by Hank Leukart
July 30, 2015

God’s dream

Reaching the End of the Earth on the Camino de Santiago.

The Finisterre lighthouse sits at the end of the peninsula.

The Finisterre lighthouse sits at the end of the peninsula.

This is the last essay in a six-part series about hiking the 870-kilometer (540-mile) Camino de Santiago across Spain. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.

F

INISTERRE, Spain — Cruz Ferro was an emotional, spiritual, and physical high point of my trip on the Camino de Santiago, but, in terms of raw beauty, the Camino seems only to improve afterward with each passing day. In Ponferrada, Amalie and I circle around the imposing Templar Residence, a magnificent castle at the top of a hill, complete with a moat, drawbridge, and twelve towers arranged in the shape of the sky’s constellations. In Villafranca del Bierzo, we diverge from the traditional path and tackle the Camino Duro, a rural track over a steep mountain, adding a 1000-meter (3,200-foot) elevation gain and loss — and vertigo-inducing, 360-degree views of the lush Ponferrada valley — to our trip. On yet another mountain summit in the quaint Galician town of O Cebrerio, after enduring a mountaintop hail storm, I spend an evening in a farm field watching a stunning sunset behind the rolling green pastures and peaks of the Cantabrian Mountains.

When we pass through Sarria — a small city notable only because it is the starting point for tourists who drop in to walk the minimum 100 kilometers (62 miles) required to receive the Camino completion certificate in Santiago — I spot a stone wall with a message written in black marker: “Starting in Sarria isn’t the real thing.” It makes me laugh. On one hand, the message seems close-minded and mean-spirited. On the other, it taps into a sentiment that both and Amalie and I can’t help but joke about: Who are these loud, obnoxious tourists with spotless, just-purchased REI clothing that think they can just drop in to our Camino and get all of their sins absolved without having to endure 25 days of blisters and hundreds of ham sandwiches?

My cynicism toward Sarria People grows when we arrive in the beautiful, 10th-century town of Portomarín and encounter a large, Italian family in our albergue’s kitchen, playing very loud music and yelling, clearly apathetic about the fact that they’re sharing the facility with nearly 150 other people — many of whom walked over 30 days to get there and just want a good night’s rest. Amalie and I are enjoying a dinner of chicken fajitas that I cooked and relaxing outside the albergue when the family’s patriarch steps outside to smoke near us. I ask him to close the front door behind him so his family’s noise doesn’t disturb the many pilgrims who have moved outside for dinner to escape them.

“Why? Why do I have to close the door? It’s an albergue! It’s not yours,” he says. He’s clearly drunk, so I don’t say anything else to him, but I can’t help but think to myself: Sarria People are the worst. Later, a 50-year-old German man mentions the “Starting in Sarria” graffiti to me and muses, “I didn’t like that sign. Different kinds of people need different kinds of Caminos to fulfill them, and I don’t judge anyone that made the effort to come here.” When he says this, I realize that I’m not really frustrated with Sarria People personally — though the Italian father was indeed a drunken, selfish jackass. I realize that I’m frustrated by what the presence of Sarria People signifies: I’m nearly to Santiago and less than 180 kilometers (110 miles) from the ocean. In less than a week, my time on the Camino de Santiago will be over.

Three days later, in total darkness in one of the dorm rooms in our albergue at 6 AM, Amalie and I half excitedly and half reluctantly pack our backpacks for our Camino’s final 5-hour, 24-kilometer (15-mile) leg to Santiago. Our spirits are low as we depart, partly because we’re exhausted from a 38-kilometer (23-mile) leg the day before, and partly because we know that a significant part of our trip is coming to a close. In an attempt to energize us on the way, I invent a singing spoof of the petulant “Starting in Sarria isn’t the real thing” graffiti, to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”

“If you haven’t gone to the hospital for your blisters, it’s not the real thing!” I sing. “If you haven’t hiked to Cruz Ferro at sunrise, it’s not the real thing!”

“If you haven’t gotten a symbolic gourd from the Saint of Comfortable Shoes; if you haven’t sprinted 30 kilometers to get to a closed chocolate factory…” adds Amalie.

“If you haven’t eaten ham for 100 meals straight, it’s not the real thing!” I finish.

“It’s like watching 1,000 people all have the best moment of their lives, simultaneously, right before our eyes.”

We relive the best and worst memories of our Camino as we sing ten verses of the song, creating a kind-of informal closing ceremony on our way into Santiago. By the time we’re rushing through the streets of the city, working hard to suppress our desire to eat every bakery goodie we see, we have big smiles on our faces. Soon, we hear a bagpipe player and then pass through an archway to the Praza de Obradoiro, a large plaza facing the Santiago Cathedral’s iconic western facade, where we head directly inside to catch the noontime pilgrim’s mass. All of the pews are full, so we stand in the back of the church together. In Spanish, the priest talks to the crowd about the importance of doing the pilgrimage, and then, everyone walks forward to receive a wafer of sacramental bread. It’s clear that the ceremony itself means much more to the Catholics in the church than to me and Amalie, but, nevertheless, it’s quite moving to see all the Camino pilgrims around us — many of whom have knee braces, legs covered in elastic tape, and trekking poles to support them — congratulating each other, hugging, and crying out of joy. It’s like watching 1,000 people all have the best moment of their lives, simultaneously, right before our eyes.

When I get to the front of the line to apply for my Compostela — the certificate that proves that someone walked the Camino de Santiago — I proudly present my Credencial del Peregrino (pilgrim’s passport), which contains a stamp from every albergue in which I stayed overnight on the Camino, validating my claim that I walked over 800 kilometers to get to Santiago. Keeping in mind the lyrics to Amalie’s and my song-of-memories from the morning, I also get ready to enumerate every cherished memory from my Camino, to prove that I really completed the trip.

“Wow, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port,” the clerk says, noticing my starting point. “Congratulations! Your motivations for walking the Camino — were they religious or spiritual?” he asks. “Spiritual,” I say. To my surprise, he immediately hands me a Compostela with my name on it, without even asking me to describe a single cherished memory from the trip. I look over at Amalie who has also just received her certificate, and I realize that there is already a person in the world who can corroborate my trip, because she knows the details of each one of my cherished Camino memories. It’s enough for me.

Afterward, Amalie and I stop at Camino Companions, an organization that invites pilgrims to discuss the meaning of their Camino experiences at the end of their walk. There, with a nun named Katherine who walked part of the Camino the year before, we spend an hour discussing our journey. We talk about whether travel can change you, the joy of open and empathetic new friends, the fleeting nature of relationships on the Camino and in life, how slowing down can help you live in the moment, and how spending time away can help you see your life from a new perspective.

“The hardest thing about leaving here is going to be returning to the ‘real world’ where people tend not to be as friendly, open, and honest on a daily basis,” I say.

“It’s going to be difficult to go from seeing all the people I’ve met here every day to maybe never seeing them again,” Amalie says. “I wish I knew how to continue this feeling.”

“Over the next few days, you should think and talk together about how you might take some of the things you learned here back home with you,” Katherine says. “Personally, I have a feeling that the Camino is God’s dream for how people should be when they’re with each other.”

Amalie and I spend much of the next two days lying in the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral, watching pilgrims arrive in Santiago for the first time, over, and over, and over. Many cry, some yell and cheer, some look up at the church spires in silence and disbelief, and some collapse on the ground. Though some of our best friends from the journey walked faster than us and have already left Santiago (like American, sunburned Katie; the adorable, in-love couple Hannah and Arnaud; and the Chilean and American duo, Danae and Erin), others manage to find us while we bask in the overwhelming shadow of the Cathedral. Canadian balloon-animaler Brock hugs both of us the moment he sees us. Polish married couple Jerzy and Sylwia look utterly relieved to not have to walk anymore. A 70-year-old Belgian couple with whom we’ve shared many albergues stares at the cathedral without saying a word with tears streaming down the wife’s face — they started the Camino from their front door in Belgium and walked 2,500 kilometers to get here. And the Appalachian Trail trio — Hammer, The Professor, and Sensei — tell us they’ve decided to finish their trip with a bus trip to the sea.

Of course, my Camino dream has always been to walk all the way to the ocean. So, the next morning, Amalie and I leave Santiago on foot to walk the final three days to Finisterre — the rock-covered peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean whose Latin name means “the End of the Earth.” The trip isn’t any physically easier than the rest of the Camino, but, somehow, it feels like we’re on a lighter, happier, more vacation-like walk.

In the afternoon of the third day, we crest a hill above the town of Cee and see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time on our trip from the high vantage point. We both yell out in pure joy. Just two hours later, in the pouring rain, we arrive at a beach in Finisterre. We drop our backpacks on the sand, take off our shoes and socks, and sprint across the beach and into the freezing ocean. In the evening, as the sun is setting, we arrive together at a beautiful lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. Past the tower, we walk onto a steep, rocky crag that falls off into the sea. Ahead of me, Amalie sits down on a boulder.

She doesn’t know it, but as Amalie sits, lost in thought at the End of the Earth, staring at the murky, golden sunset over the ocean, I’m crying behind her.

I’m not a religious person, but remembering everyone I’ve met in Spain and looking out at Amalie, I’m sure that the nun in Santiago was right. The Camino is God’s dream for how people should be when they’re with each other — and I’m heartbroken that we’re about to wake up.

If you haven’t seen it yet, watch To the End of the World, the 35-minute mini-movie about my walk across Spain.

The Camino Duro gives hikers a spectacular view of the Ponferrada valley.

The Camino Duro gives hikers a spectacular view of the Ponferrada valley.

A sign in a restaurant reminds Camino pilgrims why they’re walking the Camino de Santiago.

A sign in a restaurant reminds Camino pilgrims why they’re walking the Camino de Santiago.

A handwritten sign near Sarria states, “Starting in Sarria isn’t the real thing.”

A handwritten sign near Sarria states, “Starting in Sarria isn’t the real thing.”

A statue of St. James sits atop the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A statue of St. James sits atop the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A man hugs the statue of St. James in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A man hugs the statue of St. James in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A woman prays in front of the tomb of St. James in the basement of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A woman prays in front of the tomb of St. James in the basement of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A group of friends hugs in the plaza in front of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A group of friends hugs in the plaza in front of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A Camino pilgrim reads a book next to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A Camino pilgrim reads a book next to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

A stone marker labeled “0.00 K.M.” marks the end of the Camino Finisterre at the end of the peninsula in Finisterre.

A stone marker labeled “0.00 K.M.” marks the end of the Camino Finisterre at the end of the peninsula in Finisterre.

A Camino pilgrim lays on a rock looking at the sunset over the Finisterre peninsula.

A Camino pilgrim lays on a rock looking at the sunset over the Finisterre peninsula.

Comments

  • August 6, 2015, 6:05 AM

    Erin

    Hank! I think I've read this final essay about the Camino 3 times already and the moments that you've captured have had me giggling for days... and of course the ending made me cry. You've articulated so well how I feel about the experience, so thank you for giving me the words on paper to express my feelings!

  • October 19, 2015, 4:12 PM

    Tom Curchin

    Hey- I have been showing your video to many people as it captures something incredibly joyful and moving at the same time. Thank you so much-

  • October 21, 2015, 3:40 PM

    Doug DeKuiper

    Great writings, stories, and film. As Amalie I to learned of the Camino from the movie The Way. You have just reenergized me to do this. Thank you.

  • December 4, 2015, 2:39 PM

    Liv

    yesterday i finished reading the recommended book, The Buried Giant :D

  • November 16, 2016, 11:54 AM

    Rich Carbajal

    Hank -Seems like Amelie was a very integral part of your Camino experience and beautiful to boot! What became of her and are you still in contact with each other? I'm trying desperately to get over and experience the walk for myself.