These are posts in which I relate the story of my walk on the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick in September/October 2019.
Everyone was up early today. Mostly everyone. It became impossible for me to fall back asleep by 5:30 a.m. Bill couldn’t sleep either so we got up, packed our bags and we got on the road and started our walk for the day. We started in the dark using headlamps and walked that way for about an hour and a half. Daybreak was around 7:40 a.m. and the breaking dawn became a spectacular display of color and light.
We climbed up and up today. Today we the day we’d been anticipating. We would reach Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross. A large wooden pole stands atop a pile of rocks. On top of the pole is an iron cross. Historically, it has a few origins and a few meanings attached to it. I would call it a “thin place” a place where whatever separates the seen world from the unseen world is very thin and whether you call it enchanted, magical or holy, it feels potent and meaningful.
And I didn’t feel any of those things as we walked up to it.
Bill and I were walking with a fellow pilgrim who said to us, “We should have reached Cruz de Ferro by now.” He was comparing the published distance to what his GPS watch was telling him, and it wasn’t adding up. The three of us started to wonder if we had missed a turn in the path somewhere and then suddenly we came around a bend and up a slope and there it was.
I was unimpressed.
Having seen the movie, The Way, I had something in my mind about what this would be like and it wasn’t any of that. Quite honestly I just didn’t think it was much to look at. Just a big pile of rocks beside a roadway going through a picnic area on one side and gravel parking lot on the other. It was underwhelming and I felt disappointed and all the excitement to get to that spot that had built up in me that morning just evaporated.
We had, as tradition had invited us to, brought our own stones or mementos to leave on the pile of rocks. I moved off to the right on the other side of a wood railing and took of my pack to get to my rock. I wasn’t impressed but I would still leave my rock. Bill had already put his pack down near the base of the pile of stones and was retrieving his own contribution to Cruz de Ferro.
And then…I don’t know how to explain this in any way that will make sense but I simply looked back up at the pile of stones with my little rocks in my hand and I was overwhelmed with emotions. Tears in my eyes, lump in my throat, something is happening to me emotions. As my eyes scanned to pile of stones I saw a man at the very top pulling out his cell phone. To be honest, I got judgie. I couldn’t believe he’s climb up to the top and take a selfie. I was quickly convicted by the scene that unfolded.
The man spoke in Spanish to someone and he was sobbing. Not crying or weeping. He sobbed. I only know enough Spanish to know that it had something to do with his mother. He could be calling her from Cruz de Ferro seeking reconciliation or forgiveness. He could have just laid some of her ashes there and phoning his dad to tell him it was done. He could have been walking the Camino in her memory or while she went through cancer treatment and he was just telling someone he loved that he had made it.
I don’t know. But I do know from the stories pilgrim’s told me, all these things are possible.
Then something even more beautiful and gut wrenching happened. Another pilgrim, an Asian man, just putting his own stone down on the pile, walked over to the man and put a consoling arm around his shoulder and asked him, in English, “Are you ok?” The Spanish man nodded, still sobbing and choked out, “…my Mom.” And I knew I was in a holy moment as these two strangers and fellow pilgrims shared a moment, looked deeply into each other’s eyes and offered consolation and found comfort at Cruz de Ferro.
And then just like that, it was over. The Asian man patted the other man’s shoulder and walked down the pile of stones and onto the Way. The Spanish man took another moment, collected himself and then he continued his journey.
My eyes full of tears, I slowly made my way up the pile of rocks, nearer to the iron cross itself. I noticed among the rocks there were photos, notes (one read, “pray for my grandpa,” little mementos that gave hints about the stories of those who had been here before me. Bill put our friend Derrick’s rock on the pile for him and then he placed something precious that he’d brought along for himself. I found my spot and put my little rock down. It was meant as a sign to God that I was giving up on control, I will be a leaf on God’s breeze, a small stick floating in the great current, a snowflake in God’s Nor’easter. It was, for me, a powerful moment, a tearful moment, of giving up and giving in.
As I turned from my own rock and started to pick my way down the large pile of rocks and pictures and notes and bits and pieces of people’s lives, I felt like God whispered to my heart – “be careful where you step, you are walking on the burdens of others.”
We walked on from Cruz de Ferro, I’m not sure if I felt lighter or heavier but I definitely felt changed.
Then it started raining on us.
Our accommodations for the night were in El Acebo and we arrived there wet and ready for a rest. We were both surprised to find it was new and clean and that “clean” was the new posh. We met some interesting people from Europe and Asia over dinner and saw our first – but not our last – pilgrim meltdown as one peregrino took another peregrino to task for having their boots under their bed. It was tense in our little bunk room for a while but eventually we all settled in for a good night’s rest.