Sunday morning’s walk was short, difficult, and beautiful. We set off at 7:30 from Vega de Valcarce, where we had stayed at a casa rural run by an old woman named Emilia. Emilia is most likely an angel and quickly became my best friend after learning that 1) I can speak Spanish and 2) I had been to Lourdes. Making friends around here really isn’t that hard, especially in towns that seem to be inhabited exclusively by adorable grandmothers. I bounded out of town, high on life (and caffeine) and grateful for a laundry list of blessings that I rattled off to my dad as I bopped along the side of the highway. This high carried me 11 kilometers through rocks and mud, climbing over 600 vertical meters, stopping at every possible bar along the way for a hot drink and shelter from the endless rain and chilly winds. It was, as Webster would say, a SLOG.
The climb was worth it, though. The terrain over the past few days has been my favorite of the whole camino: lush green and looming mountains and trails lined with yellow flowers. I huffed and puffed along, filling my mind with Beyonce lyrics and thoughts about the future. It was mucky, and wet, and perfect. And once we got to the top, the clouds parted, and we were able to see the entire valley. We pointed through the varying shades of green towards the bottom of the mountain, guessing at where we had started and watching pilgrims make their way up the path, the ponchos covering their packs making them look like a parade of hunchbacks.
Dad and I finally made it — together — to O Cebreiro, just in time for noon mass at the Iglesia de Santa Maria. Soaking wet from rain and sweat, we dropped our packs against the wall and found a pew, taking a few minutes to pray and take in the scene. The small church was filled with both pilgrims and locals (according to our guide book, just 50 people live here year round), gathering for worship without any sense of segregation. Elderly couples wore their Sunday best, tailored jackets and slacks and shoes that shine in spite of hunched backs or canes. The old people in this country are just so damn classy, so unrelenting in their will to go on with life. And here we were, sitting next to them: smelly pilgrims in strange, damp clothing, reciting prayers in our native languages and squeaking into the church in our muddy hiking boots. But I felt just as welcome as I do in my church at home.
As pilgrims, we live by a somewhat altered set of rules: Sitting at a cafe without ordering anything is acceptable. So is taking off your shoes (but keep your blisters to yourself). And strangers greet us with warmth and enthusiasm as we pass through each small town on our path, pointing us in the right direction with a “buen camino!” and a smile.
Sitting in church, transfixed by the 11th century sculpture of the Virgin Mary and shivering in my thin purple raincoat, I was struck by how normal this all was. For hundreds of years, strangers have been passing through this town en route to Santiago, stopping in their church and eating at their restaurants and sleeping where they could find a bed. I didn’t get any odd looks from the locals, but rather smiles and enthusiastic signs of peace and then there was that one woman who walked over to me after mass to light my candle with hers before I placed it as an offering at Mary’s feet.
I’m still trying to figure out what this thing I’m doing right now means. Yes, it has religious significance. Sure, it’s giving me time to consider the ever-present question of what’s next for me. But I still don’t fully know why I’m here, or what it means to be a pilgrim, except for the fact that I’m searching for something and I’m always hungry. I do know, however, that there is nowhere I’d rather be, and nothing I’d rather be doing. There is value in the life of a pilgrim. There is immeasurable beauty in this journey (and in this country). I’m just not sure I can articulate it yet.
So I must say this to anyone who cares to listen: be a pilgrim. Walk to Santiago if you can. And if not, never ignore the voice inside you that urges you to seek the things you value most. Sacrifice normalcy to go somewhere meaningful. Spend time living without luxury or a regular schedule or your own bed in order. Rely on the kindness of strangers. Don’t be afraid to put everything else on hold. Don’t be held back by your inability to define the things you want. Go find them. And if you already know what you want, and you’re already where you want to be, become a pilgrim as a gesture of thanksgiving. I promise you won’t regret it.