Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: A former U.S. attorney’s journey of 1,000 miles, one step at a time

Joseph Harrington had been hiking through Europe for weeks – following a centuries-old pilgrimage to Rome – when he arrived in the village of Bourg-Saint-Pierre.

Tucked into the towering Alps, the village of some 200 people lies along the Great St. Bernard Pass, an ancient route on the border of Switzerland and Italy that lends the huge, shaggy rescue dogs their name. Harrington went into a small stone church, which had a stained glass window with a familiar figure.

“And there’s Aloysius Gonzaga!” Harrington said. “There’s the original Zag!”

Harrington – a former federal prosecutor and graduate of Gonzaga University’s law school – had this small-world encounter as a part of his monthslong trek along the Via Francigena, an 1,100-mile pilgrimage between Canterbury, England, and Rome. He decided to undertake the excursion following his retirement at the end of last year.

Harrington, 66, has been on the trail for more than two months, and is on track to reach Vatican City by Oct. 13, when his 90-day window for travel under immigration rules expires.

“As a result, I’ve got to keep moving,” he said. “I can’t dilly-dally. I’m on a little bit of a deadline.”

He’s covering around 16 to 20 miles a day, with the longest leg coming in at 32 miles. He’s staying nights in hostels, monasteries, churches and sometimes with families along the route. He has found it exhilarating to walk through European and Christian history, to see the villages and meet the people along the way.

“Every day you get up and don’t really worry about anything,” he said in a recent interview. “You put on a pack and just go. How terrific is that?”

Harrington was inspired by Timothy Egan’s 2019 book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity,” which documented Egan’s journey along the Via Francigena – as well as his struggles with faith, doubt, spirituality and the contradictions built into his experiences as a Catholic. Egan, the author and former New York Times columnist, grew up in Spokane and graduated from Gonzaga Prep.

“I read Tim Egan’s book and it was very interesting,” Harrington said. “I thought, if I ever had the opportunity, that’s something I would like to do.”

Upon retirement, Harrington found himself with the perfect balance of time, health and money to undertake such a journey. A Catholic, he viewed the pilgrimage as a chance for spiritual renewal and contemplation, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

“He just started giving it a lot of thought,” said his wife, Margaret Harrington. “At first I didn’t really believe it, because it seems like such a long hike.”

Joseph Harrington worked for 32 years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington. He held several roles, including as U.S. attorney in 2018 and 2019, and was involved in many high-profile cases, including the prosecution of the white supremacist who planted a bomb at Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in 2011 and supervising the case against former Spokane police officer Karl Thompson in the death of Otto Zehm.

A native of Helena, Joseph Harrington has done some hiking and backpacking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

“It seemed interesting to me to do a backpacking trip and not have to worry about grizzly bears,” he said.

The Via Francigena was first documented by Archbishop Sigeric in the year 990. Sigeric made his pilgrimage to Rome and documented his return journey in a journal – 80 stages averaging about 12 miles each. Since then, most people follow the route in the other direction, toward Rome; an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people a year complete at least part of the route.

Far fewer people follow the Via Francigena than the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, which attracts upward of 200,000 people a year. Joseph Harrington said he was surprised at how few people, and even fewer Americans, he encountered along the trail. By keeping an eye on the guest books along the route, he knows that he’s following one other pilgrim from the Northwest.

“I know there’s somebody named Rex, from Seattle, who’s two days ahead of me,” he said.

Joseph Harrington started from Canterbury on July 15 and crossed into France shortly thereafter. He walked through the Somme region, passing the burial sites of countless young men who died in World War I.

“It’s just day after day after day of cemeteries. They just go on and on and on,” he said. “It’s heart-wrenching.”

He walked through the Alps over the Great St. Bernard Pass, a storied route once claimed as a Roman road by August Caesar and crossed by Napoleon and his army in 1800. Entering Italy, he walked through the Po River Valley and, as of earlier this month, was entering another mountainous phase, climbing into the Apeninne Mountains, after which he will descend into Tuscany on the way to Rome.

He’s been on foot the whole way with a single exception – the day he had to take a bus to his next stop when an unseasonable blizzard descended. He stays the night in churches, monasteries, hostels and people’s homes, sometimes walking into a tiny village with no stores and no idea where he’ll sleep that night.

He keeps friends and family back home updated on his trips with texts and photos from the route – the mountains and villages, paths through the woods, fruit he picked and ate along the way, massive St. Bernard dogs on the pass that gave them their name.

John Allison, a friend of Joseph Harrington’s who is an attorney and former journalist, said it’s been fun to be on the other end of the text and photo narratives.

“He’s flooded us with so many photos,” Allison said. “He really is in the backcountry of Europe, and he’s going places none of us have ever been, so we’re enthralled with all he’s doing and seeing.”

Allison said Joseph Harrington’s gregarious nature is also obvious in the photos.

“He’s meeting locals and making friends, and that’s very much Joe,” he said.

Joseph Harrington spoke about his pilgrimage by phone Sept. 7, following a 21-mile hike through the Po River Valley, a muggy, mosquito-filled stage that took him past damp fields of arborio rice. He was staying that evening in a six-bed hostel and getting ready for a ferry crossing of the Po the following day.

Twice along the way, he’s lightened his pack by shipping items back home, contributing to a simplicity that he finds meaningful.

“The extra stuff you carry just makes life harder,” he said. “It’s better, maybe, to just unpack and carry what you need. That’s a good metaphor for life, as well.”

Margaret, who works as an attorney for the city of Spokane, plans to join him on the last leg of the journey from Siena to Rome.

“I have felt in the last few weeks, ‘OK, it’s time. I miss my husband. I want to go see him,’ ” she said.

Harrington said the hardest days have been those where he has not arranged a place to stay at night, and he just walked into a tiny village facing a language barrier and needing a place to lay his head.

Each time, he found a place.

“And the hardest days became the best days,” he said.