The Road to Santiago.

November 14, 2002

Arco de Iris.
Arco de Iris

Arco do Pino to Santiago de Compestela

My blood test was 78, a little on the low side so I decided not to take any insulin even though I gave myself a breakfast of four mandarin oranges and four ounces of cheese. I didn't want to take the chance of going hypo on my last day — nothing was going to stop me from reaching my goal.

Even before the sun came up the sky was clear. I willed it to be a nice day as I packed up my poncho and put it in my backpack. As I was leaving the albergue, the sun was breaking over the hills and the sky was bright blue with fluffy clouds. As I was leaving the town, I saw an arco de Iris (rainbow). Even though on previous days a rainbow preceded rain, I read this as a good sign.

Since the path was east of the albergue, I wasn't about to double back. I knew that it had to eventually cross the carretera (highway), so I walked west along the edge of the berm. However, it didn't cross right way. After about 45 minutes, I was still on the edge of the road when I noticed that the drivers approaching me were shielding their eyes with their hands. I realized that the sun was coming up over my shoulders. Perhaps they couldn't see me. Perhaps I wouldn't make it after all. Perhaps I was going to drive myself crazy.

Finally, the trail left the highway and went up the hill into the woods. It was quite muddy from the previous day's rain. And, a lot of branches from the tall eucalyptus trees were strewn all along the path. At one point, a large pine tree had fallen and blocked the camino. I had to go into the field and climb over its trunk. As I maneuvered over the tree, I noticed that it had uprooted — an indication of how soaked the ground had become during the storm.

During my ascent of the hill, I began to feel lightheaded. By now the symptoms were very familiar to me. I reached into my bag and took out some chocolate. Just three small squares seemed to be sufficient.

While still in the woods, I could hear the sound of heavy equipment. Then came the roar of a jet. I had reached the edge of the Santiago de Compostela airport. The trail skirted the edge of the runways and at the further most end turned left and passed next to the landing lights. Just as I was going by the airfield, a giant DHL jet went over me. It was so low that I felt that I could almost reach up and touch it with my walking stick.

When I reached the other side of the airport, it started to rain heavily. I decided to stop and put on my poncho. I pulled the bag out my pack, but couldn't get it opened. Since it was cold, my fingers didn't function very well. I tugged and tugged, but I couldn't open the poncho bag. To make matters worse, the zipper broke. Not wanting to get soaked just standing in the rain, I threw on my backpack and started walking on the trail as fast as I could.

Fortunately, about 500 meters further, the trail crossed the highway and entered a small village. A café/restaurant was open and I went in for a cup of coffee. It was 10:30 and too early for lunch and, as usual, there was nothing but packaged pastry for breakfast. I spotted a torta de Santiago (an almond cake). Since it is usually served as a dessert, the camarera (waitress) seemed surprised that I would order that for breakfast. But I insisted. My blood tested at 78. I couldn't get over how low it was. I hadn't taken any insulin in the morning and had eaten all those carbs. It was difficult to believe how many carbs I was able to eat on the trip, and I knew that I would have to go back to my low-carbo diet when I got home. That or keep on walking 20 K a day!

After I warmed up from a couple cups of coffee, I was anxious to get going. Now my fingers were able to flex and I could work open the zipper of my poncho bag. Even though it had stopped raining, I took out my poncho and tucked it under my belt. The sun actually peeked through the clouds as I began my last 9 K to Santiago.

Rio LabacollaRio Labacolla.
Rio Labacolla

I passed through a couple of small villages, one of which had a small river running though it. This was the Labacolla. Tradition has it that pilgrims would stop here and wash their feet prior to reaching Santiago. Since it was a little chilly, this was one tradition that I would gladly pass up.

After the river, I met a pilgrim coming down the hill towards me. Confused, I asked him if I was headed in the right direction. Indeed, I was. He had already been in Santiago. In fact he had gone on to Finistierre and back again. I asked: Where are you headed now? Home! Where is home? Germany! How long will it take? Four months!

As I headed further up the hill to Monte de Gozo (Mount Joy), I thought about another pilgrim tradition. The top of the hill (it's not really a mountain) is the first place from which the cathedral can be spotted. The first person of a group who sees the towers of Santiago would be named the king of the group. The cry, "Soy el rey!" (I am the king!), became the medieval version of saying "rabbit, rabbit" on the first day of a new month — which is supposed to ensure good luck.

James Michener asserts that the this tradition is the reason for many names such as King, Konig, Roy, LeRoy, Reyes, etc.. He feels that such names were adopted in honor of a successful pilgrimage. I have a much more cynical opinion, "Hey, have you heard about the woodcutter? He calls himself king."

"Yeah he's rey all right, rey el mundo (king of the world). Hey, Ray, Raymond! If you're king then you can buy us a round of drinks!"

I had it all figured out. If I were by myself, then surely I would be the first of my group. I was looking off to my right, scanning the horizon, when out of nowhere another pilgrim pulled up next to me. He was from California. I tried to drop back and let him pass me when he said, "We ought to be able to see the cathedral pretty soon. Yup! There it is, behind those trees." I couldn't see it so he stopped and pointed with his walking stick. He then said, "I know where to look because I've done the camino before."

¡No soy el rey!  Oh, no!! The king's crown slipped away from me in a single moment.
First sight.
First sight
The last 4-1/2 K was boring. The new section of Santiago is like any large city with traffic, noise, and congestion. There was new construction on almost every block and it became difficult to find the yellow arrows. Several times, people would see me standing, looking confused. They would point out the way. To make matters worse, it started to rain again. About 2 K from the cathedral, I felt myself starting to go hypo again. Was I burning off all those carbs from walking fast, or was it an anxiety-induced increase of metabolism. Regardless, I needed some carbs, so I ducked into a pastry shop and bought a breakfast boli (roll). No sooner had I gotten through eating it, then I started to feel better. (That quick recovery speed is an indicator of much sugar must be in them.)

The old streets in the barrio antiguo (old section) of town were twisted and irregular. Even though I could see the cathedral's towers, I couldn't seem to find a street that would lead to the cathedral. A couple of times I had to stop and ask for directions. Finally I came down a small hill in the back of the cathedral. I wormed my way down and around to the Plaza Obradoiro which is in front of the cathedral's main entrance. To enter the cathedral, I had to go up two steep flights of stairs, the last stairs of my camino. The entrance is a baroque façade that was built in the 18th Century to protect the original Romanesque doorway, known as the Pórtico de la Gloria, and a glorious piece of art it is, indeed!
Tree of Jesse.
Tree of Jesse
Standing inside in front of the portal with a look of awe was young Christoph. Assuming the role of wise old pilgrim mentor, I said, "Place your fingers in the vines of the Tree of Jesse, the carved marble pillar. You can see where it is worn from millions of pilgrims performing the same ritual. Then circle around behind the pillar where you find the statue of Santo d'os Croques. It's reputed to be a self-portrait of Maestro Mateo, the craftsman who designed and carved the portal. Touch your forehead to his in the hope that this will impart some of his wisdom to you. Now, we will finish the camino by going down into the crypt behind the altar. There we will see the sepulcher which holds the remains of Santiago. This has been the goal of pilgrims for over the past thousand years!"

As we began the last stage of our journey, walking down the aisle of the sanctuary, Christoph said, "Oh, man, this is it! The end of a trip that began over three months ago!"
I couldn't say a word. For me the camino began two years ago. I left Christoph and walked toward the back of the sanctuary. I was overwhelmed by strong emotions. I had to fight back the tears. I was afraid I would break down. Then I had a sense of déja vu. I had this same feeling once before. It was during my recovery from heart surgery  — on the first day that I was permitted out of bed. I had just completed a difficult passage — and I knew that I had survived! I was going to live!
Santiago Sepulchre.
Santiago Sepulchre
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