The Road to the End of the Earth
The cathedral square in Santiago de Compostela welcomes me back as if there were no time; no time between now and twelve years ago, when my then-husband and I and our beautiful mongrel pitbull reached here after walking the Camino through northern Spain for five weeks; no time between now and the bustling, stinking Middle Ages; no time between 1075, when ground was broken to build a bigger-and-better-stick-it-to-the-Moors-next-edition-house-of-worship after the church on the same site was burned to said ground, and 1211, when the cathedral was completed.
‘Completed’ is a loose and relative term, always, and certainly here, where scaffolding prevents me, and probably hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists, from getting to the Portico de Gloria. Herd mind though it may be, there is something moving, powerful, about touching the pillar sculpted in the imagined likeness of St. James, where the grime and dermal oils of millions of travelers have, through a near-millennium, worn a handprint deep into the marble.
It is the business of cathedrals to remind us of our impermanence with their solidity, complexity, enormity. The generations of devotion and craft and labor poured into every carving, chamber, cloister, sculpture, every pew, floor tile, vaulted ceiling, every ornate archway, bell tower, portico. Crypt. The lifetimes of work invested in something the artisan would not see completed in those lifetimes. Or, imagining the laborer who was alive in 1211, when the ribbon was cut and the bottle of medieval champagne smashed against the prow, we realize that it is only happenstance that he received the glory, which belonged to the visionaries and the legion anonymous brilliant humble dead.
Strangely, what I find here in the Praza de Obradoiro is not only the self who was married and not quite actively trying to decide whether she should just take a sharp turn off the path she had been following for over fifteen years by then, viz. the rutted, unpredictable and shadowy path of art, into a life in which having a child might be a possibility; what I find here is my even-younger self. The eighteen year old who ended up in so many places like this in Europe, living, watching, listening, smoking, writing in the silence before the Truman Show du jour began, before the time-lapse buzz and clamor and hum kicked into gear. The twenty-three year old who wandered among enormous pines on Vancouver Island, crying as though it were indistinguishable from breathing, overwhelmed at her smallness, and the superficiality of the life of culture and art and literally man-made history that had made her who she was: alone, lost, driven into the forest in pursuit of a Woman Painter who wrote about how God and art-making and light and the life force of the trees were all the same thing. The thirty-two year old who returned to Vancouver Island and parts north and west of there on her nominal honeymoon, which was in fact a research trip for a play she’d been commissioned to write about that same painter. It was on that trip that that thirty-two year old decided that she would walk the Camino de Santiago for her thirty-fifth birthday. Which she did.
I am forty-seven when I meet myselves outside the cathedral on this quiet morning. I have returned to walk a small section of the Camino again, this time from Santiago to the Costa da Morte. It is a three day walk to Finisterra, “the end of the world”, where pilgrims sighted the ocean for the first time in their lives, and one day’s walk north from there to Muxia, where pre-Roman cultures worshipped the meeting of the sun and the sea. I am the age the painter was when the right to vote was granted Canadian women at the end of World War I, roughly the age at which a healthy medieval pilgrim would be reaching the end of life. It is staggering to be here. It is like looking through transparencies that simultaneously show diverging truths about the city, the cathedral, the square: time has stood still here, and the place is also visibly neater, more sanitized, tourist-friendly, set-like. I am me, the person still trying to finish a book, still trying to become herself, except I am me now, as much because of what I have learned and done and changed as because of what, and whom, I have lost.
I pick up the path by following the sign in the Praza, and then following the yellow arrow spray-painted on the ancient grey stone steps. Down. Into a street with shuttered homes, because it is early on a Sunday morning. I am reeling that I am back on the Camino, that it happens so easily, though forty-eight hours ago I was at a high school in the Bronx, and then in a livery car, and at LaGuardia, and laid over in Philly, and then drinking a little bottle of Rioja and watching a mediocre movie on the plane, and then at Barajas, and finding it strangely easy, after ten more years in New York, to navigate in Spanish and purchase my train tickets so I can get to the subway and into Madrid, where I get out and find my way up a path in El Retiro, directly and by sheer coincidence if you believe in such a thing, to the sculpture of The Fallen Angel I was reading about just a few days ago.
I am jet-lagged and bone tired, not just from the journey from the Bronx to the airport to Philly to Madrid to the train to the subway to the park, but all of it – all of it: the divorce, the moves, the deaths, the acute chronic pain, the brokeness, the full time job, the solitude, the expatriation, the pursuit of happiness, following my bliss, following my star, wading hip deep through the wet cement on the path of most resistance. I lie down on the grass with my knapsack right next to me, so I will feel it if anyone tries to take it. I put my wrist through a loop. I let go, and, like the angel, I fall. It is luxurious, timeless, I am falling, I understand the expression “falling in love,” I understand why I have been afraid to fall, and I am grateful that coming back to Spain has made it possible to let go.
Later that day, I will stand in a line at the Prado so I can see Bosch’s Haywain. Vendors are here, across from the museum, as they were twelve years ago when I bought a poster of the triptych with the enormous hay wagon at its center. I do not remember now why I wanted this reproduction, but eventually I got it dry-mounted and hung it over our bed. Four years after we’d bought it, when I was in a particularly magical and awful place with the book I was, am still, writing about the Camino, I suddenly noticed a figure in the central panel wearing the triangular hat and holding the walking stick and water-filled gourd that denote Jacobean pilgrims. I felt dry-mouthed shock, as though I had discovered a sign from the part of myself that had already left behind the life my then-self was afraid to leave; a clue it took me four years to find, though it had been left out in the open.
Three years passed before I could get back to the Prado, back to The Haywain, years during which I ended my marriage, left New York, started over. That time I stood in front of the triptych for hours and wrote down every single detail I could in a journal I later threw out. I was trying to capture something, keep something, but when I read it over later, it was not much more than an inventory. I hadn’t done much I couldn’t have done by looking at the dry-mounted poster. I was trapped in the details, on the surface.
This time I just look, knowing I will absorb what I need, even if I don’t know what that is. I think of how my ex-husband always used to fixate on the textures of paintings, he loved the raised splotches of ancient oil paint, like the crests of tiny waves frozen in time. My vision vacillates now, between the stories, pictures, symbols and the surface: the weave of the canvas, the lines and dots, the sudden thicknesses of the paint itself.
When I have finished with Bosch, for now, I find my way to the subway to get to the train station where I take an overnight train to Santiago. I share a sleeper car with three women, two bunk beds on either side of a tiny room. I wake in the middle of the night with that burning in my left breast that I got sometimes in the days when I was most heartbroken, when one of my best friends was dying of breast cancer, when it felt like I had been swimming too long and was never going to see land.
I would like to be in a dark, speeding train car with a lover, hurtling forward into the night, not because I am aroused, not because I am lonely, but because I have woken up suddenly, wanting to be alive in a new way, a different way. It is at the edges of my awareness that this is the train that went off its rails two weeks earlier, killing eighty people, and I think: I am safe on this runaway train, they have closed the barn door after the horse, battened down the hatches, caught the shoe bomber, I am in Death’s blind spot.
In the morning, I take photos of the train station as I walk up the stone stairs into the city, because the sun is coming up pink behind it, because palm trees are silhouetted against the faint sunrise and I feel that hit of relief I used to get when my family finally arrived in Florida after a three day drive from the frozen-over hell that was Montreal, because I remember this train station from twelve years ago and I am mystified that I am here, that it is here, sitting here where it was, different and the same. There are salads in plastic boxes for sale in its café now, and no smoking, but otherwise it is much the same, sitting modestly at the foot of a hill that leads up a winding street to the cathedral. And after wandering through the cathedral, lighting electric candles, exploring inside and out and sitting quietly and rearranging my bag and filling my water pouch and following the sign that leads me to the arrow that means I am on the Camino, after all this, all of it, I am astonished at how easy it is to slip onto the path again, to just pick it up as though I never lost it, never left.
I will follow the road through town, out into fields, it will become narrow as a thread, I will walk on four-lane highways, cross bridges, walk in woods, over hard packed earth, I will walk two extra kilometers in the wrong direction, downhill on asphalt, until a Spaniard in a car tells me the Camino is back that way, and I will have to walk two kilometers back, when my feet and ankles and knees and hips are on fire.
When I ask myself how I got lost, the simple fact is that I didn’t want to walk uphill, so I walked right past the sign. I wanted to take the low road, because walking uphill seemed harder, though it hurts my knees more to walk downhill, and the paved road hurt my soles more than the narrow, dusty path unraveling through the Spanish landscape toward the vast expanse of blue ocean in the distance.
STACEY ENGELS writes in a variety of genres (playwriting, screenwriting, literary non-fiction, even a little poetry again recently) and moves in a variety of ways (walking labyrinths, walking pilgrimage, walking meditation, walking to work, swimming, scuba diving, even a little yoga again recently). For at least the past decade, she has been exploring the intersection of writing, creativity and healing, in her own life/work and as a workshop leader, coach and consultant. Stacey’s home constellation is triangular; she travels regularly between New York, Montreal and Toronto, in various combinations. She is an ardent fan of Edward Abbey’s autobiographical (“honest”) road trip novel, The Fool’s Progress.