AGRICENTO, ITALY - Last month, as Mahopac’s Karen Ganis trudged determinedly through the rugged terrain in Italy’s backcountry, hiking nearly 120 miles in eight days from Palermo to Agricento, she wondered what her late father would think of the undertaking.
“He would think, ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you doing this crazy thing?’” she laughed. “But he would be proud of me.”
Ganis’ grueling hike was inspired by her father, who died from Alzheimer’s disease 20 years ago.
The trip, called a camino in Italian, is regarded as a spiritual journey for many of those who make it. Ganis made her trek a “Longest Day” fundraiser to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association Hudson Valley Chapter.
The Longest Day, named in recognition of the long days spent by caregivers of people who have dementia, encourages people to do any activity they choose any time they choose to raise awareness and money to help end Alzheimer’s. While Longest Day fundraisers do not have to be held on the actual summer solstice, the timing of Ganis’ trip aligned perfectly. She began her pilgrimage on June 21.
Ganis bought new hiking shoes for the challenge and trained for the hike before heading to Italy. She said the training paid off.
“[The hike] was harder than anticipated,” she said. “The heat was oppressive…almost 115 degrees. We got up before 5 in the morning and were on the road by 7 to avoid the heat. We were hiking about 12 hours a day. It was a challenge.”
Ganis said she was surprised by how difficult the terrain was. It was no walk in the park.
“I was not prepared for the terrain,” she told Mahopac News. “I thought it would be kind of a ‘Sound of Music’ view, but no. The elevations were significant and long—3 or 4 miles uphill and then 3 or 4 back downhill. And it was steep. About 80 percent was off-road and when they said off-road, they weren’t kidding. The brush was taller than me. There were small rivers, large rocks—a lot more rugged than I anticipated. I was prepared for the distance, but not the terrain. And the heat and the bugs—oh, they were incredible.”
But Ganis never thought of giving up.
“I am kind of stubborn, so it was not an option,” she said.
The group she traveled with was called The Temple Project, made up of 16 people from around the world. Most were from the United States, but there were also participants from England and Australia. Many members of the group had lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Some, such as Ganis, sought to raise money, while others did it for the experience alone.
“It was exhausting both physically and mentally,” Ganis said. “It was very emotional. A few teammates had Parkinson’s and one had Alzheimer’s—she was only 38. It was inspiring that they were there pushing themselves.”
A longtime advocate and former board member for the Alzheimer’s Association, Ganis said she had set a goal of raising $10,000 for the cause. She easily bested that goal.
“I raised close to $12,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association,” she said. “People I didn’t even know donated. They were touched by what we were doing, and it inspired them to donate to the cause.”
While her father was her primary inspiration for the pilgrimage and she dedicated the first day of the hike to him, Ganis had a long list of other family members she wanted to memorialize.
“The first day and the longest day, [I did it] for my dad,” she said. “The next day, for my grandmother—my father’s mother. Then for three of my father’s siblings and my cousin, one of my aunts who had Alzheimer’s, and now her daughter has it. So, for me, it’s a very personal mission.”
Ganis encouraged people who donated to her fundraiser to share the names of loved ones they wished to honor. She promised she would read their names out loud when she reached her destination. She kept her promise.
Ganis said her dedication to the Alzheimer’s Association comes from the nature of the disease, which robs loved ones of the ability to say goodbye.
“I miss my dad every single day. My mom died of cancer. People ask me, ‘Why do you fundraise for the Alzheimer’s Association?’ Really, it’s because when my mom died, we were able to have a conversation; we were able to say goodbye,” Ganis said. “We could be at peace with the situation. But when my dad died, he was just taken from us. I do what I do so another family will not have to have that experience.”
People will be able to follow the exploits of Ganis and her fellow hikers when a documentary comes out later this year.
“We had a filmmaker following us the whole time,” she said. “He is making a film called ‘Pilgrimage to Enlightenment.’”
It does seem progress is being made against the insidious disease. According to New Scientist magazine, “Encouraging results have been announced from a small trial of a new kind of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, which targets gum disease bacteria. Trial participants showed improvements in certain molecules in their blood and spinal fluid, says Cortexyme, the U.S. firm developing the therapy.”
“I still hope for a cure,” Ganis said. “I don’t want my kids to watch me the way I watched my father.”