By Karen Carr Keefe
Zdenka Gast just recently finished walking 500 miles in only 29 days. Yet less than a year ago, the Grand Island resident was so weak from cancer treatments that she could barely get off the couch, her family said.
To those who know her, the trek from eastern France to western Spain - from June 25 to July 24 - was yet another amazing chapter in a most interesting life story.
"Less than a year after finishing chemo and radiation, I was getting enough courage, will and strength to walk 500 miles in one month in 100-degree heat," Gast said in a phone call from Lourdes, France, late last month.
"There is nobody with more will power on the planet," her younger daughter, Kelly Petrie, says of her mother. "We are very proud daughters," Petrie said on behalf of herself and her sister, Michele Gast. "To think about how sick she was just months ago, I have tears in my eyes to witness what the human spirit is capable of." Petrie said her mother's doctors gave her the clearance to make the trip.
On Day 11 of her European pilgrimage along St. James Way, Grand Islander Zdenka Gast walked 19 miles through fields, with not a single tree in sight for 5 miles to provide shade from the blistering 100-degree heat.
St. James Way history
Not only did Gast's journey require great physical stamina, but it also had great spiritual significance for the two-time cancer survivor.
The Camino de Santiago that Gast walked is a pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there. Many take up this route as a spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth.
Why she went
Gast had not been contemplating such a walk, but the idea presented itself as an irresistible opportunity.
"A friend called me, "We are thinking of going to St. James Way.' " Gast decided to join them.
"Did I know of the trip? No! Did I ever go on a pilgrimage? No! Why now? I don't know. I felt I had to go," she explained. "I've always been a believer, but I have never worn my religion on my sleeve."
Gast said people know her as being politically active, but not outspoken in her religious beliefs.
"In the last couple of years, there has almost been an attack on Christianity," where people seem to portray believers as backwoods types, she said. "It was a time for people who spoke out on some issues to speak out on their beliefs. ... I started to speak out about a person's right to pray and believe."
Gast's family - away and abroad
A member of Trinity United Methodist Church on Grand Island, Gast and her husband, John, founded ConWeld, now a consulting firm, after 35-plus years in the steel erecting business. She is president and handles the business side of the company, while her husband is the engineering expert. In addition to their daughters, the Gasts have two grandchildren, Kaia and Jamin Petrie, who are 6 and 3, respectively. She kept in touch with them via video chat during the trip.
Gast's companions on the journey were three friends - a husband and wife and their 25-year-old son, who rode his bike on the journey as they walked - or climbed, as was the case on Day One.
On Day 13 of her month-long journey, Zdenka Gast cools her weary feet. A typical day along the Camino de Santiago, or St. James Way, involves walking 10 miles or more in 100-degree heat mid-day along rugged terrain. Gast said she developed blisters the size of quarters.
Blog tells of trip's adventures, challenges and joys
She dictated each day's adventures to Petrie, who posted them to a blog called, "The Way: Zdenka's journey along Camino de Santiago," and that first entry told of reaching the heights.
"I have done many things in my life that I didn't think were possible," Gast said. "However, crossing the Pyrenees Mountains for nine hours, 16 miles up to 4,500 feet, gave me exhilarating feelings, the power of life, adrenaline, hope, belief that with a positive attitude and belief in yourself and a higher being that you can accomplish anything.
"We are exhausted and exhilarated."
On the walk, they met people from all over the world - Italy, South Korea, Japan, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, Poland, Slovenia and Germany. Every couple of days, they would see the same faces again. But along the way, many, many people gave up on the quest because it was too hard for them, she said. Those who persisted became very close as they continued. And when they finished the journey, "We were hugging each other - there were tears - it was, 'You made it!'
"We were like a family - a beautiful, bonding trip of people from across the world."
The typical day for Gast and her companions on St. James Way began early, tested one's stamina to the max, and ended with a night's rest at a private hostel. She said you get up at 4 a.m., before the heat of the day begins. "You have poles, and you push off your poles and you walk and you walk and you think you can't walk anymore - and you say to yourself you would never walk again. You walk an average of eight to 10 hours every day. And then you come to the end, and it's disbelief."
On the 29th and last day, she and her three companions put two days' walks together, for a total of 24 miles. They arrived at 8:15 on a Friday night, just in time for Mass and a day ahead of the big festival and procession in honor of St. James.
At the end, there were dozens of priests, some bishops and cardinals and Spanish royalty among the thousands of travelers gathered around the church. "All the people are the same - dusty, dirty, sweaty, thirsty and exhilarated with happiness," Gast said.
An eye-opening experience
the most touching incidents happened on Day 12 of
the trip, when Gast saw a man walking barefoot on the trail. "Here I am complaining of blisters wearing the best shoes on the market, wearing the best weather clothes you can buy, complaining on the terrain I am walking on. And he is walking barefoot," Gast said.
At first, she said she thought, "This is his pilgrimage and he can do it his way." She said her friend helped her realize that the man's hardship was their opportunity to help. "So I prayed very hard that if I had a chance to meet him or anyone else on the way, my eyes would be open and I would give to him if possible."
They ran into the man again 10 miles later and invited him to have coffee with them. They learned that he was a veterinarian from South Korea who left his practice, his wife and 9-year-old daughter to come to "the Camino" with nothing but the clothes on his back. Gast said her friend asked him, "Why do you go barefoot?" And he said, "Because people see me barefoot. And they all ask me and then I get to tell them that I am doing it for Jesus and I get to tell them about Jesus."
He gave Gast and each of her companions a small gift in thanks for their kindness. She said the incident brought home to her the Gospel of St. Matthew that she had been asked to read aloud at Mass with other pilgrims the previous night. In the Bible passage, Christians are taught to treat all those they encounter as if they were Jesus. "Amen. I say to you whatever you did for one of his least brothers of mine you did it for me."
Gast wrote in her blog: "For me, I don't know if it was a lesson or a sign. But I know that my eyes will be open on the way and I won't just walk by. And I think that I will be a lot more aware of those who may need me. This man asked for nothing. And I am grateful that I got a second chance to contribute to his journey and I wish him well."
On Day 15, Zdenka Gast reaches the halfway point of her walk on St. James Way from France to Spain. It's 250 miles down and 250 to go.
Overcoming obstacles a way of life
Petrie believes that her mother has a drive to achieve because of the obstacles she's had to overcome in her life. As a successful businesswoman, Gast has had the opportunity to inspire others. "She has advised women in Western New York for many years and chaired lots of committees empowering women," Petrie said.
Zdenka Gast was born in Imotski, Croatia (then Yugoslavia), grew up in poverty and hardship, then moved to the United States when she was 21.
"She married my dad in Germany. He was a soldier in the Army, stationed there during the Vietnam War, and she left communist Croatia in search of a better life," Petrie said.
"She saved every penny waitressing and was smart not to ever spend what they didn't have. My dad made a table and she sold it, and their business was born," Petrie said.
"They went on to build bridges and big structures, including Pilot Field stadium (now Coca-Cola Field) downtown," Petrie said. "Then when war broke out in former Yugoslavia, she went from being a liaison to the White House to advising the White House on foreign policy over there. She walked in the trenches of war to inform the world of what was happening over there. And it was the first footage shown on CNN," she said.
A journey of healing and faith
Petrie is happy and proud of her mother's latest accomplishment. "This journey was very healing for her. And she truly felt the power of prayer working for her during her cancer treatment. So she walked 500 miles praying for others who need it now."
Gast agreed that the spiritual rewards were many along the way.
"You do not have to be openly religious - that spirit grows within you every day as you walk. The human body alone can't do that. There has to be a higher power. It's tough to explain, it's a great feeling," Gast said.
"I also believe the story is worth telling: It's never to give up," she said. "To have gone through two unrelated cancers and to have finished chemo and radiation and to have gone on a trip - for those who have to fight it (cancer), it's something to believe that there is a rainbow on the other side of the dark cloud."
You can read Zdenka Gast's blog at: http://www.zdenkagast.wix.com/theway.