“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
― Mary Oliver
Days 79-82: (Santiago to Cape Finisterre)
Total KM hiked: 1610 (That’s 1000 miles….hooray!!!!!)
Day 82. On the final 3km out to the Cape, we passed an enigmatic statue of an old time pilgrim. Pilgrimage in the past was much harder and fraught with many dangers.
So here goes with the final installment of our journey on foot across Spain. Well-done to those readers who have made it this far with us, in mind if not in body! This is the last trail report in the GR1 sequence but there will be some follow-up posts on our opinions of the trail, the best sections, planning tips and some extra photo blogs. Having a link to Instagram has been a handy and easy way to display our photos ‘on the move’, but it is not the same as integrating them into the blog and displaying them properly..so, given the number of photos we took, I have my work cut out over the coming weeks! Blogging via smartphone from the GR1 has been by turns both fun and a pain….the latter especially when it eats up most of a rest day. On the other hand, it has provided a great focus for my thoughts and feelings and an incentive to get them down ‘on paper’ as a record of the inner life and journey that accompanied our outward, physical progress. I hope this blog has managed to capture a flavour of the special moments that made this hike all worth it as well as the challenges and more prosaic times that all make up the substance of a long distance walk.
After the mixed feelings and disappointment of arrival in Santiago, we were relieved to walk out through the lamp-lit streets of early morning on Day 79. Ahead were 90km along the Camino Finisterre to the Atlantic coast and we were in no particular rush. But if we thought these final days would be a breeze we were wrong, the heat was fiercer than at any time on the trail so far, with temperatures hitting 35-36 degrees in the shade….so up to 40 degrees in the full sun! We had never planned to walk this late into the summer season, but breaking the hike for a couple of weeks to return to Britain in early June had set us back a bit. Some pilgrims just pushed on through the hot hours (11am-7pm), heading out into the blazing light, skin exposed, sometimes without even a sun hat, only to arrive pink and heat-exhausted at their destination in late afternoon. It was a little frustrating not to be able to use more of the day for walking, but I have never coped with the heat well anyway- must have northern blood in my veins- so we usually stopped around midday and checked into an alberge. Unfortunately, some of the alberges had the dormitories in the roof and they ended up feeling like a hot house at night, which made us wish we were out in the Hubba again and back in the cool, frosty sierras of springtime Aragon.
Day 79, leaving the shining streets of Santiago at dawn to embark on the final 90km of the Camino Finisterre.
If the weather was a challenge, the landscape of the Camino Finisterre was not that inspiring and followed the theme of Galicia so far, with many Eucalyptus and pine plantations. Over vast areas, the natural vegetation had been planted over to make way for industrial forestry which bears no relation to the natural ecology of the region. The result of this was an almost total lack of natural history interest, few birds or flowers and a general feeling of environmental impoverishment. This is not to say that human modified landscapes are always bad, there are many semi-natural ecosystems produced by farming and grazing for example, that are ecologically rich and valuable- the hay meadows we saw on the GR1 in the Picos are a case in point. But these semi-natural systems have evolved over centuries and have attained a functioning ecology which the terribly simplified structure of non-native tree plantations cannot match. In the case of Galicia, rapid change to plantations occurred after the abandonment of the land by traditional farmers who maintained a richer, cultural landscape. Without ecological knowledge, most pilgrims didn’t notice or particularly care about this, but to the eyes of those who know, it was shocking just how much had been lost from the land, mainly for the profit of the few.
The Camino Finisterre was not all bad however, there were still bits of old lanes and some pretty villages, and without the intense heat it would have been a pleasant enough walk through gentle countryside. Nearing lunchtime on Day 80, we were traipsing miles of dusty tracks, when we suddenly encountered a donkey tethered in the shade of a hedge. Moments later a browned and skinny man emerged from the field adjacent and loaded a few more bits onto the donkey’s pack saddle. The man was a Hungarian and long term pilgrim called Roland, his donkey was Rocinante and they had been traveling the Camino on and off for nearly 4 years. Rocinante was one of the best kept donkeys I have ever seen, and as we stood and stroked his long ears, we chatted to Roland about their life together. I asked Roland what the hardest aspect of traveling with a donkey was, and he said that it could be difficult to re-supply in towns as the police were unpredictable as to whether they would let Rocinante on the streets. Other than that life was fairly simple, Rocinante ate from the verges, Roland slept out in the fields, and he arranged with local farmers to stable Rocinante when he had to go back to visit Hungary. It was clear that man and donkey were close companions and that Roland doted on Rocinante. I mentioned the travels of Robert Louis Stevenson through the Cevennes and the problems he had with his stubborn donkey called Modestine. Roland knew of this and said, ‘the problem was he did not love his donkey….you must love your donkey!’
Rocinante, Roland, an Italian pilgrim and Barry.
In the midday heat on Day 80 we were relieved to finally see the cool, blue Atlantic and to begin our descent to the coast, which we would follow for a further 18km around to Finisterre.
The heat combined with pretty dull scenery did not do much for morale in the final days to Finisterre, and more specifically, Barry’s morale. I think in Santiago he had sighted the end and perhaps hadn’t bargained on such a tiring finale. He was pretty grumpy at times and this did impinge on my more positive mood, although in all fairness the poor man was ready to stop walking, and after nearly 3 months I could not blame him for that. There were a few times I could envisage him checking into a hotel and me going on to Finisterre alone. His argument was (and always has been) that if he is not enjoying the hike, there is no point in doing it. Obviously this does not apply to the odd bad day or experience, but is a general rule- I also don’t believe in slogging on for the sake of it. Between us we have an internal gauge of quality and it had nearly always stayed in the positive on the GR1, although had dipped more often upon reaching the Caminos. My argument though, was that having come this far it would be crazy not to finish the last few days, especially since Santiago had not lived up to much. Going coast-to-coast had always been our objective and was a symbolic ending, I tried hard to get him stay with this vision, promising he would not regret it!
Final approach on Day 81. Rounding the bay to the fishing port of Finisterre, the dark bulk of the Cape looms just 5km ahead.
On Day 81 we rounded the final curve of coastline and there lay the brooding bulk of Cape Finisterre, shrouded in low cloud, with the fishing port of Finisterre on a narrow isthmus before it. It was a mercifully cool Atlantic day and our skin was sticky with salt spray as we walked around a stunning bay to the town. I had had a sore tendon on the top side of my ankle for a few days, but as we were walking on the sand, I felt a hot, tearing sensation- with only 5km left to the Cape I ended up half hopping, half hobbling to the alberge. The town and the alberge were abuzz with arriving pilgrims and we took an immediate liking to the place. There was an air of buoyancy and celebration, those arriving were smiling and the locals were more welcoming too. Maybe this was because there was less expectation than Santiago and people were more relaxed, or maybe it was just because Finisterre really is as far as you could go, the real end of the road. High spirits aside, all the pilgrims in the alberge had varying degrees of the ‘hiker hobble’, some (crazily) having walked the 90km from Santiago in 2 days or less! I was laying in my bunk contemplating the possibility of having to use crutches to get me out to the Cape for sunset, but with the low cloud we decided to let my ankle rest and scheduled our finale for the next afternoon.
Two slightly dodgy old pilgrims out on the town in Finisterre 🙂
My ankle was still sore the following day, but we dumped some of the weight from our rucksacks (leaving them behind entirely would seem like cheating) and set off in late afternoon. The 3km approach across the headland to the lighthouse really did feel epic. We walked behind a chap who was literally punching the air with joy, other pilgrims, already returning from the headland, smiled at us warmly and wished us our final ‘Buen Caminos’ (Good Way), we even got a few nods and smiles from the tourists too! As we reached the tip of the Cape, and the blue Atlantic spread around us on three sides it was not hard to see why pilgrims of old thought this was the end of the world ‘el fin del el mundo’. Out on the radio mast by the furthest cliffs, pilgrims had strung articles of clothing, shoes and other trinkets to mark the end of their journey. The tradition was always to burn an article of clothing, but signs now forbid it, and perhaps justifiably as there are ugly burn marks where pilgrims have (and probably still do) have fires. The tattered offerings, photos and handwritten notes were poignant, what hopes, expectations, burdens and sorrows had people brought here over the years, to be offered or renounced, and dissolved by the Atlantic winds?
Trinkets, momentos and offerings left at the base of a stone cross by previous pilgrims who had also made the long journey to Finisterre.
In the warm sunlight and amid the milling crowds of other pilgrims and tourist selfie-takers, we popped the cork on our bottle of bubbly. A family above cheered at our small celebration, a spontaneous bit of affirmation which meant more to us than they could have known. Gaelic music drifted from the cafe nearby and down on the rocks below, a lone pilgrim practiced Tai Chi as the sinking sun cast a glittering pathway across the sea to the west. We sat quietly on the sun warmed rocks watching groups of gannets rounding the Cape and drifting low over the rumbling swells. Pleasantly hazy with the bubbly we contemplated the 1000 miles and who knows how many footsteps we had left behind us. Neither of us were really able to connect the present moment with that sparkling Easter weekend when we set off from the Mediterranean coast 82 days ago. Throughout our walk, I never took finishing for granted, because if you think about it, the odds of completing are quite small compared to all that could have gone wrong….all those ankle-breaking bits of trail for starters. To have been granted eleven free and flawless weeks to complete the journey, it was as if the universe had somehow allowed us a blessed and safe passage. Sitting there at Finisterre seemed miraculous not so much for our efforts as the sheer mathematical probability of it.
With no trail left, wondering what on earth to do next!
Obviously as hikers we can improve our odds of completion greatly by planning, fitness and caution, but I think the biggest factor for us was our teamwork as a couple. Quite simply I could not have done it without the consistency, understanding and emotional support Barry gave me. In return I am sure he would admit that he would not have done it without my impetus and the planning and discipline I brought to the operation 😉 As a couple, this hike was a different journey to the GR11 last year, we found a balance with each other (most of the time) that made things flow more smoothly. I believe some of this was because Barry was willing to push himself a bit further and step up a gear, which meant we were better matched in pace- although the right balance between pace and quality of experience was always a fine one and, on such a long hike, often a compromise. There was also more kindness and tolerance on both our parts, less expectation and I guess a confidence that came from being more experienced hikers. If I can pinpoint the exact thing that made our finale so special for me that evening at Finisterre, it was being with Barry in the knowledge that he had given as much as me to be there, that he too had known the magic of those quiet times and sunlit places, and that shared knowing of it all was marvelous.
Our trusty Osprey Exos bags and Black Diamond poles propped against the famous 0.00 km marker, we had finally run out of land.
When we woke the next morning, it was for the first time in 11 weeks when we did not have a hike to do, our day was no longer mapped out in a simple line from A to B. Initially at least the lack of pressure, of being able to ‘lay-in’ until 8 o’clock, to wander aimlessly and watch the sea, or to sit and read a book over coffee, was sheer luxury. For several days post-hike there is a golden period when we are still glowing from the experience and everything, including modern conveniences we take for granted, seems new again. It was also nice not to feel constantly sticky with sweat and sun cream, to escape the itches and bites of insects and to eat proper food that was fresh, crisp and crunchy. These small pleasures, although nice, soon paled however, compared to what we had ‘lost’. Hiking not only makes life simple and satisfying, it also makes us feel good in body and mind. Many long distance hikers struggle with the post-hike come-down and it is tempting to immediately seek a ‘cure’ in planning another hike again. This is ok to a point, but perhaps also misses the point, because after-all, it is not possible to walk always and forever.
The real trick is to translate the insights and perspectives gained on the trail to our life beyond the trail as well. On one level I think this, rather than the distance, is the real challenge of a long hike, and is important if the experience is to have an enduring ‘meaning’ beyond itself. If we just hike and hike, if the attainment of miles is an end in itself, we run the risk of it becoming an escape from and substitute for the real act of living and loving. Not only this, it wastes the real value of this time apart in beauty and nature, which is not to stay distant and unburdened by the complications of life, but to (hopefully) return to it with a bit more wisdom and self knowledge. The act of walking is simple, the reasons for walking are often not. Hiking (even 1000 miles) can sometimes seem easier than finding direction and fulfillment in life or negotiating relationships with those we care about. Hiking is essential to me in this sense as a refuge and an inspiration. The peace and beauty that we are immersed in on the trail passes through us, and also holds up a mirror to what and who we are. It invites us to keep searching and questioning and trying always to be better.
“That day, I really believed that I had grasped something and that henceforth my life would be changed. But insights cannot be held for ever. Like water, the world ripples across you and for a while you take on its colours. Then it recedes, and leaves you face to face with the void you carry inside yourself, confronting that central inadequacy of soul which you must learn to rub shoulders with and to combat, and which, paradoxically, may be our surest impetus.”
A symbolic end. On our return from the Cape, we went down the beach and dipped our scallop shells in the Atlantic as we had also dipped them in the Mediterranean when we began. The water was clear, cold and full of rainbows. On the reverse of the shells we had written a message to carry with us. Mine (above) was a saying from Zen Master Sheng Yen. Even if I did not attain this mindset very often, it was a reminder to me that the present moment is always sufficient. Barry’s message was the Koan he was given to reflect on at our Zen retreat in February, ‘What is Love’.