by Hank Leukart
July 23, 2015
Pile of burdens
Trying to come to terms with why I’m walking the Camino de Santiago.
A Camino pilgrim holds a stone representing life burdens at Cruz Ferro, near the high point of the Camino de Santiago.
This is the fifth essay in a series about hiking the 870-kilometer (540-mile) Camino de Santiago across Spain. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.M
OLINASECA, Spain — “I’m at a crossroads in my life,” says Bae, a young South Korean woman with long black hair and a shy smile. “I’m walking the Camino to decide what I’m going to do with the rest of it.”
Danish Amalie and I are sitting together, with 30 other Camino pilgrims and four nuns, in the reception room of the Santa María albergue in Carrión de los Condes, Spain. Just 10 days ago, Amalie had pulled almost two days ahead of me due to my blisters, but we reunited by luck in Azofra, where she revealed that tendonitis had slowed her progress down for a couple days, allowing me to catch up. Together, we then powered through eight days of walking, bringing our Camino total to 370 kilometers (230 miles). Now, we’re sitting next to Uta and Laura, two young Estonian sisters with whom we shared dinner two nights before in Hontanas, one of the Camino’s most inspiring towns, tucked deep in a valley in the Meseta, Spain’s central high plateau. The four of us cooked and shared a pasta dinner together, because we were all dying for a Camino meal that didn’t involve some kind of pig product. The Spanish seem to try to infuse every meal with ham and bacon, which sounds great, and it was, until the day I found myself stuffing my fiftieth Serrano ham sandwich into my gut.
Amalie and I were looking forward to reaching Carrión de los Condes, not only because of its rich history (Charlemagne used it as a base in his fight against the Moors), but also because Amalie saw a Youtube video of a gaggle of nuns entertaining Camino walkers with folk songs there during her disturbingly in-depth pre-Camino research. (So far, we have seen nothing on the Camino that she hasn’t already seen in advance on Youtube.) Knowing that seeing these singing nuns would be the closest we’d be able to get to a reenacting the venerable Sound of Music during our trek, we made sure to arrive early to get a spot for the performance.
But, before singing, the nuns have asked everyone in the room — hikers ranging from 16 to 75 years old, hailing from North America, Europe, and places as far away as Chile, Japan, Australia, and Zimbabwe — to share their name, country of origin, and why they’re walking the Camino de Santiago.
“Walking the Camino has always been my biggest life dream as long as I can remember,” says a 50-year-old American woman with white hair, a red sweatshirt, and red-rimmed reading glasses. “So, the day after I retired, I flew here.” I’m amazed when at least a quarter of the people in the room (many of them Catholics) echo her life-dream sentiment. Estonian Uta reveals to the group that her boyfriend recently broke up with her, so she’s walking the Camino for as much time as it will take her to get over it. Jerzy and Sylwia, a young married couple from Poland, say that they walked the Camino for their honeymoon five years ago — and recently, they decided that it was time for them to do it again. “We are doing the Camino a second time because we forgot how the first time was painful,” Jerzy adds, half-joking. “We don’t know why we are here, but we know that we need to be here.”
Later, Catherine, a 50-year-old woman from Orange County, California, with whom I spent two days on the way to Belorado, reveals that she and her husband divorced a little over a year ago and she, too, is trying to figure out her next life steps. Erin, a 27-year-old woman from Colorado, tells me a nearly identical story about a divorce that happened only two months before. And Father Dave, a pastor from a church at Colorado State University, explains that he’s walking to lead a group of college students on the Camino. He then adds, “For me, I haven’t, internally, figured it out. I still don’t know why the Lord wants me to do it.”
So, by the time my turn comes, I’m worried that my standard explanation — that the Camino was next on my long list of travel adventures that I’d like to finish before dying — seems a bit shallow. But, before I can think more about it, the nuns start into a rendition of Amazing Grace and then transition to a potluck of other folk songs from around the world, suggested and sometimes sung by the far-flung pilgrims in the room. Then, they usher us into the adjacent church for a special pilgrim’s mass and blessing.
“We’ve made each of you one of these paper stars,” explains one of the nuns, holding up a cookie-sized star made out of copy paper, colored with a rainbow of crayons. “Keeping these in your pocket will help you remember that God is always with you to guide your way.” We all form a line, and when I reach the front, one of the nuns hands me one of the stars as the priest traces the shape of a cross on my forehead. Though I’m not a religious person, the Camino can be a spiritual journey for anyone, and the moment has symbolic weight for everyone, me included. Still, when I see Bae, Catherine, and Erin crying as the priest touches their foreheads, I feel like an impostor — and I don’t know exactly why.
Three days later, Amalie and I are walking on the isolated, 18-kilometer (11-mile) section of rocky Roman road leading to Mansilla de Las Mulas, the last town in the Spanish desert before arriving in the comparative metropolis of León. Though proving cause and effect is impossible, my feet have been in perfect condition for the first time on the Camino, ever since I attended the pilgrim blessing in Carrión.
“I feel like I’ve been lying to people for the whole Camino,” I say.
“Really? What do you mean?” Amalie asks.
“Well, so many people have told me about complex reasons for why they’re doing the Camino: strong religious faith, parents dying, divorce, or being fired from an important job,” I say. “But, I always say that, for me, the Camino is just another adventure.”
“Well, of course that’s not true,” Amalie points out. “Or, at least, it’s not the only thing that’s true. Some people are just more open to sharing personal details with strangers than others.”
“Exactly. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be here if I were married with kids, crazy rich, or wrapped up in a perfect career,” I say. “Back home, I’ve missed a lot of opportunities over the last ten years, and now it feels like it’s too late to fix my mistakes. It’s frustrating. But, I’m not sure how the Camino can help that.”
I step off the road for a moment so I can find a private place to pee. Immediately, I stumble into a deep hole and sprain my ankle. “Fuck!” I yell. “I am so stupid!”
“Are you okay?” Amalie yells. I limp sheepishly out of the bushes, barely able to walk. “It’s fine. It’s fine. I think it’s probably fine. It’s fine,” I say, trying to convince myself and her.
“Well, if you can’t walk on it, we can try to call a taxi,” Amalie suggests.
“Not in a million years,” I say. Since the start of the Camino, I’ve had a strict rule that I won’t allow myself to use any kind of vehicle until reaching the Atlantic Ocean, and now that I’ve walked every single one of the 447 kilometers (277 miles) to get to this spot on a Roman road, there’s no way I’m going to admit defeat now. So, with ankle pain increasing, I manage to walk the remaining 13 kilometers (8 miles) to Mansilla de Las Mulas. There, I spend the evening sitting at a plastic picnic table in the courtyard of our albergue, icing my ankle, which has swollen to grapefruit-size. While I’m holding the ice, a 55-year-old man with a Georgia accent and salt-and-pepper beard spots the Appalachian Trail sticker on my laptop (from my brother’s AT bachelor party) and asks if I have ever hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. When I tell him that it’s only a dream of mine, he introduces himself as “Hammer” and his two friends as “The Professor” and “Sensei.”
“They’re our Applachian Trail names,” Hammer says. “Twenty years ago, we all met each other while we were through-hiking the entire Trail. Now, we’ve reunited to do the Camino together.”
“It rained for the first 38 days of the Applachian Trail, but, still, it was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” the Professor tells me. “You have to do it.” He tells me that, when he met his wife afterward, she wanted to do the AT too, so he did the whole 2,200-mile (3,500-kilometer) hike again. “At the end, when I got into a car for the first time, it was so weird,” he continues at length, fulfilling the promise of his eponym. “I had only been walking at four miles per hour for six months. Everything moved too fast. It was scary.”
An image flashes through my mind. For a second, I can see myself getting into a bus in Finisterre, on the Spanish coast, to return to the airport, and I realize that my arrival in Santiago is only 14 days away. For the first time, I can glimpse the end of my Camino, and the idea of it ending scares me. What if I make it to the end without figuring out how this journey is more than just another adventure to me?, I wonder. What if my whole Camino ends up being a soul-crushing illustration of how an amazing travel experience can be wasted on someone clueless?
The next morning, Amalie tells me that she’s decided to take a bus into León to give her painfully agitated tendon a break and to skip one of the notoriously ugliest, industrial sections of the Camino.
“You should take the bus too,” she suggests, looking at my hugely swollen ankle.
“Never!” I say.
“What are you trying to prove?” she says. “For me, the significant thing about the Camino isn’t the achievement.”
“For me, it’s important.” I say. “I have a real chance here, on the Camino, to be successful at something.”
“Well, don’t forget: Chocolate Factory Day is in four days,” she says. “You need to be able to walk.” For a week, we’ve been anxiously anticipating a visit to the chocolate factory and museum in Astorga, planning to arrive there early in the day while the factory is still hosting chocolate tastings. She’s right that I don’t want a sprained ankle to spoil her chocolate-tasting dreams.
For now, we agree to meet at noon in León, and I start walking the unattractive route, past factories, warehouses, and car dealerships, toward the city. I’ve wrapped my ankle in a compression sock, but it’s still so swollen that it’s very painful to walk. I’m too stubborn to stop, so, to distract me from the pain, I spend much of the morning listening to the audiobook of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, a quirky fantasy novel about an elderly couple who set off on a Camino de Santiago-like journey across medieval England to find their long-lost son. Along the way, a woman tells them a story about a mysterious island that can only be reached traveling alone, and only by ferry boat. The boatman allows couples to travel to the island together only if their bond of love is unbreakable, which he tests rigorously by separating the lovers and asking them individually to recount the most cherished memories of their relationship.
The story captures my imagination enough that I’m able to ignore my sprained ankle all the way to meeting up with Amalie in León for lunch. We spend an extra day drinking beer at a bar on the promenade, visiting the (disappointing) contemporary art museum, and listening to an organ concert in the Gothic cathedral. Knowing that it’s our last planned rest day before Santiago, we spend the evening watching movies and eating bowl after bowl of cornflakes in bed, trying to revel in every possible moment of total motionlessness before the long 11-day push to Santiago.
“Do you think the priest in Santiago is going to test our character somehow before agreeing to absolve us of our sins and give us the Camino completion certificate?” I ask Amalie at night, thinking of The Buried Giant. I’m half-joking, of course, but there’s also a part of me that suspects that a Wizard-of-Oz-like priest in Santiago, hiding behind a tapestry of St. James, will somehow decide that I’m not worthy — that I didn’t learn what I needed to learn on my Camino — that my journey wasn’t spiritual enough. “Do you think he’s going to separate us and ask us to list our most-cherished Camino memories so he can judge them?”
“That seems unlikely,” Amalie says, smiling. “But maybe we should remember every one of them, just in case.”
Two days later, it’s Chocolate Factory Day. Amalie and I excitedly jump out of our beds in Villar de Mazarife at 5:45 AM so that we have a chance of reaching the museum by my guidebook’s listed closing time: 4 PM. Averaging over five kilometers an hour, walking faster than we ever have — Amalie is really, really excited for the chocolate tasting — we fly through the last of the flat, hot, orange Meseta to Hospital de Órbigo, a town defined by a beautiful Gothic bridge which served as the site of medieval jousting competitions. But, the town’s yearly jousting tournament isn’t scheduled for another week, so after a ham sandwich lunch overlooking the bridge with our friends Richard, Danae, and Erin, we push forward as fast as possible. Danae, Erin, Amalie, and I eventually reach a small snack stand on a mountain above Astorga, where we eat the world’s most delicious watermelons and peaches. Then, Amalie and I sprint down the mountain, past a picturesque view of the Crucero de Santo Toribio (a large stone cross) and the Astorga skyline. We’ve walked over 32 kilometers (20 miles) with few breaks when, after a final uphill stretch, we turn a corner and are ecstatic to see the Museo del Chocolate Astorga at 3 PM, giving us an hour to spare before closing. But, seconds later, we spot a sign adjacent to the entrance gate that explains that the museum now closes at 2 PM on Sundays.
“NO! They’ve been closed for an hour! That is so typical!” Amalie says as she faux-pounds her head against the museum’s locked gate. She looks devastated. “No chocolate for us.” We sit on a bench together to catch our breath and eat gummy bears. Strangely, even though we’ve been anticipating Chocolate Factory Day for a week, I don’t feel disappointed. Creating another cherished memory with Amalie — a wacky adventure spent sprinting over medieval bridges and eating fantastic watermelon in the Spanish Meseta — even if ending only with gummy bears on a bench — seems just as good.
The next day, we hike through the rocky, steep Cantabrian Mountains, passing an assortment of stone Celtic villages, wandering cows, and rugged mountaintops, until we reach Rabanal del Camino, a rustic village with traditional, slate-roofed stone houses. In the evening, Amalie and I meet up with the Appalachian Trail guys again over a dinner of bacon, eggs, and fries, and we convince them to leave at 4 AM the next morning to hike with us to Cruz Ferro, near the Camino’s highest point. For centuries, pilgrims have carried stones representing their burdens, all the way from their homes, to the iron cross at the top of the mountain. There, in a ritual both literal and figurative, they leave their stones (and burdens) behind before continuing down. Both Amalie and I have been carrying a rock in each of our bags for weeks in anticipation of this day.
But, at 4 AM the next morning, when Amalie and I arrive at our pre-determined rendezvous point at the edge of town, only Sensei is there to meet us. He tells us that he was the only one of his group committed enough to get out of bed so early. So, the three of us head up the mountain, through the small town of Foncebadón, with the full moon (and the nuns’ paper stars?) guiding our way, until a warm glow slowly begins to appear on the horizon. When we reach Cruz Ferro, the sky is lavender, and a single cloud illuminated in front of the moon looks like a fiery comet shooting through the atmosphere. On the mountaintop, we see a tall wooden pole with an iron cross, standing on a pile of thousands of rocks.
Amalie pulls her stone out of her bag, drops it to the ground, and stares up at the cross and the moon behind it for what seems like an eternity. Then, I join her, pull my stone out of my bag, and drop it on the pile. Standing on a huge mound of symbolic burdens, shed by pilgrims on the Camino over thousands of years, it’s hard for me to deny that the mistakes and failures of my own life seem a little bit smaller.
“This is one of the best moments of my whole Camino,” Sensei gushes as we sit nearby afterward, eating our packed breakfast of Iberian ham baguettes and watching tens of other pilgrims throw their burden rocks below the cross.
“That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done,” Amalie says as the sky’s plums and violets change to oranges and golds with the sunrise.
“What a perfect start to a brand new day,” I say. “What’s next?”
Read the grand finale of this essay series about the end of my 870-kilometer (540-mile) walk on the Camino de Santiago.
A single cloud sits in front of a full moon above Cruz Ferro, near the high point of the Camino de Santiago.