To the Ocean on the Road of the Dying Sun: Dispatch from the Camino Part 4

06 Dec To the Ocean on the Road of the Dying Sun: Dispatch from the Camino Part 4

This is part four in a four part series from writer and author Beebe Bahrami as she spends the fall of 2017 making her way along the Camino de Santiago. (You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.)

When I learned that there was a 3,000- to 5,000-year-old petroglyph on the edge of Santiago de Compostela—right there within city limits—I knew I had to find it. I wanted to see the ancient, engraved stone for the sheer wonder of it. But I also wanted to calibrate myself, to appreciate the depth of time encoded in this landscape, before departing on my last leg of the Camino: the 90-kilometer trek west to the ocean. 

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route that stretches across approximately 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) of northern Iberia, depending on how you walk it. Some Galicians believe that this extended stretch, from Compostela to the ocean, is the oldest section of the Camino. It is a path that regional lore calls The Road of the Dying Sun. It’s likely that the journey was first traversed by Iron Age peoples nearly 2,500 years ago. But the Roman sun temple, the Ara Solis, at Finisterre, attests to the worship of the fiery orb in more recent antiquity.

Finisterre, Spain by Beebe Bahrami

Finisterre, the last stop on the road of the dying sun. ©Beebe Bahrami

The petroglyph wasn’t easy to find. After some initial searching, I elicited the help of a waiter working in a restaurant on the lands of an old farm. Its backyard neared the public footpath leading to the petroglyph, which remained invisible.

The waiter, surprised that I asked for an ancient stone instead of a coffee, enthusiastically took off his apron and gestured for me to follow him around to the back of the property.

“The petroglyph,” he assured me, “is right there.” He pointed to the top of a small hill and then to the trail that would take me there.

I thanked him and stepped onto the footpath and climbed, slightly doubtful. But the further I ascended, the more the city dissolved, and the more another world, thousands of years old, emerged. At the top of the hill, a figure awaited who froze my legs to where I stood.

From a large, horizontal outcropping of granite, he looked at me. He was almost fully human-sized, this stone man with outstretched eagle wings. A corona of feathers—or rays, or cerebral beams of energy—radiated from his crown. Daggers surrounded him, engraved all along his sides and under where his feet would have been: His body appeared to be a bird’s, but his head was human.

No one really knows what this stone meant to its creators, who lived so many millennia ago. He might have been a primal adoration of the sun, depicted by the rays shining out from his crown, the strong wings that make the sky his natural realm, and the solar-like fire needed to forge metals into the swords and daggers around him. Other ancient petroglyphs across Iberia attest to both solar and lunar associations; ancient peoples were deeply attuned to the turning of the planets and stars, and their effects on the earth.

In the half-hour that I stood there, mesmerized, the sun moved across the stone, illuminating different aspects in the changing angles of light. Perhaps this figure was indeed aligned to the movement of the sun. As was I, having spent weeks walking across the north of Spain in the arch of our rising and setting star. 

When I had arrived in Compostela, a torrential rain had blotted out the sun. Now, before this eagle-winged figure, the sun had returned, with more intensified visceral importance that echoed back thousands of years.

It was with that feeling that I set off west to the ocean. 

Pacific ocean, Spain, Camino de Santiago by Beebe Bahrami

©Beebe Bahrami

***

The torrential rains returned. Charmingly called chubascos, they added to the enclosed, almost claustrophobic experience of walking through deep valleys, hills, forests, and mountains with no sight of the ocean, let alone the horizon. It felt like a final trial, as if I had to push myself through this tight world to reach the expansive end.

I was nearing the early 12th-century church of San Xulián in Moraime, just three kilometers from the land’s end at Muxia, when I felt the prick of salt air hit my nostrils. Instinctively, I inhaled deeply and felt it open my chest in the way that only algae- and mineral-saturated ocean air can.

Electrified, I wanted to race forward to the first opening in the forest path that led to nothing but liquid and infinite blue. The ocean, at last! 

But I tempered myself and halted at the foot of San Xulián, which was tucked in a protective fold of land, overlooking the valley behind me. It too warranted a visit, this ancient church built on even more ancient occupations.

I looked up and found eight standing figures on the tympanum of the church door looking back down at me. It was a carving of the Last Supper, depicted in a medieval style unique to Galicia. Only six of the Apostles were present. Jesus stood in the center, with three apostles on each side. An eighth figure, the size of a child, impishly pressed through the group to reach the table right under Jesus’ upheld right hand.

Even the 12th-century church on this path spoke of the cycle of the sun, of its death but promised rebirth.

An art historian wrote that this smaller figure was most likely Saint John the Baptist. In esoteric Christian lore, John is Jesus’ counterbalance of light in the cycles of the year. John’s feast day is the summer solstice, as Jesus’ feast day is the winter solstice. One arrives with the fullness of light. The other arrives at the darkest of times, to promise light’s full return.

***

The sun lowered in the sky. I picked up my pace to reach Muxia in time for the sunset. 

I descended into the thick pines and ferns of the forest. Autumn crocuses bloomed on the forest floor, their pale lavender petals ethereal against the dark earth. I stopped to look at a thick stand of them. Then, for the first time, I saw it: the ocean, peeking through the curtain of trees.

An overwhelming rush of freedom washed through me. I had pushed through and was now out, limitless and expanding. I took a deep gulp of air, and cried loud, joyous, messy sobs. Then another rush of emotions slammed though me, like the waves crashing against the rocks ahead.

I was done. I had nowhere left to walk.

I felt complete. My senses and mind were fresh, attuned, deeply aware of the Earth, of my life, of those with whom I shared this walk, and those who waited for me to return home. Many of them flooded into my awareness.

I picked up my pace. I heard my rapid footsteps thumping on soft loam and hard quartz, swishing past the last stand of ferns and arriving at the bay that opened to the rocks, which jutted out into the Atlantic Ocean. And I saw the church that was my final destination. It was set among smooth, massive stones sculpted by the sea. 

The church is dedicated to Mary of the Boat, commemorating her mystical journey here two thousand years ago, when she was said to have arrived in a stone boat from the Holy Land. Local lore says the strangely shaped stones are that boat. But there is an earlier, pagan lore that sees these stones as healing stones. For centuries, if not millennia, locals have come here to perform annual rituals of healing and rebirth.

Muxia rocks by the ocean, Spain by Beebe Bahrami

©Beebe Bahrami

I followed the water’s edge around to the shrine on the rocks. Then I performed the pagan ritual: crawling under the large stone that arched like a sail holding the wind. I asked for well-being, wholeness, and beauty.

I sat on a large boulder behind the sail rock just as the sun began to near the horizon. When it touched the curve of the ocean, the sun splashed the sky with hues of ruby, amethyst and amber. Soon it was swallowed whole, leaving only cobalt blue in its wake. 

I sat there a long time. The warmth of the sun still rose from the smooth stones in the dark. The waves crashed rhythmically, soothingly. The blue then deepened to a thick, ink tone and I could no longer tell the difference between sky and ocean. That was when I saw the stars, and the Milky Way: the great road overhead that the Camino mimicked down here on Earth.

***

I awoke early the next morning and made my way back to the rocks. This time I sat facing the hills and forest to the east and watched the sun rise. 

Soft rose, then lavender, then pale orange and lemon gently announced the sun’s rebirth. The colors then reached their fingertips to the water and rushed across the ocean’s surface in expansive washes of color that wove together earth, water, fire, and air.

sunrise at Muxia, Spain by Beebe Bahrami

©Beebe Bahrami

Maybe this was what the German I’d met some time back had meant about the need to finish the Camino at the endless ocean. It was not just about the need for a wide and vast ocean after a long and linear walk across the interior of Iberia. It was about the eternal dance of light: growing, fading and returning.

With that, I turned south to make the 31-kilometer walk to Finisterre. Maybe it is never done. There is always one more walk, after the last one.

 

###

For a taste of the Camino de Santiago, join Backroads Active Travel on The Way from Portugal to Spain. And consider other transformative journeys by reading about The World’s Best Travel Pilgrimages.

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Beebe Bahrami
Beebe Bahrami is an award-winning writer and cultural anthropologist who writes about travel, food, and wine, outdoors and adventure, archaeology, spiritual, and cross-cultural topics. She has lived and traveled in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Her work appears in Wine Enthusiast, Archaeology, The Bark, Michelin Green Guides, National Geographic books, the Pennsylvania Gazette, The Best Women's Travel Writing, Transitions Abroad, Perceptive Traveler, and Expedition, among others; she writes extensively on the pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago in France, Portugal, and Spain. In addition to two travel books on Spain, The Spiritual Traveler Spain and Historic Walking Guide Madrid, she has two forthcoming travel narratives on the life, lore, adventures, and prehistory of southwestern France: Café Oc (Shanti Arts Publishing, winter 2016) and Café Neandertal (Counterpoint Press, spring 2017). She earned her PhD in cultural anthropology and her BA in molecular biology and liberal arts and draws often on these fields in her writing. An avid hiker born in Colorado, a surfer now based in part in New Jersey and in part in southwestern France, an addicted trekker, and a nut for learning other languages, she loves bringing engaging and unexpected local information into her writing toward better understanding a place and its people.
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