Since we left O'Cebreiro on Monday morning and headed into Galicia, our way has been marked by milestones. Now as we walk, there is a granite lozenge set upright in the earth beside the Camino every 500 meters. Each milestone—or better, each half-kilometer stone—is engraved with a scallop shell and the distance to Santiago de Compostela. A countdown began in O'Cebreiro, 152.0 kilometers from our destination.
At first this was exhilarating. We are really doing it! We are closer to our goal! We are under 120 kilometers! Under 100! I looked ahead for each new milestone, which seemed to be congratulating us on our progress.
But by this morning, Thursday, with just three days left on the Camino, my experience had changed. We were still counting down, but to what? Christmas morning, or a graduation and the end of precious friendships? The Camino is coming to a close… We have 60 kilometers left… Only 50 now… Thursday evening, as we crossed into the village of Ribadiso, we passed the 40.0 kilometer mark. Marian and I are planning 22 kilometers Friday, 14 Saturday, and a leisurely 4 on Sunday morning, leaving us time to enjoy our entrance into Santiago, arriving well ahead of the pilgrim mass at noon. But it will be over… Or if not over, what will be left…? And what will begin then…?
These were my thoughts early this morning, as the rain clouds began forming again after two days of spotty sunlight. Marian and I walked alone—surprisingly after yesterday's flood of new pilgrims. We walked through leafy archways on natural dirt paths and heard a symphony of frogs. Had we left earlier than the crowds? Yes, probably. It was quiet. It was beautiful. And it was sad. Then things changed.
Marian stopped to rebandage a toe. I stopped, then decided to walk on, knowing that her younger legs would catch up soon enough. As I did so, I saw that a young woman was coming up even with us, walking alone. I had noticed her yesterday evening: a broad, open face with brown eyes, pale skin, and ruddy cheeks, framed by a cowl of wavy red hair. I thought, If I walk now, maybe I will have an interesting conversation. That's how I met Ana.
I asked if she spoke English, and she did, well though with a strong accent I couldn't place. We asked about each other's homelands. She is from Portugal. We asked about each other's occupations. She is a scientist who loves pure research. She spent a summer studying at Cornell, she said. Now, though, she works as a broker between scientists and Portuguese business interests who might make more effective use of innovative technology.
My interest was piqued when we asked about each other's reasons for walking the Camino. She said she wanted to understand the limits she places on her own life. She said that in her work there are no limits: her job demands 40, 60, even 80 hours a week. Yet in other areas of her life, she limits time with friends, time in devotion, time spent on other pursuits that she is passionate about. As one example, she has an interest in theater and wishes she could return to it. Still only 30 years old, she hungers to resume pure research, but her job is too demanding, especially because she is successful. I told her that in the USA we have an expression: If you want to get something done, ask a busy person. She agreed that she is an effective busy person, frequently asked to do more.
I noticed a small Romanesque church to one side of the way. It was open, a rarity, so I stopped to wait for Marian, who has said she wants to visit more churches between here and Santiago. I told Ana I was waiting for my daughter, and she said she would wait with me. This was striking. Was there something about our relatively short conversation that she wanted to continue? Or was she—a hypothesis that slowly dawned on me during the late morning—only an angel?
I introduced Ana and Marian, and they hit it off immediately. Our new Portuguese friend seemed to take as much interest as Marian in the churches we visited together.
Other things were striking: I told Ana about some ideas I had for combining my interests in writing and theater. She immediately offered two suggestions that turned my thinking in a new direction. (Marian said later that Ana was equally in tune with her interests as they walked together ahead of me. Marian can tell that story someday.) What amazed me most was that Ana, in just three days on the Camino, had already met three of the most interesting people Marian and I have come to cherish here: Hubert and André from Belgium, and Suki from Korea. There was a moment at a rest stop when the six of us were gathered together around a table, and I accused Ana of being the glue that had pulled us all together.
Then, as the three of us walked ahead, two young friends of Marian suddenly appeared, just when Marian may have despaired of ever seeing them again: Caro from Rhode Island and Fabian from Germany. Suddenly the four young people, including Ana, were walking together in a pack, and I was walking ahead alone. We came to a second open church, where a real live priest played host, and there was a beautiful moment when the five of us—Marian, Ana, Caro, Fabian, and I—were all seated or kneeling silently in prayer. I said a few words to God on behalf of these four young pilgrims.
Caro and Fabian walked ahead, promising to look for us at the Sunday noon mass in Santiago. Ana continued walking with Marian and me, and the three of us arrived at the albergue in Ribadiso just as Hubert and André were pulling in. Later, we all had dinner in a restaurant close by. Suki was there too, and our new friend António, also from Portugal.
Friday morning, as we packed our bags in the darkened dormitory of the albergue, Ana gave me a small wooden cross to wear around my neck. "I have carred this on my way," she said. "Now, I would like you to carry it on yours." I don't know what I did for this gift, nothing I can think of. But these are the kinds of things that happen on the Way of St. James, brother of John, son of Zebedee, Apostle of our Lord.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]