At the edge of the old city I stood next to the road sign that said “Santiago de Compostela.” I stood there for some time, processing in my mind what I had just accomplished. In a short time my pilgrimage to Santiago was about to end. After walking for 47 days, I was just a few miles from the cathedral and the tomb of Saint James. It felt strange and yet familiar as I walked into Santiago. I was retracing the steps from my last two Caminos, trying to work out which memory connected with each street in the old part of the city.
For the third time in four years I stood on the great stone paved square of Obradoiro. I looked up in awe at the massive 900 year old cathedral with its two 80 foot towers. The statue of Saint James stands in between with large wrought iron gates at the entrance.
On arriving in Santiago and at Obradoiro Plaza, you experience lots of different emotions, many of which are overwhelming. It was incredible seeing other pilgrims arriving, laying back on their backpacks with big smiles on their faces. All were contemplating the enormity of the journey they had just completed.
I could relate as I lay there against my backpack in the middle of Obradoiro Plaza. I considered how a month and two weeks of walking seemed to go by fast. It felt like I was just in Seville a few days ago, fresh and eager to start. I’ve reached the end of another journey. I’ve arrived once again, much thinner and worn out. I considered the accomplishment, endurance and discipline needed to achieve it. This is mine I thought to myself. For 47 days I had gotten up and walked every morning, to see the end of my day’s walk with the sun dropping in the west.
I left Seville April 3 and arrived in Santiago on May 20. The entire journey took over 600 miles of walking through six provinces. I walked over Roman bridges, Roman roads and explored countless world heritage sites. I spent many days walking through thousands of acres of olive tree groves, vineyards and orange groves that spread to the horizon. I walked over three mountain ranges under good and bad weather conditions. Many days I walked in heavy rain, some days in blowing snow and the next day would be 95 degrees. It was amazing to walk through the end of one season and into the beginning of another.
Next I went inside the cathedral to fulfill the age-old rites of the pilgrimage by visiting the Apostle’s tomb. This is where I lit the candles for my friends Cindy Payton Cyr and Dave Coffman who both passed on, during my Camino. I decided to dedicate my pilgrimage to them and as always my dear parents.
After I visited the tomb of Saint James I lined up with others to climb up the steps to touch the glittering statue and hug the solid silver cape on the shoulders of the saint. I gave thanks for my safe journey and to all who had helped me on the journey. The lifeblood of the cathedral and Santiago was for centuries, the ceaseless stream of pilgrims. Parts of the cathedral were being renovated so I walked to a church nearby where the pilgrims’ mass was to be held.
After leaving the cathedral I walked over to the pilgrims’ office to get my Compostela, the official certificate acknowledging my completion of the pilgrimage to Santiago. The clerk at the pilgrim’s office congratulated me on finishing. She smiled at me, looking at my three, very worn credentials saying you have come a long way. My credentials consisted of my pilgrim’s passport which was proof that I walked from Seville to Santiago. It was full of colorful stamps from the Albergues, cafes and churches. The clerk asked my name and wrote it out in Latin. She then put my certificate into a special cardboard tube to protect it from damage while I traveled. I still had a few more weeks left on my journey to reach home. Armed with my new certificates I walked back to the plaza, watching for friends to arrive.
Over the next few days Obradoiro Plaza was still filling up with newly arrived pilgrims. I saw many familiar faces from the Camino. We posed together to take pictures for our memories. We were joyous and humbled standing next to the great Cathedral. We all celebrated, congratulating each other, and laughed and cried together. Later we shared stories for hours from our journey over the ‘final supper’ at a restaurant. These were just a few of the many friends I met on the trail.
On the Camino I met new people each day. We always had a story to tell or just the simple hello, ‘where are you from?’ and ending with ‘I hope I see you again, beun camino.’ We would meet up a few days or a few weeks later on the trail, all the way to Santiago.
There was one last thing I needed to do before I finished my Camino. After two days in Santiago I traveled to Finisterre, a small fishing port on the Atlantic coast, west of Santiago. In medieval times before Columbus, Cape Finisterre was believed to be the end of the known world. In Latin the name Finisterre means finis terrae or ‘end of the earth.’
High above the fishing port is Monte Facho Mountain. Here there’s a prominent lighthouse and the last waymark on the Camino de Santiago and the stone cross where I would stop to pay homage to lost loved ones. I started my first pilgrimage to Santiago in 2015 on the Camino Francés to honor my parents. On each pilgrimage I thanked God every day for helping me endure and for blessing me with parents that were such incredible examples of strength, love and forgiveness.
I first visited the tomb of St. James as I arrived in Santiago on Sept. 26, 2015. Sept. 26 is the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was killed by a distracted driver in 2011. On all three Caminos I arrived at Cape Finisterre and placed a photo of my parents and chips of stone from their grave site at the old Cross. I also left mementos on the rocks just below the lighthouse looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. I have always repeated this ritual on every pilgrimage. I always thanked God each day to honor and dedicate my Camino pilgrimage to my parents by arriving in Santiago on specific Sept. 26. I dedicated my third pilgrimage to Santiago to my friends Cindy Payton Cyr and Dave Coffman and also to honor my mother and father, James and Loretta Larimer.
After a few days I returned to Santiago and secured a bed in the old city near the cathedral. Later, I returned to Obradoiro Plaza and watched more pilgrims arriving. I sat down in the plaza and thought about the past 47 days. I retrieved maps from my pack and looked over where I started in Seville, then north to Astorga and west to Santiago.
A great deal happened on this journey. There was excitement, a lot of joy, and there was physical pain. Above all there was an enormous amount of kindness shown from the people I met along the way. Sitting in the plaza I thought about the new friends I made and left back in the villages. I thought of other pilgrims I met and then lost track of. I also considered the people I encountered and may never see again. Each person made a deep impact on me. We always encouraged ourselves and others to steady on.
I thought of the challenges I encountered and the many accomplishments. The pilgrimages to Santiago took me on different Caminos with different terrain. Each time the weather posed great challenges. It was important for me to believe in something so strongly that I would not allow myself to get discouraged. There were tough times and I overcame each one. I had an immense feeling of pride knowing that I did it. I thought of the people and the ones that helped me. I thought about the little things that I will always remember.
I had faith in my own abilities to cross those mountains and the long distances. I believed in God and myself. Years ago I created a grand vision for myself to live a life of passion, purpose, and adventure. I started at the age of 15 when I explored the greater part of Europe. I travelled from Spain, France, Italy and all the way north to Norway and Sweden. I visited 13 countries. After I graduated from high school I traveled around the world and have continued traveling to this day.
The Via de La Plata was an extremely physical journey. I believe this journey is unachievable if you don’t maintain the mental capacity to overcome the difficulties and stress on the mind and the body. Hikers choose this Camino because it is more challenging. You will see more grey hair on the Via de la Plata because more experienced hikers choose this route. It was when I got to the Camino Frances part of my hike that I once again met more young people and college students.
At the end of each journey there are no goodbyes, just comradery and connection of having pushed the mind and body to extremes and overcame it. As for myself I see many more years of exploring and traveling. I see a new destiny unfolding before me. Buen camino.
John Larimer is 60 years old from Camden Point and finished his third pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on the Via de la Plata.