Journey to the End of the World

article image
Image by Flickr user: Jim Anzalone / Creative Commons

I was living in Germany, and a friend suggested that I go to Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, at the finis terrae–the end of the earth–the most visited city in the West during the High Middle Ages. My friend explained that it was a pilgrimage site, that many believed that Saint James the Apostle’s body was interred there, that pilgrims established roads that can still be traced today. Why did these thousands travel from as far away as Galway on the west coast of Ireland to the extreme end of the known world? I concluded that there was but one way to find out: to walk to Compostela myself.


Shoes, a Staff, a Start
May 4, St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

None of my friends tried to dissuade me. On the contrary. One loaned me a thick sleeping bag; another, a large backpack; another, an ingenious Swiss army knife. The friend who had originally suggested this journey loaned me an old but sturdy-looking pair of Italian mountain shoes: “Here, put these on–they’ll take you all the way to Compostela.” Amazingly, they fit. Today, however, I’m worried. Maybe I just imagined that they fit me . . .

I have a rough map indicating the camino, with the names of villages through which I will pass. For each larger town, there is a simplified street map. There are two routes from St. Jean to Roncesvalles. I want to find the marked trail; the other runs alongside a road. Soon I realize I am going along the road, not the trail. But how long will it take to go back and find the other way? There are no towns on the trail, no place to stop for the night.

Yesterday, back in Germany, my left knee pained me. Off and on, it hurt during the seven days that I had practiced for the journey. Early each morning, I had shouldered the pack, filled with books, and walked for two hours. After one week, I could wait no longer. I filled the pack, put on the mountain shoes, and jumped on the train.

But now I begin to feel apprehension. What if those irregular pains turn out to be something serious? What if I need some kind of medical care? What if I become a burden to my children through this vain traipsing through an unknown foreign country?

I had made the decision, before starting out, that I would walk alone. I felt that only in this way would I be able to explore the secrets of the camino, which, I believed, might be possible if I could accompany those who went before. Carefree, with no thought of danger, I walk through the town of Valcarlos. I am in Spain! Three pilgrims greet me; a young man who carries a good stout staff encourages me to find one, too. The pilgrim staff is a regular feature in the iconography of Santiago Perigrino, as St. James is often represented; there is even a blessing for it. In 1928, a young Madrid pilgrim writes in his relato–his report–the street in the city where he bought his staff made of ash. He rejoices in the music of its regular tapping the earth as he walks, and he believes it to be indispensable. Later I find a newly fallen tree and cut a staff with my new pocketknife.

I stop once to eat bread, cheese, and fruit. I carry water in a plastic bottle, one of three items I had to buy for the journey. Friends told me I should also get a plastic mat to put on the ground under the sleeping bag, and a poncho. Soon I have to pull the latter out of my pack and put it on, for it begins to rain.

After a few hours of climbing the mountain–the ascent is never terribly steep–I start to feel tired, and the pain begins, first in my feet, then in my legs, reaching my back and shoulders until my entire 65-year-old body aches. Curiously, I am able to distinguish two distinct feelings–pain and exhaustion. I can think of nothing to do to relieve the pain. If I could sit down, get the weight of the pack off my body, and rest, I think I would be able to handle the exhaustion. But I cannot sit on the wet ground, and I could not simply stand up again with the pack–it is too heavy. So I watch for large rocks on which I can sit and rest the bottom of the pack.

Coming around a bend, I see what looks like a cave. It is a few meters up a steep hill next to the road. I try climbing up, and fall down. I take off the pack and try again. Even without the pack, I cannot get up the incline.

I have no choice. I must go on.


Rules of the RoadMay 5, Roncesvalles to Zubiri

I begin to feel something new. I am not passing through space, as one does in a car or airplane. This is a radically different sensation. Here, with each step, I am always in place, in some place, going to the next place, an inch or a foot farther on.

I’m not at all clear about where I am, nor about where I’m going. I have heard that one should follow the yellow arrows–painted on trees, fence posts, an old wall. The people who maintain what is called the camino francés, mapped out by Aymeric Picaud in 12th century, have painted these arrows to guide people like me. As I was totally dependent yesterday on the spirit of the ancient pilgrims to carry me along, today I depend on the modern ones who have marked the path.

Every camino guidebook gives a list of suggestions: what to take, what to be careful about, and so on. The best I’ve seen are in an 18th-century account by the Neapolitan pilgrim Nicola Albani: First, don’t undertake such a long journey without un bucompañero, true in heart and soul, who shares your outlook. If one cannot be found, set out alone, for “better alone than badly accompanied.” Second, never set out in time of plague or war. Once, at Genoa, Albani had to disguise himself and accompany those bringing produce into the walled city, which was besieged by both plague and war. Another time, in the forest, he was awakened by approaching soldiers. He hid in thick underbrush while they robbed and killed a person they met.

Third, don’t go unless you enjoy good health and a strong constitution. And be accustomed to accepting what fortune brings, good or bad, because if you aren’t, “you’ll surely die on the way.” Fourth, you need strong legs, and do not be overly meticulous about what you eat. Fifth, never walk at night, nor with someone whose character you doubt.

Where you find shelter, never be the life of the party or take out coins in front of others; never mention the route you will take the next day.

Albani sewed his money inside his trousers and put them under the mattress on which he slept. One morning he awoke to find his pants, together with one “pilgrim,” were missing. Sixth, those especially who wear pilgrim dress and hope to receive blessings in holy shrines must walk with the fear of God. Further, be enterprising, astute, clever like a serpent, and intellectually alert so no one can deceive you; adapt to the customs of the place, and never speak badly of another nation. Also, you cannot be shy about asking for alms–you’ll die of hunger. Lastly, you must have a strong stomach for the sufferings you’ll undergo in God’s service.


The Holy RoutineMay 10, Estella to Los Arcos

It has been an ordinary astonishing day. My usual pattern: About 6 a.m. I shave sometimes, dress, eat breakfast, arrange the pack, and get out on the camino. Sometimes I eat fruit while I walk, but I make no stop during the day except for water. Each village has a fuente, a public fountain or spigot where one can drink excellent spring water.

I pick a destination with a refugio that I can reach in one day, about 15 miles away. When I arrive there, washing socks and other clothes is the first thing to do, so they have the longest possible time to dry before I leave. Then I usually take a shower and look for food. Searching for food in the markets fits the spirit of the camino. If the shelter has no kitchen, I eat the food cold. In a large town, I look for a bar where I can get the sensual treat for the day, a café con leche. After I write my notes, it’s time for bed.

Wittgenstein writes that “nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity!” Meaning is not an occult state inside my consciousness. Rather, it is the physical and social interaction between my historical self and the world around me. The beads of the Rosary suddenly have meaning for me because I really say them in community; that is, I breathe and speak every word along with the pilgrims who preceded me, along with those who share a faith with me. I walk directly into their world.


Buzzards and Kind SoulsMay 17, Burgos to Granja de Sambol

I see five or six large birds, slowly circling high in the sky. Buzzards! Are they waiting for me? I laugh. “You’re too early in the day.” I still feel fresh, in great shape after a good night’s sleep. Unless they know something I don’t.

This view of the world from the ground up is unique. The attention of my body to the space in which it moves leads me to believe that this way of being in the world has an elementary quality; it is somehow basic to any experience.

I find it hard to believe that somewhere out there I will reach my destination. I can see so far–and there is no village in front of me yet–that I will surely never traverse that space. Each day, however, I have reached my destination. I live in a kind of faith that the destination will be within my physical limits. Perhaps this experience of limits is very good, especially these days, when so many seem not to regard the reality of limits as important.

The experience of not knowing what kind of space I will be going through each day is something I have never known. I would have thought that this would induce fear or anxiety. Instead, I’m eager to stride out each morning. What is happening to me?

A few minutes after I lose sight of the village, the rain starts. Today, it’s a real deluge with a fierce wind. It was right along here, in the 17th century, that the pilgrim Domenico Laffi came upon a swarm of locusts. They completely darkened the sky and were a considerable annoyance.

I meet no one along the road and, after what seems a long time, see a small sign: “Refugio–100 m.,” with an arrow pointing left. Eventually I find a stone structure, with a metal door on the side. As I move closer, the door swings open and four raucous Spanish pilgrims welcome me in out of the rain. They have just finished eating lunch and offer me leftovers: paté, sardines, cheese, two oranges. They urge me to accompany them. A very bad storm is moving in. Staying out here alone is, in their opinion, imprudent; I’m wet, it will probably get colder, I may come down with pneumonia. How could I reach help? How can I get dry and warm right now? I see the buzzards before my eyes, patiently waiting. But this place has impressed me with a certain charm. I thank them for their solicitude and tell them I’m resolved to stay here for the night. Meanwhile, two of them have found some dry straw and wood. They start a fire for me. After this act of kindness, they shoulder their packs, wish me luck, and set out into the rain.


A Visitation of Cows
May 26, Astorga to Foncebadón

It became clear that this road was used by no one except forest service people, and not in a long time. If I broke a leg here, I would certainly not be found. Several times I came to a Y in the road. This I dreaded, for I had to make a decision with no information. The forest showed no signs of ending in any direction. This is the first time I’ve been really lost–another common experience of which I have been deprived . . . and that perhaps can benefit me. Thoreau wrote: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” On the very first day, I learned who is out here with me, who wants me to make this camino. The more I am lost, the closer I may be to them. But am I in some danger? If there is cause for fear, the journey becomes more exciting, more heart-stirring. An 18th-century document notes that the land here is so rough, the rain, snow, and sleet so continual, that the pass is closed from September to the end of May . . . which means now! People who lived here would watch for pilgrims, then house and guide them. But I have seen no sign of any human presence.

Just about the time I feel that I can go no farther, I see the highway! I soon find the road, leading up to Foncebadón. I turn off, suddenly feeling fresh. In a short time, I come to a stone house; it’s abandoned. The street now becomes mostly mud, flowing rainwater runoff, and rocks. Every place I come to is utterly uninhabitable. This is not the town where I expected to buy food and find a room in some simple hostel! It is a very small deserted village.

I have no idea how far it is to the next village. It’s too late to go back down the highway. I turn around. I start back through the village and come upon the church. I notice an attached room; it has walls on three sides and about 10 feet of roof. The back of the room is out of a draft and gets no rain. Perfect.

I put my poncho on the staff to dry, throw down the plastic mat, roll out the sleeping bag, take off my wet clothes and lay them on the straw, and ease myself into the sleeping bag. I feel no great hunger. I have three small peaches and a piece of cheese that I’ll save for the morning. The wind howls through openings in the church, the rain beats on the roof, but I’m soon dry and warm.

My body starts to feel calm, slack; I think now I will sleep. I had never before thought of the camino as such a dangerous place; maybe I share more than I realized with medieval pilgrims.

During the night, I am awakened by a cowbell. A cow walks across my open wall and into the church. Another follows, and then a bull. They seem to walk around inside for some minutes, and then one comes out, glances in my direction, and continues on. I breathe easily and brace myself for the next. The bull comes out. One to go! In a few minutes, the other cow slowly puts her head out. She turns in my direction, and she looks-at me? at the straw? I sit up, wave my arms, yell at her. She stands there. She takes a step.

What can she possibly find attractive in this corner? I’m giving her every sign to make her feel unwelcome. But she’s so slow–and I need my sleep.

After what seems a very long time, she ambles out into the storm, out into these glorious mountains, out into the village of Foncebadón.


The ArrivalJune 4, Monte del Gozo to Compostela

Finally I wend my way to the cathedral, and find myself alone in the immense Plaza del Obradoiro, looking up at the towers of the church. Everyone still sleeps . . . no one disturbs the cool morning air except a few pigeons. This, too, must be a singular experience. I have never heard of a pilgrim who arrived here and found no one except pigeons. Writers describe the crowds, the babble of many tongues, the colorful costumes, the music, the merchants. Already in the 12th century, they offered shells (the traditional symbol of a Santiago de Compostela pilgrim), wine, shoes, leather bags (like modern backpacks), herbs, food. But now, not even a scrap of paper blows across this plaza. Gluttonously, I try to breathe in 20 centuries of prayer and hope, try to hear the sighs of a million pilgrims, try to envision the dreams of so many who started out but died before reaching this sacred spot.

Perplexed by the solitude, too stunned to fall on my knees or kiss the ground, awed by the enormousness of the towers before me, I turn and see a magnificent architectural facade, the 25 arches across the front of the Palacio de Rajoy. As in a dream, I walk across the enormous expanse, hearing no sound except the regular tap . . . tap . . . tap of my staff.

How should I imagine the people who arrived before me? English, who sailed to La Coruña, and walked from there; Poles, whose pilgrimage was a ritual preparation for knighthood; royalty, like Louis VII of France; saints, like Brigid of Sweden; and thousands known only to God. Do I walk in their footsteps? Do I know anything of their spirit? Am I truly one of them?

The city begins to awaken. The sky is clear . . . it will be a glorious day! But I’m troubled. I feel a tinge of fear. A weighty sadness descends and muffles my spirit. A bleak discouragement blocks any hope of relief. I cannot move.

Slowly, I make my way through the darkness. This is a new day, radically different from the others. I got up this morning and walked four miles . . . and then sat down. I’ve never done that before. Today, I will go no farther. I will never again struggle to lift my feet out of the mud, hour after hour. I will not gaze at a horizon, knowing that just on the other side, a new vision of creation awaits me. The pain is past, the thrills are over, the magic is finished.

The Mass ends. I climb up behind the altar to give the traditional kiss to the back of the statue, and then step down to view the silver reliquary of Santiago. In the Middle Ages, the cities, with their churches, nurtured pilgrimages of devotion. The people were drawn to these places because they contained the physical remains of saints. One could touch the holy there; all was made symbolic and concrete in the relics. But my religious sensibility must be different; I have no desire to see or touch any relic.

I have learned something in these 31 days: that I’m not alone, that I am not an autonomous self with some potential to realize. Rather, I exist only to the extent that I participate in the innumerable practices that collectively establish the living tradition that is my heritage, which my parents and the pilgrims have given me. All the “inner” experiences of these weeks occurred because they had real links with the experiences of the dead who accompanied me. I have learned how to speak a truthful “we,” a radically different act from the spurious and aggrandizing “we” one so often hears today. The relics I touch are those ancient pilgrims, their real presence. I have met, embraced, and kissed them . . . and their lips were not cold. Looking around me, I don’t recognize any of them here today. Most of them are out there . . . on the camino, waiting to welcome today’s pilgrim. All my thought, all my intense longing, is to walk back out there, and to join them in their journey.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.