When I was preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago, I imagined a perfect narrative for my journey. I expected that I would first be challenged physically– out of breath and close to madness in the summer heat, with feet that looked like they had gone through a meat grinder. Then I would rise above the discomforts of the material world and take on the hurdles of the emotional one. I pictured days of crying over the spilled milk of my youth, asking for forgiveness for my anger, my ignorance, for the cold and cruel rejection of a boy’s offer of a dance, for the envy I felt when a friend succeeded where I had failed to even try and of course, for failing to try in the first place. Once I was granted pardon, which I assumed I would, I’d arrive in Santiago, my body shattered but my heartstrings finally perfectly tuned. Isn’t that the classical story of any quest? You travel, you suffer but you trust that it will work out and when you cross the finish line, it does. I expected this. I was ready for this. This was exactly how it was meant to play out.
Except it didn’t. The sensation of peace that I expected to find at the end of my journey I experienced almost instantly. Before my left foot formed its first blister, l was free of the weight of past decisions. There was no drawn-out atonement for my sins, no carving up of old wounds. I was even spared the misery of the physical burden of the pilgrimage. I was exhausted and sweaty but I loved how my body ached at the end of each day, I reveled in the feeling– a reminder of what I had already accomplished, a temporary memento of the day’s climbs and slips. It all seemed so easy, like I got a free pass, like I took a shortcut somewhere. And I had to ask– what’s the catch?
Two weeks in I realized that I hadn’t wormed my way through a spiritual loophole after all. It was when were staying in San Bol, a unique pilgrim’s hostel that sits alone at the edge of a wheat field with no other people or houses for miles in any direction. By that point, “we” was no longer just Anya and I.
Apart from Melanie, who was instinctively maternal despite being younger than me and Paul, whose kilt got its own post, there was also Lucas, a thoughtful twenty-one year old Brazilian. What made San Bol a favorite destination for pilgrims was a magic spring whose waters had been rumored to heal sore feet and more. We lounged here in the afternoon, taking turns dipping our feet into the icy water, Anya brushing my freshly-washed hair, all of us happy and eager to become a more intimate circle of friends as we passed a bottle of wine around.
The hostel itself was tiny with five bunk beds on the main floor and a mattress in the attic. There was also a round stone room just big enough to seat all of us for dinner and where the owner served us paella from a skillet that took up nearly the whole table. After dinner, once we were all done cleaning up the owner left us the keys and drove home. Alone, without electricity and full of excitement we decided to forego our beds and sleep on the hay mounds that edged along the field. We were an invisible speck of life, giggling into the darkness as we climbed into our sleeping bags and eventually dozed off.
I woke up while it was still dark and walked out into the middle of the field. The Milky Way was directly above me. a diagonal swipe of stardust extending from the upper corner of the sky all the way across to the horizon. Everything was perfect. Paul’s sunburnt nose, Anya’s laugh, Melanie’s blond pony tail, the way Lucas scrunched up his nose when he was thinking, my own laugh, my own sunburnt nose and scrunched up face, all of it was exactly as it should be. The whole world was one breathing, gyrating ball of perfection and the closer I looked at each miniscule part, the more beautiful it became. “If I could spend eternity in a moment, I’d choose this one,” I thought.
And then my heart dropped. In two weeks this will all end. These perfect people will scatter. This journey which brought me so close to the person I’ve always wanted to be, will end. This road will forget me.
From that day on, I counted every kilometer left to walk as if I were counting the remaining hours of my life. I was horrified when we began to make better time. I joked about becoming a recluse, living in a room wallpapered with photos from the Camino, reliving the best moments out loud to no one. Walking into Santiago, clutching Anya’s hand was both brutal and poetic and I will be haunted by the unique bittersweet flavor of that moment for the rest of my life, I think. But I figured out what my challenge was, why everything was alarmingly easy for me. There was a lesson here that was tailor-made to fit the contours of my emotional pitfalls.
Sometimes You Have to Let Go
I am still struggling with this one. I have spent years hanging on to people and places that I still wish I could bottle or carry in a locket around my neck. These were experiences that were so intertwined with the fabric of my life, that I feel naked without them. But I am learning. I can’t say that I let go of the Camino with dignity and grace once it was over. To be honest, I walked away in sobs, with a tattoo of a scalloped shell– a symbol of the Camino de Santiago now permanently emblazoned on my ankle. And in fairness, I have decided to spend a year walking around the world, which some might consider the opposite of moving on. But I prefer to think that it is because I have been able to let go of the perfection I found on a road in Spain that I can picture myself reclaiming it on roads thousands of miles away.