Camino del Norte Day 34: We made it! Now what?

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Working on my victory stroll

November 3, 2015

Pedrouzo to Santiago, 11 miles

Today we arrived in Santiago de Compostela.  We had envisioned this day ever since starting the trail on October 1.  Actually, our visions of finishing the Camino started back to 2010, except the images were of Martin Sheen and his three newfound friends triumphantly walking into the Cathedral de Santiago at the end of the movie The Way.  For years, Dale and I had been drawn to the idea of a long-distance walk and had contemplated doing the Appalachian Trail or something similar, but that takes months to complete.  So when we saw The Way in the theater, it resonated deeply with us.  It was a hike that could be completed in about month and that entailed walking across Spain, experiencing life-changing personal growth, drinking lots of wine, and becoming best buddies with Joost from Amsterdam.  Perfect.

We had been dreaming about doing the Camino ever since, so today, the day when we would triumphantly stroll into Santiago, we should have bounded out of bed with excitement, and yet it was just the opposite: we moved like two arthritic ninety-year olds for whom walking was a chore.  The pain seemed amplified today, and everything hurt.  Despite this, we got ourselves packed and then headed out for one last cafe con leche on the Camino.

The caffeine, combined with the joy of our favorite morning ritual, energized us, and suddenly we were excited.  In a few hours we would be in Santiago!  As we hiked, we consciously worked on improving our attitude by smiling at each other, offering encouraging words, shaking our heads in astonishment at how far we’d come, and stopping to smell the roses:

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Every few minutes we met a few hikers, and not surprisingly, most of them were American.  The only nationalities more prevalent on the Camino Frances are Spanish and Germans.  Some of our fellow hikers were moving quickly; others that we passed looked like they might be hurting as much as we were.  But with each step we all moved closer to the end.

After several hours, we neared Santiago, a medium-sized city of about 100,000 people, and began to see numerous neighborhoods and small towns which make up Santiago’s suburbs.  It seemed as if the outskirts stretched forever, but finally, after a ridiculous descent down many flights of stairs, we arrived at the city proper.

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No I don’t really walk like that–I’m not THAT much of an invalid. I was just trying to generate sympathy for our last hurdle.  Oh, the injustice of having to descend those stairs right before the end of the Camino.
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Welcome to Santiago!
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These shells were embedded in the sidewalks once we reached town, and they guided us to our final destination.

The true end of the Camino, the Cathedral de Santiago, was still several kilometers away, in Old Town, Santiago’s well-preserved historic city center and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Legend has it that the cathedral contains the remains of Jesus’ apostle James, and this is why pilgrims started coming to Santiago many centuries ago (and why thousands still come today).  Neither of us was doing the Camino for religious reasons, but the Cathedral was still the traditional end of the Camino, and we wanted to honor that tradition–but it would have to wait.  By the time we arrived in Old Town, we had hit our limit.  We wandered around the maze of cobblestone streets, located the Cathedral, decided to come back later, and immediately started our search for the albergue.

It was at that moment that we ran into a familiar face—Hannah!  We had expected her to be in Germany by now, so we were pleasantly surprised to see her still here.  She was staying at the same albergue and mercifully offered to walk us there.

The albergue was called El Último Sello (The Last Stamp), a clever name referring to the stamps that are placed in the Pilgrim’s Passport.

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The Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrims’ Passport)

We had been carrying the passport with us from day one, getting stamps at each albergue to prove that we had been there.

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Dale’s passport with all of his stamps.

The Last Stamp referred to the fact this would be our last albergue on the Camino, and thus our last stamp as well.

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The last stamp!  Note: Europeans write the date differently: day/month/year instead of month/day/year.  It actually makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

Dale and I both felt exhausted and numb, and this disturbed me.  I guess I expected to have a final flash of inspiration upon arriving at Santiago.

“I feel nothing,” I told Dale with dismay.

“That’s OK,” he replied. “You don’t have to feel anything right now.”

We’d been dreaming about and planning for the Camino for so long, and then suddenly it was over. Also, I cannot overstate the depths of our pain and fatigue. We had gotten pretty adept at coping with discomfort each day, but now that we had reached Santiago, our minds were having none of it.  Our original plans had been to hike another 3-4 days to Finisterre, but that was out of the question.  We were done.

The arrival of Detlef and Hannah helped tremendously.  We were so happy to see our friends.  We went out for a snack and drinks with them and then had dinner with Hannah.  And tomorrow we planned to do all of the things that peregrinos do when they arrive: visit the Cathedral, attend the Pilgrims Mass (a special mass held daily to honor peregrinos who completed the Camino), and get our Compostela, or certificate of completion.  And then we would spend some time recovering in Santiago and Portugal.  It would take time to process the whole experience, and we needed to allow ourselves that time.