Friday, August 8, 2008

The End. For now.

4 weeks hiking across Spain, 1 week in Tunisia, and a few days saying goodbye to Madrid. It really don't get any better than this.

I'm at sort of a strange place in my journey. I spent a couple of years thinking about this trip, several months talking about it, and a few weeks planning it. After all of the lead up, now it's almost over. I'm sad, certainly, that my free time is quickly coming to an end. On my 3 hour drive back to Madrid from Expo 2008 in Zaragoza, it suddenly occurred to me that 10 days from now I'll be sitting in a classroom. It was sort of a jarring thought. There are going to be some melancholy moments on the plane next Tuesday when we take off from the Madrid airport. I miss all of my friends, but I really can't say I'm ready to come home. Shame that one's already been decided for me.

I'll see some of you when I get home Wednesday morning, or very soon after. But buckle up - I'm already considering doing the Camino Primitivo. Camino 2009, anyone?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Camino: The Post Mortum

Well, after a week's worth of recovery and perspective, I can finally wrap my mind around the last month of walking that I did. I was commenting to a friend the other day (and I may have mentioned this in a previous post, but my memory fails me right this second) that I feel like the 4 weeks I spent on the Camino were 4 completely separate, yet equally incredible trips. There was such a broad spectrum of landscapes I saw, people I associated with, and events I experienced that it's incredibly difficult to believe that they were all part of the same adventure.

Two nights before I arrived in Santiago, I stayed in an active monastary in Sobrado dos Monxes in the province of A Coruña. After dinner, I found myself huddled around a small table in a small kitchen with 4 other Spaniards discussing the day. We each had our own reasons for doing the Camino - 3 guys each travelling separately from Madrid are all athletic and were trying it as a creative recreational activity. Carmen, the Latin professor from León had a more spiritual, though not overly religious interest in the Camino. One of the the Madrid boys had started a day or two after I had from Irún. We compared stories about the different places we'd stayed, and agreed that we really were just ready to get to Santiago. Carmen interjected at one point and said that she really didn't care if she made it to Santiago, because the real Camino for her was walking every day. The 3 guys and I exchanged glances, and I told Carmen that while I understood her viewpoint, after walking 730km, I was going to need to get to Santiago if I got there crawling on my hands and knees or I just might not be able to live with myself for awhile. The guys agreed with me, and Carmen sort of smiled and shook her head at us with a knowing look that clearly said we young whippersnappers were missing something. Later that night, two of the Madrid boys and I were rehashing the conversation, and we agreed that it would be impossible for us to just stop right that second and feel like we had done the Camino. We'd set a goal for ourselves of arriving to Santiago, and we'd feel like we had cheated ourselves if we didn't get there.

I didn't get much sleep in Sobrado dos Monxes thanks to a near disaster involving me and a top bunk with no railings at 3am, and wine and philosophy in Arca kept me awake the following night. By Sunday, I was still walking to Santiago, but I wasn't coherant. My shin splints had decided that they hated me, my backpack, and Spain and weren't going to stop complaining until I stopped walking. I had acquired a really attractive hitch in my step because of the pain emitting from my mutilated baby toe. And then I got to Monte do Gozo. I have an emotional attachment to this place dating back to the last Camino. It's a high point 5km from the cathedral, and the end of all of the hard work. From here, it's literally all downhill, but gradually so as not to completely destroy pilgrim's knees. From the highest point of the hill, you can see the spires of the cathedral. I have no words to describe the experience of standing on the top of the hill. By the time I made it there, I felt like I was floating. For the first time in 28 days, I was positive I was going to be able to make it all the way to the cathedral - no small detail, considering the fact that two days earlier I was questioning my ability to finish the last 8km of the day's walk. It was the emotional pinnacle of my trip.

The walk through Santiago to the cathedral is mind numbing. You know the cathedral is RIGHT THERE, but it feels like you just can't get there fast enough. Then you take a right turn around a corner, and you can see one of the towers of the church about 500 meters away. And that's it. You know you've arrived. I thought I was going to be more emotional about actually standing in front of the cathedral again. I was excited, don't get me wrong - excited enough to call my mother and wake her out of a dead sleep at 4am Texas time to tell her that I had just walked across a country. But it wasn't the sort of rush that I had thought I'd get.

And then I remembered my conversation with Carmen two nights earlier, and I realized she was right in a way. Getting to Santiago was amazing and validating and all of the fantastic things I knew it would be. But the Camino itself was better. I had the opportunity to really get to know one of my cousins who was an essential stranger to me a year ago. I had a chance to spend time with an old friend who I don't see enough anymore now that she lives on the other side of the world. I remembered what I'm capable of. My faith was restored in the kindness of absolute strangers, and the beauty of the smallest acts of generosity. I have a special connection with new friends that can only come from getting to know each other during a hard 11 hour hike. I have some REALLY tasteless jokes about the Last Supper. I was reminded of the peace and tranquilty a long walk by the beach can offer.