This morning, a home-like breakfast is laid out on a little table labeled with our current luckiest room number, 206. Our spot in Arcade feels like the house of a dear friend- maybe one not accustomed to having a lot of guests. Sandpaper towels, food just left of weird and creaking floor boards make us feel careful and polite. But the view is unreal and the hospitality, endearing.
As we progress closer to Pontevedra, where our coastal route merges with the central Portuguese Camino, we find ourselves sharing The Way with more and more pilgrims. The weather report is for 100% chance of rain, indefinitely, and the pilgrims are, almost every one, wrapped head to toe in rain gear. Colorful ponchos hide their faces and drape over their packs. As we finish packing breakfast to take for lunch, we see them winding down along The Way outside our street-side window. They look like cheerful ghosts. Their calf-length ponchos making them appear to glide along slowly- walking poles clacking in the early ocean glow- a procession we are eager to join.
We set out- feeling a bit more jaunty than your average ghost, in our shorts and running shoes. We have learned that 100% chance of rain doesn’t mean here, what it does in Seattle. In Spain, it seems to mean there is a 100% chance that it will rain at some point during the day- not that it will rain incessantly, 100% of the day. This subtle distinction means that we are constantly delighted and surprised when it is not raining. It’s also warmer than we’re used to- we feel light, unburdened by gear and free from the fear of getting wet. We are jaunty ghosts.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF OASIS
This will be our last day of seaside passage. It feels mystical from the start. Not in an eerie way but in a magical one. My happy feet hit, now familiar, stone over bridges and across overpasses. This last little bit of sea level is making me thirsty for a climb. I have this little thought as we head up through forest lanes and village roads: “What if nothing happens today? What if I have no interesting thoughts? What if no themes emerge, no challenges intervene and no special people show up? What if this is the beginning of the end and, as we leave the sea, mediocrity sets in? What if this trip, that has felt drenched in joy and full with meaning up ‘til now, is actually just another string of days?” Ahhhh!!! I recognize this, suddenly, as one of my biggest fears; that I will lead a “mediocre” life; that I will somehow miss the flight I was meant to be on. Like wind, the mystical always makes me cling a bit to the ground. I feel myself shy away from greatness when it shows up in the form of everyday life. I disregard it so that I may not become complacent- so I don’t stop striving to make that flight I think I was meant to be on but never seem to catch.
As I’m carrying along this fear and turning it over and over in my mind- a stone made smooth from years of wear- we pass through a major construction site. Maybe the largest one I’ve ever been in the middle of. Orange plastic netting guides us over freshly turned earth and we zig and zag for several kilometers up through what appears to be a super highway in the making. A project so huge, I feel insignificant in the face of its magnitude. And, in the face of what is possible for humans to build. The Way is barren. Devoid of interesting foliage and meaningful shrines. Free from roots and rocks and water. We pass only a group of four ladies in strange gators. One is wearing a fabric knapsack with string shoulder straps that has “SKETCHERS” printed on it- as if she has just walked out of a mall in middle America.
It is not lost on me that my most persistent fear has shown up along The Way- mediocrity embodied in this pedestrian construction site. Mmmm…. I feel a little deflated. A day that felt mystical down by the sea, now feels earthbound. What ancient, hallowed ground is this, marked by orange plastic and cut into perfect slices by huge machines? Where is the reverence and regard for the human spiritual journey along this deforested scar? I feel some awe at the size of the emerging highway but a general paucity of energy.
Presently, we are funneled back into the woods and orange plastic is, once again, replaced by yellow arrows. Today is not a long day but is, somehow, feeling stretched by this swath of construction. My thoughts drift to the silver triskele that now hangs around my neck. In the forest labyrinth of Celtic puzzles that greeted us when we first got to Spain, I’d felt drawn to the triple spiral. With some research, I discovered that the triskele is an ancient Celtic symbol- a representation of feminine power- especially power through transition. The three spirals symbolize past, present, and future; mind, spirit and body; land, sea and sky. The triskele possesses something called rotational symmetry- that inspires, in me, a sense of resilience and stability while the wave like spirals connote outward expansion. In Baiona, we’d found a little hole in the wall, Harry Pottteresque shop and purchased two pendants- a spiral for Emily and a triskele for me.
Now, as we round a corner and roll into a little decline, we see a row of chairs and an umbrella alongside the path. Right away, I notice that the guy sitting under the umbrella is covered with tattoos, a great number of them depicting versions of the triple spiral. He chats with me in Spanglish and hand gestures while he continues to work on the chunky leather bracelets he’s making… “I see you have your house on your back. This is the real way to do the Camino!” he laughs. “You must take care of your feet though. Up ahead, there is a choice. You can take a very beautiful route, along a river that is longer and very slippery and bad for your feet when it is raining. Or you can take the main route that is along the road but is shorter and safer. You must decide and take care of your feet.” We buy two bracelets from him- a spiral and a triskele, of course. He explains in Spanish, with expressive hand gestures that he used to make and sell jewelry in the tiny confines of a city shop… but now he sits here, along the Camino. He feels free and makes Pilgrims happy along Their Way. His buddy, sitting next to him in a bicycle hat, joins in the conversation and offers to loan us a horse or a bike. He reiterates the importance of making the right choice up ahead. We must take care of our feet. Bracelets snapped snuggly- perfectly- in place, we move on. Now curious about the mysterious choice that lies ahead, we leave this oasis of another kind- an oasis for the spirit- behind us on The Way.
COMPLEMENTARIO: THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
The definition of “complementario” in the Spanish to English dictionary is that “it serves to complete or refine something.”
An hour or so after we leave Triskele Guy, we see a small accumulation of pilgrims ahead. There is no bifurcation of the path shown on our map. But sure enough, there are TWO opposing yellow arrows here. And here, also, is Bicycle Hat Guy! How did he do that? He is cheerfully helping pilgrims decide which route to take; pantomiming the slippery trail and pointing left, miming relative safety and pointing right. OF COURSE we know which way to choose. We cajole this delightful, helmeted angel into taking a selfie with us (despite his protestation that his wife would not be happy) and head left.
Under the official Camino arrows on this path, instead of the usual kilometer markers, are plaques that read, COMPLEMENTARIO. Only one other pilgrim we can see has also chosen this route- a ghost in gray- who glides carefully through the trees before and behind us. Since it isn’t on the map, we have no idea exactly how “complementary” this route will be. We don’t know how many kilometers it will add to our tally for the day, how long it will take or where it will connect back up with The Main Way. We only know that it is supposed to be beautiful, follow a river and be treacherous in this “100% chance of raining at some point” weather.
The rest of the day is like a blurry dream. We slow way down. We are in a dripping, mossy, melancholy rain forest; among glistening spider webs, slow moving frogs and the hush of a mindful, winding river. I have the sensation of having slipped down a hole into an alternate world. One where graffiti comes to life and the vibrant characters it depicts guide us into tunnels, over bridges and through old stone buildings adorned with Alice in Wonderland-like scenes. Time moves like molasses through these trees. This forest feels like home and also like we are time traveling-hundreds of years into an unfamiliar past. We follow the quiet river through an incredibly beautiful tunnel under old train tracks…
And poof. We hit a bright curb and hear traffic. A yellow arrow spray painted at our feet tells us we’re back on The Main Way. Dream over. We are surprised to find that we’re less than a mile from our night’s lodgings. It’s like no time has passed and yet we covered miles. Our journey today is almost complete. By now, my fear that this day, this trip, this life may turn out to be mediocre has passed. We pick up our jaunty heart-beat-hip-hop pace again as we revel in the dream we just chose: The COMPLEMENTARIO. The road less traveled. Despite warnings. Despite not knowing all the things. Despite the fact that it was not on our map. Despite 100% chance of rain. We went left. And I would not have it any Other Way.