EL CAMINO CORRECTO
Roosters wake me early in our “casa rural”. There are not yet noises coming from the kitchen but I can hear the village starting to murmur outside our windows. Like dinner, coffee happens notoriously late in this part of the world. Aside from our zero dark thirty departure from Oia, we made the decision, early on, to let each morning unfold organically. That usually means sticking around for coffee before we head out. I’ve grown accustomed to pulling out my phone and writing in bed during this “waiting for coffee” gap. This has become one of the great treasures of this journey for me. At home, when I wake too early, my brain fights itself for sleep while I scroll aimlessly on my phone. These have long been empty hours that steal me from myself. They haunt me day after day, representing some undefinable failure. Here, these early hours in bed, writing, are like fresh fruit- they burst with ideas and leave me feeling both satiated and hungry for the day.
I write for an hour. Emily is uncharacteristically quiet in her bed. I know we are both excited to reach Santiago de Compostela today. This arrival represents the pinnacle of our pilgrimage. The goal. The destination. Our fellow pilgrims have been growing increasingly energized these last couple of days. There is a shared sense of anticipation and relief. And awe. But there is, between the two of us, a palpable reluctance to get to the end of this day. I am fundamentally not ready for this pilgrimage to end. My body has been growing fitter and yearns for more miles. My muse still feels a bit skittish. She grows more present each day- but I’m afraid she’ll take flight, leaving me voiceless again, once I’m done walking.
Unlike many stories about The Camino, ours does not include battles with nasty blisters, injury or illness. We do not wonder where we’re going to sleep each night. We’ve not picked up juicy characters along the way or been thwarted by weather. This has been partly by design and partly through grace. We are each doing what we came here to do. And, I believe, each finding some of what we came here to seek. But we are So. Not. Done. I have a sense of having been cracked open. I feel exhilarated now, not only by each moment, but by the new future that yawns before me. Possibility.
The word “Camino” means road. As I physically walk This Camino, I have become acutely aware that the real Camino I am on will not end at a cathedral. The road I walk will not stop in Spain. For me, the word, Camino has come to mean, a road walked with intention. With a willingness to embrace whatever shows up along The Way. And with faith that I am on “El Camino Correcto”- the right road, wherever it takes me. This seems so dang simple. Cliche, even. But it is not easy- to walk this road of intention in daily life. And here’s the thing. At more than half a century old, the days I have left to squander, have grown fewer. Until now, I’ve been framing this in a particular way: I have less time to catch that proverbial plane I was probably supposed to be on years ago. I need to hurry up and figure out what I was meant to do in this life and “getter” done. I better start checking things off my bucket list. And catch that damn plane before it’s too late. I have been feeling wistful that the sands are slipping down- leaving the hour glass of my life half full.
How flat and sad this framing seems now! I have been mourning something I have not lost- the life I have always thought I was meant to live. But here it is, right here. Under my feet. Over my head. In my own hands. THIS road is it. Sometimes it is mundane. Sometimes it’s a scary storm. Sometimes it’s sad and lonely. Sometimes it’s joyful and inspiring. Sometimes I am lost along The Way and sometimes I am profound. In some ways, this last day of my Camino pilgrimage feels like the first day of my truly understanding this- that there is no other plane for me to catch. I am on the flight I was meant for. I let a sense of peace lie quietly with me until I smell coffee and sense Emily waking across the room.
Our evening sharing stories and wine with the Asheville boys has left her not feeling great. This is the first time either of us has felt sick since we started. We mobilize slowly. My pack stacking ritual feels almost sacred today. Each of the things I carry has a specific place. There is an order to the stuffing of items that, if ventured from, results in chaos. Finally, on this last day, the process is flawless. Nothing is out of place. My pack closes easily. There are no bursting seams or bulging pockets. Nothing extra and all I need.
We make a game plan. We’ll take one step at a time. Slow down. Make decisions as we go. This will be our longest day and we’re realizing now, probably our hardest.
“a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”*
On our first day in Portugal, we learned the word, “Saudade”. It is unique to the Portuguese language and even the Portuguese seem to have trouble explaining it to non-native speakers. It is a word that, a quick internet inquiry informs me, the whole world desires to understand. It has its origins in the longing of a woman waiting for her love to return from exploration at sea. Saudade describes a love-drenched yearning for a deep happiness that has passed or maybe never fully existed. It’s like nostalgia on steroids. Saudade seems to describe the alchemy of joy with sorrow, love with longing and past with present. In some ways, saudade distills what it means to be human into a single, powerful emotion. In Lisbon, we’d attended a Fado concert. Fado is traditional Portuguese music that embodies the essence of saudade- an inconsolable longing, from the depths of the soul, for something or someone that has been lost and can never be retrieved. It was beautiful and haunting music. But at the time, excited by the outset of our journey, I remained essentially unmoved by saudade.
Today, we start out slowly. I have picked up some melancholy along The Way. It’s making my pack feel heavier than usual. Emily feels better once we’re walking. We soon leave the dusty cobbles of Padrón behind. And then we leave the lowland verdant vineyards as well.
We follow an ancient, rocky track upwards into a mossy forest. The trail is bright with the sounds of birds and running water. Stone markers, painted with yellow arrows and engraved with the number of kilometers we have to go, appear more and more often as we get closer to Santiago. I feel equally excited and sad as the numbers grow smaller. Emily and I walk separately. Then together. Then separately. Then together. We pass a woman in a red poncho. And then she passes us. Several times. She moves gingerly through mud and over streams. She appears to be around seventy. I walk with her for a time. She is from Germany and walking alone. She seems shy. Her face is weathered and she walks hunched over- like she is protecting her heart. I walk along with her, in awe. I am busting with curiosity about the life that has led her to this moment- her Camino. But we do not speak the same language so we are left to speak in silence and in steps. She stops to adjust her pack and I walk on alone.
This forest feels sorrowful. Partly, I think because the rock-pile shrines at each marker are more laden than ever. Not just with remembrances. Encouraging words show up now, midst ribbon and coins and RIPs. “Believe” and “keep going”. The Camino is a mirror that reflects life. The ups and downs. Hills and valleys. Triumphs and defeats. The pilgrims who have passed here before, reached out with rocks and words: forward- to pilgrims who will get their messages; backward- to those they’ve loved and lost. The voices of these pilgrims ring in my consciousness. I feel their loss, their longing, and their love. We are one. I am overcome with a gestalt of emotion. Maybe this is saudade.
I find Emily waiting for me at an elaborate wrought iron gate. Beyond the gate, two horses huddle against a beautiful, old stone house. It’s not a large house but it has an estate-like feeling. It’s a house once inhabited by people and now, by horses. It has two stories, a chimney, and a balcony-like porch. The house is made of ancient stone but there are store stickers on the windows and a brand new front door. As if the house has been fixed up for the horses. Though there’s a round bale tucked under the porch and an orange tub of water nearby, both the horses and the home seem to be longing for happier times- waiting for their people to return. Saudade.
*Quote from Portuguese writer, Manuel de Melo
It has been raining off and on all day but when we have about twelve kilometers to go, it starts to really pour. We’ve left the forest and walk through huge fields of green in between villages. My Tin Man walk starts about now. My muscles begin to stiffen. My joints lose their full range of motion and clank with each step. I do not slow down but I can feel my stride adapt- the shape of my body changes- I am less upright and lean against the weight of my pack. This happens on all the long days toward the end. But today there is a new chill in the air. There’s a breeze with the rain. Tin Man shows up sooner and will have to walk for longer.
As we draw closer to Santiago, it feels like there’s a convergence. We pass more and more ghosty pilgrims. We are coming together from different routes and accumulating around our shared destination. Fields of green turn to scenes of gray as we enter what feel like the suburbs of Santiago. Emily and I are both dragging. I can feel her borrowing my energy and I borrow some from music for a Ways. We have a short conversation about what it means to meet your physical and emotional edge. We remind each other that this is one reason we are here- to find that edge. To lean into it.
We are now walking almost entirely on concrete. The cafe we thought we’d stop at was closed so we’re hungry. Our clothes are wet and heavy. My toes are squabbling again and the hot spots have returned. At one point, I glance down and see a small stone with the word, “Angst” written on it. It is just visible through grass that has grown up around it alongside The Way. Ahhhh! We are not alone! Our weariness and hunger and stiff joints and ambivalence are all a part of a larger tapestry. I take a picture of the stone and text it to Emily who is somewhere behind me. Someone left their angst here. We can leave ours as well.
We come together and are climbing a steep hill in the rain. Hip. Hop. Heart. Beat. An arrow appears with a sign for a cafe and there’s a guy with a flag indicating this might be the last one for a while. Yay! A blustery squall descends just as we enter a plastic enclosed dining area. I hear my name and turn around to see the Asheville boys enjoying some warm food and cold beer. Yay again! We tuck into a table, shivering. We take off our shoes and spread out our sopping gear. Emily orders soup and cappuccino. I order risotto and decafianado. Costa Rica Texas guy shows up too and grabs a table next to ours. Emily befriended him on The Way a few days back and we’d chatted with he and his girlfriend last night in the busy bar. She’s a guide for a forty person Camino tour. We were horrified at her stories of forty people clogged together on The Way. When she joked that they teach classes on “How Not to be an Asshole” as part of the tour, it gave me ideas. My mind smiles, remembering this. Maybe Emily and I will include these classes in the small group Writer’s Way Camino we’re planning.
After a bit of a wait, my risotto arrives. It is AMAZING. I will never forget scooping that warm, butter soaked concoction into my mouth and feeling it seep into my soul. I stop shivering. Comfort food is elevated to a whole new level in this moment. With my bowl of risotto, I am the Tin Man with his oil can. How will entering the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral ever beat this?! Maybe we should just stop right now.
As we warm up and realize we are only about three miles from Santiago, a new giddyness sets in. Greg and David’s wives are waiting for them there. Greg’s song about his injured toe is almost complete. We anticipate a momentous entry into the Cathedral Square. I’m so excited to do laundry. After that, I’m not sure what to expect. There’s a bit of a hollow place ahead in my psyche. We’re planning to drive to Finisterre tomorrow. I long to look out over the cliffs at the “end of the world”. We don’t have time to walk this four-days-more leg of the Camino but are both captivated by the idea of the place. We are scheduled to fly back to Lisbon the following day. My itinerary says I’ll then continue on to a whole new adventure but I can’t fathom that right now. I almost can’t fathom anything beyond this soaking wet, wind battered, angst-free, glorious moment.
I hesitate to try to describe our arrival at Santiago de Compostela. Not because it is so incredible. But because it is both sacred and mundane. This is a complex juxtaposition. How can an experience be, at once, life changing and anti-climactic? I feel joy-filled and proud and bigger than life as we walk, open armed toward the cathedral spires. And I also feel earthbound and wistful and human as we tread the cobbles into the square. Every person has a unique relationship to the end of such a pilgrimage. It feels private to me. A person who has walked the Camino for religious reasons will have a very different experience from someone who has walked it for other spiritual or healing reasons. A tourist will have a whole other experience. I feel reluctant to damage my own precious arrival by exposing it to too much light.
There is also the universal lesson- that when the journey is so vivid, so appreciated and so fully lived, the destination becomes less important; the goal itself, achieved, has less value than the act of setting it. This is such an integral part of the work I do with my coaching clients every day, that I am startled when I learn the lesson myself- again. Sometimes, once you achieve something you’ve been working toward and dreaming about, there is a period of inertia. It can feel like a hangover. You imagine you will feel over-joyed and accomplished. That everything will be in full color. And yet, sometimes destinations actually show up in black and white. Ralph Waldo Emerson wasn’t kidding when he wrote that, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” But what I know to be true, is that by setting a goal and picking a destination, we drastically increase our chances of having an incredible journey. As I walk up and touch the wall of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, after walking almost 280 kilometers to get here, I am both awed by the moment and humbled by it’s realness. For me, the magic lives in the journey though it is made possible by the destination. I am full of gratitude- as much for the goal I set, a year ago to make this pilgrimage, as for the arrival itself.
We rejoice and exchange photo taking with other pilgrims. We locate the Pilgrim’s office and get our “compostela certificates” with our names in Latin hand written across the bottom. We find our hotel but I am not able to find a place to do laundry. We wander through the cathedral and around the town. We have our same old problem finding a place to eat dinner but end up having an incredible Greek meal in an obviously favorite local “hole in the stone wall” restaurant. We make reservations for tomorrow night at the Italian restaurant we’ve been craving The Whole Way. We check out the tattoo shop we have a date with tomorrow evening. And then we sleep.