Final Steps of the Camino de Santiago, Spain
As the last of the traffic noises behind me faded, the darkness and silence of the pre-dawn Galician woods engulfed me
completely. Hobbling on an injured knee with a phone flashlight too feeble against the darkness in one hand and
a walking stick too jarring against the silence in the other, I began to realize that I didn’t quite think things through.
It was my fifth and final day on the Camino de Santiago. Determined to arrive in Santiago in plenty of time for the Pilgrim Mass, I set out for the journey at 6am. What best-laid plans eluded me was that this final stretch would begin in thick eucalyptus woods, that at 6am in April it would still be pitch black in the westernmost part of Europe, and that few--or no--other pilgrims would be walking this early in the off-peak season, in the darkness, in the forest.
And so I walked alone, passing the steps by debating what was more overwhelming: the fear of my predicament, or the regret for the chain of decision making that led me into it in the first place. Back home you would rarely catch me hiking in a forest during broad daylight with friends--I find the potential of critter sightings to be unsettling. The irony was not lost on me that right about now that would be the least of my worries. Nevermind thieves, rapists, and serial killers who, if any were lurking, must be happy to see such a stupid girl, I was beginning to seriously consider the possibility of ghosts as well. And why did I care so much about making it to Mass anyway? I'm not what you would call religious. The Trinity that I worship consists of Terence Tao, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Benedict Cumberbatch. A venerable trio, though likely useless against ghosts.
At some point the light from my phone, however weak, caught a stone marker, the kind that's ubiquitous along the Camino to mark distances until Santiago. It was a relief that at least I hadn't made a wrong turn and disappeared into a wormhole or something. I couldn't read the marker, but I could imagine what's on it: a scallop shell carved from the stone, a yellow arrow, red letters marking the current location and the distance ahead, and graffiti in the form of messages left by past pilgrims.
Messages left by past pilgrims... why of course, millions before me had walked these woods in the centuries past. Some may have even made the same careful miscalculations as I had. They were not with me physically, but their words of encouragement might be.
Nobody is walking alone.
"If you're in pitch blackness, all you can do is sit tight until your eyes get used to the dark." Who said that?
Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood. Itself full of forests of netherworlds.
Well, my eyes still weren't used to the dark, but my knee injury had become useful in gauging the gradient of the road. Mild pain meant uphill, searing pain meant downhill. A small pool of light from a cell phone app that shut itself down every few minutes, a swollen knee turned derivative calculator, and theoretically some messages from the past that I couldn't read--not much to work with, but more than what the lost souls in Murakami's forests had.
And then I saw a clearing ahead. At first I was afraid that I might have imagined it, but traffic noises confirmed that the woods were indeed about to give away to a freeway. Under the lights, I surveyed the landscape ahead. A steep downhill awaited, certain to be tough on the knee. Fortunately I no longer needed the knee to see.
So I popped some ibuprofen, took a deep breath, and continued on the way.