Friends often joked that Aaron Hewitt was “The Mayor of Charlotte,” a guy who seemed to know everyone wherever he went … or, if he found himself around people he didn’t know, he had a reputation for being able to turn a stranger into a pal in a matter of minutes.
So even though Hewitt boarded a plane to Europe 11 days ago with every intention of walking the Camino de Santiago on his own, it should come as a surprise to precisely none of his friends that others making the pilgrimage had attached themselves to him less than two days into his journey.
And in the face of her tremendous grief, it comforts his wife, Amanda Hewitt, to know that when her husband collapsed and died just outside of Logroño in northern Spain on Saturday morning, he was not alone.
As was his custom, he was surrounded by friends. Aaron Hewitt was 46.
A four-time marathoner, an avid CrossFit athlete, and a hiking enthusiast, Hewitt spent more than 15 years as a popular and respected physician assistant specializing in sports medicine at OrthoCarolina in Charlotte before he and his wife moved to Naples, Florida, in 2018.
But just two weeks ago, the Hewitts closed the books on their 4-1/2 years in Florida, with Aaron accepting a new position that would bring them back to Charlotte. He’d also arranged to take five weeks off between jobs to do something he had dreamed of for more than a decade: the Camino de Santiago (or, “the Way of Saint James”), a legendary pilgrimage for Catholics that spans from the base of the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. There are several different hiking routes, ranging from 75 to 500 miles.
Amanda Hewitt says it had been on his bucket list since not long after they started dating in 2010, when they saw a movie titled “The Way.” As she explains it, “it is shockingly very familiar now — a son actually dies doing the Camino, and the dad goes and does the journey to complete it for his —” she pauses for a second, her voice shaking, before continuing “— in honor of his son.”
“So we saw that movie and it was just really moving to him,” she says. “And, truly, since 2010 he has incessantly watched YouTube videos, has planned for this, has wanted to do this for so freaking long, but just never had the time to devote to it.”
With the transition between his two jobs and their return to Charlotte, Aaron had finally found his opening.
Over the years, in his mind, he always envisioned the Camino would be something he’d do with a group. But after he started planning the trip earlier this year, he decided he wanted to go it alone. The whole point, he figured, was that it was supposed to be a spiritual pilgrimage. A time for introspection.
When Amanda dropped him off at the airport on June 3, Aaron had nothing but reassuring words for her.
“I’ll be OK,” he said. “See you in 12 days.”
FINDING HIS WAY TO CHARLOTTE, NOT ONCE BUT TWICE
Aaron Hewitt grew up in the tiny town of Cass City, Michigan, and though he was technically an only child, he had four older half-siblings on his mother’s side from a previous marriage; and, later, two younger half-siblings on his father’s side after his dad remarried following his parents’ divorce.
He studied athletic training and sports medicine at Central Michigan University, and after earning his bachelor’s degree he worked two years as an assistant athletic trainer for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. He went back to Central Michigan to earn a master’s in physician assistant studies, and moved to Charlotte in 2002 to work for OrthoCarolina.
Although they adored Charlotte, the Hewitts were lured to Florida in 2018 by a job change for Aaron — to work at a medical device company called Arthrex, first as a medical educator at a lab and then, after a promotion in 2019, as manager of that lab. But they missed their huge circle of friends in Charlotte, so when the opportunity to return arose this past February, they jumped.
Aaron’s excitement level was off the charts.
They’d found a house right by Freedom Park that he was in love with, and it had a pool, which was a big deal to him. They were scheduled to close on the purchase this Thursday, then Amanda was set to get on a plane Friday to meet him in Barcelona for a proper vacation.
But early last Saturday morning, while Amanda was visiting Aaron’s family in Michigan to celebrate his niece’s recent wedding, she got a call that she never expected.
A TRAGEDY, AND THEN … A SEARCH FOR SILVER LININGS
Aaron started his journey in the French city of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port alone, as planned.
By the end of Day 2, though — in what Amanda refers to as “true Aaron fashion” — he was part of a crew that also included a man from the U.K., a man from Copenhagen and a couple from Italy. She would find out later that they called each other “familia,” and that Aaron was the patriarch “because he was older … and took care of things” for the group. A caretaker.
The five of them spent four full days and nights together.
At one point when they talked, Amanda asked Aaron if he felt like he was getting what he had wanted to get out of the experience since he’d had so much less time to himself. He told her yes, that there were “still quiet moments where I can reflect.” And overall, she says, “he was loving it.”
Last Friday night, the group bunked up in the town of Torres Del Río in northern Spain, having covered about 85 to 90 miles of the nearly 500-mile trek. (Aaron’s plan was always to do less than half the route before pulling out to meet Amanda in Barcelona.)
The next morning, Aaron had told his companions that he was feeling nauseated, and to go on ahead of him. They refused to leave him behind, Amanda says.
After waiting for him to feel up to it, they walked for maybe 60 to 90 minutes — on a flat dirt path, at a leisurely pace — then stopped to take a photo. After it was snapped, Aaron bent forward to put his hands on his knees, then collapsed. At least one member of the group started CPR, but efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Amanda says it’s suspected Aaron had a heart attack.
Despite the fact that he was a healthy eater and “as fit as they come,” she says he had extremely high cholesterol, which is something both of his parents have lived with, too. He had no known heart conditions. An autopsy report is due back later this week.
Meanwhile, all Amanda Hewitt can do is try to see silver linings through her tears. And she has found a few.
For one, she says it was highly irregular for her to be with Aaron’s family without him. “I just feel like God was working, and knew I needed to be there with them at that moment,” she says.
She’s back in Charlotte now, and here, she’s found another: “I think it’s God’s plan, like, ‘OK, you figured out how to get back, and this is when you needed to be around all of your people and be enveloped by that,” she says.
Also, she says they made annual trips to Europe and that they often dreamed aloud with each other about retiring early and moving overseas. Even though she wishes they could have been together, she’s at least somewhat comforted by him living out the end of his life abroad and in search of spiritual peace.
But again, as much as anything else, Amanda is thankful that Aaron wasn’t alone.
“These people really took care of him in his time of need,” she says, “and they have been reaching out to me, sending me pictures, giving me details. They’ve been amazing. And … there’s a (tradition) where you’re supposed to carry a rock from the start of the journey to the end, and one of them showed me the rock that they had picked up from where Aaron passed.
“They said, ‘I would like to carry it with me and leave it at the end,’” Amanda says, as her voice starts to break again.
“It’s pretty moving, and I think it’s a testament to how amazing he was. That these people — in four days — would feel that close to him. That he could find a friend anywhere.”
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