By Lydia Sizemore
The Camino de Santiago looked bright and sunny in the guidebook pictures, but it was foggy when I arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port. The next thirty-three days, I would walk the Way until I hopefully reached Santiago. If I was still alive by then, I would keep walking to Finisterre.
The doctors told me this was a bad idea. I should stay home and let them do their tests and x-rays, but the diagnosis seemed pretty certain to me. It was either spend my last days in cold hospital rooms with MRIs and how are you feeling today, Macy? or actually living. I could deal with the blisters and aching feet if it meant not having to lie still on an exam table so someone could take another x-ray of my brain and tell me what I already know.
Like I said, it was foggy the day I arrived.
I didn’t talk to anyone, besides the woman at the pilgrim’s center, who stamped my Camino passport with its first mark. A green insignia with a castle, mountains, and a man with a robe and a staff. She wrote the date beneath it in handwriting I could barely make out before handing the folded cardstock back to me.
“Buen Camino!” The woman said with a toothy grin.
I smiled at her politely and tried to pay attention as she gave me directions to the closest albergue. The streets were practically empty, aside from the occasional arriving pilgrim. By five o’clock, most of the hikers snored in their bunks.
The next day, my goal was to get over the Pyrenees and make it to Roncesvalles. The fog was gone, and when I reached the top of the mountain, I could see almost to the ocean. That’s what it felt like, at least. On the way up, there was a small monument, barely as tall as my knee. I didn’t know who it was for, and there were no markings to say, probably just some saint that did something one time—something that motivated people to stick a cross in the side of a mountain and pile rocks around it in memory. I stopped to look, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. Do people pray or kneel? I didn’t know. I kept walking.
It was barely two o’clock when I made it to the next albergue. While the sun was still high I laid down in the grass in front of the hostel and wrote a letter I never intended to send:
Sorry about that whole breaking up with you thing. And for not telling you that I have a tumor in my head that is planning to kill me as soon as it decides on the perfect time. I shouldn’t have done that, I know. I figured if I told you, you would end up staying with me until I died, no matter how long that ended up being. Then we would just be some sappy romantic story that people told to show the unfairness of the world. I don’t want to be a sappy romantic story.
I don’t know what I am doing. But I’m already here and I’m going to keep going.
I carefully folded the letter and put it into my notebook. Even if I wasn’t going to send it, I didn’t want to throw it away yet.
Larrasoaña was my next goal. Blisters appeared on my heels and started rubbing against the backs of my shoes. Vincenzo, another pilgrim who saw me nursing my feet, showed me his super special way of taking care of blisters. That wasn’t exactly what he said. He was speaking Italian, so I didn’t know what he was saying for sure. Maybe he was telling me how to tie a perfect sailing knot. Either way, I applied that knowledge to my feet and hoped the blisters went away and never came back.
I learned that Vince (I called him Vince since I couldn’t seem to pronounce his real name properly) had come all the way to Spain to walk the Camino with his father every year when he was younger. Now in his fifties with black hair that was going gray around the temples, Vince walked alone. He didn’t say why his father hadn’t come, and I didn’t ask.
I tried to explain why I was on the Way by pointing to my head and then miming an explosion with my hands. I even added sound effects. Vince laughed. I did too, though I had to wonder if that meant he didn’t quite understand. It was nice to laugh about my ensuing death. Maybe it was just the language barrier, but Vince didn’t look at me like he was forced to sit through one of those animal shelter TV commercials.
Vince and I walked, and the Way went on. Our conversations were broken, hard to decipher on both ends. Most of the time, we walked along in silence, but that didn’t bother me; I liked listening to the sound of our footsteps as they moved together. There were so many different sounds they made. The squishing as boots sank into mud, then the sucking noise as they were wrenched back out, the thuds as they hit hard-packed dirt, and the tapping noise when we crossed pebbled roads or walked on pavement. I had never thought about all the different noises hiking boots could make. I wondered what else I forgot to think about while I still had the time to think.
That night, I took out my notebook and wrote Daniel another letter:
Today, I realized something I love about the world that I’ll miss when I’m gone: sounds. I love sounds. You know, like birds chirping and rain hitting mud puddles and that noise when you flip through the pages of an old novel you found on your grandparent’s shelf?
Do you remember when you took me to meet your grandparents for the first time and we spent hours sitting beside their giant bookshelves and flipping through their books? You should go back there and read their copy of T.S. Eliot poems. I think it’s beautiful that something could outlast a person’s death like that. I hope you always take the time to do things like that. I think it’s important.
The days of walking went faster. My feet became used to the strain, so I didn’t have to stop as often, though I still did. I wanted to take the time to rest. I wrote Daniel letters in my notebook every night. I still never planned to send them, but they gave me some kind of solace, I guess, voicing the goodbyes I would never get to say—goodbyes I cheated us both out of saying.
The towns we walked through were old, and I often imagined Robin Hood jumping out of the alleys or the knights of Camelot riding past on horseback. Maybe it was the cobblestone streets or the faded houses, but it felt like walking back in time. My favorite town was Cirauqui, built on a giant hill so you could see it from miles away, towering above the rest of the landscape. It reminded me of Daniel’s love for architecture. If he had been with me, he would have wanted to spend hours walking around the uneven streets, looking at the houses, and trying to see how the foundations of the houses were able to support buildings in such an uneven environment… or something like that.
I took pictures of it with my camera, though I hadn’t taken many, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep them for long. Even so, every now and then, I came across sunsets, fields of sheep, and beautiful statues that decorated the Way that reminded me of someone back home. Sometimes it was a pilgrim, grinning with every step or an old man walking with a shepherd’s cane. I knew I wanted to remember, had I thought I would live long enough for remembering to be an option. I thought maybe I could send the camera back to friends who might appreciate seeing Spain. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the stack of letters I had been collecting. I would probably throw them away or wistfully burn them on a beach. At least I had options.
I told Vince all about Daniel and how much he loved building things. Maybe he didn’t understand, but he listened.
There are some days when I feel completely fine. Days that I think, maybe it was all a mistake. Maybe the doctors just mixed up my test results with someone else’s. I’m barely thirty years old. Maybe my diagnosis is actually fine and I can come home soon, get my job back, and just keep on living the way we were before. Those times are the worst. Because afterwards I have to remember that it’s all a lie. It wasn’t a mistake and I’m just going to have to live (or die) with that.
I know it seems that leaving all of my friends and family and spending what may be my last days on a trail on the other side of the world may be insane. But I’m not alone. There are always times when a person feels lonely, like no one around them understands what they are going through. But it isn’t like that here. There are so many people struggling, using the Way to show them something, or to look for a miracle. I’m not looking for a miracle. I know I’m not going to survive. I know it wasn’t a mistake. I just want you to know that, as long as I have been gone, I can still feel you with me. I won’t regret doing this with my last days. I hope that you won’t regret me either.
For a walking corpse, I thought I was doing pretty well. I walked slower than most people, it seemed, though Vince took his time and walked with me—to Estella and Los Arcos, then Logrono, Najera to Santo Domingo, Belorado and St. Juan, and a lot of other places I couldn’t pronounce. I saw amazing stone cathedrals, small towns painted in shades of yellows and reds, and old men sitting on their front porches smoking pipes. In the afternoons, the shops closed down for a couple of hours of rest, and pilgrims sat along the path talking and sharing their stories as they rested their feet on their packs. There were moments when I forgot. Not that I was dying (you try knowing you are going to die and then forget), but I forgot about anything else at all, except for the Way.
A few years ago, when my parents died in a car accident and the funeral had just finished, I stood beside their graves by myself. That was the first time that I really felt alone. After that, I guess I felt it all of the time. I had friends, of course, and distant family, but I was usually alone. On the trail, I never felt that way. Even though most of us couldn’t hold a proper conversation without getting confused or spending half of the time playing charades, these people understood me. Although, I think they all believed I was convinced that my head was about to explode at any moment due to the hand motions I adapted to tell people why I was on the Way. I suppose that wasn’t too far from the truth anyway.
I made it to Burgos today. There is a cathedral here that’s amazing. The stone is bright white and carved in these amazing, intricate patterns. You would love it. You would stand there and stare at it for hours, telling me how this one part of the building provides support, and they were able to carve the stone by using this one kind of technique that I’ve never heard of. I saw it today, and I realized I owe you an explanation. Maybe I’ll never see you again; maybe I will never tell you face to face, but I owe you some kind of explanation.
You see, we’ve always had this problem: you are a hopeless romantic and I am not. We are both fully aware of that fact. But because I know how much of a romantic you are, far more so than I have ever been or ever will be, I am afraid that if I stayed, you wouldn’t even try to move on once this tumor in my brain decided I was done. You would never move on. You might spend your days alone with that ring you were keeping in the glove box of your jeep (yes, of course I found the ring in the glove box. That was a terrible hiding place), making us into some sad story that never saw a proper ending. But I don’t want you to do that. I want you to get old, become that person who tells your grandkids stories about how they have it so much better than you did when you were a kid. I think you would be an amazing grandfather, and I don’t want to be the person who gets in the way of that. Instead, please become the person who grows old and makes bad dad jokes. I always thought that sounded like fun.
The next morning, I woke up to someone shouting the words: Welcome to Purgatory! I laid in bed for a few minutes more, assuming I died in my sleep. After a while, I began to recognize most of the pilgrims moving around the crowded room of the albergue, and it was pretty unlikely that we all died at the same time. It wasn’t until later that day that I found an English-speaking pilgrim who explained to me that this portion of the Camino is often referred to as “Purgatory” because the path from Fromista to Leon was the dullest portion of the Way. It was the place on the Way where people broke down, or had epiphanies about their lives. I didn’t have one. I braced myself to break down on the side of the Way, dissolve into tears, realize the meaning of life— something. But of course, I didn’t. I guess it isn’t possible to make yourself have an epiphany on command. I guess if it was, people would do it all the time.
Two days into purgatory, Vince and I met this American guy. He was from Kansas and was here to run the Camino like it was a race, or so it seemed. He said he walked fifty kilometers every day, and it would only take him fifteen days total to reach Santiago. The next day we found him on the side of the trail. He was crying with his head in his hands. I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. I tried to think it through: what could I possibly say to him? I couldn’t think of anything. Vince stopped, though I was not sure they would be able to talk to each other. Vince caught up with me a few hours later with a somber expression on his face. I wanted to ask what was wrong, but couldn’t. I was never the kind of person to speak when I didn’t have the right words. For the first time in my life, I realized what having a language barrier really meant. I realized that even if you can only bring silence, that silence still matters. I realized I wanted to be the kind of person who would stop when I didn’t know how to help.
Vince and I reached Leon around two o’clock on a Sunday. I took a quick shower at the albergue and immediately headed out into the streets. The city was a paradise of cobblestone streets and statues carved as tributes to history and the pilgrims along the Way.
I sat down at a coffee shop and ordered a café leche. I planned to sit there and watch the people walking by, but soon I pulled a napkin from the dispenser and started scribbling:
I wish we had done this years ago. I wish you could have come with me. You would have loved Leon. I saw this one statue of a knight who had a crocodile at the end of his sword (or an alligator, I couldn’t tell), and I thought that if you were here with me, you would have made some comment about how he was the original Crocodile Hunter, and I would have told you that it was still too soon to make Steve Irwin jokes because it is always too soon to make Steve Irwin jokes.
Then we would walk around the city. We would buy ice cream, and you would talk about how the architecture was amazing and how someday you would be the kind of architect who would build buildings, that would stand for hundreds of years.
We would have walked to the front of the Leon hotel, which may be the prettiest building I have ever seen in my life and taken pictures with the statues of resting pilgrims at its door.
That’s how I am going to imagine how all this went.
Vince and I left Leon early in the morning, and the next night, we were in Astorga. There was a party in the streets, but I was too tired (I was always too tired these days) and went to bed to the sounds of the masses singing in Spanish outside the windows of the albergue. When I woke up in the morning, the song was still on repeat in my head.
In between the stretch from Rabanal to Molineca was the Cruz de Ferro—it’s a twenty-foot-tall cross on the side of the road. I don’t know how it started, but the base of the cross became so covered with rocks that it now stands on top of a huge mound. Pilgrims have been bringing rocks with them for years to leave at the foot of the cross as a symbol of letting go of their burdens.
Vince and I dug our stones out of our packs, stood beside the iron cross, and stared at it for a while. Then Vince smiled at me, dropped his rock, pulled his pack on, and kept walking down the trail. He must have dropped a stone at the cross every year. I wondered how many rocks I would have to leave here to really feel like all of my burdens were gone.
I stood there by myself for a while, turning the rock over in my hands. Pilgrims came and walked by the cross, dropping their rocks, taking pictures, and going on their way.
I flung the rock into the pile with all of my strength. Letting out a frustrated yell as it bounced, I sank to my knees with my head in my hands. I brought the rock from the lawn outside of my apartment complex. It was just a rock. It wouldn’t change anything. It wasn’t going to keep me from dying. It wouldn’t give me more time.
When I looked up at the cross again, other pilgrims milled around, some looking at me curiously. I had seen people on the Way unravel, and I was sure they had all seen it too. I got to my feet and slipped my pack back on, avoiding the eyes of other pilgrims as I walked past the pile of stones and continued down the Way.
I didn’t catch up with Vince again until the albergue that night. When I reached the hostel and dropped my things on one of the beds, he was lying on a bunk with a book. It looked as if he fell asleep diving face first into the words. The difference between me and him—the reason he was able to stop on the Way and talk with people who looked like they had broken down while I couldn’t utter a syllable was that he has already gone through his trials, while most people on the Camino are still struggling. Or maybe some of us are still in denial about our own struggles.
It turns out repeating the words “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die,” over and over for kilometers at a time, until they no longer hold any meaning doesn’t make them any less scary. I thought I could come to terms with the fact that I am a walking time bomb; maybe there was even a part of me that was still thinking I could be healed and come back healthy.
Today I went to a place called Cruz de Ferro and threw my troubles into a pile of rocks, or so the tradition goes. It was a pretty weird ritual, I guess. Even so, I liked the idea throwing of a rock on the pile and walking on, leaving it to live beneath a cross in the middle of Spain. Unfortunately, I don’t think a rock can fix my problem.
Life ends in death. I know that. I’ve known that since I was seven years old and went to a funeral for the first time. My great aunt lay in a coffin with her eyes closed, never to be opened again, never to breathe again, never to get to her feet and offer me candy from the bowl on the coffee table in her living room.
Death is not a new concept. Even so, I thought I would have more time. Thirty years is not much, but if my feelings are right, it will be all the time I ever get. My only regret is that I couldn’t spend more years with you. Please forgive me for living in this deteriorating body that refuses to heal.
I could see Santiago long before I hobbled into the city on my worn out feet. The Way took me over a mountain, where I could see what felt like the whole of Spain laid out before me. When I reached the top, I could finally see Santiago. The city stretched out across the horizon, waiting for pilgrims to arrive at the cathedral and promising an end to the journey. Vince and I walked faster, grinning as we reached the edge of Santiago. The Way wound through the streets, leading us to the very center of the city where the cathedral stood at the end of our path.
Vince shouted when the cathedral first came into view and ran to the middle of the square. Several paths converged on a plaque which marked the spot where they all came together. Pilgrims stood around, taking pictures, grinning, laying on the ground with their heads on their packs, resting, and celebrating. I took out my camera and snapped a photo of the plaque before lifting the lens to the cathedral. The gray stone of the building varied in color, weathered in some places and more protected in others. It towered above the square, filling the lens of my camera. From where I stood its columns seemed to touch the sky.
The line for the pilgrim office was long, winding down the stairs of the building and out into the garden. All waited in silent anticipation until their turn, and they were awarded with their Compostellas, the certificates of completion to prove they walked the Way.
“What is your reason for walking the Camino?” The Spanish woman behind the counter asked me as she inspected my Camino passport. It was filled with stamps from pubs, albergues, and other places I had visited along the way, each one unique.
“Health,” I said, smiling at the joke as she pressed a stamp in one of the few remaining empty spots in my book.
“Here is your stamp for the Santiago Cathedral,” she said as she handed my passport and a crisp sheet of paper to me. “And your Compostella. Buen Camino.”
The Santiago cathedral hosted a pilgrim service at noon every day to welcome the travelers to the end of their journeys. Pilgrims crowded the cathedral and lined up to see where the burial site of Saint James or the Tree of Jesse that welcomed us all through the doors.
All along the Way, there were cathedrals where pilgrims stopped to visit and pray, but none were as magnificent as this one. Statues and pictures of biblical times spread across the walls, and stone arches reached between columns, stretching until the ceiling was over a hundred feet above my head. The layout of the cathedral was shaped like a cross, and in the middle was the pulpit where the priest stood to greet the congregation.
At noon, the service began. I didn’t understand a word of it because it was all in Spanish or Latin, maybe. I really should have taken the time to learn a language in the past thirty years. At the end of the service, a group of monks filed into the pulpit. They lit a gold lantern so that smoke billowed out from its vents. When the monks began to pull a rope that hung from the ceiling, the lantern was hoisted into the air. It swung back and forth above the crowd until it hit the ceiling. I could see char marks from where it had done so many times before.
When the lantern was lowered back down, there was silence among the pilgrims in the crowd and a burning smell in the air.
I made it all the way to Santiago. But I’m still not ready to come home. I’ve decided to try to walk to Finisterre. It’s called the end of the earth because it’s where people used to think the earth ended. I didn’t think I was going to make it this long, honestly. I must have thought one day while I was walking I would just keel over and be found on the side of the trail by some passing pilgrims who would comment on the unfairness of a life taken so soon. But there would also be a peaceful expression on my face that would make them think that I was ready to die, and the Way had taken me at the right time. Since that didn’t happen, I am going to keep walking until I reach the end of the earth.
Vince said goodbye. Of course, he could have said good riddance or use the force, Luke, but there was really no way of knowing without an Italian dictionary on hand. I told him I was going to try to make it all of the way to the beach at Finisterre, and he grinned, but it was his time to go home.
After the thirty-three days that it took me to walk from St. Jean to Santiago, the three days to the beach barely felt like any time at all. There were fewer pilgrims. Many went home once they reached the cathedral, and now a much smaller group trudged along towards the ocean.
The day before I reached Finisterre, I saw an older woman sitting alone at a table in the albergue when I was returned from dinner and headed toward my room to sleep. She stared down at her hands as if they held the meaning of life hidden in their bones. Her mouth was set in a firm line, but her eyes looked cloudy as I sat down at the table with her.
“Hi,” I said. “Do you need someone to talk to?”
She blinked at me in surprise. Then she nodded.
She started out slowly, as if unsure that I really wanted to listen, but soon her whole life story cascaded out of her mouth. She talked of her childhood and her life back in Alabama, the daughter she never spoke to, and how she began her pilgrimage on the Way.
I still didn’t know what to say or how to help, but I had finally stopped for someone.
The next afternoon, I walked into Finisterre. It was a piece of land that jutted out a little farther than the rest of the coast where the Way came to its end. A 0 km marker signaled the finish, and past that, a rocky peninsula where pilgrims sat in silence and stared out at the horizon.
I walked to the very edge of the peninsula. Looking down, I saw the water trying to devour the rocks below. With my eyes closed, I breathed in the sea air that I had walked so far to feel and then pulled out a piece of paper and a pen.
I could feel my eyes burning as I began to write.
This is my last letter. I want to write and tell you that I’m sorry, but I don’t know what I should say I’m sorry for. There’s too much. I am sorry for living in this tumor ridden body that threatens to take me away every hour. I am sorry for that time I broke your favorite Beatles record and didn’t tell you. I am sorry I left without telling you why. I am so sorry.
This is the last letter you are ever going to get from me. I am not afraid of dying anymore. But I am still afraid of a lot of things. Like sounding like your mother when I tell you I hope you achieve everything you ever wanted and blah, blah, blah. Let’s just pretend that’s the last thing I ever said to you. I said something about how you are amazing and I look forward to seeing the buildings you create someday. I love the way you invent haikus in traffic jams and how you build card castles when you’re watching TV and how all of your pencils have teeth marks and worn out erasers.
So this is my goodbye. I love you.
I couldn’t say when I changed my mind. At some point, I decided that my letters really were for Daniel and not just for me. I wanted him to know that I thought of him, that memories of him followed me all along the Way. I wanted him to know that he had been there too.
I put my notebook full of letters and thoughts and poorly drawn pictures into a mailing box, along with my Camino passport with stamps from everywhere I stopped along the way, and my camera full of pictures of things I had thought were worth remembering. Finally, I placed my compostella in the box. Proof of all that I accomplished stared up at me from the package.
I survived until Santiago and lived until I reached Finisterre.
Now it was time for me to go home.
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