I woke up to rain. I’d planned to get an early start this morning in order to reach Santiago and attend the pilgrim’s mass at noon. But the rain beating against the window made me dawdle.
I finally left my pension at 8 a.m. I had just 20 kilometers (12 miles) to walk and I hoped that if I rushed I could make it to mass in time.
It was a truly miserable day for walking. The rain poured and the wind gusted. The first 10 kilometers of the walk were mostly uphill (why didn’t anyone warn me?). I kept stopping to take my raincoat off because I was sweating and then stopping again to put it back on because it was pouring. I couldn’t get comfortable. And my feet have been in a constant state of pain the past few days. Every step hurt.
Around 11 a.m. I resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t make the pilgrim’s mass in time. I stopped for coffee and a Kit-Kat bar in a tiny café. There were three other women in the bar, an Australian mother and daughter duo and the woman I’d met on day 24 who asked me if I was losing weight.
“I’m over it!” said the Australian daughter. “I don’t want to walk another step.”
“I’m excited to reach Santiago,” said the weight-loss lady. “Only a few more kilometers to go.”
I was emotionally situated somewhere in the middle, both excited to reach Santiago but so over walking that I wanted to lay down on the floor and pound my hands and feet against the ground toddler-style.
The terrain slowly turned from rural to urban. I followed the yellow arrows through roundabouts and along sidewalks on the outskirts of Santiago. As I drew closer other pilgrims, dressed in their non-walking outfits, smiled at me and said, “You’re so close” and “Congratulations.” I passed an older couple that said from beneath their umbrella, “Just turn left and walk up the street and you’re there!”
My heart rate picked up. I was so close! 500 miles of walking and only five minutes remained. The rain was coming down in sheets and drops dripped from my eyelashes and nose. My legs and feet were soaked. I wound my way through cobbled streets and up a small hill. The granite spires of the Cathedral came into view. I gasped. “There it is!”
The street dipped and I lost sight of the Cathedral. But in the distance I could hear the haunting notes of a bagpipe. I followed the sound as it wailed against the old stone streets and buildings. My eyes filled with tears. I walked through an arched tunnel and into the Praza de Obradoiro plaza that faced the west side of the Cathedral. I’d arrived.
I cried silently, my tears mixing with the rain. I cried not because of the pain and the effort or even from the relief that the pain and the effort were over. I cried with the pride of having done it and, in doing it, claiming it as mine forever.
I walked 500 miles across Spain on an ancient pilgrimage route traveled by those suffering and seeking for a thousand years. I walked through the heat of the meseta and the chill of the rain in Galicia. I walked over the Pyrenees Mountains. I walked with blisters and strained tendons. I walked while barfing and crying and laughing and talking and listening and thinking. I walked in the pitch-black of morning and the soft glow of evening. I walked. And because I walked I am changed somehow.
I dropped my backpack under an awning and snapped a few photos of myself as the rain poured down. I looked at the time and confirmed that I had long missed the pilgrim’s mass. I decided to go inside the church anyway to pay my respects to St. James.
As I stepped inside the church I saw to my surprise that mass was still in session. I’d made it in time after all. I looked up as the botafumeiro, the largest censer for spreading incense in the world, began to swing from the rafters above me. It is said that the botafumeiro was installed long ago to cover the stench of all of the unwashed pilgrims. I’d hoped to see it in action but my guidebook noted that it is only brought out for special occasions. Seeing the botafumeiro swing, as the incense filled the church in a sweet cloud, felt like a secret nod to my special occasion. I’d reached Santiago.
A choir was singing and I stood in awe at the warmth and grandeur of the cathedral. My eyes welled with tears again as I stood in a soaking bundle against the wall listening to the holy hymns.
I felt such a strong sense of camaraderie and pride as I looked around at my fellow pilgrims, some who had just come in from the rain like me, others who were washed and showered and seated in the pews. We’d all walked our own Camino. We’d all arrived in Santiago after our own long journeys.
As I’d stood earlier under the awning facing the Cathedral I’d heard a man say to his wife, “We made it. But I hope our Camino continues.” I stood there in the Cathedral and hoped that too. Well, all but the albergue part.
After mass I waited in line to get my Compostela, a certificate of completion awarded to every pilgrim that walks at least 100 kilometers of the Camino.
“You came from St-Jean by foot? You walked?” The woman at the counter asked me.
“Yes,” I nodded emphatically. “I walked every single step.”
She stamped my pilgrim passport and handed me my certificate. Just like that it was over.
Now, I am sitting in my very own hotel room a few blocks from the Cathedral. I will stay for two nights. Tomorrow I will explore Santiago and on Wednesday I will lace my shoes back up and start my walk to Finisterre, “the end of the earth.” As much as my feet hurt, that gaping section on the map between Santiago and the ocean is calling my name. I should arrive at the sea by Friday.
I’m going to step away from the blog for a week or so in order to process this experience away from the computer. But I want to tell you all how grateful I am that you have been reading and following along. I felt that this was your walk too. I could feel you with me out there on the roads and trails. In this sense I did not walk alone. I walked with you.
On Saturday I will catch a plane down to Malaga to see Brian for the first time in six weeks. We have plans to rent a car and drive through southern Spain and Portugal, then visit Paris and Prague. In December we will fly to SE Asia where we will bicycle through Vietnam. This will be particularly interesting as I have not been on a bicycle in two years.
Another adventure awaits. I hope that you’ll come along.
Today I walked 12.4 miles (20 km).
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