An apple orchard along the Camino de Santiago trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Final Day to Santiago, Part 1

Yesterday I watched the trail markers all day – now there is one for every kilometer. This was the final countdown from hundreds of miles on the Camino de Santiago trail. As I left the trail last night, the last one I saw said 20.5 km. I planned to start early again. I stayed in Arca, in a private albergue with my own room. I was tired but too excited to get a good night’s sleep. I kept waking thinking about getting off the trail after 29 straight days. Then I would enter a big city and make the transition, which would be quite a change from the countryside scenes, like the apple orchard I had passed (see my photo above).

Today is September 24th, my husband’s birthday. I am far from home, but it is a day I will remember. It is the last day of hiking the el Camino. I started in St Jean de Pied de Port, France, on my son’s anniversary—the reason for walking el Camino—so both days I will remember.

I was full of excitement that I could hardly wait to leave my room and tip toe out past the big bunkroom full of sleeping hikers. It was just before 6 am and dark except for the streetlights. No one was in sight. It was cool and calm as I walked up to the top of the hill, turned right, and walked almost out of town (Arca), where the sidewalk ended.

I carefully watched for the yellow el Camino arrows and spotted one across the main highway heading into the woods. I turned on my headlamp and walked only a few feet into the darkness when the light became so dim it was worthless. I dropped my bag and started looking for new batteries. By the time I changed batteries, a young man from Texas had appeared. He had no headlight. I tried my light and it still didn’t work. I was deciding whether to go back, when along came a group of young Italians I knew, so the two of us joined them.

This was a first for me, going without my own light, stumbling over rocks and roots, hurrying faster than my own pace, and depending on others. I felt welcome among these young Italians: I knew them from staying in the same albergues, talking with them, and hiking with them the past few days. I was determined to finish early today, or I would not have done this silly thing of walking without my own light. This group of happy-go-lucky young Italians were not the same group of hiking friends who I had spent so much time with for so many days. Those were all behind me or had fallen off the trail. So now I had met two groups. The Italians are unlike any other hikers I met—they like to hike in a group and are very social and friendly.

The Italians were at ease, laughing and happy to be finishing the trek today. They just seemed to glide over the rocks, holes, and streams, despite the darkness. After a while—what seemed a long time, but in reality was only a couple of kilometers—we came to a tiny bar and they stopped for a coffee.

I would have taken a break with them, but two older Swedish couples came along, also going at good clip, intent on making time. They stopped to say hello and I told them my light wasn’t working. It had been so dependable for all these days and the final day it had petered out! They said come with us. I told the Italians I would see them in Santiago, and off I went, in the middle of the huddle.

The Swedish couples were quite concerned about making it to Santiago by mid-morning, but they planned on having breakfast anyway, and after a while we came to another bar/café in the crock of the trail. This was their stop. Now I was by myself again: I could either continue with no light or take a break here. I was standing on the trail, making my decision, when along came Paddy, an Irishman, and the young guy from Texas was trailing him. I told Paddy my light had given out, and he said no matter, come along, and I did. Paddy had a good light and we moved along at a good clip, but every few hundred feet we would have to stop and wait for the young man, who was noticeably ill. He would stop and put on his jacket, then take it off again a few minutes later. He was perspiring, stumbling, and just plain sick. He said his sister was waiting in Santiago for him. Of course we felt bad for him, but we also wanted to get to Santiago by mid-morning. Paddy knew it was difficult to get a seat at the Cathedral for the 11:00 celebration. This now became our focus. I didn’t want to miss this and stay another day for just that reason.

We came to another bar/café and went in to get a rest and a drink. I ordered an orange juice. Along the trail, this is always made fresh, while the customer waits. After I finished my drink, I said I was going on, and left the two men sitting there. By now it was dawn and I could move along at my own steady pace. I really was relieved that I had made it though without any problems and not too much inconvenience. I was also thankful for such good people on the trail.

It was only a short while later, when I had stopped to take off my rain jacket, when Paddy came hurrying down the trail, trying to catch up with me. The young Texan was not with him. Paddy had been so patient with him, but left him sitting at the café. It was cool and pleasant, and we were both focused on walking, so that I cannot remember much about the places I passed.

I do remember the runway of the airport, as the path went along a fence beside it for the whole distance. More significant, after a rise in the path along a hillside, was the Monte del Gozo, Mount of Joy, because years ago, this was the first sight pilgrims had of the spires of Santiago de Compostela. Now tall buildings block the way. In 1993, the Holy Year, Pope John Paul II visited this site, and a monument marks the spot. It is visited by many people unable to walk the el Camino, so it is significant. It is about an hour’s walk from my final destination. After a quick stop there, Paddy and I hurried on at a steady pace, headed for the closest of the seven gates into the city, considered the third holiest Christian city in the world. My day was just beginning, and it would turn out to be a day to remember.

(posted June 30, 2015)