After a while [when I was basically frozen], I got up and went to the edge of the pile and stood backwards and threw the stone over my shoulder [according to tradition]. As I left, I found myself lingering on the thought that my life – all my sins and hopes – is hidden with Christ, resting there at the foot of the cross. I like having a real experience of setting these stones there – an action to forever remind myself of the fact that my life begins and ends at the cross.
Somewhere after Astorga I lost group two and found myself solo again. I summited the Cruz de Ferro, a famous cross atop a mound of stones between Foncebadon and Manjarin to which pilgrims bring rocks as symbols of burdens and requests which they leave at its foot. That cold morning I walked in silence through the fog and left my burdens and intentions there at the feet of my Lord.
These days I was determined to walk with little concern for time. I tried to not look at my watch and to slow my pace so as to enjoy and relish every step, sight, and sound. [Definitely easier said than done. My culturally ingrained propensity towards efficacy and immediate gratification is much at odds with the slow and tedious life of the pilgrim. 600 miles made me painfully aware of that.]
With my feet and knee miraculously restored, I could walk forever and stop whenever and finally enjoy this whole experience. And thus, it was in this stage that I embarked on my most ambitious endeavour – a remote detour between Pieros and Herrerias over three hills – a total of nearly 44 km [some 27 miles] in one day. My guidebook warned of its severity – a “feat fit for only the most experienced mountaineers”, but that was a bit of an overstatement. Left to myself, I walked through hidden, crumbling villages and passed dozens of local people harvesting castañas [chestnuts]. I only saw three other pilgrims all day, and I enjoyed the most delightful sunny and cool weather and the most breathtaking vistas. My knees were knocking after three incredible descents, but I arrived in to Herrerias feeling confident and justifiably exhausted.
The next day I summited O’Cebreiro in the fog and rain, and thus officially entered into Galicia, the last and final region. With all the rain, it felt like a typical Scottish hillwalk. The frequency of heather helped too. But beyond that, I discovered that Galicia shares heritage and historical similarities with the Celtic regions of the UK, particularly Ireland and Scotland. They even have their own version of the bagpipe. I entered the town and proceeded to check if the local church was open. I enjoyed a peaceful moment here and then moved on to my mid-morning, second breakfast routine of a coffee and slice of Spanish tortilla.
I pressed on through the thick fog and followed the trail as it wound around the hilltop. Suddenly, patches opened up in the mist and revealed the most delightful vista into the sunny valley below. It was breathtaking!
Though my second set of companions were lost to me, the emerging theme of Divine providence and new companionship brought yet again another set of pilgrim friends. This time a collection of engineers and physicists from Germany and France who could speak practically every language on the planet and so I found myself in the center of an incredibly multicultural scene. So too, we’d walk in silence, great distance between us, but of course share meals, conversation, and much laughter too. Time was of little consequence now – we started later in the morning and finished later in the evening. Galicia was lush and green and remarkably lacking in rain [very unusual in late autumn]. Friends were in abundance. Butterflies accompanied me under the canopy of eucalyptus and the anticipation built towards my arrival into Santiago de Compostela.
We stumbled upon quirky and delightful refuges for pilgrims – eco-albergues, hippie snack bars, and one artist’s particularly beautiful residence. My French friend and I wandered off the path and into the home of El Alquimista. The artist used a hammer to grind stones of various colors into a fine powder. Then, using some kind of tree sap as glue, he pasted the powder onto a canvas in the most beautiful patterns. His home was a place of refuge for peregrinos – folks were welcome to stay overnight or for a few days. As we left, we were pretty certain that our long lost artist friend would enjoy this venue, so we left him a note on wooden signpost. We had no idea how far behind us he was or whether the wind might blow away our note in the evening, so you can imagine my delight when running into him a week or so later I learned that he’d seen our note and enjoyed a night’s stay at El Alquimista.
Pilgrim numbers increased after Sarria, the last place to join the Camino and still qualify to receive a compostela [certificate of completion, granted to pilgrims who walk 100 km or more]. And thus the arrival of “turigrinos” – tourist-pilgrims who often walked in large groups, played loud music on portable speakers, and didn’t make room for us to pass. I tried to suspend judgment, seeing as everyone’s Camino is unique and meaningful. After all, there were many folks who had walked much, much further than I – I had friends who were walking all the way from Belgium and Germany to Santiago. It’s the journey, not so much the distance that matters.
The experience of arriving into Santiago was actually pretty underwhelming. My end goal had always been the coastal village of Fisterra, so Santiago was merely another stop on the way. But we arrived on 31 October and therefore got to enjoy a beautiful mass on 1 November, All Saints Day, complete with the famous botafumeiro, which swung some 60 feet high across the transepts of the cathedral and required approximately seven people to pull. It’s rumored to have been installed years ago in order to mask the stink of pilgrims.
Though underwhelming, Santiago was a unique sort of homecoming experience. Lots of pilgrims stay here for a day or two to relax, celebrate with, and wait for their friends and fellow peregrinos. And so I saw all these familiar faces whom I’d met or walked with in the five weeks prior. It’s not normal to be in a new place and know people. But that was Santiago – this small-town feel, running into people I knew in the alleys and bars, catching up on our respective journeys. And of course I got to see my first walking group, from weeks prior. The theme of coming and going and reuniting was all the more apparent in this city of homecoming, and the sanctity of the journey much felt in these last days.