Thoughts from the end of the world

Oct 16

On Monday, B and I went to Finisterre- the end of the world.

Finisterre is a tiny fishing village on the Costa del morte- the coast of death- about 50 miles from Santiago. For pilgrims it is a three day walk to the lighthouse and cliffs at the end of a long spit of land. 

Arriving at the Atlantic Ocean, pilgrims would swim in the sea, burn their smelly clothes, put on new clothing and begin their arduous journey home. They would pick up a scallop shell from the beach as proof that they had finished their pilgrimage at the end of the world.

For them it was a baptism if you will- a washing off of the old life and putting on  a fresh clean new start. 

I liked the symbolism of this so at the end of my first Camino I walked alone to Finisterre. It was an adventure to say the least. 

Thanks to the wonders of the IPhone, I am able to share this with you.

First view of the Atlantic

“Baptism” in the Atlantic.

Five  mile shell collecting walk along the beach to the village.


Ceremonial clothes burn on the cliff behind the lighthouse.

Years later, B and I walked the route together. This time, we chose the Easy Path.  We took the bus. 

Unlike past years,  Finisterre was teeming with pilgrims. Modern pilgrims now make the trip to Finisterre or to Muxia, another seaside village, made famous by Martin Sheen in his Camino movie The Way.

Muxia, seen in the pictures above, is less visited but equally as beautiful. 

We also visited there but Finisterre has a history for me. I have done some of my best thinking on its cliffs and I wanted to go back. 

After a wonderful lunch of assorted local fish favorites, we walked the three miles out to the end of the point.

Santiago was waiting for us.

You can see why I do the heavy carrying and we don’t walk together.

Note the 0:00 km on the marker.

Pilgrims burning and celebrating.

Finally it’s time to think about Santiago and this Camino.

While we were walking, we shopped from time to time in a store  called Mas y Mas, translated  more and more. 

One problem on the Camino is how the backpack seems to gain weight during the walk. More and more gets put into it.

Rocks, shells, pamphlets, pine cones, snow domes, books find their way into the pack. Each one is a treasure I can’t live without and when the weight gets to be too much, I have to ship them home. Stuff.  More and more .

Sitting on my rock, I begin by thinking what I will pull out of the pack and put into the box when I make my third visit to the post office the next morning. ( The post office opens at 8:30. The bus is at nine. Just enough time if I am first in line! We have just arrived and I already know this.)

The pack is getting fat- too heavy to carry, even on the short walk to the bus station. Time to unload. Again.

What is it about stuff?

I think of my garage which is filled with stuff.  

When I get home and unpack my mailed treasures, I know they will eventually join all of the other rocks, shells, pine cones, pamphlets, snow domes and books that I have shipped home from every other walk that I have taken. 

My latest  Compostela will join six others in a mailing tube in the garage. The books and papers will end up in the box, now several boxes, marked  Caminos or Spain.

The passports, filled with stamps I so contientiously collected, will fade with time.

I spent a fair amount of money having a long frame made to display my first passport. 

Over the years, nearly every  one of the stamps has faded. There on the wall, proudly displayed, is a long beautiful frame filled with blank squares. 

This pretty much sums up the folly of Mas y Mas. 

 I come back around to a thought which I have returned to day after day while walking. 

What is essential? What  do I really need? What can I take out of my backpack, my garage, my life, that is too heavy to carry around? What is it that  is really important to me? What is worth carrying around in my backpack of life? 

I used to tell my grandchildren they could have anything in toys r us but they had to carry it all 20 blocks back to our house. Sometimes we’d carry their toys around  the store until they decided they were too heavy to carry home. “Too heavy “, they would say. 

As I reflect on the weight in my backpack, my garage, my life, I think back on my Sunday in Santiago. What was essential there?

The rituals of pilgrimage, as wonderful and full of symbolism as they are, will not determine the success or failure of my camino .

I do not need a piece of paper to tell me that I have walked the Camino del Norte. 

Whether or not the Pilgrims’ Mass meant  anything to anyone else, it  does not affect what it meant to me.

The important thing in Santiago was seeing all of the people we had met along the way and celebrating with them. 

It was watching all of the pilgrims we didn’t know arriving with joy at the end of their respective walks. 

It was watching all of the tour groups who had come to Santiago  trying to understand what this camino thing was all about.

From my rock in Finisterre, I knew I, too, was ready to turn around and begin my journey home. 

While I had not swum in the ocean or burned my smelly clothes or filled my pockets with scallop shells, I had cleared   some of the clutter from my mind and my soul.  I had once again relearned the lesson of the camino. Travel light. 

So what was important on my camino across Spain and  in my Camino through life?

Family, Friends, People 



This is what matters to me.

These things don’t  take up any  space in my backpack or my garage. They don’t weigh  an ounce. 

What is important to me might not be important to the guy beside me. What weighs me down might be as light as a feather for someone else.  My thoughts are my thoughts. They are enough for me to worry about. 

The shells and Compostelas and  shoes and clothes and stuff that I have accumulated are all neatly stacked in my garage.

 When my parents died, I  threw away countless trash bags full of their stuff.  No doubt my poor children will be stuck doing the same for me. Instead of straightening my garage I need to be clearing it out!

I had a friend who was nearing the end of a long battle with cancer .

His brother had come to take him back to his childhood town to die. 

On the way to the airport his brother asked if he’d like to drive by his house one last time. No he said. “It’s all just stuff.” “Let’s go home.”

 On my rock I had my epiphany.

 It’s all just stuff.  Don’t get weighed down by it. Focus on the essentials. Keep your backpack light. 

At some point down the road somebody is going to throw all my stuff into a big black trash bag and take it to the dump. Mas y Mas? Not for me! No siree! 

Note to self.  Remember, oh Nan, that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

Another Sunday

Oct 16

I have to admit that I am a romantic. Ilike traditions and rituals. 

For the month I have been walking towards Santiago I have been wondering what it will be like to arrive as a pilgrim for the fourth time. How will I feel? Will there be the same excitement as the first time I walked into the plaza and saw the cathedral? Will the rituals of the pilgrims mean the same thing to me as they did before?

Time will tell.

We walked, virtually alone, into the old town. Chris and George had stopped off at their hotel. It was Sunday morning and the city was still asleep. We would have plenty of time to get to the Pilgrims’ Mass in one hours time. 

Through the old town 

Past the side entrance to the cathedral 

Down the stairs to the plaza and left to our first glimpse of…… 


A train! Not one train but two nearly run over us. Not good to have come all this way and be killed by a tourist train !

This was only the first shock . More were to come .

There had been much talk along the camino  about the extensive work being done on the cathedral. The first view of it was a surprise to say the least. 

The stairway to the Portico de Gloria, the usual  entrance into the cathedral, was closed. 

Normally pilgrims would ascend this staircase and upon entering the cathedral stop beneath the center column .

This column, in the style of a Jesse tree, depicts Christ sitting in judgement at the top , Saint James beneath him and Master  Mateo, the builder of the cathedral, at the very bottom. 

The tradition for pilgrims  is to  place their hand on the Column and give thanks for their safe arrival to Santiago.

 Next they knock their heads against Master Mateo, the architect of the cathedral, in hopes of knocking some sense into them- to add whatever was lacking after their walk.

Note grooves in column after 900 years of pilgrims 

Then they would walk into the church, up the aisle past the altar and its amazing reredos of  Santiago, climb the stairs to hug the Apostle, and  finally descend to the crypt and pray before the relics of Saint James. 

Since it is impossible to get to the Jesse Tree  and perform these rituals, I will be flexible.  After all isn’t this one of the lessons I am trying to learn on this walk.

We go around to the back side of the cathedral and discover two things. 

We cannot take our backpacks into the cathedral. In fact we might not even get into the Cathedtal. We are not the only people going to the pilgrim mass today.

The line into the cathedral is stretched from one end of the plaza to the other. 

We check our packs at a little souvenir shop for 5 euro each and get in line. By the time  get into the cathdral it is packed.

We sit on the floor until we are told by a security man to move.

We crowd into the corners behind a pillar. The Mass begins with a girls choir singing a hymn to the tune we know as the Doxology. They sing beautifully. 

We can’t see a thing but  the words are familiar. All around us people push and shove, angling for a better view. Tour guides with wands and umbrellas pointing to the ceiling lead their groups around the edges. Security men bark orders at the unruly restless crowds.

At communion  I am reminded of my conversation with another pilgrim about whether as an Episcopalian I should receive. His comment ” Jesus Christ invites me to his table and I  accept .”  I too accept. 

Several dozen priests fan out through the church and administer communion. I receive near the  back door behind a red rope. The priest returns to the altar  twice for additional hosts and is eventually joined by a second priest.

A man near me returns  triumphantly from his Communion, laughing and regaling his  also laughing companions of his accomplishment. I give him  my best stink eye. Neither one of  us are at our best at this moment. Such is the body of Christ. Such am I .

And then comes the reason many of these people have come here on this morning. 

They have come to see the swinging  of the Butafumiero- a gigantic incense burner, used to cover the smell of pilgrims like me.  Pilgrims need a lot of incense and prayers to sweeten them up. 

And then it is over and we are swept out into the plaza.

Next  stop.  The new pilgrim office where we will present our passports, now full of the requisite two per day to stamps,  to determine if we will be given a Compostela – the document which is given by the church as evidence that one has made the pilgrimage to Santiago.

We wait in line for two hours and hear tales of people being denied their Compostela because they did not have the required two stamps a day or they had walked “too many kilometers” in one day. 

If the desk sitters, jokingly referred to as the inquisitors, had walked any camino,  they would know that on the lesser travelled routes it is not always possible to find two places open each day to get a stamp.

 They would know how the pilgrim could be so tired that she forgot to get a stamp. 

They would know sometimes a pilgrim really did have to walk 40 km as the alberge where she planned to stay was closed or he was running  out of days to get to Santiago before he had to return home.

Here too security monitors tell us not to sit here, stay close to the wall , don’t clap when the next number finally appears on the electronic screen, no laughing??

It is now possible to get four different kinds of Compostelas- spiritual, cultural, sportive or one that simply acknowledges the distance walked. To qualify one needs only to walk 100 km (60) miles. 

My number is up. I have walked according to my Fitbit 867 km. We shall see.

After a thorough grilling both B and I pass the test but barely. 

She has problems because we took the bus off the path to Orvieto to get a second passport and took the bus back to the path to continue. 

I am asked repeatedly if I really walked it. Guess I don’t look the part. I finally tell the woman she can look at my feet if she wants proof.  Actually my feet are perfect but my socks would be the dead giveaway if she got too close. She adds the “completion stamp” to my passport. 

She is amazed I don’t want a distance certificate. She does  not understand I didn’t do it to brag about the distance. 

We are out the door, Compostela in hand , completion stamp in the passport.

We have done it.

The day is over.  We are officially finished. 

Time for some attitude adjustment. Pimientos  and alamedas and vino make everything better. 

I sit and think.  What has happened to my Camino de Santiago or maybe what had happened to me? What has changed ? Is it good or is it bad?  Do the traditions and the rituals mean anything ?
We decide to head for Finisterre where we can have time to process all of this.

I need to sit on a rock for a long time and do some thinking. 


Oct 14

This morning we are on our way to the Cathedral of Santiago in the city of Santiago de Compostela. 

A quick lesson here. 

Sant (Saint) + Iago (James)= Santiago

De (of )+ compos (field) + Stella (star) = Compostela

So Saint James of the field of the stars, which is entirely appropriate. Tradition says that after Saint James was beheaded  by King Herod in 44 a.d., his body was brought to Spain in a stone boat guided by angels. 

He remained buried until the mid 800’s when a shepherd, guided by stars, discovered his remains.

Almost immediately a shrine to hold his bones was erected on the spot. There have been several different churches on the site  but pilgrims have been walking to santiago cathedtal since the 9th century. 

It is Sunday and we are soon to join them.

We must have been having, to quote B, “a little anxiety” about getting “to the church on time”. 

We are coffeed, fed,  suited up and out the door  in record time. Very good time. I look at my watch and think it has stopped. B looks at hers. Same time.  7:04!! Sunrise is not until 8:45. We are anxious. 

No going back. There are two “fire flies ” ahead of us so we follow them for an hour. 

It is a gorgeous starry morning and I am in heaven. I have been itching to see stars this entire trip and they have been seriously lacking. This morning they are in their full glory. 

I spot Orion and I know this will be a good day.  

When I was growing up we spent many a winter’s night outside admiring Orion. 

In the year before my father died I was frequently the night dog walker. Night after night when I returned he would ask, “Is Orion still up there?” “Yes” I would reply and then he would say ” Good everything  will be ok. I’m off to bed. ”

Fast forward to September 11, 2001 and we are living in the middle of New York City.

On a good night I could look out of our 11th floor window and if  I tried really hard, I could count 13 stars.  

The night of 9/11 there were far fewer cars moving and the city was very dark. 

I looked out the window and there was Orion. All would be well I thought and went to bed. 

After my father died, I became the night dog  walker for my mother. I’d come in and she’d say, “Tell me the name of that Irish constellation again.” You mean O’Ryan.  Yep that’s the one. I’d laugh and we’d both go to bed. 

Whenever  I see Orion/O’Ryan I am reminded of all of my family and friends who have “crossed to safety “.

I like to think they are up there with Orion looking down. I know all is well and all will be well.

The “fireflies “have stopped. We catch up to them. Two men.  They ask if we know where we are going. We laugh. “We were following you,” we say. 

So here we are. Four people. Old People.  They are even older than we. We are less than five miles from the end of our walk  and we don’t know where we are or which way to go.

Are we lost? No. We are somewhere and Orion is up in the sky. All will be well . 

We fall into step together. We get “found”.B walks with one man, I with the other. After an hour, we switch partners s and continue to talk. 

We walk along and have most most wonderful conversations. Like B and me, they met on the Camino . One from Oregon one from California. Each walking alone. Drawn together by their mutual agreement  they were too old to sleep in bunk beds and that they were old enough to deserve a good nights sleep in a hotel.

 They started walking togetherand became friends. 

One man is gay and very liberal. The other is very conservative – a husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather. One a devout Catholic. The other an agnostic.

They tell  us how they have been mistaken for gay couple, how they have listened to each other’s life stories and learned to respect, if not like, each other’s view of the political world. 

They both agreed walking together had changed the way they thought about so many things. 

Their ears and their eyes and their hearts had been opened. They had had a Saint Paul moment. The scales covering their eyes had been walked off.

We arrived at the Monte  de Gozo, the hill of joy. This is the last hill to climb on the camino.  It really is all downhill from here. 

 There is a large sculpture commemorating Pope John Paul’s visit to Santiago in 1989. We stopped and watched the sun come up. 


Also on this hill is the ultimate pilgrim alberge. 500 beds!! 

Sadly most pilgrims miss another sculpture three hundred meters off the path. Most are in such a hurry to get to santiago that they zip right on by. 

I’m not sure which is better the sculpture or the view but it is worth the extra steps.


Santiago -Saint James -is both a pilgrim and the object of his own pilgrimage. He stands in his glory with his scallop shell, hat on his head , staff in hand, decorated by grateful walkers. Beside him is his pilgrim, hat in hand. 

George and Chris climbed up. They stood beside their fellow pilgrims and looked down on the three spires barely visible in the mist. 

 They looked up Santiago. They looked at each other. B and I looked at each other. We all laughed. Life changing friends found on the Camino.

You never know who you will meet you on the Camino.  You never know how the camino will change you. More of you will be affected than your feet.

  And I bet you didn’t know this about Orion. 

The constellation Orion can be seen everywhere in the world. Every ancient civilization has had a name and an appreciation for this group of stars. 

Years ago early man carved its likeness on a mammoth bone. More than 30,000 years later someone found the bone in a cave in West Germany. 

Ancient Asians referred to Orion as The Perfect Shepherd  of the Sky. My mother was sure he was Irish.  Scientists predict he will be around for another million years.

One thing I knew, as B and our wonderful new friends also knew. We weren’t lost. We were found in more ways than one. We were in Santiago and we would all get to church on time. Orion was still in the sky and all would be well.

 A Festival of Feet. 

Oct 13.  

We spent last night in Arzua about twenty five miles from Santiago. Tomorrow we will walk as far as Labacolla, about nineteen miles away.

We have two reasons for stoppping such a short distance from Santiago. 

First this is the only place we have been able to find a hotel. The camino is getting crowded. 

Second. We want to be close enough to Santiago so we can make it to the Cathedtal in time for the noon Pilgrim’s Mass.

Arzua is the town where the popular Camino Francais and the Camino del Norte converge.

  All of the walkers from both routes will walk together for last two or three days into Santiago. Instead of ten people a day we will now see hundreds.

 In addition, since it is a weekend, there are even more pilgrims .

 To qualify for a Compostela ( the official recognition of a Camino walk) one has only to walk 100km. Thus, it can be done over a long weekend.

All of this means that our quiet days of solitude are over.  

We had a foretaste of this last night in our hotel. It was like party central. 

I am dreading the rest of the walk and fear it will be like a circus. 

Funny thing about life. It never goes the way you expect it to go. 

I worry it will be like walking along a horizontal “tower of babel”.  Instead it turns out to be Pentecost on the path. 

Let me explain. 

We start out as usual in the dark but this morning there is a difference. 

 In front and behind us there are dozens of tiny lights. Like fire flies flying in formation. These are the early risers.

As the fireflies pass us,the air is filled with one language after another. They come up behind us, they chatter and they fade back into the dark.


Gradually morning turns these little fireflies into people.

As I begin to see these fireflies as people I begin to see their faces and to listen to their stories.

The crowds and noise I have been dreading become a beautiful tapestry of humanity and sweet music to my ears.

I think of Santiago who was sent to Spain to spread the good news of Christ.

 Here I am two thousand years later and people are streaming through the darkness to get to his shrine. 

Each person walking has heard something or felt something to end up beside me on this path.

I think back on all the reasons I have heard people give for making this huge  effort to walk to Santiago. 

Some have heard the language of the church and walk in faith. 

Others have heard the voice of adventure and walk for the thrill of it.

Still others have heard the call to step away from the day to day life and listen to what their heart is telling them. 

Still others walk to understand why they walk.  

Every one of them is hearing Santiago speak to them in his own language and in his own way. 

A family is walking together, laughing about having to eat the pilgrim meal of merluza (hake) and chips for three nights in a row. 

A parish group, walking short sections with their priest and collecting their suitcases from the bus each night,is laughing about how tired they are.

A man from northern  Italy is walking with his wife, his sister, his sister-in-law and his mother-in-law and they are all laughing.

What is it about this walk?

We sleep in rooms of twenty beds with men snoring in five of them and we laugh about it.

Our feet are covered with every blister remedy sold in every drug store in Europe. The  skin is hanging off and we show them off with pride and make jokes about them.

Our backpacks are heavy and overflowing and still we smile and brag about who carried the heaviest one. 

The common denominator on this walk is a smile.

Stephen and Ross from New Zealand are smiling .

Fran and Don from Oregon are smiling.

Jo-Ann from Toronto is smiling.

Lisa and Peter from Washington are smiling.

Chris from California is smiling.

Boy have I gotten this one wrong.  This is not some penitential procession.This is a Festival of Feet. These people are smiling. These people are happy !

Christians, Jews, believers, non-believers, We have met them all as they have  been pulled down  the path by a force they may not even be able to name.

Santiago, who died believing he had failed as a missionary, now draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to his shrine. 

Watching this motley collection of happy pilgrims, he must be smiling too.

Late in the day, we passed the River Labacolla where pilgrims traditionally washed before arriving at Santiago. We decided to wait.

We rounded the corner of the Santiago Airport which signaled our arrival into the outskirts of the city. 

We documented our arrival with a photo and if you look closely, you’ll see we too, are smiling! 

Just one of those days

Oct 12

Today was just one of those days. 

I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Maybe it was a let down because yesterday had been such a great day.

This morning was cold and foggy.  I didn’t want to get out of bed.  I didn’t want to walk one step. 

What is the question? The answer is no!! 

Dressed and full of bread and coffee, we are off into the dark. 

One last look at the monastery 

So here was my problem.

Somewhere in the night I had fallen into a brat trap and I needed to find a way out of it. 

I tried walking fast and hard. I tried walking reallly slowly. Nothing worked. As beautiful as the sunrise was and it was beautiful, I thought.  So what. Who cares?

I worked my way through a list of possible reasons for feeling the way I did. 

Was it the company? 

No, B is just as good as ever- pure gold. 

Did I ache?

 No. I worked my way up and down my body. No blisters, knees ok, hip behaving. Even my head was on straight. 

Backpack  too heavy? 

No. We had sent our big backpacks ahead via the brilliant post office delivery service. This new innovation is the “mature walker’s” ( translate old) best friend. 

Go on line to” and in at least ten languages you can arrange to have your backpack picked up and delivered from your present location to your next location. 

Either pay online or stick 5euros per bag in an envelope and attach it to your backpack. 

We figured if it didn’t arrive we’d at least save five euros a day and never have to do laundry again. 

We did this ten times and the post office was ten for ten.

My daypack contained a liter of water, my raincoat and a well stocked kitchen. ( one tangerine , two cookies, two wormy apples and four Justin’s peanut butter packets.) Total weight four pounds.

Backpacks were not the problem. 

Our day was a reasonable 17  miles, not  too many ups and downs and there even three bars for coffee and bathroom breaks along the way.

Under any other circumstances, a perfect day. 

But what did I want?

I wanted to hide in a corner and read a book. I was sick of cheese, bread and tomatoes at every meal. I was bored with looking at mushrooms. I’d eaten more Pimientos  from Padron  than was healthy. I had tried all the red and white wine I wanted to try.  I was tired of tromping around in the great outdoors. I had walked and seen enough.

I was tired of dirty clothes.  I was tired of a dirty me. I was just plain tired.

I wanted PIZZA with some good old fashioned canned mushrooms and nice slimy green peppers on top of it.

I wanted a good book, a soft chair and a corner to hide in.
If I had been running a marathon you could say I had hit the wall. 

And I had a problem . I wanted to finish this walk and I was so close. Then I remembered Mick. 

And Mick says “you can’t always get what you want” Actually he sang it. 

So I walked and sulked and enjoyed walking and sulking , and thinking about sulking and I took four pictures.

Thoughts on sulking.

Charlie’s father. ” If you are going to do it, don’t complain. If you are going to complain, don’t do it.

  Hmmmm whose idea was it to take this walk?

My line.  “Don’t whine. It doesn’t change anything and it makes you tiresome to be around. ”

Hmmmmmm. Best to walk alone with mouth shut.

Finally B’s line. “Get over it. Just do it.”

So one foot in front of the other, I grumped my way down the path.

The second line in my pal Mick’s song “you can’t always get what you want” is  “but if you try  you’ll find you usually get what you need.”

 I needed to get in down the road. So I “just did it “.  A nice pouty effort. No photo.  Use your imagination. 

We arrived in Arzua with less than twenty five miles left to Santiago. 

We ate a well balanced dinner of wine, potato chips and ensalada rusa – Spanish potato salad with tuna peas and carrots and called it a day . 

It was just one of those days and tomorrow would be a new one.  Such is life on the Camino.

%d bloggers like this: