(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 26, 2005
Day 27: Arca to Santiago, 20.7 km/12.9 m

I woke up in my beautiful haven in Arca do Pino to hear rain pounding the pavement outside. Rain. I pulled back the curtain, and sure enough, the sky was seething. I gathered up my waterproof gear and wondered whether I should start building an ark.

My last day on the trail would prove to be just as challenging as my first. I had started my journey by slogging through thigh-high snow, and I was ending it by traversing a monsoon.

The first few miles took me through forested land that was simply magical through the veil of rainwater and foggy mist. I could hear only the patter of the rain, a symphony, along with my feet, slurping with each step as rivers of mud rushed to fill the indent of my footprints. It was beautiful, soulful music to accompany my quietude.

under the bridge
What began as a patter soon grew to drumbeats, and just when I thought the rain couldn’t pound any harder, it did. It was downright Biblical, making my trek to Portomarin look like arid terrain. And, truth be told, as the hours passed, this Spanish water torture was starting to get to me. At just under 13 miles, this was one of my shortest travel days, but the road seemed so endless and arduous in the unyielding flood. I kept telling myself that I was almost there. I kept coaxing my feet to carry me forward, which they did, under duress. They were so ready for rest. So ready.

Monte Gozo marked the peak of my final hill on the Camino. From there, it was all descent. Monte Gozo was also known for having the final refuge before Santiago, though it was hardly a refuge. Rather, it was the most horrid, military-like barracks containing 800 beds. It was oddly holocaustic, and the sight of it made me shudder.

I passed the compound and followed the curve of the road when suddenly, mystically, the rain came to an instant pause. It was as if someone had turned off the faucet, just like that. The sky had been a solid sheet of gray but the clouds parted for a moment, and a halo of sunlight ringed Santiago like a window opening over Shangri La. It was so mind blowing, so otherworldly, that I wondered if anyone else had seen it or if it was a gift given only to me. I stopped in my tracks, breathless. The city was still two and a half miles away, but this beacon of light was urging me onward. Twenty-seven days in the making and there it was, my final destination. I admired the red-tiled rooftops in the distance, separated by spires and domes and patches of greenery piercing through.

My view lasted only a moment, and I watched the circle of clouds begin to close ranks, hiding Santiago again. Then I looked down at the path ahead. The pavement had been spray painted with these words in English: Bush is the best killer.

The realization of war hit me hard and fractured me. In an instant, I was straddling a chasm, standing at the continental divide between serenity and fury.

Billy Joel’s words came back to me again, and I sang Summer Highland Falls all the way into Santiago:

They say that these are not the best of times
But they’re the only times I’ve ever known
And I believe there is a time for meditation
In cathedrals of our own
Where we are forced to recognize our inhumanity
A reason coexists with our insanity
And so we stand between reality and madness
It’s either sadness or euphoria…

I wish I could say that my entrance into Santiago was emotional and euphoric. It wasn’t. I’m sad to have to use this word in reference to any aspect of my Camino experience and even more heartbroken to have used it twice, but I was utterly miserable. The rain bore down on me, pummeled me, for the final two miles. I could feel the dampness penetrating my gear, I was chilled to the bone, the maze of streets was so confounding that I couldn’t find my hotel or the cathedral, and I felt like I’d been walking under a waterfall the whole way. I was just goddamn miserable.

rainSome people passed me speaking English without an accent. Amazingly, they were the very first Ameri-cans I had met: a guy from Texas and a girl from Massachusetts. The girl was living in Madrid teaching English, and she explained that everyone had this week, Holy Week, off. It was tradition for throngs of people to flood into Sarria for the 100km trek in. They spoke in amazement about having met someone who’d begun in St. Jean Pied de Port in France. Sheesh. When I told them that was where I’d started, their eyes widened. How has it been, they wanted to know.

I laughed. Where would I start?

santiagorainI told them about the snow and cold of my first few days and the torrential conditions of my final week. I admitted that the journey was more trying than I could have imagined. But soy aqui! I am here!

They were looking for the cathedral, too, and I wandered behind them in confusion and frustration. The streets were laid out in a circular pattern that didn’t seem to lead to the landmark at the center, and the downward slope of the pavement created rivers, absolute rivers of rushing rainwater. I would have been happy to abandon my effort and march directly to the shelter of my hotel, but I’d neglected to write down the address. Stupidly, I thought it would be easy to find. I was truly at the end of my rope when I saw the bearded man who’d bought me that pizza on my last miserable day. A familiar face! He saw me and opened his arms. I smiled big as I walked toward him and threw up my hands. Donde esta la cathedral? He pointed. Aqui. And he waved for me to follow.

cathedralrainI sloshed behind his red poncho as he expertly weaved through the cobbled streets. Finally, his boots stopped marching, and I looked up to meet his beaming smile. He opened his arm in presentation, and I turned to see it. The cathedral. The Holy site. The shrine to St. James. A gigantic structure whose roots were planted more than a thousand years ago. And now, an impressive edifice that grew to include Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque designs. I stared up at it in what must have looked like awe. In truth, I was feeling overwhelmed by fatigue. All I could think was, here I am, and I’ve never felt worse than in this moment of my entire journey. My Spanish compatriot said something about its beauty, and I nodded just to be kind. Si, si, I said, my eyes rising to the tips of its spires, buried in the clouds.

No, he said, touching my arm. I met his eyes, and he placed his hand over my heart. You. You are beautiful, he said in Spanish. Tears began barreling down my cheeks, and I hung my head. I am beautiful. Even in my worst moment. Now THAT is something. THAT is worth every step of a 528 mile pilgrimage. THAT is holiness. I threw my arms around him and held tight.

The cathedral was lovely and it was massive and it was crowded. That’s what you get the day before Easter. I could only take the quickest walkthrough. Then I stood in line at the office where they issue the official Peregrino certificates. No pomp or circumstance there. The guy behind the desk waved me in, looked at my Camino passport, said, “St. Jean Pied de Port?” with the lift of an eyebrow and then signed his name to the bottom of a piece of paper. Voila. I’d done it. Next!

I walked back out into the rain feeling very letdown. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t this.

Again, I wandered. Looking for my hotel was like walking through New York City hoping to stumble upon Edgar Street. Instead, I popped into the first internet café I came to and stayed only long enough to get the address and some directions. When I had what I needed, I reached for my pack and noticed the pool that had dripped and formed around me. Embarrassed, I paid my bill quickly and left.

My hotel was classically New York with an unassuming entry and tiny rooms stacked upward. I had a bed with just enough space to walk around it and a bathroom with a blessedly full tub. It sure wasn’t fancy, but it was all I needed. I turned on the faucet, stripped, grabbed Brenda’s final card, Week 5, and descended into the water. Funny how water had both the power to drain me as well as soothe me.

Week 5:

The bird of happiness flies with that inextricable mix of surrender and freedom. Surrender is its wing of destiny, and freedom its wing of free will. Without both wings, it is forever earthbound, never able to soar.

With broken wings, we remain tethered to the earth, never experiencing the flight of liberation that comes from allowing both destiny and free will to exist simultaneously.

To accept that both destiny and free will operate in a life is to see to the core of how things work. At every moment we are living out our destiny and, at that very same moment, with our free will, we are creating a new destiny.

When we allow destiny and free will to sit side by side, we enter the interlocking maze that always leads us home.

—Chandra Alexandra

After a nice, long soak, I crashed. Hard. Everything hurt. Everything longed for rest.

When I awakened, the rain had stopped, and I ventured out to explore Santiago. Immediately I registered what a truly fantastic city it is with its tiny European cobbled streets lined with shops and people and festivity. I’d paid for two nights at the hotel, and I suddenly wanted to stay at least another day. But the forecast called for more rain all week, and I’d simply had enough. Enough weather. Enough walking. Enough discomfort. My feet ached and my ankles throbbed. They were swollen and unsightly. I sincerely hoped I hadn’t damaged them.

I found the bus station and purchased a ticket to Madrid for Monday morning. Then I bought some food and postcards and mementos, and went back to my room to write in my journal.

I have done it. 27 days later. My God. A month of walking, of being uncomfortable, and somehow, with all that, of finding so much joy.

I never got lost. I thought I was lost many times, but then a beautiful yellow arrow would point the way. I hope, for the rest of my life, there are little arrows leading me.

This experience has certainly helped to teach me how extraordinary I am. I feel that so deeply.

I miss Simon. My final wish is to see Simon before I go.

I so wish I knew this language.

I so wish I knew what I was feeling right now.

I’m so totally blank.

I’ve spent a month getting up every day knowing exactly what I was going to do. I was simply going to walk. My body was in action, with clear direction, and while I experienced fatigue, I never let my head discourage my forward progress. I couldn’t risk feeling overwhelmed, and giving up was never an option. This last week was so taxing that I may have pushed emotions out altogether.

It’s possible that this fortitude and this veil of invulnerability is now keeping me from feeling anything. I’ve been so easily able to feel gratitude, my go-to emotion, but now there’s just emptiness. Maybe that’s what I was going for all along. I said it many times: find emptiness. It’s not a bad feeling. Not at all. It just is. And here it is. Emptiness. Nothingness.

I lay here in this bed. All my things are scattered everywhere. They’ve been so contained in my little bag that now they get to take space. And they have. I stare at these things that have accompanied me, my only possessions for a month.

Here it all is. Here it is.

And then, I tended to my mail. First, a note to my parents.

Subject: the eagle has landed!
Date: Sat Mar 26 11:13:06 2005

Hola, mi padres!

525 miles later, she arrives in Santiago, truly a divine city. I am here, and arriving was an ordeal. To say the least. It rains. Oh, it pours. I’m happy to have a warm hotel room and a big tub. The weather calls for rain all week. So I will NOT be walking the extra 55 miles to the coast. Hell, I live on a coast. I would very much like to put my feet up, my poor feet. So I’m leaving for Madrid on Monday and flying to London Monday night.

Tomorrow it is Easter. I’ll phone. If the phone card works.

I love you,

Then, a quick note to Brenda.

Subject: The eagle has landed!
Date: Sat Mar 26 11:22:43 2005


Oh, I was tested today. But I have arrived, I have bathed, I have cried, I have read number 5, I have cried some more and I just wanted to write to you. Your thoughts and prayers have meant so much to me. To have these weekly thoughts with me has been such a cherished routine. A blessing. A miracle. Every week, I climb into a tub somewhere, open my little packet, and read them all, pondering, then get to the new one. Perhaps I should go backward now as I journey home.

Home. I’ll be on the east coast very soon.

I can’t wait to sit down with you. And hear it all. And say it all.

Love, love

A note to Jeanette.

Subject: The eagle has landed!
Date: Sat Mar 26 11:26:40 2005


This city is divine. Of course.

The weather calls for rain all week and at this point, all I want is to go home now. 525 miles have taken their toll and my feet need to put up. I hadn’t imagined I’d be finished a week early but I am, so it seems I can get to DC for your play on opening day.

Is your show sold out? Is there one seat for my weary bones? And one big hug in your arms. Or two.


And a longer missive to Lauren.

Subject: the eagle has landed!
Date: Sat Mar 26 12:05:03 2005

Lauren, my dear Lauren:

I have arrived! Oh, it was trying.

I woke up from a very deep sleep in my clean, white, perfect hotel room to hear the pounding of rain outside. Could it be true? I opened the curtain and it was coming down in buckets. I fell back onto the bed. How long could that last? I pulled the rain gear from my bag and braced myself.

To say that it rained is an understatement. I’ve never been in rain like this before. Certainly not for over four hours. Buckets. Truckloads. Fire hoses of water pushing me down. I sloshed through the mud on the gorgeous path through the trees. Low visibility, head down, trekking poles gripping. I thought it was absolutely gorgeous for about three hours. I think I have a three-hour window of tolerance. Then, again, it was just wet. And it was absurd. How hard can it rain and for how long? It was nothing short of misery.

Santiago is lovely but even the locals were stunned by the torrent of rainfall. Umbrellas were twisted and dysfunctional, rivers were flowing through the streets. I had a name of a hotel but no address. The place was a zoo of ponchos. The maze of streets, charming in sunlight, was just an impediment to my warmth.

I followed ponchos to the cathedral, which was teeming, TEEMING with people. Wet people. My pack was heavy, my feet ached and I stood there looking up at the thing… and I started to laugh. It was either that or completely blow a gasket.

I checked the weather forecast and it’s supposed to rain, heavily, ALL WEEK! Okay, so this girl is saturated. There’ll be no walking to the coast. There won’t even be a bus taking me to the coast. I’m foregoing the coast. Beam me out.

I’m staying here for Easter tomorrow. Then I’m going on Monday to Karen’s safehouse outside of London. From there, I’ll figure out my next move but at this point, I would very much like to get myself to DC for the opening of Jeanette’s play on the 3rd.

I have found my hotel room. I have bathed. I have read Brenda’s final card. I have cried. I have taken everything out of my bag and hung it around the room. Plastic bags are everywhere drying out. I have done my last laundry by hand in the sink. I have napped! And I have even walked this charming, lovely, amazing city, its winding streets, its fabulous bars and cafes and restaurants and shops.

There is so much inside me, I don’t even know what to call it and where to begin. But I will begin, on your couch, soon. God, I look forward to that.

I love you,

I got a response, very quickly.

Subject: Re: the eagle has landed!
Date: Sat Mar 26 13:53:11 2005

Oh honey!!!!!!!!!!!!

I lapped up your email! I laughed at your “three hour tolerance” for the “beautiful” rain. How amazing to see beauty in it for three whole hours! I fear I would have a three-minute tolerance. And what a moment when the rain cleared momentarily and the halo of light appeared over your final destination.

I imagine the sky opening up and cleansing you completely of all you no longer require. You have been baptized for sure! I am in awe of your journey and of the grace with which you walk in this world. You are a pure heart – so genuine and so real. You are strong -both physically and mentally. You know the meaning of perseverance, of commitment, of euphoria, and, yes of sadness too. You are in possession of a very wise soul and a very tender heart.

I am so proud to be your friend and to have shared in some small way in your trek. I am inspired by you!

My couch awaits. The sooner the better!

Much love,