Cruz de Ferro, a famous Camino landmark, is a huge iron cross originally erected to help pilgrims find their way across the mountain. Over the years, a large mound has formed at its base as pilgrims have added a stone, brought from home, to symbolise what they want to leave behind and their readiness for rebirth on the last leg of the Camino. Legend has it that when the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was being built, pilgrims were asked to contribute to its building by bringing a stone; hence the tradition at Cruz de Ferro.
As I approached, I could see lots of people already there, standing amongst the stones and taking photographs. Not only had I missed the sunrise, but I didn’t have a stone. Still, I wanted to participate in the ritual along with everyone else. Stitched to my rucksack was a multicoloured ribbon, which for me represented joy, and I placed it between the stones. Put simply I wanted joy and play to have more prominence in my life.
Walking across the mountain and through its villages was an uplifting experience. The picture perfect alpine village of El Acebo particularly stood out. I imagined people holidaying in the quaint, historic houses with their rickety balconies overhanging the narrow street, and for a while I felt more on holiday too – that is, until I was struck by the realisation that nothing big was going to happen to me on the Camino. It was like a bolt out of the blue. Suddenly, it became clear to me that I would be exactly the same person when I returned home as I had been when I started out. I could hardly believe that could be true. It was a reality I hadn’t bargained for, and in response I felt really angry and disappointed. What on earth was this Camino all about?
Before arriving in the town of Molinaseca, where I stopped for coffee, I had managed to walk off or at least park my anger. Inside the café I met Darren, the Irishman I had briefly encountered in Foncebadón, and we struck up easy conversation, which helped me forget my morning’s disappointment. Later we left together to continue our journey. Darren was good company and I felt really relaxed, until we arrived at the enormous municipal albergue in Ponferrada. The registration process took place outside in the courtyard, and as I stood in the queue with Darren I began to feel uncomfortable about the possibility of sharing a dorm with him. But I needn’t have worried; I was allocated a small room with two bunk beds and three new companions.
After a nap I made my way to the kitchen with my journal and took a seat at one of the long tables. Although I had slept, I felt unbelievably tired on all levels. I began to reflect on what I had discovered earlier in the day. My expectation that something big would happen was really a fantasy, a belief that I would become somebody or something else. It’s not that I actually wanted to be another person, more a case that just being me wasn’t really enough: I had to be something. Once the initial shock, anger and disappointment had worn off, what I felt was total relief. I realised that I had been saved from the utter disappointment of arriving in Santiago expecting my fantasy to be fulfilled there. So as I sat in the albergue that evening I knew something big had happened, just not the kind of big I had anticipated.
Later that night while I was food shopping, I met Branu for the first time in four days. He had just arrived in Ponferrada, which hardly seemed believable, as it was 9 p.m. I couldn’t imagine that he would have dawdled so much along the way that he needed to walk in darkness to get to his destination. Over a glass of wine in the albergue courtyard, I discovered that he had walked with Kirsten to Molinaseca, intending to stay there, but that they had arrived too late for beds. While they could have shared a hotel room, it was not Branu’s style, so instead of spending a relaxing evening at Molinaseca, they had set out on the additional eight kilometre walk to Ponferrada. Although Kirsten was a good walker, she was nearly thirty years older than Branu, and I wondered if it was something she went along with rather than wanted.
Our time to catch up that night was fairly short – the 10 p.m. curfew arrived all too soon – but we agreed to leave together to continue our reacquaintance in the morning. When I got to my room, it was in complete darkness and the ladder that had been there earlier to help me reach the top bunk had mysteriously been removed. After a couple glasses of wine, I was both a little tipsy and a little noisy in my endeavours to get to bed. But since I blamed one of my room-mates for moving my ladder, I wasn’t too bothered about the grunts that communicated their displeasure.