Today is my first day of walking. Not my first day after training or slowly working up to long distances. No, no, it’s my literal first day of walking after a year of physical inactivity and pandemic anxiety. It’s a big day for a big girl. I’m nervous.
Yesterday after Mass in Santiago, the young priest from the Philippines gave each pilgrim a card with a quote on it. Each one was different, a kind of Catholic fortune cookie. This was mine.
Usually, we are surprised by those unforeseen moments. They often come unbidden in the form of death, loss, diagnoses, or disappointment. Joy too. They change us, but it still surprise us.
In contrast, pilgrimage is a choice. And if you say yes to it, you know even before you gbegin that all those challenges are built right in — pain, loss, discomfort. In fact it even has “grim” right in the middle of the word! Joy too, but it’s not a vacation. It’s meant to change you, too open the soul.
I secured the quote in my journal with first aid tape. It reminds me to be on the lookout for those unforeseen sacred places while I walk, even the hard ones for the possibilities they hold. To proceed with openness in spite of fear, in spite of pain or difficulty is where life’s greatest gifts reveal themselves.
The only thing I can do is take the first step.
So I do.
Out of my pensión, out into the cobbled, quiet calles to search fruitlessly for coffee. Eventually, I end up in front of the cathedral of Santiago, craning my neck backward to see its spires.
And then I go, step by step, on the lookout for those sacred places.
But first, I curse John Brierley. The streets of Santiago are like paved cow paths, meandering every which way. Holding his iconic guidebook at a gnarly intersection, I cannot make out which way to go.
“God dammit!” I hiss. I hate being lost. The map is a hand-drawn approximation, not the real deal and omits many streets, leading to much confusion. I wander some more, my agitation growing because there’s no one around to ask.
“Fuck you, John Brierley. Seriously!”
At the bottom of a hill between two large commercial buildings, I spy a promising-looking park.
A tall, kindly man approaches, “Are you lost?”
He smiles, “Going to Finisterre?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“Lots of pilgrims get lost here trying to find the Camino. You just missed it up the hill here. I’ll show you.
“Do you help pilgrims often?”
“Sí, I do,” he smiles without explaining, and he points. “Here, you turn right and follow the road to the bottom where you’ll see a little park and yellow arrows.”
“Muchas gracias, señor!”
Not only is he correct, but I pass an open bar, grab a coffee and a breakfast sandwich to go.
It’s taken me nearly an hour to get out of Santiago when it could have been 20 minutes, but I already met one challenge and a Camino angel in the process.
I feel good. The path is familiar now, and I remember walking this way with Kate eight years ago and in reverse just five. The previous journeys are layered beneath the current path, like each carefully applied layer of wax on a precious wood table, buffed down and reapplied. The gravel under my feet feels like a greeting. The oaks bending over the path seem like familiar friends. Such joy!
I re-remember the joy of discovering the yellow arrows painted on every surface. Yes, they reassure me, you’re on The Way. Keep going forward.
But my backpack? It’s so heavy. Actually, it’s not that much heavier than previous Caminos, but I’m not nearly as strong.
Up a looong hill, I’m challenged. My body drips with sweat to the point that it’s visible in solid stripes across my abdomen and chest. I’m wheezing. I’m mad. Christ! When is this going to end??
Just then, the trail levels off. And I spy this message.
Ultreia. It’s an ancient French word that means “higher.” Pilgrims would call this out to each other for encouragement and others would reply, “Y suseia!” (And farther!). The phrase has been reclaimed by modern pilgrims along with the march-like tune in French. “Ultreia y suseia! Deus ajuda nos!” (Higher and farther, God protect us!)
But I digress. Seeing this word in all-white stones is an unexpected surprise. I’m alone, yet suddenly now in the company of the human who took the time to assemble this encouragement and every person who’s ever uttered the word.
An unforeseen sacred place.
After a couple of hours, I stop to rest in the forest and eat the other half of my breakfast sandwich. Several people pass by and we exchange “buen caminos.” Then, who appears but C, the French woman I met yesterday at Mass! We’re delighted to see each other.
“I was just starting to question my resolve,” I confessed to her. 15 miles is a long way. I’m not sure my body is up to it.”
“You can do it!”
I warn her that I’m slow. She’s been walking for weeks and much more fit than I am. But we begin to walk together. She matches my stride, and we spend an hour walking side by side, sharing about our lives. Her big questions mirror my own. It is so healing to share deeply with another soul without having to fix or rescue. Listening deeply is sacred. We laugh too. I’m buoyed and so grateful she appeared when she did.
On my first Camino, I found it hard to say what I needed. But now, after a pitstop for fresh orange juice, I need to seriously asses my body. And I can’t do that while chatting. So I tell her this as we approach another bar.
“I understand. I’ll continue and trust we’ll see each other again. Either way, thank you for your company, Jennifer. Buen Camino!” And we part.
While I sip a sports drink and watch the bar’s resident cockatoos screech at a wandering little dog, here’s the assessment: Ow. I think I’m getting blisters on at least two toes. My calves feel really tight, despite stretching them regularly. And I’m just tired. Fifteen miles is the goal from absolute inactivity. It might be crazy.
But then I look at the map. I’m more than halfway there. I also discover the giant hill that’s between me and Negreira, the day’s destination. Do I call a taxi and stay at the pensión I reserved? Do I dare try the hill? The cockatoos’ noise is grating. It’s almost a sign to get off my butt and just go. So I do.
Now, if you’ve ever driven a 5-speed stick transmission, you’ll know that going uphill means changing gears. Walking, for me, is no different. On level ground, I can walk at a good clip, but the uphill in front of me now? Nope.
I downshift to lower my racing heart. And downshift again because oh my god my pack and I are so heavy. My legs strain from the effort of the step-push step-push step-push repetition.
Then I make the rookie mistake of looking up. I know better than to break my own rule. Never, never look up. It’s just too daunting. But, oops. Now I can see how much more elevation there is, at least to the next bend in the wooded trail.
Jesus, Mary, and God. It just keeps going. I’m sweating like a horse, and… oh my God, why am I doing this to myself? This sucks. I hate this.
And then a little miracle happens.
Three happy, chatty women appear behind me. It sounds like Spanish, and the music of their voices lifts my spirits. Las tres angeles del Camino. They remind me of happy songbirds.
When they stop to remove their jackets, I catch up and pass them. As I do, I say playfully, “¡Somos mujeres fuertes!” They turn to look and smile, wishing me a buen Camino.
The hill continues. Up and up and up. I’m relieved to see a landmark — a radio tower — but the ascent continues around corners through eucalyptus forest. The fact that these Spanish women are right behind me is the only reason I can keep going. I’m so tired, but happy.
Then, around a corner, it’s really the top!
I raise my arms in celebration, grinning! Turning around, the women see me and reply with cheers! I cheer back. The feeling of solidarity and support is so strong! Whee!!
Down the road, we meet in front of a cafe.
“Las tres angeles del Camino!” They laugh at my nickname for their trio. “You helped me keep going. Thank you!”
We exchange all the usual pilgrim info about where we live, where we started today, and where we’re staying tonight. P, A, and M are all from Madrid, and it’s also their first day of walking from Santiago.
They invite me to join them for lunch, and I accept. The restaurant is right beside a medieval bridge and wide waterfall, just outrageously scenic. The food and conversation (in a mix of English and Spanish) are an utter delight.
While theirs is not my story to share, they opened up about a tragedy that binds them. It left me in awe of the power of friendship in navigating difficult waters.
Funny “coincidence”? One of them is actually named a diminutive of Angel. (Probably not a coincidence.)
Thanks to them, I made it all the way to Negreira. A miracle. I should have known, though. The Camino always provides opportunities “to enlarge and enrich the soul.”
(My wifi isn’t great tonight, so I’ll upload photos when I can.)