I walked into Santiago on Sunday morning at 7:30. The sun was rising behind me and the streets were just about empty. Somewhere ahead of me and somewhere behind me were other pilgrims, but I couldn’t see them. I was alone, and it was exactly how I wanted it to be.
I moved further into the city and I saw 5 pilgrims climbing some stairs and walking into the street in front of me. My first thought was, ‘I either need to drop ahead or behind them to give myself some space’. But them I looked at them a little harder, something seemed familiar. A man and a woman walked ahead, and three girls walked behind. It hit me at once: they were the three American girls who’d come to walk the Camino on a school trip; the same three who were eager to talk to me in Estella, who were a bit homesick and missing their friends, who walked with their right arms stretched outwards to the sun (to get an even tan, of course), who I shared my dried fruit with one day on a long, hot walk when they were struggling.
I hadn’t seen them for at least two weeks, and assumed that I would never see them again. But suddenly, 10 minutes from the cathedral in Santiago, here they were. I rushed to catch up. “Hey guys!” I called out.
The girls turned around and they beamed when they saw me. “Hi!!!” they all cried. We all started chattering, they had been in Santiago for two days and were just leaving to walk to Finisterre. “You’re so close to the cathedral!” they told me.
I walked with them for a few minutes then told them that I was going to walk ahead, that I wanted to be alone when I arrived at the cathedral. Their teacher nodded. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘We’ll be a bit behind you, and can take a picture when we catch up.’
So I ended the walk alone, just like I had begun. The square was quiet when I entered, the cathedral covered in scafolding. I stood quietly for a few minutes and thought about how far I’d walked, and when the American group caught up with me we posed for photos and the girls asked if they could friend me on facebook.
The rest of the morning- the rest of the day, so far- has been great. I got a cafe con leche, I walked back to the cathedral and ran into people I knew and took photos and laughed and cheered. One of the Korean girls I’ve gotten to know handed me a small note that she’d written, and I was so touched I almost cried. I received my compostela, I checked my pack for a few hours, I hugged the statue of St James and then went below the altar to kneel for a few minutes before his remains, and said a prayer for the nuns, for my family, for my friends, for everyone I met on the Camino.
I met up with friends and drank another cafe con leche and every time I recognized someone as they passed my table, I jumped up to give them a hug. I attended the pilgrim’s mass and saw the botafumeiro swing. I ate pulpo for lunch and drank sangria, I took a shower in a real, private bathroom, I wandered into the city and found a quiet corner and ordered a tinto de verano and sat down to write.
Carol and Laura, (the Italian mother and daughter and two of my favorite pilgrims), just passed by and sat with me for awhile. Around a wooden table under a large white umbrella, with a soft wind blowing, old Spanish women walking by arm in arm and dressed in Sunday clothes, muted sounds from the television inside the bar, and ice clinking in our glasses: this moment feels so good. It is the end- a little bittersweet- but mostly it just feels good. I finished my walk and my Camino, but I’m excited to see what happens next. Because like so many have said, the Camino continues, or begins, after the walk has ended. From here, it feels like my journey could take me anywhere.