The Camino life is a stripped down one. One full of surprises and unadulterated joy. Those nine days walking from Castilla y León and through Galicia were defined by my thoughts, the beauty around me and simple moments. As I’ve mentioned before, when all you have to do all day is get up and walk, the smallest of pleasures and moments become significant.
Waking up around 6:30-7 to the sound of other pilgrims rustling coincided with many sunrises. Some I saw from out the room window, others from a table while chugging a café con leche before departing.
Foraging for snacks
Much of the trail happened to be lined by cherry trees and wild strawberries. Luckily for me, I was walking with 5 college guys who were eager to forage through the bushes and climb into trees.
There’s really nothing better than waiting patiently as fresh, wild cherries are picked and delivered straight into your hands!
Stumbling through a wine festival
During my first day of walking, we passed through a small town with rumors of a wine festival happening later that night. While we were all tempted to just stop there for the day to enjoy the festival, the smarter alternative seemed to be to keep walking but return later on in taxi.
Some people in the group cringed as we all piled in the taxi van later that night. “This isn’t true to the Camino! We shouldn’t be doing this!” they yelled.
It really is amazing how fast you can get places in a car once you’ve experienced what it’s like to walk it.
We made it to the wine festival, purchased a glass and a few drink tickets and learned one crucial tip: drink tickets were almost completely unnecessary. The people pouring the wine rarely remembered to request them. We returned the drink tickets, got our money back and received glass after glass of wine for free.
If I remember correctly, I tried about 10+ different wines and left only paying €4.50!
The hangover wasn’t even bad the next day either. Utopia on the Camino example 100+.
The lunatic’s race to the finish
The last night before reaching Santiago happened to be a boozy one. For many people. Santiago de Compostela was the end of the line. From there, buses, trains and planes awaited to take people back to “the real world”.
Unfortunately, before the drinking ensued, our group of eight had decided that the only way we wanted to spend the last day of walking was by ourselves. We didn’t want a crowded trail, or large groups of rowdy high school Spanish kids to taint the end of the journey (as they had almost done leading up to the end).
You see, the trail tends to get extremely crowded the closer you get to Santiago since many people only choose to do the last 4-5 days. To avoid this, we decided we would be the first to get up in the morning and the first to arrive, regardless of all that whiskey the night before.
At 2:30am the alarm went off and two members of the group jumped up, taking the lead to make sure everyone got out of bed.
One lite up a cigarette and casually watched us pack our bags, “Come on, times a wastin” he pointed out.
By around 3am we were already on the trail. It was pitch black as we started walking through the wooded dirt path. All we could see were the tall trees surrounding us and a narrow strip of stars above. In the distance the discos of the neighboring villages blared their music. The pumping of the beat echoed through the woods as we walked almost blindly down the path.
Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was the horse-sized pill of pain medicine I took to make my feet bearable, but walking that trail felt surreal. The moon and the milky way were the only lights I saw, and each step was taken in part delirium and part pure joy.
A couple hours in, my legs became jello and my feet felt broken and (were actually) torn apart, but I never stopped. I knew stopping, even for a few minutes, would be my downfall. We powered through deliriously, only passing one or two other pilgrims the whole way. We reached the church in Santiago de Compostela at 7am, without taking one break. When we arrived, I collapsed, so happy that we had made it. We sat in the empty plaza, gazing at the cathedral. Only a few hours later there would be hoards and hoards of tourists, busily taking photos and buying souvenirs.
As we laid on the stone ground I turned to a friend. We joked about what we had just put ourselves through.
“Oh yeah, I have a good idea, let’s make our last day walking the Camino de Santiago as hard as humanly possible.”
After checking into a small guesthouse and taking a long nap, it was time for Pilgrim’s mass in the main cathedral. Although people from all walks of life and belief do the Camino, the main reason it exists is to reach the cathedral to see where the remains of St. James are buried. Everyday there is mass and the pilgrims who have completed their pilgrimage that same morning get acknowledged.
“One from the United States, starting point: Ponferrada,” was my small shout out. Although the names weren’t read, I knew that was mine. I was lucky enough to be the only one who had started in that small village 9 days prior.
What surprised me most about mass was how emotional it made me feel. Maybe it was the culmination of the journey I had just been on, or how I really appreciated sharing the experience with my fellow pilgrims (strong believers and not), but as the chorus sang and the incense swung high into the ceiling I couldn’t help but well up.
The Camino makes a believer out of everyone. Maybe not always a believer in God, but always a believer of trusting in life’s path itself.