I stand atop of a hill full of burdens, the wind gently grazing across my cheek and the whole world silent. The rocks that surround my feet symbolize many things. They stand for freedom, peace, bravery, new beginnings, a loved one who sits in the heart of the person who’s placed it there. Traditionally, the stones that are set upon Cruce de Ferro are ones which a pilgrim has carried from the very beginning of their journey. They’re being carried for those who aren’t able to be there themselves and when placed on the hill they are told to send alms to those that you care about. They send the energy of a healthy well being. Others are used to let go of a burden and clear the mind. I clutched onto both of my stones with the utmost care. One of them was absolutely covered in letters. I spent a great deal of time thinking about the people in my life who are extra special to me and those who have shaped who I am today. I carefully wrote the first letter of their name on the stone and thankfulness swept over me as I realized that it was now covered from front to back. I couldn’t have felt more loved.
I looked around me and studied how each stone was different and unique. Some were hand painted while others sat bare but still full of thoughts and memories. The iron cross stood proudly in the middle and was covered in notes, letters and photographs from top to bottom. One was an envelope titled Please drop this letter closest to God. Some were titled simply Mom. I suddenly became a lot more emotional than I anticipated but knowing myself, I guess it was expected. What brought the tears rolling down my cheeks was the fact that through everything that goes on in this world, through all the chaos and disaster, things like this exist. Places like this that are dedicated to so much beauty, love and release stand in the middle of nowhere and never move.
It felt like hours had passed as I held my stone tightly between my fingers. When I finally felt like I was able to let it go, I placed it carefully amongst the others and released a breath as I walked down to meet my friends. I felt that feeling of freedom again. It traveled through my entire body in waves. Kate and I decided to take one more trip to the top and let out a howl to celebrate. The moment was everything I imagined it to be and more.
The last of the Meseta trickled off gradually last week and the gang and I found ourselves in a small little town just before our halfway point. When we walked into the albergue, a glowing woman welcomed us with a sense of calmness very similar to Mau from the Hospital for the Soul. She told us to head to the back, take off our shoes and relax. She knew first hand what it felt like walking this stretch because she had traveled the Camino three times! As soon as she told us she offered foot massages for donation, I knew we had found heaven. Her name is Judit and what I was surprised to discover was she seemed to know a great deal about joints and muscles. She was able to tell me exactly what I should be changing about my walking habits in order to fix my problems. Not only was she knowledgable in the health of the body but she was also incredibly in touch with the mind. Everything that came out of her mouth was spoken with peace, grace and wisdom. I relaxed just being around her as she told me what she did back home in Germany. I knew she reminded me of Mau for a reason. Judit runs a space from her home where she provides help to others in all different forms. She provides psychological advice, physiotherapy for injured pilgrims walking through the country, a place to sleep and cook and a shoulder to cry on. During the summer months, she works here in this village giving back to the path that shaped her life. Without having said a word she told me, “you must stop worrying about keeping the pace of others. I know you want to stay with the people you love but go your own speed and you’ll find them again. The Camino will bring them back to you.” A moment or two passed by before she added, “I know that you’re meant to do something that allows you to be creative. You aren’t meant to live a 9-5 life. This life is too short to do anything that doesn’t make you happy.” I’ve known this for quite some time but the fact that she was able to read that after we’d hardly spoken blew me away. That was the moment I told her about my photography and asked if I could capture her. It’s funny because even the calmest people seem to become flustered at the though of being photographed. Her essence was difficult to get across but she relaxed after I engaged her in conversation. She performed some wildly effective reiki energy on my ankle before we parted and I got the feeling that she held a gift of truly seeing people that not a lot of us have. I felt very lucky to have met her. I know now that if I ever need a place to stay in Germany, her door is always open.
It’s as if Judit knew deep down that I would be faced with a new challenge. Recently, I’ve been separated from the group that I’ve become so close to since the third day walking. I’m not sure what drove me to walk 40km one morning but my legs continued to take me through every little town because none of them seemed to feel right. I was hoping to branch out and meet some new people who I may have been missing out on while walking with others. I wanted to take a bit of a leap outside of my comfort zone and see what it brought me. I would never, ever suggest walking 40km in 32 degree heat to anyone! I was thankful that the scenery was enough to keep me sane because I had hardly seen a soul while walking that day. Nicola had decided to stay in a bigger town called Villafranca and to be honest, the fact that I knew there was a familiar face waiting there helped to keep me going. As I dragged my legs up to the city about 8km from my final destination, I spotted two girls named Tara and Tara-Lynn who I had met close to the beginning of my journey and hadn’t seen since. I couldn’t have been more grateful to see people I knew! I practically fell into their arms the second I walked over to them. They happened to be going to the same place and we agreed to walk together and boost each others spirits.
A lot of this trail took us through a vineyard and as we approached it, something magical happened. We heard music. At first it was faint and low but as we walked up the hill, it became louder and louder and we had no idea where the sound was coming from. I didn’t realize quite how much music lifts a spirit and brightens a mindset. I found my tired self skipping, yes, skipping down the hill to The Cure. We were blessed by a gift and without it, I wouldn’t have made that last 5km. Thank you, thank you to the soul who gave us the vineyard soundtrack.
The vibe of the Camino seemed to change after Nicola and I were just a pair. I was thankful for her company. The time alone was pleasant but lonely. I had spent far too much time focusing on how different things were instead of the beauty that the change brought me. Little moments presented themselves throughout my days. While walking through the middle of absolute nowhere, I came across a cantina that was formed from a run down, old brick building. The walls were covered in writing and quotations from pilgrims who had sat down to rest over the years. I stopped to lounge in an inviting hammock and paused dead in my tracks as I noticed a piece of paper pinned up on the wall. I recognized the names on the torn out page right away. Pages 56 and 57 of Waiting for Godot hung by a pink paper clip. As I read the passage, I noticed how perfectly it fit the spirit of the Camino and how it described the exact situation that had just occurred in my own life. It was a sense of magic and oasis in the desert. I was beginning to think I had a guardian angel on my side.
Vladimir: Your boots, what are you doing with your boots?
Estragon: I’m leaving them there. Another will come, just as…as me, but with smaller feet, and they’ll make him happy.
Just steps away from there, a man strummed his guitar to a catchy Spanish tune and added in words that worked with each passerby. He sang to me, “the pilgrim is walking to Santiago with her camera!” It was fitting and a much needed giggle! A town away from that, a woman handed Nicola and I a whole bag full of churro’s (deep fried sticks of dough) free of charge because the shop was closing in a few minutes. The cafe was called Sonrisas which means Smiles in Spanish and you better believe we had big grins on our faces after that one!
A week or two into my walk, I met a radiant woman named Michelle. I had heard plenty about her from Nicola who had spent time with her toward the beginning and she was someone I was hoping we’d catch up to. Michelle is from Vancouver so we immediately had something to bond over. That and the Dan Mangan blasting from her iPhone. I knew her as the stunt woman before I truly got a chance to know who she was. She has performed some incredible stunts in films and has been in that industry for years and years of her life. It fascinated me at first, thinking about the thrill of a career like that. I didn’t really get to know Michelle until we met for a third time in Astorga and I asked to take her photo. I learned that from a young age she practiced baton twirling and was up to become the best in the world. The hours she practiced and perfected became the center of her life through her teenage years. The baton lead into dancing which lead her to the circus. There she discovered a natural ability to handle knives which had her thinking about stunt work more and more. The stunts took her body through a turbulence and there was a moment where she decided she didn’t want to put herself through the pain and fear any longer. She knew that her path was meant to head elsewhere and the destination was to be determined. That is how the Camino came into her life and while we deluged deeper into conversation I could hear the direction she had already found. It was in her voice and in her eyes. She’s discovered that she’s a teacher at heart with all the qualities to guide others in the right direction. She wants to be a creator of her own success in the artistic world. Recently her knee has caused her some troubles and Her Camino has involved a few bus rides. A part of her wondered if this would seem like a moment of failure to her friends and family back home. Being an athlete puts that imagine in the mind of others that something like a walking trail would be a piece of cake to complete. What I loved the most was her approach to the obstacles. Yes, she was injured but it taught her that your body is not invincible. It has limits and maybe, just maybe Her Camino was meant to involve a bus or two. Perhaps that’s guiding her to the right place and teaching her again that her path needs to head in a different direction. The fact is, she’s getting to Santiago one way or another and I am inspired by her determination and strength through it all. It’s a gift to be able to take even the most difficult moments and accept that the world wants to show you something far different than you planned. Michelle, I know you’ll find your way because you’re keeping your head held high and moving forward. She has one of the best grips on her experience that I’ve seen so far and it’s only going to lead her to beautiful things. You’ve already taught me lessons I’ll hold on to.
It took one final moment to realize that things had blessed me all the same despite this new Camino feel. There was a fairly steep mountain ahead a few days ago and I prepared myself to walk up the entire thing on foot. Nicola and I passed by signs advertising a way to reach the top by horseback. We didn’t hesitate to call and book two spots for the next morning! I hadn’t ridden a horse since I was a little kid and unfortunately none of the skills came back to me. The good news is, I felt like I really bonded with my beauty Viagita (translating into Old Fashioned) and after a terrifying first trot I adjusted pretty quickly to her ways. She was a slow one and we often trailed behind but she did her best to keep up and together we rode up and through the stunning mountains. The view was incredible. A man yelled out to me, “the Camino sure is different from up here!” He was absolutely right. It was an entirely different experience and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I sat there awestruck by the rolling hills that seemed to stretch forever into the mist and the dinging of sheep bells in the distance. I thought back right then to the morning I left the path alone and was invited to sit at a campfire with two pilgrims and enjoy a tea with the sunrise. I remembered watching the sunset in a grassy patch that night and feeling entirely clear after my day laying down my stone. Moments of magic had shown themselves in my time of need and a man in Villafranca had cleared my worried mind by making me a special bed to sleep in when there was “no room at the inn.” Judit was right, the Camino will bring my friends back to me. We’ll all walk to Santiago hand in hand in the end. Until then, special moments and acts of kindness appear again and again. I’ve spent so much time missing the vibe from the beginning of my journey when what I should be looking at is how it’s continued to show itself in new and different ways.
I sit now about 100km from my final destination in a city called Sarria. I have some big days ahead of me but I’m determined to keep open for each and every one of them. After all, I’ve found the mountains again and they continue to surround me every step of the way. There’s always a silver lining and the spirit of the Camino, well, it hasn’t gone anywhere.