“A part of you will die here,” Francisco from Portugal said when he spoke about the Meseta, the second phase of three along the Camino de Santiago.
It was nearing noon on a Thursday in the second week of July when I spotted the Fuente de Prattore and took rest beneath the small alcove of trees locked between yellow cereal fields. It was the first day entering the Meseta. My ears rang with hot wind and the tymbal clicks of cicadas. The nearest village of Hornillas was yet another 6 kilometers away and so I was relieved to see the fountain give. The sun had not yet drunk too greedily from it.
There was a picnic table where Francisco sat. I picked myself up from the dirt and sat across from him. I quietly peeled an orange as he told me about how he had biked an alternate route from Lisbon the year before. A few hundred yards away from where we sat, many pilgrims didn’t stop for shade. I wasn’t surprised. It’s hard to differentiate the journey from the destination.
It had been two months since I’d quit my three jobs in Arizona, and six since I’d graduated with my journalism degree. I’d been in Europe for a little over a month and found myself for the past two weeks making pilgrimage across northern Spain. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got back to the States and it was more freedom I’d ever been allowed in my 22 years. I questioned whether or not it was a childish and privileged notion that travel could cure you of the rat race.
“The pilgrim route is a very good thing,” Francisco recited, touting the Codex Calixtinus. “But it is narrow. For the road which leads us to life is narrow.”
The route of Santiago de Compostela was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. The Camino de Santiago, the Camino Frances, the Way of St. James, dates back to the 9th century following the discovery of Saint James’ tomb.
Like me, Francisco started in the southwestern French village of St. Jean Pied de Port. To ancient pilgrims, the 790-kilometer route was called the voie lactée—the Milky Way—since they used the stars instead of yellow arrows as their guide to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, ‘Compostela’ itself meaning field of stars.
“The only way out is through,” a hospitalero said a few days later in Castrojeriz, a village that wrapped itself around a hill and its castle in ruin like a snake around its prey. “The Meseta is the most important part of the journey,” she continued. “You become an adult here.”
It only seemed fitting. In the Meseta, many who talked about it did so without a smile. They spoke only of ways to avoid the hard part, and the uninterested skipped over it entirely. An elevated plateau, there’s little to no shade but crop fields of wheat and barley. The road is flat and straight and for the last three days runs parallel to the highway. It’s the long middle stretch where you begin to face yourself. Time doesn’t hold much meaning here.
I had arrived at my starting point of St. Jean Pied de Port by bus two weeks before with Brian, Chad and Jeffrey—all in their 30s— who I had met on the train from Paris. They said they were from Michigan and surfed and did other things like make things out of wood but also cut hair, play music and work at a non-profit.
The bus had dropped us off just outside the old citadel walls and I then made my way uphill to the pilgrim’s office. I was asked which country I came from and was given a pilgrim’s passport to collect stamps from the albergues and villages for proof of how far I walked upon arrival in Santiago five weeks later.
“We are advising young women who are walking the Camino for the first time,” a volunteer at the long table before me said, “to not.” I had prepared myself for this, having read about the missing woman weeks before. I held my hand and picked at the corner of my thumb. “Because of the American woman who went missing,” she explained. Denise Thiem from Arizona had been missing since April. Her body wouldn’t be found until September. “We’ve never had a problem like this before, but we are letting people know.” But I couldn’t leave, not then.
That evening, the sunset broke across the valley, runny like egg yolk. I drank my cup of burgundy wine with the three boys from Michigan atop the Citadel. They pointed southwest to the Pyrenees, a shade darker than the wine. It was raining slightly to its right. “That’s where we’re going,” Brian said.
But I ended up delaying by a day, and it surprised me how attached to them I’d become. The next morning, I started the climb with Bridget from South Africa. She said to imagine yourself safe and protected like you’re in your own bubble. “You want to attract good things,” she said. “It’s important to do this.” When I looked up I couldn’t see the top of the Pyrenees. The incline was steep but it was the push inward, the thinking that Roncesvalles was always just over the next peak that got to me. I said goodbye to Bridget then; she was faster than me and I needed to heed my own pace.
Downhill and through dense woods, my toes pressed against my hiking boots but I did not stop. The mud felt good beneath my feet where it had never done so before. Like cattle, you stop swatting flies away because they just end up coming back. When I broke through the last of it, there was no surface the light did not reach. I had started in France and ended in Spain. The albergue in Roncesvalles gleamed stories high and before it a green hill where cleaner pilgrims sprawled.
Alexandra, a familiar face from St. Jean Pied de Port, found me. Starting near Paris, she had already been walking for two months and four days. I had met her on my first night tracing the old citadel walls with the boys from Michigan, and then the next day when we both happened to stay behind, both of us walking up and down the same street but in opposite directions until the albergues reopened. “I want to know Alexandra,” she said. “I’ve learned that you can change anything in life if you move.”
She said that crossing the Pyrenees was her easiest day. She ran down the mountain and through the forest. In my broken French and her broken English, we would talk about running and how she needs to; how she doesn’t know where she is going but that her answer is in the Way until she can’t anymore. Every morning I’d awake thinking I’d been hit by a train but with those words pushing me forward.
Leaving Roncesvalles, the vegetation was prehistoric. Liisa from Queensland walked a little ahead of me, fast and with conviction. She’d reach Santiago in only 24 days. She’d fall in love with a man also named Santiago, a hospitalero she had met and who would serendipitously offer me a cup of coffee in return for her contact information. Liisa left me as we left Pamplona. She pressed a piece of rose quartz into the palm of my hand. “You will know what to do with it when you get there.” Her hug was warm and her words prophetic. I’d end up giving it to Vanda from Hungary who—seeing me struggle down a mountain—gave me her walking stick.
There’s no perfect way in getting there. You may veer to the right or to the left. You might do it slower than most, but you will get there.
Pilgrimage becomes tangible first through action. It’s then that you find yourself making introductions with the universe—when you’ve very simply tired of sitting in the dirt like you’ve done so many times before.