“Every space of our lives is unknown until we live it.”
One year ago today we landed in Madrid, took a high speed train to Leon, and began our three week trek on the Camino Frances (from Leon to Santiago and then on to Finisterre). We’ve had frequent small reminders of this journey over the past 12 months, causing us to pause momentarily and take note of the memories. This winter was long, hard, and beautiful here in Nova Scotia which meant we were often using our hiking poles (bought for the Camino trip) on our daily walks through the snow with Shanti (and other dog fr
iends!). Any time we have fresh squeezed orange juice to drink, the smell and taste have brought us right back to those early Camino mornings which began with the Zummo machines pumping out the bright orange liquid. We also find ourselves keeping our eyes open for when Pimientos de Pradron (one of our favorite Camino snacks!) make it to our grocery shelves (which considering where we live is a miracle we see them at all!).
I (Nicky) woke up in the middle of the night last night with a wicked calf cramp. The kind that is agonizing. The kind that takes your breath away and all you can do is try to sit as still as possible as it resolves it itself. Once it did, and I was able to lay back down to sleep, my mind went immediately to the Camino – remembering how taut our calf muscles were for our three weeks on the trail. No amount of stretching seemed to impact them. Our calf muscles, though not cramped (well, for the most part!) were so tight and enormous that they honestly felt like they’d pop right out of their skin!
Actually, we have been consciously thinking and talking about our Camino experiences for several weeks now as we knew the anniversary date was approaching. As we were preparing for this time last year we were walking five to ten kilometers most days, and packing – trying make sure our full packs stayed within the recommended weight limits, making plane and train and hotel reservations, taking out the relevant sections we were walking of John Brierley’s book – the international guide for the many faces of the pilgrimage, and practicing our Spanish with friends and various recommended websites. (This one was our favorite: http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/spanish/mividaloca/)
We intentionally did not start this reflection saying that tomorrow “marks” the one year anniversary of our pilgrimage. It felt too trite and unremarkable, given the flavor of our reflections. As I (Judy) was walking Shanti (our wonderful Cardigan Corgi) this morning, I was thinking about how I felt somehow marked by this trip. This is unusual given that I rarely mark important events. I don’t know when I had my first kiss or when I first started menstruating – or when I stopped. I don’t know what year my sister died and how this aligned with when my dad got encephalitis or when I started working “on the bus” – the travelling higher education journey that took me across North America so many times – sleeping outside for over 200 nights a year for twelve (or so) years.
So to say I am noting this time is significant. The marks I was thinking about on my morning walk were the ones that they taught us about in catechism when I was a child growing up Roman Catholic. We supposedly had the opportunity to gain seven marks on our souls between birth and death. They came from the sacraments: baptism, confession, first communion, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and extreme unction, which were seen as outward signs of inward grace granted by God. It has been many years since I learned about these, but the idea of the potential for indelible marks on my soul – I suppose they could be either good and bad – has stuck.
Oddly enough the marks I am considering today did come about through the undertaking of a pilgrimage based in Christian tradition and would have offered many indulgences (or relief from the effects of sin on said soul) should I still believe in such things. But we did not undertake this walk for Christian reasons, as some did. In fact, Nicky grew up unchurched and uneducated in the deep base of religion that permeates most of western culture.
Nor did we plan to walk the Camino for exercise reasons, although many of the people we met along the trail were walkers and hikers who marked off thousands of kilometers every year on the various long trails on the planet. We chose to carve off a piece of the whole for ourselves. Even so, the Camino Frances is a long walk – almost 800 kilometers from St Jean Pied de Port or Roncevalles to Santiago. Our journey was about 300 kilometers with an 40 km of additional day hiking around Finisterre.
We did see walking the Camino as a marker of a shift from one sort of life to another. We weren’t exactly sure where we were going – and we say this on many levels – but we did recognize where we had been, and knew that we wanted to choose differently for the next part of our lives. It was a spiritual or meaning-making journey for us. Nicky had chosen to leave academia for what we saw as a final time. We were preparing to move out of the rental home where we had been living for two years and to live in a tent as we continued to consider whether or not to build a tiny house on wheels. (We made the final decision to do so while on the Camino!) We wished to shed the trappings of culture which served to keep us rattling around in places and patterns we did not consciously wish to choose. While our lives were simple and relatively unencumbered by the big things that can tie people down – we didn’t own a home, didn’t have children, and didn’t own a lot of big things with accompanying debt – we had much more than we needed or wanted. When Nicky and I first met, everything she owned fit into her backpack and then the backseat of the blue Ford Escort wagon she bought from our friend Alan. I certainly have more packratting habits, but compared to modern big home lifestyles I still qualify as minimalist.
So where are we now? What, in the passage of time, still remains? Are there indelible marks on our souls? Many people speak of being transformed while walking the Camino. Were we transformed? In some ways, we believe that we are marked by every thought and action we take, so how is this different?
One of the significant aspects of our pilgrimage we both believe was the ending of it. The first intimation of this came after standing in line to pick up the Compostela – the certificate given to those who have walked at least 100 kilometers on the path. I (Judy) chose to get this piece of paper, without really knowing why. It was a long line and not something that Nicky cared about at all – just a piece of paper for her. I stood in a snaking line amidst an approximation of those we had journeyed with for the past three weeks. This small stone corridor heading towards the office was like a snapshot of the whole experience: there were many ages, many languages, many costumes; some singles, some couples, and some great groups; some exuberant, some silent.
As I met up again with Nicky we began to walk along the Via Sacra, heading out of the cathedral area towards our local home. In a nondescript stone alley way I told Nicky I had to sit for a minute. Once grounded on the stone step I began to experience great heaving sobs. As she held my shoulders I was able to articulate that being in that line had brought together for me the magnitude of what we had accomplished. How to recall and communicate these feelings – different for both us – but equally profound? We had done this. We had walked every day, at 66 and 48 years of age. We had had hard days and long days. We had spoken in broken Spanish, and stumbling but strengthening French. We had met and engaged with a young woman walking alone who had come from North Korea. We had had a reading of Jamie Sams & David Carson Animal Cards by Antonio at Café Alchemista, by an artist who creates images with crushed crystals, spoke only Spanish and offered us a lunch of incredible bread, wonderful yellow cheese. And on and on with the richness and sweetness and stresses and strains spilling over. So our arrival was an ending, of sorts, revealed over time.
We realized that another ending was coming about as we explored the city. Every day we were seeing new arrivals, following the shells and arrows to their destination. But we now knew our way around by way of city maps and orienting ourselves to the spires and construction shrouds of the cathedral. We were in a new category – no longer pilgrims walking each day to qualify for the next albergue. We had initially planned to walk from Santiago to Finisterre, and had left the time for it before our scheduled flights back to Nova Scotia. But we had walked the entire 300 K with barely any rain – and none of the snow underfoot that those who had come through Burgos had encountered – and it was set to rain for the next seven days. After putting on our rain gear for the first time in Santiago, casually meeting up with Camino friends, making several trips to the cathedral (under construction), wandering around the old city, getting my (Judy) hair cut near our third floor up-the-stairs accommodations at PR Fornos, and great meals at Malak Bistro, we realized we were restless in Santiago. We thought we were ready to continue our journey, but the days were continuing grey, with sheets of rain pouring from the sky, down the stone walls, tracing the spaces between the stones underfoot. We decided to take the bus.
We had considered staying at The Little Fox House [ http://www.thelittlefoxhouse.com/] to process our journey, as we are big processors, and had stumbled upon Tracey’s website, but we struggled to match up our communication times with hers and we aren’t cell phone people. We had found a hostel way up at the top of the town, before we left Santiago, and that was where we landed in Finisterre. It was pure white and had an empty feel to it. We had to call from the desk to be registered, and for most of the days we were there we were alone. (We later learned that the owner was quite ill and spent most of the time we were there in bed.) What made the arrival at Finisterre particularly notable for us was the full stop stopping. Up until this time we were moving every day. At first from albergue to albergue (because you had to be walking the Camino to stay in them) and then from street to street in Santiago, to really feel we had arrived in the city and experience somewhat fully the point we had been heading towards.
The next morning, we walked in pouring rain to the ends of the earth – the name Finistèrre deriving from the Latin Finis Terræ, meaning just that. What to do the following day? We reconsidered going towards Muxia and staying at The Little Fox House, but decided to walk to the lighthouse and monument at the Cape again in the sun. We hadn’t found the peace pole that was supposed to be there on our first visit, so we wanted to look again. Then we decided to go to the two beaches. Then we realized that we were restless – again. And we began to understand that we had stopped. We had come to the end of our journey. We lay in bed the morning of our realization and talked about being at the end. It was a sad thing, in some ways, and a wonder in others. We didn’t need to go elsewhere to realize the ending. We needed to stop.
As we near the end of this reflection, (recognizing that it is already quite lengthy!) we are feeling inspired to write more about how our Camino experience has marked us both in small and big ways. There’s just so much to say! And yet, it’s also so easy not to bring it to mind – to fall into the business of life. We intend to write regularly about the impact of our Camino trek for the next 12 months and to see and feel what is revealed as we do. The writing of this entry has been a full journey in itself.