Santiago de Compostela, Spain – March 31, 2017
Our headlamps blaze through forests and fields an hour before sunrise. A faint rain falls, the vanguard of a front racing us towards Santiago. Dawn breaks somewhere beyond the clouds, fading in as we pass small villages, quiet barns, and empty fields. Headlamps flick off and find their way back into packs, jackets come off, a bit of warmth slips through the rain.
The outskirts of Santiago rise to surround our steps. An airport, widening roads, commercial sprawl. The four of us walk forward, some limping, some beaten up, some tired, but still close together, sharing a mix of joy and sadness.
The city grows solid around us. The misty rain comes and goes, faint, still not sure of itself, still not the true edge of the front. We curve through the maze of streets, following the yellow arrows winding toward the old city.
On a non-descript bend of road, the four of us stop, stand close, and stare. Beyond the street’s shops, beyond the tall buildings, beyond the tangle of rooftops, the cathedral’s towers rise toward the sky.
For a moment, we do not move. The end of the Camino is there, waiting for us.
We arrive underneath the cathedral’s walls and stare up at the facade of carved stonework. Hundreds mill about the cathedral’s entrance, but we are alone with our backpacks, the four of us in that crowd, smiling, staring at a place we’ve seen in pictures, the place waiting at the end of our maps. I look at my friends.
The tired Christina I met limping into Roncesvalles as the sun fell is gone. She seemed so fragile that day, so small against the Camino stretching in front of her. But it scraped away at her, uncovering more strength every day. Now the Camino seems too small for her.
“This trail cannot hold you, Christina,” I think. “The next is waiting somewhere.”
Jorgelina begins to cry and I think of those quiet first days we met. Our adventures through the streets of Pamplona. The slow-building trust turning into friendship as the walls we all keep collapsed between us. Her tears bring my own. They are happy tears. Tears for my friends.
Daya smiles at us all. She has a wonderful smile, a calmness to it all her own. She squeezes hands and shoulders, radiating warmth. She never doubted that she’d make it to Santiago. I never doubted either. Strength floods off her, not in size or muscle, but in peace with the world around her, in the confidence of who she is, in the joy of the moment.
“Amelie should be out soon,” Christina says.
We stand to wait. We need our fifth friend to be whole again. Our friend with the most contagious laugh who got a bit ahead of us, who waited two days for us to catch up so we could have one last night together in Santiago. One last drink. One last hug. One last chance to look at the faces we first saw a month ago as strangers and say goodbye as friends.
The sky opens up above us, filling the square with a flood of rain. Abrupt gasps rush through the crowd. People run for cover, fleeing into open shops, under walkways, and into the cathedral’s open doors. I smile up at the rain from the middle of the empty square.
The four of us never flinched.