Today was a mixed bag. Whenever we walked on dirt paths through woodlands surrounded by soaring eucalyptus trees, we could think we were still far from civilization, from Santiago, from the end of our pilgrimage. But from early this morning when we passed a large Repsol filling station complete with self-service carwash bays until we straggled through pouring rain into a busy commercial suburb of Santiago with three names, Arco, Pino, and Pedrouzo, we often felt the grind of asphalt on our shoes and could all but smell the city.
Tomorrow (Saturday) will be our last day outside Santiago de Compostela, a holy site, a bishop´s seat, but also the capital of Galicia complete with an international airport we have to walk around. We are less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from our goal. Imagine walking the length of Manhattan Island or (for hometown readers) from Beverly to the Gloucester line along Route 127. That´s all we have left of our walk across Spain. Most pilgrims will cover this distance in a single hike of five hours, including breaks. Marian and I will take parts of two days because we want to do the last 4 kilometers on Sunday morning. Admittedly, this is a bit sentimental. Sunday is not only the Sabbath, but also Father´s Day.
We slept relatively well in an albergue in Ribadiso on Thursday night, which qualifies as news. After several sleepless nights in large municipal refuges at the beginning of our Camino, I pushed for pensions and hostals, with simple but private accommodations. What´s changed? Maybe it´s the fatigue, making it possible to sleep anywhere, or maybe I´m starting to feel like even the loudest snorers are family. The Camino will play tricks on you like this. In any case, when Marian told me that one of the oldest pilgrims hostels on the Way had been smartly restored, I said OK to it. All things considered, I don´t regret the decision. I got six good hours in 45-minute snatches.
Still, from 3:15, when I padded to the toilet, the madness of communal sleeping on the Camino was on full display. While I stood at the urinal, I heard a man puking violently in the toilet stall behind me--possibly one of the zealous fans of soccer and drinking who filled the bar Thursday night to watch Spain play for the 2012 European Cup. (In a qualifier, La Roja smoked Ireland, 4-0.)
An hour later, I woke to the sound of heavy boots on the floor above, as though a large person were packing a knapsack while practicing the foxtrot. At 4:30, someone fell loudly. At 4:45, another pilgrim came down steps through the open, split-level dormitory, dragging a pack along the metal newel posts of the stairway, creating an atonal xylophone effect. Just after 5:00, someone turned on the lights. I hissed a loud "No!" and after a count of three, the lights went out. A few minutes later, another early exiter played his headlamp all around the sleeping space while gathering his stuff. There is no way a light sleeper can just roll over when hijinks like these are going on.
We breakfasted and walked out of Ribadiso with our Portuguese friend Ana. In a continuing back-and-forth about faith, Ana and I talked about the importance of Assisi in our journeys. She was raised Catholic and steered toward Opus Dei, but found the whole thing too confining, too dogmatic. World Youth Day in Rome in 2000 turned her back to the Church, especially after a sidetrip to Assisi. I told her about my first visit to the home of St. Francis 29 years before hers, or 10 years before she was even born. I added that three European sites had figured prominently in my conversion: Assisi, Lourdes, and Notre Dame de Paris. Incidentally, 2014 will be the 800th anniversary of Francis´s own Camino.
There were times when everything seemed to come together on Friday. One example was the reappearance of Hans from Asheville, whom Marian befriended two or three weeks ago. When he appeared, we were seated in a hip cafe, not unlike the kind you find in his North Carolina mountain town. Staff gave out marking pens so that we could write on tables and walls. I inscribed a heart with initials inside it: WB and KB. It was a lift for Marian to see Hans, tagging along loyally with me, she has missed connections with some younger friends. But Hans soon dashed off, claiming he was going to walk all the way to Finisterre (100 km) by Saturday evening. Ah, youth.
The rain pelted down in the afternoon. We got soaked. We passed the Singing Spaniards for the fourth or fifth time. Friends of Ana, the six young pilgrims serenaded us as we slogged through a tunnel where they had huddled out of the weather. By the time we came into Arca our animal survival instincts rose up to squash any more sacred impulses. Marian, Ana, and I searched up and down the main drag for beds. Finally, Marian and I took a double pension, and Ana went off to the albergue up the hill, agreeing to meet us for the 7:30 evening mass.
We did meet for a lovely mass celebrating the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the three of us ate a pilgrim meal afterwards. Like the day, it was happy and sad. Ana especially seemed to have found something in her friendship with Marian and me, but her work schedule in Portugal makes it necessary for her to leave early from her albergue on Saturday, while Marian and I, with more time, can be leisurely about checking out of our pension, and do not need to reach Santiago on Saturday, as Ana does.
We have exchanged e-mail addresses, and she and Marian have talked about meeting at World Youth Day in Brazil in 2013. Realistically, though, we do not know how many of the sudden intimate friendships formed on the Way will stand the test of time.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]