This is the last day. The last day to wake before six in a roomful of strangers, the last day to walk an unknown path to another unknown town, and the last day for a shirt I’ve worn 39 straight days, a shirt that absolutely, positively, will not be coming home with me.
This is the last day of sore muscles and serene landscapes, of pounding city pavement and lush forest paths, of ornate cathedrals and simple sanctuaries, of unrelenting rain opening to blue sky, and the last bocadillo de jamon I swear I will eat again.
This is the last day of one-hour friends and others who are now Facebook buddies three years on; the last day of luscious chocolate croissants to start the day and cold tasty cervezas to end it.
It is the last day to reflect and savor a journey that ends in Santiago, Spain, 500 miles distance from the first day Cheryl and I stepped foot on the Camino Francés. It is the last day when old baggage and new experiences will sort themselves out in the plaza before the Cathédral de Santiago.
Old baggage comes with age, with years of accumulation and repetition. Some are problematic, but most are ingrained habits and comfort zones that you will retire with and think nothing of.
Approaching 65 years of age, I wanted to break some of those comfort zones with new experiences. So, I started a list; a list of 65 new things to experience, learn, or share in one year’s time. It took awhile but the list formed around the three categories of culture, community, and challenge.
Culture offered opportunities to appreciate other peoples’ religions, politics, customs, their food and drink. A bat mitzvah, a world premier play, a plate of pulpo gallego receta washed down with Galecian gin, writing post cards from the cells of Alcatraz Island to imprisoned activists around the world all made the list.
Community promoted personal bonds and commitments and service to others. Guests at our monthly Second Sunday Suppers shared food, wine and personal stories around a table of strangers. My passion for bread making gave 65 friends and strangers the comfort of a warm loaf on a cold day.
Challenges poked at my limits of personal fear, persistence, and endurance. Could I remain calm coaxing a swarm of wild bees into a five-gallon bucket for a new hive? Would Jacques Pepin be proud when I finally master his Classic French omelet after 20 plus tries? I hope so. And the big one, could I walk 500 miles across the northern tier of Spain?
The Camino Frances is but one portion of a trail system in Europe that pilgrims have traveled for 1,000 years to visit the relic of St. James. Today, people walk the path for reasons besides religious belief. Peter and Rheinhold were seeking relief from foundering marriages while André and Kajsa mourned lost partners; Jan carried written prayers from his Belgium village to place at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro, Tadashi wanted to finish travels that a career sidelined far too many years. For the younger crowd, it seemed to be just an mobile extension of college life they didn’t want to relinquish. For me, I walked to find out why I chose this path.
Regardless of the spiritual reasons, we all faced similar physical challenges; blisters, bedbugs, and the bad clothing for bad weather mistake. For me, it was tendinitis during the last ten days. Despite the pain, they were the best ten days of the journey. The soreness forced me to slow down and appreciate small pleasures along the way instead of pursuing a finish line. The soreness allowed me to reflect at length on why I choose to walk this path.
On this last day, I wake before six in a hotel room alone. Because of my slowed pace, I ended the day before between towns and peregrinos. No strangers, no bustling, just me and my pack ready to walk the last day. But, approaching the outskirts of Santiago, I blend with hundreds of fellow peregrinos streaming into the city.
I stop short of the Porta do Camino, the entrance to Santiago’s old city. I’m not ready to walk the last mile to the cathedral. Sitting at a cafe across from the Porta, I watch peregrinos flow through the entrance without hesitation, all with one thought in mind – to stand and celebrate their journey’s end before the Cathédral de Santiago. I don't have that thought, that urge. I have had time to think about this last day, but now, now I’m hesitant to meet its end. I want to extend this moment to reflect before the last step.
I pull my iPhone and review my journey in pictures. Snapshots of moments that shaped this experience of self, spirit, perseverance, and friendships, step after step after step. Some are momentous, some monotonous, but all reminders of what has been enjoyed and endured.
I remember the beauty of nuns singing at evening vespers, of families out for the evening stroll with a wheelchair-bound parent or child without embarassment, and the spiritual cleansing of personal demons with a carefully placed talisman at the base of the sacred Cruz de Ferro.
I remember the community de jour of peregrinos sharing dinners together, of long walking conversations dissecting I Ching readings, of shared sage advice to pop a blister or not.
I remember the small pleasures of Cheryl disappearing in and out the shrouds of fog in the Pyrenees, the golden light of each morning, stained glass in Léon’s Cathedral, the simplicity of a stone sanctuary in a small village, the evocative image of old blue enamel water pitcher placed in the window of an ancient rock wall, and a cold beer with Jan as he clocked in 2,000 kilometers.
I remember the challenge of tendonitis over the last 120 miles; and my indecision whether to reduce my daily mileage and up the ibuprofen, or to quit and walk away.
I remember the last day with Cheryl as we walk 18 miles in a non-stop rain. She had agreed to walk part way and then leave so I could finish by myself. I remember standing in the rain the next day as she boarded the bus and the sudden impact of finishing alone what we had started together. I remember being grateful for the rain that mixed with tears as her bus pulled away, but also for her trust in me to continue alone.
Rain and tears dissipated as the day ended as a different journey began – same path, but a different path. Gone are my translator, my hiking buddy, my dinner companion, my wife. Now I’m a solo traveler with just enough Spanish to not go hungry or thirsty. But, I have much more freedom now. Free to choose how far to walk, where to stop for a bocadillo and a beer, and when to smell the roses.
And, finally, I remember my apprehensions from the first day; where is the next yellow arrow to guide me, will there be a bed for me tonight, will anyone talk to me, can I walk 500 miles?
The last ten days were a spiritual opportunity to replace all of those apprehensions. I came to realize I’m a Boy Scout when planning a project, but too naïve to fear failure. I’ve come to realize that life shouldn’t be a plan, but a path that goes with your flow, your energy. And I’ve come to realize my personal mantra is NEVER GIVE UP.
I close the phone grateful for the sense of accomplishment the visual memories instill. I’m ready to walk through the Porta, I’m ready for my moment of celebration in the plaza.
There are two large plazas at the cathedral. Praza do Obradoiro fronts the cathedral and is the "official" finish line of the Camino Francés. This is where most peregrinos end their Camino, this is where they celebrate their moment with high fives with new found friends or in the solitude of tears.
By accident or intention, I find myself alone behind the Cathedral in the Praza do Quintana. Almost as big as Obradoiro, Quintana is quiet and faces the morning light I love so much. On this last day, I carry an offering of fern leaves and purple flowers that lined my path the entire Camino. With gratitude, I place them on the stones of Praza do Quintana and have my moment; my moment to thank whomever, whatever guided me here.
That night I celebrate with friends gathered along the way. Seven peregrinos from seven countries with no common language drink Spanish wine, dine on scallops, and wander the streets and alleys of Santiago together. Close to midnight we part ways. I find my way back to the plaza that fronts the Cathedral and have my moment all over again.