The molecules of my body and brain are drifting home a handful at a time, plugging in the holes left by the challenges of actually moving one’s body thousands and thousands of miles across time and space and cultures and landscapes. For once, I’m trying to be patient with the process. I did not get a cold this time, which is often what my body seems to do in protest; instead I’m resting a lot. Walking the dog is my only exertion, catching up on blogs and posting photographs my only mental activities.
But in the background, there is a lot of processing going on. The last time I did a major pilgrimage, just before 2001, it took a long time to be far enough away from the event to really understand how I had been transformed, and it will be awhile for this one, too. What I do have are concrete moments, encounters and blips of contact and illuminations that are echoing for me now:
—Ana, our guide, has been walking and biking the various Caminos for awhile now. An American ex-pat who has lived in Spain for 30 years, Ana told me that one thing she likes to do it give away candy on the road, to weary pilgrims who look like they need a little lift. I saw her do it several times through the course of a day. A day or two later, I was walking alone when I saw an old, old man making his way down a steep rocky section. He had two rough walking sticks, one in each hand, and his knees were tied with white strips of cloth. He labored carefully, one bow-legged step at a time, and it was plainly very difficult work. I wished that Ana was with me, but she was a long way back on the trail. I wished him Buen Camino as I passed, but wished desperately for something more. Then I remembered I had some candy in my pack, so I walked a little further and dug it out, then walked back up the hill with it in my palm, offering it wordlessly since I couldn’t think how to say anything appropriate in Spanish. He looked at my hand for a moment, uncomprehending, then understood I was giving him candy and he gathered it up in gnarled fingers. His face lightened and blazed and he said, “Merci! Merci beaucoup!” I waved and walked back down the hill, suddenly overcome with emotion. How small a thing, and yet how large! I loved Ana very much in that moment for understanding that idea, and teaching it to me.
—Walking suddenly beneath a canopy of trees, their joints grown over with moss to make faces like Green Men, the forest stretching out around us in lush, fertile mystery. Here be the fey and enchanted foxes and witches, called here meigas. Once we passed a marsh so alive with frogs that we almost couldn’t be heard as we puzzled out what was making that noise. Now and again, we crossed a pond or a stream on old flat rocks, and I couldn’t help but think of the pilgrims before us in their sandaled feet, hundreds of years of them.
–Everywhere a little village, a bar, a church. All have their own particular sello, or pilgrim stamp. Among our group was a little contest–who had the most? Who had the most beautiful? I kept forgetting to get a stamp, but in the end, I didn’t mind. You have to have two per day to prove you’ve walked the distance, but that’s all. Most days, I had more. Often, I was lost in some other thing when we entered a place–admiring the wall of letters and postcards and messages and bandannas left behind in one; the colors of paint around the door in another; the German shepherd mix creeping up behind the bar to steel pigs feet and ears from the back step; the long limbs of a cyclist in tight shorts.
—an old woman walking up the street with a wheelbarrow in Lavacolla (wash your bottom town–where once pilgrims were required to stop and wash before they walked the last six miles into Santiago). We are drinking cerveza con limon, checking stamps in our passports. She’s jaunty in a blue dress and an apron, and we wave. She greets us cheerfully, and comes back a little later with a giant, professional flower arrangement. Beautiful! I cry. She lifts her chin, smiles. For the graveyard tonight.
And there is a festival that night that begins at midnight. Everyone is out in the streets. There is a band playing, loudly, singing, and everyone is dancing and singing and talking all through the town, until four or five. My roommate is grumpy. I keep thinking it would be fun to go join the party, but in truth, I’m too tired after seven days of walking to rouse myself, so I drift in and out of sleep, listening to the party pouring in through our open windows, and it makes me think of nights when the children were little and we played cards and drank beer with friends, when the children fell asleep in puddles on the couch or the floor. I had no idea that I would miss those days so much. We were poor and the food was simple, the children barefooted and everything I thought I wanted seemed far away in the future on the other side of some magical line.
–the astonishing, impossible grandeur of the cathedral at Santiago. I have seen many spectacular palaces to the glory of God, including the Vatican (and most recently the splendid York Minster) but Santiago’s abode is tremendous, with wings and stairs and gold and turrets and spires and gold and dozens of entrances and gold and carvings and statues and gold. Did I mention gold? The entire altar is drowned in gold and jewels, so much gold it is impossible to calculate the cost of it. The statue of Santiago himself is almost entirely made of gold. It is a giant thing, much larger than a human, and one of the pilgrim rituals is to “hug the saint.” Once we had our official certificates, we stood in line to do this, not all of us at once, but in twos and threes, after one had showered, another had found trinkets to take home. There was in front of me a quintuplet of Spaniards in late middle age. One of the women paused behind the saint, whipped a baby wipe out of her purse, and wiped it down before she stepped up and gave Santiago a hug, putting her face on the gold between two enormous topazes. I hugged him, too, but really found pleasure in the glimpse of the church from that vantage point.
Later, at Mass, we had a chance to see the fabled censer. It’s more than four feet tall, carved of silver, and it swings the entire length of the transcept—hundreds of feet in either direction, pouring out incense to fill the church with fragrance. It nearly touched the ceiling on one side, then the other, over and over. It’s hard to describe in a way that captures the beauty of it.
A worthy destination for those long ago pilgrims, and all of us, too. I was giddy by the time mass started, however, and I will admit that I found myself sometimes trying to surpress a giggle over the lispy Gallegan of the priest. It was not disrespectful, but joy and weariness in equal measure.
Before I left, I read somewhere that the journey begins when the Road ends (have not been able to find it again, sadly, so if anyone knows, please tell me), and as I sit here now, I can see that’s true. I will be going back–perhaps to walk the Camino Primitivo, or the northern road, or maybe the entirety of the Frances. It does feel I’ve only begun.