An ending of sorts
We woke up to a thick fog that made everything so quiet, so still, so close. It wrapped itself around us, the visibility only showing us a hundred yards or so at a time. It was as if The Way was keeping us honest, making sure we walked every step before we could see the cathedral. No sneak peeks. Keep going.
We stopped for a quick breakfast of coffee and pastries before continuing to follow the shells and arrows through the city to the cathedral. The city seemed to still be asleep and the streets were eerily quiet.
We couldn’t see the city or the steeples, but we knew it was so close. Looming just out of sight, through the fog. I was expecting tears and a flood of emotions like the ones I would get when I crossed the finish line at a half marathon. I was well hydrated, ready for the tears.
The arrows led us to the cathedral from the back. I didn’t realize that’s what it was because we were so close, I couldn’t see the spires. Down the alley, there was a man playing the bagpipe. Its sound echoed off the cobblestone street and the stone buildings surrounding it.
We turned a corner, then down a few steps, and turned…
And there it was.
The thing we had been moving toward for the last 45 days.
We had arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
I was in awe, I was relieved, I was happy— but I wasn’t crying. No flood of emotions.
I thought maybe it was because it didn’t feel real yet. Or maybe it was because I was holding on and didn’t really want it to be over.
We attended Pilgrims Mass, then waited in line for our Compostelas and distance certificates. Even having those certificates didn’t bring about the magical feeling I thought I would have.
Was I broken?
We situated ourselves in the square so that we could watch other pilgrims arrive. I watched one young woman round the corner and as soon as she saw the cathedral, her face crumpled and she wept. She made her way to the front of the church and touched it as if to make sure it was really there.
I felt left out. I was almost envious of her emotions. Where were my tears?
Finally, I realized maybe I didn’t have the emotions and tears because this wasn’t the end of my and Andy’s Camino. We had decided a while ago that we wanted to keep walking to Finisterre and Muxía, so our Camino wasn’t over yet.
For many pilgrims, this was the end. They were trying to process the Camino ending (and also the Camino as a whole experience). Many of them are heading back to jobs, families, and relationships that they loved/missed/wanted time away from/needed to re-evaluate.
It’s complicated and messy, like most things in our lives.
I decided that I wasn’t going to force the emotions that I thought I should be having. Maintaining a facade of false emotions would be counterproductive to the whole spirit of the Camino, wouldn’t it?
As more pilgrims started to arrive and fill the square, we decided to grab our packs and Compostelas and head to our albergue. It was nice, tucked away down a quiet side street and across from a craft beer shop. We selected a few bottles before they closed for siesta, stashed them in the albergue refrigerator, and headed out to explore Santiago.
Nicole wanted to go buy some non-pilgrim clothes for the rest of her travels, so Andy and I found a bar and had some cocktails. We reunited, then continued to wander around Santiago before we eventually made our way back to the cathedral. We sat in the shade, watching the waves of pilgrims arrive.
We were hoping to see a familiar face in the crowd, though at that point, everyone had a sort of familiarity to them. The worn, weathered faces. The shuffling gait. The dusty, sun-bleached clothes. We knew them because we were them.
The crowds started to thin for the day, so we left the square and went out in search of dinner. We found a Chinese restaurant that most definitely didn’t have a pilgrim menu and treated ourselves.
We got back to the albergue late and enjoyed our craft beers. It was a late night but we were celebrating the freedom of not having to wake up and walk the next day.
We spent the next day doing our “pilgrim duties”— we visited the cathedral, we hugged the statue of Saint James, and visited the tomb of Saint James. The cathedral was under construction so we couldn’t see it in its full glory, but it was still beautiful.
As we were walking around the square, we started running into people we had met on the trail. We were surprised to see them again because most people we met walked faster than us. We figured anyone we had met would have finished days ahead of us.
Nicole left us to attend Sunday mass at a Franciscan church nearby while Andy and I milled around the square. When she rejoined us, we had found the Ohio group. We were so happy to see them again. While we were catching up, I saw another familiar face walking by.
I nudged Andy, “Hey! Isn’t that Lyndon from our second day? The Australian guy we walked with?” Andy confirmed it and we called out to him. He looked around and when he saw us, his face lit up. He seemed as surprised and happy to see us as we were to see him.
He had just returned from Muxía, a common “beyond the Camino” ending point for those who wish to have a little more time for contemplation. We hugged and caught up like we were old friends rather than acquaintances who walked together for a couple of hours 43 days ago.
We would later learn that Lyndon was in distress at being in Santiago alone, surrounded by so many pilgrims experiencing so many emotions. He told us that he had prayed “Dear God, please let there be someone I know there. I don’t want to be alone in a place of such celebration.”
And there we were.
We made plans to have dinner together to catch up on each other’s Caminos and the next part of the journey. Nicole wandered over to us and we introduced her to Lyndon. She didn’t say so but she seemed less excited about sharing our last meal together with a stranger. I hadn’t considered this before we made the plans, but I had a feeling everything was going to work out.
We met up at an Italian restaurant for our final “pilgrims dinner” together. We ordered the first bottle of wine and as the wine flowed, so did the conversation. Lyndon led the charge, asking Nicole about her backstory and Camino experience. I could see her defenses lowering as the conversation grew warmer and became more lively.
After the food came out and as the second bottle of wine flowed, we talked about what the Camino meant to us, revealed to us, and awakened in us.
We all had a different way of saying it but the theme was the same.
The Camino was about letting go of people, things, and ideas about life that no longer serve you, and being open to growth and healing.
After dinner, I laid in my bunk reflecting on the details of that conversation. I knew it was something that I would need time to digest, but it came right at the moment I needed it most. It came when I was feeling empty and trying to process this “ending”.
The next morning, this chapter of traveling with our Camino family, Nicole, would end. We would part ways, as she would continue her own travels before going back to the US. We would be continuing our travels, though we had only a tentative idea of what that looked like at that point.
We were thankful to have a few more days of walking to reflect on the Camino and try to figure out what was next.