Thankful For The Masses: Reflections From The Camino De Santiago
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
by Emily Foubert
This morning I cursed the new pilgrims.
The air was finally cool at dawn when I rubbed my eyes open and rolled out of bed, straight into my backpack and shoes, rote memory operating my muscles after thirty-five days of walking.
I descended the damp stone stairs and over the wooden threshold into the dark misty morning. In my hands I gripped the walking sticks I had plucked from the French countryside a lifetime ago, on the other side of the Great Pyrenees, when spring was still declaring itself amongst the leaves and ferns. The wood was now smoothed over and darkened from my nearly constant grip these past few weeks.
Plick, plick, plick went those sticks as I climbed the gradual hill out of the Galician town of Sarria, Spain.
Catherine from Italy walked ahead of me. I could recognize her hiker's silhouette anywhere. We greeted one another with quiet, sleepy faces, our camino shells clinking harmoniously from our packs. We marched forward in comfortable silence until we reached the end of the parking lot and realized that there were no longer yellow arrows pointing the way. After scanning the area to our left and right, we turned and began to retrace our steps.
We had only walked a few more meters when our jaws dropped in surprise.
As Catherine and I stood there watching in stunned silence, an endless stream of hikers rounded the bend, all boasting fresh pairs of legs, eager smiles, brand new walking poles, and the excited banter of the naive.
Two middle-aged women scurried past, one in street clothes of white linen and the other with a purse strewn around her waist. Behind them came a cluster of fresh-faced mothers and daughters who, judging by their lack of luggage, must have used the delivery service to send their belongings ahead to the next hostel. Next came an even larger group of college-aged men with chaperones, dressed uniformly in bright polos and khaki pants. They carried giant packs and sparkling, store-bought walking poles, chattering about a man they had just seen carrying a wooden cross.
"Could you believe it?!" one said to another, astonishment pouring from his eyes. "He's been carrying it since the beginning of the French route in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port!"
This piece of shocking information was old news to me and Catherine, as we'd been walking with the cross-bearer since Puente la Reina, over four weeks and many miles ago.
"I thought it would never happen!" I said, turning to Catherine. "They said we would quadruple in size, but I just didn't believe it." I gestured in disbelief at the pilgrims walking before us.
"Yes, it is true. Here they are." Catherine replied matter of factly.
Sarria is the last starting point where one join the Camino de Santiago and still receive a certificate, hence why such a large group of travelers were joining in the journey today. Yet back in Pamplona, four hundred miles ago, a more intimate group of us had already learned one another's faces. We had walked at the same pace. We had listened to one another's stories. We had learned each other's deepest longings and most profound sadnesses.
Now, suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by foreign faces.
Who were these imposters?
My achy arches scorned the pep in their step. My crunchy neck envied their loose and shining shoulders. My sore calves longed for the spryness in their legs.
With our feet still glued to the ground, Catherine and I looked at each other, then back at the spate of new pilgrims.
"Well, if we can't beat them, better join 'em," I surrendered with a sigh. Catherine nodded an agreement, and together we stepped into the human flow and let them carry us into the fields beyond town.
As the day reached it's hottest point, a quartet of Italian seminary students broke into song. Their vibrato cascaded over my weary body and as my shoulders lifted and relaxed into their harmonies, I found myself quickening my pace to stay close to the sound.
I realized that something was shifting. These fresh-faced newbies were like an easy river headed toward St. James Cathedral in Santiago, and I was riding their coattails.
Like always, the camino was providing me with just what I needed.
As the morning progressed to afternoon and these strangers of a few hours ago took on a new familiarity that can only occur with shared experience, I found myself wondering,
What is it about this journey that inevitably gathers all of us under the same magical spell?
It is the cathedral itself that calls us ever closer, a magnet pulling us all to it's center?
As I walk I can hear the triumph of pilgrims arriving ahead of us at the Plaza de Obradoiro, calling to us through the wind. We, too, feel their relief as they set their weary bodies down and gaze up at the towers and turrets.
The golden and glowing tomb of Saint James himself seems to vibrate and send a mystical tremor through the earth to our feet, so many miles away. The clergy at their pulpits, clad in green chasubles and cream albs, pray and praise the pilgrims who arrived before us, and still miles down the road, we feel their hearts swell in celebration.
We hear the distant organ pipe up as ten men dressed in wine-colored robes and soft brown boots untie the giant rope from a central pillar. They tug downward in unison as the giant, silver incense burner called the botafumeiro starts to swing. These men, Tiraboleiros, continue until it swings gallantly as a pendulum, draping all of us in a haze of white smoke and blessing.
Perhaps it's the stunning nature we encounter along the way that inspires us so -- The singing birds hidden amongst the pine trees that line the rolling hills of Galicia; the rivers calming our hot bodies in those days of extreme heat; the alluring smell of jasmine cascading over stonewalls on the outskirts of little towns.
An ancient tree stands on the outskirts of Triacastela, a chestnut of our ancestors, gnarled and truncated yet still bearing a full crown. Within her low branches and roots are seats for people of all ages and creatures alike. Along her trunk are burls in the shape of grandmother's faces, smoothed by oils from the many hands that have left their marks throughout centuries of shared prayer.
Throughout the trek, the surrounding nature brings us together, calls us forward, and encourages us with every step.
Is it the path itself that infuses the destination with it's value?
The ground meeting the worn soles of our shoes, 40,000 times a day, surely plays a role in the emotions we feel when we finally reach the end of this journey.
The ugly, oozing blisters we tend to on our friend's feet at the end of the day are enough to make anyone question the choice to continue, and yet we do. I'm lucky to have avoided the blisters, but I still almost quit back in the city of Burgos. During the first night there, I cried myself to sleep from the thought of walking another day. The bottom of my left foot had developed a knife-piercing pain that came with every step in my now worn-down and threadbare shoes. After googling my symptoms and realizing I had a case of plantar fasciitis, I hopped on a bus and found the only store in town that sold Altra trail running shoes.
The next day I was walking on clouds, regretting not upgrading my shoes earlier. A week later the pain had fully subsided, and with it any desire I had to stop.
While there are so many incredible layers to this journey, I would argue that it is the feeling of togetherness, the camaraderie with one's fellow pilgrims, that holds the most magic.
The encouraging shouts of "Buen Camino!" and the endearing smiles shared as we pass one another on the road. A helpful stranger providing a shady area to rest our weary feet. A community dinner at the end of a long day - wine glasses clinking and stories spilling onto tables to be eaten up eagerly alongside our entrees.
These are the moments that I will carry with me long after the camino itself comes to an end.
Together we climbed mountains and looked back at all those miles walked, contemplating the path from whence we came. Then, with our gazes westward, we sent our collective memories ahead to the Cathedral, where they danced together like ants in the wheat fields, swapping knowledge of great food sources, safe places to refuge, and our most embarrassing and hilarious moments along the way.
We carried stones with us, rubbing our hopes, fears, and frustrations along their smooth surfaces as we walked. Then we released all of these emotions, dropping them from the highest point of the Camino Frances at Cruz de Ferro, where they settled atop millions of others. Countless hopes, fears, regrets, and joys piled high at the foot of an iron cross, lifetimes worth of shared emotions gathered together.
And so at the end of the day, I realize I am thankful for the masses that joined us back in Sarria. I am grateful to those newcomers for uplifting my exhausted legs and mind with renewed purpose, and reminding me that I am part of not just my own pilgrimage, but one shared by countless other feet and eyes and stones throughout the centuries.
Written by Emily Foubert
This story was brought to you by guest writer, Emily Foubert.
Emily is an an environmental educator, nature mentor, writer, and bird language enthusiast who lives in her childhood hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she started a nature school in 2018to provide on-going nature-connection programs for children, families, and adults.
She loves trail running in wild places, traveling, and building fires with her hands. She feels most alive when she sings around campfires with friends and writes in the woods with the more-than-human world. She dreams of one day traveling to her ancestral homelands in Ireland, Great Britain and Germany, where she hopes to find traditional ways of building, cooking, foraging, hunting, grieving, and celebrating seasonal cycles.
Emily's writing and poetry seek to connect the inner human world with the outer natural world. Grief, love, peace, and loss are central to her pieces. With her writing she aims to close the manufactured gap between humans and nature, ever reminding us of the true place and posture of people: indistinguishable from Earth, and kin of all elements, plants, and animals.