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The Man Who Walked Around Lake Michigan

“If You Can Walk One Mile, You Can Walk Ten”
Map of Michigan with red line tracing Brendan’s path along the western shore of Lake Michigan, from near the Ohio border up to Mackinac Island.

Brendan Donley is a man of faith. 

On May 5th, he began a religious pilgrimage along the shore of Lake Michigan. A 502-mile journey walking the entire west coast of Michigan. His inspiration: The Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across Spain that Catholics have undertaken since medieval times. Over 200,000 people walk that route each year. It ends at the shrine of Saint James the Apostle, a path of spiritual growth and reflection.

Brendan Donley chose to walk his own Camino de Santiago in Michigan. He started in South Haven and spent the next month walking north. He walked through Holland, Muskegon, Manistee, Traverse City, Torch Lake, and Charlevoix. He hobbled across rocks. Made his way through forest trails. Crawled through the thicket. Some days, he walked 20 miles. Day after day. He saw the shores of Lake Michigan as few others do, maybe some parts nobody ever has.

Smiling man in red shirt with hiking poles and sandals standing on pavement road next to forest.
Photo by O.W. Root

I caught up with Brendan near the end of his pilgrimage, somewhere between Petoskey and Charlevoix. It was a scorcher. He texted me he was somewhere east of Charlevoix, walking along the lake. I got in the car and drove on US-31. One eye on the road and one eye on the trail. I eventually caught sight of him through the trees. Blue hat. Shorts. Red shirt. Walking stick. Socks. Sandals. Backpack. Water bottle. That’s him. I swung around and pulled over onto a backroad. Parked next to a line of pine trees. We sat in the air conditioned car and talked about his pilgrimage. This is what he told me: 

OWR: How did you end up walking the length of Lake Michigan?

BD: It started a few years ago. I grew up Catholic. Fell away from it, as a lot of people do. Maybe five or six years ago, I started getting all these signs, revelations, and crazy coincidences. I like the term “Godwink.” I was neither imagining them nor was I wanting them to be. I wasn’t looking for signs. If anything, I was probably going to bat them away. I was almost looking at them with a skeptical mind. There were a lot of these in a row, and it felt like God was saying something to me. And I didn’t even know what that meant. I was wanting to get back in touch with my faith. Wanting to do atonement. Wanting to figure out what I believe.

Anyway, all these questions were sifting in my head. So when I heard about the [Camino de Santiago] pilgrimage, I thought this is the perfect thing to have a month away from the world and just be alone with God and walk. I felt like that is what I needed. That was 2020. I was trying to sift through all these questions in my head and my heart for a while. So I started planning a trip to go to Spain. But then COVID happened. Couldn’t travel, and it kind of went on and on and on. I thought I might not ever be able to go to Europe. I knew I had to do this trip, and I looked at the map and I thought: What if I just walked the coast of Michigan and did a Michigan Camino? I got on Google Maps and looked on satellite view to see if it was even possible. I went day by day, and I mapped the whole thing out. And I go: This looks possible.

OWR: Were there any places in Michigan that you saw along your journey that surprised you? 

BD: The nicest place that I would like to go back to is a two- or three-mile trail right around Fisherman’s Island. It went right along the lakeshore. You couldn’t access it from the campsite there. There is no real way to get there, except by foot. I was just walking the coast. The woods were really thick. It was a single track trail. I was calling it the Christmas corridor. It smelled like Christmas trees. They were close right up against the trail. You were hitting your shoulders as you were walking through. I’ve never seen a trail like that. It was so green, it was so lush. No one was there. 

Dirt path leading into vibrant green pine forest.
Photo via Brendan Donley

Another place that was really nice is the coastline just south of Saugatuck. There is a lakeshore drive there for about three or four miles. It’s a very high bluff. You are high, high up over the lake. The houses are mostly on the east side of the street. Some of them have staircases. It is super steep. But from the street, you can see the lake. This was four miles of panoramic views.

I would say the other nicest walk was from Point Betsie Lighthouse to Empire. I walked the whole beach. And there is this Platte River I had to walk through there. It was waist deep. It was nice, but I kept worrying that it was going to keep getting higher. It was beautiful. There were no houses. I think it’s a big state forest. It was thick pinewoods. The sunset coming down. There were all these loons. There are no loons where I live. I found a Petoskey stone. South of Empire, there are these huge bluffs, and I had never seen Sleeping Bear. When I rounded Point Betsie, I could see it in the distance. I could see the Empire Bluffs, Sleeping Bear, and the Manitou Islands. I walked past the bluffs at 1 a.m. I just walked into the night. The moonlight was over me. No one was there. There was one group by the fire. Other than that, there was just no one.

OWR: What were the most trying aspects of your journey? The most difficult moments?

BD: A lot of the logistics were tough. I am sure it is hard in Spain, but there are these way markers the whole way. You can’t get lost. You are following the people. There’s food and places to stay every few miles. But let’s say you are trying to do 20 miles, but you only made it eight. There are places to stay. For my trip, it was challenging because I was trying to go town to town, but sometimes they are far, sometimes my foot gets messed up. There were things like that. 

But in terms of specific instances on the trip, I think the hardest one was on the first day. I got really bad blisters. I just had the wrong shoes. If you ever do a long trip, these are the best. [Brendan shows me the Teva sandals he is wearing with socks.] When you have a closed shoe, it gets hot and it rubs. You can get a waterproof shoe. That gets hotter. Or you get a breathable shoe, but if it rains you have a soaked shoe. This, if it rains, there isn’t that much to get soaked. 

The hardest thing was leading into Onekama. It was a very tough day, because I woke up at dawn. Most days, I wait a couple hours to let the swelling go down on my foot and get acclimated, but that day I just had to get up and go. I walk seven miles to a Wendy’s. Shaved in the bathroom. Put on my white polo shirt for Mass. I met with the Priest after. We spent a lot of time talking. He showed me this beautiful church that has been decommissioned. But I didn’t start the rest of my walk until 4 p.m. And I didn’t get to rest during that day. 

So then I had to walk all the way to Onekama. I got seven more miles into it, and my feet were just toast. I didn’t have these shoes yet. I had these five-dollar Dollar Store flip flop things. My feet just got cut up and wrecked. It was horrible. I probably got maybe four or five miles out of Onekama. Probably midnight. I hadn’t booked a room at the motel. I can barely walk. And I look across the lake, and there is this neon cross up in the sky, seemingly. And I am like: Okay, I’ve gotta keep going. 

I think there’s some Lutheran church up in the hills. Behind it, there is this cross. At some point, I took my shoes off. I was walking barefoot down the road, because the sides of the shoes kept cutting into my feet. I was just hobbling with my walking stick. Eventually, I got there. I was looking at that cross the whole time. That was the hardest. I recuperated for two days there at this motel.

OWR: If someone was to do what you did, what are a few things you would tell them to do, or not to do?

BD: Get these sandals. Learn to accept help from people. I think when you are doing a trip like this, maybe you have been preparing and you are strong. You have prepped. You’ve done all the arrangements. You’ve packed. You’ve planned it. You’ve thought about it. Okay, I’m doing this. I’m alone with God. It’s me. But very early on, like the first day even, I realized that it’s not going to work. And to be Christian, you always think about serving others, and that’s very important, but don’t be too proud to let people serve you. 

Stay hydrated with electrolyte tablets. I didn’t even know what these were, but I go to Walgreens every couple towns to get these little tablets. You just put them in your water, and you let them dissolve. It’s not that fun, but it helps a lot. My main rule of thumb for the trip was: If I can walk a mile, I can walk ten. There were a couple days I had to take off when I could not have walked a mile. Even the second day, I woke up and I felt horrible. But once I got going, I gave it a couple hours, I put my socks and shoes on, and I could take a couple steps. From that day forward, I had that feeling that if I can walk one mile, I can walk 10 miles.

OWR: Is there any one big thing that you took away from this journey? 

BD: I keep feeling very grateful for every time God shows himself to me. There are certain moments where God feels especially present. I feel very amazed each time. On a trip like this, things like that are happening every day, but it doesn’t get old. Moments when God appears to me or clearly reminds me of his protection and love never get old. I don’t overlook it or get tired of it. Most human things we encounter, even great ones, get old at some point. But the little Godwinks that appear to me just don’t get old.

***

Brendan finished his pilgrimage a few days after we spoke. He made it to Mackinaw City on June 6, just about one month after beginning his pilgrimage in South Haven. 

Enticed by the easy and the comfortable, we are all too often drawn away from the natural world. Brendan chose a different way. He’s a reminder that we all have a choice. He chose to open his heart to God. It wasn’t easy, but he chose it. He walked it, and he was better for it. We all face similar choices in our lives. We can choose that which is easy or that which is meaningful. We can choose to listen to God when he speaks. He’s embedded in nature. We can choose to be with the land, the water, and the sky. The choice is ours.

O.W. Root and Brendan Donley grinning, O.W. pointing at camera.
Photo by O.W. Root

Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

O.W. Root is a writer based in Northern Michigan, with a focus on nature, food, style, and culture. Follow him on X at @NecktieSalvage.

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