Day 21 (Part 2): Villarmentero de Campos to Calzadilla de la Cueza

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

All beautiful moments must come to an end, and soon enough, it was time to pack up and leave the garden at Albergue Amanecer. Buoyed by our little break and the lovely surroundings, my moodiness from the morning disappeared as we hit the road again. The weather had cleared up over the course of the morning, and once again we had blue skies and puffy clouds.

As we walked, Jakob and I discussed who we were and why we had each decided to walk the Camino. Despite our easy friendship, our lives had been extremely different. I was an only child, raised in a rural area by a lower income family.  I moved a thousand miles away at 17 and never looked back. At nearly 34, I had three college degrees and dozens of seemingly random jobs under my belt. My dreams of singing and writing hadn’t even gotten off of the ground, and I’d bounced around from idea to idea all of my life. I was pretty good at most things that I tried, and job transitions weren’t too difficult, but I’d yet to find a job about which I could be passionate. I was introverted, introspective, and struggling with depression. I was walking to find answers to questions I didn’t know yet. Though I enjoyed the religious architecture along the route, my only connection to Catholicism was my slight obsession with St. Francis, and I found him more in nature than in the built environment.

By contrast, my new friend grew up in a close-knit family, in conditions that many would call comfortable (both of his parents are professionals, and his father is well-known in his field). His family had lived in the same area of Bavaria for many generations – longer than my family had been in America. At 30, Jakob had only recently finished his law degree after many years of school. His dream was to become a judge, and he was almost there. His Camino had long been planned to span the bridge between graduation and job placement, and as we walked, he was keeping track of his job application process as it rolled along back home. I was surprised to learn that in Germany, there is no requirement to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. We discussed what the job meant to him, and the nuances of job hunting for a judgeship near his home in Munich. He was driven, optimistic, and given his patience and open-mindedness, I couldn’t help but marvel that he’d be great at his chosen profession. He was also religious, and for him, the Camino was a way to connect with his name saint, James the Apostle (called Jakob in German tradition, from the Latin Iacobus).

I was surprised, given how much I liked my new friend, that he was also highly active in his college fraternity. It took me awhile to wrap my head around how different it was to be in a frat in Germany vs. the U.S. He showed me a photo of their old-fashioned uniforms (complete with funny hats and military braids). Involvement seemed strict, and academics and conduct were of the utmost importance. Connections lasted a lifetime, and older members made sure that the college-age brothers didn’t stray off the path and embarrass the organization. But like the American frats with which I had more experience, beer was also a key ingredient. How could it not be, in the beer capital of Germany?

Speaking of imbibing, we found great kinship in discussing the party reputations of our respective hometowns during their two biggest festivals – Oktoberfest for him, and Mardi Gras for me. We shared funny stories of various debauchery we’d witnessed, and popular misconceptions of what these giant, world-renowned parties were actually all about. We each issued unconditional invitations for a festival exchange program – one day I still plan to make it to Oktoberfest.

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Bocadillo, Aquarius, Coca Cola – who could ask for more?

In early afternoon, we reached Carrion de los Condes, and sat down to have lunch at a little cafe. I had no idea, but this was about to be one of those life changing moments. We posted up at our table, me with an absolutely giant sandwich. I pulled out my phone to peruse the WisePilgrim app, and he pulled out his yellow guidebook (then only published in German – the English version came out a few months later), looking up our options. We were about to hit the longest stretch of the Camino with no opportunities to stop, and if we chose to keep walking, we’d have to really commit. No bathrooms, no water, no cafe con leche, nowhere to rest our weary feet! It would be hours before we’d make it to a stopping point, and it was already afternoon. Was it crazy? Should we do it, or just stop here for the night? Once again, I got this feeling that the Universe had put us together as some sort of challenge, to keep each other encouraged.

As we ate and mulled over the choice, it was also in the back of my mind that we must be reaching the end of our time together soon. It seemed natural to me that we would walk in each other’s company for a few days or so, then split up. Easy. No pressure. I was on track to find Natalie again, and also practicing a kind of detachment. Despite how much fun I was having, at some level I was letting things wash over me without getting too involved. Perhaps I was guarding my heart? I don’t know what I was thinking.

But then, over that jamón y queso bocadillo muy grande, somehow the conversation turned to books and TV, and I mentioned that I really loved the miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Weirdly enough, the show was my introduction to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and it was a series that I rewatch yearly to remind myself of determination, grit, bravery, and goodness. Jakob immediately geeked out, and gushed that the show was one of his favorites, too. In fact, he’d watched it multiple times in German and English, to make sure not to miss any nuances in the dialogue. I told him that years before, when I was training to run the Chicago Marathon, I’d spurred myself on in difficult moments with Easy Company’s battle cry, “Currahee!” He said he’d often done the same. With that simple exchange, something shifted. No more conversation was necessary – we were all in. We could keep walking. We could do this. That was also the moment that I realized I’d been handed a new Camino family without even trying.

The next albergue was 18k away, in Calzadilla de la Cueza, which meant at least another 4 hours walking at our current pace. We’d be very lucky to arrive before dark, and there were storm clouds on the horizon, so we’d probably be walking through crappy weather. It was a stupid decision, made out of false bravado, and one which had terrible consequences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On our way out of town, we stopped to purchase two cheap ponchos. I had a raincoat and a pack cover, but had found that my pack was still getting wet inside when I walked too long in the rain. Luckily, I’d packed all of my clothing inside a big space saver Ziploc bag, so my clothes stayed dry, but I still didn’t like the moisture in the pack. Additionally, wearing the raincoat made me feel like I was in a walking sauna. I thought maybe the poncho would do the trick if we encountered heavy rain, and soon, I got a chance to test out the theory.

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Within about an hour after leaving Carion de los Condes, the sky went from somewhat cloudy to absolutely treacherous. The wind whipped up into a frenzy, and we were hit with heavy bursts of rain. I changed out of my trail runners as soon as the weather shifted, to attempt to keep them dry. Instead, I switched to my Teva Tirras, worn with socks. My feet were cold and damp, but didn’t chafe – and I knew I could count on dry shoes the next day. Underneath the socks was the typical layer of moleskin on all of my “danger zones” known for chafing, plus a thin coat of Unpetroleum Jelly (made by Alba). The rain was so relentless that in the end, I ended up wearing the raincoat and the poncho together.

Between the insane crackling of the poncho and the wind whistling across the open Meseta over the Camino, there was little conversation. We marched on, wet and miserable, all afternoon. From time to time, the rain would let up a bit, and one of us would point out something funny or weird to examine along the road, from old boots left behind, to road markers. From time to time, I’d begin to despair that we would see civilization again. The road stretched on forever in those moments. Inevitably, though, as my spirits sank, Jakob would draw my attention to some small wonder at the side of the road. For awhile, we both put in our headphones, and realized we could walk “together” but separately, singing along to our own tunes. Singing is always a spirit lifter for me, and this worked out perfectly. Towards sunset, we stood and admired the clouds racing along the horizon. There was power in the land, and prayer in the walking. We were discovering something important together. It was still an incredible relief to see the first rooftops of Calzadilla de la Cueza appear on the horizon.

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It was dusk when we walked into town. Luckily for two completely exhausted peregrinos, the Calzadilla de la Cueza Albergue Municipal was on the left, immediately as you walk into town. I don’t know if either of us could have walked another step. As it turned out, the facilities were cheap and pretty nice. The bathrooms seemed newly refurbished and very clean, and the beds were comfy. There were maybe 10 other pilgrims there that night, including Tom, the older American guy I’d met with British Mark a couple of weeks before. I said hi, and he not only acted like he didn’t remember me, but was also a little rude about it. I was too tired to care much, but Jakob later told me that he saw the interaction and was taken aback on my behalf. As we started to unpack our things, I heard Jakob start laughing, and looked over to see that he was peering at me through a giant rip in his poncho. I’d already decided I couldn’t stand the way mine crinkled as I walked, so I told him he was welcome to have mine as a replacement. My pack would just have to get wet now and then.


After a hot shower and putting on some dry, warm clothes, I felt slightly more human. However, my legs were killing me, and my face was chafed from the wind and sun. It was obvious that the day’s activity had taken its toll on my already tired body. I massaged my legs with Volaren, popped an Ibuprofen, and donned compression socks, but even with that, I could tell I’d done some serious damage to my legs and feet. We’d walked around 34K over the course of the day – over 21 miles, almost a marathon. Even with all of the walking I’d done up until now, it was a huge leap in distance, and I knew I’d pay a price. Leaving the albergue in search of food was out of the question, since I could barely walk. I ate a few random choices from the vending machine while checking my Facebook messages in the break room, and went to bed before the dorm lights were out.

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 3) – San Juan de Ortega to Cardeñuela Riopico

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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Before leaving the States, when I was still just doing my own lazy version of researching the Camino Frances, I had discovered that there were quite a few labyrinths along the way. One of my goals was to visit as many as possible, so it probably won’t surprise you to find that I managed to miss all of them but two, both of which I found by serendipity alone on Day 16.

Natalie and I walked along in the woods outside of San Juan de Ortega, sharing anecdotes as we walked down the trail. I remember that she was telling me a story she had heard long ago in the Yukon, and I was completely engrossed – so much so that we were nearly on top of the bull before either of us saw him. There in the woods, in what we believed to be the middle of nowhere, was a GIGANTIC bull – nose ring and all – having a quiet snack in the undergrowth beneath the trees. It was a complete shock. We’d seen plenty of animals so far along the Camino, but had never run into anything this large without the comfort of a fence between us and it. I don’t know Natalie’s experience with cows, but I was terrified for a moment. We both stopped talking, and walked around the creature with great care. I expected him to run us down at any moment, but he was having a lovely afternoon in the woods, doing his own thing. He barely even registered our presence.

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Soon, we were out of the woods, into a light-flooded clearing. We could see for miles over the rolling hills. The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the trail so inviting…and there were cows everywhere. This portion of the Camino wound directly through the pasture land, no fences, just a well-worn dirt path, and lazy cattle lounging about, enjoying a beautiful day. My original terror at seeing the bull was pushed aside, overwhelmed by a sense of wonder. I love animals, and cows are no exception. It felt a unique privilege to get to share space with them. I’d change my mind about cows a couple of weeks later, but for today, I was in heaven.

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The first labyrinth was a tiny thing, up on a rise. There was already a pilgrim there, walking the old spiral, as we approached. I waited until he’d finished to take my own place there, and as I followed the radiating path, Natalie walked on along the Camino. I felt a twinge of panic as I watched her figure retreat into the distance, but forced myself to do the thing I needed to do, rather than follow my fear. It’s funny how you can learn and relearn a lesson. Mine has been – and continues to be – the art of letting go. This time I got it right. So many other times I fall short of the prize.

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Labyrinth walk completed, I finally walked on. The old town of Agés wasn’t too far down the road, and I was sure that I’d find Natalie in a cafe there, just like before. Even though there had been plenty of pilgrims on the road during the course of the afternoon, Agés seemed curiously empty. The first place I thought to stop for a coffee was shuttered tight. I consoled myself with the fact that it was getting on into the afternoon, and it must be siesta by now, but the fact is, the town was dead. What used to be a bustling place in the Middle Ages had failed. There were less than a hundred inhabitants, many of them elderly.

With the failing Spanish economy, the tiny towns all across the country are dying. The younger population move away to the cities for work, and fun, and culture, leaving their tiny towns behind to fall into ruin. I felt a strong affinity with Agés, because it has much in common with my tiny hometown in rural North Carolina. I, too, had betrayed my home for the promise of a better life – a life that allows me the luxury of traveling to other countries. How could I ever begrudge the young of a tiny, dying town their need to see a bigger world? How could I see the similarities between my tiny hometown and this lovely place, and still feel no tug to hurry back to the place I’d left behind to die in my absence?

The town is pretty small, so I walked up and down the main strip, made a detour to the town church (locked and looking somewhat decrepit), and finally crossed someone’s backyard to head back to the only cafe that seemed to be open. There were a couple of pilgrims sitting outside, one of whom was a younger guy from California – let’s call him Dude – that I’d run into before, and was not excited to see again. He wasn’t a bad kid, just not too bright, and not at all shy about saying whatever came to mind. I’d overheard Dude criticizing various Spanish customs in that special, uncultured, particularly demeaning way that only we Americans seem to grasp with aplomb. I had no wish to be associated with that kind of behavior. If I’m going to be a stupid tourist, let me do it on my own steam, thanks. Today he was being generally loud and dumb near the front door, so I ducked inside to see if there was a spot out of hearing range at the bar.

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The bar was empty, except for the required contingent of elderly local farmers. The bartender/owner quickly came over, and we discussed food and drink options in pigeon Spanish and a smattering of sign language. He very sweetly asked me where I was from, where I was headed, and what I liked the most to eat, and when he found out that I was from New Orleans, he was all smiles – he’d visited my city before. I ordered my old standby – a beer and a slice of tortilla, which he happily informed me was freshly cooked. When my plate was delivered, I was surprised to find he’d included a heaping helping of something entirely new to me – Pimentos de Padrón. He insisted I eat the first gorgeously blistered Padrón pepper in front of him, then laughed as I practically melted in delight. Move over, tortilla – my new favorite dish had arrived!

While I was eating, Dude and his walking buddy came in to get another drink and generally annoy everyone in the room. It felt like something out of an old western; had I not been annoyed with him, myself, I would have laughed at how obvious all of the old locals were being about staring daggers at this total outsider. The radio was on, and tension was broken when The 5th Dimension came on, singing “Aquarius,” from Hair. By then, Dude, the other pilgrim guy, and I were all drinking cans of Aquarius, the ubiquitous sports beverage of the Camino. I couldn’t help but giggle at the coincidence. Dude started to sing along and do a little routine with his drink can. The innocence of the scene diffused the situation, and soon after, both pilgrim guys sauntered off, leaving the locals and me in peace. A couple of weeks later, I’d hear that Dude drank an entire water bottle full of unfiltered water he’d gathered from a stream somewhere, and had to spend a couple of days in hospital. Gossip travels on the Camino, and I heard the story a few times, from different people. No one seemed too surprised.

By the time I left the cafe, it was seriously late – going on 2pm, at least. Any other day, it would have been time to start wrapping things up and finding a place to bed down for the night, but I had plans to keep. Just outside of the bar, there was a sweet little cat napping on the sidewalk, so I bent down to pet him. When I straightened back up, who should I see but Terry, walking out of a door just a few feet down the block. It was a seriously wonderful surprise, since that morning it had been pretty obvious from our varied plans that our paths wouldn’t cross again this Camino. I hurried over to give her a hug, and before I knew it, I was tagging along to try to find an artist that she remembered from her last trip here. We wandered around, looking for this particular house she remembered, where an old man made perfect little miniatures of real architecture from the town.

As it turns out, we didn’t find the artist in question, but as we were walking down a particular street for the second time, in retrospect most likely looking completely lost, a door opened down the way. A wizened old woman walked out, pointed our way, and started to yell. At first, I thought she might be angry, but then I realized she was just slightly deaf and asking us a question. Terry spoke enough Spanish to understand, and yelled back an answer. The lady ducked back into her little house, then came out a minute later carrying a gigantic iron key – the thing was at least as long as my forearm. She started off down the road, beckoning us to follow her. Terry filled me in: the woman was the guardian of the town’s church key, and had offered to give us a tour. We followed along, feeling so blessed to be offered the opportunity to glimpse the interior of the town’s precious worship spot. It was plain, but beautiful in its stark interior.

Once we stepped inside the building, our guide started to chatter along happily. Her presence somehow brought the holy space to life, giving it color I wouldn’t have seen without her. She knew that we couldn’t understand much Spanish, and she didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop her from telling us everything there was to say about the church. Somehow, between Terry and I, we picked up enough words to fill each other in on the basics. Our guide had been baptized here, and married here, as had her children. She showed us the timeworn baptismal font, and a beautiful figure of the Virgin Mary. We left donations with her for the church’s upkeep, and she gave us each a blessing, hugging both of us and kissing our cheeks. It was a moment of such shining kindness. It happened beyond words, and escapes my explanation, even now. I felt like a real pilgrim in that moment.

When I left Terry behind in Agés, I refused to say goodbye. I knew that it was the last time I’d see her, but I’d also known that earlier in the morning, when we’d said goodbye the last time. So really, what could I know? Instead, I told her, “See you later.” All the better, since I’d actually see her a couple more times!

I’d heard that I should spend some serious time in Atapuerca, the famous archaeological site just outside of Agés. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the home of some of the earliest human remains currently known. Before leaving for the Camino, I’d been positive that I’d spend a day there, so of course I didn’t spend any time there whatsoever. I walked through the town and right back out, even though I saw that several pilgrims I’d met over the last few days were sitting out in front of an albergue, boots kicked off, having the first lovely beers of the afternoon. I still had about 6km left, which meant more than an hour and a half of trudging along, maybe even two hours, given my current pace. I mentally kicked my own ass as I walked out of town. I didn’t want to walk any farther, so why was I pushing myself to keep up with this schedule?

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The walk over the hill at Atapuerca was grueling and a little creepy. The entire path was strewn with large rocks, making every step a chore. I spent a majority of the time I walked over the hill thinking about the many ways I could get hurt, and mentally rehearsing how I’d get in contact with emergency services if and when I broke a leg. After leaving town, I didn’t see another person for quite some time, and it seemed likely that I might not meet another pilgrim. Even so, I finally did, just around the time I saw my second labyrinth of the day.

The night before, in Villafranca Montes de Oca, I’d briefly run into a man and woman traveling together. In their early to mid-30’s, they had a strange intensity, moving as a solemn singular unit, not exactly inviting of outside interaction. Here they were again, despite not having seen them at all today. I was so relieved to see new faces that I instinctively just started babbling along at them, not really considering if either of them spoke English. Luckily, they both did. They were kind enough to walk with me for awhile, brightening my afternoon and giving me a love story to think on for years now. I wish I could remember their names – maybe Terry can remind me, because I know that she met them once, too – but we’ll call them Raul and Minka.

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Raul was a Spaniard, and Minka was from Eastern Europe, I think the Czech Republic. They’d met a year before, on the Camino. She spoke no English or Spanish, and he didn’t speak Czech. He said that he saw her from across the room, and fell for her instantly. He endeavored to speak to her each time they saw each other, and though she thought he was weird at first, she began to see the charm in the situation. Eventually they figured out how to communicate, and despite the language barrier, fell in love. She went back home to her country and started learning Spanish (and a smattering of English, evidently, since she told me some of their story while they walked, though he was the talker of the duo). He went back home and started learning Czech. He visited her, and she visited him. Even though it was difficult trying to figure out living situations, they were both sure that this was the right choice, that they’d found The One. They got married, and now they were on a second Camino to celebrate their honeymoon. Unfortunately, they were short on money, and only had the budget to stay at albergues donativo (donation-based hostels), which were few and far-between. They would be walking all the way to Burgos today, even if it meant walking in the dark. Eventually we parted ways, since they needed to pick up speed in order to reach the city.

After the hill at Atapuerca, there was another nearly abandoned town, Villalval, where I was shocked to see an abandoned church in ruins. I stopped and investigated the church for some time, walking all over the church grounds, attempting to look in windows, and wishing that I had the guts to try to break in. In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m a total goody-two-shoes, not because I want to be, as much as because I prefer to avoid unnecessary conflict. So no breaking in, just some photos, and then on my way again. Towards the edge of this tiny village, I started to feel someone watching me. I’m sure that more than one dark window had a lonely little old lady behind it, and I was marginally more exciting than whatever was on TV that afternoon. Still, I thought I heard someone call my name once, just one faint, “Anna!” floating across the rooftops. My imagination ran wild. Needless to say, the last couple of kilometers were completed at a trot.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 4).

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 2) – Villafranca Montes de Oca to San Juan de Ortega

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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Though I believed I’d seen my fair share of the Spanish countryside by the time we got to Villafranca Montes de Oca, this day’s walk was to be a lesson in avoiding assumption. Shortly after leaving town that morning, we entered a large swath of beautiful, undeveloped forest land, and it seemed like there was a new surprise around every curve. I walked down a long, quiet stretch of fern forest, saw the prettiest little flowers, and happily analyzed every new type of rock I stumbled across (sometimes literally). My college geology professor would have been amused at how a girl who’d often slept through class (you can’t blame me – it was at 8am, and you already know I’m not a morning person) would one day grow up to geek out over pebbles.

One of the biggest regrets of my morning was coming to a huge dip in the road and realizing that no photos I took were going to capture its stupefying dimensions. I’d walked up and down mountains before, but this was something else. It looked like a freefall I’d absolutely hate to take via rollercoaster. I was in awe, but still remembered an important lesson I’d found on my first steep downhill climb, going into Roncesvalles on Day 3. I unpacked my sandals and switched shoes, just in case, to make sure there was no way of hurting my toes on the downhill climb. I might have been masochist enough to go on this stupidly long walk, but no way was I going to lose toenails in the process. (Click here to learn about how I took care of my feet on the Camino Frances.)

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It’s difficult to make out in this photo, but the dark spot in the trail ahead is where the trail drops completely out of sight. The little speck far in the distance on the trail is Natalie.

By the time I got to the big hill, Natalie was already far ahead on the trail. In fact, if you look very carefully in the picture above, you can just make out a tiny hiker wearing orange pants on the uphill portion of the next hill. I spent most of the morning alone, only meeting one other person, a woman pilgrim who was nearly done walking her intended portion of the Camino. She and her husband were vacationing through Spain together via RV, and she had split up from him a few days before to walk to Burgos, where they would meet up again and drive on. I thought it was such a pleasant idea for sharing an experience with your partner without forcing them into a specific travel style that didn’t suit.

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Before getting to San Juan de Ortega, where I hoped to regroup with Natalie, I ran across two things I hadn’t expected. The first thing was situated just before coming to the big hill – an archaeological site and memorial plaque, at the site of a mass grave. I couldn’t understand much of the signage, but was able to understand that this site was the unfortunate location of an execution during the Spanish Civil War (here’s an article about the dig, as well as the possible victims). I took a moment to reflect and offer up a prayer, feeling sadly inadequate – it was striking me how woefully unprepared I’d been to be a traveler here. It felt like the ultimate disrespect, to spend so little time getting to know the ins and outs of the country that was to shelter me.

I did my best on the Camino to divorce myself from expectation, and to be present and aware that it was my job to listen, follow the locals’ leads, and most of all, to be courteous in all dealings. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I take some solace in knowing that I tried. There was so much history under my feet, and I had so little prior knowledge of any of it. I walked on, sober in the realization that I was completely incapable of showing proper respect to the dead here. As much as I have tried to be open to being a child of the world, much of history is alien to me, evanescent, ultimately untouchable. Of course, this is obvious – none of us are time travelers (if you are, call me!) – but it doesn’t keep me from deep regret. The best I could do was to interpret the scene through a human lens, and understand the tragedy that accompanies any theft of life.

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This “Buen Camino” helped dispel a little of the unease felt on this part of the trail.

The second site I encountered was almost the exact opposite scene – an unexpected art installation, in the middle of nowhere. There were no explanatory plaques, so I still have no clue who made the art, or why, but it was a refreshing find. The path had become flat and very wide, and though the mud was drying, it was obvious that had we walked that way a day before, it would have been the same shoe-sucking muck that we’d encountered leading into Villafranca Montes de Oca. It appeared that there had been some deforestation along the trail in recent history. Where before, the trees had come right up to the trail, here there was a wide stretch of fern growth bordering the path on each side. At some point in this stretch, I began to feel uneasy. The quiet was overbearing. Something about the road just felt wrong. It wasn’t the first time on the Camino that I’d thought back to how medieval travelers hadn’t liked to travel through the woods, on account of the threat of brigands. At times, I felt time overlapping. It’s hard to explain properly, but I was afraid of the past of the woods, not the present. Present me felt no threat – in fact, felt no human presence lurking. But another part of me felt tapped into a primordial fear, like I was stepping into someone else’s feeling-shoes, and experiencing their emotional reaction to being watched from the woods of another time.

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Dat banana tongue, tho…

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Dear artist – if you’re reading this, your beautiful sun/moon/heart/rainbow composition was one of the prettiest things I saw on the whole trip. Thank you! ❤

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Either way, as soon as I got to the magical little clearing where the art installation lived, this eerie feeling passed. Perhaps it was the little burst of happy energy from all of the colors, or maybe I was just instinctively relieved to see signs of other humans nearby. I wish I knew who’d taken the time to leave this lovely little art collection behind, and I hope that it grows along the path, in the way that so many areas of Camino offerings seem to grow and accumulate more cairns and milagros. Soon after, I passed a really nice little km marker that gave me the burst of energy I needed to pick up the pace.

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As I’d hoped, Natalie’s pack and hiking pole were waiting in front of a little cafe in San Juan de Ortega when I arrived. I happily dropped my pack and went in to find her, only to realize that she had been waiting for awhile, and was impatient to leave again. Before I’d arrived, she’d taken a short tour of the monastery, checked emails, and had a leisurely cup of coffee. Though we were both relieved to meet up again, I knew that our speeds were no longer aligning, and got the feeling that she had something new on her mind. It felt like the distance was more than physical, and I began the emotional practice of reconciling myself to what was to come, another Camino “break up.” But it wasn’t to be today. She waited with me for a little while, so I could grab an Aquarius and a slice of tortilla, and we took a look at the maps to confirm our plan to march on to Cardeñuela Riopico that afternoon. After my short break, we strapped on packs and headed off towards Ages, chatting happily about the things we’d seen so far this morning.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 3). 

Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 3)

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

First off, you should know that the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is pretty large. The basilica consists of two main levels – upper and lower – plus crypts underneath the main structure, as well as the requisite bell tower and related private rooms above the upper level. I spent about three hours exploring the spaces open to tourists, and could have spent many more, if not for the repeated message on the loudspeaker: “No photos, please. No photos, please. No photos, please…” in about five different languages. As you might gather from this, I didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the church. I doubt anyone would have kicked me out or confiscated my camera, but after the run-in with the Alabama church group, I was feeling like I should attempt to be a better person, you know?

The upper level of the basilica is awash with frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis, frequently attributed to artist and architect Giotto, who is known as the first great artist of the Italian Renaissance. I’d count him as a late medieval artist, but that’s an ongoing academic argument that will most likely see no solution in my lifetime. We have little proof that the frescoes were indeed created by Giotto, but they are striking and historically important nonetheless. In the lower level of the basilica, a fresco painted by Giotto’s teacher, Cimabue, still exists. It, too, is argued to be by another painter, due to its contradiction to commonly known elements of Giotto’s style. I’d studied all of these works in undergrad, but had conveniently managed to forget their location. As a result, when I walked into the space, my heart skipped a beat. As my dad would say, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

The only other time I’ve felt that extreme rush of familiarity and longing – a soul call, if you will – for a piece of art was when I unexpectedly stumbled across Rogier van der Weyden’s “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2004. That was a moment for the ages. My heart breaks just thinking about it. Some folks get misty-eyed over lost loves; I get misty-eyed over beloved paintings. What can I say?

"St. Luke Drawing the Virgin" by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons. (Also, please don’t judge this painting by the image on your screen. Go to Boston and see it in person. It’s superb.)

Anyway, so I walked into this enormous, softly lit space, my eyes landed on priceless art previously only seen in a text book, and I felt like someone had just cut off my air supply. I got a little loopy. I went from being a tourist on a day trip to being my primal self, standing in a small Italian town, searching for something I didn’t know I’d lost. I was smaller than ever, but suddenly feeling intimately connected to everything.

This feeling only intensified as I entered the small museum dedicated to St. Francis, on the lower level of the building. At first, I didn’t intend to go in. It was a tiny room, and people didn’t seem to be staying that long. What could it possibly have? Knowing the day was short and there was a lot ahead of me still, I walked in, intending to just glance around and walk back out. But there, in a simple case by the door, was a brown hair shirt, conserved under glass. I looked at it, then looked again. Not just a piece of clothing. HIS piece of clothing. Until that moment, I’d never realized one of the coolest things that sets Francis apart from other saints of the time period: he was acknowledged to be on the road to sainthood whilst still alive. People were already planning his veneration before he died, which gives credence to the fact that the items preserved are actually his, versus items from other saints that were sometimes collected decades or even hundreds of years after the saint’s passing.

Though the room was small, it held clothing that Francis wore during his lifetime, the cloths used to bandage the wounds of his stigmata later in life, and most impressive, the original document used to found the Ordo Fratro Minorum (Francis called his followers the “Little Brothers”). The beginning of the Franciscan Order, the words that can be argued to have saved the medieval Church from a ruinous path of greed and gluttony, it’s there for all to see in that little museum. For a person of little religious faith but an overwhelming desire to find some smidgen of truth, seeing Francis’ words written out in ink on vellum can make – did make – a world of difference.

After seeing his belongings/relics, I mistakenly thought I’d reached the pinnacle of my experience at the basilica. But as I started to walk back through the building, I noticed a sign for the crypt. I love crypts. Crypts and bell towers are the best parts of churches, in my opinion, and I visit as many of both as I can. So of course I decided to take the stairs and see what kinds of creepy stuff was down there. As I got closer to the bottom, I realized that whoever was buried downstairs must be important – lots of people crowded the stairs with me. We reached a small chapel where a service was being conducted. Beyond the chapel, I could see a wide stone column, surrounded by a round room with niches. The people next to me began to whisper, “Oh, this is Jacoba!” and I turned to see that I was standing next to a protected niche, containing a burial container. Inside were the remains of Jacoba dei Settesoli, a dear friend and devoted follower of St. Francis. She was the one who dressed the wounds of his stigmata, and she was present at his death, despite the impropriety of a woman being at his bedside in the friary. Suddenly, I realized why everyone was standing around. I realized who was in the crypt. I’d come here to feel close to St. Francis, this man I didn’t know or understand, but still loved, and here he was, waiting for me.

I sat in the chapel for the remainder of service, then walked around Francis’ grave, taking note that the niches around the room were the graves of his four best friends and fellow monks. I was suddenly happy for Jacoba. Though she wasn’t in the chamber, itself, she was close. I pictured them enjoying nature together, sharing a simple mindful moment. As I left the crypt, I purchased two candles, leaving them to be burned at one of the chapel’s daily services.

For the rest of my time in the basilica, I felt my spirit begin to drift higher and higher; I was feeling positively effervescent. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off of my face. It’s free to enter the building, but there are donation boxes dotting the corridors. I put a euro or two in every donation box that I passed. There were brochures explaining the various artwork; I took one and dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. I wanted to light a candle and pray at a small side altar; I dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. A photography exhibit shared the Franciscan Order’s works of service with the poor; I dropped a few euros in the donation box. By the time I’d walked around the building and stopped in at the gift shop to buy a few keepsakes for friends and family, I had about 15 euros left in my pocket. I’d have to find an ATM before heading back to Perugia.

After leaving the church, my next stop was another small museum. To be honest, my first intention was to find a free bathroom, but I was quickly drawn in by MUMA (Museo Missionario Indios Frati Cappuccini Dell’Umbria In Amazzonia). For a pretty tiny museum, it had some of the most impressive interactive technology of any museum I’ve ever visited, and the subject matter – the Capuchin Order (a subset of the Franciscans) and their mission in the Amazon from the 19th century to today. It’s easy to assume that the story told would be about a bunch of Christians coming in and “bettering” lives by converting native peoples, but that’s not really what the museum is about. It turns out that though the idea is to spread the gospel, the method is to go, be of service, help make changes that native peoples are comfortable with, and respect existing traditions. The museum is a celebration of cultural diversity, overcoming adversity, and protecting ecological treasures. I was pleasantly surprised, though now I understand that these are all things that Francis, himself, supported. If you have a chance, please check out MUMA’s website.

Hunger was calling, so I opted for a sandwich and some wine at a local cafe with the last of my money. Afterwards, while trying to withdraw money at an ATM, I realized that both my bank card and credit card had been shut off. I’d forgotten to tell the bank that I was traveling internationally, and they placed a hold on my accounts. No problem; I’d find a telephone, call the number on the back of the card, and have my problem solved within the hour. Just one problem – the international numbers on my cards weren’t working from the pay phone. After several failed attempts, I gave up and decided to enjoy the hour I had left before it was time to catch the bus back to Perugia. Thankfully, my return ticket had already been purchased.

The cell in which St. Francis' father imprisoned him.

The cell in which St. Francis’ father imprisoned him.

Not far from the ATM, I passed a smaller, interesting looking church and decided to go in. It turned out that I had entered Chiesa Nuova, built on the remains of St. Francis’ family home. I stood in the storeroom where the former Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone’s father had stored fine silks to be sold at market. I saw what remained of the family home’s imposing front door, and the small cell in which Giovanni’s father locked him when he declared his intention to give up the family business and become a man of God.

My last stop before heading out to wait for the bus was the simplest, but strangely also the most striking. Santa Maria Maggiore is austere in comparison to its fellow holy sites within the walls of Assisi, but after a day of passionate impressions, followed by a building sense of worry about my finances, the late afternoon light streaming through her rose window was everything I needed.

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I left town, and went to stand by the bus. There were pay phones, so I tried all of the numbers I had once more. No luck. I just couldn’t manage to dial out. Deciding it was user error and recognizing that I was quickly destroying every ounce of personal peace I’d just found within Assisi, I gave up for the time being. Still, I was seething. I’d lost it. A whole day of beautiful things and suddenly all I could think about was how I was going to pay my hotel bill when it was time to leave Perugia in the morning. Standing there on that June afternoon, I was halfway between heaven and hell. I was so angry, and angry again at myself for letting something this stupid get the better of me. And even angrier that I couldn’t just hold on to this goodness I was just reveling in, not a couple of hours before. What was wrong with me? Who does this to themselves?

A friendly voice piped up from beside me, stirring me out of my slump. “It’s much warmer here than back at home.” I looked down to see a lovely little Japanese lady, impeccably dressed, and staring back at me with the kindest smile. My ruffled feathers began to smooth over instantly. Ikuko was from Japan, but lived in San Francisco with her husband much of the year. She spent a great deal of time in Italy with friends, and like me, had traveled to Assisi for the day out of curiosity about the saint. She had ridden the same bus in with me that morning, and was also heading back to Perugia on the last bus out for the day. We chatted for a bit there at the bus stop, then sat together on the way back, too.

In the year and a half since meeting Ikuko, I’ve tried to explain the feeling of that bus ride many times. The closest I’ve ever gotten is by using something that popped into my head that day, while we were talking. I seriously began to wonder if she was my angel. Sometimes I think that even if that couldn’t possibly be true, it’s the thing that makes the most sense. We talked about life in Italy, about the little things, like coffee and finding great gelato, and about big things, like finding God. She asked me why I’d gone to Assisi, and I explained sheepishly that I didn’t know, exactly. I told her that I had trouble with some parts of Christianity, but no trouble at all with the big picture items, like being good, spreading light and love, and living a life of service. We talked about doing our best each day, and hoping that it would be good enough in the end. She told me of her (literal) epiphany during a sermon in Ravenna, the moment she’d gone from agnostic to enthusiastic Catholic. She spoke of suddenly feeling an emptiness inside her fill up with light. I was so happy for her, because the light she spoke of shone out of her.

Have you ever watched a baby laugh and smile over something simple that absolutely filled them with delight? It’s like they’re overflowing with simple goodness – there’s nothing dark or troubling that could encroach on how they’re reacting to that moment. That’s what it felt like to be with Ikuko on that bus ride home. She helped me focus the passion that I’d experienced that day, and turned it on in me, like a faucet in my heart. I feel like I’ve been filling up with goodness, ever since. True, I’m a little leaky now and then, but I’m a work in progress.

She left me with a poem. It’s one of the first things I posted on this blog, actually. You can read it here. We’ve kept up through emails ever since. I wish I would have walked her home that night, but we were going to two different parts of the city. And besides, I still had the credit card issue to figure out.

It took me a few more hours to crack the case. Many, many tears and failed phone calls later, after I’d enlisted the help of an American in my global cell phone’s company call center, plus two separate concierges, the lady at my soon-to-be favorite gelateria, plus a number of concerned but utterly unhelpful tourists in the public square, I got everything figured out. In the end, no one could help me dial the numbers on the back of my credit cards (or any international numbers for Chase Bank on any of their websites) from Italy – not even the Italians. My concierge darkly blamed the trouble on it being an “American number”. I bit my tongue to avoid the unpleasant remark I felt bubbling up inside…and to think that only a few hours earlier, I might have agreed with his assessment.

Luckily, I had an iPad and Skype, and it turns out that you can dial anyone from Skype – including Chase Bank. Ten minutes later, I celebrated my newly-reinstated bank accounts with two scoops of gelato – pistachio and sweet cream is the best combination, hands down.

During the ordeal of trying to call my credit card company, I was sitting on some steps near the public square and sobbing. Luckily, extreme displays of emotion don’t make Italians run in the opposite direction, and an older gentleman came up and interrupted me mid-sob. He asked me if I was holding an iPad, and if I’d be so kind as to let him check his stocks. He asked me why I was so upset, brushed it off as an issue I’d soon solve, then asked me to wine later if I was free. I declined, much to my later disappointment when I saw the man and an extended group of friends having a lovely conversation at an open-air trattoria.

Watching the group of Italians laugh at their table, it struck me that it had all been a test – a big, messy lesson from St. Francis. I’d just had a small taste of what it was like to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers, to not know where my next meal was coming from, to have no clue how I’d be leaving town. All I had was my ability to make friends, to prove my goodness, and to have faith that something would come through. It was a tough lesson to learn, and I don’t think I did too well on the first round; I was a spoiled brat and an emotional wreck, placing too much faith on my gadgetry and not enough on human connection. Maybe that’s where I’ll step up my game on The Camino.

Overall, my trip to Assisi was a pivotal moment in my life thus far. In one way, the day was quite simple: I took a bus to see a couple of churches, and ran out of money. It’s all of the details that make the day so huge in my memory. Every time I run back through the events of the day, my mind untangles some new moment, makes a previously unnoticed connection, draws me closer in my relationship with St. Francis. The wild man who preached to birds, who believed that laughter and song were the perfect way to spread the radical concept of not being a jerk, who gladly stripped naked in the public square to renounce his father’s fat pocketbook in exchange for a life of austerity…I’m behind that. I might not be able to accept everything yet. Maybe ever. But I’ll take what I can – and I’ll pass it right back out. My best is all I’ve got, and I’m going to give it.

Shrubbery from the basilica's lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.

Shrubbery from the basilica’s lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.

Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 1)

Me and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie's wedding reception. It was a misty day, but we're actually on top of a mountain, overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

Me (right) and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie’s wedding reception. It was a misty day, thus hard to see much of the background, but we’re actually on top of a mountain overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

In the summer of 2012, I went to Europe for a best friend’s wedding. Before I left, I quit my job of four years. I’d hated working there pretty much from the beginning, and had just been holding on until a better job came along. One never did. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and elation that I gave my notice. Jobs were scarce; what would I do for money? But the promise of an entire two weeks in Croatia and Italy, not a moment of which would be spent thinking about my gut-twisting, heart-palpitation-inducing job, filled me with a longing that I couldn’t ignore. I briefly imagined a long vacation, wasted with worrying about a pointless job back home, and realized that my limit had been reached. I called up my boss and resigned my position immediately.

From the moment my flight landed in Trieste, I was in heaven. My American girlfriend was marrying a Croatian sailboat captain, and two of his best friends drove into Italy to pick me up at the airport. On the way back to their hometown of Lovran, one friend spoke in Croatian and the other translated into passable English (much better than my Croatian): “What music is favorite of yours?” “How like you our country?” “You are best friend of Katie, yes?” The radio dial fluctuated between German pop music and Italian power ballads, interesting roadside attractions were pointed out, and one of the guys measured me up as a potential bridesmaid “score” – THAT look is universal.

In Croatia, I met up with my two best friends. One was getting married, and the other announced to me on the spot that she’d just found out she was pregnant with her first child. We celebrated that first night together with about a gallon of happy tears and another of freshly-made gelato. It was odd, because I was intensely sad to be being left behind, but also so happy to see my friends getting all that they desired. It was the kickoff of what was to be an emotional vacation; maybe it’s my nature as a Scorpio, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of weeks in two of the most beautiful countries on earth than exploring the complexities of the soul.

Luckily, since I was with two of the people who know me best in the world, I was given the perfect mixture of alone time vs. together time in Lovran. I had time to explore the town on my own, sit on the beach, and drink espresso in the local internet cafe. But I also had the important honor of helping the bride Katie’s mother steam creases out of her wedding gown on her wedding day. I also felt beyond loved when Katie invited her best girlfriends to spend a few precious moments drinking champagne with her as she got dressed, put on makeup, and tried to relax before meeting her intended at the traditional pre-wedding party. At and after the ceremony, Croatian relatives who had never met any of Katie’s friends from the US knew me on sight, called me by name, and hastened to give hugs and make conversation, but no one was clingy or expected too much. When I was worn out from talking, there was a beautiful mountain-top balcony where I sat and had a glass of wine, enjoying the murmur of conversation in the background while a cool breeze from the ocean comforted me, the last of the unmarrieds, feeling a little melancholy at the end of the night.

The night after the wedding, I was back in charge of my emotions and decided to take full advantage of being relatively young and able to party. I went out with Katie’s younger twin cousins and some of their new Croatian friends, drinking beers and conducting a singalong down at the marina, then moving our party to a local late night bar. It was a raucous time, until I realized it was almost time to pack up and leave town in two hours…oops. At 6am the next morning, an extremely hungover and sleep-deprived Anna caught a ride back to Trieste, where I caught a bus to the train station, where I then caught a train to Venice. It was a good five hours of hating my life and hoping not to puke on my fellow passengers. But then: Venice. My eyes fill with tears just typing it. There’s no need to wax poetic. Let me just say that it’s one of my favorite places on earth. It never disappoints, and always draws me back. I’m always living for my next visit; the smell of salt water, the sound of music floating over the canals.

A wonderful meal on the island of Burano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant's own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

A wonderful meal on the island of Murano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant’s own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

After a too-short stay in Venezia, another train ride (this one much less hungover, thank goodness) conveyed me to unfamiliar territory: Perugia. Before visiting this Umbrian gem, the city honestly wasn’t even on my radar. In fact, I’d chosen to visit Perugia primarily because it was a short bus ride from my intended target: Assisi, home of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, otherwise known as St. Francis. I didn’t spend enough time to have any great stories about the town, other than being awestruck by the massive Etruscan Arch (dating from the 3rd century BC), and falling in love with the tradition of a late night espresso and gelato at my local gelateria. In hindsight, I have no idea how I slept on that vacation. I think I had an espresso every time I passed a cafe, I never turned down a glass of wine (which should be a rule on any good vacation), and I know I ate gelato at least twice a day for two weeks!

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy.

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy. The photo doesn’t do justice to how imposing this 3rd century BC construction is in person. It seems indestructible.

My second morning in Perugia dawned bright and cool – perfect weather for a day trip to St. Francis’ hometown. I didn’t know what to expect. Before leaving the States, I’d decided that since I’d have a full week on my own in Italy, it would be a good idea to spend some of my time just shopping and eating (two of my top favorite pastimes), and the rest checking out architecture and religious relics. Assisi seemed like a fairly obvious choice, given my time constraints and an extremely basic knowledge of St. Francis – that he was an animal lover, displayed symptoms of what might today be concluded to be mental illness, and wasn’t too keen on fashion. Most of all, though, I was excited about visiting a town that hasn’t changed all that much through the centuries. Assisi is a walled medieval city, set against a stunning backdrop of rolling, verdant hills. I’d never seen anything like it in person, so why not? Francis would just be the icing on the cake.

Little did I know that this trip would set something in me on fire. Stay tuned for more on my awakening in Assisi, tomorrow…(Click here to read Part 2)

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone's private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone’s private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

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Weekly Writing Challenge: 1,000 Words

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Contemplation, by Sheri Lucas Rowlands.

This week’s writing challenge begins with an image (“Contemplation,” above). As it happens, today’s post was going to be about a spot on the map that seems to naturally reel in those in need of serious contemplation. I’m talking about Finisterre, on the western coast of Spain.

There are many routes a pilgrim can take to Santiago de Compostela. The most popular (and the route that I’ll be taking, at least this first time around) is the Camino Frances, which starts in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in France, and crosses the Pyrenees into the Basque region of Spain, then through the Meseta region and on to Galicia and Santiago de Compostela. It’s a little less than 800km, typically covered on foot, but also tackled on bicycle and horseback.

Even though St. Jean is one of the traditional starting points for the journey, peregrinos can start out just about anywhere. In the middle ages, the pilgrimage started from your front door, and some people still do leave their homes and walk all the way to Santiago. No matter where a person kicks off their trip, the recognized end point is Santiago, where pilgrims who have teken on the last 100k by foot, horse, or bicycle receive their Compostela, the official document signifying completion of the journey.

A simple Compostela, via www.caminosantiagocompostela.com.

Not all pilgrims end their walk at Santiago, however. A tradition dating from pre-Christian times encourages pilgrims to to keep walking about 80km further down the road, to a place called Finisterre, once thought to be the literal end of the earth. When the pilgrimage was first established in the 8th century, pilgrims visited Finisterre to pick up a scallop shell for proof that they’d completed the journey. Today, some pilgrims-turned-celebrants burn their possessions and jump naked into the sea to be cleansed and reborn. Others just sit and have a long, quiet reflection on the last month of blisters, mud, and newly established friendships.

After careful thought, I believe that once I reach Santiago, I’ll take a break for a day or two, then continue on to Finisterre. There are positives and negatives to this decision. I’m sure I’ll be bone tired. I’ll be really annoyed with wearing the same two outfits for a month. If other accounts are to be believed, my boots might be wearing out. Unless something drastic happens to help my back and hips get in better shape over the next few months, both will be screaming in agony, and possibly preventing a good night’s sleep.

Finisterre

Contemplating life at the end of the world.

On the other hand, for me, seeing the sea is always – always – a positive. I’ve heard that reaching Santiago can be somewhat of a letdown; after so many days of walking, you get to expect that the proverbial finish line will be home to a choir of angels, or at least some fireworks. Then you arrive and find that it’s just a place, like any other. A beautiful city and an imposing cathedral, yes, but still just a city. I’m pretty sure that my heart will be breaking as I say goodbye to my new friends and have to start thinking seriously about returning to the “real world.” I will need the ocean to hold me up while I put the pieces back together. Maybe I, too, will be burn my possessions and jump naked into the ocean, to be reborn in the waters off of Finisterre.

Gee, I hope they have a clothing store nearby…

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