Oh I could write about the first coffee on the last morning of a long and eventful walk, the last perfect flaky croissant; the way the golden morning light weaves into the quiet forests on the way and the feeling of being so close to the end and yet it is still so well hidden; or the last steep climb into the woods – one more climb, one more trail winding into the woods so close to the city! – and the way you look at everyone in a new way, because it could be the last; some nod and smile and get all nostalgic and stop and have coffee and try to make it last, savour every last drop of that sweet fresh orange juice while they still can, while some others are thinking they are so close! so let’s just get it over with, let’s get there and be done and shower and change and celebrate, for tomorrow we will be back in The Real World!
I could. But what haunts me about the last day, what stirs my imagination, tugs at my emotions and nags at me like a blister, every time, is Jill. I want to tell you about Jill.
You may not have noticed. In fact, most people I ask have never noticed, even the ones who have walked it several times. Jill? they say and search their happy camino memories to find a peregrina who fits the bill; was she English, maybe?, Australian, Canadian? What did she look like? I say I don’t know. For I have no idea who Jill is.
All I know, is that Jill walked the camino to the end some time in or before 2012, and that she made her mark – her indelible mark, as it turns out – on someone’s soul, because at some point another pilgrim found some white paint from who knows where, and – heart no doubt hot or heavy with the last-day, last-chance of it all – wrote a love letter to Jill, on a wall, on the camino. I take photos of it as I pass by, preserving the decaying words for posterity, and although now they are almost illegible and will soon be gone, I know them by heart:
Jill, before we finish I’d just like to say
every step has been better with you
I love you
Oh Jill, I would love to find you, to show you the (photo of the) wall, to ask you what I have wondered since my first walk ten years ago: Did you see it? Because if you didn’t, that almost makes it worse. Do you wish you had? Or hadn’t?
Did you know that someone walked out into the golden morning light that last day thinking about you, came across a tin of random paint and quickly, impulsively, heart racing, expressed their feelings on a wall for all future pilgrims to see – for you to see? Did you know who it was? Did you suspect? Did you meet again? Was that awkward, or jubilant, or not to be? Is this a camino love story, or a tale of loss?
So yes, when I walked into the golden light that morning I thought about the unknown pilgrim carrying the weight of a secret or unrequited love, or being carried on the joy of love for love’s sake, not walking with Jill on the last day, but leaving this surprise for her, perhaps hiding behind the words in plain sight. And I thought about Jill, breathing in the cool eucalyptus scented air and enjoying the crunching sound of her own footsteps, not knowing that soon she would turn a corner and see it … or miss it. I thought about all the pilgrims who have walked their last day to Santiago carrying and being carried by all the things they have seen and done, dreamt and felt, endured and enjoyed, all the people they were meant to meet and miss, knowing that they might never see them again, or feel this way again, or be this person again. I hope we all find someone who makes us think that every step has been better with you – or who would paint it on a wall for us. Perhaps I’m just a big old romantic, or maybe I just like imagining happy or heart wrenching endings while I walk the last day to Santiago, knowing full well the triumphant arrival fanfare also signals the end of the adventure and a rush of goodbyes.
Or maybe that’s just me. (But if you are Jill, or the lovestruck vandal, or know who either of them are, let me know!)
After the Wall of Jill, it started getting warmer. I started bumping into my Ladies again, and other familiar faces, including that of Santiago itself as we drew closer. I was very pleased that I found the turnoff to the airport if you are walking to or from it! Finally! (See above; this is just before/after the Casa Porta de Santiago in San Paio.) That left only two things on my to-do list: Take photo by the big marker – check – and stop at the campsite bar to have a drink. It’ll be all hard roads and Reality from there on in.
And as we poured into the campsite place in San Marcos, everyone was there! There were Ladies, and Sisters, and Dutch and Swiss and Germans and Americans, all finally coming to the same stop at the same time, so we joined tables and got drinks and large bags of campesiña crisps to share, and the weather was good, and the music was good, and it was all good. Stop there. It doesn’t look like much, but there is a Tardis-sized beer garden behind that little hut of a bar on the corner of Still Walking and Almost There, and there is still time to postpone the inevitable.
Eventually our happy little gang carried on, singing a brand new pilgrim song as we approached Monte Gozo. The steep hill past the 500(!) bed monster albergue compound marks the descent into the city itself, with some – many – pilgrims choosing to spend the night there and walk the short 4-5 kms into the city and the square the next morning. Some of our campsite camigos decided to stop just at the bottom of the hill, on the outskirts of arriving, for a little while longer. The rest of us soldiered on, ignoring all the aches and pains, adjusting to watching out for traffic, and making exciting plans to sit! and have an anker bier! and all the tapas! and a shower! and change into clean clothes! as we powered on into the city.
Then, as always happens, we arrived. There were no fanfares, but smiles, worn stone, excited chatter, heavy-hearted joy and long hugs. A strange feeling of being lost just standing still. And slowly we drifted towards our rooms.
But, as also always happens, we met up again, all showered and changed, the last bit of camino dust and salty sweat gone, to celebrate our achievement. We gathered at Rua Bella on Rua Nova, squeezed into a small table with more and more chairs, saw familiar faces and new, ate and drank and laughed and cried. And as night fell on Santiago I thought of chance meetings and instant friends and camino magic and Nicole, who was almost in Finisterre; and of journeys and stories, and how even the best ones have to end, and yes, I thought of Jill and her secret love, hoping they are both happy out there somewhere, and I hugged my sola sisters before I let them go.
Buen camino, everyone!