Camino de Santiago

© Bruce Nichols - 2004

Camino #4
To the End of the Earth

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Today is May 1, a special day for me. It marks the second anniversary of my start of the Appalachian Trail. Yesterday I walked the last miles of the Camino to the Atlantic Ocean in Finisterre – literally the end of the earth. On the walk into Finisterre I got to take off my shoes and socks and walk almost a mile along a wide sand beach washed by gentle waves.

The water was cold but I strayed in and let it lap at my toes a number of times. About 3/4 of the way along I put down my pack and undid the scallop shell (the traditional symbol of a pilgrim on the Camino) that hung on the back of my pack. I gave it a kiss and threw it back into the sea from which it came a symbolic gesture on the completion of my journey.

I had been walking an additional two days past Santiago where I arrived on Wednesday the 28th and got my official "compostela", a document written in Latin signifying completion of the official pilgrimage route. But the route does continue on for another 90 kilometers to Cabo Finisterre along the ancient Celtic lay lines to a place where the Celts who inhabited the area before the Romans had built a temple to the sun at the place where it disappeared into the ocean at the end of each day.

Those last couple of days were filled with emotion as has most of this journey. I have walked in areas of incredible beauty and the outward aspects of the trip have been mostly bright despite some contrary weather along the way. But the inner journey has been somewhat less clear, a bit more murky. Part of it has to do with the loneliness of walking in a foreign country where language presented a problem. I could always manage to communicate my basic needs but often that was the extent of my human interaction. This is not to say that many wonderful things did not happen in personal interactions and it was always great to find some English-speaking folks with whom to share experiences. But a touch of loneliness hovered around this walk unlike my experience on the AT.

And it also seems that more change is at hand in my life. A relationship seems to be ending and as I mentioned in an earlier message, it also seems to be time for a new direction. As I walked those last couple of days it seemed like this journey was a second bookend on a period in my life that began exactly two years ago to the day as I headed south for my long walk on the AT. Walking out to the cape yesterday seemed in some inexpressible way like the finishing of a longer and more abstract journey.

It actually was a pretty incredible day. All the way across Galicia from Ponferrada where my last email was sent (and from where I write again today after a 7 hour bus trip) was marked by uncharacteristic clear skies and warm afternoon temperatures. On the morning I arrived in Santiago, as if on queue, clouds began to stream in from the Atlantic and by the time I was on my way later in the day, occasional light showers fell.

The next day was more of the same with more wind and heavier rain off and on all day. On the last day into Finisterre, heavy clouds again scudded in across the rolling hills of Western Galicia. I left the quiet hostel at first light (very few pilgrims venture beyond Santiago) and began a climb into the blossom-covered hills. At the high point of the day, which came at around 8:30 am, sun broke through the clouds and rain on the hill off to the south created an incredibly intense rainbow which shot straight up into the grey shattered clouds. A few minutes later cold rain caught up with me and I pulled on my poncho as it pelted down. But 15 minutes later it had stopped and as I crested the top of the ridge I caught my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean way off in the distance.

At first I wasn’t sure if it really was the Atlantico. Distant clouds, I thought or fog or ??, but as I stared and wondered it became clear that it was the ocean gray under a gray sky and still a long way off. The remaining walk was one of the wilder ones since the Pyrenees. Narrow paths and rough tracks wove among the high hills. I had to ford a wild brook. A fox scampered off the track and into the gorse. The high spots were bare with yellow scotch broom like blooms. On the slopes plantings of pine and eucalyptus sprawled downward. It was still miles to the coast but the walking was good. Rain came and went and seemed to me a cleansing baptism washing away the dust of the formal Camino. And in fact in the last miles before reaching the ocean a spring near a little chapel in the hills is purported to have healing properties. When I reached it I plunged my head into the water that spouted from a metal pipe and let it wash down my face and neck.

Finnesterre Peace PoleWhen at last at the ocean I walked the beach already mentioned and then walked right through Finisterre and out the final few kilometers to the high headland of Cabo Finisterre. At the lighthouse is the final bollard of the Camino Finisterre with a downward pointing scallop shell marking the end of the journey and "the end of the earth". I ran into Frank there, a German who had also walked the last miles from Santiago and who had shared albergues with me on the two previous nights. We took photos of each other at the marker with our cameras. And then I noticed something else that had special meaning for me. Not far from the bollard was a peace pole. Most of the messages were greatly faded because of the constant exposure to sun and weather, but the message on the north side of the pole remained clear and bright and in English read, "May Peace Prevail on Earth". How could there be a better ending.

But I’ve left out a lot - so very much about the days between Ponferrada and Finisterre. In brief, I walked over 300 kilometers in 8 days through the incredible beauty of the mountains here in the eastern part of Galicia through the mostly pastoral and rolling hills as I journeyed toward the ocean.

When I left here 8 days ago, I walked in slowly rising country surrounded by high snow covered peaks to Ave Fenix girlsVillafranca where I stopped for a bit and chatted with a couple of young Canadian girls who had just completed there Camino and come back to work at a crazy little alburgue called Ave. Fenix were I will walk to tomorrow. Since it was still early in the day I decided to walk on and took the scenic route which took me high into blossom-covered hills.

Everything was in the tender grasp of spring and wild color sprawled across the landscape. Literally everything was in bloom - heather like plants in white yellow and a purply pink, and blossoms of purple, yellow, pink, blue and shades all around the rainbow. I walked utterly in awe of the beauty around me that ran steeply down the high hills and up the other side almost always with the snow capped peaks in view behind me. And at the end of the day I arrived at one of the little jewels of albergues a private one run by a fellow named Carlos and called the Pequeno Potala - the "Little Potala".

Inside I found a warm welcome (the hostel had been recommended by my Canadian friend Derek who I have come back in hopes of meeting) and sported prayer flags and photos of the Dalai Lama. Carlos called me the Loco Americano for the distances I had been walking (over 40 k that day with major climbs on the scenic route). When I left the next morning - first out the door as usual - he gave me a hug and sent me on my way.
The next day was another morning of climbing back to almost 5000 feet but the weather was good and the views just kept expanding as I followed small tracks and narrow dirt lanes up through tiny hamlets to the pass at O Cebreiro.

From here to Santiago the topography settles and the land turns more agricultural composed mostly of small farms with lots of little dairy barns. I was reminded much of my New England home by the rolling hills and woodsy areas heavy with the lush and gauzy greens of spring. The days were bright with sunshine and spring blossoms. The mornings were cool and dewy with a few days of morning fog which burned away in the sun. The light was incredible and color blazed all around. In fact one of the things that has been a common experience of my walks has been a clearing of the senses especially visual. The world takes on clarity and crispness, a vivid richness that is almost overwhelming at times.

On the 26th I walked 54 kilometers - something over 30 miles - to set up my arrival in Santiago on the morning of the 28th. In the end, the official end of the Camino at the cathedral in Santiago seemed more a waypoint to me. I visited the cathedral early on the morning of the 28th and quite by chance lost the official Camino on my final approach to the church but because of that arrived at the Puerta del Perdon "The Door of Pardon" which is only open in special "holy years" of which 2004 is one. It had been my desire to enter through this door but my guide which referenced it gave no information about its location. As I walked across the square and noticed the gates open on a small entry at the rear of the cathedral I wondered if I might have found the door I wanted. A statue of Santiago Peregrino was above the door recognizable by the scallop shells. I walked up then asked in my broken Spanish if this was the door I wanted. A beret headed gentleman who was entering indicated "Si".

I spent some time in the cathedral in prayer and meditation. Visited the crypt where the bones of St. James one of the apostles are said to be inside a silver chest. Then I headed out collected my credential of completion and felt the need in my feet to continue on to the Atlantico where I would be able after more than 500 miles of walking over 26 days be able to look out to the west and home.

I’ve come back to Ponferrada to keep a date with my friend Derek - who inspired me to come to the Camino. We agreed some time ago to sit on a hillside in Spain and fold origami cranes together. Once that is done, I think it will be time to head home to whatever the Camino that began yesterday holds for me.

Just one last comment before I send off this message. It has been amazing how whenever I was about to stray from the Camino someone would appear and point me in the right direction. In the predawn in a city whose name I don’t remember a man pushing a wheelbarrow lead me through narrow streets to the right road. In a small hamlet a man stopped me in my tracks with a loud yell and pointed my to the proper exit from town after which his dog silently leapt at me after I had turned about. I was chased down by a construction worker on a bicycle when he saw me turn the wrong way down a street.

One of the most unusual happened on my last day before entering Santiago. I was walking by the airport outside of town on my way to the alburgue at Monte del Gozo where I would spend my last night 5 kilometers from the Cathedral. There was a lot of construction and everything was torn up. I started down what appeared to be the correct path around the work area and just happened to look to my left at a house that bordered the street. There in a window was a woman pointing. No words, no sound just a face in a window and a finger showing me the way.

Maybe there will be more to say when I am back in the States - I’ll let you know. Till then, my love to all. Thanks for your support in whatever way you have lent it. It eased the loneliness to know that you were all out there.

Peace and Blessings, Bruce

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page revised - 07/04/2004
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols