I put off writing the last post for a long time because it meant I would have to admit the end of our Camino. The final day of our trek to Santiago de Compostela promised to be an easy walk but a difficult, emotional finish. On one hand we were feeling pure joy from being able to accomplish our goal, and on the other, a deep sadness that the journey was ending. All the clichés about how it’s not the destination but the journey swirled through my head. I had read about the emotional turmoil and anguish people felt while walking into Santiago, but it’s not something that can be described without experiencing the pilgrimage for yourself. From the beginning, Ray had been asking what it would be like after the Camino, and he was about to find out.
Time walked – 3 hours with a coffee stop
Total distance – 10.75 miles
Miles to date – 518.3 (Ray) and 508.5 (Wendy) + 5 miles each on horseback
Weather – Cool morning, low 60’s, heat wave in afternoon 95 degrees F
Terrain – rocky path, uphill climb, pavement and sidewalks
Ray made one last trip through our room to make sure we had gotten everything. It was a funny habit since we had become so accustomed to our packing routine that we would have noticed anything missing or out of place. I could not have been happier with the way my items fit perfectly in my backpack, each piece having its own place and all my clothes folded neatly inside three ziplock bags. Ray followed me out the door and noticed a pair of sunglasses on the floor at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door to the room across from ours, but Linda and Laura were already gone. Ray picked up the sunglasses hoping to see the ladies on the way to get them returned.
We met Jeri in the lobby to begin the short walk into Santiago de Compostela. Since we had passed the airport the day before, I assumed that we were in the suburbs. Once we left Lavacolla, however, we strolled next to a stream, along a road, through open ground and between old, stone homes before reaching the city. Jeri told Ray and I again how happy she was to walk into Santiago together. We marveled at the irony of Jeri being the first person we met on Day 1 in Orisson and the last person we would walk with on Day 43.
Ray, Jeri and I walked, talked and silently reflected on our amazing adventure. My Camino had been the most mentally difficult, emotionally demanding, physically challenging, socially enjoyable, and spiritually inspiring event of my life. I knew that I was mentally and emotionally strong enough to complete the Camino Francés, but I was not confident about the physical aspects or circumstances beyond my control. I was disappointed that we had missed out on the pilgrims’ masses, but overjoyed to watch God work around us. It was the relationships we formed that surprised me the most. I hadn’t expected to be impacted by the friends we made in such a short amount of time, but we formed bonds to last a lifetime with our Camino family.
For our entire journey, walking seemed to be the cure all. By the time we had climbed the trail to Monte del Gozo, or Mount of Joy, our sadness had been replaced with utter anticipation. We could clearly see the city of Santiago de Compostela sprawled out in the valley below. The monument on top of the mount proved to be an excellent photo opportunity for the many pilgrims and tourists who had come from far and near. Jeri, Ray and I stood in a short line to receive a stamp on our credential from the chapel of San Marcos at the site. We were just in time as the line quickly filled with tourists from a bus group. The tourists were mostly older, and a few of them smiled at us as we packed away our credentials before continuing. The look of admiration in their eyes was heart warming.
Jeri led the way down the tree-lined path to the city. I followed Jeri and Ray followed me, soaking up the last moments of our Camino.
The three of us reached the edge of city and spontaneously stopped at a bar restaurant for coffee and breakfast. We would miss our morning coffee stops, and also the people with whom we shared the stops. Once we finished our coffee we were antsy to get going. A little further into Santiago I looked up to see Café Bar Rey, and couldn’t resist snapping a photo of Ray displaying his notorious social media pose.
The sidewalk became crowded with pilgrims walking toward the cathedral. Jeri and I stopped to take pictures of our first glimpse of the cathedral spire, that ended up being barely visible in the photos.
Knowing we were near the Catedral de Santiago, the end of our seven week journey, lit a fire inside me. Many of the tourists were strolling along in groups. I wanted to get around them so that Ray and I could walk together without the tourist traffic, so I picked up my pace. Jeri had no trouble keeping up, joining us as we waited to cross a busy street. A younger woman in one of the groups struck up a conversation with Jeri as we waited. She had many questions about the Camino, hoping to walk it herself one day. The woman walked with us briefly, then wished us our final “Buen Camino.” The enthusiasm and respect in her voice were wholly gratifying.
After trekking five hundred miles across Spain, I had few expectations of the final stretch of the Camino. I had hoped the atomosphere would be festive, alive with energy, but the stone buildings were a familiar sight. The fireworks were entirely internal as we neared the historic center of the city. I could feel my face glowing as the excitement erupted from my core. The three of us continued on the Camino Francés as it passed through the Pazo do Xelmírez. Musicians played in the archway, welcoming peregrinos with their melody. The melancholy echo of the bagpipes overwhelmed me and tears of joy streamed down my cheeks. Through all the challenges, pain and delight, I had made it. I had persevered.
I was scared to look at Ray for fear I would start sobbing if I saw that he was crying. The steady stream of tears seemed appropriate, but I was afraid of the ugly cry. I held up my phone to record a photo of my first look at the Praza Obradorio, shaded from the morning sun, before turning toward the cathedral. The sun was rising behind the Catedral de Santiago, and I was awestruck at the sight, despite the scaffolding-covered facade.
For a moment I was completely unaware of anyone around me, standing alone, basking in my accomplishment. I wiped away the tears and cherished the essence of strength, confidence, joy, satisfaction and gratitude, deep gratitude, that permeated my soul. I did not move until I had reaped every morsel of my intrinsic reward. When I found Ray standing in his own space, I could see that he was engrossed with a multitude of emotions as well.
The joy in Jeri’s smile equaled my own. We hugged and laughed and celebrated our victory. I stooped down to take photos of Jeri, blocking the sun behind the cathedral and attempting to capture the tops of the spires. I had gotten the idea from a similar photo I had seen recently. Jason, who we had met on Day 22 but hadn’t seen since León, recognized us and talked with Ray while Jeri and I were taking pictures. Jeri told me that holding my backpack over my head was a traditional pilgrim photo, so she laid on the ground taking a picture of me balancing my full pack with one hand and my trusty hiking poles in the other.
She snapped several photos, and we laughed hysterically at one where she had gotten her knees in the shot. We were mystified at how the rest of the photo had become distorted but joked about her abstract, artistic talent.
Jason volunteered to take our picture and I did not turn him down like I had at the halfway point. Jeri and I continued to have our own little party while Ray posed with us, but quietly reveled in the setting. We finished with photos when the cathedrals bells started ringing. It was eleven o’clock and we wanted to attend the noon mass. We needed find a place to store our backpacks because they were not allowed in the cathedral.
A man heard us talking about our backpacks and kindly volunteered to show us where the line was at the mass entrance and the place to store our packs. He knew that we needed to hurry since the seats filled quickly in the cathedral. As we crossed the plaza, Vladimir approached Ray and I, congratulating us on our arrival. In a flash he shook Ray’s hand and gave me a hug, then disappeared into the crowd behind us. We followed the man until he could point us in the right direction. A gift shop across from the cathedral advertised backpack storage which included the use of the restrooms after payment. It was well worth the convenience and we grabbed the receipt before dashing to mass.
The cathedral was packed, but we briefly wandered down the aisles before finding a pillar where we could stand with a view of the altar. Ray wasn’t convinced that all one thousand seats were taken and continued to look for seats. He returned bringing Jason with him to the spot where Jeri and I were waiting. I spotted Laura and Linda two pews behind us, where they had been sitting for an hour. I asked about the sunglasses Ray had found in the hallway, and Laura was thrilled that he had picked them up. She hadn’t realized they had fallen from her backpack until they were well on their way. We chatted and laughed at the odds of us running into each other so quickly to return the glasses. I said that it was another miracle of the Camino, and we all nodded.
We waited anxiously for mass to begin. I gripped the Franciscan cross necklace that I had worn since Day 19, when it was given to me during the pilgrim’s blessing after the mass in Hontanas. I was planning to give the necklace to my Catholic sister-in-law. I had thought of her many times on the Camino and was excited to share our experiences with her. Even though we weren’t Catholic, it was important to Ray and I to attend the traditional mass as had millions of pilgrims before us.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other while standing against the pillar. I could see people passing behind the altar, stopping to touch the central statue of Saint James. The legendary botafumeiro hung in plain view, but I could not determine if it had been readied for the ritual swinging over the pilgrims. The botafumeiro, or incense burner, was the largest in existence, weighing more than 100 pounds, and required eight men, or tirabolerios, to swing it from a system of pulleys.
According to the cathedral website, the smoke from the botafumeiro symbolized the prayers of the pilgrims rising to reach the heart of God. The aroma from the incense perfumes the entire basilica, just as Christians should permeate the society in which they live with the good scent of Christ, by the virtues and testimony of their lives. The website also listed the twelve scheduled events for the operation of the botafumeiro. Because of the extensive effort required, it is not used regularly after mass, but is reported to be a spectacular event. For several days we had been hearing discussions about the mass and the chance of witnessing the swinging of the botafumeiro. It was commonly discussed that the tradition began as a way to cover the smell of the pilgrims on pilgrimage for months to reach the burial site of James the Apostle. Reportedly a generous benefactor had donated money to cover the cost of operating the burner after Friday evening mass, but the money had run out. Ray and I hoped to witness the traditional ritual, signifying the completion of our achievement.
Even though people had crowded in front of us, we had a good view to the altar when mass began. A tiny nun approached the pulpit greeting us and leading us in song and surprising us with her powerful yet angelic voice. The priest read pilgrim statistics in several languages, but the service was conducted in Spanish only. For me, the highlight of the mass was the nun who sang again and again filling the cathedral with her perfect pitch. During communion, Ray could see the attendants preparing the ropes of the giant botafumeiro. At the conclusion of the mass, the incense was lit and the smoke filled the air above the burner as it swung back and forth from side to side. It was a spectacular way to conclude our journey to Santiago.
After mass Jeri, Ray and I ate lunch together before heading to our hotel rooms. I worked on travel arrangements to Barcelona for our flight back to Panamá early Monday morning, while Ray picked up the suitcase we had shipped ahead from Saint Jean. Yung Mi sent a message that she had arrived at the albergue in Salceda where we had stayed two nights before and planned to be in Santiago on Sunday. Claudia had walked over 20 miles, checking in from Lavacolla and planning to be at the cathedral on Saturday morning. It was exciting to know that we would see her again.
Jeanette, Jeri and I made plans to meet for lunch the next day, hoping Claudia would join us as well. Several messages centered around our schedules and everyone’s plans to bus or walk to Finisterre and Muxia, coastal towns the Romans referred to as “the end of the earth.” I thought I had planned enough days to bus to the coast as well as sight-see in Barcelona, but Ray and I had seen all that we needed to over the last forty-three days. Barcelona would have to be another trip. After our plans were set, Ray and I ventured out again for a late dinner before going to bed.
Saturday, June 17th
I had hoped that we would be up early to hang out near the plaza to watch the arriving pilgrims, but we had a slow morning. My feet were swollen, and we had to pack to change hotels because I had waited too long to book our rooms. Although just a ten minute walk to the next hotel, it was already hot by mid-morning so we took a cab. It had been a long time since we had ridden in a vehicle, but it wasn’t as strange as we thought it might be. Our room wasn’t ready, but we left our bags and walked across the cathedral plaza to the restaurants and souvenir shops. We wanted to purchase a few items before meeting up for lunch.
I heard the familiar ding from my phone and opened my messages to see that Claudia had arrived. She was with Jeri, Jeanette, Mike and Sue in front of the cathedral. Ray and I ran to meet them, elated to be reunited with our Camino family. We helped Claudia find the line for mass and made our lunch plan. Ray and I finished shopping then we all met up for lunch, catching up on our Camino adventures.
We left the restaurant planning to meet up again for dinner. Ray and I needed to get our Compostelas from the Pilgrim’s Office, and wanted to tour the museum and cathedral. The temperature soared to 97°F making it difficult to accomplish all of our tasks. Neither of us wanted to be rushed, and there was too much to see and do to accomplish all that we wanted. I had already decided that we would have to come back to Spain to tour Barcelona, so I asked Ray if he thought we could return to Santiago de Compostela someday. He answered me with a serious tone that he would very much like to return to Spain. We talked briefly about walking the Camino again on our way to our hotel, but we didn’t have to say much because we knew that we were thinking and feeling the same.
Jeri sent a message that Yung Mi had made it to the cathedral and they were together. Yung Mi had pushed herself to walk nearly twenty miles to join us in Santiago. Ray and I were overjoyed that we would see her again before leaving early the next morning. While Ray and I went to pick up our Compostelas. We missed Lisa, Steve and Ann, who we started with in Orisson, and Carmen, who we adopted, wishing they could have joined us in Santiago for a last reunion. When Ray and I joined the rest of our Camino family for dinner, they had been celebrating with Yung Mi. Spending the last of our time together was much more important than anything else we could have done.
At lunch Jeanette had asked me if Ray and I would have time to bus to Finisterre and Muxia. I told her that while that was the original plan, I could imagine taking a bus the final 50 or 60 miles after having walked 500. I said that I couldn’t shake the feeling that we weren’t finished, and the only way Ray and I would be satisfied would be to return one day to walk to the “end of the earth.” Jeanette’s eyes lit up as she threw her arms around my shoulders and smiled. “That’s it,” she said. “That’s the only thing that makes sense.” She turned to her husband and said, “Mike, we’re not busing to the coast. We’re coming back to finish.” She expressed what I had been feeling perfectly. Our Camino wasn’t over, we would have to come back to finish.