I’d thought it might feel like any other Camino day, but it didn’t.
For the first time in all my weeks on the Camino, I woke up on my own before my alarm beeped. Usually, I went through the hour of each day in a fog. This day I was wide awake and ready to leap from my bunk bed the moment I woke up.
On the Chemin du Puy in France, I’d walked alone a lot, and passed some of the time memorizing bits of poetry and quotations that moved me. Now a line from C. P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka” described how I felt perfectly: “a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body.”
It was the way I used to feel as a little girl on Christmas morning—and not because of the presents, or at least not entirely. The tingling excitement came from knowing this was a special day, removed from ordinary time.
It was something I hadn’t felt in years before that day, two years ago, when I walked into Santiago.
I’ve read that for a walking pilgrim, the pilgrimage is more about the journey than the destination. It’s true, too. But at for me, anyway, that doesn’t mean the destination wasn’t important.
I had been walking toward Santiago for more than 11 weeks. From my first day of walking, I’d been passing signs giving the distance to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, and then Santiago de Compostela. On the Chemin du Puy, where so many people were walking for two-week stints, we constantly asked each other how far we were walking. “Je vais jus’que Saint-Jacques”—I’m going to Santiago—became one of my most fluent sentences in French.
Like the French walkers, in France I started referring to the Chemin de Saint-Jacques as the GR or the GR-65, one of the Chemins de Grandes Randonées (long-distance paths) across France. And then one day, as I approached the Pyrenees, I stopped to talk to a young farmer.
I hadn’t seen a waymark in a while and was starting to get a little worried. “C’est la GR?” I asked the farmer, indicating the road I was on. Is this the GR?
“C’est le Chemin de Compostelle,” he said with a smile. It’s the Camino to [Santiago de] Compostela.
A rare excitement stirred me at his words. I was really a pilgrim. I was truly following in the footsteps of so many pilgrims before me to Santiago.
I guess that’s why I have this crazy desire to walk every pilgrimage route I’ve heard of, but not to walk other, non-pilgrim trails. I want a journey—preferably a long one—but I like having a goal, a destination that so many people before me have struggled to reach. A city that has been important for centuries, and not only because it happens to be the end of a trail.
As I was walking, I tried not to expect too much of Santiago. Like Ithaka in the poem, it’s the excuse for the journey:
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
From my reading I had a picture in my mind of Santiago as not a particularly nice city, and as I walked into it with friends, passing the plain “Santiago” sign on an overpass with cars speeding by, I thought this impression was justified.
Then we walked into the pretty medieval centre, and the cars and the speed of the modern city melted away. We passed through an archway where a bagpiper was playing, walked out into the Praza do Obradoiro, and collapsed in front of the cathedral.
I’d seen pictures of the Cathedral de Santiago before and thought it rather gaudy. But in that moment, in the city I had walked so far to reach, it was perfect.