We say it, literally, dozens of times a day. When passing by other pilgrims… when townspeople pass us on the street… But, especially, we say it when we leave… when we rise and get up to continue our journey. Whether we rise to begin our morning trek, or from one resting place to the next, we always turn to the pilgrims around us and say, ´buen camino.´
It means, ´good path,´ or ´good way,´ as in a blessing for the way ahead. But it is much more than that.
I wrote in an earlier blog, that it has become a reality of the camino that each pilgrim lives with the constant understanding of uncertainty. We never know. Specifically, when we part that day, we never know if we will see our current company again down the path. Sometimes we can make assumptions. Sometimes even arrangements. But on the camino, things happen. Blisters. Injuries. Unexpected new opportunities. Accidents.
I arrived into the Santiago de Compostella on Tuesday, July 23rd. This was two days before the feast day of St. James – the day the entire town waits for every year to celebrate its raison d´etre – reason for being. We joked as we we were walking into town that without St. James and this pilgrimage, the town wouldn´t even have a name.
When we arrived, it certianly seemed true. The cathedral rises above everything and the entire town encircles it. And at night, when the lights are cast upon the magnificent spires, it looks like an ancient Oz in all it´s emeraldness. Every day, pilgrims arrive into the city, jubilant – the completion of often more than 800 km of prayerful (or mostly prayerful) walking toward this church. Everyday, inside the cathedral, a mass is performed to honor those who have arrived. The ritual goes back 1400 years and, somehow, the all the history is sewn into the importance each pilgrim feels as he walks into the magnificent St. James square.
The town was in the midst of all its preparations when we arrived. The dozens of pilgrims we started with swelled to hundreds and then thousands as various pilgrim routes converged in Burgos, then again in Leon and especially at the 110 km mark in Sarria. And so many of them increased the daily distance they travelled to arrive in time for the festival on the 25th. The music, the celebration and – above all – the fireworks set to go off at midnight on the 24th – all set the tone to commemorate what to each person feels like an epic accomplishment in their life.
My last two and a half weeks on the camino became much quieter and more reflective after Liz left and I have used the time to have more contemplative and prayerful conversations with myself and others on the path. I did walk in with about 15 others and we did celebrate… and upon seeing each of the several dozen people I walked with during the previous five weeks, hugs and smiles were exchanged, a few beers were consumed and stories were plentiful.
But the quantity and caliber of the celebration preparing to be deployed at the festival seemed to be registering far higher on the exuberance scale then the quiet and tender new ideas I had been collecting. So after getting my certificate of completion from the credentialing office, and seeing many – but not all – of the people I´d met along the way, I retreated to the hostel where I was staying about .75 km from the cathedral.
Roots and Boots, my hostel, was chosen because it has a magnificent view of the cathedral, and I managed to get in earlier enough to get the best room and the best bed among all 175 spaces. My top bunk looked out on St. James square so that I would have a perfect view of the fireworks that would begin going off around 11:30 pm.
At about 10:00, I noticed that I had left my electrical adapter in my last hostel, and I went downstairs to the desk to ask if they had an extra one. But the woman who had been so kind and helpful to me when I arrived was running out from the office area and closing up the room. ´Escopa me,´ I tried to interupt. But she stopped me. In very broken English she said, ´sorry… not now… there is something terrible… I must go to the train station…´ and she hurried out the door.
I didn´t ask anyone else about it. I just went back upstairs and got into bed and waited for the fireworks to begin. At 11:00 the lights around the cathedral went out, for what I thought were the final preparations. But 11:30 came and there were no fireworks. Finally, at midnight, the lights came back on. I was confused. I wasn´t sure if I missed it.
Around 12:30, others came back into the room we were all sharing and there was a lot of whispering, but it was all in Spanish, so I could not understand what everyone was saying. It wasn´t until 6:30 in the morning, after I went downstairs and was preparing to leave that I heard the news.
At around 9:00 pm, a train travelling from Madrid into Santiago – bringing a number of celebrants into the city for the festival – derailed only a few few kilometers from the station. 77 were originally reported dead. I later found out that the woman who worked at the front desk had her son on the train. He lived. But another pilgrim, who had already finished his camino and was returning to be with other friends – who was to be staying in the room next to the one I was in – died.
A dozen of us sat around the hostel watching the news reports feeling helpless and sad and lost. In various languages, we volleyed ideas about going down to help or donate blood. But we had no medical records and no transportation. So after much discussion, a group of us decided to do what we could: to continue our walk because they couldn´t. To walk and carry their stillness with us. Our destination: Finisterre: ´the end of the earth.´
The big pilgrim mass – the one so many of my fellow pilgrims were hurrying to arrive in time for – was cancelled. In its place was a mass to honor the dead with the bishop in attendance. Everyone had prepared for a great celebration. What was held was something very different.
When I arrived at my first stop, 10 km outside of Santiago, I ordered a cafe and sat down to watch the mass which was being televised. Inside the cathedral, the cameras panned over the faces of attendees. There were dozens of people I knew – people I´d walked with over the course of the last 6 weeks – who were in attendance. Everyone looked stunned. Everyone had tears.
We say ´buen camino.´ It is a powerful gesture. We say it, I think, in place of the feelings we hold but have no words: ´It has been lovely travelling the way with you…. it would be wonderful to see you again at the next place of rest… but one never knows.´
Today, with a heavy heart, I remember those who died… and those who were affected by this tragedy… and all those who carry with them the power of connection and the precious impermanance of life. And I hope everyone is able to impress upon those they are with, how wonderful it has been to share this part of the way together.