The further into Spain you walked, the drier it became. Taking a break not far outside Pamplona and near the small village of Zariqulegui, I met Lorena from southwest Florida. She had recently retired from the military after serving two tours.
“Life isn’t easy. It’s hard,” Lorena said. I offered her a few of my dates. “My feet remind me everyday that you have to work your ass off to get what you want.” She showed me her blisters that had forced her to delay a day in Pamplona. She had to say goodbye to those she started with too, including the Michigan boys. “But this is my way,” she told me. “Not anyone else’s.”
Like Lorena, I had been trying to keep up with a pace that was not my own. Because of it, it had taken me an hour to knead my bruised ankle. The first two days, I walked 47 kilometers, taken 83,000 steps and climbed 4600 feet.
“I’ve been living in a bubble and not making connections. I want to change that,” Luzie from Germany said. It was raining hard and she was wearing shorts. “It’s not the people that are passing me that bothers me, but the connections I miss because I can’t keep the same pace as the people I know.”
Susie from Cologne talked about hearing God. She said she hadn’t felt like God loved her, but now she sees it everywhere. She said she prayed to God about whether she should do the Camino. When her friend asked if He answered she said she didn’t know. “Then why not go?” her friend asked of her.
Whenever Alex from Austria saw me he would sing the song “Jessica” by Adam Green. In the small village of Najera I stayed behind since my feet were infected and wrapped in gauze. Down the wall he hummed “Jessica, Jessica Simpson,” stopping before my room as he left. Each time someone left I felt bereaved.
I must have been carrying more than 10 percent of my body weight because my right shoulder hurt too. I looked to the ants. They carried pieces of wheat on their back larger than their bodies and I carried a backpack larger than mine. It was just the ants and I walking so early in the morning—the sun still an orange that is enveloping rather than subsisting.
“I can’t believe how strong my body is,” Jessica from the Czech Republic said as she tapped a cigarette over a jar of piquillo pimentos. “Even when in pain, it still walks.”
”I have the impression it’s my birthday,” Alexandra would tell me after a day’s walk. She’d listen to my music and we’d trade cameras. “When you walk for two months, coffee, a smoke, a shower, a simply prepared meal and a bed—It’s good you know?”
I met Jacqui from Sydney as I left Leon and started the last leg of the Camino. She had quit her job three months before to spend a year travelling. She told me about how she felt like she had wasted six years trying to be right for the wrong person. Everyone fell into a similar pattern of washing, sleeping and repacking here, and it was through routine that unacknowledged truths finally become bearable.
Sasha from Croatia had been living in London for the past 24 years. He wore a tattered cowboy hat and unblended sunscreen on his nose and shoulders. At one point he turned to me and said, “You will have a beautiful family. Three kids. And when you do you will remember the moment this crazy man on the Camino told you so.” Another yellow arrow, another fortune telling.
Back in the Meseta I was lost and hungry on my way into Carrión de los Condes, but there was a man whose shirt had a yellow arrow that pointed the Way. I arrived in town where the singing Augustinian Sisters touched their thumbs to my forehead and offered gentler direction.
“I’m going to miss the people, these moments,” I told Alexandra. It surprised me how much I already did. There are people you cannot know and you must let go of those you’ve seen before.
The Cruz de Ferro marked the final descent into Santiago. It had started with four rocks but had grown into a mid-sized hill beneath an Iron Cross. Traditionally, pilgrims carry a stone to unburden themselves. The tiger-eye crystal I wore around my neck was enough, and when I left it among the rocks, I felt two years lighter. It took leaving to witness how much stronger I was without certain comforts: the walking stick Vanda had given me, the tiger-eye crystal.
Passing through Portomarin I read that in the 13th century, the village built the Belarus dam and flooded the old town to rebuild the same exact church—stone by stone—only on higher ground. We possess the power to change nature and yet we can’t completely shake the familiar. Nature doesn’t resist. And water certainly has no space for where it’s been, only where it’s been directed to go.
When I passed into Galicia, I fell in step with Nelly from France, Marina and Iolanda from Barcelona, Anna from Sweden, and Fermin, our grandfather from the Basque country. My last family danced when they walked. In this part, I allowed presence to fill where I was going. Marina said that Galicia’s weather is as unpredictable as the people. We sang marching songs in the old forests to pass the time like children, “un kilometre, deux kilometre, trois kilometre.”
Trying to find a bed past Sarria was hard because the last 100 kilometers was congested with students. It was an unsettling transition back to reality, like a defibrillator taken to your chest to restart.
I said aloud how I thought the return of my blisters were in some way significant. Alexandra said that life is a circle. Nothing dies but we transform.
“We are made for a lot more than what we see,” Sister Bendita from a convent in Brooklyn had said to me just a few hours outside of Santiago. “There are a lot of things that go on in your life,” she said. “You just need the time to see it.”
I’m not religious but I walked 500 miles to watch a giant incense burner swing at noon mass. Having arrived minutes beforehand, the pews inside of the Cathedral de Santiago were taken by clean tourists and days old pilgrims. We were stark in comparison. Unwashed and carrying with us the last five weeks, I took my seat on Marina’s lap. “Gracias Mama,” I said. “De nada, hija,” Marina cooed.
“There’s a magic to the Camino,” Francisco from Portugal had said, hefting his backpack over his shoulders as he left me in those cereal fields with citrus beneath my fingernails. “If we’re meant to, we’ll see each other again.”
In Finisterre, a voice tapped me on the shoulder, singing “Jessica, Jessica Simpson, you’ve got it all wrong.” I didn’t think I would see Alex again but there he was near that final cut of the Atlantic Ocean.
At the ‘End of the Earth’ I felt lovable. In my last journal entry I wrote, “I can interact with people who’ve hurt me, who’ve made choices that I have had to detach from and still laugh, still hold their face in my hands and hope that they can feel how much they are loved in the end too.”
Not all reminders are loud. I feel it in the slight twinge in my right ankle—even still, months later; in jars of piquillo pimentos; how a thirty-minute walk across the city fails to be enough. I think I can say that with each step forward the Camino is put into practice. When you give yourself to places, they’re supposed to give you yourself back. Your terrain doesn’t cling to you, but it’s always shrinking behind you. I’d never fully existed within my own story before because I was looking too hard and too possessively at living.
There will be a time when you feel you need to leave everything behind and start over. Whether or not we’re asking, our newsfeeds are instructing. Maybe walking 500 miles across a country is necessary, maybe your Way can’t afford to and that’s okay too. But no matter the destination, we’re all yellow arrows: guiding and guided.
“Santiago isn’t a destination,” Anna told me a day before the walk’s end. “It’s here.” And pointed to her heart.