Monday, June 27, 2016

Day 35: Fisterra/Finesterre: The End of the World

After a travel day from Santiago to the seaside town of Finesterre (Spanish) or Fisterra (Galacian) I strapped my backpack on one last time. I walked a twelve mile circuit that included an inland farming village, the Cape, the mountain, and a wild Galacian beach. By Camino standards it was a short hike, but I took my time to enjoy one unhurried last backpacking day where all I really had to do was bird and soak it all in. I timed my hike to last all day from sunrise to sunset with lunch in town and mass at the small seafarers church Santa Maria de Areas.

Port of Fisterra 
Today was more of a stroll, a sans terre, a saunter. It connected the landscapes of the Camino to the landscapes I love most - the rocky coast, sea and mountain. I thought of Mom and Dad who took me to the wild capes of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. I've adored the rocky coasts since I was three!

Pilgrim at The End of the World.
I hiked early out to the cape in a strong wind. No tour buses yet, few hikers, a camper truck parked discretely behind a berm of gorse and fern. A memorial, the last pilgrim coming ashore, his cape windblown in bronze, marked where many climbed from their boats and up the cliffs to begin their walk east to Santiago. The Irish, Cornish, Welsh, Scots, mostly came by boat. There are pilgrimage routes still traveled by sea. A group of Irish seafaring pilgrims was honored at Pilgrim Mass yesterday by the Bishop in Santiago. They sailed and rowed from one wild green mountainous coast to the other.

Wild Galacian coast.
I visited the last way marker on the Camino just before the Lighthouse at the End of the World. For pilgrims disembarked from their boats, it would be four day walk to the city, but for those of us coming east, you can go no further unless you've a boat to climb into. I gave the dolphins, swimming in a sea of boulder garden and grass, a pat. I hugged the lighthouse - more to shelter from the wind than to show affection! Gulls screamed overhead. Gannets drilled into the choppy sea for fish, emerging with bills full and wings pounding into the gusts.

A pod of granite bottlenose.

There are a few last shrines to visit for the finishing pilgrim. The places where boots are burnt and tributes made. These burn pits may well may have served the same purpose a thousand years ago as elements of the Celtic pagan traditions fought to survive against the overwhelming pressure of the Church. But look closely at the mass today , my pension host advised. "You'll see how traditions melted together like burnt shoe leather and wild sheep's wool."

Ceremonial burn pits for boots and gear.

Memorial to hiking boots.
I birded the open sea for a bit, until my shivering made holding steady my binoculars impossible. Still, I could make out more gannets, lesser black-backed gulls, herring gulls, cormorants, and little terns. A scan of a white-washed rookery appeared to hold more species , but I'll have to wait until I get home to study the pictures.

I'll study the white-washed shelves at home for more species .
I left the Cape as the first tour bus arrived. The sun was getting hotter and the trails that crossed the mountain were calling my name. My knees and back protested some more as I climbed higher and higher. Looking back to the Cape, the lighthouse and tour bus were but tiny fixtures on a whaleback of rock , jutting out into the Atlantic which was streaming with whitecaps.

Cap Fisterra.
"Look for the signal stones," my pension host suggested. These are stones stood on end, some ten feet more more high. "Galician fishermen at the time of St. James and before marked the cape's most dangerous passage. Stay close, but not too close, to mark the turn to safe harbor." I sat on a boulder perch and scanned the western slopes. All I saw was a confusion of stone outcrop and boulder beds. They were hard to see at first, but once my eye caught the pattern they were everywhere. Some marked dangerous shoals, others pointed to  small but safe anchorages when turning the Cape was too risky. I noticed shelters and cairns, paths marked with boulders of different colors than those around them. The way marking rivalled everything I saw on the modern Camino.

Signal stones, monolithic way marking.
There were paths for shepherds, fishermen, old roads worn down by millions of hooves. I walked a sunken road until the level of land dropped away over the cliff and I dared not follow, but on it went down and around a steep, slant of green and rock where I could hardly imagine a man walking upright much less his cattle or sheep! The steep path turned into a thread of a trail and still on it went. I clung to a boulder and crept out to see where trail went but all I managed to see was surf crashing into cliffs and that was enough leaning out for me!

A cattle and sheep road above the cliff.
I scanned the ledges below to see if I could see where the old path went and caught with my unbelieving eye the shape of a fisherman casting from the dangerous cliffs below. How did he get there? On hands and knees? By rope? By boat? I was breathless watching him cast, then catch fish the size of my arm. He nimbly stood to reel them in on his heavy surf rod, then balanced as waves broke at his feet, to unhook the fish he caught and string them on a chain. There was a story not long ago about a cliff fisherman who found boots and a backpack not far from the lighthouse, the pilgrim drowned, washed away in surf that thundered clean the ledges.

Stonechat and mate.
I continued hiking and looped back across the summit to the harbor side of the mountain. Stonechats were common and seemed to enjoy sending up the alarm of my arrival and passing. A black kite flared its tail in flight over the heather and disappeared before I could dig out my camera. I heard the bells of the church below, the call to mass. I hurried down a dirt road and arrived in time for the readings and sermon. A children's choir was rocking the house down with Galacian fishing songs-turned- hymns and the packed house couldn't help but applaud after every raucous tune to the delight of the kids and the priest. St. James would have been dancing in the aisles. His kind of sea shanty!

Fishermen's salvation retablos.
When mass ended I spent time admiring one most moving retablos I'd seen on my trip. Waves pulling at bodies of fishermen, drowning in storm tossed seas, pleading to the Holy Mother and Child for mercy and rescue. "Fisterra has lost many many to the sea," a kind elder said to me. "We remember the wrecks and those missing as far back as memory allows us. Then we put them in songs so we can't forget. We hide them in hymns and turn hymns into chants." He showed to me a memorial to mark the sinking of a fishing vessel and the rescue boat sent to assist. At its base was a tomb of a fisherman - a local saint, unofficial, he said, according to Rome but beloved by locals nonetheless. The worst loss of life was a British ironclad that wrecked on the cape shoals with five hundred lost. There are many stories in Finnesterre.

Memorial to those taken by the sea.
I followed the church goers back into town and found some lunch by the harbor. Tour buses were filing in now and I wondered how the little village, much expanded recently with new housing , albergues , hotels, and eateries was faring. I thought about the fishing towns on my side of the Atlantic, mostly resorts, cluttered, congested, cookie-cutter versions of ocean towns up and down the coastline. There are few wild beaches left and of those, hemmed in by vacation home sprawl and outlet shopping strips. There is still Lewes, Henlopen, Chincoteague. But there is nothing like Galicia left on the U.S. Atlantic coast - not anymore.

Twin capes and wild pocket beach of the Atlantic side of Fisterra.
My hike continued with a climb to the summit to Monte Facho, wild, windswept, hot. From the heights I spotted my destination and finish point - a wild pocket beach suspended in the hollow between Facho and the craggy fins of San Martino shores. A major conservation area, Mar de Fora is wild dunes high into meadows and an arc of brilliant shell-sand. It was where I had planned to spend my last Camino hours to watch the sun set over the Atlantic.

Looking west from a high summit meadow.
The trail clung to the westward slope and led by steep road, some it old Roman stone and clay, to a vast saddle of high dune. A conservation boardwalk crossed the delicate ecosystem of prostrate plants, delicate blossoms, and a universe of multi-colored lizards. The beach was a shining half-moon of shimmer in the eight o'clock sun. I dropped my pack, leaned into it as my back rest, and joined a few other pilgrims spread far apart to wait for the sunset.

Mar de Fora
The scallop shell that has been attached to my pack since Roncesvalles.
I waded into the cold water of the Atlantic and stood as long as I could, which wasn't long. My legs and feet were soon numb! I detached the scallop shell that has been tied on the back of my pack since Roncesvalles at the foot of the Pyrenees. I gave it water and let it warm in the hot sand. Some pilgrims down the beach were burning their boots. I promised my boots I wouldn't do that to them!

A playful soul to spend late hours with.
As the sun dipped lower a few dogs came down the boardwalk, their owners far behind. Within minutes a bright, happy soul joined me for some fetch into the gentle waves. After a while, a tall young man approached and introduced Fila properly. " She was a Camino dog left behind by the pilgrim she had followed. I took her in. She loves playing with pilgrims." I noticed how all the dogs were playing with everyone! I wondered about Bell and her Canadian pilgrim and if he might be going to Toronto or dropped off in some end-of-the-road village. "This is a nightly ritual for the dogs! They love it!"

Sunset on the Atlantic.
The sun slipped into the sea. My Camino came to an end on a wild beach in Galicia.  Five-hundred and fifty miles walking until the trail ended at the ocean that binds our histories and people together. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Day 34: Santiago de Compostela

My body ended it's revolt of the previous night by coming awake to the sound of gulls winging over the city, screaming up my muscles with the promise of the sea. I left the hotel early with the man who had cried last night at the site of his room and tub. He was Polish and we shared no common language, but he held me over the shoulder as we walked to the Cathedral square.

I stopped first at the Cathedral to say some prayers for friends who were devastated by the Brexit vote to leave the EU. It was a shock to colleagues working in education and policy (U.N. and Oxfam), conservation (Rewilding Europe), and climate change policy that demands intra-European cooperation. Ive been keeping in touch with them by email and social media. is important I frame this experience within the context of what is happening in the world.

A long walk finally ends.

My Camino friends from the UK are shocked as well. We live in a global society with interlinkages across economies and climate. Extreme nationalism, especially the anti-immigration fear mongering, has no place in our modern society. After some quiet time, I made a direct line for the pilgrims office to receive my Compostela. The Brits in line were all on their phones texting folks back home. The Scot whose name I've forgotten turns to smile at me. She winked a clever wink. Everyone else was chating happily away.

The line was long, but happy conversations filled the hall.
I received two Compostelas, one the traditional certificate and the other, just as beautiful, noting my starting point in France. Memories of the Pyrenees came flooding back, the hardest but most beautiful two days of the journey. I met my Camino family at St. Jean Pied du Port and Orisson and now I saw a few of them in line, and saw more on the way to pilgrim mass, even some walking the streets of Santiago.

My Compostela!

One of the things we talked about while walking with Frances, was the tradition of walking among all the faiths. All religions have their versions of pilgrimage, she said. Some happen overland and end at a certain place.  Some people walk weeks to bathe in rivers. Others sail around the world. "Jesus walked," said Frances. "When I retired from teaching, my superior handed me my pilgrim's credential and said go study in Santiago! So here I am, a walker, a pilgrim, and a student again!"

Teresa and Frances about to join the que at the Pilgrim Office.

Teresa joined us that day. I was the only one not a religious. Teresa was a sister with the Poor St. Claire's from Brittany. "Poor Calvin, all a crank about pilgrimage. He didn't know what he was missing!" I met up with them at the pilgrim office. Another pilgrim, Cameron, was sporting a volunteer shirt and speaking with pilgrims as they waited in line. Cam walked from Sarria, a theological student and young priest from Kenya. He was to assist at mass a few hours later. He said that pilgrimage today is not what it was in the Middle Ages, and can't be. We've changed the world too much to ever go back to worshipping the grey chips of saints bones and shrivelled black fingers in glass capsules.

A different angle - Museo de Peregrines 

We walk to meet new friends and discover our Creator in the hearts of our companions. We are all immigrants, unsettled, homeless. The bonds formed by pilgrims who are trying to find their center of gravity in new and different situations are strong. It really had nothing to do with St. James for me, really. No treasure chest of remains or splendid golden statues could come anywhere near the Light that pours from the hearts of fellow pilgrims as we walk five hundred miles with such friends. The rabbit, fox, and donkey had the right idea. "You hobble, I'll hop, we'll all stumble along in happy song. Weehaw! Weehaw!"

Jacob the Austrian and wife Britta.
I found my favorite Austrian and his wife Britta laughing in the square, waving and striding big Austrian steps to hug me! He and I played a bit of a fox and hare game on our long days. "Vost took you so long?" will be my favorite memory of Jacob's encouragement as he would hurry ahead and find some place to sit as if he'd been there hours waiting. He schooled me well in how countries like his, with memories of horrific wars, regulate and still enjoy the shooting sports. He could not understand my country's inability to deal with gun violence. I can't either.

Marie, Claire,and Bob - Camino family from Vermont!
I had a happy reunion with my Vermont Camino family with whom I spent many great days hiking, eating, sleeping, and talking with. Hiking with them through mountains and Meseta felt like wandering the Green Mountains with old friends. I didn't have to wait long for others to appear but I did almost trip over the biathalete from Finland! We hugged and laughed about our storming of the Templar castle with Jacob in Ponferrada.

The Biathalete Sprawl.
More reunions!

Milton showed up smiling and together he and I and several hundred pilgrims filed into the Cathedral to attend the noon pilgrim mass. After I recovered from seeing Cameron walking next to the Bishop, the pipe organ boomed, the nun sang her heart out, and Butofermeiro flew high over our heads. Milton cried throughout the service. I will never forget celebrating his 70th birthday on the summit of the Col in the Pyrenees!

After mass, special pilgrims are called up to see the Bishop.
Friends from home questioned me before I left:

You are hiking alone? Aren't you afraid? Won't you be a target?
But you don't speak Spanish! Isn't there terrorism there? On and on and on.  I hope some of them have been reading this blog to know the answers. I urge every woman to travel alone in a foreign country on pilgrimage! There are routes to the Camino all over Europe. Pick one. Go. Go see what you are capable of. Go see that despite what you hear on the "news" you won't die at the hands of extremists - but do watch yourself and your pack leaving Logrono.

Plenty of real and art equines in the city.
I'm not in shape. I don't have the money. I don't have the time. I've never walked more than a few miles. These are some excuses I've heard. You get in shape by making walking a part of your everyday life. It cost as much or as little as you wish. You can hike one day a weekend and easily do fifteen miles each time. Do this every weekend, add it up as you go. Make your goal 500 miles for the year. Use each walking or hiking day as a personal pilgrimage experience every week. I know one man who was unable to do the Camino because of health reasons. He built a trail through his woods and walked it daily until he came to 550 miles. Phil's Camino.

Medieval instrument street performers.
But it's not just about going for a hike. An important aspect of pilgrimage is the vulnerability and uncertainty that you must experience in order to understand the capacity of others to demonstrate great compassion. I learned the art of asking for help, of making myself vulnerable to the possibility of being lost, not knowing a language, finding a doctor when I was in pain, asking for food, asking for a bed at night. You can't sign up for a tour or take the American Resort mentality with you. It's you and what's on your back. Take that metaphorically if you want. Get out of your comfort zone and drop the idea that your lodgings must be five-star and your good must taste like what you eat at home. I had ox-tail soup and rather liked it.

Walking sticks left at the Cathedral door.

The most miserable people I met on the Camino were three American women. I'm sure there were others not having the time of their lives from other countries, but wearing a mosquito headnet because you are afraid of catching the zika virus then sweating under it so badly you almost pass out is really being quite stupid. Having a childish tantrum because your bestie is walking with someone else today is not very attractive either. I ran away from that one! And, oh dear, oh my. YELLING louder at someone does not mean they will understand English any better. I hope these women came around to understand that Spain is not a Mexican country and that Jesus and Trump will not make America great again.

Heading in for Pilgrims Mass.

There lots of Americans. Everyone showed proper respect to their host country,  had bothered to learn some Spanish ( in my case, Basque and Galician too) beforehand, and who brought such joy to their walk. They were great embassadors for our country. I'm afraid, though, that any discussion of American politics and policy were not what my American friends wanted to discuss with curious Europeans. I was one of those . And who could blame us? I stopped introducing myself as from the USA and said instead Pennsylvania. The crazy talk of anti-science, anti-immigration, anti-immigration, isolationist politics confounds me. Though the Brits, Scots, and Welsh do have some ideas about that.

Market day!
Market day some more!
Wandering the streets of Santiago, even those far from its historic center, I found markets and shops bursting with good things to see and sample. Customers are spoken to, not waited on. Conversation and service is warm and friendly. I was offered so much free food to sample that I couldn't imagine sitting down for dinner. I will never forget the market in Sahagun where the grocer , on siesta time, sat with me and my cold milk, and told me about the Civil War. I never did meet up with Alise who's grandfather spent time in a concentration camp as a Republican fighter. I can never come to grips with the Church's alliance with Franco and the unopposed use of mixing Spain's great faith in Catholicism with the repressive and violent dictatorship of forty years.

The remains of St. James carried pompously by Church-supported thugs.

The mixing of religion and politics is what should worry us the most. Our political system at home does so in order to attract the votes of people for whom their religious beliefs are tangled with ideas of freedom, rights, and authority. We parade our crosses and bibles with political promises . It's all bunk to me. The Church treads carefully here, the current Pope acknowledged as much and tries to make amends. He said so in Philadelphia. He warned us in Washington. History of mixing politics with religion is Spain. We best pay attention and learn from it lest we repeat it across the pond.

Piping pilgrims through the gate to the square.
For now my time in Santiago is finished. I've left some things with Ivar at the University and will carry a much lighter pack to the coast. I am longing to spend some time birding, sketching, wandering the cape at Finnesterre and Muxia. One more hike to go to look out across the Atlantic and imagine the old ways before the Church, before inland roads, before Spain was Spain.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Day 33: Santa Irene to Santiago de Compostela!

After a pleasant stay at the public albergue in Santa Irene, Fran├žois and I decided to hike together again, but since she was going as far as Mont de Gozo, only ten kilometers away, she would hike slower today. I had already booked a room in Santiago so no rush for me either. It was another foggy, somewhat drizzly day, but not hot and comfortably cool. Perfect day for a stroll!

City limits!
Our first milestone came quickly and was a little misleading if you weren't following your map. The city limits has a handsome stone marker, but you still haven many miles to go before you can see anything of the city. We skirted the Santiago Airport. I got a little sad and a little excited by the prospect of flying home in a week! The fog was dense, however, so even though a large jet went right over heads, we didn't see it. I thought about the ways home, how route-finding became pathways. Ships follow navigation markers when close to shore and port, but on the open sea the path is followed differently. Compostela, the path of stars.

Scallop shell is everywhere on the approach .
One of the symbols of the Camino is the scallop shell. it's everywhere and part of the legend of St. James, but it isn't strictly a Christian symbol of pilgrimage, and like many symbols co-opted by one religion or another, it's roots pre-date the Christian use. We've been hiking through lands long ago settled by Celts, seafaring folk who were pretty damned brave to climb aboard their open boats and follow the stars, at the mercy of wind and wave. The scallop shell, or cockle shell to the Irish, represents to Celtic cultures the interface between land and sea, where we plant ourselves with one foot on the coastal soils and one foot in the bottom of a boat. St. James, the fisherman, by today's reading, has more in common with the oilskin-caped coastal wanderers than his later apparition as a slayer of invaders.

In the city proper.
We hiked up and down the hills before Monte de Gozo and suddenly there was Francoise's hotel! We were a little surprised. But a half day rest was well earned. We said we'd see each other at mass the next day ( we did!) and I went off for the final five kilometers into the city. I made a short stop for a stamp for my credential and a man in a bright shirt came running up to me. It was Milton! One of my original Camino family with whom I'd crossed the Pyrenees and started together with a dozen others in our first night stay in St. Jean Pied du Port . A happy reunion! We made our way across streets, overpasses, down sidewalks. All the landscape of a bustling city. We took each other's pictures at the city sign along a large traffic circle. It began to rain. Milton found the road leading to his seminary albergue and I walked into the old city alone. I found the Cathedral, draped in scaffolding and dust cloth. After days of hiking partners and people to share the pain, joy, and laughter with, it was me and an almost empty plaza and this Big. Church. I didn't feel overwhelmed or teary, in fact I just wanted my hotel room. But I hadn't eaten so I thought about what I had missed the most - and found it on the way to my lodging!

Me and this big church, alone in the rain.

Fruit sherbet and chips and Coke. Perfection!
I found my hotel easily and checked in. The staff clapped for me when they opened the door to my room. They did the same for another pilgrim checking in after me, and he cried! People thought something was wrong! I went into the hall to check. The head of service smiled and said the pilgrim was overwhelmed by the sight of a real bed and a tub! He had stayed in albergues the whole way from St. Jean! I would have cried too! I showered and settled in for a nap with the sounds of a festival happening in the old city, a few blocks away. I thought about going up to see, but my body, back, feet said NO YOU WON'T! So I didn't!

Day 32: Palas de Rei to Santa Irene

My fastest hiking partner yet! 

This was my haul-ass day. My original plan called for me to be in Santiago de Compostela by Thursday but I'd lost ground by half a day. My unexpected rest day back in Ponferrada cost me about ten miles that I had to make up today. I spoke to the hostel manager about how best to do this . He suggested I skip the industrial hiking around Melide and the highway hiking outside of O Coto. Luckily there were bus stops frequently along today's route. "Hop on here," he said circling a town on my map. " Hop off here. Three Euros."

Wooden horreo is one of the few non-stone ag buildings I see.
I followed his advice and walked super fast until the village and bus stop. I caught the 8am bus and rode happily up a busy highway and past a cement suburb of factories. There were few pilgrims hiking along the road. I jumped off past Melide and poured on the speed, not even feeling the weight of my pack. But here I was, thinking oh how fast I am, when a woman fifteen years my senior passed me in hyper-drive, uphill! Who was this hiking machine? For fun I matched her stride and the rhythm of her hiking sticks. Soon I was right behind her. For miles I shadowed her through villages, up and down slopes, and through fields. She finally pulled into a cafe for second breakfast, my first since I left Palas de Rei before dawn when nothing was open.

I joined her for a meal and my morning Coke ( I can't stomach coffee) and we were soon good friends. It's how the Camino works! We hiked the rest of the day together- talking about our hike, where we started, sharing stories. She got my sad dog story.

Happy visit with a friendly lab!

By mid-day I had completed almost 25 miles walked. With a good hiking partner it's easy to forget the pain or boredom and let miles roll by. I've been in almost constant pain with some arthritis in my mid-spine the whole trip. Yoga, ibuprofen, and hot showers have helped , but during a long hike with a heavy backpack, sometimes it's all I can do to concentrate on anything else but my back. Hiking with Frances made me forget. I thoroughly enjoyed today's marathon hike! We decided to stay at the Xunta albergue in Santa Irene. What a fun day together!

Everywhere flowers set out.

New Holland!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Day 31: Portomarin to Palas de Rei

Bad news woke me in my bunk in Portomarin. My old coonhound , Annie, recently from a scary episode with lymphoma, had collapsed on her evening walk. The emergency vet was afraid that cancer had returned and gone to her brain. Family and friends were working together to get her the care she needed. I was frantically trying to get word about her condition. It was 0600 in Spain and nearly midnight at home. I packed in such a hurry that I left all my delicious food in the albergue kitchen fridge. I walked like a mad person to the next town, anxious to offer wifi and talk to my son George who was talking to doctors. I took no photographs or paid any attention to where. I was. I took one break for a sit and a Coke. I sat down next to a very disgruntled American who wants to complain about everything. She got up to use the bathroom and I ran away down the crowded trail.

Since I took no pictures, I decided to post my favorite Camino dog pictures here. I prayed to St. Francis for fourteen miles.

Traveling companions.
A happy visit!


Cattle dog.
After speed walking with a backpack I cruised into the town where a room was waiting. I knew I wouldn't be able to talk to family at home with any privacy if I chose an albergue. I found the hotel without a problem but then heard my name called. It was the angry woman from earlier in the day - she saw me and called out! "Hey! Great to see another American! I'm staying there too!" She explained that she had taxied ahead because she didn't feel like walking. I told her about Annie and how I really needed to check in and contact my son. Without an ounce of compassion, she quipped "Yeah, my dog died while I was in Venice last year. Glad it happened on someone else's watch." I about slugged her, but she wouldn't have caught my body language as she was so embroiled in a spat she and her friend were having that she had to tell me about. I received a warm welcome, however,  from the bar-hotel owner who assured me the WiFi was excellent. "I hope you have good news," he said. " When you are ready, come down and I will feed you."

Coonhound kisses!

Within the hour I was in contact with my son, still groggy from the late night. He assured me Annie was in excellent hands and he and his dad were planning to visit with her later in the morning. I heard more of the details about her seizures and knew it must have been terrifying for my dog sitter Karen and my neighbor Jacke who rushed to help. I cried I missed her so much. I wanted to change my ticket to come home early. George said to wait - that he would video chat from the hospital and we would know more. It was good news - no cancer! She would be put on anticonvulsants and sent home that evening.  She heard me say her name and though still out of it from her seizures , she nuzzled George's phone and cocked her ears. Her tail wagged and she gave everyone coonhound kisses!

Best. Pizza. Ever.
When finally emerged from my room and went downstairs, the owner showed me a seat and brought me a beer.  Then a fantastic pizza. Then Coke! I was relieved, starving, thirsty, and thankful.