Pausing is hard. We want to keep moving. Pausing to scribble at the end of each day’s travel is helped if I have a good desk. This desk is in a side stream of the Smith River in northern California. We are a few days away from flying to Spain; to España and our many days afoot. In another distortion of time, we are one sleep away from donning the ‘packs for that first morning’s walk.
The celebration. The noise. The smiles and music and singing are enjoyed, but our minds are on the Pyrenees Mountains just beyond all the Basque music, singing, colors, and joy. As in so many strange campgrounds with a starting line awaiting in the morning, sleep is fitful, a bridge over the river Nive just a short walk down this stone-surfaced street in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France fills our mind.
We knew about running. Running was no stranger to our minds and feet. It was this walking with backpacks that brings concern. All our belongings were with us–our world was shrinking to one of essentials–something so familiar, yet, this time, so different, awaits.
Sunrise, tomorrow’s, with only the hum from a power line to send us up and into…
Start — it seemed so simple that morning. Terrifyingly simple, pull on shoes, pull on backpack, listen to the soft click-click-click of the “sticks” as we walked out of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France and up into the Pyrenees. Psychological shards and artificial joints were put in mind’s recess for a while–sunrise awaited.
Each day started with no known goal. We had those many marathons and ultras and miles and miles of running, but here we were, bathed in our ignorance of walking. Voices around us talked of “needing” a minimum of 30 kilometers a day. How would we reach those goals with all there was to see? Vineyards and sheep; horses and mown fields; villages and solitary houses — all were to be seen and noted, not glanced at and vanquished. Mornings were for bread, cheese, and a nectarine or an orange, but never for a hurried passing through.
The arrows, flechas amarillas, the yellow arrows of the camino — the marks of blind faith and trust. They were on rocks in the dirt roadbed; on old chestnut trees; on buildings in the cities; on and on and on — until the last one was reached.
We passed these strange stone structures. In the U.S. they might be called “corn cribs”, here they are “horreos” — quite large, 30-40 feet (10-12 meters) long, slots in the sides for air flow to dry the corn. There were no days without learning; no days without seeing how life is without mass production all around you.
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Praza do Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain — our 42nd day of walking. A day of great confusion, sorrow, tears, happiness, befuddlement, prayer, hugs, laughter…
The great doors were open. In a few minutes or an hour, we will never know how long, we went in. Our appearance — not dirty, not disheveled, but trail-worn and perhaps a bit wrinkled at the brow — gave us ushered passage up through the lines. “They started in St. Jean…”, we could hear the whispers; “800 kilometers ago…” we heard someone say. We were passed forward to where St. James would welcome us.
Two days of rest and we left to walk on to the coast. We don’t know when we decided to walk on to Fisterra (“Finisterra”–Latin for Lands End, Galicia, Spain). Someone said we should so we could see the end of the world. It was only another few days of walking, four or five days — we won’t be back this way; will we? No. Four days? Yes. Okay, in the morning.
A fitting almost end– a lawn and the hints of Fall. We had walked out of summer and into fall. We needed our long sleeved shirts in the mornings, but shed them in the midday’s sun. We paused in Corcubion — fixing one last meal. France, South Africa, Belgium, Australia, and the U.S. at one table; one last international table where each dish had felt several hands during preparation; one last “Bless us O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” All would be asleep in the morning as we departed for the last day of walking.
The waymarker at Land’s End — 49 days, 600 and some odd miles — meaningless numbers as we tried to understand what we had done. Physically we could understand it. That was not the question.
In St. Jean-Pied-de-Port I heard the clerk’s question, “Spiritual or religious?” “Uh… spiritual, I suppose. Yes. Spiritual.” He checked the appropriate box with such a simple stroke of his pen. Now we were here on this bluff high above the Atlantic Ocean and could not get up to walk back to town. What had we done? Spiritual? Some days, some minutes, some places, certainly. Religious — same thing.
After a while we decided the answer was not immediately forthcoming and that was probably the best we would to that afternoon. We walked back past the yellow marker that pointed nowhere; paused to touch it — just in case — and walked back to town.
Sunday, as we listened to the bells of St. Mary’s, Kathy and I recalled the many times we heard the bells of churches, both big and small, and the cathedrals’ bells too, as we walked el camino de Santiago.
Voices from the towers
Those first few nights
they shouted and woke me
with their terrible din.
Days and miles passed.
Sometimes I would sleep
and not hear them.
Sometimes they would
gently wake me
all through the night.
They are gone now,
those bells on the hours
No more of Santiago’s big voice.
I hear it only faintly
–in the distance