15 Nov Into the Mountains and on to Santiago de Compostela: Dispatch from the Camino, Part 3
As I approached Astorga, at the gateway to the mountains of León, I could feel it as well as see it: The wide horizon of northwest Spain began to ripple and curl and then rise under my feet. When the clouds blocked the sun, they broke its rays into a rainbow of colors, leaving prisms underfoot. I was fully leaving the meseta.
Two locals told me that this was a threshold, where the plains met the mountains. The stones beneath my feet were dark rust-red, jet black, and startlingly white. I thought of the three stones I was carrying with me. I had brought them thousands of miles from their home, and it wasn’t long until I would be able to let them go.
Soon, the mountains of León would both greet and test me. After days of level walking to the horizon—following the arc of the sun from east to west across the plains—I needed to adjust my gait to climb and descend. These mountains held the highest climb on the Camino, where for centuries—perhaps millennia—journeyers and pilgrims have made offerings to the gods, the elements, and the universe. I wondered what it would feel like to participate in such a chain of being.
As I began to climb, I felt how strong my legs had become—they no longer burned, but instead propelled me up and forward.
I entered a vast landscape of oak and pine forests growing in dark red earth. Before me, overlapping folds of mountains formed a funnel, sucking me in. I noticed then that not only were my legs strong but my mind had been quiet, fully present.
I came upon a snack shack in the middle of the wilderness. The little shelter was surrounded by bowls of fruit set on tree trunk stubs and had a big sign. “El llave de esencia es presencia” it said—the key to essence is presence. I laughed and approached the place called La Casa de los Dioses.
“Why dioses?” I asked the man overseeing the stand. For eight years he had lived there on the Camino, with no water, electricity, or Internet, offering passing pilgrims respite in tent-like shelters, hot cups of tea, and food. Pilgrims were invited to take what they needed, and leave what they could in a donation box.
“I want to honor everyone’s beliefs,” the man said simply. “Whatever god or gods people believe in; this is a place of peace and offering to all.”
This openness is one of the powerful aspects of the Camino. Everyone can walk this path, and our walk in life is respected. It is a place where one’s spirit, not only one’s mind and body, is allowed freedom to roam, explore, be present, and experience something deeper.
– – –
Into the funnel of the mountains I went. Soon, I neared the Camino’s highest apex, Monte Irago, at 1,500 meters. Like a lightning rod on this highest mountain stood the ancient Cruz de Ferro, a towering iron cross mounted on a wooden post made from the trunk of an oak. The post and cross stand upon a hill of stones that have been laid down by millions of pilgrims, a human-made hill piled to nearly half the height of the cross itself.
Many had marked this passage—this threshold—as a potent place. Some believe Romans, and perhaps the Iron Age natives before them some 2,500 years ago, made offerings to gods and forces of nature to petition safe passage as they crossed deeper into the mountains.
Today, it has become a place to release one’s past and to make peace with the present. Pilgrims carry a stone from home, or one that they pick up along the way, onto which they have transferred what they wish to let go. Leaving this ritual stone at the cross of Monte Irago can be a vehicle for lightening up, but also for expressing gratitude.
I had carried three stones with me, one from each of the places I love most and that have nurtured me: Colorado, New Jersey, and southwestern France. I climbed the hill of stones and I pulled my rocks from my pocket, held them for a moment, and then set them down on a large flat stone at the base of the iron cross.
I then took out a small cross a friend had given me upon departure and set it with them to act as a talisman.
“Thank you for all that you have given me,” I whispered to the stones, the hill, the earth. “Thank you for supporting me. Thank you for all who have come into my life and enriched it.”
Tears flooded into my eyes. I was surprised, but then, one can cry in joy. I watched the tears drip onto the granite, quartz and slate. A flood of deep gratitude washed through me as I realized how many people, how many places, have supported my walk in life.
In that moment, I looked up to see that a young man from Argentina had been watching me. He too had climbed to perform his ritual and once he had, emotion had rooted him to the spot. Our eyes met.
“Now we can walk more lightly,” he said.
He then took a deep breath to steady himself. “What a beautiful place,” he added, “so much energy from all those who have done this before us.”
We climbed down the stone hill together in silence and sat on a bench set near the edge of the pine forest. We had joined the unspoken kinship of support that occurs so naturally and quickly on the Camino. He felt as if he could have been my son, and I still feel that kinship, even now.
We each stood when ready and returned to the trail, each in our own time. I saw him two more times that day—we would smile and nod, knowing that we had experienced something profound together—and then I never saw him again.
– – –
After that, I did walk more lightly, and with more presence. A few days later, I summited O Cebreiro, the third highest mountain on the Camino, and entered the purple-blue folds of mountains and emerald-green valleys of Galicia. Santiago de Compostela was only a few days ahead of me now.
The climb was not easy, but my body was now strong and my mind was now quiet. I also noticed that my spirit was peaceful, empty of expectations, just walking.
The moment I realized I walked in wholeness—body, mind, and spirit—a metallic blue and green dragonfly the size of a lollipop flew right into my chest.
Thump! He made a bull’s eye at my heart. As stunned as I, he hovered before me for a few seconds before lifting up and flying over my shoulder.
As I turned to watch him disappear into the woods, I recalled something a young Brazilian man had said on Spanish television recently: We think the Camino is about the body, mind, and spirit, but it is really about the heart.
– – –
The passage from O Cebreiro to Santiago de Compostela was through thick green forests of oak, beech, eucalyptus and pine. At one point, I passed chestnut trees so old that their exact ages exceeded memory. One local told me that they were several centuries old, leaving it at that. Their trunks were too wide to hug. But their branches reached out across the forest canopy doing just that—hugging the world around them. And they were dropping spine-encased, glistening auburn nuts onto the forest floor. I stopped to listen. It was like the sound of a sultry rain: the dropping of nuts all around, and nothing else.
When at last I glimpsed the spires of Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral from the last hills nearing the city, I did not feel the sadness that many said might come from seeing this walk near its end. Instead, I felt anticipation to enter that next threshold, the cathedral, and perform one more act of gratitude: to deliver to the heart of the sacred city all the blessings and prayers I carried from all the people who helped me along the way, and a prayer for all who had wished me a buen Camino.
There, at the center and end, I discovered that I was not yet done.
– – –
A once met a German pilgrim who described the Camino as a series of rivers across Europe that eventually joined to flow as one river across the north of Spain to Compostela. But the feeling of completion, he had said, would, like the river, come from leaving the finite and going to the infinite, flowing to the vast ocean at the land’s end.
Now I understood and felt that pull too. I still had another 100 kilometers ahead of me. Once I fulfilled them, there was nowhere left to walk, unless I took a boat.
Now, as I walk to this land’s end, I go to find out if what the German said was true. And I go to witness the sun sink into the endless ocean. The sun has been my constant companion, rising behind me as I walked west each morning, and setting before me each evening as I reached my perch for the night.
I can feel the horizon pull me forward, but I also feel as if the sun has slowed its flow overhead as we move together. Pre-Christian lore says that the terrain before me is where the sun goes to die. Though it is reborn again in the eastern sky, perhaps at this moment, it, like me, does not know that yet. All we seem to know is that the final threshold is up ahead, that it will test us, and that it is seemingly infinite.
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