For some people, this is the goal. This is what they are walking to. Whether from Saint Jean Pied de Port, their front door, or the Galician town of Sarria, a convenient 106 kilometres from the cathedral and therefore just far enough to “count” as a pilgrimage – from any of these points of origin, this is their destination. To stand in the Plaza del Obradoiro and gaze up at the ornate facade is to stand at the foot of the holy mountain. Only, you don’t climb up, you climb in; it is your eyes, and your heart perhaps, which ascend the peak.
For some, this summit is only a plateau. It is not enough – they feel, as we use the word sometimes, that they have plateaued: reached a height and flattened out, with the unsatisfying feeling lurking inside that greater heights are possible if only they can keep going. They arrive at Compostela and feel that their peregrinations cannot possibly be over. They have reached their ostensible destination, but they keep on walking.
For us, it was neither. We walked into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on 29 October 2005 neither overawed nor underwhelmed. Our Protestant leanings may have had something to do with this: pilgrimage “proper” is one of the traditions the Reformers were wary of, and the piece of paper we received from the official office will not, in our estimation, be of much use in clearing our own or our sinful forebears’ souls from purgatory.
So what was it all for, then? Certainly it was still, as they say, a mountain-top experience. Three mountains stand out for me, and I guess I’ll relate them chronologically.
The first was the Cruz de Ferro, the highest pass on the pilgrim journey. Tradition has it that you carry a stone from home with you, and at this great height, you drop it on a cairn at the foot of the cross. Your burdens – you symbolically drop them there. This is about purging yourself of the cares that dogged you before you set off on your pilgrimage.
I forgot to bring a rock, so I picked one up (as many do) on the road, a day or two beforehand. But Max – the franco-Canadien with whom we’d shared a toasty kitchen in an otherwise cold and empty refugio in Villar de Mazarife – carried his symbolic stone all the way. He was silent and very internal on the morning walk as we approached the cross. It was grey and rainy, and as we climbed up to the pass, he started muttering to himself (prayers, we determined later). Then there it was – the clearing and the cross. We all reached into our pockets for a pebble and – some sheepish, some solemn – we chucked it on. Then, “Oh, hey, Max! Look at that!” someone called. He had found a huge boulder and, stooped over, his face red from his exertion and his emotion, his eyes looking somewhere else, he lumbered up to the cairn with it. “Wait! Stop!” called a pilgrim. “I’ll get a picture!” But this was not about a photo. It wasn’t a jokey thing to do. We didn’t know his story, but we could see how significant this moment was. To heft and then drop this stone was why he came. He was in tears after, and we all closed ranks around him. An elderly French couple sort of adopted him, and he ate with them all the rest of the journey. It felt like a proper pinnacle, and the photo here captures me in a feeling of elation – joy at the accomplishment and the possibility.
My second mountain was just a few days later, climbing out of Villafranca del Bierzo. The previous night, we’d stayed in a hotel – the only night, if memory serves, that we weren’t in one of the pilgrim hostels. But it was a special night – the anniversary of our engagement, in fact – so we treated ourselves. Whatever credit I had accrued by suggesting it was nearly spent the following morning, when I recommended we go up instead of down at the edge of town. Down took us along the motorway through the valley, whereas up would give us a steep climb and then a passage along the mountaintop. It was dark, it was cold, and my wife was very much doubting me (and the guidebook, which tipped this route as the prettier one, if you could handle the climb, and we had agreed in the days before that we could). It wasn’t easy, but when we got up there, above the treeline at daybreak, looking down on the road like a river with the muted roar of lorries rolling past, we thought there was no place else we’d rather be. “Up among the firs where it smells so sweet or down in the valley where the river used to be, I got my mind on eternity,” sings Bruce Cockburn. And there we were.
The third was a humble enough mountain, though grandly named: Monte do Gozo. The Hill of Joy. It’s right before Compostela, and after all the green and rolling hills of Galicia, this is the spot where you first get a glimpse of your ultimate destination. There’s a mammoth refugio complex built here to provide space for copious pilgrims in 1993, which was a holy year (when the Feast of St James falls on a Sunday). We had no plans to stop here, though some do, with just a handful of kilometres left. We were ready to be there and be done. Our walk had gone according to some semblance of plan, and we had a flight booked on 31 October to take us on to Rome for a few days. Katie, though we didn’t test it or in any way acknowledge it, was carrying our first child, and apparently the lunch I proffered of manchego, chorizo, y pan was causing her some despair. But I had a bag of crisps flavoured like a jamón y queso bocadillo – Jamón! Jamón! they were called – and somehow this was better. So as we sat on the hilltop, eating crisps, I saw a familiar figure down on the path. And another. And another. Our pilgrimage had been more or less divided in two, as we walked ahead of our initial cohort around Hontanas and fell in with a different crowd. But the peregrinos we had started out with, who had fallen out of step with us – an Australian bloke, a Brasilio-German woman, a German wood carver – were suddenly there. We tumbled down the hill to greet them with big hugs, and so we managed to close a circle just in time to reach the cathedral city.
Oliver Schroer wrote a song, which he recorded on his own camino, called “And Everyone Was Smiling”. For me, that title, and the song with it, reflects that moment at the foot of the Hill of Joy. We would need to arrive at the cathedral to seal off the journey, but we had already received so much. An opulent facade, a gilded statue, a swinging censer – they were no match for my mountaintops, though those peaks would not have meant what they did without the destination to give them shape.
Ending is always tricky. Ending this blog post, for one. We ended our pilgrimage with a new set of clothes and a plane trip to Rome. But we were beginning a journey of parenthood. And kid or not, the journey never stops. As I mentioned a month ago, pilgrimage becomes a practice, a paradigm, a way of living in the world. With a new job here in Cardiff, we have the illusion of some greater solidity beneath our feet, but we nonetheless continue to walk.