The Lighthouse

Day 231 – 18 Oct, 2015

The morning we were due to arrive in Santiago I felt strangely ambivalent.  I can’t explain it even now.  Everyone around me was emotional and passionate with feelings of accomplishment and yet, I felt nothing.  What was wrong with me?  I knew I was proud of what we had done.  I knew I was excited to stand in the plaza in front of the cathedral.  But I couldn’t seem to muster the same outpouring of emotion.  In fact, I felt myself already separating from the rest, like I didn’t fit in somehow.

  
Tony, Jay, Maria, and I had breakfast together in O Pedrouzo, congratulated each other on a quest nearly completed, and set off separately for our last 20 km.  As an introvert, time alone is often a way to recharge my batteries and I thought these last few steps by myself would be what I needed to conjure more passion for my arrival in Santiago.  Instead, I was distracted by the crowds and the cheaters and if I remembered to get a stamp in my Credencial and what time I would stop for my next coffee break.  The forward momentum was so mechanical after 5 weeks that I couldn’t stay focused.  My mind kept drifting to anything and everything unrelated to the Camino.

  

Just entering the city limits, Tony, who had walked ahead of the rest of us that day, was waiting on a bench so we could all walk in together.  I knew that Maria was behind me, walking with a German boy she had met, and I wasn’t sure where Jay was, but I felt a strong pull to keep walking.  My lack of emotion felt so alien to me that I just wanted to get there and thought that perhaps seeing the cathedral, I could begin to understand the magnitude of my pilgrimage.  I told Tony that I needed to keep walking and he decided to join me.

  

After a couple of wrong turns, we finally arrived in the large plaza looking up at the pinnacle landmark of the last 5 weeks, la Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.  There was scaffolding blocking the facade and the energy I had hoped for wasn’t there.  It felt completely anticlimactic.  We snapped a few photos and decided to go to the pilgrim’s office to obtain our Compostelas.  The line was short, but this was the first time I had a brief surge of elation.  The man behind the counter asked when I had started, where I had started, and scribbled my name and 775km in the blank designating the distance.  I stared at that piece of paper and I was immensely proud, as if I needed this certificate to somehow remind me.  

  

  
Walking back toward the Cathedral, Tony and I began to see other friends arrive and bumped into old friends that may have arrived in Santiago the day before.  There were even others who we hadn’t seen in weeks, but had already walked to Finesterre and had returned to Santiago before returning home.  I saw Jay, Eithne, Tom, Emile, Paddy, Joe, Kim, Emmy and countless others that I had known briefly or maybe had not known at all, but only recognized from sharing the same path with them for 5 weeks.  Watching the tears and hugging, I knew I did have that satisfaction inside me as well, but I started to realize that I couldn’t release it yet because I wasn’t done.

      

About 3 days after I began walking, I had decided my destination was no longer Santiago.  I wanted….no, I needed to walk to Finesterre, once the edge of the known world.  It was only 88km more to reach the ocean and that felt more final to me than Santiago.  Santiago is the culmination of a centuries-old pilgrimage and is a perfect finale for many pilgrims.  But for me, stopping in Santiago could be likened to running 26 miles of a marathon but not finishing the last 0.2 miles. 

    

I said a tearful goodbye to Maria, who was flying home to find a new job.  I had a final breakfast with Tony and Jay at their hotel and I began walking again, this time alone.  I left before sunrise and watched the golden globe on the horizon illuminate the Cathedral in the distance.  While it was eerie to be on this trail without my Camino family, I felt content that this was where I was supposed to be.  The first day I walked 40km, the longest I had walked in one day, and by the time I dragged into Vilaserio in the evening, I did not feel well at all.  In hindsight, I was probably dehydrated, my routine broken without the familiar crowd.

  

On the morning of the second day, I received a message from Lin, who I had not seen since Burgos, several weeks earlier.  She and Hans, who had also walked on ahead from Burgos, were currently in Finesterre and they had heard that I was on my way.  Lin couldn’t stay, but Hans said that if I were to be arriving the next day, as scheduled, then he would wait for me.  I was still feeling ill that morning.  I ordered orange juice and plain toast for breakfast but I couldn’t finish it.  Logic told me that I shouldn’t walk.  The distance between towns was too far and if I found myself too sick to walk on, I would have a hard time sorting out what to do or where to go.  But knowing that Hans would be there in Finesterre, I wanted to at least try to make it on the third day as planned.  Luckily, it passed after committing to a slow pace and drinking a lot of water.

   
 

Waking up on the morning of the third day (in reality, it was the 40th day), I was filled with the excitement that had been missing in Santiago.  I put on my hiking shoes and backpack for the last time as a pilgrim.  The path ran through acre upon acre of farmland.  The smell of manure was nearly constant.  And the Camino markers seemed to grow more frequent, if only because I was moving with more anticipation.  I walked over a small hill and took a photo of a marker.   Only afterward did my eyes move to the distant background and focus on the ocean.  I still had about 18km more to walk that day, but I could see the hazy outline of the sea.   It was surreal.  I wasn’t expecting it yet and with tears in my eyes, I fell to my knees. The previous 40 days began to flash through my mind, every ache, every landscape, every friendship, every step.  I practically ran the rest of the way – it was nearly all downhill.
   

    

With the outskirts of Finesterre upon me, I was walking through a wooded beach when I see a figure moving toward me in a familiar blue t-shirt.  I knew immediately who it was – Hans had started walking along the path to pick me up.  It was a remarkable surprise.  Hans offered to carry my pack for me, but I refused.  It was my burden to carry until the end.  He had reserved a bunk for me in a decent albergue and had prepared a feast of meatball soup, cheese, chorizo, bread and 5 bottles of wine.  YES, I said FIVE!  I showered, dropped off my things, and together, we walked the last 3 km to Cabo Fisterra, the lighthouse located on the peninsula at the westernmost point of Spain, to watch the sunset.  

   
 

The steps at the lighthouse were scattered with pilgrims and tourists alike.  Joe and Kim, from Australia, and a couple other familiar faces were also there, which was a happy reunion.  I sat on the rocky coast, drinking red wine out of a Dixie cup, with good friends, watching the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.   

   
   

Now this chapter was complete and I wouldn’t have wanted to finish it any other way.

  

Like Three Months of Dating

Day 214 – 1 Oct, 2015

Me: I can hear you chewing again. 

Maria: (chewing loudly and also laughing)

  

Maria: Argh! Your backpack is squeaking again!

Me: I don’t know how to fix it so I think you might have to get used to it. 

Me: (slurping water right next to Maria’s head while she’s trying to sleep) That was really loud wasn’t it?

Maria: I’m going to kill you. (Ok, I don’t think she actually said this, but she probably thought it. She would probably tell you it sounds like something I would say and she would be right.)

  

It was commonly accepted on the Camino that one day walking with someone was like 3 months of dating. When all you have is time and open countryside, relationships tend to ebb and flow at a much faster pace than in the real world. 

Even though this phenomenon was widely known, it was perhaps one of the biggest surprises to me.  I thought I had come on this pilgrimage alone to simply walk.  I was so so SO wrong.  

Three weeks after leaving St. Jean, I found myself in Leon, watching a tangled web of hurt feelings, gossip, and broken hearts.  Tears, anger, and misunderstandings abound.  I was a bit on the outside of the drama, but it gave me a unique perspective to examine the circumstances from neutral ground.  None of these people had known each other 3 weeks earlier, yet their feelings were raw and intense….and real.  Person A and Person B are flirting and somehow Person C is interfering so A is angry with C.  B takes a bus to finish the Camino early.  A and C continue walking together when they meet Person D.  A falls in love with D but D doesn’t return the feelings and accuses C of stirring up trouble.  A thinks that C is in love with A and that C is trying to ruin A’s chances with D.  A says that C is a gossip, never mind that A is the one who shared this story with me.  Follow?  Yeah, me neither.  It’s not important. The key here is that our 2 nights in Leon were largely spent counseling on relationships.  The good and the bad was all laid on the table, private conversations were hashed out, and it wasn’t unlike friends with decades of history sorting out their differences.  Ultimately, A decided to separate from the group and move ahead, C fell ill and had to hang back, and D had a brief love with Person E, who subsequently, ALSO fell in love with D who then had to break E’s heart as well.  My head stirs just thinking about it!

These ups and downs were an inevitable consequence of the bonding associated with the Camino.  Perhaps this is why many of my fellow pilgrims are still struggling to adjust to life back home.  For many of them, the Camino was their one adventure and they all had to go back to their lives and families and jobs.  It felt different for me because I was going to carry on with my pilgrimage, in a different way.  It’s not time for me to go home yet.  There is no question, though, that the bonds that unfolded during 5 weeks of walking were one of those special gifts that the Camino brings.

After one week, Maria and I could walk side by side for hours and not say a thing.  We didn’t need to because I already knew that the rhythm of her steps meant that her blisters were festering.  And she knew that I always picked up the pace in the afternoons.  We had reached the stage of old friends who know what the other is thinking before they even say it.  

After two weeks, we were starting to get on each other’s nerves (as will happen when you spend every second with someone!). And after three weeks, we weren’t walking together anymore but still knew we would reconnect in the evenings.  Four weeks past and it was the first time we were in a different town for the night (accidentally, but it happened nevertheless).  It may sound like we were drifting apart, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  

When we walked into Santiago (separately) exactly 5 weeks after we began, I was confident in knowing that she had become like a sister to me.  No matter how much we might drift, I would always have her back and she would always have mine.

  

Slow Travel

Days 192-227 –  9 Sept-14 Oct, 2015

Just follow the yellow arrows.  They will show you The Way.  They might be painted on the street or the side of a building, on a tree or the back of a road sign, but they are always there.

  
An average day on the Camino goes something like this:

Wake up about 6:30, either by hearing other pilgrims rustling around in their stash of plastic bags or else listening to Maria’s alarm go off for the second time before she hits snooze again. Sleeping bags stored, teeth brushed, sunscreen applied, water bottles filled, and feet strategically protected with sports tape and arnica cream before heading out the door around 7:30.  We stop for breakfast, usually toast and coffee, and greet others from our pack to compare the day’s itinerary. We walk for an hour or so and then stop for second breakfast, my favorite meal of Spanish tortilla and more coffee. Walk another couple hours, more coffee, more walking. After about 25 km, we reach our destination by early afternoon. We find an available albergue, perform necessary foot surgery, shower, do laundry, and unload the gear. Now it’s time for tapas, wine, reading, more wine, pilgrims menu (a 3 course meal including wine), lots of heartfelt discussions with our friends, followed by a 10:00 curfew. And repeat the next day…and the next…and the next.  

    

If I’ve learned nothing else from my first 7 months on the road, it’s that I need my pace to be slow and having a routine was comforting in a way I could not have expected.  You never heard anyone say that they didn’t feel like walking today – it was just something we did, as natural as getting up every morning.  Even those who were injured or in pain, they still walked.  That kind of resolve is rare and special and powerful.

  

In this blog, I won’t describe each day’s events.  It would become redundant and boring for you, as the reader.  Only someone who walks can truly embrace the monotony and love it BECAUSE it’s monotonous.  But what I will write is a collection of a few of my favorite memories:

Day 198 – 15 Sept, 2015 

Discovering the wine fountain in Irache, proving that we are in fact in La Rioja, the best wine region in Spain.

   

 

Day 199 – 16 Sept, 2015

Maria had walked ahead of me when I stopped to take photos and we had become separated sometime in the morning.  This was only a problem because we had packed a picnic lunch and each had some portion of the goods.  I stopped in a town for coffee, trying to decide if she was still ahead of me or if I may have passed her when she took a coffee break.  This is when I met Tony.  A retired banker from Idaho was walking the Camino with his friend, Jay, from Kentucky, who had recently turned over his company to his son.  We chatted for only a few minutes before Maria turned up but as you seem to see the same people day after day, both Tony and Jay were to become good friends of ours in the weeks to come.

   
 

Arriving in Viana, just one town shy of LogroƱo, there was a lot of activity in the streets, people rushing around and many of them dressed in red and white.  This struck me as unusual because often we would walk through a town and it appeared deserted.  On this particular day, it seemed there was a bull run and we had walked through at exactly the right moment to watch.  The store fronts were crowded with onlookers, safely behind big metal gates.  Maria and I secured a place close to the fence to watch professionals and amateurs (namely, our fellow pilgrims) run back and forth in the street with about 4-6 bulls each time.  It struck me as a bit comical and almost didn’t seem real.  This kind of thing really happens?  Yes, yes it does.

   

   

Day 200 – 17 Sept, 2015

I refuse to make reservations for an albergue.  I do realize I’m going against the grain and perhaps shooting myself in the foot for this, but the Camino was supposed to be a reprieve from planning ahead.  I would find an albergue when it was time to stop for the day.  The problem being that most people DO make reservations so sometimes it didn’t matter how early you arrived, you might have to try a couple of places before you can find an available bed.   Not an ideal situation when you’ve walked all day and are tired, especially when it’s raining.  In Najera, we had to try 5 different albergues….in the rain…..before we found a room.  Seemingly the last room in town, Maria and I paid 30 Euros for a private room, but on our meager budgets, this felt like a big splurge.  Nevertheless, crisis averted.

   
 

Day 201 – 18 Sept, 2015

Usually stopping for lunch is easy – we passed through 3-5 towns nearly every day.  Between Najera to Santo Domingo, our options were limited.  We passed a golf course in the deserted town of Ciruena with signs directing us to their “pilgrim lunch specials.”  Now, I grew up in country clubs and I know that our pilgrim attire and dirty backpacks were not appropriate for this type of establishment so even though we were hungry, Maria and I walked further.  When we reached the edge of town, the last town for awhile, we realized there were no other options.  Jay passed us and said everyone else was eating at the golf course so we turned back.  We shyly went in and tried not to act like heathens (I was mortified to see other pilgrims with their shoes and shirts removed, lounging in the sun) and soon realized we were the golf course’s only customers.   This community had been built during the housing crisis, but had since failed.  The boarded up condominiums and vacant (yet new) buildings spoke volumes.

  
 

That night we had dinner at a fancy-ish restaurant with Tony and Jay and Louis from California.  But first, we ran into Peter from Scotland, who bought us stiff drinks while we were in the queue for laundry.  Somehow, I escaped with only one drink.  Maria indulged in 2.  Even though I know she was a bit lit before dinner, she hid it well.  After all, she had a lovely black dress to wear!  
   

 

Day 203 – 20 Sept, 2015
Walking in the woods, surrounded by trees and places to hide, Maria decides to relieve herself in a wide open space because she’s  afraid of snakes lurking in the undergrowth.  Snakes had never occurred to me, but now that she brings it up…I  follow her example.  Luckily, sometimes you have the Camino all to yourself for when you need to pee in the open.

  

By this time, we have made friends with a solid group of people.  Hans (from Hamburg!), Kate from England, Jeremy from California, Lin from Denmark, Katerina from Germany, Eithne and Tom from Ireland, etc etc etc.  Even people we have yet to meet have familiar faces on the Camino.  

   

   

Day 204 – 21 Sept, 2015

We stayed an extra day in Burgos for sightseeing but had to move albergues for the second night.  A group of 7 of us lined up early to confirm beds in the 16-bed convent.  At the time of opening, we were ushered in to the chapel to be given a set of rules, including noone up before 6:30am and everyone must shower before going to bed.  Then the beds were prioritized according to age (the oldest given priority), injury (those providing a doctor’s note), and if anyone had arrived to Burgos on foot that morning (none of us had).   Fortunately, there were still beds for all 7 of us and we happily accepted the hospitality.

   
   

Day 206 – 23 Sept, 2015

As Maria and I prepared to leave Burgos, a bit later than the rest, not knowing that we would never see most of them again  (because they gained a day on us), we met Emile from Tennessee and Evan from Canada.  They had been one day behind us and were now taking a rest day in Burgos.   We talked to them for only a few minutes but somehow we knew they would catch up to us in a few days so we exchanged contact details and began the slow march onward.

   
   

My water bladder begins to fail.  The first surgery (of many) is performed.

   

 Day 209 – 26 Sept, 2015

Carrion de los Condes was a unique stay.  It’s famously (on the Camino anyway) known for its singing nuns.  It was on this day that Emile, Evan, and a few of their friends, Emily, Tim and Dr. Dick caught up to us.  Maria and I had a shorter day the day prior and had since lost the rest of our friends – they were all now a day ahead of us.  In Carrion, the convent was a simple affair, same as the rest, with basic rooms of bunk beds with no sheets.  But unlike the others, there was an itinerary of events that were optional but suggested to attend – a group sing along with the nuns, mass, a pilgrims blessing, and a communal dinner.  I’m not Catholic and have never felt particularly comfortable at mass, but the part that I appreciated and respected most of all was how it brought everyone together, no matter their reasons for walking.

  

“Can I tell ya’ll a story?”  Lights out, gentle breathing suggested that some were already asleep, yet Dr. Dick, Tim’s grandfather, interrupted the silence to tell a story to the other 15 people in the room.   His “story” turned out to be a dirty joke and the room erupted into laughter, long after curfew…in a convent.

Day 211 – 28 Sept, 2015

I don’t think I can describe how much I hated The Meseta.   The Meseta was not unlike hell, or at least what I would imagine anyway.  Just after Sahagun, the Camino diverted 2 directions to rejoin near Mansilla de las Mulas.  Neither way sounded very appealing, but it all depended on how far you were willing to walk before you found a place to sleep.  My group chose the left route, through El Burgo Ranero, meaning we walked nearly 32km that day.  Of course, this was the day I chose to walk alone.  For the first time in 3 weeks, I left before Maria, leaving her to walk with Emile.  Because of the diverted route, it divided all the pilgrims into 2 groups.  Where once you would see pilgrims all the time on the Camino, now there were fewer people to see, just when I needed to see them most.  The barren landscape was hypnotizing and eerie.   Those 3 days of The Meseta were humbling, to say the least.  

  

Day 213 – 30 Sept, 2015
Tony and Jay were staying at The Parador, hands down the fanciest hotel in Leon, and they invited Maria and I, among a few others, to join them for drinks and dinner.  It was the first time I wished I had a pair of heels and some makeup (after all, Maria had a dress).  With Tony and Jay, Kim and Joe from Australia, and Paddy from Ireland, we were almost the only people eating dinner at 7:30 at such an unacceptable Spanish hour.   It mattered little – good conversation and good friends were enough.

  

Following dinner, Maria and I joined Emile, Emily, Evan, and Jeremy (reunited from Burgos!) for a few more drinks.  We had a a rest day the next day after all!  Leaving the bar, the streets were nearly empty save for Eithne and Tom who had just returned from an art gallery.   We were all properly drunk on wine and good spirits and our voices echoed down every alleyway.  The next morning, Jeremy made me breakfast in bed and Emily helped him mend his sock, all of us paying it forward every step of the way.

   
 
I finally accepted the loss and purchased a new water bladder that actually holds water.

  

Day 216 – 3 Oct, 2015

Their reputation preceding them, it was my first encounter with The Lithuanians.  A group of 12 had walked all the way from Lithuania, carrying a cross over their heads and singing the whole way.  I was duly impressed.

  

Day 217 – 4 Oct, 2015

A slow drizzle lasted for almost 2 whole days.  Considering this was par for the course and we were lucky to not have more rain, it was cleansing  and necessary.

  

Day 218 – 5 Oct, 2015

I reached Cruz del Ferro in the rain, alone.   There is a lot of history concerning this cross and I was waiting for a jolt of emotion and excitement at having reached this point, but none of that came.  I still had 10 days more to walk, the impressive pile of stones that people had left behind had somewhat been washed downhill in the rain, and I just wanted to keep moving.   I didn’t feel compelled to spend more than a minute here.

  

That night, I pushed on to Ponferrada.   Usually making plans with Maria in advance, we didn’t talk about it that morning.  She stayed behind one town back in Molinaseca.  It was the first time since we started in St Jean that she and I stayed in different towns.  In fact, I didn’t see another soul that I recognized in the 174 -bed albergue.  It was a bit bizarre to be all alone after so much time with friends.  By the next day, she and I were back in sync but continued walking separately.

  
Day 220 – 7 Oct, 2015

Leaving Villafranca, I had no idea what kind of a day was in store for me.  Referencing my guidebook the night before, it said there was a hard way and an easy way.  Let it be known that I ALWAYS choose the hard way.  Stairs v elevator, its the stairs.  Carry my bag v roll cart, I carry.  Walk v taxi, you guessed it.  This choice was mountain v flat and my answer was clear, but so was the terrain.  Immediately outside of town, one path continued on the relatively flat road and the other ascended up  a 60 degree angle for seemingly forever.  The bright side?  Some astonishing views and relative quiet from  the highway.

      

Shortly after second breakfast, I caught up to Tony right before my second ascent of the day to O Cebreiro, another 650m in elevation.  I was spent before I even started but there was nothing to do but keep walking.  It was a 25km day, but it could have been twice that and I wouldn’t have questioned it.  I was motivated by the desire to stow my pack for the day so Tony and I paced each other for the entire climb.

   

As previously mentioned, Tony and Jay were accustomed to staying in luxurious hotels along the Camino, but not in O Cebreiro.  Due to a group of German tourists, all of the hotels had long been sold out.  Looks like this was the night for these guys to sleep in an albergue.  Most albergues are pretty basic. This one was not only basic, it had 56 beds in one room, the most of any other place we slept.  The showers were the push kind, meaning you had to keep pushing a button to get water to come out (it was warm, though!).  Paper sheets were provided  and the room was an icebox.   Tony came prepared with a sleeping bag and I think secretly (or not so secretly) relished the opportunity for one night with us commonfolk.  Jay, on the other hand, had never intended to end up in one of these places so he had no sleeping bag or anything else in which to keep warm.  He logically announced he would sleep in all of his clothes.  That night, there was a chorus of snoring from one side of the room to the other and by morning, Jay had bolted as soon as was reasonably possible.  He was fully dressed, after all, and also probably a bit traumatized by the albergue experience.

Day 221 – 8 Oct, 2015

Finally in Galicia, I had been looking forward to eating Galician-style octopus for weeks.   One of my favorite foods, this introduction did not fail to disappoint.  However, octopus is, not surprisingly, a very divisive food.  Not everyone agreed with me!

   
 Day 222 – 9 Oct, 2015

Sarria was a big milestone.  Anyone wishing to walk the Camino must start no later than Sarria and walk at least the final 100km in order to receive a Compostela.  The vibe in Sarria was disheartening.  There were so many new “pilgrims” that had just arrived, with new energy and new ambitions.  Aside from the fact that many of us had already walked 700km and felt that somehow we had earned a right of passage that these newbies couldn’t comprehend, the new arrivals also made the path more crowded and louder and less authentic.  The prices surged, the tourist shops were selling Camino memoribilia, and finding a quiet moment (when I needed it most) was nearly impossible.

   
  
  

Day 223 – 10 Oct, 2015
Not far outside of Sarria, I finally see it.  The 100km landmark was very unassuming and simple, but I get emotional even now, thinking about seeing it for the first time.  The previous month flashes before my eyes and I feel immense pride at this accomplishment.  I’m not the first person to walk so far and certainly not the last, but knowing there are only 100 to go propels me onward.  Counting down from 100 is much more rewarding than counting down from an obscure number, like 790 or 553 or 294.   This is me, feeling strong, like anything is possible.