The Way Back
Approaching the Cruz de Ferro. Photo by Hans-Jakob Weinz
One local landowner is carrying a piece of home with her on a remarkable journey.

This past Thanksgiving, Paula Larwick gathered river stones from the cool, mossy banks of Rock Creek in southwest Washington’s Dole Valley. Larwick’s granddaughter Veronica painted the stones and traded her artwork for socks to give to the homeless, save for a few. One tiny, pink rock, which bears the inscription, “Protect Our Earth” along with the names of all seven ofLarwick’s grandchildren, was set aside for unique and unlikely journey.

Paula Larwick

Paula Larwick

Larwick will carry the stone with her as she and her husband, Chris Overholtzer, traverse the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James.” Revered by avid hikers, the Camino is a centuries-old pilgrimage route from southwestern France to the shrine the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

The Cruz de Ferro, or Iron Cross, which marks the highest point on the Camino de Santiago.

The Cruz de Ferro, or Iron Cross, which marks the highest point on the Camino de Santiago. Photo by José Antonio Gil Martínez.

For many of its travelers, the Camino represents a spiritual journey, a path of retreat, growth, penance, or some combination of  the three. At the trail’s highest point, between the towns of Manjarin and Foncebadon, stands the Cruz de Ferro, or “Iron Cross.” A mountain of stones, deposited by travelers since the Middle Ages, sits piled around the base of the cross.

Traditionally, pilgrims left stones from their homelands as offerings. Today, hikers continue the custom. For some, their stones are left in hopes of forgiveness. For others, the rocks represent past hardship, the weight of which is shed in the hopes of a better future.  For Larwick, her small pink stone is a token of reconciliation, acknowledging humanity’s history of environmental degradation, offered in the hopes of a brighter future for her grandchildren. 

This 55-day trek may sound like the trip of a lifetime, but for Larwick, it’ll be the latest stop on an itinerary that reads like an unofficial globetrekker’s bucket list. She’s hiked over half of the Appalachian Trail, walked on the Great Wall of China, summited Mount Kilimanjaro, and climbed a portion of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. “Hiking keeps you physically active and slows down the pace of life,” explains Larwick, “you get to see amazing things, but more than that, you meet amazing people.”

Between adventures, Larwick has spent the past 30 years a Battle Ground-area science and math teacher, doing her best to impart children with a sense of curiosity for the natural world and instill an ethic of stewardship. For much of that time, she’s lived on 100 acres of forest in Dole Valley, the site of excursions of a different scale with her grandchildren. She and Veronica trace paths of rain water down to Rock Creek, keep an eye out for Steelhead lining up under an old logging bridge, and look to the tree-tops for bald eagles.

Rock Creek, Clark County, WA.

Rock Creek, Clark County, WA.

Larwick recently decided to sell 51 acres of her land to Columbia Land Trust to ensure its permanent conservation. The Land Trust will work to improve habitat and help support the recovery of Steelhead in Rock Creek, part of the East Fork Lewis River system. Larwick will continue to live at her home on two adjacent acres, and she looks forward to serving as a site steward, caring for the land close to her heart.

This spring, Larwick will travel the Camino as PoliPoliPing, a trail-name she earned on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. In Swahili, PoliPoli means, “slowly, slowly”—a mantra of sorts for the patience and determination required to ascend through thin air at 19,000 feet. The moniker is painted on Veronica’s stone, just above a glyph of rolling waves.As in travelling to far-away places, there is a restorative solace in truly knowing and caring for one’s own back yard. Indeed, exploring the natural world slows down the pace of life, and splendid diversity of life unfurls.

As in travelling to far-away places, there is a restorative solace in truly knowing and caring for one’s own back yard. Indeed, exploring the natural world slows down the pace of life, and splendid diversity of life unfurls.

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