My mother would kill me if she saw me doing this.
I am perched on the side of a hill that has turned into a sort of bouldery cliff, on mission to find other pilgrims watching tonight’s sunset. I’ve been alone too many days. I need people. I need that sunset ritual.
I also want to continue a tradition started eight years ago by a kind young German man. Meg and I were at the Fisterra lighthouse at sunset, when he just walked up and asked if we’d like some wine. He even had cups at the ready, clinked with us, and then rejoined his friends. It was so sweet and delightful. The last time I was here, I did the same for others.
My problem is that my efforts are bordering on desperation. Earlier today, I wandered through the narrow streets of Muxia looking for a place to buy wine and cups and—after many awkward requests to the nearest supermercado—I finally succeeded. The whole time was preoccupied with the danger of missing the sunset.
Now, the small pack on my back containing a bottle of wine, cups, a sweatshirt, and my journal make me top heavy and unbalanced as I climb.
I’m cautious in most parts of my life. Excessively so. But right now? I am so hungry for human company I’m not calculating the risks well. The long, wet walk alone the other day, eating beautiful meals without company, and being thousands of miles from home have all gotten under my skin.
“¿Peregrina?” a Spanish lady asked me this morning at the hotel’s breakfast room, sitting with her husband and another couple.
“Sí.” I’m a pilgrim, yes.
All four were wearing athletic gear. I overheard them talking about me in Spanish about how they could never walk the Camino with just a pack, how difficult it must be.
“¿Estás caminando sola?” Are you walking alone? The others look up for my answer.
She looks startled. “And you’re not afraid?”
“No, I like to travel alone. It is easier to meet different people from many countries and have interesting conversations.” But that’s not the whole story. I do stupid stuff when I get too lonely.
Because I’ve only been to Muxia once before by car, I vaguely remember a place on a rocky hillside overlooking the sea and a church. As I hurry to get there, I notice the hill and decide the sea must be on the other side of it. In fact, yes, as I get closer, way up there I think I can make out the forms of a few miniscule people, silhouetted by the evening sun.
Rather than walk the longer way around, I decide to climb that hill to get to them.
A path behind an old stone church leads me to a set of moss-covered stairs. I take the first few steps boldly and quickly realize they’re very steep and too short for my big feet. I feel unsteady with no handrail, the risk takes my breath away. At the top of the stairs, I discover an even steeper trail through grasses and tall, prickly gorse. Before long, I’m picking my way up an almost vertical path snaking between wild, unruly shrubs.
Slowing my pace in caution, I think to myself: This is not smart. I should turn back.
But I don’t want to miss the sunset. Or the people. Or the tradition. I look down the hundred or so feet I’ve climbed and feel more afraid of reversing my steps. No, I must forge on.
The path soon becomes narrower, a pale line through the vegetation. I pick my way past an old rose bush, pulling out the thorns caught on my clothes and arm. I climb over countless hip-height stones and wedge my body between larger ones to get through. Someone could turn an ankle up here.
Stepping over a small cluster of rocks, I lose my balance for a second and the weight of the full glass bottle pulls me backward. Without thinking, I drop down onto the rocks, grabbing them to prevent myself from tumbling down the hill.
For a dizzying moment, I glance down the hillside imagining my lifeless body bouncing down rocks below. I realize I’m safe, but as I stand upright, every part of me is trembling. I can hardly believe what I just averted. Assessing the damage, my shin is scraped up and will probably bruise. A fingernail is separated from the nail bed and bleeding. I’m gratefully in one piece, but shaken.
My mother would kill me. I say the words out loud. She would absolutely kill me if she saw me up here. She loves me with her whole soul and is also terrified of heights. But that doesn’t mean I have to be. Right? Do we ever stop resisting our parents’ cautions while still craving their approval?
Surely though, I think rationally, this path wouldn’t be here if other people hadn’t been on it without incident.
I proceed even more slowly until I realize the path ahead disappears entirely. It’s just stones now except for—is that a spotlight? Oh my God, it is! It’s an actual floodlight sticking up out of the ground from a gray wire. This isn’t a trail to the top of the hill! It’s some dutiful soul’s path to change the lightbulb that illuminates this beautiful rocky spire at night. That’s what I’ve been following. I might laugh if this weren’t such a nerve-wracking situation.
Looking around and up, I realize at last there’s literally no way to get to the top where I saw those pilgrims. It’s just straight up, rock climbing terrain. Goddamit. Some short cut. What a stupid idea. Now I might need to be airlifted off this cliff.
Then I finally have my own lightbulb moment: I’ve taken this adventure far enough. I must turn around.
This time, looking down is not an option, or I just know something terrible will happen. I force myself to focus only on the square foot of earth where I’ll set my foot. Picking my way back over the same rocks and prickery bushes, my legs shake from fear and strain.
It takes an eternity to proceed without falling, but at last I can see the top of the concrete stairs. And there—on the low stone wall beside them—is a sweet little tiger kitty sitting pretty and looking into my eyes. I get the feeling she’s been watching me the whole time, like a little guardian angel with fur. Relief fills me, and I smile for the first time all evening.
At the bottom, every part of me wants to give up this ridiculous plan and go back to my cushy hotel for the night. And I almost do.
Except I notice a sign across the street that points to Nuestra Señora de la Barca. The Church of Our Lady of the Boat where pilgrims go at sunset. Incredulous, I laugh. How did I make this project so hard and scary when the sign I needed was right there in front of me?
But I do know. Fear of missing out. Need for connection. Longing to contribute something meaningful.
Deciding that the hotel bed can wait, I get a “do over”. I follow the sign to a smooth, wide flagstone path along the road. People out for an evening stroll say hola as they pass with their little dogs.
Before long, I arrive at the church on the stone beach. The hillside beyond it is crawling with people, but I decide I’ve had enough climbing for one day.
Instead, I make myself comfortable on wide, flat rocks in front of the church. The smooth stones provide a front row seat to the sunset—which I haven’t missed after all.
There, instead of striving so hard, I sit in stillness and breathe the cool, salty air, watching the clouds shapeshift and sky change colors.
Finally still and in awe of the beauty, I marvel to myself, “I got myself here—across the globe and then to the ocean using the power of my own body.”
I write in my journal, “Now I’m here, a little shaky, but okay. The loveliness of this place sooths me and makes me realize—I gave this experience to myself: the sea, the sky, the sun, the rays of light from behind the clouds, the warm rock under me. All are gift to myself. I am enough in my own company.”
This realization makes me feel deeply satisfied. The loneliness and desperation are gone. As the bells of the church begin to ring out, I finish writing this thought: “I walked all this way to give myself a seaside celebration.”
I open the bottle of albariño and raise a cup to both the scary hills and this newfound contentment. I accept that life comes with a measure of both.
Moments later, a friendly looking older man walks nearby and says, “Beautiful night.”
“It is.” And there’s just a little pause hanging in the air between us, so I ask, “Is your pilgrimage complete?”
“No, not yet. I walk to Fisterra tomorrow. You?”
“I’m going there tomorrow too, I think.” Gesturing to the bottle, I say, “I brought wine to celebrate getting to the Atlantic. Would you like some?”
Surprised, he accepts.
I tell Helmut about the tradition, and he is pleased to learn a young man from his country inspired it.
I invite him to sit, and we watch the horizon, finding we have much in common about our approaches to life. He shares how he quit his job to care for his family. I share about getting divorced to live more fully. Big, thoughtful risks are important. This is the easy, deep conversation so common between people who’ve walked long distances, faced their own demons, and found their best selves along the way. It is just what my pilgrim heart needs.
We talk until the light is only a thin amber line above the sea, and the stars begin come out.
“Are you waiting for someone?” he asks. The question seems so different than the Spanish lady’s astonished “¿Caminando sola?” this morning. So gentle and non-judgmental.
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, let’s walk back together.”
So we do. And my heart is full.
There’s a saying I love: what you seek is also seeking you. When I stop trying to solve problems with extreme solutions, I find contentment is there—at sea level—just waiting to meet me.
May you, dear reader, know this too.
* * * * *
In summer of 2021, I walked 73 miles from Santiago de Compostela, Spain to Muxia and Fisterra on the Spanish coast. Though much shorter than my previous Caminos in 2013 and 2016, it was a poignant journey of transition and joy. Subscribe if you’d like to get an email every other week or just visit jenniferhofmann.com