Camino Weeks 5 & 6 -> The Grand Finale
Done, dusted, over and complete.
I’m sitting in the park near the university at Santiago de Compostela with a view of the Cathedral and I can barely believe it.
I arrived here on foot, the last leg of ~800km of walking from the Pyrenees mountains in France to the (very almost) end of Spain. It was not an easy path, and it came with plenty of obstacles each of which could easily have sent me home. But I persisted and perhaps that’s the point.
I came here to get unstuck from where I was before, mentally and physically and in that sense the Camino most definitely provided. However the journey also provided plenty of surprises.
The people, my Camino family, how hard some days were, yet how much I laughed. The things I thought about and the things I expected to ponder, but completely didn’t.
Even this final week (or one and a bit depending precisely how you count the number of posts I’ve written vs days walked) turned out exactly like that, and ended with something I could not have predicted at all.
But let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
We Crossed Another Mountain
When I left you in my last blog post we were 8 days away from our endpoint, and I’d just come out of the hospital. I taxi’d it that next day (obviously), and then we launched into a brand new world.
In the depth of the Léon mountains lies a microclimate of humidity, fog and cool weather that is so surreally different from anything on the Camino before it. It’s a land of intense greens, ferns that uncurl like giant blankets across the forest floor and dripping, moist air that soaks you from the outside in.
The trek up and over the final mountain in this chain goes through O Cebreiro and down to Triacastela, a process that takes two days and leads you through three smaller peaks and more than 1000m of elevation gain/loss. It also takes you into Galicia, the last autonomous region of Spain on the Camino famous for its rainfall, octopus dishes and (believe it or not) Celtic roots.
Our first day was just getting to the mountain from Villafranca, a rather boring walk along the road but wonderfully cool and misty (a good way to ease back into the trail after my day of overheating and rest) and not overly challenging except for a very steep uphill at the end. Overall a great hiking day.
The next day we started very early for our up and over, walking through a subtle sunrise into the clouds and a dense fog that shrouded the fabulous (so I’m told) views, yet spoke deeply to my misty PNW heart.
This first part had me zoning out in a most glorious revery, totally mesmerized by the muted crunch of my shoes on the ground, the haunting echo of a dog barking, church bells ringing in the fog and pilgrims who passed us and disappeared like ghostly apparitions. Darn, it was fun.
The second part was a little less amusing.
Once we crested the summit a wind hit and we immediately froze to the bone, our fingers rendered numb from the icy cold. We spent the next 5 hours like this, alternating between rain and small clearings, hiking up and down steep inclines that caused us to curse more than a holy trail should allow, and shivering literally the whole way.
It completely blew my mind that we could go from one of our hottest days to the coldest in just the space of a few walks, and the toll on my body was clear.
By the end of that day I was frozen and completely exhausted….
We Had An Awesome Walk Into Sarria
The next day dawned sunny, and was probably the favorite of my final days on the Camino.
We took a mountain trail into the deep forest, and up over a ridge with the most spectacular views, a sweet gift after the dense fog of the past few days.
The day was packed with cool impressions. An eco-Albergue in the middle of the trail, the cutest little church where a superbly-talented watercolor painter had setup his atelier, the British hippy who was running a zen-yoga-lounge area and free house commune in the literal middle of nowhere.
”Seekers may come and go as they please” he offered in a most soothing voice.
I wasn’t sure what they were looking for, but I was almost tempted to stay.
There were also wildflowers, cow herd traffic jams and clouds that looked like giant marshmallows (and before you ask, no that wasn’t because of something I ate at the hippy place).
The best part was almost our private room in Sarria at the end of it all. Glorious adult beds, scintillating fluffy towels, laundry service (I stripped down to my birthday suit for that, so I did) and a frikkin’ coffee machine in the lobby.
Oh, the unmitigated luxury….
Then Came The Crowds, And the Heat (Again)
Sarria is both a place that people look forward to, and somewhat dread.
It’s the town right before the last 100km of the walk which means long-term trekkers are on the last leg of their journey, but it’s also a key starting point for pilgrims who want to do just that part of the Camino to get their Compostela (completion certificate). In fact it’s the most popular place for locals, and you’re guaranteed to not only encounter a slew of brand-spanking-new-and-cleanly-geared pilgrims, but also more Spanish speakers than at any other point in the trail.
The crowds and new faces are the change that hits you most, and for many “longer-distance” pilgrims it’s kind of a shock to the system, especially when everyone is funneled into the narrower stone-walled trails that wind through the hills just a few hours into this stage.
So many people, all hurrying to get to the finish line….
For portions of the day I felt like a turtle caught in a giant (and much faster moving) human slinky that expanded and contracted along the trail. Everyone seemed to be rushing, and at times bicycles and humans clashed into queues, only to dissipate again few km down the way. It was really bizarre.
Everything was physically different here too. More manicured trails, more bars and cafes. We ate lunch at a place that served guacamole and smoked salmon sandwiches, with lounge chairs and soothing music in the background. It was so sophisticated I wondered briefly if I had teleported into a trendy Parisian neighborhood.
All of this felt supremely odd although I figured I would adapt (life is never one-dimensional after all), but the part my body did not like and definitely balked at was the return of the dreaded heat.
That afternoon it came back with a vengeance and by the time we crossed the massive Rio Miño to Portomarin it was pounding and Olaf was just barely keeping up.
That night my body was so fatigued by the heat that I shivered in bed for 2 hours before I regained temperature control. It was the start of a physical breakdown that hit me several days later, but we’re still not there yet…
The Last 90km Were A Blur
The next days on the trail were a bit of a blur for me, partly because of physical fatigue, but also because mentally I started to go somewhere else.
We had several mornings of chilly cold and mist, followed by afternoons of overwhelming heat which wore me down. That was the hard part.
But there are also small villages and no end of ice cream stops at trailside cafes (we did not deprive ourselves). Eucalyptus trees added a new scent to the air, and there were many km of deep, dark forest trails that offered welcome shade and turned thoughts inwards.
For much of this time I was only partially aware.
I was physically walking of course, putting one foot in front of the other for 7-9 hours each day, but I was in deep conversation with my friends pondering through life, the lessons the Camino has taught us and what we hoped to bring home.
There were multiple hours where I literally have no recollection of the actual trail and likely wouldn’t even know how to describe it if I hadn’t taken photos along the way.
What I can remember are the thoughts we shared, the intense heart-to-hearts, the taste of the cake I ate at 2nd breakfast, the laughter from lunch, and the sound of bagpipes (yes, that part was real).
At one point I met a young half-dressed wanderer with a guitar from Argentina who flowed into my space like a passing stream. I asked him where he lived.
“Nowhere” he answered with a curious smile “I walk with God and the birds”.
A moment later he was gone and I briefly wondered if he did indeed fly away somewhere.
This honestly was my last 90km.
There was body pain (knees especially) and such long days of walking that I wondered at times if we would ever finish. But there was also so much deep convo and processing going on that at other times the hours just flew by.
I’m curious if all pilgrims go through these emotions in their final days?
Arrival In Santiago de Compostela Was Nuts
Arrival day was emotional and crazy.
We left at 5am to make the last 19km walk and arrive in time for noon mass (rumor had it the Botafumeiro was going to swing in the Cathedral, the giant incense burner that takes 8 men to operate and can travel up to 80km/hr). So we started in the dark guided only by headlamps and the short trail by our feet.
The walk itself was mostly uneventful, a little long to be honest especially the last 3km once we got into town. It was also a very odd entrance into the city, so very different from any of the other bigger cities we’ve walked through these past weeks.
Santiago de Compostela is a maze of streets where everything is hidden, including the Cathedral itself until you’re basically right on top of it. Our first glimpse of the spires were less than 1km away, and by the time we turned the corner and actually saw the Grand Lady several of us (and yes, that includes moi) were already sobbing uncontrollably.
And I didn’t expect to cry!
It’s indescribable to arrive. Theres a deep sense of relief, the impossible thought that you’ve actually made it, the craziness that THIS…IS…IT!
We hugged each other and others hugged us. We met pilgrims we encountered along the last 800km, some of whom we hadn’t seen in weeks (I saw 4 German girls that were in my room on my very first day on the Camino back in April…mind blowing!). There was a group of people square dancing, others just lying on the ground in the square. We were all in a weird state of hazy happiness and disbelief.
That afternoon we went to mass, experienced the Botafumeiro (it is indeed, super cool), collected our Compostelas (completion certificates) from the crowded and hectic Pilgrims office, ate and drank. It was awesome.
When I finally made it back to the Albergue in the wee hours of the morning, I took out some Tiger Balm out to rub on my sore muscles and suddenly realized something rather disturbing.
I couldn’t smell it…I couldn’t smell it at all.
The Aftermath Was Not What I Planned
You can probably predict what happened next.
I tested for COVID, got a positive result and of course went into isolation in a private room (where I’ve basically been ever since). It was crazy, insanely crazy to be stuck completely still after all those weeks of contant walking. Neither my body nor my brain could process it, and the whole end of the Camino crashed down upon me in a most spectacular way.
The was a post-Camino downer like no other.
My friends all tested negative (and are still clear) which was a massive relief, but SO many other pilgrims were sick these last days (all around us, every single day and night) that IMO it was almost inevitable. I think my physical tiredness and the hot/cold extremes of the last days just dipped my immune system enough to catch it, and I guess I can be thankful it didn’t stop my pilgrimage earlier.
But wow, what a hard-stop way to end….!
What Now? Did I Learn Anything?
The COVID thing has passed (other than loss of smell I’ve had no other symptoms and finally tested negative again yesterday). So has my pilgrimage, and my Camino family (they all decided to walk on to Fisterra, all the way to the coast and “the end of the world”).
So I am where I started this journey. Alone and wondering what to do next.
And yet, I can honestly say I’m not the same.
This was a very hard walk, both physically, emotionally and mentally. I expected the former of course, and definitely had my challenges (injury, hospitalization, throbbing knees and feet.….zero blisters though!), and for the latter I hoped I might gain some insight into myself (really, really hoped I’d get some magical direction for my future), but that didn’t happen.
Surprisingly I really didn’t do much mental introspection on the trail. You might think that sounds crazy. I mean what else do you do for 7-9 hours of walking other than think?
In reality you think about other stuff. It’s mostly about the km, or the views, or you’re focused on your aching feet, or your next meal, or the laundry you need to do, or the next steep path you need to descend. Or you’re chatting with friends or just zoning out. Mostly you’re just concentrated on physically walking, and by the time you get to your destination you’re so exhausted you can’t think at all.
So I didn’t really introspect, not in any kind of zen-like-meditative way, but I did learn something nonetheless and it was far simpler and perhaps a far more profound lesson.
I learned I can get through obstacles, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem at the time, and that I can find a way to keep going even if those obstacles (or that pain) are still there. It may not seem like much, but that kind of strength is a core part of me that I haven’t seen in several years, and finding it again was truly a revelation.
So although I still have no clue what I’m going to do next with my life, I have a feeling this core will help get me there…
The Power of Friends Is Real
My other revelation was people, and I can’t say enough good about all the pilgrims I met along this journey.
There was my “core” family of course.
The two lovely gals (Suzie and Jessica) that I met so very early on and traveled with practically the whole 800km (I never expected anything like that). That family grew to four (Diana), and then to six (Jeff and Axel) in our last week. They’re all awesome, inspiring people that have given me so very much in each of their ways.
Then there’s the extended family, the people we met on and off, some of whom we traveled with for a while, others that were just brief encounters.
All these people “made” my Camino in a way walking alone would never have done.
People can truly be awesome, and it was so nice to realize that again…
So, Was It Worth It?
40 days, 800km, pain, injury, rain, mud, heat and more.
It was awful at times, so very slow-moving I thought it would never end, and if I told you it was all joy that would be a lie. But it also went incredibly fast and it was one of the very best and most joyful things I’ve done for myself in years. I cursed it and I loved it and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Yeah, it was totally worth it.