450 miles, 5 weeks, my work is complete.
I realized that after 4 weeks of following yellow arrows across Spain that there was a massive similarity to the Wizard of Oz and the yellow brick road. This is how I felt grooving into Santiago!
Arriving was…very wet.
I woke that last morning to rain and even though I only had 20k to go, Mother Nature had decided to not make it easy. There were on and off showers all morning as I walked along with friends and alone at times. But the time went fast and easy since it was the final day to this momentous journey. To do 20k (12 miles) now is a very easy day, which should tell you just how far I have come over the last 5 weeks.
I made a point to walk into Santiago alone, I felt like even though I had met wonderful friends who propped me up and taught me about my life over the past weeks, I was taking this journey solo. I had never even seen a picture of the cathedral so I didn’t really know what I was looking for except that it was a church. I sort of felt like I would know it when I saw it, as if it were going to be glowing yellow with a big arrow instead of a cross on the steeple. But as I walked in following the winding old city streets, it started a proper downpour and as I turned the corner and ended up in the big open square I found that I was the only one there, as everyone else was under cover from the downpour. I stood right in the middle of the square in front of the church in the pouring rain sort of telling this building and the spirits that be “I have arrived.” I stayed in that exact place for about 4 minutes looking up at the ironwork and the discolored stones thinking about my journey. The rain poured down drenching me in my little poncho, but the rain couldn’t dampen my excitement about arriving.
When the rain let up, blue skies and fluffy clouds appeared, and I found myself surrounded by friends who had arrived the day before me. They were there, ready for my arrival. It was a beautiful moment to know that these newly minted friends were there to welcome me. We partied all night!
I decided that I would attend the Pilgrim’s mass on Sunday this week as a cultural experience. I’m not Catholic and this wasn’t about religion for me, but if I had made the journey to Mecca for the hike, you can bet I would go experience the hajj. So I went to the big Sunday mass to see what the experience was all about. On Sunday and special holidays they swing the Botafumeiro – a large metal incense container on a complex set of pulleys across the whole congregation. A great site to see…and smell.
The 5th week of walking was a beautiful finale. The weather swings this week were quite extreme, cold foggy mornings gave way to blazing hot afternoons which made me more confident than I ever that I wouldn’t want to do this walk in the middle of summer! We also started going through more and more farmland in Galicia. It’s official; Galicia was the stinkiest part of the trail by far. We walked right through farms and next to manure piles and various other horrible smells. But at the same time Springtime popped up in front of us intermixing the air with sweet smells.
I decided that I needed more challenge this last week for some odd reason, so I decided to fall back on one of my favorite sayings, “Do one thing that scares you each day. “ I started the week by deciding to no longer use a map to set my expectations and plans for the day of walking. I would instead simply know my ending point/town and the name of the albergue I plan to stay at. Then I will just get there when I get there. Trying to wean myself of living by expectations and more just simply living. I don’t think I knew how ‘scary’ this task was until the day from hell where I found myself going up and down and up and down not really knowing where I was in my day’s walk and when I would ever arrive. It was a real struggle, but I did it. All week I didn’t look at my map – it nearly killed me.
This week was a huge lesson of just thinking when you had it all figured out, you don’t. I had one of my hardest walking days on my third to last day. It was only 28km, but it was a constant up and down plus Mother Nature decided to heat things up all of a sudden. That heat just rose up right through my worn soles of my Saucony shoes and sucked everything out of me physically and mentally. I found that day’s hike to Arzua harder than the climbs up the mountains at higher altitudes. I just wasn’t expecting to feel so horrible at this point in the adventure, but the important thing is that I made it through. I showed up out of water and hobbling in on feet and knees that were overworked and I promptly sat down on the bed for 2 hours and didn’t move. Stillness is sometimes the best medicine.
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I felt really strong – I’m hardly the person that started this trek 5 weeks ago. Granted, my feet still hurt at night and my blisters still flair up, but you learn to deal with it. Your body adapts – just like the skin on your feet toughens – so does your whole body. Sleep is the key – your body repairs over night. Some nights I would wake up sweating in my sleeping bag as my body was generating so much heat trying to repair all of the aches that my sleeping bag was like an oven!
Did I make a wrong turn? It felt like even though I had been on the trail for 4 weeks I hardly recognized it this week. It’s no longer mine – it’s the tourist trail now. My biggest mental hurdle this last week was getting over this – the change in the ‘feel’ of the trail. Many of the 150,000 people who walk the trail each year start in Sarria which is a little over 100km from Santiago. 100km is the minimum you have to walk to get your compostella at the end. So in the name of doing the least possible – many people begin in Sarria. Granted – my personal opinion is that having a ‘minimum necessary’ is bullsh#t. To be forgiven of your prior sins via the Compostella – can there really be a minimum? It seems a little hokey to me. It seems like it’s more about commerce and money than it is about religion, however I think religion is also really about money these days anyway. But – I’m not religion expert, so I will shut up now.
The trail is filled with new groups of people and very few solo walkers. All with little backpacks and spanking new gear. I found it hard to like these new pilgrims but I was told I have to. The tread on my shoes are worn down from miles of walking – I feel like I no longer fit in. I feel like a senior watching the freshman class the first day of school. I have mixed feelings about pitying them and their sore bodies or laughing at their ‘green-ness’.
But a part of me is happy for this social solitude the last week. It gives me time to try to process things. Actually, I’ve been processing things for 4 weeks – it gives me time to solidify things I guess. I relish the evenings of not knowing anyone in town and just sitting alone. Up until this point I often walked alone but was ultra social at night. It’s strange to walk into a town you’ve never been to before in a bar you’ve never seen and upon entering having people call your name and knowing 50% of the people in the bar – that’s what I loved about the Camino culture. But this week most of my friends were ahead of me after I took a rest day in Sarria.
And what a rest day it was! Carris Hoteles put me up in Hotel Alfonso IX for my rest day and all I did was sit on the bed …and get up and take a salt bath. That was it – a perfect rest day in a lovely setting. Treating yourself every once in a while on the Camino is necessary!
The rest of the lodging from Sarria to Santiago has been great. There are many options for public or private albergues. The private albergues cost about 10 to 12 euro instead of 5 euro, but it’s well worth it as they are smaller, have wifi, and many of them will hold a bed for you if you call ahead. This is quite important as the trail gets busier in this section and many albergues are full by the time you reach them. Thanks to my Rayo travel guide and phone app I was able to call most of the locations the day before and have them hold a bed for me. I’m happy to report that after 5 weeks of walking, I can reserve a bed in Spanish for today or tomorrow. However beyond today and tomorrow I’m lost as I don’t know the words for the days of the week in Spanish!
I’m really starting to worry that I won’t be able to curb my appetite now that the walk is complete! I’m used to eating thousands of extra calories a day (and this was my second breakfast!) – but now will need to wean myself off of that habit!
After 5 weeks I can safely say that I’m sick of pilgrim meals! Even though they are an amazing value – just check out everything you get for 9 Euro here. Every restaurant pretty much has the same choices and for someone who thrives on change it doesn’t work well with my beyond a couple of weeks. However this last week I found the best Pilgrim meal in the whole trip – at an authentic Italian restaurant in Sarria called Matias Loconda Italiana – homemade pasta and something other than iceberg lettuce in their salad. The meal was wonderful and authentic Italian since the husband and wife team who ran it came from Italy. Finally, someone who knows how to cook pasta al dente in Spain.
I did meet a few new people this week, a man from New Zealand, a newlywed couple and their cute tshirts from Ukraine and Bulgaria and more walkers from the States – but mostly I walked alone this week.
One of the most touching things for me this week was arriving in Santiago and celebrating with all of the friends I met along the way. I have nothing but joy for these people. I also ran into people who I had seen throughout the trail – people who I only had a short time with but had some incredibly moving conversations.
Michael – I met Michael more than halfway through the trek and we walked up one of the largest climbs together and shared beers along the way. He’s a brilliantly smart German and has such a kind heart. We clicked and without even uttering a word continued walking together for the next 3 days until I took a rest day. Michael was my rock – always calm, and sharing stories. He’s 69 and very, very close to retirement – and boy does he deserve it!
Larry – I met Larry and his walking buddy Mumford on day 1 as I climbed to Alto del Perdon in the rain and mud with him. He was an East Coaster…from DC and immediately we engaged in political talks. However that gave way to much more big conversations about life, choices, and happiness. Larry was my magnet – something constantly brought us together. After that first day we never really walked together intentionally, but I’d run into him and his friends constantly – in fact it happened so often that I knew it was no longer luck or chance. Something was pulling us together on the Camino, I have no idea why. Through those erratic meetings we became friends and who have the greatest amount of respect and admiration for each other. As I started my last day of walking – within the first 5 minutes who did I run into on accident again…Larry – we ended this 5 weeks together the last day just like it was meant to be.
Katherine – I met her on day 1 and it was an immediate friendship. It was one of those rare relationships that you immediately felt at ease with – I found myself quickly letting down all of my many, many guards and totally opening up to her some of my more personal sides. We laughed, we cried, we yelled, we were in pain, we drank, we walked. She actually waited for me an extra day to arrive in Santiago. The last night she gave me a beautiful little polished rock to remember the Camino and everything we went through. Katherine will be a fixture in my life to come – I have no doubt of that. She was my angel these past 5 weeks. She walks on this week in the hopes to cover another 300k to the coast and back to Santiago and will cover over 1000 km on this trip – yes, she’s amazing.
I wish it wasn’t over – but it is, and I have to figure out how to get this mental stimulation more than once a year now. The key is time…and taking it.
A HUGE thanks to JacoTrans for transporting my luggage and laptop EVERY day of this journey. You guys work are the invisible workers and are top notch. Every day my bag was there – waiting for me – stellar. Another big thanks to Rayo Travel for being my one and only resource I used for this trip. Your team on the ground was spectacular and all of your insight and advice got me through each day!
And thank YOU for following along on this journey – I couldn’t have done it without my digital cheering section!
View all the Photos from Week 5 of the Camino: