No one tells you how hard it is to stop being a pilgrim.
From the beginning, everyone assumes the most difficult part is walking day after day or trying to sleep with snoring people. Or blisters.
No, the hardest part is having your soul cracked wide open (no matter how desperately you try to hide it), to discover who you really are, and understand your place in the Divine order of things… and have absolutely no idea how to live it.
How do you go back to a place where you’re utterly certain no one will understand this, or you, or the changes in you? Where you’re positive you’re going to fall back to sleep and forget what you found? And your deepest fear is that when you get on that plane that you will never feel this utterly alive or happy again.
That was the most difficult part about the Camino.
* * *
I woke at dawn with an ache in my heart and the sound of palm leaves rustling in the wind. Today was the day.
Sitting up, I gazed sleepily out the window. A radiant, waning moon hung above in the deep blue as a strong breeze whipped white foam into the dark bay. The sky slowly changed from the faintest colors of banana and peach, to tangerine and gold. I soaked in the sounds of the gulls crying and waves breaking on the beach below. It was, I thought, a final sacred moment to sit in silence and watch the world come to life.
Though she was miles away, I thought about Meg. Is she awake yet? Did she sleep well? Is she seeing this same sunrise? The ache of missing her throbbed at my core, yet I felt present and grateful. Somehow these extremes could coexist.
Inspired, I picked up my journal and sketched one last image from my incredible journey. As I finished the scene, the sun burst over the distant hilltops, causing all the waves to sparkle.
I’m so glad I captured one last moment on paper, my final moments as a pilgrim. Everything that would come next would be about returning home. I couldn’t dwell on that yet. I wasn’t ready.
Just like the previous night, I took a long drink from my water bottle and the sudden fluid caused uncontrollable coughing. No way around it: I was really, truly unwell.
Then I was moving, somehow pushing into the space of the new day. My body knew what to do without even thinking; I dressed quickly, slipping on my pack as I had every day for almost two months. I left the pensíon for the last time and found my way through Finisterre’s flower-strewn streets, colorful remnants of the holy-day festivities. While I discovered that the bus office was open, the pharmacy was not. More medicine would have to wait.
At a little restaurant looking over the harbor, I ran into Don from New Zealand. I couldn’t have felt happier to see his familiar, friendly face. This tall, silver-haired Scotsman gave me a big hug and I joined him for breakfast. His humor and kindness warmed me as much as the strong Spanish coffee. Later, on the bus, Don sat across the aisle from me. As we pulled away from the curb, I stared out the window at this fishing village I’d come to love.
The panoramic views from the upper level of the double-decker bus were stunning. I felt nostalgic as we retraced Galicia’s coast and the path that Meg and I had walked just days before. As we passed the same beaches, cafes, and scenic stops we’d taken, I recalled vividly what it felt like to walk every step. I saw the yellow arrows and crunchy gravel track while remembering the laughs, conversations, and experiences we’d had in each place. It took under an hour to drive a distance that had taken us two days on foot.
At the end of an isthmus, time seemed to stop as I glimpsed all of Finisterre in one last sweeping vista—the clustered buildings of the village, boats scattered in the harbor, and a crown of sacred stones on the highest hill above it. With a lump in my throat, I beheld the lighthouse where Meg and I shared our ritual and the sloping road we walked that night in the cool wind. We were there together. My vision blurred with tears.
As Finisterre faded from view, the last few days seemed less real, like a dream slipping from my grasp. I took a deep breath, though the ache still gnawed inside me. The bus proceeded inland to Santiago on an unfamiliar road. Eventually, drowsiness led to a fitful nap.
When we arrived in Santiago a few hours later, the noise of the Galicia’s capital city assaulted me. Cars and busses whizzed by, spewing fumes and loud vibrations. The hot sun burned into even the darkest corners. It was nothing like the quiet, breezy coast. Above the city, the cathedral spires poked up into the bright sky, beckoning.
Don, ever the gentleman, passed up a siesta in his cozy hotel (just who was being pampered?) to accompany me from the bus station to my albergue. It was a kind gesture and made me wonder if I seemed so ill as to need support. Before parting, we made plans to have dinner together.
The deep ache inside returned like a wave when I walked into Mundoalbergue. After five days’ absence, Scott and Gary and Matthias, especially Meg, were all gone, of course. Despite the familiar walls, I felt completely alone. So many pilgrims get the blues after they go home, but I was in the throes of them while still in Spain.
Fortunately, all was not lost. On my way to meeting Don for dinner, I ran into Katrin—our third happy, accidental reunion—and she joined us for the meal. My coughing was constant, however. I could hardly participate in the conversation. Katrin, who is an nurse, encouraged me to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Back in the albergue, I sat in the common area staring into the fire, waiting for everyone to go to bed, feeling sad and lonely. How could I return to my life such an emotional mess? Wasn’t I supposed to be flying high with happiness?
While pilgrims milled about, I wrote in my journal trying to sort out my feelings:
I’m not ready to go home. I feel like I need more time. I don’t know how to assimilate into my life all the insights I’ve gained from this journey. It reminds me of how I used to feel after a big workshop—huge insights, but an itty-bitty life. How will it fit? What if I want to change major things? How do I start?
The things I wanted to change felt enormous, looming over me. I didn’t want to think about it, but I kept wondering if I was supposed to leave my partner of eight years. What did it mean to feel so strong an attraction to someone else? Was I under some spell? Would I go back to normal when I got back? What should I do?
They say that you’re not supposed to make any major decision when hungry, angry, lonely, or tired—and I was at least two of those. No answers would come, but writing in my journal helped.
* * *
When you share a communal sleeping space like pilgrims do, you try to be considerate of the sounds you make when lights are out. When I eventually headed upstairs to sleep, I went through all the motions of bedtime—got into my sleep sack, put in earplugs, tossed and turned—but I couldn’t control my coughing. I’d just catch my breath when another fit would start.
I realized I was keeping everyone awake when I noticed that even the snorers weren’t snoring. Exhausted, I went downstairs with my journal and blanket to sit on the couch in the common area.
I coughed all night.
While I sat up awake, my mind kept turning to Meg and how she would be staying here the next evening. We had both made reservations before we left.
Not a day would go by for the next year when I didn’t wonder whether I should have kissed her at sunset. Whether I should have followed my heart. As I sat awake thinking of her, I wondered if some kind of connection could be salvaged. If I wasn’t going to act on my feelings for her, I could at least find a way of telling her what an impact she had on me. Was there something I could do, some way to thank her, even if we would never be together?
I got an idea. It was a small one, but courageous for me. As I sat up in the wee hours of the morning, I gave myself permission to take up a whole page in the albergue’s beautiful, leather-bound guest book.
It was as big a risk as I could take: I decided write words there that were straight out of my journal, my most honest truth, unedited. I hoped that Meg would read them, that she might understand how knowing her realigned every aspect of my life.
It’s clear to me now that I want a farm and land
and bees and chickens. It’s clear that I want to be
fit and healthy. I want closeness and intimacy in
my life. I want a simple home and my work to be
aligned with where my life is going. I want to have
a rocking sex life. I want to have long, meandering
conversations with people who know and love me.
I want to work outdoors. I want to be gentle and
compassionate and present and open. I want to sing
and have fun. And laugh. And cry. And be as real
as I know how.
Maybe I’m not supposed to know how to do any of this yet.
I just know that I’ve been broken open by this experience
and I don’t want to lose what I’ve gained.
I want to keep being the wild, beautiful self
I discovered on the Way.
With hours still to go before dawn, I drew a gorgeous, intricate border around these words with a Celtic knot. In every word and line, I pressed gratitude into the page for Meg’s help in discovering these aspects of myself.
Writing, taking up a whole page to share every significant revelation, was me finally speaking my truth. It was my small act of courage, a breakthrough. Although I wrote them for her, it almost didn’t matter if Meg would ever see these words.
I had found my voice. Finally. And this I could take home with me.