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Published February 20 2012

MSUM professor to speak on ‘Mecca of career’

If you go

MOORHEAD – Benjamin Smith started in the French Pyrenees with a plan and a stout pair of hiking boots. Five hundred miles later, he found himself at the resting place of St. James, patron of Spain.

Along the way, he slept in churches, swapped stories with fellow travelers, rolled an ankle, and studied thousand-year-old texts that captured the Spanish language in its formative years.

“It was like the Mecca of my career,” said Smith, a Minnesota State University Moorhead Spanish professor. He took a sabbatical last semester to make the trek on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient route across northern Spain known in English as the Way of St. James.

His path stretched from the French border to the city of Galicia in northwestern Spain, home of the reputed tomb of the apostle James.

Smith will lecture on the experience tonight at the MSUM library.

For Smith, who holds a doctorate in the study of the history of romance languages, the pilgrimage was an opportunity to read some of the earliest manuscripts in which written Spanish began to emerge from Latin.

The route of the pilgrimage is dotted with ancient monasteries that house those texts. Smith eventually plans to write a book about the manuscripts he studied – works so precious he had to handle them with gloved hands, if at all.

Smith made the trek at a brisk pace, walking between 12 and 16 miles a day and resting on Sundays to cover the route in about a month and a half. He stayed in hostels, churches and monasteries, and sometimes camped out. About two-thirds of the way through, he sprained his ankle and took a few days off, but otherwise came out of the trip “in great shape.”

At times, he walked alone. At others, he found company among some of the other 100,000-plus pilgrims who make the journey each year.

“Each person had some incredible insight,” Smith said. “Each person was just a fascinating adventure.”

Some of the journey’s high points included stops Smith hadn’t originally given a second thought. In one town that barely registered a footnote in his original itinerary, for instance, he stumbled upon manuscripts he didn’t know existed.

“There’s a saying in Spanish: ‘Man has his plans, and then God has his plans,’” he said. “It was further testimony to me that I don’t know everything.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502