Dennis Brooke stop for a photo on the Camino de Santiago in May 2016. Courtesy photo.