Arriving in Santiago and Saying Yes
We had stopped short the day before, just 10km from the final destination. We could have pushed on, but we wanted to slow down after what felt like racing the hordes of tourists each day who started at the 100km mark, the bare minimum, for the sake of receiving the Compostella. We wanted to savor another beer together, a final Menú Peregrino, the last steps as a group so that although we began this journey as complete strangers, we would be arriving in Santiago together with a friendship that dug deeper (in only a month) than any of us could have imagined.
We woke early as usual, and waited for each other in the entryway of the albergue. We smiled at the group of French pilgrims we had affectionately dubbed “Team France” who had always been within a day’s walk of us from the beginning, but with whom we could only create a relationship based on smiles and single words because we didn’t speak French and they spoke nothing else. They wished us a “Buen Camino” and made their way out into the dark as we continued to lace up our boots for the last time. I wondered if we would see them again in Santiago. Although I was never able to speak with them, I realized I would miss their comforting presence along The Way because they had grown into my Camino experience and even now, after being back in the United States for four months, I sometimes think about their encouraging smiles and the wordless exchanges we had if our paces ever aligned on the day’s walk.
It wasn’t much longer before our group too set off into the darkness, our Belgian friend, Jens, and our Portuguese friend, Inês, leading the way with their headlights as the rest of us followed close behind through the trees. Our morning walk was flooded with words, a sharp contrast to the usual achy sleep, as we adjust our pace to accommodate each other, told stories, shared memories, and even sang songs, adjusting the lyrics to pertain to the Camino.
We stopped for our last café con leche and chocolate croissant breakfast, and lingered longer than we normally would without addressing why. The sun grew rosy in the morning sky and we dipped in and out of silence as we absorbed what this day meant for each of us. We were each in a transition point in our lives, some had just finished school and were to begin University in the fall, some were making career changes, and some where in a period of leaving a chapter in their lives to find personal or spiritual clarity along with a slice of adventure along the way. But I think all of us had gained something unexpected from the experience that we never could have imagined as we took our first blister-free steps on Day One.
And now it was Day Thirty. Day Thirty. We had been living like this for an entire month of rotating between the same two outfits, walking distances that far surpassed our usual walking quota for any given day of our “normal lives”, and struggling through mental and physical limits that infused our journey every day. As we climbed to the top of Monte de Gozo, a hill the gives the first glimpse of Santiago de Compostela, marking the beginning of the end of the Camino, my stomach clenched and my heart began to ache. I could see the final city sprawled out before me and although for the past thirty days I had looked forward to this day, to the end of the pain, to the sense of accomplishment, to the incredible history to be seen in this city, all I felt at that moment was the desire to turn around. I didn’t want this experience to end. Yes, Santiago de Compostela meant triumph, but it also meant goodbye. I wasn’t ready to stop seeing the magnificent views of the Spanish countryside every day. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the people who had quickly become some of my best friends in such a short amount of time. I wasn’t ready to stop laughing at the ridiculous situations at least one of us go into each day. I wanted to stay on the Camino another night, and I could tell the others, at least in part, felt the same way.
So we lingered on the hilltop, we took our final photos as pilgrims, and eventually we reluctantly began to make our way down the hill toward the final city. I hung back to watch my friends walk ahead of me, memorizing every detail and allowing our time together to splay across my mind like the cheesy final moments of an epic film. We crossed the boarder into the city, which was still a few miles from the official ending spot: the square in front of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. Tradition is for the pilgrims to arrive at the Cathedral in time for the Pilgrims’ mass, which is a daily mass for pilgrims to arrive as they are (unshowered with their boots and backpacks) for a special blessing and an announcement of all the countries pilgrims arrived from that day, whether you are religious or not.
Santiago de Compostela is a fairly hilly city, so for the majority of the walk after coming down from Monte de Gozo the cathedral is not within view, even though it reaches the highest point in the city. We followed its winding streets, internally struggling with the excitement of completing the journey and holding back tears as we realized it was ending.
As we came to the top of a hilly street I looked ahead and saw one of the spires of the Cathedral waiting in the distance. I actually jumped as if it had sprung out from behind one of the buildings to surprise me, and shivered as goosebumps prickled across the back of my neck. Next to me, Inês had stopped short as well. I watched tears pool in her eyes and quickly turned away so that I wouldn’t lose it with just a few kilometers to go.
“Victor!” she suddenly exclaimed.
I turned and saw one of the Spaniards who had been on pace with us for most of the Camino. He and his family had gotten ahead of us and we knew that they would already be in the city, but we weren’t sure until this moment if we would ever see them again.
“I was waiting here,” he smiled. “I wanted to see your faces when you saw it for the first time. You’re almost there!”
Almost there. We continued walking toward the massive Cathedral, along cobblestone streets and through small plazas. The faces of the people in the city became blurry and I hung my head wondering if teary pilgrims were a common sight for them. Jens who had walked the last third of the Camino the year before confidently lead the way, and just as we approached a tunnel-like doorway, he paused, “This is it.”
We walked through the tunnel where a man was playing guitar and into the sun-filled plaza in front of the Cathedral. Tourists were taking photos and pilgrims were sitting on the ground, resting and marveling at the giant stone church. We made our way to the center of the plaza and stood, silent and stunned, taking in the beauty of the moss-covered Cathedral.
Alex pulled me into a hug and whispered into my ear, “Well, we made it 500 miles, and now that we’re here, why did you do it?”
I shrugged, still not wanting to speak. At that moment a group of pilgrim/tourists burst into the square cheering loudly and singing songs. We shook ourselves from our private moments and began to make our way into the Cathedral so that we would have a place to sit after a morning of walking.
Why had I done it?
I started the Camino wanting an adventure, wanting to return to Spain and simply be there again. Of course now after having completed the Camino, that reason wasn’t as simple. Yes, I came to Spain and I got my adventure, but I also learned some things about myself that I hadn’t admitted I was looking to learn. I had gotten away from my future-oriented mindset and had begun to focus on the present moment. And as I began to reflect on my experiences as we climbed the church steps, I felt them floating away from me and I desperately grasped for them to pull them back into my heart. I wasn’t ready for this to be over.
We set our backpacks to the side and slid into the heavy wooden pews of the church, relieved as if we were sitting for the first time after a long day of walking, but today I knew our exhaustion came more from the emotional journey of the day. We would occasionally say a few words to each other, but mostly I could tell that we were all still individually processing what it meant to be done with the Camino.
Alex suggested that we take some time to explore the Cathedral while we were waiting for mass to start in small groups so we wouldn’t lose our seats. His suggestion was met with halfhearted agreement so he volunteered the two of us to explore the Cathedral first.
We began to walk toward the front of the church, enjoying the strange sensation of walking without our backpacks. I pulled my camera out and began my attempt to capture the incredible architectural details and the amazing height of the ceilings. Alex hung back, quiet.
“I’m sad it’s over,” I said, my voice cracking at the end. Then, I quickly resumed my picture taking to prevent another flood of emotion.
“Wait, come here,” said Alex grabbing my hand and pulling me off to the side.
He told me that it wasn’t over. That this Camino was just one of the many Caminos we would share together. That he walked 500 miles and loved me more with every blistered step. That someday we could raise our own little pilgrims and take them on Caminos with us.
And as I realized that he was speaking the words he must have practiced hundreds of times in his head along the way, and as he knelt and reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box, I found myself smiling through an embarrassing stream of cliche tears.
“Will you marry me?”
I sobbed a yes as he slipped the ring on my finger (yes, he had carried it in his backpack the whole time) and threw my arms around him in our sweaty clothes, through aching muscles, here in Santiago de Compostela at the end of the Camino. At the beginning of something new.