Sorry about the delay all! But between being totally overwhelmed with everything that is Madrid and then totally exhausted from the trip home, I’ve totally failed at writing my promised account of that final day. So here we go…
“Did you take your ibuprofen this morning?” Mom asked from behind me.
“Nope,” I answered, a little too lightly. Rain poured as my boots splashed through another muddy puddle. My subconscious kicked in and suddenly I heard the lyrics to the Scarecrow’s ‘If I Only Had a Brain,’ from the Wizard of Oz singing clearly in my head. I bobbed my head back and forth in a private imitation. Apparently, my subconscious has a sense of humor.
That’s how the morning of my last day on the Camino started.
For the record, I didn’t mean to not take the painkiller. I had learned a long time ago that the magical little pill three times a day makes the difference between a good walk and a painful one. But in the excitement of the morning I had forgotten, and my stomach is too sensitive to take that stuff without food. So breakfast being far and dry behind me, I didn’t really have another choice but to sing about my own stupidity. It was the last day after all.
For four weeks I had been blessed with clear skies and sunny days. Not a single drop fell until the end. It started with 4 days to go, drizzling a bit in the morning, turning mean and windy in the afternoon. 3 days to go had less wind but more rain. However we only walked half that day because we got such a late start that morning (you’ll remember from my previous posts that our clothes were still soaking wet when we awoke), 2 days to go and we were getting the hang of things. We were wet and cold but content. But it was the last day, that very last day that mother nature really showed us we she could do.
It was the worst storm in Galicia in 10 years. I kid you not. It was on the news that night. 100 km per hour gusts. Flooding everywhere. And we walked through it.
To be honest after the first few hours I kind of went into survival mode and blanked out. My clothes were completely soaked through. I might as well have been walking naked I was that wet. Even my shoes, waterproof for 790 kms, were making horrible squishing sounds with each step. The sound made me pretty sure I was walking with my feet engulfed in their own personal lakes, but I figured since they were numb anyway it didn’t much matter. We stopped once relatively early in the day to warm up at a cafe, but taking the wet clothes off, then having to put them back on again once I was finally warm and dry(ish), actually made me feel worse than just being soaked through. So after that I went on autopilot. Stopping allowed the clothes to sink and stick onto my wet skin, which felt awful, so best to keep going.
Hours later I knew we must be getting close, though I hadn’t seen much of anything other than my own boots for hours as my head was bent down against the wind and rain. I started feeling dizzy and light-headed. We hadn’t eaten lunch yet and I knew my body was running out of fuel. But I just couldn’t make myself stop in that freezing rain. Anyways, there hadn’t been an open cafe for miles. Once again, my guidebook’s dear author Mr. John Brierley had failed me. I cursed him for the millionth time.
We were walking on a road and coming to a sharp curve. I had the thought that we should move to the outside of the curve in case someone came speeding around it. Although we hadn’t seen many other pilgrims since we left the cafe, the Galicians were out in abundance in their cars, and they weren’t slowing down for the rain. Just as I started moving across the street, it happened. I was standing right at the center of the road, mom a few feet behind me, when a sedan appeared out of nowhere. My mind and body not connected at the time, I froze like a deer in headlights. Later mom told me that she had done the same thing. I think I may have also vocalized my fear with a yelp or a profanity, but I can’t remember. Luckily the car wasn’t going too fast, saw us, and was able to slow down while we got out of the way. I imagined him cursing us as he drove away, thinking about how stupid the peregrinos are to be walking in the middle of the road. Meanwhile I was cursing the stupid Galicians for not building trails on the side of their roads like every other junta in Spain is able to do.
I recovered from the incident disturbingly fast. In fact, other than the one moment I was sure I would be hit, I don’t recall being shaken at all by the near-miss. That was probably a testament to my delirium, and I think given the circumstances it was probably better that way. We kept walking until mom spotted a restaurant and promptly dragged me in. It was too nice for us in our dirty clothes, tracking puddles through the dining room. But it felt good to recharge. We were only 4 kms away by that point.
Again I went on autopilot. We walked along the road, next to the highway, through the suburbs and into the old town. And then suddenly we were there. And it was pouring rain. And we were alone. And I was cold.
I know this probably isn’t the triumphant end you all were expecting, but I’ve got to tell it like it was. Finally arriving at the cathedral in Santiago was supremely… disappointing.
I felt bad, because I knew my mom was joyous, and I didn’t want to take that away from her. But I was so exhausted I just couldn’t feel or appear to feel anything other than what I was feeling.
I don’t know what I expected that arrival to be. I guess I had hoped for a marching band and a parade and all of my friends to be there cheering me on. I guess I thought it’d be like a marathon and there’d be someone there handing me a silver blanket and a medal and some hot chocolate or something. But there was no one there. No one. The truth is I just felt cold. And wet. And all I wanted to do was feel warm and dry again.
We went inside the cathedral and I walked around a bit. It was beautiful (and free!), but I wasn’t feeling much better. A large German group arrived and started singing. I felt happy for them but sadder for myself. Why didn’t I feel like singing? I had read in my research of the Camino before I left that it was very common to feel disappointed upon arrival. So why then did it seem like I was the only one?
We went to the pilgrim’s office and got our compestela. Even that was disappointing. I only saw a glimpse of it before the guy rolled up the paper and stuffed it in a tube. Finally we arrived at the hotel and were able to take off those soaking clothes and shower and be warm. We actually ordered food in that night to avoid going back in the rain. Maybe it was laziness, maybe it was survival. All I know is that I just couldn’t be wet again.
The next morning we went back to the cathedral to attend the pilgrims mass. Just before the ceremony started I began to see friends I had walked with before mom had come. It was a surprise, as since mom had arrived I hadn’t seen any of my friends from before. With each familiar face the joy welled up within me. During the mass I started to think of each of them; each person I had met that had meant something to me – if only for a week or a day or an hour. I conjured their faces in my mind and I started to feel warmer and warmer. After the mass there were more reunions. More hugs and smiles and screams and warmth. And then someone said the sun was out. And I made a beeline for the exit and stood on the steps and there she was! Bright and warm and shining on me! At the bottom of the steps was another friend. In the square there were more. People were happy and smiling. It was better than the marching band I had hoped for. And that was the real end of my camino. That was the moment I was ready to let go of this journey. I feel warm just thinking about it.
Now looking back I can see clearly just how much I accomplished. It was probably the biggest physical challenge of my life, and that is an area I enjoy pushing myself in, so I feel very proud I was able to finish the trail, even if it was on my own special terms. It was also psychologically very challenging. In this day and age of instant gratification, it’s very difficult to commit to something that requires as much time as the Camino does. For me, walking for five weeks seemed like an impossibly long period of time. A walk with no end. But I found that once I got to the end, all I wanted to do was to keep walking. I guess the lesson there is that age old one – it’s not about the destination, but the journey. That’s an easy thing for us all to say and to say we understand. But I think it takes an adventure like this one to truly comprehend what that little saying means. I can honestly say that I get it now.
I gained strength and knowledge and confidence and many, many great friends. For me, the people were a big, if not the biggest part of it. Maybe it stems from my innate interest in people themselves, or maybe this is how the Camino is for everyone, but being a part of a group so diverse, and yet so wonderfully kind and open and loving, was… incredible. I really don’t have the words to describe it. There wasn’t a single person I met I didn’t learn something from. I think I will always now be seeking situations that put me in environments like that one.
Above all I feel thankful for every step. It wasn’t just about the people on the Camino. Being on my own and having that time to think really made me realize how incredible the people in my life at home are as well. As much as I hated it to end, I was just as excited to head back stateside and see those beautiful, wonderful people who love me again too.
I am one lucky, lucky girl.