Though we’d been told we could have a dorm to ourselves, it hadn’t worked out that way. We’d wound up sharing our room with a few others including a Czech couple, one of whom spent a long time on the phone, struggling to explain to a friend in New York what she was doing. After a while she appealed to Jeanne for help, so Jeanne did her best to sum up the Camino, saying that "people used to do it for religious reasons, but nowadays most people do for fun."
I wasn’t sure she was quite right, but it seemed as good a summary as a quick phone call was going to manage. It’s clear that fun is part of the modern Camino, just as Chaucer makes clear it was for medieval pilgrimages, but I’m not convinced that’s why people do it. I got the impression that people were walking for all sorts of reasons: to see Spain, to face the physical and mental challenges of the Way, to give thanks, to ask for something, to lose weight, to lose habits, to simplify their lives, or simply because they said they would. Often people walked with a mix of motives, but more than anything, I’d found, people did the Camino in search of clarity, knowing that with a month or more of walking they’d have time to think without the distractions of home, and hoping to find answers in that clarity.
The next morning we set off with the sun at our backs for the short climb through the Pass of Irago to the highest point on our Camino where the iconic Cruz de Ferro, a rust-spotted iron cross on a tall wooden pole, stands on a cairn of stones brought there by pilgrims, each signifying a prayer of one sort or another. The origins of this tradition are unknown – some think it was a Roman custom, with the mountain being sacred to Mercury, the god of travellers and boundaries, whereas others think it was an indigenous tradition – but however it began, it has been a Christian practice for centuries and scarcely a pilgrim passes now without leaving a stone there.
I’d meant to bring a stone from Ireland, but had forgotten it, so had picked one up while crossing the Pyrenees. After adding it to the pile, and kneeling in prayer, I stepped back and stood in silence, continuing in my prayers but also musing on how the cross was both a tourist trap, buzzing with pilgrims and passers-by posing and taking photographs, and a place of quiet contemplation and intense privacy, full of people kneeling, crouching, and standing in sorrow and gratitude and hope.
After a bit I made my way over to one of the others who I knew had had a lot to bring before the cross. "I’m okay," she said, nodding sadly, and I put my arm round her. Moments later Sorren did the same from the other side and the three of us stood bound together in silent solidarity as pilgrims all around us brought their pain to the Cross.
We spent far longer there than we expected, before putting our packs back on, gathering our sticks, and picking our way downhill. It was a long, treacherous, exhausting, glorious climb, but we all made it down to the idyllic town of Molinaseca without turning any ankles. Unfortunately, once in Molinaseca it became clear that my blisters had become unbearable, and walking even a hundred metres down the flat streets was agony. Grudgingly I accepted a lift to Ponferrada, there to have my feet patched up at the local hospital.
I’d long understood that there was no place for ego on the Camino, but it was a real battle to accept that lift. It had become a point of pride for me that I’d walk the whole way from St. Jean to Santiago, carrying my pack as I went, and I felt genuinely ashamed even to be in a car even for just three kilometres. Talking to other pilgrims who’d done the same thing at one point or another, it became clear that this was one of the classic struggles of the Camino, where you have to admit that sometimes you just aren’t strong enough to go on without help.