For me, the beauty of the Camino lay in the stories along the way. In how amazing the food tasted. The hot showers at the end of another day’s journey. The quiet morning walks in the dark, an hour before the sun rose. And, of course, the people.
There was the crazy student of mine from one of the summer courses I had taught. He had caught wind of me walking the Camino, and came zooming over to pick me up at the only pilgrim’s hostel in Ponferrada as soon as I arrived. He introduced me to his boyfriend, and they went on about what a crazy foreigner I was, using my vacation time to tire myself out… by walking. “¡Que guiri eres!” But since I had walked all this way already, they may as well show me their town’s pride and glory, Las Médulas, which had been the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire, and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Later we sat and had cold beers in a farmer woman’s patio as she told us of the annual tradition she and the townspeople had just celebrated. The tradition consisted of bar-hopping, and bringing a baby goat along to get it drunk. Then her vicious turkey shat all over my leg and my old student guffawed and said the rest of my Camino journey would be lucky. “Now let’s get you some food before you continue on your walkathon, you foreign martyr you.”
There were the five Spanish women from a small town in Valencia whom I met on my first morning in Astorga. They were best friends, and it was their fourth year doing the Camino. Leaving their families at home, they would take a week off every summer to do a different stage of the Camino. I almost always found them along the way and in the albergues, talking up a storm and laughing loudly. Once, I shared a room with them, and they were all ready to up and come looking for me because it was past 10 o’clock and I still hadn’t shown up. When I arrived, they scolded, “¡Hija mía! ¡Que haces andando sola! ¡Que valiente eres, nena!“
Sometimes the early mornings were too dark to walk. My flashlight wouldn’t work, so I’d rush and find them just in time, tottering away in the darkness with headlamps resting on their foreheads…
Then there was the Portuguese guy who walked alongside me on my second day. An overly chatty actor/poet who thought Americans were dumb. But he was friendly, and always ready to offer a smoke and his company over cold cañas.
He introduced me to an older couple from Denmark. Their son had just done the Camino himself and had encouraged his parents to do it, so there they were, trekking across Spain! The woman had a great high laugh where she threw her head back, and you couldn’t help but laugh with her. We spent a couple of days walking alongside each other, talking and laughing and pretending to pass out every time there was an inclined path.
One afternoon, we made our way up the 1,293km-high mountain of O’Cebreiro to get to that night’s albergue. After hours of hiking we thought we’d almost made it to the top. So we skipped around in the meadow pretending to be Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. Our Swedish friend took this photo…
…before informing us that we still had another 2 hours to go.
There was the boisterous group of Northern Italians who always raised their beer glasses, shouted words of encouragement, and could be found taking their daily siesta somewhere on a patch of grass or on stone picnic benches along the way.
There was the tall, skinny Venezuelan monk who had left his career as a journalist years ago before moving to a Belgian monastery to become a monk. He had then traveled to France, where he began his own journey on the Camino. The only protection on his feet were a pair of sandals, and he didn’t have a single penny to his name.
There was the old woman from Australia who was traveling with her sister and brother-in-law. She was taking her time on the Camino, spreading her husband’s ashes whenever she found a spot she thought was beautiful. She had already sprinkled some in Italy and some back in Australia. We leaned on a fence and watched a newborn calf learn to walk as she chatted about her late husband.
There was the suave real estate agent from Texas and the petite, olive-skinned Italian woman from Rome who had met each other at the beginning of the French route. They had been walking together for weeks.
There was even the chicken that crossed the road…
And there were the women who, like me, had come alone:
The older Brazilian woman who’d smile, always with a quiet “bom apetito” or “bom día” and “ola, tudo bem?” The freckled, spirited Italian woman who had fallen in love with a Dutch man earlier on in Roncesvalles, and who was hoping to find him once she arrived in Santiago. The bubbly, laid-back Canadian girl with huge eyes who had taken a year off before college to go live in France, and then postponed her return home by slowly making her way along the Camino. She had been sleeping in albergues a few nights at a time since it was no longer high pilgrim season.
There was the French-Canadian woman who had done the first half of the Camino the year before, and had returned to finish it that summer. El Camino de Santiago was the only part of Europe she’d ever traveled to… and what a beautiful part to travel to! She was peaceful and in her element. There was the energetic Pennsylvanian who was living in León and had decided to use her summer vacation to trek across the French route. She was the fastest and most cheerful, though she had been walking for over a month and her toenails had begun to fall off.
And then, there were the long stretches alone…
* * *
The days went by quickly and, as we began to near Santiago de Compostela, there was a sense of excitement and sadness altogether – not wanting this phase to end, but wanting to arrive at the Cathedral and unwind. Along the way we began to hear of those who had already reached the city, and those who were a day or two behind us due to bed bugs, blisters, or tendonitis. There were messages passed along by word-of-mouth, “I saw so-and-so yesterday; she wanted to know how your ankle was doing”. There were more messages written along the way…
I considered stretching out my last two proper days on the Camino, going slowly and giving my body a much-needed break. I arrived in Pedrouzo at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The cheerful Pennsylvanian and I settled for tuna bocadillos and cold cañas. At 4 o’clock a group next to us began to tie their boots back on.
The next albergue was 16km away. An estimated 4 to 5-hour walk.
The spunky Korean girl from the group came up to me. “Are you coming?”
“Don’t know if I should do it.”
“What do your feet say?”
“Yeah, you should do it.”
And so we began our trek towards Monte do Gozo, or Mount of Joy, which is the hill overlooking the city of Santiago. Signs of the city were becoming more and more frequent now.
The last hour found us hungry again and I had run out of water. We all sat down to eat, and a barista at a tiny coffee bar refilled half of my water bottle with cold beer. The rest of the journey was heaven, and we finally arrived at Monte do Gozo at 9 o’clock in the evening, where we celebrated with hot showers and a tarta de Santiago.
As for finally reaching Santiago the next day?
There really are no words…