DAY 38: The Road to Santiago
I pulled on my trusty blue and grey hiking socks one last time in the jet black darkness of the Albergue. I stuffed my scarlet red sleeping bag into its case and fit it expertly into my backpack automatically, my hands accustomed to the art of packing. I tied my shoelaces and helped strap on our pop up tents almost simultaneously, these tasks now a second nature to my being. The me I had been, back at the beginning of this journey, 38 walking days ago, the girl that couldn’t get ready in 20 minutes and had trouble hammering in pegs for a tent and complained of discomfort… she was long gone. As the Albergue lights finally flickered on to irradiate the dorm rooms, the four of us helped each other to pull on our backpacks and then headed out into the early morning mist to embark on the final walk of the Camino de Santiago.
Walking down the damp forest path, as I looked up, above me, I noticed that the sky was suspended in time. The clouds were poised, ready to pour down upon us with their icy, cleansing water, but they were frozen, stopped by an unseen force that refused to let our final day be drowned in rain. Instead, we powered along the path, walking with an uncanny speed, acquired from the pre-dawn cool temperatures of the misty Galician countryside and the strength and endurance we had built up over the course of this remarkable adventure.
Passing by our fellow pilgrims, a habitual remark rang through the crisp indigo air. “Buen Camino,” they called. The greeting was so familiar, so well known to us that I hardly gave it a second thought as I returned the hailing with the same phrase. But now, on our final day, I realised that it meant so much more to all of us, the pilgrims of this path. We encouraged each other on with these two simple words, acknowledging all our efforts to walk this challenging path of discovery. This appreciation lit our way through the blinding silver fog.
I remember that our packs had been so heavy on Day 1, burdening our every step.
Every step was a blunt forced realisation of just how little we really needed in this life. The enormous suitcase we had left behind at the beginning of our Camino in Irun, seemed in its entirety, useless; another bag filled with items that were irrelevant in the grand scheme of survival. It had taken this long and the liberating experience of walking with nothing but the bare minimum, to become aware once again of the pointless nature of all the impractical things in this world that served to tie us down in one place.
Through the fog, the kilometres began to fall away, the engraved red writing of the road signs that showed just how far we had to go, sinking with every step. We could all feel the conclusion drawing closer, the inevitable tug of an invisible pen to write ‘the end’. In the haze of thundering footprints, and the unspoken anticipation between each and every pilgrim, I began to think of the events that had brought us to these last few hours of walking. Behind every decision lies a complex web of choices, of questions and answers, of doubt and certainty and perhaps most unavoidably, the people we meet, the people we know and the people we love.
The inception of our Camino journey began with a simple stroll to the Saturday market. Behind the stalls of the Picante Olives and wrinkled cheese, we met with a young woman contemplating walking The Way. Her enthusiasm planted the seed. The words of our online world, the zeal with which they were written, watered it. And my grandmother’s visit from Australia saw it bloom. To those reading now, this whole experience might seem like it hinged on a chance encounter, that came to pass simply because we decided that we wanted to buy some honeyed dates from a young woman at the Saturday market. But I can see the intricacies that lace our everyday lives, the collective stories that intertwine and the fractal patterns that are weaved, ensuring that nothing is ever a coincidence.
I feel my ancestors may have known that their direct actions would one day result in our journey. Walking the Camino de Santiago del Norte, I feel them, they are with us all along, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, eye to eye. Through blood, we are fused, yet through eternity we are all connected. Even now, millennia later, I can still feel the ripples of their lives, the steps they took and the existence they pioneered. In turn, I know that the decisions I make will also echo onwards, on to all my descendants.
Time became irrelevant there in those final few hours of the Camino. We stopped measuring the minutes by the hand of a clock and instead counted by the roads we crossed, the trees we passed, the hands that waved and the breaths we took.
Finally, we stood at the top of a steep, stone staircase, gasping in the wild air of a breeze that blows just before a storm. My limbs shook, but my heart beat steady as I looked out at the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela, sprawled before us. We had taken over 33 breaks on Day 1 of the Camino but on this final day, we had taken none, walking the full 19 kilometres (11.8 Miles) without slowing one step.
It was surreal. The always distant silhouette of Santiago that had been passed among the pilgrims like a legend, was now finally before us. We passed through the city limits and I shivered in excitement, the tall bell tower turrets of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, our final destination soaring into view. The Skype ringtone invaded the buzz around us and we picked up the phone to see my grandmother from Melbourne on the line. She had left us in Madrid, just one day before we started the Camino. Now she was here with us again, and we were finishing together.
The rain began to fall as the monumental Cathedral loomed before us in all its ancient glory. Suddenly, the blaring and booming bustle of the endless tourists and the exultant pilgrims around us went silent, a peace enveloping all of us. Joining together into a trembling embrace, exuberant, tears shining from all of us, we dropped our backpacks to the ground and touched the cold, amber stone walls of the Cathedral, our Camino complete at last.
We crossed countless mountains, rivers, valleys. We passed oceans and cities and monasteries. We travelled through Basque Country, the provinces of Cantabria, Asturias and finally, Galicia. We did not quit or desert or give up. We pushed on through even when we felt we couldn’t go further and we trekked on when we felt like our feet would fracture. We laughed so hard at times that we had trouble breathing. We made friendships, the kind you could only make on The Camino. We experienced memories that will burn within us forever and we walked The Way from start to end and finished it together as a family.
It was a thousand moments of blistering days and starry nights and vicious rainstorms, and emotions of beauty and wonder and pain, each just as significant as the last and each just as treasured.
Once we regained our energies, we journeyed through the crowded streets of Santiago to the Oficina de Peregrinos (Pilgrim’s Office) where we filled out a stark white form each, to receive our Compostelas (Certificates) that would officially attest to our completed Camino. We embossed one final stamp into our Pilgrim Passport, every space filled to the very last. My eyes swept over the cream paper, my name swirled in cursive on the front.
I knew that my expression of wonderment was reflected in that of my family and all the souls that had come before me. As we rolled up our Compostelas and slipped them away into a canister to keep them dry from the rain, I knew that this chapter of our lives had indeed closed. It was now time to flip the page of the book and start the next one.
So… I walked 828 kilometres which roughly translates to 515 Miles, 38 Days and 3,283,200 seconds. I completed the Camino at age 14. I learnt that kindness can exist around every corner, that not everything is all that it seems, and that I can even survive a trip to the Twilight Zone. 🙂 I walk away from this experience with the knowledge that I followed through with something from start to finish. The knowledge that I can now take this strength and resilience onwards with me, on any journey I choose to embark on and walk to the very end. I think that’s what the Camino has been for me, in its rawest form; a cultivator of courage, a spinner of stories and a chance to truly discover my innermost hopes and dreams… and this has been a reward so much bigger and infinitely better than any twinkling Compostela.
I want to extend a most heartfelt thank you to all those I met along the path. To all the friends we made along The Way. The ones who walked with us through the erratic elements, the ones we shared a meal with, the ones we shared dreams with and the ones we met for all too short a time. You will forever be a part of this incredible journey and hold a place in our hearts.
And of course, I want to thank you. The readers. Thank you for coming along on this crazy adventure with me. Thank you for following me through all the ups and downs and ups again and for sticking with me through all the blood, sweat and smiles and most incredibly, for taking the time to reach out, comment and share your very own Camino experiences. I trust that these stories have engaged you and entertained you and helped you plan your own Camino journey. If you’re trying to decide on whether or not to walk The Way, let this be a window into the world of the Camino de Santiago and its pilgrims, an effervescent glimpse into the adventure that awaits.