From the last installment: “I hadn’t expected to meet so many people on my first day. It was a wonderful experience. The next day, however, I would make new friends. Friends that will stick with me until the end.”
Our room was at the back of the building, inches from another building.
One small window let in so little light, we didn’t even know it was morning. My watch alarm woke me from a deep and dreamless sleep. The previous day’s walk had made my body sore in all new places. The third bottle of wine made it difficult to focus.
A long hallway from our room led to a small dining area. We ate a quick breakfast of toast, fruit, and Nescafe’®, which was a godsend. We stepped out into the street and it was immediately apparent that the moisture in the air couldn’t stay there long. We moved our rain gear to outside pockets and then strapped on our packs for the long walk.
The Camino de Santiago leaves Portomarín down city streets and then begins winding its way through an ominous patch of scorched earth. The remnants of a major fire had left a eucalyptus grove in charred ruins. The pungent aroma of wet fire was everywhere.
“Wow. What happened here?” Jill’s voice matched her look perfectly. She was in her early 70’s. Tall and looked like she had played softball all her life. Her gray hair was short and shot out from under her baseball hat in short wisps. She wore a pack that was at least two sizes too large that was loaded to the hilt and adorned with patches, pins, and dangling Disney® characters. She wore fingerless gloves and carried two trekking poles.
“Looks like one hell of a fire.” I replied.
“Well, at least it’s not still burning.” Helen—Jill’s sister—said as she walked by. Helen was the antithesis of Jill. She was a few years younger, wore a matching kaki outfit, and a wide-brimmed hat that held back her shoulder length gray and blonde hair. She could have been demure, but that was a front. She was a strong woman who, “spoke quietly, but carried a big stick.”
“That’s my sister, Helen. She’s keeping me on schedule.” Jill nodded as she passed by. We shared a chuckle and walked on together. After a few minutes, Helen and my father were quite a bit ahead of us, but Jill’s story had me enraptured and walking at her much slower pace.
She had recently retired; both from work and from alcohol. She had found religion in the Episcopalian faith, which was one of the few Christian sects that embraced her as a lesbian. She recounted her struggles and all of the things that lined up for her to join Helen on the Camino de Santiago.
A River of Pilgrims
Jill was struggling with the walk. She was out of shape and battling aging knees. I could tell that she was in constant pain. About this time, the Camino de Santiago follows a major road. A dirt path about five feet wide stretches on for miles. Jill stopped and asked if I could fetch her water bottle from her bag. I happily obliged.
“Will you look at that?” Jill pointed ahead as she took a slurp from her bottle.
Ahead of us, as far as we could see the Camino was filled with people. Hundreds of pilgrims were on the Way to Santiago. There were backpacks and people of every color. There were young, old, small, big, tall, short and they were all headed the same direction.
“It’s like a river of pilgrims, all heading toward Santiago.” She said. “Look at the way it flows. It’s like it’s own living thing.” She paused. and we both took a moment to consider it. Then she slapped me on the shoulder. “And we’re both a part of it.”
“Yeah. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” I said.
“We better get going before Helen comes looking for me.” She handed me the water bottle, which I put back in her pack and we continued walking.
Leaving the Past Behind
Helen had run out of things to talk about, so she asked me, “So, why are you here?” It was a question that I was asked every day on the Camino de Santiago. Each day, I had a different answer. I suppose that is one of the lessons I learned: there are many reasons people walk the Camino de Santiago. Often, a single person walks it for many reasons.
I explained my situation; the way I had arrived here. I expressed gratitude for my father’s invitation, and saddness at the event that led up to that invitation. Just when I got to the end of my tale, she asked, “Did you bring anything to leave behind?” I had.
There is a tradition of carrying a stone from one’s home and leaving it at the Compostela in Santiago. Legend says that the Pope—at the time of the construction—asked pilgrims to bring stones to build the cathedral. Now, people bring stones and other small items and leave them behind as a way of leaving the past behind them. I had brought a stone to leave behind.
Twenty years ago, shortly after I met my ex-wife, she gave me a hand-painted stone, with the words, “God will make a way for us.” on it. We were young and had no idea how we would make a life together happen. But she was sure that there was a way, and together, we found it. I’m not sure that she knew I still had it. I have a way of collecting items that carry special meaning for me. Just before I departed for the Camino, I took the stone and tossed it in my bag.
I had been waiting for the perfect moment. Since beginning the Camino, I had prayed a single prayer over and over: “Give me ears to hear. Give me eyes to see.” I went to the Camino to find something and to leave something behind, but I wasn’t clear on what either would be. In the moment Jill asked me that question, my soul knew that it was time to leave behind the hope of reconciliation. My marriage was over. That was okay. I was on a new path now and I needed to let go.
There was a scallop shell signpost ahead. It was covered with trinkets and rocks. I let Jill pass in front of me. Then I dug the stone out of my pocket, kissed it, and said, “Thank you. Goodbye.” I placed the rock on the signpost and snapped a quick picture while I breathed the moment in. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but the moment I walked away from that stone, I felt like a totally new person. I did it! was all I could think of.
A mile or so ahead, we came to a small hamlet, where we found Helen and my Father sitting on a wall waiting for us. They were staying for lunch. My father and I decided to go on. We wished them well and headed off.
Cold and Wet
Shortly after leaving Jill and Helen, the sky fell. As we walked along the path, the impossibly large sky descended upon us with wind and rain. The river of people all stopped and dug into their packs for rain gear. We did the same.
We walked for another hour through wind and rain. When we finally got so cold we couldn’t stand it, we stopped in a small village and had a pilgrims lunch of a ham and cheese sandwich and Nescafe’®. There was a fire in the building and the smell of miles burned off the dozens of pilgrims huddled before it.
The smell was more than we could bear, so we headed back out into the weather. Four miles later, cold, wet, and tired. We arrived at our albergue for the night. After a warm shower, we sat down to dinner and wine, this time it was just my father and I.
He was in pain. His knee was really stiff and we had a long discussion on whether he should take a cab to the next stop while I walked the following day. We decided to see how he felt in the morning. He went to bed. I stayed in the bar, with my journal, there was a lot that I needed to get on paper.
Some of the things I wrote that evening, at a bar, on the Camino de Santiago are still mysterious to me. I suppose that they might take me years to understand. One passage, however, has stood out as a major lesson in my life:
“If I have learned anything, so far, on the Camino, it is that the road goes ever on. There is always more trouble, but also more beauty. All of the pilgrims—like all of humanity—flow like a river, ever toward some future place where all of them hope to find something, but where none of them really know what to expect.”Journal entry from April 19, 2018.
Want to read about what happens next? Click HERE.