I'm sitting in the Madrid Barajas airport waiting for my flight to leave, and I'm not thinking about the Camino de Santiago. I haven't really thought about it at all since I've been done. I got to the plaza late at night, it was raining, cold, I reached down and touched the shell that's engraved in stone in the middle of the plaza, and then I sat under an arcade in the cold, where I talked to a Vietnamese kid. There was no celebration. No one congratulated me. No one even looked at me.
The next day I still didn't feel any real emotion. I was glad to be done walking, but that was about it. I was glad my shin splints would finally heal (though I quickly aggravated them speed-walking to the grocery store where I (of course) bought yogurt and a banana), and I was glad to be going home. For lunch that day I went to the illustrious hotel Parador dos Reis Catolicos, where they give out free meals to the first 10 peregrinos each day. There I saw Miguel, my Spaniard nemesis (we hugged upon seeing each other); a German guy with a red beard who within 30 second of meeting me asked me if I thought his coat was too bright to go with his “trousers”; a girl from Kentucky and a girl from Denmark; and a slightly Portuguese guy who mightn't just been a homeless guy from Santiago judging by the fact that he didn't seem to speak anything other than Gallego and he took a bag of pastries with him at the end of the lunch. I spoke with the girl from Kentucky and at first thought she was messing with me; her accent sounded weird. I even asked her, “Were you born and raised in Kentucky?” Afterward I realized it was the first native English speaker I had spoken to in person in over a month, and also the first young, mildly attractive girl of the Camino. I sat very attentively next to the two girls for most of the lunch.
After lunch I went for a quick walk around town and ran into my friend Hans, the 65 year old Swiss man who was basically my only friend of the Camino and the only person with whom I exchanged contact details. I was genuinely excited to see him, and we went for a coffee in a cafe he had discovered and later that night had dinner, which consisted of a hunk of churrasco the size of a car door.
Now I'm sitting on the plane, and I'm in America. I'm technically still in Madrid, watching as people board, but once you board an American Airlines flight you're in the States. Here I'll sit in a capsule for about eight hours, covering more distance in a third of a day than it took me a month to walk. Even getting on the bus to the airport in Santiago was somewhat impressive, since we passed by all the places I had walked by so miserably the day before, in the rain, in the cold, with the wind blowing my poncho up around my face making it ineffective, getting separated from the Camino at one point and walking along the main road, in the dark, the weak light of my iPhone hopefully broadcasting a legible signal to Spanish motorists (“I know it's your first inclination and would give you immense pleasure, but please: don't hit me. At least not until after Christmas.”)
I wanted the last day to be miserable. I wanted to suffer. I felt it would only be fitting. That's why, despite the fact that I left Arzua late, I walked about 41km, passing the 20km well after noon, still with about 12k to go after it had already gotten dark. I knew that I would be miserable, I knew that I might be cursing the Gods and wanting to stop, but I also knew that that would somehow make it sweeter when I finally got to the Praza do Obradoiro and the majestic main cathedral, where it all ends. It was a decision also born of a vain desire to be different. Everyone finishes happy, strolling the last 20k or so calmly, staying the night before in Monte do Gozo which is only 5km away, or maybe in O Pedrouzo, 20km away. But I didn't want to be happy. The happiness would come later. I wanted the pain.
And what did I learn from all this? Well, first of all, I learned that nothing comes for free. That nothing comes without work. If you want to get from point A to point B you have to walk, and to walk means putting one foot in front of the other. So many times I found myself 5km from a destination, or 10k, or even 25k right when I woke up, and I didn't want to walk anymore. It was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to sit down, have a coffee, take a nap, find an apartment, and change my name to Enrique. But I realized: the only way I'm going to get there is if I do work. If I manually put one foot in front of the other, and drag my carcass across this desolate land. No one's going to do it for me, and if I don't do it, I'll never get there. Simple as that. No matter how many times I take out my map and look at it, I'm not going to get any closer. And I imagine it applies to all walks of life, whether it be starting a business, writing a book, or getting married (three things I've never done, but who knows...). And you might be thinking to yourself: Mark, you're 31 and you're just figuring this out? And my answer is: I'm a late bloomer. And also: better late than never. And also: gimme a break.
The second thing I learned from this is obvious, and that's that the destination is secondary to the journey. I knew this deep down, but had convinced myself that the only thing that mattered was getting to Santiago. That that was it. But when I got to Santiago and felt nothing (as I told my friend Darren: you know that feeling when you walk to the grocery store from your house? I felt about like that), I chuckled to myself that of course the destination didn't matter. Yes, finishing mattered to a great extent. But the journey to the finish is the only thing I'm going to remember when I'm 65.
And thirdly (speaking of 65), there's Hans, my dear Swiss friend who I spent a grand total of one day with. We were speaking over dinner, polishing off ensalada mixtas and flan that lamentably came in a pre-packaged plastic container (if you're ever in Santiago don't go to Casa Manolo even if it's recommended 100 times), and I told him, “You have to believe the best is still to come. I think that's the secret.” He didn't really say much but I could tell he sort of disagreed. He was always talking about how old he was, not in a depressing way but in a matter of fact way, and he summed it up perfectly: you have to be grateful. As he's grown older, he's become more grateful. That's the key to happiness. Appreciating what you have. Wanting to make things better and wanting to better yourself, but appreciating the little things and what you already have, like flan (even if it tastes like the manure fields I spent so many weeks trudging through).
So now, having reached the end, I reflect upon the last month. There were times on the Camino when I was so happy I felt like I was floating, and there were times on the Camino when I was fairly miserable. And there were times when I also just thought: "I've already walked 300 miles -- what's the point of going on? I know what the Camino's all about. I've proved I can walk a long way, so what's the point of going another 200 miles?" But the last 200 miles were crucial, even if I was bored out of my mind half the time and made concerted efforts to sustain conversations with livestock. Because I realized (my last realization) that when things are crappy you have two options: you can either quit, or you can go on. If you go on, there's a decent chance things will continue to be crappy. But there's also a chance they won't. There's a chance they'll be better. And if you quit, you'll never know.
Which brings me back to the very first day, as I descended into San Sebastian, quite possibly the most beautiful city in northern Spain, rounding the harbor as people strolled down the boardwalk, the sun setting on a fine fall European day. And I think about what I clearly thought to myself that first day as I strode confidently to my first albergue, fleet of foot and on top of the world. Do you remember? I thought: if I don't do this, I'll never do anything. But if I do do this, then I can do everything.
So here goes nothing.
Kilometers walked: about 820km
Days taken: 33
Food gathered: chestnuts, walnuts, parsimmons, apples
Dead animals seen: Cat (1), Rat (1), Bird (several), Badger (2)
Horses pet: several
Languages spoken: English, Spanish, French, Gallego, Basque (if one word counts)
Pilgrims met: Spaniards (several), Swiss (1), French (3), Italian (2)
Albergues stayed in: 8
Hotels stayed in: lots
Injuries sustained: semi-rolled ankle, shin splints, flattened arch, ripped fingernail, hip problems, shoulder problems, attitude problems
Bed bug bites: Twice (time to put the sleeping bag in the freezer overnight)
Times fallen in love: 0.3
Most common foods consumed: avocado, bread, beanuts, yoghurt, bananas, oranges, tortilla , pre-made salads
Year I'll do my next Camino: 2083.