It is impossible to undertake the task of following painted yellow arrows across the northern coast of Spain without the experience feeling slightly absurd.
During my six weeks and six hundred miles walking El Camino de Santiago (or The Way of St. James), the absurd came in the form of medieval Basque pilgrim songs at 6 am, a menagerie of competing snorers in the dark, a naked man strolling on a beach, flies on leashes, and countless characters I met on the way.
There was the Canadian man that was on his third (consecutive) trek, played music through speakers attached to his backpack, and always carried two plastic bags filled with snacks “to keep him fit.”
There was the Dutch woman who had walked from Jerusalem and was always seen silently but cheerily trekking along in her sleeveless plaid shirt and khaki shorts.
There was the American bro who I judged too harshly for his New Jersey calf tattoo and backwards baseball cap. When I befriended him later, I learned that he was on the Camino to spread his mother’s ashes across the coast, and works at an outdoor education program for troubled youths, giving them a role model of someone that was in their position and made their way out.
And then there was the group I became most close to: two Hungarian artist brothers, a bespectacled American hipster couple, two perpetually (and separately) lost Italians, an adorably nerdy lesbian Spanish-American couple, and me, a wayward American.
The journey had begun for me almost a year before, when I moved to Madrid to teach English and resolved not to leave the country until I had completed the enigmatic Camino. The sentiment had only grown with each day in the country of flamenco and sangria, as I met Spaniards who exclaimed, “Ah, el camino! You must do it. It will change your life.”
So, at the end of June, I packed my bag with thirteen pounds of supplies for the six week journey, stubbornly ignoring all counsel to leave my heavy DSLR camera behind, foregoing extra shirts for its inclusion. I was a newbie hiker, and I was about to undertake the biggest hike of all. My hiking boots, sleeping bag, micro towel, windbreaker and rain cover had never seen a trail. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been on even a one hour hike.
“Are we crazy?” I laughed to my friend Lara as we sat in the backseat of the rideshare that we were taking from Madrid to Irun, a town in the north of Spain on the border with France. Basque Country, where my great-grandfather was from, is a slightly mystical place, with a language, culture, and people unlike any other.
It felt appropriate, considering the unchartered territory I was throwing myself into.
“Maybe.” Lara was my American friend from Madrid. She had taught outdoor education classes, lived in the wilderness for weeks, and knew a song about the appropriate way to bury one’s feces in the forest. I was suddenly aware of the itchiness of my new hiking boots.
That evening in the albergue – a hostel for card-carrying pilgrims only – we joined the ranks of thousands before us as pilgrims on El Camino de Santiago, a religious pilgrimage across Spain that had in recent decades found popularity with travelers seeking adventure and removal from the fast-paced world. That night, we received our pilgrim’s passport, which we were to stamp at each place we spent the night to make sure we weren’t cheating. To receive recognition for completion of the Camino, pilgrims SHALL NOT take any form of transportation. Do not pass go. Do not collect $100. This means you.
The afternoon passport stamping soon became part of my daily ritual. Though the activities rarely differed, the hours contained a healing and transformative power, and small events became moments of pure joy, like finding the perfect blackberries along the trail, or turning a corner to find an empty beach nestled below, calling to cleanse our tired feet.
The days started with the 6 am morning rustling, as the early risers stuffed their packs and headed on their way before first light, leaving disgruntled and half-asleep bunks of pilgrims in their wake. Once I got up, cursing, with a crowd of particularly early (4:30 am) rustlers. I staggered irritated through the dark, lit by companions’ headlamps, complaining my way through the misty mountains. Half an hour later, I would eat my words when the reason for the hostel’s morning mass exodus became clear: a spectacular sunrise over the Picos de Europa mountain range.
11 am usually called for second breakfast and a much needed break after four hours of walking. Friends rejoined and cafes con leche and tortillas (not the Mexican kind – the Spanish kind, a potato and egg gooey wonder) were ordered. Shoes and socks were ripped off and feet were briefly massaged before the afternoon walk began. Trail conversation turned this way and that, one moment intellectual, concerned with life’s big questions, the next devolving into exhausted hysterical laughter at the sight of a crow. Cheers would be exclaimed as we reached the day’s destination, and whether it was a monastery or a shipping container, as long as it had bunks available, we were happy. Passports were stamped, laundry was washed, and dinner was cooked, using provisions from the local grocery store, a title which was often given entirely too freely. The ‘store’ was a usually small section in the back of the local bar, and only ever featured gourmet items such as potatoes and onions. A (then) non-cook, I was delegated to the ‘special’ tasks of chopping onions and washing dishes.
When exhaustion hit like a brick, no one cared that there was a 10 pm curfew. We were all snuggled in our sleeping bags, reading ourselves to sleep, and awaiting the next day’s ridiculous adventures – whether they would arrive in the form of free roaming mountain-top cows or fresh plums from a drunken elderly man in a forest.
It had been a long, last day to the end of the world.
But I was finally here, at the end of the road, in Fisterra on the northern Spanish coast. The town was a three days walk past Santiago de Compostela, the traditional finish line. But I knew each step, each mile was worth it as I sat watching sun’s red orb slowly descend below the horizon. The Atlantic Ocean spread out vast and endless below me as I perched on the cliffs near the lighthouse at mile marker zero.
We ritually burned our old socks and t-shirts on a fire that had smoldered for countless pilgrims before us. The fire crackled, nestled in an ancient rock pile that would continue to consume others’ old garments after we were gone. I lay on the cool rocks and drank in the deep blue blanket of sky and fresh sea air, letting the finality of the journey’s end wash over me like the waves on the rocks below.
What else could I do after finishing the adventure of a lifetime? The next morning, it was a surprisingly easy decision. I got up, shouldered my pack, and kept on walking.