I picked some grapes off a vine – they were the best grapes I’ve ever had. So there I was marching down the road through eucalyptus chomping on grapes, my fingers all sticky and tears in my eyes at the beauty of the sea and the magnitude of what I’ve done.
I left Santiago to continue towards the coast and immediately noted the sacred feeling of this last segment of the way. Now there were far fewer pilgrims, and the towns were smaller and less frequent, the distances long but scenic. The way was quiet, and I trod carefully so as not to disturb the silence. Eucalyptus overhead and all around provided ample shade and ample scent.
It was a three days’ walk to the coast. On the third day we wove through more eucalyptus forests, and we found a small bar that sold gluten free beer [joy of joys on a warm, tiring day]. Only five or so days left – I was really in the groove now, and I didn’t want this to end.
One thing to note about walking is that the descent is always worse than the ascent. My guidebook warned that nobody gets hurt on the ascent, but accidents frequent the descent. On the very first day of my journey, I discovered this the hard way. We mounted some 1,200 meters over the course of 20 kilometers, only to descend 500 meters in the last 5 kilometers. It was grueling. My legs were sore from the steep incline and eventually shook from the abrupt and seemingly sheer decline. I thought I might collapse.
In those last days, as I was reflecting on the journey thus far – my blisters, the solitude, my companions – I thought about this ascent/descent principle in relation to my life. The descent is always harder than the ascent. Moving to a new place or starting something new is hard. But in those last few months especially, I had discovered that the descent – leaving – was even harder. And so on this third day, walking towards the coast, I thought about and grieved the difficulty of leaving Scotland. With tears in my eyes I mourned what I was leaving behind, yet found myself eagerly anticipating what I was heading towards.
In the distance, I could see an expanse through the trees. I thought it was a big wall in front of us, some concrete, manmade monstrosity interrupting the natural pack of forest trunks. And then it hit me, and more tears came flooding. It was the ocean. I’d walked across a landmass to the ocean. I’d gone up and down mountains and across the Meseta and through cities and crumbling pueblos. I’d met and lost beautiful people. And here I was at the ocean, nearing my journey’s end. I paused to appreciate the moment, plucked some grapes from an overhanging vine, and continued walking to Muxia.
Muxia was lovely, but my destination was always Fisterra [Galician for the Spanish “Finisterre”, meaning “the end of the earth”]. At one point in time this was quite literally the end of the known world – the place where the physical world of our senses meets the spiritual world of our souls. And so Fisterra is a place marked by rich spiritual history and frequent worship dating back to the Celts and Druids. Early Christians, eager to spread the joy of the Gospel, are rumored to have frequented these Druidic or Celtic sacred sites in order to graft in a new conscience of the Christian faith. It’s therefore speculated that the earliest missionaries, St James for example, may well have traveled here. And further speculation wonders whether he may have been following in the footsteps of his Master. Legend holds that in the eighteen years prior to his public ministry, Christ may have traveled with Joseph of Aramathea to notable Druidic sites along the coast of Cornwall, England. And so it’s possible that he may have stopped in Fisterra for provisions along the way.
Whatever the truth is, the thought that Christ went here before me – whether in actual history, or in the spiritual sense that he always precedes me – was meaningful. And thus, I was walking to meet Jesus at the end of the earth. That day’s walk was full of intermittent rain, which miraculously stopped in the afternoon, leaving me hopeful for a radiant sunset.
Soon after arriving I purchased a bar of dark chocolate with almonds and set off on the last two kilometers to the “end of the earth”, the tip of Fisterra. I thought I’d never make it – they were truly the longest two kilometers of my life, weaving along the coast, getting stopped by a old guy asking me to buy his postcards for peace. Eventually, I summited the point in the most spectacular light. The coastline was peppered with pilgrims enjoying the close of their journey. I found my own secluded rock, savored the sunset, and enjoyed my chocolate and wee dram of Bowmore, which had accompanied me all this way.
After a closing meal with friends, complete with pulpo a la plancha [grilled octopus – the best of my life], we parted ways. Most returned by bus, but I proceeded to walk three days back to Santiago by myself. [Because, why not?] And so the last few days I trod alone, seeing familiar faces in my backwards journey, and finally getting a tan on my right side. I left Fisterra in the rising sun and took my shoes off and walked barefoot on the sand - a risky and freeing experience after weeks of great concern for my feet. I marveled at how everything heals. My feet healed, my knee healed, and slowly but surely my mind and heart were healing.
To be honest, most days I’m not sure what I thought about, but whatever it was it was good. I like to think that rather than walking away from my stuff/grief, I walked my stuff/grief away. There’s just something about putting one foot in front of the other for 977 km/607 miles that helps. Maybe it was the experience of overcoming physical pain that reassured me of my strength to overcome the emotional pain. Or maybe it was the parallel of pilgrimage and life: people came and went along my path, in the same way that friends will come and go in my life. And I pressed on to find Jesus at the end and in the meantime.
I’m still not sure what happened to me out there. I can’t put words to it. But it was good and I think I found Jesus, and I think I saw the goodness of God again, and I think my prayer had quietly and eventually been answered. Christ was my light. He had and will illumine and guide me. He was and will be on my left and my right, before and behind me, over and under me. He was there in my new friends and in the butterflies, there in the generosity and in the solitude, there in my prayers and in the silence. He was there in the blistering pain on the mountains and there in the relief at the seaside.
As the medieval pilgrims used to say to each other, “Ultreia et suseia!” Onwards and upwards, my friends. The descent may be harder than the ascent, but there is always onwards and upwards. And may you find there at the end of wherever you are going, the peaceful resolution of the seaside and divinely positioned fruit to satisfy your hunger and leave your fingers sticky with sugary hope.