It’s a season of memories. World War II ended 75 years ago, we remember. In the US, the last Monday in May is Memorial Day, a time to remember those who sacrificed all for our nation. Worldwide, we honor the memories of those who have died over the past three months from COVID-19.
Camino pilgrims have more joyful memories. We recall the various challenges we faced, the astounding beauty along The Way as well as the sameness of some stretches on the Meseta. We remember the friendships we forged on the path, in the coffee shops, or the albergues. Yes, we also recall the occasional discomforts. Regardless of our faiths, we still feel the spiritual and emotional highs of our Caminos. Aspiring pilgrims who were set to go this year are anxiously anticipating the moment they can create their own Camino memories. Their eagerness is palpable.
At this moment I’m remembering the last two days on what will likely have been the last of my three Camino pilgrimages, the Invierno. It’s the least-travelled path, but no less memorable.
At the end of twelve days, essentially alone, I spent the night in a charming roadside hotel, the Eco Nos, outside Silleda, farm country. As I fell asleep, through the open window of my room, on the patio below I could hear the chatter and laughter of a handful of men, yes all men and presumably farmers, judging by their ruddy appearance, on a Saturday night off. Physically exhausted, I was out within minutes.
Another long day of trail awaited, so I was up early. On a Sunday, at an hour that no respectable Spaniard would be seen, I was alone once more to enjoy a quick and totally quiet breakfast. By now this had become my standard. The young woman helping me was the night desk clerk. As I was wrapping up, getting read to leave she finally spoke up, revealing that she had learned English and now found the courage to speak. She was quite good so we carried on a short conversation. There was a song I’d heard over the radio in every place I’d been, including just that morning, so I asked about it. She thought for a moment and then announced excitedly, “it’s “Eu chorar, chorei”” by a Galician group called Vudu. It’s haunting, so I managed to download it to my music collection. Music is also a force to stir memories, and hearing this song even now, immediately transports me back to Galicia and the Invierno.
If there’s such a thing as an official end to Stage 13 on the Invierno it is Ponte Ulla, a small community named for its magnificently high Roman viaduct/bridge that spans the Rio Ulla far below. The cluster of communities near the bridge, is so small that I had a difficult time finding lodging during my planning. So I searched over a wider area but not specifically within sight of the bridge. I mention this since at the halfway point of that Sunday’s long walk I turned away from the marked trail and walked toward my chosen destination, the village of Gres. This deliberate change of direction triggered more interaction with area locals than I’d had on any day before this. I soon lost track of the well-meaning attempts by farmers, homeowners and the occasional passing driver to redirect me to the official path. I quickly taught myself to say in Spanish, if not the local Galician, that I’m headed to Gres, but “muchas Gracias.”
That afternoon was one immensely long and winding downhill stretch, and it finally dawned on me that I was heading into a steep river valley. I feared it might be a mistake and that I would have to hike back up. That dread haunted me all afternoon, so I kept double-checking the mapping app on my phone to assure myself that Gres was still in front of me, unseen but somewhere down in this wooded valley. Finally I reached it in the late afternoon, just a cluster of houses, a store and a small but sturdy hotel. After checking into the Casa da Capilla and cleaning up, I went down to the riverside patio bordered on one side by the massive stone abutment of another dramatic Roman bridge. It was not the famous Ponte Ulla, but I was OK with the my choice.
Since it was a Sunday evening and this was apparently the only gathering place in the area, I was soon overwhelmed by the extended families that congregated noisily all around me. No one was unfriendly in the least, but as I had experienced several times before, I was seemingly invisible, once again ”the man who wasn’t there.” After a simple meal and several bottles of Kas Naranja, it was off to bed though it wouldn’t be dark for another hour or more. The next day I would be walking into Santiago de Compostela, the destination of all Caminos de Santiago.
Monday started early and quietly once again. Due to my lodging choice I was sufficiently far from the trail that I resorted to a taxi to take me from Gres to a logical starting point just past Ponte Ulla. I had made those arrangements the evening before, so by 7am the taxi was waiting, and 20 minutes later he dropped me off at the church where I’d begin my last stretch of walking. I figured a church was a good place to start. If I felt the need, I could pray for forgiveness for the indiscretion of taking a short taxi ride.
The actual walk that day wasn’t particularly memorable, but the awareness that I was both ending a long two weeks of solitary existence and approaching a vibrant, crowded city filled me with a mix of emotions – sadness and joy – that I distinctly remember even now, nearly nine months later. Visually, my surroundings were quickly shifting from farmland to urban boundary areas where houses were more prevalent and fields turned into gardens. In the distance the white clusters of hillside suburban apartments and homes glowed warmly in the sunshine. Late morning, I took my final rest at a wayside chapel next to a small park. Then I began my final trek into Santiago. A distinct memory was the cresting of a hill, already within the fringes of the city, from which I could easily see the Cathedral in the distant city center. It’s there that this journey would end. This was my third approach into Santiago yet the first one that offered this perspective of the Cathedral from a distance. On the previous two, arriving from different directions, I hardly spotted the huge structure until I was next to it, but this view was memorable. It took another hour to get to the Praza do Obradoiro, the huge plaza that fronts the Cathedral, and for the first time in two weeks I was definitely no longer alone on this journey. As I knew I would be, I was surrounded by the hundreds of others pilgrims arriving at that moment from every direction, and each of us, was adding one last memory to our long collections… the requisite photo of a weary but overjoyed Camino pilgrim in front of the awe-inspiring Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.