The Camino de Compostela ends in Galicia, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The village of O Cebreiro lies at its height, and it greets pilgrims who enter the autonomous community on the French route. I arrived amid the mountaintops and flecks of cloud on an otherwise clear Sunday. My pilgrimage, which began in Lourdes, totaled 1,000 kilometers or about 1.25 million footsteps by the time I reached the sea.
The Camino has been a Catholic tradition for more than 1,000 years. It takes time, and it takes you to other times. Each day is both mind-blowing and mind-calming. Thoughts slow with the repetitive act of walking—a simple continuous motion of keeping one’s balance. Step after laboured step, day after day, walking kept me present in the moment.
LOVE IS THE WAY
The walk was a healing retreat for me, and a plan that had been delayed by two years due to my cancer diagnosis. Walking alone, I met with many colourful and heartwarming companions. What surprised me was how generous every Spaniard I met along the way was to us pilgrims. ‘Donativo albergues’ or by-donation hostels provided lodging, breakfast, sometimes an evening meal, and most excitingly, laundry—it’s basically an all-inclusive walk! You don’t need to think; you just have to walk. Trail markers guided us. A simple yellow arrow pointed the way every few kilometers on stone markers or more often spray-painted on curbs, roads and buildings. At the pilgrim’s mass that evening in O Cebreiro, the priest gifted us with small stones painted with yellow arrows. He explained: The yellow arrow of life is love.
NEED A HELPING HAND
Now in Madrid, bus ticket in hand, I was at a loss for what to do next. The bus would take me to Paris, marking the end of one journey and the start of another—the one home.
A beggar approached me, his disfigured left hand outstretched. Being used to small-town life in Revelstoke, I always find it awkward responding to begging. I am frustrated by how dire poverty is allowed to happen. I struggled to understand him as he spoke in Spanish of his family, children, and how he could not work because of his infirm hand.
A GIFT OF KINDNESS
I gazed into his brown eyes, then reached out and held his hand in both of mine, closing my eyes. All those hours reflecting on humanity, morality, mortality and love, walking through the Pyrenees, the Meseta and Galicia poured through me. When I opened my eyes, the man reached beneath his collar and removed a rosary from around his neck. It had black beads with silver links, an engraving of Our Lady and FATIMA stamped on the back of a crucifix. Rosaries were something my grandmother always cherished and I had visited Fatima in Portugal. He pressed the necklace into my hands. Tears came over me. My heart flooded with childhood memories and a profound belief in something bigger than myself. This rosary and a yellow arrow painted on a pebble were my talismans at the end of my journey. The generosity of those I met will stay with me forever. As we parted, another man came and gave him some money, without any words.
WORLD WALKER Michelle Cole is a Revelstoke-based travel writer who loves to walk and camp. Trained as an elementary social studies school teacher, she seeks to connect with the spirit of the places she explores. Learn more about her journey and help her along her way at her Patreon page.