There are two battling forces in my mind on the final day of a Camino. The first one wants the day to move slowly–to savor all the greatest hits of hiking. A long second breakfast, another cup of coffee, photos of every field, pretty tree, and flock of sheep. The second one dreams of the moment my head will hit the pillow in the hotel in Santiago, knowing that our walk is over and I’m about to take the best nap of my life. You often have little control over what actually happens on your last day, but these two forces keep you from walking too fast or too slow.
We woke up early that morning since we were set to meet the owner of the house for breakfast and to pay for any incidentals. By 8am, it was clear they weren’t showing up. We missed the early part of the sunrise, probably missed John and Cindy, and now we were curious if the owner even knew people were staying in their house.
We left the only bill we had on the counter since we couldn’t get change and left a note that should cover our balance and the balance of the couple staying upstairs. We hit the road confused but resolute that we did all we could.
Thankfully, the dogs from the night before were nowhere to be seen. Had they been a dream? The even stranger thing was that John and Cindy’s albergue also looked dark and closed up. I started to message them on WhatsApp when they suddenly whipped around the corner of the building panting and flushed.
“We got locked in!” They announced, just as befuddled as we were. The owners were also supposed to greet them by 7 to open the restaurant and collect their money but had also bailed. And since many doors lock from the outside in the older buildings, they were totally stuck.
“We had to climb down the fire escape,” John explained, throwing up his arms. Cindy was already on the phone and we heard the ring on the other side of the door. An older woman opened the shutters, looking angry and confused.
“Necessitan pagar,” I told her–explaining that they needed to pay. Ben was impressed by my early morning verb conjugation. The whole situation became clear to the woman and after some general yelling and fussing, her son came down to open the restaurant and collect their money.
So while it wasn’t a smooth start to the morning, it did fall in line with the mysterious vortex of communication we’d been stuck in for days. Still, we bulked up our good spirits and hit the road–albeit much later than anticipated.
We had about 25 kilometers to go, no small feat for a final day. And yet, this culminating bit of the route is more familiar in my memory than some parts of NYC. You pass through a few small villages and then return to the deep eucalyptus woods for hours upon hours. Eventually, you pass by the airport and over the last hill that takes you down into the city.
We entered the eucalyptus forests while it was still morning. In the early days of Covid, when we didn’t know a whole lot about the illness, I kept a bottle of eucalyptus essential oil next to my bed to check if I lost my sense of smell. Now I was among the trees themselves. I closed my eyes and thanked them for calming my nerves all those months.
Ben and I marched along with great confidence. An hour of walking turned into three, and then four, and then five. In the last few days of the Camino Frances, hills are the name of the game. If you’re not going up, you’re going down. I kept imagining our friend Emily from home with the sign she holds up during the NYC Marathon each year, “Last damn bridge!” I was certain the last damn hill was one of these.
On the other hand, the idea of it truly being the last damn hill wasn’t easy to comprehend. This had been by far the hardest logistical Camino to plan and we’d moved mountains–no pun intended–to get here. I both didn’t want to imagine it over and couldn’t wait to finally have this off our shoulders.
The celebratory energy of the hike builds the closer you get to the city. We stopped for a sandwich and some coffee at a small village when a group of men came out of the restaurant carrying a platter of beers. “All for you, madam!” They laughed, setting it down on my table. I played a long and pretended to consume every pint off the tray.
With a few hours to go, we passed the Santiago airport and the long-awaited stone sign that indicates you are officially within city limits. At this point, I could tell Ben was starting to struggle. We fell into a new familiar rhythm of hiking conversation to pass the time and distract from our exhausted joints. There are skills you build with a hiking buddy–friend, spouse, or someone you met one week before–that you never find off the trail, and I loved that we had that now.
In the final villages, we caught glimpses of the last pile of friendly kittens, one last coffee shop, and the last crowd of selfie-takers. I psyched myself up for my ice cream cone at Monte de Gozo–AKA the Hill of Joy. In 2008, when I was studying the Camino at the end of my undergrad years, we stopped in Monte de Gozo to take pictures before walking into the city. I ducked into a small cafe to buy ice cream so I could eat it on the hill overlooking the cathedral and the city. In 2017 I did the same. It was time for my closing tradition.
We reached the top of the hill around 3pm. My cafe had clearly changed hands over the years and the whole dining room was rearranged for Covid. I explained in attempted Spanish that this was part of my tradition for many years. She smiled and handed us some of the last ice pops in the freezer.
Ben and I carried the ice cream to a bench and collapsed. There it was. The city we’d been thinking about every step of the way for the past 10 days–for the past four years, really. Ben first mentioned wanting to walk the Camino from Leon at the end of my last 500-mile trek. We put the idea off when he got a new job “that would discuss him going to Spain once he settled in.” But they never did. And even when Ben switched to a much more caring job, the promise of a three-week trip turned into the promise of a two-week trip. And then the May 2020 Camino turned into a Fall 2020 Camino, which turned into a Spring 2021 Camino, and well, you know the rest.
I’m not ready to write about what it’s like to walk a pilgrimage with someone you love so deeply. I had more than a handful of friends and family members infer that it would ruin our marriage. That we would get tired of each other or that I would learn he simply didn’t care about the Camino as much as I did. As if that would be the breaking point after 11 great years with someone.
I realize that these comments are made because you can’t truly understand the experience of walking this journey until you do it. It’s never about whether you’ll get along the whole time or whether you see each other in a new light after–how could you not?
It’s about navigating a canceled flight and riding the A train back together at 3am. It’s about somehow still getting up the next morning to try again. It’s about watching your husband lay down funeral cards at the base of an ancient cross. It’s about chucking a sandwich off the side of a mountain as you swat each other with branches while being attacked by flies. It’s about sharing old stories in 80-degree-heat that somehow you’ve never shared before. It’s about deciding to salvage your health by getting a taxi when you promised you wouldn’t. It’s about barely hobbling into the final town of the day and then still eating the happiest and simplest meal of your life once you get there. It’s about building a Camino family together and sharing memories and inside jokes that no one else will ever understand. It’s about making it to the end. It’s about not giving up.
When we walked the culminating 3km into the city, we weaved up and down the Roman streets, the sounds of the plaza growing louder and louder each moment. I have a habit of getting lost when walking into Santiago–it’s happened twice now–but Ben and I didn’t lose the way.
Just before we passed under the last archway, Cara and Mark came out of a bar and opened their arms for a hug. “You’re almost there! Keep going! Buen Camino!” I made a note in my head that it was probably the last time we’d hear that. Buen Camino. Have a good way. Is there a kinder phrase? We gave them a long hug and made the final steps into the plaza. A bagpipe player underscored our last official steps.
We stood in front of the Cathedral in my favorite place in the world–the Plaza de Obradoiro. It’s the one place I know of where people from all over the world, beliefs, and backgrounds, come together with a deep sigh of relief and gratitude to be there. The hugs you witness in that plaza rival the ones at airports when loved ones reunite after years or decades. But these people have likely known each other for just a few weeks. It is a place of peace and pure human joy.
We were done. John and Cindy appeared as well, as did some of our earlier Camino family. I sat on the ground and felt something that I’d never felt in this plaza before: that it was all complete. At least for this stage of my life, I didn’t need to walk the Camino again any time soon. I felt closure and peace. And exhaustion.
Eventually, you pick up your pack for the first time as a human returned to the regular world and carry it to your hotel. You go through the motions again of making dinner reservations, ordering groceries for the following week, checking into the airport. The paperwork returns, the check boxes return, the world returns. You hope you can hold onto the old world as long as possible, and you wait for the inevitable shifts in your brain to redirect how you process your life back home. But first, you have to get there.
But unlike my other journeys, I didn’t have to go through the portal back to the real world alone this time. I had this guy with me. And I will never stop being grateful for that.
Thank you so much to everyone who has followed my journey. I’m happy to say I’m finally making significant progress on a Camino-related book that feels right in my bones. The rough draft and book proposal are set for completion by the end of October. I look forward to updating you more soon. In the meantime, Buen Camino, all.