A note for readers: This is the final offering in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review any previous articles for context, and if you landed here from Facebook, please click here, then scroll down as needed. If you came here directly, just scroll down.
As always, life is in convergence, and moving toward the inevitable.
In places the world over, like Oviedo and Muxia, in Santiago de Compostela and Rome, in Jerusalem and Mecca and so many others, the ancient pilgrimage routes come to an end. And whether the pilgrim then turns for home, or moves on to another walk, the journey continues; not a single step is lost.
The mountain walks of penitent reflection and the Atlantic coast’s stormy grace, have ushered me out of the past and delivered me to the cusp of what lies ahead. My conscience is as free and clear as the way forward, and I move into life’s closing chapters truer to myself than I’ve ever been. This has been the pilgrim’s way for me. At the end of my time in Finisterre on that first pilgrimage of seven years ago, I reflected on the long road I’d just walked. My observation seems as relevant now as it did back then:
“Now, none of what came here with me is as it was before...it is cleaner and brighter, more likely to shine on my life than shadow it.”
What a kind thought to bring home.
I sense there is an infinitely deep well of insights from this October Camino that will continue to be revealed, precisely when they’re needed most. One of these could arrive on some solitary evening walk by the lake in summer, maybe even on one of those dreamy blue nights that happen around the solstice and right after sunset. My thoughts may wander the way thoughts always do. Then something will slip through when I least expect it ̶ ̶ something arising out of grace as it rode hard on a frightening, windswept rain, or from a difficult, penitent climb in the mountains. “Ah,” I’ll say, and won’t even alter my stride. This kind of thing could go on forever.
Sometimes, life’s events have a way of folding in on the edges of a pilgrimage. Often it’s the trailing edge where the experiences of the walk start to crystalize, but there are times when the beginning of something presents at the leading edge. This was such an occasion:
It’s always the timing of a thing that first draws my attention; how it arises, seemingly out of nowhere, and is placed with the certitude of the divine into the center of everything. For good measure, there is often irony and a touch of humor involved as well.
Two days before I left for Spain, a note from a friend arrived via Facebook Messenger. We’d spoken a few months earlier about the possibility of my meeting someone he knew, and how he thought we’d be a wonderful match. At the time I was rounding out a period of intentional solitude and deep self-inquiry after the ending of a long-term, committed involvement ̶ ̶ taking what I’d come to refer to as a relationship sabbatical. Maybe it was something in his voice, more likely the rumblings of my own inner voice, but without too much fanfare, I simply replied, “Sure. Why not?” That was the last we spoke of her until the arrival of his message as I was beginning to load my backpack for three weeks of pilgrimage an ocean away. He was sincerely apologetic about the months-long delay, included her Facebook link, and reiterated how he thought we’d be great together. My attention captured, I reached out...to Jennifer.
She was quite understanding of what I was about to embark upon, and since both of us have public-facing writing lives, websites, and social media, we lightheartedly agreed to some mutual internet stalking in the spirit of getting to know more about each other until we could finally meet. This was our plan, anyway.
I’d been in Spain for about a week when, on the fifth stage of the San Salvador, I reflected on the difficult walk I’d had the day before ̶ ̶ a frightening crucible of an experience, one that left me deeply shaken. From my seventh blog post on the San Salvador: "It strikes me how this pilgrimage, coming as it has toward the end of a long and intense period of solitude and spiritual self-inquiry, presents an opportunity to reframe much of what has been revealed...a finer way forward as new doors are opening."
I reached out to Jennifer...just a silly message about a typo I’d made on a Facebook post...a further opening of a door. The details of the exchanges that followed for the remainder of my time in Spain, will, of course, always remain between us. But our correspondence was remarkable, and as I look back on it now, its perfection was found in the words of two writers, limited (first by circumstance, then by agreement) to the page, revealing themselves to another as neither had before ̶ ̶̶ effortlessly, completely, and without a shred of anxiety. It was about ten days later when I had a most profound, unusual experience ̶ ̶̶ that of missing someone I had not yet met.
On a drizzly early evening in the town of Finisterre, I walked to a beach that had held much meaning when I came here after my first pilgrimage seven years ago. I thought about how life had changed since then, and yet how abiding my love for Spain and the Camino had always been. This pilgrimage, likely my last here, would soon be ending. I would have to leave it behind a final time, and a sadness overwhelmed me. As I returned to my hotel through the darkened streets, it occurred to me that I should send Jennifer a simple message about this, about just how hard it is to leave this place. It was the first time I’d reached out to her in need of something ̶̶ ̶ in this case a measure of solace. Her response was perfect and kind, precisely what a heartsick pilgrim of the Camino would need offered, standing at the threshold of leaving Spain, possibly forever.
The day after I arrived home, we met in front of her place, a high-rise condo in Hartford. I had slept quite well, and I brought the very best of me. As she breezed through the building’s front entrance carrying a welcome-home gift, I saw the turning of a page. We greeted each other quietly; I opened the car door for her, then took my seat behind the wheel.
My first words to her: “I think I need a minute here.”
Hers to me: “Yeah, me too.”
All the omens have continued to be good ones.
I will always walk. It is the Word I’ve been given to live. There may be times I call it pilgrimage, but when I walk anywhere and trace down through the body’s feel, the mind’s thoughts, the transcendent experience that always comes shining, I may as well be crossing the great Meseta, the Cantabrian Mountain passes, or the coastal moors. It is the walk the soul does crave. The walk.
A note for readers: This is the 13th and penultimate in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review any previous articles for context, and if you landed here from Facebook, please click here for the full journal, then scroll down as needed. If you came here directly, just scroll down.
To my mind, the finest part of the trek to Finisterre is the last couple of kilometers, which is essentially an easy walk on a path beside the beach. More than an arrival, it is a return, a return to ocean waters. Can there be a more fundamental pilgrimage than this for any human?
I’m here to revisit a place that had during my last Camino proven itself to be sacred ground (though, in a sense, I suppose all ground is sacred). It was here where I walked and wandered for nine days after that first pilgrimage journey, on the beaches and moors, on the footpaths across the cape, and the road out to the lighthouse, that something began to make sense about what had transpired on the Camino de Santiago. It was here I was given a way forward, and here that I found my way home.
I wonder if I can know this kind of thing once more ̶ ̶ if I can go home again.
I pause at the stone crucifix that welcomes pilgrims into Finisterre where the path meets the sidewalk next to the coastal road. Navigating from memory, I make my way to the middle of town, then climb the hill to my accommodation for the next two nights. Consistent with this notion of revisiting, it is the same hotel where I stayed the last time I was here.
It’s late in the day, and the walk from Olveiroa was tiring. After settling in and indulging in a long shower, I lie in bed considering the places I’ll visit tomorrow, all the while remembering that first time. It was a different season then with an early-summer feel in the air, and I was a different pilgrim, living a different life. I try to set expectations aside. Sleep comes easily.
Finisterre is a cape with bay and ocean sides. The town itself lies across the waist of the land, and a three-kilometer wilderness stretches between the town and the lighthouse at the farthest point. At the very edge of town is an 800-year-old church. Inside is a baptismal font situated in an alcove where I’d once experienced a profound, spontaneous meditation, one that had led to an understanding that, at the time, had long eluded me. The rain is heavy now, and the wind is driving hard. It would be so good to shelter here for a while, to revisit that alcove and sit there quietly once again.
I find the church doors locked.
As I continue on, the sidewalk soon yields to the footpath that traces the coastal road, and I begin the long, inclined walk toward the end of the cape. Through a steady downpour and gusting head wind, I eventually arrive at the zero kilometer marker of the Camino Finisterre and the lighthouse. My last visit here included a clear-sky sunset while I sat perched on the rocks, but today’s view reveals only the churning Atlantic directly below the cliffs. The walk back to town places the wind and rain at my back, and moving along the path I consider the contrasts being shown me as the day unfolds.
I arrive at the overlook high above a pristine, deserted beach on the ocean side of the cape. I’d spent quite a bit of time here before, but again, today, it presents a very different beauty. It is wild and windswept, raw and primitive, a heartbreaking kind of beauty. I make my way down the sloping walkways to the sand, then to the water’s edge. The waves are breaking far off with the tide running low, and I walk almost the whole length of the beach before the chilled winds force me back to the walkway and a return to the hotel.
I have one more day of route walking tomorrow, 30 kilometers to Muxia. I’ve a growing sense this will likely be my last Camino trek. For this reason, there is a place I must visit on the way: the moors of Castrominan.
Bands of rain are sweeping across the cape, and the wind is actually howling as I eat a large breakfast at the hotel. As I walk to intersect the Camino route along the Costa del Morte to Muxia, the wind is buffeting hard and the pack is acting like a sail, jarring me and challenging my balance.
I arrive within the hour at Castrominan, where I pay homage to another place that holds a mystical history for me. The grasses are matted and dull green in contrast to the yellow gorse blooms that greeted me last time. I follow a path to the edge of the cliffs, the wind blowing so hard that it drowns out the sound of the heavy surf pounding the rocks below. A melancholy seeps in, and soon the tears arrive, not at all dramatic ̶ ̶ there’s just nothing more here than a simple goodbye in the air ̶ ̶ and the wind dries them quickly. But as I cross back over the moors to rejoin the Camino, I think perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right, that maybe you can’t go home again.
The walk to Muxia is exquisitely wet, with a wind that is occasionally terrifying as gusts bend hundred-foot-tall eucalyptus trees near their tops. The sound of it is sometimes deafening, resembling a turbine. I have never hiked in conditions like this, and I ruefully remind myself about the intention of grace with which I’ve been walking. I want it to be over, even given my intrinsic understanding that grace expresses in an infinite variety of ways, including the unexpected. Other than water breaks, I press on to Muxia without stopping. After arriving, all I want is to become clean and dry, and to sleep. Food can wait until tomorrow.
There is a warm and welcoming café around the corner from my hotel, and I gorge myself on a leisurely breakfast. The rain has let up this morning, the wind has laid down a little, and the skies have brightened, though still overcast. A walk to the far end of town and its rocky coast is in order.
Muxia, situated on a peninsula that points directly north, is known for its sunrises over the harbor and Atlantic sunsets beyond its craggy western edge. The northernmost end is rugged and wild, known as a place where one can become mesmerized by the elemental, thundering waves crashing ashore. A short walk leads me to find a lighthouse, a church, and a rather stunning monument known as The Wound, a large stone monolith with a gaping crack down its middle, a reminder of a massive oil spill that had once contaminated the entire Spanish coastline. I find it easy to personalize this sculpture.
I settle into a perfect spot on a rock that forms a wind shadow behind me, and sit for a long while as I think of little else other than being present here. This is not the end of my pilgrimage. It is the place where I turn for home in my heart and soul, in body and mind ̶ ̶ the place from which I’ll carry every moment of these walks of penitence and grace. The Atlantic’s waves will always find the shore here, and I will always be a pilgrim, even if I never return to walk.
Next: coming home, some final reflections, and something a bit personal.
A note for readers: This is the 12th in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review any previous articles for context, and you landed here from Facebook, please click here, then scroll down as needed. If you came here directly, just scroll down.
Today’s walk from Olveiroa to Finisterre will end in a place I know well, a place where I’d once spent nine days after my first walk across Spain. As with my recent visit to Santiago de Compostela, I know it will feel like coming home.
After a hearty breakfast, Gregory and I leave the albergue well before sunrise as planned. Rain is back in the forecast today, and it begins as a light drizzle the very moment we head down the street toward the edge of town. As the Camino slips into the woods, we click on our headlamps for some mostly uphill forest walking. Each of us has about 32 kilometers to cover before reaching our respective destinations.
The Galician rain is soft this morning, and the aroma of moist eucalyptus anoints the chilly air as we silently make our way. I’m able to address my morning practice of prayerful contemplation that wasn’t possible in our shared room. Nearly an hour passes before the dawn comes on; soon after, we stow our lamps. Now we’re able to have some light conversation by using Gregory’s translator app, reading the screen without concern for tripping. We discuss the pilgrimage walks that brought us to Santiago de Compostela where we began this walk (the Camino Portuguese for him ̶ ̶ his first), along with some general talk about what inspired us to be pilgrims.
He really is a lovely fellow, and I’d have been delighted to spend more time with him, but before too long, we find ourselves at the split where the elegant, twin stone markers for the routes to Finisterre and Muxia stand side by side. After another sweet Camino goodbye, I walk along the side of a motorway for a few hundred meters before eventually joining a trail. I’ll not walk on another paved road until I enter the fishing port town of Cee on the Atlantic coast some 12 kilometers away.
The rainfall has become heavier, and it’s a little windy as well, but the atmosphere is perfect for reflection. It occurs to me that the intention of grace may have been better suited to a warm, sunlit mountain pilgrimage, and the penitent walk more appropriate to the rain. But a little deeper than that notion, and etched in memory, is the realization that this is a world of appearances where nothing is as it seems to be, and that grace has been woven into all of the heartbreak and loss and fear I’ve ever known. Certainly, then, grace can easily be found in wetness and discomfort as I walk toward a place that feels like home.
After 18 kilometers of walking from Olveiroa without rest, I notice a chapel to my right at the top of a knoll with a wide, covered portico facing the road. Another pilgrim is sheltering here as well, but there is plenty of room for us each to have our own space, so I approach. Nearing the chapel, I can see the pilgrim is a woman, only a little younger than me, and she smiles as I greet her. I remove my poncho and pack, extract a towel, and run it across my head and neck, but even with the raingear, I’m too soaked for this to have much effect. Still, it feels good to retreat for a while, to rest my legs and drink some water. My fellow pilgrim appears circumspect to me, so we remain silent to each other, and after ten minutes or so, she returns to the road with another smile and a simple nod. A distinct thought intuitively arises...all encounters are sacred.
Almost an hour later, on the downhill approach to Cee, I glimpse my first views of the Atlantic. The near-constant rain and my growing hunger does nothing to diminish my enthusiasm as I practically bound into town. The last time I was here, I’d taken a bus from Santiago, opting to walk just the 13 kilometers from Cee to Finisterre, so there is a tangible sense of accomplishment as I arrive. I pass through town quickly, though, and stop at a warm and cozy bar in the adjacent village of Corcubion for a long rest and some substantial food.
I’ve actually had enough time in this cafe to dry out fairly well, and notice that the rain has stopped. After a couple of café con leches to finish things off, I shoulder the pack and head off to Finisterre, now a mere 12 kilometers away under a brighter though still cloudy sky.
There is a bit of a climb after leaving Corcubion, but the forest walk that follows is delightful. I feel rested and nourished, there is a spring in my step, and my pace is brisk. There are many places along the way that are familiar even after the passage of such a long time. Soon, I emerge from the forest onto the coast road, the main motor route to Finisterre, and I can feel the place pulling me on like a magnet.
In the town of Sardineiro, the route returns to the forest, and then, on a gentle descent back toward the coast road, I can see it at last...the long finger of Cabo Finisterre as it points out into the Atlantic and toward the horizon. It’s easy to see how the old ones called it the end of the earth.
Next, memories in Finisterre, and a stormy walk to Muxia.
A note for readers: This is the 11th in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review previous articles for context, please scroll down.
For the first kilometer of the Camino de Finisterre, all I can hear is the barrage of the downpour against the plastic material of my poncho. It is deafening, sounding more like hail than rain, and though thoroughly amused by it, I pray this racket won’t last for the duration of the day’s 21-kilometer trek to Negreira. By the time I cross the Rio Sarela on my way out of the city, the rainfall has become more reasonable, toggling between light and moderate, yet constant. Two kilometers from the Cathedral, I pass a clearing that affords one last view of its distant spires, appearing today like specters in the misty air.
There is a delicate, sublime music in the walk today. Its instruments are the rain and steady wind, my body and mind, and all of my senses. There is a voice too, and it’s spoken out of the sweet aroma lifting from the deep eucalyptus forests that mottle the landscape of western Galicia. Its language is Grace, and I breathe its words. It feels as though I’m in what the Celts would refer to as a Thin Place, a liminal sense of the world, where everything I might want to know or understand seems to be within reach, and yet, not quite. I attempt no questions, but remain open to answers...better this way. I do know this: I have never felt as completely well as I do in these early moments of forest walking. As all of its elements envelop me, I am having the finest day of pilgrimage that I can recall.
Aguapesada, the halfway point, is the perfect place for a food stop, located as it is just before a significant climb. I afford myself a long break here, and am able to dry out a bit before continuing on the remainder of today’s walk.
In yet another stroll across time, I cross the Rio Tambre on the 13th-century Roman bridge at Ponte Maceira, a beautifully preserved hamlet. Before long, I’m following the 700-meter detour to my accommodation just before the town of Negreira. When I arrive, I find my hosts, a married couple, to be in a festive mood. Today’s pilgrims are their last guests for this season, and their hospitality carries with it a playful, easy style.
The rural area that surrounds this small hotel and albergue is charming, and I take advantage of a break in the rain with an early evening saunter past the small farms, the local church, and the cemetery. As I walk these winding roads, my memory wanders to the mountain trek from Leon and its trials of the penitent way, my arrival in Santiago, and the turn there toward the coast. So far, this outer journey is a study in contrast in every way imaginable, and yet the inner one remains a constant, seamless movement.
I leave this sweet hotel before dawn, and assisted by my headlamp, find my way along darkened, narrow roads, back onto the Camino route, and into Negreira. Today’s walk of 33 kilometers to the town of Olveiroa, begins dry, and I’m hopeful it will remain that way. Although the pack cover and poncho are stowed in the lid section of the bag, the forecast suggests they won’t be necessary. I move through Negreira quickly and enter a forest landscape. The light fragrance of eucalyptus is once again in the air.
Sunrise is magnificent, the sky a smear of golden orange and salmon under layers of broken clouds and a hazy blue sky. The morning air is quite damp and chilly, and low-lying fog settles thick in the valleys, soon to be dissolved as morning comes on.
The landscape of today’s walk proves to be more diverse, a mix of forest and farmland, each with its own unique aroma. For the most part, I’m walking on paved roads which makes for more lower leg fatigue, but the views both near and far are lovely, even under a mostly overcast sky. Although I can sense the potential for rainfall in the air, I’ve not felt a drop all day.
Perhaps it is the absence of rain and wind, but today I’m more focused on the surroundings, the aesthetics of the hamlets, the expanse of the land, the ever-changing sky, the carnality of it all. I’ve a sense of falling in love with Spain yet again, even as my farewell is looming. Only two more walking stages follow this one. A good time now to stay in the steps I take today.
The weather has turned mostly sunny and rather warm as I arrive in Olveiroa and check into the albergue where I’ve made a reservation. Curiously, I’m not as tired as I’d have thought after a long stage; perhaps the sunlight energized me. The room to which I’m assigned has six bunks. One has been claimed, but its occupant is not here now. Based on the few pilgrims I encountered on the road today and given the late afternoon hour, I’d be surprised if anyone else arrived. I shower and tend to laundry chores, and by the time I return to the bunk room, my new friend, Gregory from Romania, is there to greet me. He speaks virtually no English, which matches my Romanian perfectly. Fortunately, he is equipped with a translation app, so other than having to pass his phone back and forth, we can chat like old pals.
Our time together will be brief. He is walking from here to Muxia directly, and I’m off to Finisterre where I’ll spend a day before heading to Muxia via another route. Tomorrow, we’ll walk together to where the Camino splits about eight kilometers from Olveiroa. It will be a long day for us both, so we agree to leave well before first light.
The primary concern of albergue life reveals itself soon after lights-out, but his snoring is light, more like heavy breathing. Sleep comes easily.
Next: To Finisterre and a stroll through memory.
A note for readers: This is the tenth in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review previous articles for context, please scroll down.
Seven years ago, when I last walked through the village of Lavacolla, the rain was torrential. It had been relentless for 18 kilometers since leaving Salceda, the hamlet where I’d spent the previous night. As I recall, it had finally tapered to drizzle not too far beyond where I am now. Then, my pace was almost frantic. I was soaked and wanted to be done with it. But today, under a clear sky, warm temperature, and a gentle breeze, I am sauntering, basking in well-being as I move through this landscape I still remember well.
By the time I leave Lavacolla, I’ve already encountered more pilgrims on this road than I did on the entire Camino San Salvador. These days, the French route of the Camino de Santiago is crowded. It’s likely that many of the people I’ve joined have walked 800 kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port in France. Among them, I feel as though I’m an imposter, as if I should have a sign on my backpack that says I’ve only walked today from the airport. But I do feel a bit road weary after the trek from Leon to Oviedo, so that has to count for something. I smile at all whom I meet and wish them Buen Camino. No one as yet has called me a fraud.
I have some unfinished business before reaching Santiago. There is a special place that gloomy weather had kept me from fully experiencing last time, so I must make amends.
Just prior to the final, long descent into the outskirts of the city, but still over four kilometers from the Cathedral of St. James, I follow a path to my left that leads across a large, open park space toward a rolling hill about a half kilometer away. A few minutes later, I arrive at Monte do Gozo and the two statues stationed there depicting pilgrims beholding their first view of the distant cathedral spires. It is a traditional, final detour from the French route ̶̶ ̶ the inspiring, penultimate experience of a trek that for many exhausted pilgrims was a walk across the breadth of Spain and their own inner landscape. As for me, I feel welcomed.
Returning to the route, I head down the hill and begin a long trudge to the Old Quarter of Santiago, the end point of the Camino’s most-walked routes. Although I take note of the yellow arrows and scallop shells that are meant to guide me through the streets, I’m navigating mostly from memory now. Drawing closer, I note the changes in the architecture and street surfaces as they take on that medieval Roman look, and finally see one of the cathedral’s spires not far ahead. Next, I hear the echo of the bagpipes being played under the archway that leads to the Praza de Obradoiro, and soon I’m in the middle of the open plaza teeming with pilgrims. Standing before the western façade of the Cathedral of Saint James, I drop my pack, and, using it as a backrest, stretch out for a while on the cobblestone surface in the final posture of the walk. After seven years, a very different pilgrim has arrived home.
After a good night’s sleep at my hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter, I begin my one allotted day in Santiago with a walk around the cathedral, a light breakfast, and a trip to the laundromat. These things aside, I turn my attention to the Pilgrim Mass offered daily at noon.
Although I’ve documented my precarious relationship to Catholicism elsewhere, it remains essential for me to attend this Mass, one that has been offered continuously for over 800 years. Once again, I find myself in yet another cathedral, engaging in another walk through time. But here, the energy of pilgrimage is palpable, felt in the bones, the heart, and the soul. It is in the air of the place. Though the increase in crowds since my last time here has changed the flavor of the experience, its spirit remains intact, and I leave feeling uplifted and well prepared for my walk to the coast tomorrow.
For the remainder of my day in Santiago, I wander about town, visit a local park that affords a gorgeous view of the Cathedral, and visit with an old friend who now lives here full time. During the late afternoon, I note the changing character of the sky. For the first time since arriving in Spain ten days ago, clouds have appeared.
I’ve resisted looking at the weather forecast, but I knew the change would come. The region of Galicia is Spain’s version of our Pacific Northwest. And in October, especially, it begins to rain. So when I awaken next morning to the sound of wind-driven rain pelting the window, I’m not surprised. In fact, I actually smile. It’s just so very right.
I put the pack cover on, shoulder the bag, and don my heavy duty poncho, one that I purchased in Burgos on my very first Camino. It’s still a pain in the ass to put a poncho on. Outside now, the wind is funneling through the streets so that the rain is coming sideways. I make my way toward the Cathedral and head diagonally across the Praza de Obradoiro, sheets of rain meeting me head on. This is pilgrimage in Galicia, and I am ecstatic. I join with the Camino Finisterre route, and begin my walk to the Atlantic.
Next: Eucalyptus forests and the language of trees.
A note for readers: This is the ninth in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review previous articles for context, please scroll down.
After a shower, a brief nap, and some tapas, I make my way along the crowded streets of Oviedo to the Cathedral of San Salvador, the formal end of the pilgrimage route. The late afternoon autumn light is a warm glow of reddish gold, casting long shadows. The church is closed for the day, but the plaza before it is occupied with people who are strolling, or, like me, sitting at the edge of a fountain, and a busker is playing religious songs on a sad trumpet, its notes echoing against the light-brown stone of the surrounding centuries-old buildings.
I’m feeling a mild, sweet melancholy ̶ ̶̶ the perfect mood to consider my transition between two distinct-yet-contiguous pilgrimage walks ̶ ̶ from one step into the next, from the intention of penitence into that of grace, from exhale to inhale. I’m here now at the bottom of that breath, in this perfect late-day light, the cooling temperature, and the echoing notes, feeling the ease and relief of standing down from an arduous walk ̶ ̶ one that had its moments. Occasionally in this sweet old world, times like this arise that would make it okay to set aside all else, and to have it be this way forever.
Once again, morning dawns clear and sunny. I’ve planned a rest day of casual wandering through the city, which I’ll begin by exploring the cathedral and its sacred relics, most notably the Shroud of Oviedo, said to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus as his body was removed from the cross. Walking through spaces such as this is always a walk through time; in this case, the Cathedral of San Salvador took 140 years to build and has stood essentially as it is for half a millennium.
I move through the magnificent, vaulted sanctuary that took the labor of seven generations to build, past the altar and its massive, intricate retablo, through the small chapels and stately cloister, the crypt, and the museum rooms full of fine art objects and artifacts of the faith. I arrive at the gated-off area containing the ancient relics, the centerpiece of which is a reproduction of the Shroud. (The original is displayed only on certain holy days.) Although I am duly impressed and deeply touched, I find myself struggling to feel spiritually moved by these objects and spaces, or by the devotion they appear to inspire in my fellow visitors. But try as I might, and despite the sheer weight and beauty of it all, I cannot. This walk through time, through the creations of time, has ultimately left me feeling spiritually bereft, for I’m given to remember the mountain walking, where it was the eternal itself that touched me.
And so it is with this shift of intention from penitence to grace, a shift from a construct of the human mind to a faculty of the divine. As I carried these intentions with me to Spain, I had thought it to be along the lines of a call and response, but today it seems more like an order of ascension, maybe even a collapse of one into the other, the two things becoming one thing.
The fruits of pilgrimage are often revealed in thin layers of understanding, so for now, this is all I can say of it. There is more walking to do.
Next day, I pull into the morning rush hour traffic, leaving Oviedo for Santiago de Compostela. I hope to arrive at the airport car-rental agency there in the early afternoon. My navigation app tells me this will be the case, so I relax into the drive heading west along the northern coast of Spain to the region of Galicia on yet another perfect weather day.
The trip is glorious, a simple route involving only two highways and one secondary road. There are several times early in the drive when I am in sight of the Bay of Biscay, and at one point I spontaneously decide to exit for a brief detour onto a local road that brings me even closer. Briefly, I motor through a region where tall foothills meet sparsely populated farmland that extends to the coast, and here I find an open roadside cafe for a late breakfast.
A little after noon, I pull into the airport complex, return the rental car, then hike along the access roads to intercept the French route of the Camino de Santiago near the village of Lavacolla. From here, I begin to walk the final 13 kilometers of the same route I walked seven years ago into the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral of St. James. There, my next pilgrimage route begins, a pilgrimage of grace to the Atlantic Ocean.
Next, into Santiago de Compostela, a place between two walks.
A note for readers: This is the eighth in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review previous articles for context, please scroll down.
This morning, I’m walking quickly from my hotel to a nearby café through the chilly, still-shadowed canyons of downtown Mieres. I opted for sleep instead of dinner last night, and I’m famished. Dinner in Spain is usually a late-evening affair, and all I was able to find earlier than that were some tapas with drinks. But while strolling the hotel’s neighborhood during the late afternoon, I discovered the café where I’m now heading ̶ ̶̶̶ one that caters to those who go to work early. As an added benefit, it’s located on the Camino route heading north out of town to Oviedo, the end of the San Salvador pilgrimage.
Today’s walk will, once again, be under clear skies with warm temperatures, and promises some of the most delightful trekking of the entire route. I relish this notion of delight. It is the way I wish for this first of two pilgrimage walks to finish. Today, there will be no hunger or thirst, no worry or suffering of any kind. There will be only care-free gratitude coupled with beautiful surroundings between two metropolitan bookends.
After a hearty breakfast, I head out for a flat, two-kilometer stroll along city streets to the suburb of La Pena, then begin a long, relatively easy climb of several kilometers on a winding motor roadway as it traces along the edge of a steep hillside and passes through a few small villages. The craggy-topped mountains of two days ago have yielded to large foothills, though they still rise quite sharply from the valley floor, and I find myself stopping frequently to take in the arresting views. Lately, my surroundings have been reminiscent of the beautiful Pyrenees Mountains found along the border of France and Spain.
The climb peaks at the village of El Padrun. Here, the route leaves the motorway for a dirt trail that descends into a lush valley through the hamlet of Casares, passing sheep and goats as they graze easily on the steep, hillside pastures of quaint farms. After a few kilometers, the path delivers me once again to a roadway. Soon I enter the town of Olloniego, and immediately come upon an inviting café. I drop my pack, take a seat at a sidewalk table, and order a café con leche and croissant. A mere ten kilometers remains of this six-day pilgrimage road to Oviedo.
I find it curious that I have no real sense of anticipation about arriving at the end of the route. Those ten kilometers may as well be a hundred. In fact, I’d prefer that to be so. Another hundred kilometers to consider this life I’ve lived and the remarkable course it has taken ̶ ̶̶ all that conspired to deliver me to my first pilgrimage seven years ago, how much everything has changed since then, and the profound gratitude I feel.
As I mentioned upon leaving Leon, when walking a pilgrimage it’s best to begin with an intention, a general direction, a way in, a pointer. This then becomes the substrate of whatever experience is to follow in the steps that traverse unknown ground. Penitence, as an intention, has served me well, for it has led to a Camino experience that touches around the edges of a truer humility, and a deeper way to wonder about the notions of choice and decision and blame. Penitence, it turns out, may be leading to forgiveness, a kind of forgiveness so deep as to be unnecessary. For a pilgrimage to be a crucible, the perfect atmosphere, the perfect air to breathe could just be...penitent air.
But despite my apparent lack of anticipation, ten kilometers remain and it’s time to walk them. After one more café con leche, I slip on my pack, head down the street, and take my leave of Olloniego. The final hills between here and Oviedo are calling me, along with a rest day tomorrow.
After a two-kilometer stroll on a paved road out into the countryside north of Olloniego, the route turns off into the woods and abruptly upward. This climb is shaded, but the heat of early afternoon is strong, and I’m sweating profusely. There is no displeasure in this, for my walk is framed in gratitude. I am embracing the climb, the strain of it, the utter carnality of it, even as some stinging nettle brushes my lower legs during a brief water break. The nettle connects me to the idea of how something painful can also be so beneficial to health, its leaves and roots known to be loaded with nutrients.
A few kilometers later, after scaling another hill, I’m walking along a relatively flat, double-wide dirt track. A pasture lies to the right and a stone Camino marker is on the left. Just past the marker the road bends a little toward a descent, and in the distance I can see my first glimpse of Oviedo. The end is in sight.
One more stout hill remains. It is long and steep and absent of any shade. By the time I reach the summit, I’m dripping sweat and panting. The heat wave that has brought these summer temperatures into October seems to be peaking today, but still there is no suffering. I feel as though in this final exertion of the San Salvador route, I’ve been purged and cleansed.
I descend the long hill into Mieres, and entering the city is every bit the anticlimax I suspected it would be. I am simply tired now and wish only to shower and rest. I’ve reached the end of the penitent walk.
Next: The Cathedral of San Salvador, then on to Santiago de Compostela and a new intention.
A note for readers: This is the seventh in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review previous articles for context, please scroll down.
The energy of the Camino is a term familiar to pilgrims who walk these routes of Spain. It’s usually used when rational explanation fails, and is often accompanied by a shrug. This term is all I can offer to explain what is carrying me forward to the town of Herias. I’ve swallowed the last of my water, my legs feel like two stumps, I’m sweating heavily, and despite my faith in what has placed me here, doubt is front of mind.
Finally, Herias reveals itself.
The Camino spills out of the woods onto a small plaza. No one is around. To my right is what appears to be a shelter, a covered area behind a wall. I stop and listen. Ever so faintly, I hear the sound of running water. Immediately I wonder if it could be a hallucination, but I follow it to the shelter. Here I find three pipes protruding from the other side of the wall, each spilling fresh water into an open trough. Another well-worn pilgrimage term comes to mind: The Camino provides.
Campomanes, today’s destination, lies but one kilometer north. After a long rest, some wound care, and a few bottles of water, I set off for the final, brief walk to end this crucible of a day that has been my fourth stage of the Camino San Salvador. Penitence will continue, but the suffering is over at least for now.
With one last steep descent into Campomanes, I walk through the town and find a café. I’m not terribly hungry ̶ ̶ which I find odd ̶ ̶ but what I really crave is a Coke. A few of them would be even better, along with some sitting for a while. Reflection is in order.
Over the years, I’ve had some close calls while hiking, mostly due to falls. They usually happen toward the end of the day when leg fatigue sets in. I also had an incident during my first Camino on a long, lonely stretch of dusty trail just before reaching the city of Astorga, when I had some vague sense that I could somehow fail. But never have I experienced what happened along the way to Herias. The road could have taken me. Instead, the road delivered me.
I could be blamed for making poor decisions, but alas, none were made, poor or otherwise. This is not hiking where decisions and choices are part of the experience. It is pilgrimage, where I am to submit and obey and walk in a grace that can appear as something cruel and ungraceful. To borrow another long-used phrase, the Camino is life itself.
Sleep comes easily in Campomanes.
Morning dawns chilly and clear as it has every day since I left Leon, and once again temperatures are predicted to be in the mid-80s. Outwardly, this 20-plus kilometer penultimate stage of the Camino San Salvador is the antithesis of yesterday’s trek ̶̶ ̶ a minor climb to begin, then a corresponding descent to a mostly paved, table-flat valley walk beside the Rio Lena to the bustling city of Mieres.
It is the kind of easy trekking that drives attention inward, where the darker ghosts that have been walking alongside can have their day without the distraction of physical exertion ̶ ̶ ghosts of how I have been in the world, the many sins of omission and commission, the words I’ve said and those I’ve withheld, all of my judgments and false beliefs, and the effects of relationships now forever changed or ended. It strikes me how this pilgrimage, coming as it has toward the end of a long and intense period of solitude and spiritual self-inquiry, presents an opportunity to reframe much of what has been revealed...a finer way forward as new doors are opening.
I’ve carried some objects in my pocket ̶ ̶ talismans, one could say. I’ve empowered them, perhaps anointed them, with unique virtues. I don’t usually place much stock in such things, but it’s fair to say the endeavor at hand does not fall into the realm of the usual. There have been times while walking when I’ve fished them out, rolled them around a bit in my palm, and taken a measure of comfort, or reassurance, or remembrance as I have considered each:
A small stone given to me by a close friend who is a Catholic priest is etched with the image of footprints on one side, and on the other, these words: It was then I carried you. The stone represents faith, and it accompanied me on my first Camino pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Spain’s Atlantic coast.
A religious medal inscribed with the words Divine Mercy was given to me recently by another Camino pilgrim, and I carry it because mercy is kind and reminds me to allow this for myself in a walk where the shadows dominate.
A secular tin medal in the shape of a heart, inscribed with a personal offering and given to me by my former significant other, was also with me on that first, much longer walk. It had a different meaning then, but it now carries the energies of grace ̶ ̶ a grace that inspired some words we exchanged just days before I left for Spain, words that had allowed for a far gentler sense of parting than those exchanged during our previous encounter.
Faith. Mercy. Grace. Good companions to have along the way.
After one last stretch of paved walking beside the Rio Lena, I cross a bridge and enter another world of city streets, traffic, road construction, and crowded sidewalks. Mieres comes as a shock wave, jolting me from the reverie of the day’s reflective, easy saunter ̶ ̶ a sudden return to distraction and confusion, if only for a little while.
Next, the end of the San Salvador route in the city of Oviedo, and a shift away from penitence.
A note for readers: This is the sixth in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review previous articles for context, please scroll down.
By the time I’ve taken the first few hundred steps on this high route, the sobbing has dissolved, the tears have air-dried, and I’ve settled into a mindful movement of walking the path upon which I’ve been placed. The pain of my initial resistance is now left behind along with the illusion of choice. The only way forward is through the unknown, along the foreboding trail that lies ahead.
It’s summer warm, I’m low on water, and I’m walking an optional spur with a difficulty rating of “high.” Significant climbing is before me. I’ve not seen another pilgrim since leaving Pajares, so there is no doubt I’m utterly alone. Any experienced hiker would suggest I’m out of my mind. This is precisely where I am. All I have is faith in what placed me here. It will have to be enough.
As I walk easily along the shady, wooded trail, the Camino lulls me into thinking this may not be as difficult as I’d thought. There is a valley to my right seen through occasional breaks in the foliage. I’m walking along the waistline of a mountain ̶ ̶ a mountain I will most certainly summit.
It’s not long before the path cuts left. My new direction is up. There are parts of this climb that are so severe I must stow the trekking poles; they interfere with the need to grab onto hand holds. My progress slows to a crawl in the ascent. Every placement of foot and hand has to be considered. There is no margin, no option for a lapse in judgement or poorly placed step. I am at the mercy of the effort itself. The outcome of a stumble or simple fall could be disastrous.
Despite all this, I have no regrets about being in this circumstance. Although these views have been far more rewarding, taking the easier route would have haunted me forever. I don’t think it would have been possible, anyway. This has been a matter of deliverance, something determined long before I’d ever arrived at this trail’s head. It’s taken a lifetime to be here.
The remainder of this five-plus-kilometer spur is a painstaking exercise of several hours’ duration before a sharp descent back to the original route. Now I find myself on a claustrophobic, forested path that continuously climbs and descends. After about three tedious kilometers of this, I feel as though I can go no farther, as again the inner and outer journeys blend into one.
There is no rock or stump to sit on, and the path itself is barely a foot wide. In my exhaustion, I drop the pack where I stand, remove the remaining water bottle from the stow, and sit in the vegetation beside the trail, using the pack as a backrest. As I settle, my balance suddenly shifts to the left, and I brace myself, hand against the ground. It immediately feels as if there is a sharp object there. Looking down, all I see is what appears to be grass-like plants, but my left hand comes away covered in blood. There are small lacerations beginning just above my wrist and extending down the back of my hand. Must be a form of razor grass, I reason.
Rinsing the wounds is not an option. I have about three mouthfuls of water remaining, and at least two more kilometers to walk until I reach Herias. I have no idea if there is a fountain there, but if not I’ll knock on doors. The bleeding continues for some moments, but as it begins to slow, sweating keeps everything moist and the blood is sticky.
Anyone coming upon me now, observing me sitting across the path, essentially out of water and bleeding from one hand, would have to be concerned. Yet I have no doubt this is a perfect moment, that I have been placed here precisely as I am meant to be. Memory returns me to the sobbing I experienced back at the head of the high route and to the prayers I’ve offered for a penitent experience on this pilgrimage. I surrender.
When one is out of options, one surrenders. On pilgrimage, one surrenders to the walk. I stand and shoulder the pack.
Next: Surrender unfolds.
A note for readers: This is the fifth in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review the previous articles for context, please scroll down.
Guilherme and I leave the albergue in Poladura de la Tercia well before sunrise, our early departure dictated by the long, difficult day that lies ahead for him on his 31-kilometer trek to the town of Campomanes. This morning we’ve enlisted Ramon’s help. As a seasoned pilgrim who has recently walked this route, he agreed to serve as our guide on the tricky, poorly marked section of the path just ahead in the pre-dawn darkness. Possessed of a naturally fast pace, Ramon has assured us that the dark should serve to slow him down a bit.
We three practically sprint through the silent streets of the village, our breathing the only sound to be heard. Clearing the last buildings, we click on our headlamps and follow Ramon to the head of a wide dirt track that immediately launches upward as our real work begins. Soon the path narrows, and we enter the mountain world once more.
After almost two kilometers of our climbing without pause, a gold and pink fringe silhouettes a ridgeline to the east, and diffused light begins to insinuate itself across the landscape. Intuitively, we extinguish our headlamps and come to a stop, awed as dawn magically unfolds before us in the cold, silent stillness. I must absorb this image and sear it into memory, for each dawn is as unique as a grain of sand, as an ice crystal on a windowpane. As the sun keeps rising over the ridgeline, every passing moment dissolves in a kind of death.
We continue our climb as the east-facing slopes take on the burnt orange tones of low-slung light, the sun now full and round, perched on a mountain peak against a cloudless sky. The shadows are still deep, but with each step more is revealed and the air gently warms. I want this to last forever ̶̶ ̶ this climb, this light, this perfect, rocky ground upon which I now step.
As morning brightens, Ramon’s pace quickens and he begins to drift farther ahead. As we crest the top of our climb for this section of the trek and begin our first descent, it’s clear he’s done as our guide. I find myself lagging behind Guilherme, being in no particular hurry on what for me will prove to be a relatively short day of walking the remaining distance to Pajares. As long as he remains in sight, that will be good enough.
We descend into a deep valley where cattle are scattered on the steep, grassy slopes and then climb once more as I close the distance to my friend. We walk together from here on, eventually scaling a fence to cross a main road, and in a few moments we find ourselves at a café ̶̶̶̶̶our first opportunity for food after 10 kilometers of mountain trekking. Ramon greets us as he finishes his breakfast, having some more coffee as we tuck in.
From here to my destination is mostly downhill, and at such frightening angles that I have to extend the length of my trekking poles. The views of the mountains and valleys are breathtaking. The steep descent slows our progress considerably, allowing more time to take in the expansive surroundings. Guilherme, Ramon, and I enter Pajares around midday, locate my accommodation, and take a moment to say farewell. The remainder of their walk today is daunting, and I sense this is weighing on Guilherme. He is gracious, though, as he hugs me warmly, telling me that our walking together was... fantastic.
The following morning, on the path alone for the first time in three days, I leave the town of Pajares after a quick breakfast at my accommodation. The sky is once again clear, and a noticeable chill is in the air as I descend into a lush, sharply sloped valley. At the bottom, the path passes through the village of San Miguel del Rio. It follows a river for a while before turning to ascend the opposite side of the valley, then extends along a densely wooded three-kilometer track to the quintessential Spanish mountain town of Llanos de Semeron, where I take my first rest stop of the day.
There is no water fountain here, and I find this troubling. I have at least 11 kilometers without services to walk before arriving at my destination of Campomanes, and I’ve consumed roughly half of the water I packed this morning. All I can hope for is to find a water source along the way. As the heat of the day comes on, I follow a paved road out of town, observing the stunning mountain and valley views that accompany me. Taking note of my interior journey, I vaguely sense something gathering.
While researching the San Salvador route before traveling to Spain, I became aware of a split in the Camino that is now looming before me. I had not anticipated having to make a decision here, for in my hand-written route notes, I’d already ruled out the more difficult “high option” in favor of the safer, shorter valley route that involved more road walking. This stage is hard enough without adding the burden of a spur labeled as “extremely difficult.” Now, though, I come to the trail jutting off the road and stop. I stare for a long moment at the stony path leading up, away from the relative safety of the paved surface. I stare at this path knowing full well that I am to walk it.
I begin to sob uncontrollably, unsure as to why. It is odd but not unusual. These outbursts happen to me sometimes while on pilgrimage, their mysterious origins remaining obscure. Rising fear bids me to flee down the road. The Camino wishes me to climb, to ascend. A wordless thought, an impression, arrives with the sobbing and begs to remind me of my intention for the San Salvador...the intention of penitence. Do I wish to honor this, or not? There is no mercy or forgiveness, no comfort to be had in this thought. Still sobbing, I take to the upper path.
Next: Trial by climb and descent, by thirst and razor grass.