19 May – Santiago. These closing notes have been quite a few days in the making. The Camino was a challenging thing to do, physically. Reflecting on the experience and trying to capture its value is important and equally difficult. The difficulty in writing about it is to not make this melodramatic, self-indulgent or extraneously philosophical. In some ways, after all, it was only just a hike through the Spanish countryside, ‘verdad?’ (Santiago Completo)
Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence and not a miracle or divine act of nature. Sometimes a long journey is just a means to get somewhere. But sometimes the innate attraction of an experience that’s drawn hundreds of thousands of people (millions?) for over a thousand years really has greater intrinsic meaning to it. Failing to understand that value, undercuts the value of the experience and may even negate it.
Taking off from where I left off on the last dated journal entry.
Yesterday’s push (18 May) was 21 kms, but fatiguing non-the-less. We departed much earlier in the morning to avoid the hordes and had the trails to ourselves; just like old times. This set us up well for an easy 16 km morning stroll into Santiago. Others pushed on for another 6-8 kms so they’d only have a 10 km skip into town, but we were content with 16, It would still be the shortest day of the previous 31.
Six months ago I never would of thought of a ten mile hike as a simple stroll? With the end in sight, reflections of the trip was on everybody’s minds and many of us were asking ourselves ‘was it worth it’ and were we changed people? Although there had been days filled with endorphin, adrenaline induced highs, thus far I’d had no real epiphanies, no sudden sparks of hidden wisdom, no ethereal spot-lights shining on me from above producing a radiant glow of ecstasy (although that sudden burst of sun as I crossed into Galicia seemed pretty close to it). I had great expectations, and was finding it all a little disappointing; but, I always had tomorrow.
On Friday morning we sat in our hotel bar indulging with a 0630 coffee before hitting the trail, I could see a stream of caminoites passing the window on their way to Santi. They clearly had the same idea as I, to get out early and beat the crowds to avoid the long lines for the compestella (the Pilgrim’s completion certificate).
My competitive stress levels began to rise. I wanted to leave at 0600 but acceded to my wife’s wish of a coffee delay (when the bar opened) as this was the last day, it wouldn’t hurt. Bad move on my part. I started the day’s hike off with a sense of urgency to get there as quickly and early as possible, while Ursula’s goal was to enjoy our last walk along the way.
We had two different ideas of how the day would play out and we did not discuss it ahead of time. Naturally, it created friction points and the stress and frustration levels began to climb. One of her concerns about joining me at the end of the hike was that I’d be in a different place physically and mentally than her after 30+ days on the trail.
The differences, manifested by competing agendas would inevitably lead to discord. Up to this point, we’d both been on our best behavior and deflected any friction pretty well. On our last day, the differences assumed extreme proportions and both of our fears came true. We each found the other to be an obstacle to our selfish, egocentric desires. The day did not go well.
The details of our differences are trivial but the result was that neither of us enjoyed our trip into Santiago, it may have been the worst day of the journey. However, in the end, the critical point is that we both overcame our foolishness and ended up walking into Santiago as a couple.
Without going into much of the ‘dramatic’ or overly indulgent details, at a certain point in the morning I had asked for ‘wisdom’ and received a pretty clear message that walking into Santiago with Ursula was much better than without. That’s kind of obvious but in the heat of the moment during self induced, personal crises, obvious choices aren’t always so obvious.
We queued up in the Pilgrim Office with seventy or so other Caminoites to await our turn for the compestella. As we were still fairly early the line was only about 30 minutes long and the wait was fairly jovial as we stood with many that we’d travelled with in the past.
Collectively we regaled in our mutual completion. With Compestella in hand, we were off to our hotel room to relieve ourselves of that life sucking tick attached to our backs.
Up to this point it had been a very anticlimactic conclusion to a long journey. There are no bands playing at our arrival (although there was a dude with a bagpipe in one of the alleyways), no ticker tape parades, no public exclamations of pride or fireworks. We didn’t really expect any of that, but we did wish it was more than just another day in Santiago as the Caminoian Zombie Horde invaded the city, just like every other day for the past thousand years. And again, there were no epiphany, no heavenly spotlights filled with harp like tunes; just a warm shower and clean underwear.
So, that was the antiseptic, undramatic conclusion to our journey. The more thoughtful and ‘meaningful’ conclusions of the trip follow.
An evening with Friends
The real joy of completion came later in the evening as we gathered with a few of the friends that had traveled together, we spoke of ‘was it worth it’, what did we get out of it, etc. With the beer and wine flowing and the elation of completion, the answers started sprouting.
The only reason I wrote of our petty fighting during the last day, as common and blasé as are similar scenes within most relationships, is because it highlights one of the revelations of the journey. When your prepared to receive it, the message you need will come through. Weather that be as basic as your body telling you to slow down, or that your ready for a quicker pace. Or, whether that be in a moment of self induced crises and in need of an answer or guidance; if your open to receive it, it’ll be there. You just have to be prepared to understand it.
For my Camino I think the best word to use to describe it would be serendipitous (a fortunate happenstance or pleasant surprise). Little events happened all the time that in normal days, filled with responsibility and stress and all sorts of other distractions, one would not notice; I certainly would not have.
But on my Camino, they were plentiful and evident as never before. I’d constantly run into the same people, time and time again in various villages and trails and cities. Yes, a common destination can explain the coincidence, but it is a big country and the cities are filled with lots of people, it doesn’t explain the frequency with a selected few very well. When I had a need, or a question, or strong desire, the resolution would present itself at my fingertips either through this small group of people or other serendipitous circumstances.
You constantly hear on the Camino the phrase that ‘The Camino provides.’ It does. Not overtly and not if you sit back on you heals waiting for service. But, in your time of need, the solution is there. It’s often as if the problem only presented itself so the solution could be used. I don’t think this is unique to the Camino, I think this is common in life. But, our normal lives are filled with so many filtering distractions that we just can’t perceive what’s happening and available around us all the time.
Although there were no epiphanies for me on the trail, I did learn, or relearn a few of the basics. In this instance I learned to slow down long enough and read and understand what is right in front of me. Coincidences aren’t miracles, because coincidences often happen for a purpose, all the time. Read them and understand the purpose.
I started my Camino alone, and completed it with Ursula, in essence I had two Caminos. For the first part it was a solitary journey where I broke from my solo walks only on a few wonderful occasions. The second part we walked together, and only separately for a few short periods. With Ursula I shared and I enjoyed seeing a whole new Camino through the eyes and experiences of another. For me, it was important to complete the one, before I could truly appreciate the other.
Two in one
Through both experiences I learned that the walk through the countryside was pretty cool. But what made it truly memorable were both the thoughts resulting from contemplation in splendid isolation and the experiences with other people. As an anti-social guy, this is hard to admit that my normal tendencies limited one of the true values of the journey; that is building relationships.
Experiencing the journey alone produces many remarkable opportunities, sharing it with others, brings along more. Doing both, walking alone and walking with others is the way to get the most out of the camino. Alone, you get the unfiltered insights of your own heart and mind; walking together, you get the benefit of others’. Alone, your imagination can take you places to the extreme edges of your mind; together, both imaginations can take you further. Alone, one can develop a deeper understanding of self; together, develop a deeper understanding of us all.
Spending the evening in the company of others over dinner and drinks, chatting about the days sights and events is one of the highlights of the day. Because the camino is populated with adventurous people who have the desire to explore and feast on the marrow of life, they form a fascinating group of people. Each has an intriguing story to tell, if your willing to listen.
Different people come into and out of the journey when you needed each other. For the moment, they’re the right person to fulfill whatever needs you’re both confronted with. The connection is genuine and pure as there is no need for pretense. As I noted previously, people on the Camino will tell you the most intimate details of their lives and dreams that they wouldn’t reveal to their closet friends at home. They realize that you too are transcendental and will soon pass on as an experience or memory. Speaking truth to you allows them to hear their thoughts out loud without fear of recrimination or shattering the image they’ve worked so hard to cultivate at home.
But it’s also sad that once the circumstances pass, and we later reconnect, sometimes the same attraction and magnetism may be absent. If your lucky both of you may recognize the moment for what is was, temporary. If not so lucky, one of you may try to rekindle the magic of that moment, and not understand why it’s not working, making the new experience awkward and tarnishing the magic of the past’s. At the end of our journeys, many of us make heartfelt promises to stay in touch and see each other in the future.
Few will probably be kept, sadly. But, having had those friendships during the camino, though few may last beyond, is what made the camino the quintessential, special experience. I hope to see many of my Camino friends in the future because, quite frankly, they’re cool people. At least they were while on the Camino. I’d be saddened to discover that with the filters of daily life at home, they are not who they were on the camino. But, I’d hope that because of the camino, they are now closer to who they were then who they were at home before they left. I hope the same applies to me.
Microcosm of Life
I was going to write about how the Camino is not really a unique experience, but it serves as a micro-experience of life itself. But, at this point I think the journal would verge into being overly dramatic and philosophically self indulgentIt. I think there’s a good deal of truth to the idea, but I don’t seem to be able to capture it in words that make it worth reading. So, I’ll leave it there.
Was it Worth it?
So, at the end of the day, was the experience worth it – absolutely, and I would commend it to anybody.
As I noted, the trip ended anticlimactically, there were no epiphanies on life and I don’t know that I’m more than a marginally different person than before I started. I’m still an impatient ass who doesn’t relax well and is consumed with ‘target fixation’, when I have one. While I have no intuition that I’m now burden free of any sins I may have committed previously, I also had no expectation of relief – besides, I suspect my sins are so boring and unimaginative that the all-mighty has better things to consider.
Although I have developed a new found respect for the awe and power of the Catholic Church (even though I’m not Catholic). But that respect has to do with it’s historical temporal, earthly powers. It’s hard not to travel along the Camino and not be impressed. In spite of all that, and because I think that when we die we are all the sum of all our experiences, the Camino experience is one that I’m profoundly grateful for having in my kit-bag when that time comes.
Thanks to all of you who waded through all my typos, misspelling and poor use of grammar on this Journal. I experimented with writing this through an iPhone and small portable keyboard. The experiment worked in that physically, one is able to put words on paper (a server, actually). Where it doesn’t work is doing it well with style and interest. The challenges lie in writing after a long day of walking and viewing what you write through a small phone screen while sitting in some darkened bar or out in a cafe table. It always looks great when you press the ‘post’ button, it rarely looks good when you get the chance later to review it. But, it’s been a fun experiment, one I’ll try to replicate in the future with other trips.
Tomorrow I’m leaving Spain and headed for our little mountain top place in Austria to spend a week with Ursula before she goes on tour.
Eventually when I get back to my full sized Mac in Alaska, I plan to actually edit the journal for grammar and style and make it more readable. In addition to adding more photos (hostel Wifis are somewhat limiting). I’ll also add a post trip section with statistics, equipment and training review, etc. If you’re interested in rereading, or have friends who may be interested in the Camino, check back later in the summer. We plan to return to AK in early July and I plan to finally close this out shortly after.
Buen Camino to you all. (Santiago Completo)
Interesting Links ( Santiago Completo)
- Photos along the Camino and throughout the Iberian Peninsula
- Return to the beginning of this Journal Blog
- Enjoy our Journal Blog about our travels throughout Italy