I was told early on that the Camino de Santiago has three stages: physical, mental and spiritual. When I last wrote I was squarely in the middle of the mental- no longer under bodily duress but tired of the routine, of Spanish food, of the nightly snoring and farting keeping me awake every night. I began walking the Primitivo route from Oviedo on the first day back to school, a chill of autumn in the morning air, and it was from there on that strange things began happening. I would cruise for hours in a state of euphoria, totally blissed out. Changing the lyrics from Enrique Iglesias’ summer jam ‘Bailando’ to ‘Santiago,’ I convinced anyone I could to sing with me, and when alone serenaded the birds at full volume. I found myself crying at the sunrises, overwhelmed by the beauty found in every direction. Sometimes the wind would blow through the eucalyptus or pines just so, making them appear to bow as I was passing by… and I would bow back.
While I loved the pristine beaches and rugged cliffs of the Norte route, the imposing mountains and green valleys of the Primitivo seemed simply made for the cinema. Here, the hospitality and generosity at the albergues and from the other pilgrims reached a new level, with everyone anticipating any unmet needs and cheerfully sharing all they were able to give. I fell in with a group that eventually grew to 14 people, mainly men from Spain, which helped my Spanish to get pretty good (if not a little gross) and making for some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I realized that heaven, my heaven, might be something like the camino: nothing to worry about except following the yellow arrows marking your path, blissful feelings and beautiful nature, all while surrounded by friendship and unmerited kindness around every corner.
After 800 kilometers of walking (794.2 if you want to nitpick), at last came the arrival to Santiago de Compostela. The group set off early, surrounded now by other pilgrims from the Norte and Frances routes, who looked a lot less worse for wear than our savage Primitivo tribe. The tik-tok of my hiking poles said something different every day, but that day all they chanted was ‘thank you,’ an echo of my gratitude. As each kilometer ticked down, the lyrics to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ were printed below the yellow arrows, inspiring us to share what we had learned, and to discuss our desire to carry these lessons home with us in the hopes of creating a world more like the one we had discovered on the camino.
After 30km I tik-toked into Lavacolla, literally translated as ‘wash scrotum,’ the preparation place for pilgrims of yore. The group had slowly separated, and after several long days on asphalt I was exhausted. I spent a miserable 5km doubting my ability to finish until I reached Monte de Gozo, the hill of joy, which from then on is all I felt. Reunited with my two brothers and camino angel, we hobbled the final steps together, as I alternated between laughing and weeping, feeling the anticipation of a millennium building. We finally turned a corner to arrive in front of the cathedral, welcomed with embraces from the rest of our pilgrim family waiting in the plaza. Kicking off our boots we reveled in the shared delight of the millions of pilgrims who had come before us- exhausted, empty, yet somehow full to the brim.
The following day spent in Santiago was a bit anti-climactic- queuing up to watch everyone get their pictures of the relics and to hug the statue of Saint James, squeezing into the pilgrim mass. Before starting this trip I spent a lot of time worrying that I was being irresponsible and self-indulgent, that it was time to stop always following my whims and start behaving like an adult. I realize now that ultimately while those things are probably true, for me completing the camino was a necessary form of self-defense, necessary to restore my faith in humanity and to preserve the best, most human parts of myself. While it is most likely that the bones of Saint James were fabricated by the Catholic Church to allow for continued pilgrimage when the route to Jerusalem was closed off by the Moors, to me it is still sacred, made so by all those who have walked before me, sanctifying the way with their good intentions and faith. What an honor and a privilege to have had the opportunity to participate in this ancient tradition, taking up a new identity and living for a brief time as a pilgrim. Buen camino, ahora y siempre.