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80-year-old woman walks 500 miles around Louisville for ALS
Jun 27

By KIRBY ADAMS, The Louisville Courier Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Reading from a dog eared travel guide book, Patsy Harkess explains Camino de Santiago, a 40 day, 500-mile trek she had planned for early May.

``The Camino is a rare chance in a busy world for solitude and self-reflection, even for self-reinvention,'' she said.

For thousands of trekkers from around the world, ``El Camino'' is a once in a lifetime pilgrimage that can be entered from different points in Europe. Harkess, who turned 80 years old in March, had planned to start her journey in France with a 19-mile walk on day one, over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. From there she would walk east to west for 481 miles to the destination at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

It would have been a challenging but gratifying journey for a woman who loves early morning walks and spending time in nature. But her adventure was put on hold when the coronavirus pandemic stopped travel between the United States and Europe.

``I had just come back from a ski trip in mid-March when things started shutting down,'' Harkess said. ``So I did a lot of gardening the first few weeks but I still had all my gear for the Camino laid out in a spare bedroom and was ready to go.''

As the COIVD-19 global lockdown extended from March into April, Harkess cleaned her house ``from top to bottom'' while remaining hopeful she'd fly to France at the beginning of May.

Like so many others who had plans for spring 2020, as Harkess's departure day approached, it became clear her Camino trip wasn't going to happen. But rather than mope about her disappointment, the soft-spoken former flight attendant shifted her focus to what lay right outside her front door.

``I was starting to put all my gear away and I think that's what triggered me. I decided I would just walk the 500 miles in 40 days from my house,'' she said.

Harkess, who lives in East Lousiville in the city of Anchorage, wasn't 100% sure she'd be up for the 12-15 miles a day required to finish the distance but it was worth a shot and besides, ``I love early mornings with the birds and the solitude,'' she said. ``It's a wonderful time to be outdoors.''

And there was something else that propelled her forward _ a friend who had been diagnosed in April with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease.

``My friend's name is Mary Jane Eigel and when I decided I would try to walk the Camino in Louisville, I called to ask if she'd mind if I tried to raise funds for ALS research in her honor,'' said Harkess.

When Eigel said yes, Harkess enlisted her daughter to help set up a Facebook page for the fundraising, admitting ``I am not very good with technology.'' She saves her energy for other things like outdoor pursuits.

On a sunny morning on the first day of May, she stepped out her front door and began her Louisville version of the El Camino trek.

``It didn't matter what the weather was like, I walked every day whether it was raining or cold or warm and sunny,'' she said. ``I wore a headlamp that I had bought for the trip while it was dark in the morning and I used my first aid kit from the trip when I got blisters.''

Some days the blisters were so painful she could barely step into her hiking shoes.

``It was pretty uncomfortable the first few days,'' she said. ``Putting on my shoes in the morning was painful but I could get through it. I just walked until I couldn't feel the pain any longer.''

Harkess is no sissy.

She's packed a lot into eight decades and she continues to snow ski and hike. When she was younger, she took a series of parachute lessons _ once landing accidentally on the roof of a barn. She grew up in England, traveled across the United States in her 20s by car where she met actor Robert Mitchum on a movie set of ``The Way West'' in Bend, Oregon, and she survived being stabbed in the leg when she was robbed in South Africa.

``I have always thought I would take up golf when I am old, but I am not old yet,'' she laughed. ``I just fall asleep if I sit in a chair and read. My book club doesn't like that very much.''

Harkess likes to be moving.

She began every day of her travels through Louisville at dawn and often finished her daily 12-mile goal by 10:30 a.m.

``Sometimes I would walk seven or eight miles and come home for lunch then go back out and finish it off,'' the 80-year-old said. ``I figured we'd be stopping for lunch in Spain so it was OK to do the same in Louisville if I felt like it.''

Her travels through Louisville started in her neighborhood in Anchorage and extended out to the wooded trails of E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park. She also walked through the Indian Springs subdivision and to The Parklands of Floyds Fork where she knocked out 15 miles in one day.

``It was just lovely getting to explore,'' she said. ``I took a different route every day and never repeated the same walk twice.''

As she walked, Harkess would occasionally reach into her pocket and run her fingers across a smooth grey stone. The rock is handpainted with her name, ``Ms. Patsy Harkess.'' It was a seating marker at the wedding reception for Mary Jane's daughter which Harkess attended several years ago.

``On the Camino, they tell you to bring a small rock or pebble to leave at an Iron Cross monument at the highest point in the trek,'' Harkess said. ``And months before I knew Mary Jane was sick, I had already decided I would carry that rock with me through Spain.''

For 40 straight days and 500 miles, Harkess stepped out her doorway into a dark and sometimes mist covered morning where she was serenaded by songbirds and guided by the devotion to her friend. It seemed right to now carry that meaningful stone as she thought about what the real Camino would have been like.

``Maybe I will be able to go over in a couple of years,'' she says. ``We'll see what happens.''

Her efforts in Louisville raised $17,000 for ALS research which she hopes will help find a cure for her friend's illness.

``I knew I had to do it,'' she said. ``It was never onerous. I was happy to do it.''

And for the octogenarian's next act?

``You know the movie `Forrest Gump' when he runs all the way across the country and people ask him what he's going to do next? I feel like that,'' she said. ``I think I will keep walking.''

The ALS Association Kentucky Chapter is holding a ``Walk to Defeat ALS'' on Aug. 22. Harkess said if she keeps moving and logs about 7 miles a day, she'll finish another 500 miles _ easy _ before the group walk.

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019