Photo by Bridget Flynn Kastner
The sun was already up when Bridget, Avery, Liz, and I bounced out the door of the hostel in Leon. It was cold and the sun was blazing down the empty morning alley where we searched for the bronze scallop markers in the stones beneath our feet. Last night, after arriving by train, we had stretched our bodies in preparation and our shoes flexed perfectly to the contours in the road. Soon we were joining groups of other pilgrims moving quickly out of the ancient city into the sunflowered hills going east.
That morning, we backtracked to find the ancient trail to Santiago, Spain. “Camino Duro,” the sign read. The Hard Way—ah, we were so naïve. We found it in time to be turning along the ridge to face east just as the sun was making its own turn along the horizon. We stood, wondering at the purpling hills with Francoise, a kind woman from France who was walking the Camino alone for the third time, for her fiftieth birthday.
We woke up at 4:15 in the morning in a room full of sleeping (read: snoring) travelers. Cold air drifted in the cracked window. In silence, we bandaged our blisters, wrapped our knees, and laced our shoes. Soon we were walking under the giant shadows of chestnut trees, peeking through to see the misty strokes of the Milky Way, and pulling our sweaters around us as the 6 AM cold set in.
Our bodies were nearly unwilling to carry us up the mountainside so soon after rolling out of bed, with little more than a Spanish hostel “breakfast” – a cappuccino – for fuel. As we rounded the top, we found ourselves among the swirling walls of O’Cebreiro, above the clouds, starring out over mountain peak islands where waves of cloud lapped the shores.
Each morning on the Camino is unique. It’s weird to live a life where your feet never touch the same ground twice.
On the morning of the last day, we stood in a line feeling the sun rise at our backs, watching it color in the spires and hills of Santiago below us. Pilgrims often say “bittersweet” is the most present emotion as they come to the end of the Camino de Santiago, and with good reason. Standing on that hill, it was a struggle to begin the descent into the city. As exciting as it would be to step into the plaza and stare down the grand cathedral, I felt the imminence of what I would lose. For the first time in my two-week Camino, I thought about what it had all meant, began to analyze it and situate my future in a post-Camino consciousness…or something. And just by slipping into those thinking the phrase “post-Camino consciousness,” I knew the end was at hand. The thing that is lost isn’t easy to describe. It’s the loss of what happens to a human person who walks, eats, talks and sleeps repeatedly.
The Camino is translated as the Way in English. I’m not sure that I like this translation. The word camino comes from the Spanish verb meaning to walk. There is something in the verb to walk that is lost in “the Way”. The Camino, the Walking. I left for Spain with the intention of sorting out my life, making decisions about my future, etc, etc, etc. Like a good Davidson student, I went somewhere quiet to do what we’re taught to do best: think it out. But after a day or so, mostly I would be cursing the heat, berating my feet, doing almost everything other than searching for peace. As frequent backpackers know, walking 25 miles a day for days on end, you come to a more basic existence where blisters are more important that post-grad fellowship applications. (I don’t mean to say that we were “roughing it” like backpackers might…after all, there was still wine and grilled octopus at the end of most days—see what you can do about getting some wine and octopus on next semester’s DO trips.) My days had gone from meetings, commuting, cleaning, cooking, reading, writing, emailing, texting, researching, preparing, preparing, preparing to walking, talking, eating, and drinking. My belongings had been simplified to two outfits, a medkit, a toothbrush and paste, and a book, in one bag. I stopped longing for a laptop to watch 30 Rock or an extra blanket. That basic existence calls you into the present a bit more. Once you look up from your tattered toes, you notice how this morning was different than the last one. You find yourself free to explore that morning without comparison or expectation by simply walking around in it.