To remain unchanged is unthinkable
Our 40th day on the Camino! We woke up and hit the trail, trying to mentally prepare ourselves for the swarms of pilgrims we knew we would be meeting in Sarria. This is the typical starting point for the minimum requirement of 100 kilometers for a Compostela. During this section, pilgrims must collect sellos at every place they stop to verify that they walked the total distance.
We had been collecting sellos for the last 400 miles. We knew that we had walked every step of the way and we entered the town with the superiority of seniors looking down on freshmen.
I’m not saying it was right or fair and it definitely wasn’t in the spirit of the Camino, but we did. Their fresh eager faces and non-blistered feet, their tiny, Polly-Pocket-sized backpacks. They had no idea what we had been through.
There was an immediate “Us vs. Them” vibe and it was corrosive.
Along the way to Portomarín, our stop for the night, there were several points where we had to pause for livestock crossings. Then we reached the 100km marker. Only one hundred kilometers of the Camino left. The sign was covered in graffiti but was a joy to see after having come so far.
To get to Portomarín, we had to cross a very high, very long, high traffic bridge, then we had to climb very tall, very steep stairs.
All of this piled on top of the sour mood I had been in all day. I was feeling foul and this was definitely not how I wanted the end of my Camino to go. We checked into our albergue, then we went out for an early dinner. After dinner, Andy and Nicole went to see the church and grab some trail snacks at the grocery store while I took some downtime in my bunk.
I stayed behind to do some soul searching, trying to find my way out of the funk I was in all day.
Finally, the way out was clear:
I didn’t walk 400+ miles over mountains, plains, and rivers to remain a bitter, self-righteous asshole. I could have stayed that person from the comfort of my home, on the other side of the world, without walking a single mile.
I hadn’t walked all this way to remain the same person I was before (and certainly not to be worse off).
Transformation can happen over any distance. The swarms of shorter-distance pilgrims were no less worthy of the Camino than I was.
We walked past some Camino graffiti that perfectly summed up the day: “Change is scary. Standing still is crippling.” This Camino had been full of changes: the landscape, our bodies, our minds, our spirits. And while it had been scary and challenging at times, the thought of remaining the same was unbearable.
The Way provides solitude
Leaving Portomarín, we got one of our earliest morning starts in hopes of beating the crowd. It worked for a while but eventually, they caught and overwhelmed us.
I tried to keep the negative vibes away and focus on the wins of the day:
- It was going to be a short day of walking, and
- We had reservations for a (more or less) private room in a small town.
We stopped for a short break at this quaint pilgrim rest stop that was run completely by volunteers. Many were pilgrims who had just finished their own Camino and wanted to keep their fellow pilgrims encouraged. They didn’t care what distance you were walking, they were cheering everyone on.
It was so sweet and energizing and reminded me of the few half marathons Andy and I had run together. Sometimes the energy from the spectators was the only thing carrying you forward.
When we got to Eirexe, we checked into our room (only the 3 of us!) and then went across the street to the one restaurant in town. We sat and sipped vermouth, a common afternoon cocktail in Spain, and gladly watched the waves of pilgrims pass by.
We had gotten into town early enough that we had lunch, took naps, woke up for dinner and journaling, and went back to sleep.
The Way had provided solitude, space, and stillness and we were incredibly grateful for it.
We got an early morning start leaving Eirexe, hitting the trail before 7 a.m. We were motivated to get moving earlier so that we could stay ahead of the waves of pilgrims for as long as possible. We played our usual morning playlist, then all three of us settled into silence, savoring the stillness of the morning.
For breakfast, we stopped at a quaint little cafe where we had apple empanadas and cafe con leche. We were the only ones there that early and the speaker system started playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
There are a handful of songs that I have heard while away from home that take on a new life in my memories. Songs that are old or didn’t hold as much meaning for me before that moment change. Like the ocean turning broken bottles into treasured sea glass. Then every time I hear those songs afterward, I am transported to another time and place.
One such song is “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I heard it countless times growing up. Then I heard it when I was in a taxi van, traveling by myself between villages in southern Mexico in 2012. The song happened to come on during an afternoon rain shower as the van was winding its way through the jungle.
It was beautiful and I laughed as I realized I was the only person in the van who could appreciate the timing of the moment. That’s still where this song takes me.
I have loved all the versions I have ever heard of “Hallelujah”. But it is Mr. Cohen’s original which will always take me back to that quiet little cafe in the northwest of Spain, contemplating the journey I had been on and where it would take me next.