O’Pino to Santiago de Compostela
It was dark when I left my hotel in O Pino and began walking along a highway towards Santiago de Compostela. Huge, belching semi’s passed me in the dark, a harbinger of the life I’d soon return to. Since I wasn’t on the Camino and the moonless night offered no solace, I was at the mercy of my GPS, one more thing to help shove my sorry ass, heart, and mind towards my old life, the one I’d left now not so far behind.
I hadn’t realized it, but at a certain point, the Camino was steering me back to my own life, where I’d have to confront the things that had brought me here. The old prophet on the hill above Burgos had told Cormac and me that we’d be reborn during this section of the walk. We’d have had the opportunity to look at and assess our lives and gain insight into who we are, and we’d begin to make subtle changes.
Had I begun to make any changes? I don’t know. Walking this pilgrimage has given me time to think about things I need to change. But change is hard, especially when trying to change many things about yourself and your situation. And, well, no matter how shitty your life is, at least you’re comfortable with it. This is why I was hoping for an epiphany or two- it seems to me a sudden shift in the perception of the meaning of things would make it easy to change. But so far, I was epiphanyless and had only one more day scheduled for any such revelations.
My GPS showed an opportunity for me to veer off into a small town, so I took it. It seemed I could rove these smaller streets and eventually hook back up with the Camino instead of walking along the busy truck route. I got to the end of town, and the GPS was showing a road that would take me on a straight shot to the Santiago airport, where I could reconnect with the Camino. Unfortunately, I had to bushwack through a thicket where I came upon a vast trench about a football field wide, soon what I’m pretty sure was to be a freeway. It was still dark, and I didn’t have much choice except to turn back, so I scrambled down the embankment in the dark and walked towards Santiago on packed and graded dirt as a blanket of stars shimmered in the night.
I walked alone for a while until the freeway to be abruptly ended, leaving me staring at a dirt wall about twenty feet high. Beyond it was a busy road, probably the highway I had opted to stray from. I hadn’t noticed the sides of the ditch had also grown to twenty feet, most likely due to the trench getting incrementally deeper while I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy gazing at the stars, another hopeless romantic lost in the woods.
So I decided to take a closer look at my options. I lumbered over to the opposite side of the trench, but it got muddier until my boot got stuck in the muck, so I retreated to the middle of the culvert. All the walls around me were soft dirt, so there was no way I could climb out. It seemed my only option was to backtrack. I clenched my fists and looked up to throw a few invectives towards the heavens when something caught my eye.
On the edge of my field of vision, I saw not one but two shooting stars right next to each other simultaneously fall from the sky and disappear behind the trees. At least the heavens were giving me something to laugh about- legend has it a Galician hermit saw stars in the night sky that led him to the final resting place of St. James, which became the city of Santiago de Compostela. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I paused and, having nothing to lose, walked toward where the stars had disappeared. I reasoned that the Camino gods knew one measly falling star wouldn’t be enough of a sign to my cynical heart and soul, but two, well…
As I got closer, I could see a faint line through the murky daybreak, making its way diagonally up the far embankment. I hurried over, and sure enough, a footpath provided for my escape, although I had to crawl up a five-foot berm at the end when the path abruptly stopped. Maybe there was something to “the Camino providing.”
Soon enough, I was walking along the highway and hit a roundabout as the sun rose, the gods giving up their precious light once again so we mortals could see ourselves fuckstumble through another day. I glimpsed a few pilgrims on the other side of the roundabout and scuttled over to see them walking away on a dirt path on the other side of a chain link fence. I stopped, threw my backpack over the fence, and climbed over. I was back in business, not about to let a mere fence stand between me and my last chance for redemption, or at the very least a pint of beer and souvenir glass emblazoned with the visage of a dead saint, at the St. James Bar and Grill,.
I was now a wave of the human tide streaming toward Santiago on the last leg of its journey. I stayed to myself since most of the pilgrims were all in groups and half my age; whatever wisdom I may have gained from the last month walking across Spain of no interest to them, which is how it should be. Wisdom can only be gained from experience, and as Aristotle said, knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. Hopefully, walking the Camino will be a few steps for me and my fellow pilgrims towards knowing ourselves better and eventually gaining some wisdom, which seems in short supply these days.
Soon, the Camino became a soft, sandy dirt path. The countryside was somewhat rural, with fields beyond the ferns and bushes lining the route, and the occasional small grove of tall, thin eucalyptus trees mixed with pines. Houses appeared now and again and eventually became a suburb of Santiago with a few cafes on the main road and well-kept old homes with lush lawns and landscaping. Leaving town found me walking on a paved road through cool groves of verdant forests of pine, eucalyptus, fern, and undergrowth. I was at peace, at least for the moment.
After another few kilometers, I came to a café that sat alone amidst oak trees, surrounded by a lush green lawn- on the edge of a park. It was bustling inside, and I got in line to order some breakfast. Most of my fellow pilgrims were picking theirs up and going outside to eat, but when I got mine, I spied a quiet table in the corner and sat down to write and scarf down a tortilla and guzzle a double café’ con Leche.
I put on my headphones, and a flood of emotions stampeded through my brain- caffeine, and music will do that. Thoughts streamed by, and I tried to catch them all and write them down. I wrote about the past. About the future. About love and hate. About the people in my life. I wrote about suicide and death. About life and living. And forgiveness. About the steps I’d taken and the path I’d be walking when I got home. A stream of consciousness- thoughts and memories of a life, a single leaf on a wide river rushing to the vast, empty sea.
The old bodhisattva on the hill above Burgos would probably say the steps we take on the Camino are like the moments of our lives, and the difficulties along the way (blisters, swollen ankles, not having a decent cabernet on the menu) are obstacles that lend opportunities to learn something about the world, and about ourselves. Then again, what the fuck did he know?
I’m not going to say I’ve made any dramatic changes. But I don’t know how much real change one can expect from walking 30 days on the Camino. Sure, we may read about the latest “time hack” (masturbate while reading the Wall Street Journal, delegate most of your responsibilities to your pet honey badger), but in reality, if we consciously attempt to make a change, we’re probably fooling ourselves as to how long the change will take.
Ahh, but perhaps this is another thing the Camino teaches us- we may want change, and like everything in our lives these days, we want it now, and we get frustrated by the time it takes, the return on investment. So we falter and most likely fail. But walking the Camino tells us to concern ourselves with putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on the next step, and finding joy in the learning in every step along the way.
Perhaps. On the other hand, maybe I’m just another self-absorbed assratchet who thinks others give a fuck about his inane and boorish thoughts whose next tome might be a personal growth book about nurturing one’s inner blossom. I know I’m out here for myself. But who knows? According to Gandhi, when we try and change ourselves, we elevate our purpose to a more noble level.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world. As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world…as in being able to remake ourselves.”
Change happens when you open yourself to seeing the world through a new lens. Your perception of the world you’re experiencing changes- the old, entrenched emotional responses fade away and are replaced by new ones, hopefully softer and lighter. Therapy is one way to accomplish this. So is having an epiphany, but time was running out for me. I figured when I got home, perhaps an option to change my perception might be by looking through the lenses of a new pair of Tom Ford sunglasses.
I finished up and walked out of the café into the bright sunshine. It’d heated up, summer’s warm whiskers brushing my face. Somewhere in time and space, Amanda and I had met on another warm summer afternoon like this, that now seemed so far away and long ago. I thought about how beautiful she looked in her blue and white summer dress on our first date, when galaxies collided under a canopy of stars as we stopped to kiss while walking down a sandy path, not unlike the one I was currently on.
Ruminations of lying in bed in each other’s arms and our conversations flooded my mind. Discussions we’d had about life, each other, the wars we’d fought, and the wounds we’d suffered. Letting each other into the other’s hearts, we were a communion of battered spirits, handing each other a sharp razor while baring our naked wrists. I missed the comfort I’d found there.
After another two kilometers, I came to sort of the last outpost before hitting the city of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino had been traveling through groves of trees, fields, and some houses, primarily rural. Soon I would cross a little footbridge that would deposit me into the bustling city streets of Santiago.
There was a cafe, and many people were stopped before their last hump to the cathedral in the center of town. It was sort of a pilgrim support center. There were a few vans with volunteers handing out simple sandwiches and drinks to pilgrims on the last leg of their journey. Many people were lingering, perhaps not wanting their sojourn to end. A card table was set up to get one of the last stamps for your pilgrim’s passport.
I stopped for a moment and ran into Katia and Jacomo, with whom I’d crossed paths on a few different legs of my journey. We spoke for a few moments, hugged, and I moved on without ducking into the cafe, taking a sandwich from one of the support people lined up along the Camino, rooting us on, like the volunteers holding cups of water at a 10k.
I walked down the 10-foot wide Rua de Gozo (street of joy) toward the cathedral at Santiago alone. I looked around in the chance I might find someone I’d walked with but was doubtful. Cormac was back in Ireland by now; Clive and Jarique were a few days behind, taking it easy since they weren’t meeting their wives for another few days. I hadn’t seen Asia for several days and had left Aviva in Herrerias.
I walked over the small footbridge and into the city. There were many pilgrims now, most walking in groups, all smiling, chatting, and joking with each other, making me feel sad and alone. Maybe isolation and loneliness are meant to be part of the Camino experience. A pilgrim is like a caterpillar who emerges as a beautiful butterfly after its isolation as a chrysalis.
It was a straight shot for a while, walking along the main drag that led into the city. But then I entered the old town, its thin, winding, cobblestoned streets lined with three-story stone apartments serving as arteries for the many busy people heading in all different directions. I decided to get a coffee and found an open café. While sipping my coffee, I checked the GPS on my phone and noticed a message from Amanda. It said she’d had a rough day and was heading to bed.
I rushed out of the café and called her. She was still awake and said she was happy to hear from me. I didn’t tell her where I was, and we discussed her day as I walked. After meandering through several different squares with people outside eating and milling about, I walked down into a short tunnel and told Amanda to hold on, hoping I wouldn’t lose her. Bagpipe music echoed through the tunnel; I threw a Euro into the case of the guy who was playing.
Thirty seconds later, I was suddenly, unceremoniously, in the square of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It took a minute to realize that this was it; these were the final steps of my trek, my terminus, The End.
Amanda was still on the line, so I coyly asked, “guess what”? Little did she know she’d just walked the final kilometer of the Camino with me, my loneliness fluttering away with the sound of her voice. I told her to hold on and sent her a picture of me in front of the cathedral with a text that said, “I made it.”
She shrieked in disbelief and told me how proud she was of me. I thanked her, but I didn’t feel proud. When you’ve been taught not to think much of yourself, you reason anything you do is of no consequence and nothing to be proud of. And even though Amanda was a reminder that at least someone in this fuckwasted circus of life had at least cared for me for a while, I still couldn’t shake the seed of unworthiness that rested in the pit of my stomach.
I said goodbye without being able to tell her I loved her, the festering wounds of insecurity and doubt fueling the possibility of her not uttering those three words in return. Sometimes you’d rather not know the truth.
In a daze, I wandered to the back of the square, sat my pack down, and lay against it, watching all the other pilgrims walk through the tunnel and greet friends, cheering and howling, celebrating the end of their pilgrimage. And even though I was sad this was the end of my journey, I stared at the great basilica. I gave thanks, knowing how lucky I was even to be here, to be able to take this journey, even to have the time to do it, to be healthy enough, and to have the love and support of others to do it.
I rested my head against my backpack and closed my eyes, trying to figure out how to dress the wounds I’d conjured up and, for the most part, inflicted on myself. At the very least, I’ve been allowed to think and write about the things in my life that brought me here: a lost boy challenged to grow up by a failed marriage, a daughter who’s growing up too fast, and a beautiful soul who wandered into his heart on a warm summer night when he least expected it.
For a few moments anyway, I’d thrown out the vestiges of the past and done something that, to some, seems a little extraordinary. I realized that I never thought what I was doing was a big deal because when you see yourself as worthless, you figure anything you do is not of any consequence and that anyone could do it.
Maybe the lesson is to recognize that when magic gets thrown your way, you need to grab it and accept it as though you deserve it, to embrace it with all your heart. I hadn’t been doing that, although therapy and Amanda had planted the seeds for hope to grow. I know, though, that when I return, I’ll have to go back and revisit the ghosts that haunt me. Hopefully, this journey will give me the strength to accept those ghosts, learn to live with them, and move on. Otherwise, I know I’ll be lost forever.
As I rested against my backpack, the sun came out from behind one of the steeples of the cathedral and shone in my eyes. By this time, hordes of people were emerging from the tunnel, many large groups finishing their one or two-day trek. Others were greeting friends, hugging, and high-fiving. I guess that and walking the last 15 days more or less alone got me thinking about all the people I’d met. It seemed like I was the only one alone. Even though I enjoyed walking these last days by myself, I realized, kind of like life, in the end, it’s not quite as rich an experience if you don’t have someone to share it with.
Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me
After about an hour, I threw on my backpack and headed to the train station, stopping to listen to a quartet play “Yesterday” in front of the cathedral. I knew that at that moment, my troubles were far away, but soon I’d be traveling back to California, and they’d be there to greet me. They’d be hiding in the shadows, ready to creep in and remind me of the man I’d left behind.
I threw a few euros into the guitar case in front of the quartet, along with a wish: that this experience would live in my heart and continue to guide me and color my life with the things I’d seen, the people I’d met, and the wishes and dreams I’d thought about along the way for myself, and for those I love.
When all the dark clouds roll away
And the sun begins to shine
I see my freedom from across the way
And it comes right in on time
Well it shines so bright and it gives so much light
And it comes from the sky above
Makes me feel so free makes me feel like me
And lights my life with love
And it seems like and it feels like
And it seems like yes it feels like
A brand new day, yeah
A brand new day oh
I was lost and double-crossed
With my hands behind my back
I was longtime hurt and thrown in the dirt
Shoved out on the railroad track
I’ve been used, abused and so confused
And I had nowhere to run
But I stood and looked
And my eyes got hooked
On that beautiful morning sun
And it seems like and it feels like
And it seems like yes it feels like
A brand new day, yeah
A brand new day. -Van Morrison
Later after I left the cathedral, I walked over for the last stamp on my pilgrim passport. After standing in line for 45 minutes, I got up to the desk where several clerks were shepherding pilgrims through. I put down 5 euros for a certificate. It was now official.
I’d walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, 770 km or 478.456 miles. I guess it was kinda extraordinary. But I knew I hadn’t walked it alone. I did it on the shoulders of every person who has touched my life over the years. So I threw a thank you out to the wind. It circled around the cathedral’s spires, came back, and I swear I heard a “you’re welcome” somewhere in the distance.
As I left, I felt the familiar tug of my old life. I knew I had to find the train station to catch my ride back to Madrid and a flight the following day at 6 am to Amsterdam, then L.A. Schedules, and responsibilities, shackled to the vagaries of time once again. A little anxiety set in, not knowing where the station was, even though I was 2 hours early. I walked out of town and found it on the outskirts.
I still wasn’t sure I had a reservation since I had booked “something” over the internet, but the site was a little confusing, not to mention in Spanish. At first, it looked like everything was sold out, but then I got to some other part of the website and was pretty sure I had successfully booked a seat on the same train…
After fumbling with the kiosk and a little assistance from a Spanish couple, I had a ticket in hand. So I went out and watched the trains come and go as people boarded and disembarked, like ants on a mission from their queen. You may not know it, but ants are very wise. Some are soldiers, and some are workers. Even though they have different purposes, they never fight within their group, are resolute in their objectives, and males fight to the death to mate with the queen.
If ants could talk, they may have some advice for us humans- live every moment without hesitation, don’t waste precious time, be true to yourself, enjoy every sandwich, and love as fiercely as you can. Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to talk about in the locker room.
Sunset is the tears, those who’ve gone before
And the dawn is the smile of those yet born
We walk the path we’ve chosen
our clothes in tatters, our boots worn
The days slide by, and we carry
the weight of a million scars
Still, we stumble on, sometimes we fall
and end up in the gutter looking up at the stars