by Dee Redfearn
Photo by Dolores Redfearn
Bees suck honey from vines on pitted walls leading us on through a funnel of eucalyptus. Cumulous hang below the talus before us. The din of insects that swarm over yellow pistils overpowers unfolding morning sounds: A rooster prattles. A gate creaks open and the rooster flaps its wings to crow in the dawn. The gray-haired woman standing in our path, bents over a rake as thin as she is, smiles our way.
“Buen camino.” She bids the customary pilgrim’s greeting.
I turn to look over my shoulder. Who, I thought at the time, was she addressing?
* * *
It is early May when Rosanne, a longtime friend, asks me to make the camino to Compostela. She journeys to mark a rite of passage, her 60th birthday. Mine is close at hand.
Against rational advice, all logic reasoning aside, I agree. As a seasoned runner who had run the Boston Marathon and solo-walked in Canterbury, an 800-kilometer sojourn that traditionally starts from Ronsesvalles poses no threat. Mine was a different experience that posed second thoughts. I agree to meet Rosanne halfway. After three weeks of training, early June, I hop a bus to Astorga by way of Madrid, hauling my red backpack and wearing my wide-brimmed felt hat. No one gives me a second glance.
Synchronicity is the first challenge: how to time our rendezvous and where to meet. Cruz de Ferro (the iron cross), the highest and most emblematic point on the camino (1517 meter high), seems a place hard to miss, a place with the history of having been a hunting ground that Alfonso VI had granted to the hermit Gaucelmo in 1103—a timeline that since connects millions of pilgrims.
Upon arrival at the castle-like Hotel Gaudi, a young Spaniard stands behind a counter to check me in while talking on the phone, writing a receipt, and puffing on a cigarette. Don’t worry, he will give me a wake-up call.
I spend a restless night in anticipation of the solo hike at dawn.
At 3 a.m. the young, not-to-worry Spaniard has yet to deliver my wake-up call. I had set my own alarm; it hadn’t gone off. It’s 4 a.m. and my adrenaline pumps as I toss my gear together and bumble down the winding stairwell. The young Spaniard, unfettered and, as I suspected, puffing on a cigarette, assures me a taxi might work to assure my point of rendezvous.
Where to find a taxi to drive me to the top of Cruz de Ferro at five in the morning, in forty-degree weather, boggles me. Out of the shadows, Santos, the saint of taxi drivers, appears. He is a thick man of forty or so with a flair for storytelling. I sit in the backseat, in sour humors, chewing on a piece of hard bread. The motor hums in resistance to our gradual ascent. I, preoccupied with the low-hanging clouds and time ticking away, hardly notice either the scenery or Santos’s pattering:
“Some come to Galicia in search of enlightenment or redemption; some, to experience the unique architecture; some, in search of witches. Did you know that Galicia is known for witchcraft?” Santos points out the hazards of the camino: missing hikers “yet to be found,” cauldrons, potions, and wart-nosed women who cast spells. Half listening, I check my watch.
Three hours later than my estimated time of arrival, Santos opens the car door. Helping to secure my backpack, he assembles my gear, shakes my hand, and kisses me ceremoniously, once on each cheek.
“Buen camino,” he says, his tires scattering loose gravel as he drives off.
I feel Lilliputian standing at the base of a giant iron cross looking as forlorn as I feel. At the foot of the cross, a cairn is piled—stones with scribbled petitions and names of families—offerings of pilgrims who passed this way. Pilgrims often inscribe the words ultreia—to reach beyond and animo—to have courage. I feel neither.
A group of chattering nurses from Barcelona, perched on the stone steps of a nearby chapel, is having merienda—midmorning coffee and bread. I carry only a camel backpack with an ample supply of water.
Oh sí, they had met a woman who waited for someone. She left some time ago. “Buen camino.” I wave back and stop to inscribe my family names on a rock I brought along—Gomez, Chapa—before I toss it on the heap at the foot of the cross.
I study the map, take a deep breath, and begin. The trail, worn by footsteps of fellow pilgrims, marks the way. One pilgrim, draped in a purple shawl, sits resting in the shade of a nearby tree, her feet bandaged. She carries a cardboard sign with “Silencio” written in black marker. She is offering her pilgrimage in silence and hopes to find the Cauldron Society, someone said. I think of Santos.
Loose stones and drywall border either side of the trail with patches of tall, graceful prairie grass. My thoughts amble as I begin my solitary walk. I see no one ahead of me or behind me; I see only the winding path. The quiet of the morning is so still that I feel my heart’s metric beat—I am, I am, I am a traveler. Alone, I travel the road. I breathe in my mantra, trying to convince myself in the act of breathing I will let go, let go to the moment. Step by step, the camino and I meet one another. Curiously, my feet grow lighter with each step. I walk with aerial grace and breathe in adventure.
Releasing my random thoughts, I am aware that either the grass grows taller or I diminish in size. The crunch beneath my feet leaves residue over the dust of fellow sojourners—Charlemagne, King Alfonso II, St. Francis, and El Cid.
The wind forces blades of grass to reach out like fingers, which I brush aside. With each step on Galician soil, I sense a curious connection to the land. Emerging from the tall grass, I feel like Alice in Wonderland, once again significant in size, until my eyes fall on the vista that springs up in uneven peaks from the bowels of the earth. And, once more, I feel minuscule. A view, which alone makes the camino worthwhile, commands silence. The wind soughs over a valley surrounded by crags of titan-mountains that hover over a patchwork quilt of farmland in various tones of green.
Perched on a boulder, staring at the vista, a fellow pilgrim named Elton, I find out later, turns to wave. Did I speak Spanish, he asks. He was on the lookout for someone who did. Sí, I answer. I seek a hiker, he went on, five feet tall or so, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. You must be the one. He urges me to travel on; lodging for the night is on a first-come basis and often scarce. He suggests I leave messages.
“Rosanne, meet you in Acebo,” I scribble on a Band-Aid and adhere it to a stone marker about two feet tall, shaped like an obelisk. The marker reads 9 km to Acebo, and a yellow arrow painted on the base points the way toward the camino, a trail marked with yellow arrows that points the way to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James the Apostle are venerated in a small crypt beneath the main altar.
There is something mysterious about walking over a camino covered by the dust of pilgrims from medieval time. In the scheme of my universe, I follow…where, I wonder? Where will the camino take me, and what if Rosanne and I don’t meet up? Such thoughts usurp the crunching sound of my boots grinding stick and gravel, each crunch bringing me closer to adventures I have yet to encounter.
Four hours and many reflections later, near the Galician village of Acebo, a goatherd and his goats block my path. He smiles, a toothless smile, and points to my hat. He likes and wants, he mimes. For all I know he may want a trade. For what, I wonder, a goat? I shake my head and point to the bright sun. I blink to shield my eyes, and there, just past the herd, I see Rosanne. She’s kneeling by a stone marker, scribbling a note meant for me: “I have reserved two bunks at the refugio.” She hadn’t quite finished when she catches a glimpse of me waving. I make my way through the bleating herd.
We begin each day before sunup, dressing in the dark—quietly, so as not to awake fellow sojourners. Much like medieval pilgrims, we carry a staff in one hand and wear wide-brimmed hats. Each had brought five hundred pesetas, the equivalent of $300, and packed a few toiletries, a sleeping bag, one change of clothing, a jacket for the forty-degree-Fahrenheit weather, and a raincoat. A shell, the symbol of St. James, tied around our necks by a thin leather strap, sets us apart. We travel on the road to Compostela.
Pilgrims who walk the camino change, they say. Long term, Rosanne had no idea the hardship she faced. By the third day my change comes after a twelve-mile hike—bone-deep achy muscles. The village where we planned to stay the night had been mismarked on the map. We double-check. Indeed there is no refugio. Neat rows of white, orderly stone buildings are deserted. The doors of the church that supposedly housed the refugio are locked. A fountain in the middle of the square beckons us and we stop to strip off our boots and soak our feet. Sitting around the fountain, we make a plan. My plan: hitch a ride; Rosanne, ever persistent, “Let’s proceed like pilgrims; if we meet an oxcart on the road, well, then….”
Seventeen kilometers later, we reach a refugio close enough to O Ceberio to start examining maps and making plans.
The general routine of the camino after a day’s journey: drink cold beer at the nearest bar (I usually opted to pour at least half on my feet), take a good shower, wash our clothes, air out boots, dress in our extra change of clothes, and set out for a nearby café-bar. The pilgrim’s meal costs three to four dollars and includes pilgrim’s soup, a charbroiled tender steak, a salad served family style, French fries, and a bottle of wine—stories flow with each sip. It is around such meetings that O Ceberio hazards start circulating—of hikers who hadn’t made it, of stony inclines, loose rocks, and gravel avalanches.
The ascent to O Ceberio, challenging because of its pronounced inclines and loose rock, is breathtaking enough to melt away the threats of the trail. However breathtaking, fatigue is setting in with each passing hour, and I stop to catch my breath and sip water. On some obscure part of the trail and from nowhere, I sure enough see an oxcart. The farmer waves; I wave back. Unfortunately the lumbering ox is heading in the opposite direction.
“Buen camino,” the driver says.
By now I should be experiencing palpitations, given the altitude of O Ceberio (more than 3000 meter at its peak), but instead, I feel a mountaintop high. The peak will be one of our better stays at the Hotel de Rei, a real bed with clean sheets, and a meal in the hotel dining room.
One afternoon over lunch, sitting around a weathered table outside the hotel with a group of fellow sojourners, we’re trying to find a common language for the group. Carlos says it matters not to him. He speaks Spanish, English, German, French, and Yiddish.
We all compare amulets of various beliefs attached by gold chains or leather straps—a cross, a shell, a star of David, a caldron. Sitting on the summit of O Ceberio, we share plans to descend in the morning; to descend at our own pace in our own good time, perchance to reach Compostelain time to raise one last glass and say, this we did together.
The next morning, below the fog, the clouds amble. Dewdrops form on leaves, making trees hang their heads to form an arc over the road. A drywall stands to my left and has for hundreds of years. No mortar, no mud, it has withstood the test of time. On my right a post fence silhouettes the beginning of dawn. This was the coldest and most exhilarating part of the day, a time that we walk silently and think of family—husbands, children, wondering how they fared—or we read aloud from St. Patrick’s Breastplate (commonly known as the Cry of the Deer), a hymn that captures the moment. Rosanne has been on the camino almost six weeks; I almost three. In Sarria, our last stop before reaching Samos, we meet up with the young woman draped in purple, feet bandaged, and no longer wearing the silencio sign that had labeled her mission. She invites us to share a glass of wine.
“You’re speaking,” I say. “What happened to your sign?”
She says she traveled the camino to attend a meeting of the Cauldron Society and to repent. From what? I ask. She’s a babbling brook; words stream from her lips without pause or punctuation, a habit she finds hard to control. She tells us she can speak English. Pointing to prove her point, she says, “Window.” Nouns and a few verbs are the extent of her English, which she demonstrates as we sip our wine and laugh. From that moment on, when we pass her on the camino, we wave; “Window,” she calls to Rosanne, who responds, “Ventana,” which is the extent of Rosanne’s Spanish. We marvel how “Window” seems to reach her destinations ahead of us, given that every time we meet up, she is sitting under a tree wrapped in her purple shawl, resting, her sign “Silencio” attached to her person. She explains, upon our next meeting, that she sought no assistance on her camino, but if God sent a ride her way—how could she refuse?
Only twelve kilometer from Sarria (a relatively short distance for a day’s walk), in the midst of a wooded complex, we come across the Monastery of Samos. Rosanne’s husband, an active Episcopal priest at the time, had written a letter of introduction ahead of time to an acquaintance at the Benedictine Chapel, begging an unusual favor: Could Rosanne and I have lodging for the night? I hoped we might appear androgynous in our pilgrim’s attire and not cause a disruption in the monks’ prayer-life.
Father Angel, who must have been ninety years old, escorts us on a guided tour under the enormous arched ceilings of a Gothic passageway. Peeking from behind a stone pillar, I see what must be the shadow of a curious monk. Since 922, I would find out, when St. Virila brought seventeen monks to the Abbey, this monastery had housed only monks.
Inside the walls of the monastery, our heels click on squares of gray-and-tan marble floors of the hospederia. We pass a wall splattered with a mural in various tones of terra-cotta and blue—dark-skinned men and women conversing, one on horseback, and at the end of the hall, hooded men, their faces contorted in pain, reach out for salvation from the seven deadly sins, I surmise. Our footsteps diminish over Father Angel’s explanation of the history of Samos with its thick, pitted walls that surely withhold their own history of secrets.
Chapel bells clang every fifteen minutes throughout the day and night, a reminder of the passage of time, something that, at a later date, we were to experience like last dredges flowing from an hourglass. For tonight no complaints; we have a bed, clean sheets, and a place to eat. That evening we attend an evensong candlelight service that inspires prayer, which we would undoubtedly need tomorrow.
Before dawn we strip our beds and write a thank-you note to leave on the desk for Father Angel. With all good intentions, he had left an iron key, a key large enough to lock a dungeon. We were to let ourselves out the back door and leave the key. At 4 a.m. our footsteps sound hollow on the marble floor. Out of place, but for the familiar knell of the chapel bell. The dark hall smells of stale incense and candle wax.
We use the weight of our shoulders to push open the carved, thick door that leads off the hallway. Holy silence prevails, save for our own birdlike pattering and the bell’s tinny clang. We enter the inner-sanctum; feeling air sucked out by the door slamming shut, we hear a click. Scanning the dark room with our flashlights, we notice that with its cement floor, the space doubles as a garage; a small car is parked in the far corner. We feel our way toward an imposing set of doors that lets in a sliver of dawn.
“The key doesn’t fit,” I hear Rosanne say. “And something else—I have claustrophobia.”
She slithers down the wall, coiling herself like a snail in its shell and rests her chin on her knees.
I take the key only to find out she is right. The key doesn’t fit. I bang on the thick panel with my fists that inflict pain more than send out distress signals. On the bright side: the monks should be up for morning prayer. Someone will surely need to drive somewhere. I find a chink in the door that leads to the hall. Rosanne bangs and I scream “auxillio” loud enough to cause one curious monk to investigate. He opens the door, taken aback to find us bumbling from the dark and even more surprised to have us thank him with a hug.
“Buen camino,” he says, composing himself.
Outside, sunrise is taking its time; Rosanne’s pace quickens as we face the last stretch on the road to Santiago. I find myself winding down into my snail-pace mode that leaves a huge gap between us. I feel compelled to photograph the scenery, the people we pass, the livestock. To Rosanne’s dismay, further widening the gap, I stop to take in the smells: dung, damp earth, hay, honeysuckle. I catch up in the next village when we stop to view a group of children, dressed in traditional Galician attire, playing the bagpipes. Pipes are common to the area, the Celtic influence amazingly strong. Convinced they played for us, we tear away to continue. Only twelve miles away from Santiago.
We have walked as pilgrims, but am I a poseur merely dressing the part? Rosanne is the true pilgrim, a seasoned traveler, a woman who has walked Canterbury and Offas’s Dike in Wales, a woman who shares adventures with those of us who dare to leap into life. Before this experience I had walked Annie, our nineteen-year-old Australian Shepherd, around the block. Did this sole experience qualify me to call myself pilgrim?
I quicken my pace to catch up. Somehow we reach Santiago at high noon. The cathedral bell clanging, the square seething with energy and a mass of humanity engaging in a myriad of activities: a juggler, a vendor, a musician, a mime, and a mass of pilgrims embracing, congratulating, weeping, laughing. We, too, embrace; we made it. Yes, we had made it, and for two days we celebrate with our fellow sojourners Elton and Carlos. We even had an opportunity to find Window wandering the narrow, cobblestone streets to say our good-byes.
My plan: time to rest. Rosanne’s plan: we must go forth—on to Finestera. What? Wasn’t it enough that she had walked eight hundred kilometers from Roncesvalles and I, half as much from Astorga? We, as writers, must end our pilgrimage with a symbolic ending worthy of a good story, she says. But is Santiago not the place where we could perform our ritual? I ask. Rosanne envisioned Finestera as the place to burn our socks. Perhaps to strip off our clothes, take a dip in the ocean—a baptism into a new millennium. There by the shore, we would dance, Riojo dripping from our lips. Cry uncontrollably, perhaps, as we had when we had reached la plaza del Obradorioro in Santiago at high noon, just in time to hear all the bells ring in our arrival.
We go with her plan but compromise and take a bus to Finestera.
Upon arriving, my heart pounds as we walk the dirt road that leads toward the westernmost point in northern Spain—the end of the world, most medieval pilgrims believed. The vast expanse of the Atlantic surrounded a rocky cliff, and from that point it did look like the end of the world. As the eye meets the horizon, we can hardly tell where the water ends and the sky begins. No beginning, no end, just a vast plain of sea in constant motion. Ships dot the ocean, much as they must have in the Middle Ages, hugging the shoreline. Some eight hundred years ago, it was thought that all existence ended here. At this point ships fell off the edge of the world into the abyss.
We sit, my friend and I, overlooking infinity, where the sun would set, perhaps never to set quite this way again. We are encircled by blue—cloudy blue, heavenly blue, deep-sea blue. We cling to the edge of rock like sea urchins. I feel that at any moment the world might end; this moment would, for sure. For my friend Rosanne and me, it was the end of the camino. The entire process had taken six weeks. We had reached our destination, Santiago de Compostela, the camp of St. James, miracle worker, warrior, apostle, thaumaturge. Campus Stellae, in Latin, where the star shone, the legend goes.
Not yet satisfied to end our journey by watching sailboats that might never return but disappear into the sunset, we descend. For us the cliché seemed real, for we instinctively knew, as life goes and ends in the blink of an eye, we might never pass this way again. The moment sad had we been able to fast-forward to two summers ago: Who knew that in face of a challenging illness the doctors couldn’t diagnose, Rosanne would lose a well-fought fight.
* * *
During our last walk together in Finestera over the gravel roads, we found a small fishing village. Impeccable stucco homes lined the road. A child who, clinging to his mother’s skirts as she swept the steps, pointed to us and yelled, “Mira, mama, peregrinos.” I looked at Rosanne, bandanna tied around her head, her backpack still intact. She and I clinging to staffs adorned with hanging gourds. Around her neck hung a scallop shell, the symbol of St. James, an old friend by now. And I, in my boots, wore a wide-brimmed hat that felt permanently affixed.
Rosanne and I looked at each other and smiled; the child spoke the truth. I journeyed with a friend, a true pilgrim, across northern hills of Spain, on the road where half a million pilgrims pass each year. Their relics—stones, wooden crosses, a pair of boots, snippets of cloth, names on rocks—had left stories that mark the camino as did Rosanne, writer, sculptor, wife, mother, friend. We were two insignificant travelers among thousands who pass to pay homage to a martyred saint whose bones, some believe, are in a crypt in Santiago.
Is it truth or myth that disciples brought the remains of St. James from Jerusalem across the Mediterranean and through the Straits? Is it conceivable that centuries later, two peasants, guided by a bright light in the sky, found St. James’ crypt and brought his bones to Compostela in a boat made of rock, no less?
Yet here was I, in the miracle of the moment, a true pilgrim who continues to explore new paths in memory of a good friend.