Friday, June 25, 2010

To the Edge of the Earth

Mass ended and we filed out of the cathedral into the main plaza out front. We saw more familiar faces from the early days of the Camino. This was the season finale that we joked about, where all the characters showed up for one last episode.

Ellen and I checked into our hotel on the outskirts of the old city where 140 euro gets you some serious fanciness, like a free minibar. I would have cleaned out the cokes and fantas, but the glass bottles weighed too much for the heist to be worth it.

That night, at midnight I turned 28, entering an undisputed position of late-twenties, if that even means anything. I fee like I gave up on those mile markers long ago. But to celebrate Ellen and I went for the real meal we had been longing for this whole trip, a meal that really summed up spanish cuisine. We never found a restaurant that seemed like a winner, but settled on one with a moderately-pricey menu and white table cloths. We entered the restaurant in our 'pilgrim's best'; me in jeans, a fleece, and flip flops, and Ellen in a fleece, black wool hiking skirt, and flip flops. "Dos, por favor" I said hold two fingers in the air. They looked around at a few of the empty tables with concerned looks, and then motioned us to follow. The hostess led us into a back room where a family with three kids were enjoying dinner, loudly. And soon after a large group of 18 joined our special room. We were getting the pilgrim treatment. However the restaurant was accommodating enough to give us an english speaking waiter.

We set out for three more days of walking to Finisterre. Most pilgrims stop in Santiago, but the route from Santiago to Finisterre predates the actual Camino when it was more of a roman and pagan tradition to walk to 'the edge of the earth' and watch the sun disappear fearing that it might not rise again.

It was good to be walking again, not that we took a break other than from the hostels and typical pilgrim life during our stay in Santiago, but I wasn't ready stop walking yet. The path out of Santiago was rolling and wooded. We saw very few pilgrims all day giving the trail a calm and quiet feel. We did a 23K into Negreria the first day, and a 34K walk into Ol Veirora the next. We passed through farm after farm. This section of Spain is big into dairy cows and each little town carries a heavy scent of sweet, musty funk from manure, especially when used as fertilizer on the fields.

We arrived in Ol Veirora around 3p after a long, hot day. It was a tiny farming village just like the countless others we passed along the way only this one was completely dominated by the albergue. It was a compound, occupying a half-dozen little stone buildings on the only street through town. All of the doors and the window panes were painted turquoise blue signifying the takeover. There was a bar that was obviously fueled by the pilgrim presence. This was the only place to stop before Finisterre, which is why we walked so long to get there. There really aren't any other options.

The hostel was filling quickly by the time we arrived despite our 6a departure. Ellen and I quickly learned the details of how this place was being run, which is that its a free-for-all. Earlier, the hospitalero showed up, unlocked the place and said "okay, find a bed, I'll be back at 5p or 6p". Everyone shuffled into a frenzy. The only beds that were left for us were six mattresses on the floor of one building, and a random top bunk in another, and one more top bunk in a little house the michigan group took over. I moved into the michigan house and Ellen took the bunk in the other building. Three students still hadn't shown up yet, and we were worried that the mattresses would go fast, and they did.

Sarah, Cathy, and Courtney rolled in about an hour later, the hostel was completely full and beginning to stack up with other bedless pilgrims. Ellen and I talked about sharing my bunk to free up hers for Courtney and Cathy to share and I could let Sarah use my inflatable sleeping pad. We tried it out, she and I lay there on my bunk. No way. Okay, option two: "Let's just gather all the thick blankets nobody ever uses because they're gross, and pile them on the floor of the michigan house. We could make two beds for Cathy and Courtney, and Sarah can have my sleeping pad. We'll put them upstairs and no one will ever know, and even if they do who cares, this place is obviously loosely run." Done. We crammed three three girls upstairs in our little stone cottage, and Ellen slept in her bunk over the 'garage', which was really a former stable.

More pilgrims continued to pour in, until 10 bed-less people remained into the night. They tore apart cardboard boxes that were in the stable and turned it into one big sleeping mat. When we left the next morning at 7a, bodies in sleeping bags were all over the stable floor like some sketchy homeless shelter.

The walk into Finisterre was great. We climbed gentle hills until we couldn't see anymore land in the distance and the sky blurred into the distant haze of the ocean. It was almost indistinguishable, but we knew it was there. After another 12K or so, we could really see it and it looked fucking amazing. This was how to end a walk, not in some spanish city but where you really can't walk any further. We dropped down the steep hills and descended into the bay of Cee, walking through the town along the water. The sun was hot and the breeze off the water felt cool and smelled like ocean. We climbed another hill, crossing over the ridge and back down to Finisterre. Ellen, Sarah B, and I stopped at one of the sandy beach coves off the main road to dip our feet in the turquoise water. We found Cathy and Courtney at a cafe along the sidewalk to the beach, and they joined us. The water was freezing, too cold for my limited tolerance. Ellen and Sarah de-robed into their underwear and went for it, I stood wading, holding their belongings with one arm and taking photos with the other. Courtney ran in without hesitation like a character in baywatch. Cathy cautiously followed. All four of them fully submerged. They're hardcore.

After they stopped shaking violently and dried off, we continued for another 5K into the main part of Finisterre, winding through the city, and then climbing a steep hill up to our hotel. Ellen and I ordered the special room with bay views for 80 euro a night with breakfast included. It was an amazing deal, the room was great.

That evening we bought a bottle of wine and walked to the lighthouse on the tip of Finisterre, and watched the sunset on the longest day of the year. Ellen and I found a rock on the steep grassy hillside to perch on. Other pilgrims were scattered throughout the steep cliff on little perches of their own, drinking wine and staring off into the orange glow of the sun. I could hear the french man and playing his wooden recorder a hundred yards away. Everyone was there.

We walked back into town and headed towards the large stretch of beach on the bay. We were in search of the giant solstice party we heard so much about. We had been looking forward to a crazy party of spanish hippies and new agey pilgrims, but the beach was silent. It was just a rumor. We passed other pilgrims under the dim glow of the streetlights, "Hey do you know where the solstice party is?" I asked. "We're looking for it too." We later learned that June 23rd is considered the real spanish solstice, or at least a crazy and mystical day. Legend has it that the virgin mary appeared floating in a stone boat (a popular vessel with the romans) from Finisterre up the coast to Muxia, which is another pilgrimage route of only 30K. Ellen and I settled for a sidewalk party with three other pilgrims who offered us a bottle of wine. There was a guy from Australia, a girl from Sweeden, and a young Spainard who couldn't speak any english. We sat on the ground with the dark bay to our backs talking about what pilgrims know best, the pilgrimage.

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