My first day. Twenty-five kilometres from Pamplona to Puente La Reina. I wait outside my albergue in Pamplona to see which direction the first pilgrim heads in. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing, so I follow him from a distance.
My path eventually emerges with a group of Spaniards. “Buen Camino!” they sing, but the Spanish words stick in my throat.
The day is long and windy. Past the windmills, at the top of Mount Morea I meet three Australian sisters who buy me a tea. We sit, hunkered against the wind, overlooking the farmland below, and the warmth seeping through my fingertips is a simple kind of comfort. They were the first people I talked to in two days.
I’m lost. I’m at a loss. Everyone around me seems to have struck up lifelong bonds with their fellow pilgrims; I’m English-speaking and awkward and out of place. I never set out on this journey thinking I’d be surrounded by friends the whole time, but I never expected to be so alone, either.
In the dining room of my albergue in Estrella, I take out my bag of trail mix and sit at the table to write in my journal. People start trickling in. Soon, the Spaniards and Brazilians have giant pots of food cooking. Risotto and stew and pasta. They’re doling food out to everybody; everybody applauds. The German and Dutchman seating across from me offer me spaghetti Bolognese. Wine from a box. It’s a small gesture, but it means everything.
6 AM in Estrella, and there is a religious procession singing outside our dorm window.
Dozens of tired pilgrims stir from their sleep. I get up from my bunk to try and see who’s outside. Monks? Can monks sing?
I can’t see them, but their voices in the early dawn are comforting and beautiful. They bid us a “buen Camino” and move on down the street, taking their songs with them.
I’ve been alone on this stretch of plains between Estrella and Los Arcos for hours. The landscape becomes tedious. Fields, olive groves, vineyards. I decide to cheat my thoughts and listen to music, looking behind me to make sure no one can hear me singing loudly.
The line of snow-capped mountains in the Perdón range open up to a fortress sitting atop a hill, and I think, this is beautiful. My own two legs have carried me here; I’m alone and I’m not afraid. I am awed by my own abilities and awash in gratefulness, and I start crying, and crying, and I can’t stop.
I’ve lost my Camino family. The rain was harsh the morning we set out from Astorga and I raced ahead, thinking I’d find them later. It’s been days since I’ve seen them.
Last night I stayed at a cozy albergue in Rabanal before setting out through the mountain pass. I went to a tiny chapel and lit a candle and listened to Gregarian monks singing. I made friends with the American retirees, and we shared large salads and platters of pasta heaped with chorizo. Earlier in the morning, I reached Cruz de Ferro. There’s a cross atop a pile of stones. The stones are meant to signify some burden a pilgrim has come to leave behind. The day started out foggy and grey, but eventually the mist parted and there was blue skies, snow-capped peaks, deep valleys.
I’m sitting outside a café drinking coffee and eating a sandwich in the sun, when I hear someone singing “O Canada” from across the street. I look up to see Clay, the American from Alabama, and his wife Elizabeth. The two Italians, Rachele and Simona, are there as well. I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my life. I rush at them in a happy reunion and we set out on the rest of our journey together. We pause in Molinaseca near the gothic bridge to drink cold beers, and everything is right.
Leaving Sarria, Rachele and I continue ahead of Elizabeth and Clay as they go in search for a pharmacy. Clay is sick. We’re all slowly falling apart. I’m so exhausted, I’m slurring.
We cover a lot of ground, and Rachele and I are starving. We see a giant stone house off to the side of the road; an elderly woman stands in the doorway drying her hands on her apron. No one’s there, despite the sign out front advertising breakfast.
We ask for pincho de tortilla and she disappears for awhile, comes back to pour coffee. We are seated at a long table in an enormous dining room, surrounded by crystal dining ware. We’re unsure whether or not we’re actually in a cafe, or the lady’s home. But a fresh steaming plate of breakfast arrives, and it’s the best damned breakfast we’ve had on the trail.
We have no idea where Elizabeth and Clay are. Hours later, at another rest stop, we spy them from the road. It’s been less than a day but our relief is so palatable that other pilgrims start laughing at our glee.
This is the same feeling, again and again, even after finally arriving in Santiago de Compostela. It’s like belonging to a secret club. It’s like belonging.
I tend to ignore the religious crosses dotting the side of the road, but today there’s one with an image of a woman attached to it. She’s young, dark-haired, and there’s a small tribute written out to her.
But someone has left behind this quote from Linda Hogan, printed and laminated:
“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
And once again I am crying all alone by the side of the road, because my life is beautiful, and I am very much loved.
The winds on the plains between Santo Domingo and Belerado are daunting. But I’m walking with Terri the Aussie, Fleming the Dane, Michael the Dane, and Tibor the German. Me and Tibor sing to Bob Dylan and play air guitar into the wind between Granon and Redecilla.
In Belerado, Fleming and Tibor make dinner for us. We pour cheap wine without labels and there’s a guitar, so Tibor leads us all in rounds of African gospel songs. I love these people, I realize, in a very short amount of time. They are family.
Today there is a long walk with Terri, the Aussie from Cairns. We’ve become inseparable in a short amount of time. She’s never been overseas alone before, and our solitude as women on the trail bring us together.
We find ourselves talking for hours, but it’s no longer the petty talk of new travellers meeting for the first time. We talk about love and loss, abuse and family. I tell her things I’ve never told anyone; she opens up to me about her own life.
“I’m so glad I met you,” she says, and it’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.
In Carrión de los Condes, I meet the sisters-in-training at the Santa Maria albergue. It’s been a rainy, miserable day and they greet me with smiles and sweet tea.
There’s a special ceremony at 5 PM. We gather with the other pilgrims – our “rivals” – and introduce ourselves and talk about why we’re on our journeys. I say I don’t know why I’m on my journey but I’m sure glad I’m here. None of us are actually religious but it doesn’t matter. We sing Christian hymns in Spanish, English, Italian, and German.
The sisters walk around the room and bless each of us, while handing out cardboard cutouts of stars to light our path. In the evening, Elizabeth and I “follow the long skirts” of the sisters on their way to mass, and so we join them although I have no idea how to be Catholic anymore. But the Spanish hymns do not require understanding.
We’re less than 10 kilometres from finishing our pilgrimage. We’ve spent the first 10 kilometres reliving everything we felt and experienced on our walk.
“What was your favourite moment?”
“Who do you wish you could have spent more time with?”
“What do you regret packing in your bag?”
“What’s one piece of advice you’d offer someone else?”
We toss back and forth these memories for hours, keenly aware that although the trail has been hard, we need to hold onto these things long after we’ve gone back to our jobs and our apartments and our lives without the Camino. Long after the simplicity of walking and existing is replaced with bills and debt and monotony. Long after The Way.
We drive to the lighthouse at The End of the World in Finnisterre. We pass fellow pilgrims we’ve shared the journey with. Moses and Andre and the German guy with the loud voice.
There’s a silence at the End of the World overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Like the world is turning down its volume button and we’re forced to just take in the spectacle of sun to sea. Snatches of conversation drift across the rocks, but mostly all is silent.
When the sun takes its final dip, applause erupts from all around. Wine glasses clink. This is the end, I think. This is the end of my pilgrimage, but it is the beginning of something else.