Zanny Merullo Steffgen
Camino de Santiago
It has now been more than a month since I have finished the Camino de Santiago, and not a day has gone by in which I haven’t wished I was still on it.
That first day I headed out of St. Jean Pied-de-Port accompanied by my two new friends, full of nerves, adrenaline, and hope (as well as the baguettes and jam that had been served for breakfast in our albergue). The day was damp and the dark sky signaled an impending storm, but I headed up into the alps anyway with the two amazing women I’d met two days before. Right from the beginning we were headed uphill, past charming stucco houses and farms with roosters crowing, up and up until the road grew narrow and we began to see collections of houses in the valleys in the distance. Soon we headed onto a dirt path marked with a big blue sign with a golden shell on it, and the path grew steeper and steeper until all we could see before us was a few feet of hill. After what seemed like only minutes, but was actually a couple of hours, the tiny hostel of Orisson appeared on the horizon. We stopped there for coffee and one of my friends, a Californian named Rachel, stayed there while I walked on with Andi (a woman from Montreal), and Peter, a German man we had met in the Orisson cafe. The rest of that first day was perhaps the greatest physical challenge of my life. I’d like to think I was in pretty good walking shape, having spent the last three months walking around European cities and trekking through the hills of Ireland, but no amount of training could have prepared me for the nine hours of hiking through the alps. Just when I thought we had reached the highest point, I’d see another hill up ahead. Andi, Peter and I walked within a few steps of each other, occasionally talking above the roaring winds and rain drops that seemed to soak us straight to the bone. The air became cooler and was harder to breathe, but the views in all directions were spectacular. I said Hail Marys in Italian over and over in my head to the rhythm of my footsteps. Since I had dedicated the first day to my mother, I imagined her waiting at the crest of every hill with a plate of hot pancakes and a big hug. As soon as I reached that crest, she would disappear and reappear in the distance. In this way, I made it all the way to Roncesvalles. For the last 5km downhill into the little Spanish village, Andi, Peter and I chatted excitedly. We had survived the first day of the Camino de Santiago!
That night in Roncesvalles I had my first pilgrim’s meal. Pilgrim meals were offered at every restaurant along the Camino, and usually consisted of three courses: a soup or salad, a meat or fish with potatoes, and some kind of local dessert. Bread, water, and good Spanish wine were included. Although I soon grew tired of these meals, the first night I was so hungry that anything would have tasted good, and so tired that I fell asleep within seconds. Before snuggling in my sleep sheet on my bottom bunk in a room full of 150 people, at least 140 of whom snored, I attended the pilgrim’s mass with Andi and an Australian man named Paul who she had met at dinner. A traditional Catholic mass was carried out, followed by a pilgrim blessing in multiple languages. I prayed that I would wake up the next morning and be able to walk again.
My whole body ached the next morning when my alarm woke me up at 6. Somehow I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, packed my bag, and made my way slowly to breakfast. After a few slices of bread with ham and cheese, an apple, and a cup of hot coffee, I headed towards Zubiri with Andi, Peter, and Paul. As we walked, we talked about our lives, taking turns asking questions that everyone would answer in order to get to know each other better. I learned that Paul studied in America and was a big fan of Dunkin Donuts, that Peter loved racecars and heavy metal music, and that Andi had been on a journey of self love and improvement for a year or so now. That night in Zubiri the four of us found a hidden bar full of locals (no pilgrims in sight) to play cards and drink wine in, and laughed until we cried. We ate a meal together and decided on each other’s celebrity dopplegangers: Charlize Theron for Andi, Daniel Radcliffe for Peter, Demi Moore for me, and Michael Fassbender for Paul. Among this group of people, brought together by the Camino’s mysterious ways, I felt totally comfortable with myself and laughed harder than I had in years.
I ended up walking the first ten days with Andi, Peter, and Paul, and we became known as the Fantastic Four. We’d walk no more than a few meters apart, stay in two sets of bunk beds next to each other, eat meals together, and explore each town we stayed in, laughing at the way each of us hobbled around to see the sights. We fell into the routine of waking up early, walking for six hours or so, finding an albergue, eating lunch, napping, sitting in a bar to drink wine and write in our journals, eating dinner, and going to bed early. Each time we sat down together someone would ask another deep question, and an incredible conversation would ensue. We talked about our personal lives, spiritual beliefs, our families, our past loves, what we wanted to improve in ourselves, and even what we were most afraid of. We came to care for each other within a few days, and Peter even carried my backpack on top of his own for 5 kilometers on a day when an old soccer injury of mine sprang up and made it very painful to walk.
Although we spent the majority of our time just the four of us, we also talked with some other interesting pilgrims. One who I will never forget was a young German woman named Leeza. Leeza was easily 6’5″ tall and walking with her beloved dog, Marina. They’d stay in albergues when dogs were allowed, and camp nearby when they weren’t. Upon talking to the girl, I learned that she had been traveling Europe with her dog for two years now, working on various projects building eco-friendly communities. She was a well-known slam poet in Germany, and recited a poem she’d written in English to me once without breaking eye contact that gave me the chills.
In Santo Domingo de la Calzada, I parted ways with my friends and the group of pilgrims who we’d come to see every day. My best friend from America was flying in to join me for the rest of the pilgrimage and I was waiting for her in Santo Domingo for four days. My friends had known this was coming, but there was an odd tension the day before they were to leave without me. We’d spent lunch mostly in silence- a rarity for our group, and had a few passive aggressive exchanges. Later in the day I joined Andi and Peter at a bar to write in our journals, when Andi burst into tears. Of course that caused me to cry, too. Over the past ten or eleven days, Andi had become like a sister to me. We talked about our deepest feelings, listened to music, explored cities, and even one day walked while quoting our favorite sketches from Saturday Night Live and belting out inappropriate songs by The Lonely Island. The Camino had brought us together quickly and intensely, and now was breaking us apart in the same fashion. After a few glasses of wine, some hugs, and writing notes in each other’s journals, the tension had dissolved and we were laughing again. The next morning I saw my new friends off and was incredibly sad to see them go.
The four days I spent in Santo Domingo de la Calzada were very strange. I watched as a new set of pilgrims came and went each day, explored every inch of the town, wrote in my journal, and even watched TV for the first time in 10 days. My spiritual journey was interrupted, and as I spent those four days in “reality” again I yearned for the Camino lifestyle. My reunion with my best friend, Izzy was incredibly joyful. We talked, caught each other up on things that had happened in our lives, and ate Izzy’s first pilgrim menu meal. The next morning we set out again, and I felt the freedom of the trail. Luckily, the day was a relatively easy one, though at this point I had gotten over the hump of soreness and fatigue and was able to walk very easily. Izzy was quickly pulled in to the Camino way of life.
Pilgrims on the Camino like to say “The Camino gives you what you need!” but sometimes that is less clear than others. For example, on the first day from St. Jean to Roncesvalles, when I stopped by the side of the road to get something from my pack, its rain cover slipped off and flew away in the wind. I chased it for only a couple of seconds before admitting it was futile. Not even twenty minutes later, just as the sky threatened a downpour, another rain cover flew into my path! The Camino provided! But no more than two weeks later, as we arrived in Burgos and Izzy decided she needed to see a doctor about her excruciating knee pain, what the Camino was trying to give us was not clear. We happened to run into Bella, a young girl from New Zealand who I recognized as my bunkmate from my night in Roncesvalles. I hadn’t seen her since, and learned that was because she had sprained her ankle only a few days later and had been in Burgos for a week attempting to recover. She took Izzy to the physical therapist who she had been seeing. To complicate matters further, the physical therapist was somewhat of a scam artist who insisted on long treatments (Izzy was in her office for five hours the first day) and charged ridiculous amounts for pilgrim customers. Needless to say, a lot of tears were shed that day when Izzy saw the bill from the physical therapist and learned she needed a rest day and another long treatment. Looking back on those difficult two days, I can see that the Camino did indeed give us exactly what we needed. First of all, it gave us a reminder to take it slowly, to take care of our bodies, to walk at our own pace. Second of all, it gave us the opportunity to join a whole new set of pilgrims, one that was full of people who we now consider very close friends.
After Burgos came the Meseta- the region in Spain known for being dry, hot, flat, and an incredible mental challenge for pilgrims. In fact, many people skip the whole Meseta by bus and continue the walk from Leon. Despite all the words of warning, I enjoyed my time in the Meseta. I started walking before the sun came up and no one else was on the trails and stopped to watch the light of day chase away the night. Izzy took a bus or taxi each day to meet me in the next town until her leg was healed enough for her to start walking again. On my walk from Burgos I met an Italian man and talked with him for most of the day, then walked with an American woman named Jeanette who worked at a Trader Joe’s in Portland, Oregon. We ended up having a great conversation and hugging when we parted ways. She would be one of the people I kept crossing paths with, a soul sister of sorts.
The next few days were filled with really beautiful scenery (as I crossed the last mountain before heading into the depths of the Meseta) and interesting medieval towns. One, Castrojeriz, was particularly charming. We stayed in a hostel run by a Korean woman who cooked fresh Korean dinners each night (some of the best food I’d eaten on the Camino) and spent several hours in a bar, drinking with pilgrims we recognized and meeting ones we didn’t. The town was home to a place called “Hospital del Alma” (Hospital of the soul)- a building for silence, contemplation and meditation. Upon closing the door, I felt the rest of the world fade away and wandered around the various rooms in a dream-like state that had nothing to do with the glasses of wine I had just consumed. Each room was painted a different vibrant color and decorated with many beautiful photos with spiritual quotations written on them and then translated on a card below. There was Gregorian chanting music playing in the background, and the smell of incense in every room. There were many places to sit and meditate and even a room filled with spiritual books in every language. There, as in many places on the Camino, I felt the presence of God.
After another day or so Izzy was able to join me walking, and we headed towards the town of Carrion with two young American guys from Colorado that we had met. Wyatt and Kyle became like brothers to us over the next weeks ’til Santiago. They were both a little quirky but very comfortable with themselves. Wyatt and Kyle had been best friends even longer than Izzy and me and bickered almost as much as we did. If we didn’t walk with them, we saw them in the next town and often shared a jar of sangria or a dinner we whipped up in the albergue kitchen. Carrion was the first place where we stayed in an albergue that had a group activity. Our hostel was run by young girls who were on the path to becoming nuns, and every night they organized a circle in which everyone went around and introduced themselves in their native language and shared the reason they were walking the Camino. After we knew each person’s name and what had brought them here (often something sad or difficult that had transpired in their life), we were welcomed to share songs from our native countries, and I was blown away by an older Korean man who stood up and sang “Del Colores” in thickly accented Spanish. This ceremony deeply moved me, and after sharing a group dinner with a long table of pilgrims, we attended a very special blessing in the church nextdoor. I slept well that night, fully at peace.
The next night we had a similar ceremony at our donativo albergue (meaning that there was no fixed rate, you paid what you wanted to stay there) in which we all held hands and went around a circle and introduced ourselves and told the reason for walking the Camino, then we were encouraged to hug as many people around the circle as we could. My heart swelled with joy and warmth as I gave my fellow pilgrims, some of whom I knew, others who I hadn’t seen before that night, long embraces. The Camino is really a microcosm of life, and brings together all who walk it and give way to its mystery very deeply.
That night we slept on mats in a room on the first floor with Wyatt, Kyle, and an older German couple who both snored so violently that Wyatt moved in the middle of the night and slept on the floor of the chapel. We had chosen to sleep on the mats so that we could leave earlier than anyone else and beat the Meseta’s heat, and did just that the next day. We arrived in the town of Mansilla de las Mulas where we were greeted by a hospitalero with a sense of humor- a woman named Laura. One of the first things Laura said to us when we asked her for four beds and presented our passports and credencials was “Well I hope you have fun tonight. I’m closing the albergue late because of fucking soccer.” There was a soccer match that night between Juventus (the Italian team I rooted for) and Real Madrid. This was to be taken seriously in Spain. After everyone had been checked in and she had flipped the sign on the door to “Completo” (full), Laura wandered around the albergue joking around with everyone. Later that evening she held a “blister clinic”- more of a show than anything. An audience gathered around in the courtyard as Laura set up a station with all kinds of bandages, needles, scissors, and even a saw (when a blister was bad enough, Laura would pretend to start sawing the pilgrim’s foot off) and took care of everyone’s blisters, much to the amusement of the crowd. This legendary hospitalero would expertly pop, trim, disinfect, and bandage each wound and make jokes in every language spoken around her.
That night we went to bed at 11, incredibly late by Camino standards, after watching the soccer game in a nearby bar with a group of Italians and Spaniards. At the bar they handed out free cuts of chorizo and cheese, and we bought fishbowls of sangria. The next day took us a mere 19 kilometers through the suburbs into Leon, where the Camino worked its magic again to bring us to Bella, the injured young girl we had seen in Burgos, on her birthday! Bella had taken a bus ahead to Leon to meet up with her friends who arrived there on foot. She had hoped to join them the next day, but was still healing her sprained ankle and was confined to bed at the municipal hostel in Leon where we were reunited. Although she was in a lot of pain and sad to be left behind, Bella’s frustrating injury showed her so much goodness and caring from so many angels who took her in and healed her that it truly seemed like somewhat of a blessing in disguise. We spent the day with our friend, splurging on the best meal we had eaten on the Camino so far (tomato croquetas, veal risotto, and a goat cheese salad), and then explored the cathedral with one of our new friends as a guide. We had met Connor in Carrion and learned he was a Theology major who had studied abroad in Rome. Therefore, when we came across him in the gorgeous Leon cathedral, instead of using our headsets that had been included in the admission price (don’t get me started on the issue of paying to see a church!) we spent an hour or so walking around with Connor and hearing various stories about the different saints and religious figures depicted on the walls of the church, and the purpose of each part of the building. Afterwards we stopped in a cafe for churros and coffee, and that night we received another pilgrims blessing in multiple languages. This one was not as special as the blessing had been in Carrion, but it still gave me chills.
The next day there were two options: a shorter route by the road, or a scenic, longer alternate route. Since Izzy was still in pain and neither of us wanted to walk the 30 kilometer day that was inevitable on the alternate route, we chose to go by the road, and ended up in the tiny town of San Martin with few people we recognized. From San Martin we headed through a bunch of beautiful medieval towns (one that had just hosted a medieval festival and still had banners hung on its ancient bridge and tents set up on the fields outside of the town- it was like walking back in time!) over the first small hill we had seen since the Meseta had begun, and into the town of Astorga. There Izzy and I had another delicious meal (croquetas of course and an incredibly fresh salmon salad) and a very deep conversation on how we had both changed over the course of the trek. The process of my changes had begun ever since I’d left America, but Izzy’s were more obvious, as I had seen her from her first day in Spain until now. She had become more calm, more relaxed and trusting, and the happiest that I had seen her since we’d first met in the third grade. Along with this change came the realization that we’d need to change our lives at home, too, to match what we’d discovered to be our true selves. That night in Astorga I recognized a girl in the kitchen of our albergue as being someone I had met in the hostel where I stayed in Berlin! We excitedly hugged and exchanged travel stories. I still can’t believe I happened to run into her again!
The next day Izzy and I were up early and arrived at our day’s destination at 10 am! We stopped at a cafe on the edge of Rabanal del Camino to greet our friends as they walked by, and ate huge burgers with fries, sangria, and a slice of chocolate cake. Among our friends who passed was Jeanette- the woman who I’d met walking into Hornillos and then hadn’t seen since Castrojeriz. She had had a dream that she would see us today and happened to stop at the same cafe with her Camino lover and his dogs. After talking to Jeanette (who has a beautiful soul), Izzy and I felt inspired to have a more adventurous Camino experience (Jeanette didn’t plan her days and just stopped whenever she felt tired and ended up finding great hidden albergues). Perhaps that’s why we decided to stay in a plot of land covered in tents for the night!
The town of Rabanal del Camino had two churches, three tiendas, and countless albergues, but we found the grassy bit of land across from a little shop where you could stay in a tent on a mattress with a free heavy blanket for whatever price you felt willing to pay! There was a small bucket of water for cleaning clothes and washing hands after you’d used the toilet in a wooden cabin on the edge of the property. To shower, you had to go into the shop and use the shower in the back room there. There was a wooden shelter with two hammocks and picnic tables, and a bunch of plastic seats and umbrellas and old couches in the front half of the property for hanging out. We washed our clothes by hand, went to a cafe for wifi and to ice our feet, and then came back to the property to hang out with the other people who happened to choose to stay in tents that night. Among our fellow campers were a couple from Sardinia, a German woman and Italian man who had started a Camino romance, a young Russian woman who worked as a wine taster, and an older Argentinian woman who was a yoga instructor. That night, after Izzy and I went to hear the Gregorian monks chant in the church, ate a good meal in a fancy restaurant, and came back to the campground with Connor and a bottle of wine to drink and talk and laugh, we had a yoga session with the tent community. The full moon was rising in the distance as we all gathered in a circle in front of our tents. The Argentinian woman led us in a difficult yoga routine, and some of the Italians were struggling to get their bodies to move in the ways she was describing. When she instructed us to clap our hands together and breathe very audibly, we all burst into laughter and couldn’t stop. So we ended the night laughing and stretching under the full moon and retired to our tents to fall asleep to the sounds of nature.
The next day was a difficult uphill climb and then hours of tedious downhill walking over stones and down slippery paths into the town of Molinaseca where we soaked our legs in the freezing cold river and then napped on the river’s banks. The day after that led us 30 kilometers under the hot sun into Villafrance del Bierzo where we were reunited with Kyle and Wyatt and spent the afternoon splashing around another river and talking and laughing. After a picnic dinner we headed to bed early, knowing that the next day would be one of the most difficult we had encountered so far.
The next day I headed out alone early to beat the heat. Izzy left later and was to meet up with me. I headed out of Villafranca, walking in the cool, narrow valley between mountains for most of the morning. At a certain point I began to feel the trail heading gradually upwards, and knew the mountain was coming. I stopped at a roadside stand to by a beaded bracelet for good luck, one I still wear to this day. The road wound upwards, then suddenly the trail went off the road onto a thin dirt path in the woods that headed steeply uphill in the baking heat. I stopped every few minutes to catch my breath and guzzle down some water, and was surrounded by pilgrims panting and dripping with sweat. I stopped in the first town on the side of the mountain only for a minute before pushing onwards up further into the mountains. This trail was very quiet, and I saw only one older woman sitting by the side of the path to paint the emerging view who asked me to take her picture. When I arrived in the next town on the hill, I was thoroughly exhausted, but pumping with adrenaline and endorphins. Kyle and Wyatt joined me for the last uphill leg of the journey. We pushed ourselves up the winding paths covered with cows being led to a pasture until suddenly the path opened up and we could see miles and miles of spectacular mountains and countryside. We had passed into the region of Galicia.
That night I stayed in O Cebreiro, where I met three other American guys who we ended up walking and staying with from then until Santiago. Izzy had been in pain and had stopped in one of the lower mountain towns, so we were separated for the first and last night on the Camino. The view from the municipal albergue was breathtaking, and after a burger dinner, I sat out there with Kyle, Wyatt, and my new friends Ethan, Daniel, and John to listen to “Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High” and share a couple bottles of wine. It was a perfect night.
We fell into a new rhythm the next few days. I would head out early, then the boys would catch up to me and pass me at some point, and I would meet up with them and Izzy at the next town. The first person to get to the albergue would reserve seven beds and nap until everyone was there and we would all go out to eat together. Pretty soon we were in Sarria, the most popular starting point after St. Jean Pied de Port, and the marker of the last 100 kilometers. We spent the day as we always do- napping, eating, exploring the town, and were about to head to bed when the hospitalero invited us downstairs to the nightly campfire. Even though it was 80 degrees at 9 o’clock at night, we gathered in the room around the fire. On the corner table in the room were two different bottles of liquor, one yellow and one whitish-blue. We tried both, nearly threw up, then tried again. Each time more pilgrims entered the room there would be another round of the very strong drinks. Pretty soon we were playing music from one of the boy’s speakers, and a dance party ensued. There were a few Italians, and I started singing old Italian songs I had learned in Rimini with them. For several hours that night we took shots and danced with old men pilgrims and each other, singing at the top of our lungs until the hospitalero came in and told us it was time to go to bed. Izzy, Kyle, Ethan and I took our blankets and pillows up to the rooftop balcony of our albergue and sang a few more songs before falling asleep there. It was the most fun I had on the Camino.
The Camino experience changed greatly after Sarria. It went from a sacred pilgrimage to somewhat of a commercial tourist destination. Bus loads of tourists would be dropped off along the way, young kids from school groups clogged the paths, and you’d often hear music playing from someone’s backpack. By the side of the road there were stands selling Camino T-shirts and souvenirs, and we often struggled to find albergues that hadn’t been booked up in advance. This was certainly frustrating for those of us who had dedicated a month of our time to walking the full pilgrimage, but it was another mental challenge presented by the Camino’s mysterious powers to test our strength and patience. We made friends with some of the new pilgrims and even got an autograph from the man who had written our guidebook when Izzy ran into him filming a documentary along the way. He had become a household name on the Camino, and we found ourselves often blaming him for things that went wrong or were unexpected. “Come on, John I didn’t think today was uphill!” “Way to not mention this albergue, John.” Pretty soon we arrived in Arzua, a two day walk from Santiago and we were starting to realize that our time on the Camino was slipping away…
The morning of June 16th, Izzy and I woke up around 5:30 and sat in the common area of our albergue to eat some breakfast we had picked up the night before and go through our morning ritual of putting arnica cream on our aching legs and feet, bandaging any blisters, and tying up our shoes. The boys waited for us for a while until we told them to go ahead. There was a feeling in the air like it was the last day of school- suddenly we didn’t care any more about getting to the next town early or walking at a quick pace. We wanted to take our time and enjoy the last two days. That’s why it was nearing 7 o’clock when Izzy and I made our way down the streets of Arzua, stopping to talk to every friend of ours we saw and even stopping in a cafe for a coffee and pastry and churro second breakfast. We walked a little ways and talked, then stopped for another coffee and a torta de Santiago (Santiago cake made of almond paste that was typical of the region) with our our Camino parents Tim and Heidi. We talked to them for a long while, then walked a ways with them until they went ahead and we stopped again for a rest, snack, and talk. We were incredibly relaxed, reflecting on our experience and the people we had met. Around midday we arrived in the town where the boys had found an albergue. We ate lunch with Tim and Heidi at a cafe with a menu that consisted of three total food options, and decided that we didn’t feel like stopping in that town. It was 20 kilometers from where we had started and left 20 kilometers to Santiago, but we still had energy and didn’t like the feeling of the place, so we decided to keep going. Tim and Heidi had reserved a hotel 10 kilometers from Santiago and offered to let us stay on their floor if we couldn’t find an albergue between where we were and there. As we started out from the cafe in the oppressive 90-something degree heat of midday, Izzy and I looked at each other. “We’re going all the way to Santiago today, aren’t we?” We both said. And it was decided. The more we thought about the idea, the more it made sense. This had been a dramatic and life changing experience for both of us and we wanted to end it in a way that reflected that. How much more dramatic of an ending can you get than a 40 kilometer day through the June heat? We became very excited and starting dancing and singing until we hit a patch of uphill path and a heat wave and fell into a determined and exhausted silence. It seemed to be all uphill and our legs and feet started to ache. We saw the signs that said 13,0 kilometers, then 12,5. We arrived at Tim and Heidi’s hotel in a terrible mood, exhausted and sore and starting to question our decision but remaining as stubborn as ever. There we stopped for nearly two hours. We drank two enormous bottles of water and a couple lemon shandy beers and shared two plates of fries with Tim and Heidi. We talked and laughed and slowly regained our strength. At 7’oclock we hugged Tim and Heidi goodbye, ignored their concerns and offers to buy us our own hotel room, and set out again into the extreme heat.
Both of us experienced moments of complete release as we very slowly climbed the next two hills, bathed in sweat that dripped from every inch of our bodies. We both held our hands out and deliriously gave in to God and the pain and had euphoric moments of happiness before our aching feet brought us back to reality and we fell into awful moods. “Why did we do this?” we asked each other. We finally reached the top of the hill where there was a campsite and a fence covered in handmade crosses. There was only one other pilgrim in sight- an old man who was steadily making his way down the hill. We came to the last town before Santiago and stopped for a minute to listen to a pilgrim mass going on in a little church. We saw pilgrims turn and look at us, wondering what we were doing with our backpacks still on. From there we headed down the hill in silence. In the distance we could see the beginnings of the big city, but it felt further away than ever and our footsteps had become tip toes. Somehow we made it down the hill and across a footbridge until we saw the sign ‘Santiago de Compostela’ in red letters covered in stickers on the outskirts of town. Here was the moment we had been waiting for for a month, here was the culmination of 32 days of effort. Izzy and I held hands and cried as we walked into the city. My tears were tears of gratitude and disbelief. After so many physical problems that have plagued me my whole life, I finally had achieved an extremely difficult physical task with zero serious problems. We had made it to Santiago.
The magic of the moment wore off when we reached the albergue we had booked earlier that afternoon and they informed us that our reservation had been canceled because they had no room. Luckily, we managed to find another albergue only a few minutes’ walk away and dumped our things on our bunk beds. There was only one thing left to do- walk to the cathedral that was the official end of the camino. That whole walk is a blur now. I’m not even sure how I made it, but I am sure that I thought my body would collapse and I would throw up everything that had ever been in my stomach. Izzy and I made it to the cathedral (that unfortunately was covered in ugly scaffolding) and sat down on the ground to look at it for a while. It was 9 o’clock in the evening and we had just walked more than 25 miles for more than 14 hours. We sat there speechless for a while, and it was hard not to be let down by this conclusion to our journey. We had looked forward to this day for a month and suddenly we were there, in a city where life seemed to go on as it always had. Instead of ending on an extremely cathartic moment, we ended on reality.
After a few moments in front of the cathedral and a couple of pictures taken of us, we hailed a taxi and rode back to our albergue. I’m not sure how I managed to get myself in the shower and into bed, but I do remember I had a hard time falling asleep because my head was spinning. The next morning Izzy and I woke up in extreme pain and exhaustion as if we were hungover and made our way to a cafe that was on the edge of the Camino trail to wait for our friends to pass by. We saw Tim and Heidi and gave them huge hugs before they headed on to the Cathedral. Next, Kyle came around the corner practically leaping with joy. It surprised me, since I knew that he was not walking for spiritual reasons and hadn’t seemed that invested in the experience, but when we saw Kyle that morning he seemed to be on the verge of tears. He had a bite of our breakfast (he refused to sit down because he hadn’t sat down at all that day and wanted to make it to the cathedral without sitting) before hugging us and practically running off to the end of the Camino. Izzy and I plowed through our breakfast, as the last thing we had eaten had been the fries at the hotel with Tim and Heidi, and then walked back to the cathedral where we saw Daniel and John, and headed to the pilgrim office to wait in the huge line for our official certificates.
After waiting in line for 45 minutes, talking excitedly with all the other pilgrims and seeing people we hadn’t run into in days, I walked up to the counter and told the woman there my full name and where I had started my Camino on which date. She wrote out my Compostela and distance certificates in beautiful handwriting and congratulated me. I wrapped up my certificates and held them close- I am more proud of receiving those two documents than I am of receiving my high school diploma. Wyatt and Ethan arrived as we were leaving and we gave them congratulatory hugs. We checked into the air bnb we had rented with the boys and then met up with my friend Andi from the beginning of the journey by the cathedral to go to the mass and then lunch. It was so wonderful to see Andi again! We had truly come full circle from that first day we met in St. Jean Pied de Port and I recognized a new strength in her that I also saw in myself, a confidence that comes from completing the greatest journey of our lives. The mass was spectacular and I got chills when a bunch of men in purple robes began to pull on the heavy rope that swung the censor back and forth over the hundreds of pilgrims. I was saddened, I must say, by the fact that pilgrims all had their phones out and were practically trampling one another to get a video of the censor swinging. They then clapped when it was over as if it were a show and not a sacred ritual. We then had lunch with Andi and traded Camino stories, then she came out for drinks and dinner with us and the boys later that night.
Walking back from our delicious dinner, I felt a sense of calm and pride unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. It seemed that with each step down the main road of Santiago I saw a new person who had affected my experience. We hugged a group of our German friends who had just gotten matching tattoos and were giddy off of that thrill. We ate ice cream and walked Andi back to her albergue for a goodbye that was almost as sad as the one in Santo Domingo. Some divine force had brought us together and I was incredibly sad to let her go.
The next day truly did feel like the last day of school. I felt the pressure of saying goodbye to all of the people who had meant something to me, but found that as usual the Camino provided and brought each one of them into my path. There was Michael, the American man who drew beautifully who we had bonded with in Burgos and had seen a few times since then, there was Marcel, the German man with a huge heart who I ran into in the morning and had breakfast with. I came across Peter, the German man who I had started the journey with, and Jeanette happened to be eating at the same restaurant where Izzy and I ate with Tim and Heidi. We helped Wyatt shop for a gift for his girlfriend and then spent the rest of the day buying various souvenirs for our families and ourselves. That night we went out to dinner with the boys and Richard, our Canadian friend. We then played pool and saw the sweet British twins we had met in Molinaseca. It seemed we had said goodbye to almost everyone who we wanted to see. We stayed up with the boys for a while and put off those hardest goodbyes. Wyatt and Kyle had become brothers to Izzy and me, and after only a week or so with Dan, John, and Ethan we felt extremely close to them, too.
By the time we woke up the next morning, everyone except Dan had gone. We ate a pancake breakfast at a nearby cafe (you can see our Camino appetites hadn’t decreased even though we had stopped walking) and then took a cab to the bus station to take a bus to Porto where we were to fly home from the next day.
Porto was a magical city, full of interesting buildings and kind people. The hotel where we stayed was absolutely beautiful and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. Luckily, Izzy is Brazilian and speaks Portuguese (although the Portuguese Portuguese is heavily accented) so we were able to communicate easily with people. We tried the Porto special that I like to call a heart attack sandwich (sausage, bacon, ham, egg, and cheese on texas toast smothered in gravy) and a glass of sweet Port wine, did some shopping, and then ate a delicious meal of vegetable soup, fish, spinach, and cake for dinner and explored the city at night. It was absolutely beautiful! The architecture was unlike anything I’d ever seen and the streets were filled with beautiful, happy people celebrating life. We wished we’d had more time there!
And just like that, we were home. They say that the real Camino begins when the Camino de Santiago ends, and I have to agree with that. For the first two weeks or so after coming home, I felt like my mind was totally at peace. My thought patterns seemed super slow and clear, I was content no matter what was happening, and felt bothered by all the distractions of American life. I read two books my first week home, got exercise, ate healthily, spent time with my family, and had no problems with jet lag or sleeping. Soon, though, some of the ways of American life seeped back into my system. I spent more time watching screens and less time reading books, I found myself getting frustrated or sad or angry again and feeling further away from the beautiful life I had experienced abroad than ever. It felt like the Camino had been a beautiful dream. Now, however, after a month at home, I have found a balance between my Camino lifestyle and my home lifestyle. I still feel more confident, relaxed, and patient than I ever was before. I make an effort to spend at least a little bit of time outside each day, and try to work prayer and meditation into my daily routine. I have mostly given up social media and try to challenge myself to go without the distractions of music or TV as much as possible. I still feel that fire of adventure in my heart, and am excited to think that I can have more Camino-like experiences in my life. For now, I am focusing on working (back at the Hangar, which is weird after so many months away) and saving money, spending time with my family, and getting into great shape. I have been inspired by the simple Camino lifestyle to clean out a lot of junk sitting around my room, and have gotten rid of tons of clothes and books and random things I have no use for. So I am back to a part of life that is for focus and work before my next adventure…
Attending college in Naples starting October of this year! More to come later.