By Felice Neals
She travels an ancient road in Spain and discovers the value of solitude.
Somewhere in the north of Spain, surrounded by a glorious, yet unfamiliar landscape, I began to notice my solitude. The steeples of Santiago had long faded into the vibrant glow of early afternoon; and yards of green grass and purple violets enveloped every angle of my vision. There was no one anywhere that I could see.
Even the yellow arrows had disappeared, fueling my fear that I was lost. But I couldn’t be. There was only one path. Only one way to get to the end of the world. I get lost in the best of circumstances. Even in New York when I emerge from the subway, I quickly search for any landmark to guide me. I inherited my father’s unreliable sense of direction, which had often led family journeys to strange exits (leading to even stranger towns), eerie dead ends and—eventually—brightly lit, well-meaning gas stations.
Roberto, the owner of the pensione where I left my heavier belongings (in favor of a knapsack with only the bare essentials) had prepared me for the journey through El Camino de Santiago with maps and much welcomed words of encouragement. Solo tienes que seguir las fleches amarillas y las conchas cocha. Va a estar bien. Just follow the yellow arrows and the shells. You will be fine.
I looked for keys to the shell symbols found along El Camino in my guidebook.
A wedding was taking place along the shore as James’ ship approached. The bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing this mysterious ship approaching, the horse spooked, and horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse then emerged from the waves with horse and rider both covered with cockleshells…The (shell) symbol may also have come into being simply because pilgrims while in Santiago de Compostela had ready access to a plethora of sea shells…
There were many tales that spanned the ages to satisfy the awe of eager pilgrims. I would wander and find the unmarked emblems of my journey, as I made my way on foot, traveling roughly 25 kilometers a day, until I reached Finesterre—the end of the world.
I was told not to make this trek in January. Too cold and too rainy. Cold was fifty-five Spanish winter degrees. Quite manageable, I assured my friends. But you are going by yourself? Yes. That I was. And that, I admit, in hindsight, sparked my stubborn sense of adventure and my general dislike of solo travel. But it was only for three days. Maybe four and I had wanted to explore this ancient walk since I had learned about it years before, from my mother—a pilgrimage junkie. We had traveled to the sacred sites in Varanasi in India, Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, and it was on these quests for spiritual relief (I will call it) that I realized I was equally as addicted to the timeless and mystical appeal of hallowed ground as she, and those who came before me.
El Camino is a five hundred kilometer trek that begins in France, winds its way through Portugal, and ends in Spain. It has existed for over a thousand years and is believed to contain the remains of Jesus’ apostle, St. James the Elder. During the medieval period, the Camino, along with pilgrimages in Jerusalem and Rome were the only journeys of this kind that could free a person from the required penance for his sins.
This information siphoned from my guide book, caused me to take a pause and wander through my “sins” and the potential El Camino offered for penance by enduring its trails and the unpredictable elements. Sin and its effects on a Catholic girl in a modern world was a large part of my upbringing. I had departed from the conservative aspects of my religious training, but kept the mystical seeds of my faith alive with rituals tailored to my varied beliefs. Angels existed in my world after all, though I did not share this with the more cynical members of my circle.
The Way of Saint James is known to be a place of miracles and breathtaking landscapes. I had saved this trek for the last days of my travels. As I bid goodbye to Roberto and began my search for the first yellow arrow, I felt a wave of anxious anticipation in the place where such feelings are buried until they are coaxed to the surface by the strange and unknown. And I sensed that something would change. From then onward.
Finding the arrows was like a game. Each time I discovered one etched on the side of an old, stone farmhouse or painted on the cobblestone below my feet; I imagined myself on a treasure hunt. The medieval villages that welcomed me on the first leg of the journey were empty and still. The Spanish sun, made of golden orange hues, set its gaze on narrow balconies adorned with straw brooms and rose filled flower pots. A bell rang from a crumbling belfry of a church ruin that was once painted a lighter shade of pink or coral; and brought a faded memory of a bride in antique lace and groom, who smiled shyly, as they emerged from the church – greeted with claps and nods of approval from their well-wishers. I had dreamed this image the night before. The bell was clear and awakened me as the sun rose in my small, cheery room in Santiago. The couple faded, but the bell sounded until breakfast.
I had left the guidebook behind. There were no sites that needed description or hotel names to remember. I trusted that I would find a place to sleep when needed. But, it is fuera temporada, off season, my friends warned me. Roberto had assured me, the Camino still offered refuge for the pilgrim en route. The dots he had marked on my map were coming closer as the sky opened and the rain fell. I pulled the hood of my slicker over my head and took a breath as the village disappeared and the mountain range began. Still no one appeared. The rain moved the tree branches with a steady rhythm.
I walked and sang: Es tu palpitar. Es tu cara. Es tu pelo…It is your face, your skin…I had not thought of this song since learning it in grade school with Monica, the Mexican exchange student who stayed with my friend, Jeanine. Monica played guitar and taught us a few cantas. She had planned to stay in the US for the school year, but missed her friends, her church, erected in honor of La Virgen Guadalupe and the familiar smells of home.
The rain stopped and the sun broke free of the gray that I had grown used to. I was not sure how far I had traveled. I felt a blister start to form on my heel and moved my ankle in circles to lessen its dull sting. I had not felt hungry or thirsty, but sipped some water just in case I had missed some subtle sign of dehydration. Did I bring enough? There was nowhere in sight to replenish my supply. Emerald green trees formed a lane on either side of me. I had not stopped since I began my trek and looked for a place to rest. A rustling sound waffled through the shrubs, suddenly reminding the New Yorker within, that I was alone. A woman wandering on a deserted path in what seemed to be the last frontier. The rustling continued. The lane, lush with strands of ivy and round oak, evoked the entrance to a fairy tale, and called me to go further. The leaves on the bushes gently shook. I froze and waited. Were there bears in this country? I walked slowly. Baaaa. A sheep appeared. Then another. I did not see a farm or any place where they belonged. Baaaa. They regarded me indifferently. Hola. I greeted them with relief and hunted for the camera I’d hidden in my knapsack during the rain. They continued to wander down a hill that sloped into a grove of pine trees. Wait! Just one photo please. I moved to the top of the slope, tilted the camera and hunted for my subjects. But they were gone. I baaaa-ed to bring them back.
It was understood that if one attempted any part of El Camino their quest might begin with one intention and most likely end with another. As the sky assumed a painter’s shade of red, I felt a breeze coming in from the valley. The reasons for my trek were unfolding. The call to explore nature in a strange land was one story. More lay waiting on trails ahead. Perhaps this was the miracle.
Still no one in sight. A yellow arrow was carved into an Olive tree. I pointed the camera toward the horizon. The click seemed out of place. I stopped to rest against a small boulder. A wooden sign appeared. Nailed to a tree. Alburgues Manolo. 3 kilometers. Abierto todo el año.
Only a few miles to go. I pointed the camera toward the sign. Manolo’s hostel. Open all year round. My first night would be spent with Manolo and his family. I imagined them, opening their door, surprised to see the tall American woman, with a knapsack and a camera, hoping for a room for the night. I walked at a steady, but slower pace. Roberto had assured me that I would find a place along the way, about 23 kilometers into my journey. The water was almost gone. Tomorrow, I would fill a larger bottle. I pointed the camera toward the sky, now a dusky shade of blue. The shutter would not close. The memory card was full. I would delete some of my memories tomorrow. I’d probably captured too many. A photo of two sheep appeared. I stopped and checked again. Their figures, paused before reaching a grove of pines and looked back toward the woman who baaaa-d at the top of the hill. I would dream tonight of wandering sheep and yellow arrows and lanes. And start again tomorrow.
There was a man with a walking stick up ahead on the trail. I had been alone on the Camino until then, save for a few locals whose farms lined the lush path. I had grown used to the nods and waves of encouragement from the farmers or the random shop owner who displayed his wares in a small village that appeared as quickly as it vanished.
I walked at a quicker pace and caught up to the man, who had a round, pleasant face, gray hair that peeked from beneath his sturdy, round hat and wore a rain cape that covered his stout frame. Our greeting was brief. It was understood that El Camino was our common ground and further exchanges at length were not needed.
An expanse of green fields lay before us. The man leaned heavily on a wooden fence. I just need to drink my water, he assured me in the Northern accent I had tried to emulate when I returned his greeting.
Manolo, his wife and sons, had welcomed me with a large bowl of lentejas and broiled fish. I was their only guest. They were impressed with my Spanish, yet cautious. It was al fuera, after all and they had not encountered any pilgrims on the Camino for months.
The rain battered the small window in my modest room, which had not been heated since the onslaught of tourists, months before. Manolo apologized and said that if he had been given a few hours notice, me hubiera convertido el calentador. I reminded him that there was no number on the sign. He laughed and said that he should have known that I was coming; then he would have turned on the calentador in time. The house was a simple seventies era structure with a small bar for guests and locals on the ground floor. I could not imagine another place where the community could gather, as there was little evidence of a town center among the ancient cemetery and small cottages that lined the road.
The rain became a storm and continued through breakfast. I wondered aloud if it was wise to continue. Manolo’s wife, Rosa, nodded, but did not speak. “The rain comes and goes,” Manolo said matter-of-factly, and asked if I would mind speaking to a man in English who was calling from Scotland. Manolo’s young son, shyly presented the phone. The man would be traveling on the Camino and needed a room. He and his wife were “pensioners” and were concerned about the trip, but had always wanted to embark on this infamous pilgrimage. I assured him that the accommodations were comfortable while Manolo and his family joined me at the table, straining to comprehend the meaning of my English words.
The rain subsided. Manolo thanked me for my help. The couple from Scotland would be there for two days in October. A yellow arrow appeared on smooth gray bricks that lay at the base of a small fountain, yards away from the alburgues. Rosa waved and wished me a good journey. Manolo disappeared with his son behind the bar, where a Spanish Judge Judy appeared on a television that hung in the corner, banging a gavel and pointing to a woman who dabbed her eyes dramatically. “¿Sabía usted pide prestado el coche?” Did you borrow the car? The judge asked, pointing her finger at the woman. An elderly man with a newspaper under his arm, walked toward the bar and nodded with a subtle curiosity in my direction. I would dream that night that I was being chased by a car that transformed itself into a beautiful stallion.
The air was chilly. A thick mist loomed above slated roofs that covered small villas in the medieval town of Odivieros. I had restocked my water supply and bought fruit and a few tins of tuna from Manolo’s pantry kept for pilgrims passing through. Spain, I discovered had the best tuna I’d ever tasted. It would come in handy as my stomach swelled with hunger on the steeper rocky climbs.
I shifted the new weight of my knapsack as I walked along a stream. The clouds hovered, casting a gray tint over the olive trees that stood in perfect lines along a rocky ridge.
My thoughts wandered to music. I sang Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of my lungs and imagined that I was being watched by the birds and fauna that dotted the dusty trail. Would I want a companion on this excursion? No, said the voice in my head, at least not in that moment. I could not remember when I had last allowed my mind to ramble. I was covetous of this time. Solo. Though I had not imagined that I would be the sole pilgrim for most of my wandering. More music: Ave Maria. I had learned it in school and felt the sorrow of something I could not put my finger on, whenever I heard it sung. Ventris tu Jesus…I pictured my audience, transfixed by my rendition. Singing had always been an outlet for my thoughts. I had even tried a few open mics, but the hunger wasn’t there, a friend reminded me, to pursue it further. I had found what I was hungry for in my writing. El Camino was the channel for my longings, which were echoed in its vast terrain. I was grateful for my welcome and mourned the passing of this time and moments of content that slipped between the fears and hopes that come with all ambition.
A heart shaped rock appeared, embedded in ground beneath my feet. I snapped a photo. It was a sign that things were where and as they should be. My gray haired compadre had long disappeared behind me. I would see him later in Cee, a fishing village on the next leg of the journey.
The sun was setting. My limbs were sore. 28 kilometers since Manolo and Spanish Judge Judy. I stretched. I was not sure if I could continue much further. The path here was rough and pebbly, and brought pain to my calves and knees with every step. A curve appeared with large rocks set against the sky. A place where I could sit for awhile, before the sun descended.
I rounded the bend. A streak of sunlight hit what I realized was a wide expanse of sea. Roberto had told me of this. I stood in awe of Finesterre, the end of the world. An infinite space that had no marks or boundaries. I walked toward the light that changed with every movement. A fishing boat sat on the glistening sheet of water and rocked within its ripples. The horizon and its emptiness loomed from where I stood. Here, the world was flat and endless, as it was for los conquistadors.
My weary bones were my penance and I wandered toward a rock and snapped new memories. A tear of relief and awe fell onto the well-traveled soil. I had arrived at one destination and would continue to the final stop. Weighing my sins and counting my blessings with every step.
Felice Neals is a world traveler, language buff and photographer. She lives and pursues her dreams in downtown New York City. She received her MA in Media/Film Studies at The New School University in New York City in 2013, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at City College, New York, where she is working on her first novel.