WE MADE IT!!!!
This morning I woke up at 4:10, shoved my stuff in my pack in the dark, and stumbled outside to meet my friends (who had all ended up in a different albergue.) The sight of four sleepy girls, bundled up and wearing head lamps greeted me, and off we went, on our last walk of the Camino. I was delighted to be walking again, despite any pain, and we walked through a dense forest that I'm sure was beautiful but that we mainly couldn't see because of our headlamps.
Three hours later we stopped for breakfast at a cafe and then headed off again. At the top of a hill was a small chapel that we stopped at, and where we were soon joined by Robert and Tina (who had left the same albergue at 6 -- we're really slow.) Together we turned the corner from the chapel to begin down the hill ... and we froze.
Directly below us was Santiago de Compostela.
To walk so far, for so long (exactly one month today - July 10 to August 10), and to suddenly see the end ... it's overwhelming. A million emotions surged through each one of us, and it took a moment before we could continue.
"Okay, go back!" Julia yelled, jokingly. "Maybe this is why we see people coming the opposite way on the Camino! They get here and get scared and go back to St. Jean Pied-de-Port!"
And scared is exactly what we felt. Of what, I'm not entirely sure. Of ending a journey that has become so comfortable? Of reaching our goal and finding we need to make room for new ones? Of embracing "normal life" again? Of the separation that is inevitably coming?
We went down that hill together, and we went up another one together.
We crossed a bridge that tried to kill me.
This was, literally, the most rickety bridge I have ever crossed, and it was over a freeway. It was wood planks (above iron rods), and most of them were loose. As we were crossing the second half of the bridge, Julia stepped on the left side of one a millisecond before me, the right side shot up completely, and whacked me straight in my bad leg. This hurt, but was also so unfortunate that it was just funny, and we moved on.
We stopped at the Minor Seminary albergue to book rooms and drop off our stuff -- which was amazingly convenient, but also may have dampened our arrival experience. We all imagined ourselves arriving, dirty and tired, into the cathedral square and throwing our backpacks down. It was a very romantic notion. What really happened was that we arrived into the city, walked out of our way to the albergue, waited in line for an hour, threw our bags into the common area, and literally ran to the cathedral for the 12 PM pilgrims mass, the traditional end of the Camino. In retrospect, everything was timed perfectly, and we were so blessed.
The last kilometer of our Camino was by far the fastest. We essentially ran to the cathedral -- and then around it in one giant circle trying to find the correct door. Once we finally found it, we squeezed in and got fairly far up the left side, where we could just see past the pillars. This was unfortunate for Mass as we could barely see the altar and the priests (the altar is absolutely amazing), but it turned out to be great at the end.
In Santiago de Compostela the "botafumerio," what they call a thurible (or an incenser), is massive and hangs down off a chain from the center of the Cathedral's dome. The rope reaches from ceiling to floor, and it takes about five large men to swing the botafumerio. This, apparently, doesn't happen all that often, except on feast days, or when a pilgrim group covers the cost (it's expensive). Some pilgrims have said they've been to several of these masses and never got to see it. Upon our arrival, we got it!
There was a short pause after Mass. Then lots of hushed whispering and excitement. We couldn't see anything, until finally people started moving in towards the center and an organ started. Robert and I had moved to the side of the church after communion, and he grabbed me saying, "It's the thing!!!!" We found a spot under one of the pillars where we could see -- the rest of our group was in the side aisle, which proved to be the best (and most frightening) part. This thing SWINGS! Once they get it going you think, "Wow, that's really swinging!" It swings low but far, over the heads of the people on either side.
But they don't stop. They swing and swing this thing until, I kid you not, it is inches from hitting the cathedral ceiling (and for real, there are holes in the ceiling, so I'm sure they most have hit it in the past). Then it dives low and looks like it will hit the people, all of whom duck (Rachel may or may not have screamed once.) They keep this up for quite a while, with music playing and incense perfuming the church. It is, to say the least, massively moving. We kind of stood there, holding onto each other, overwhelmed by the whole experience, and not fully able to process that we're actually here, that we had actually made it, and that our Camino was complete!
After Mass people crowd to see the relic of St. James, which we stood in line for for about 15 minutes before we decided we were too hungry and would come back later. We tried the same thing with our Compostela, or pilgrim certificate, but again hunger won out for those who didn't have sandwiches in their pockets (yes, people do that around here.) Pilgrims crowd the streets here, along with tourists and locals, and give the city an energy all its own.
But for us, it's a city filled with energy, but also fatigue (which won out for most of the day today). It's also a city filled with joy and sorrow, and more mixed emotions than I could explain. We see other pilgrims we've walked sections of the Camino with; we hug and cheer; we bid goodbye to friends who are now normal parts of our daily lives. It's exhausting! One thing is for sure -- I never expected this experience to be quite as intense as has proved to be. It feels part athletic feat (like a marathon), part spiritual battle, part personal triumph, part graduation, part rite of passage, part completion of a life goal. I never expected to cry on the Camino! But I have cried -- out of pain, frustration, fear, joy, sorrow, relief, and from the sense of beauty that I constantly feel here. It has been soothing, in its own sense, and I think (because I am hardly the only one who can say this about the crying), that that aspect has also been healing and renewing. It's hard, sometimes, to allow yourself to cry, but the Camino has a way of dragging it out of us.
The greatest blessing I received on this Camino was my group of "Camigos" -- exactly the people that God intended for us to meet and walk with. The greatest hardship I endured was not the pain of my ankle, but having to surrender those two days and take the bus, ridding myself of my coveted "perfect Camino" in which I walked all 800 kilometers without a problem.
The greatest gift I received today was a leg and ankle that held up for all 20 of the final kilometers into Santiago!
There are so many more things besides ... and I am intensely grateful for all of it!