I left the small village of Villambistia in the early morning darkness, and walked 1.7km to the next village – Epinosa del Camino. There, I found a small café bar that was brightly lit and open for business. Within: hot coffee, and freshly-toasted baguette with butter and jam.
The Canadian ladies I’d met the day before joined me and somehow we organised to buy each other’s breakfast as a small treat. Our meal cost only a few Euro but it was a small token of friendship in the dark morning, in this tiny village of only 36 inhabitants. How amazing that this village was half the size of Villambistia but was the one with a café bar open for business at 6.30am, while Villambistia slept on.
The women and I had crossed paths several times in the preceeding 10 days – staying in some of the same hostels or passing each other on the trail. I’d witnessed one of them tend to blisters and black toenails because her hiking boots crippled her feet. I also witnessed her replace those $200 hiking boots with a pair of light running shoes, and abandon the boots in an albergue along the way. After the change of footwear, there was no stopping her!
These women had been endlessly warm and kind to me, supportive and encouraging. I hope I was the same with them. We laughed together and swapped stories about our lives and reasons for walking this ancient trail. I assumed our paths would continue to cross – over and back, all the way to Santiago. It wasn’t our pattern to pay for each other’s food and I didn’t really know them that well, but something overcame all of us that morning and we wanted to pay each other’s bill. Perhaps we somehow knew our paths were about to diverge. We toasted the morning by raising our glasses of hot coffee in clinking unison, and delighted in the baskets of fresh hot toast. Dave arrived minutes later and greeted us all with warm enthusiasm and hugs. Barb followed closely behind on the trail, and he ordered breakfast for both of them while he waited.
The ladies and I finished eating, bade Dave a Buen Camino, and made our way outside.
We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles in hand, and started the day’s walking in earnest.
We must have walked at different paces or maybe someone stopped to lace up their shoes while the other went on ahead. Whatever the reason, we drifted apart later that day and lost each other on the trail.
I never saw them again.
And although our mutual friends kept me posted on their progress, our paths stopped crisscrossing. I missed out on knowing how their 800km journey unfolded, and who they were by the time they arrived in Santiago. I missed out on the closure that comes with saying “So Long and Farewell”, or so I thought.
Before walking Camino, I found it heart-wrenching to have my friendships drift, or get lost, in the ebb and flow of life. I fought hard to retain connections, despite everyone’s increasingly busy lives, and our distance across time zones and continents. I didn’t like to let things drift. I didn’t like to lose good people from my life. I worked hard to maintain them but struggled with losing them all the same, and with feeling bereft by their absence.
I took it all to heart and imagined a cold life, empty of friendship and laughter. (Bit of a drama queen!)
In the most gentle and glorious way, Camino knocked some of these hurting edges from my heart. I made friends all the way through my 500-mile journey:
I met some of them on my very first day while I travelled to St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking.
I made friends on the last night before I arrived into Santiago.
And everywhere in between, I met people who became friends.
Some of them were friends for a matter of hours, while others are friends I hope to know for many years.
The two Canadian women fell somewhere in between.
When we met, I had no way of knowing whether they would be in my life for a matter of minutes or for decades, but we followed the connection with warm kindness. That morning in Epinosa del Camino, our paths began to divide though we didn’t consciously know it at the time. Whatever the reason, we fell out of each other’s orbit and never saw each other again.
There is a certain bittersweet sadness to that.
I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye or thanks for all of their kindness. I thought I didn’t get to wish them well with the rest of their lives.
But I am happy that I followed the impulse to buy their breakfast that morning. I’m happy that some unconscious inclination took over and prompted us into a moment of celebration. We didn’t know why we wanted to buy each other’s breakfast, but we followed the impulse all the same. We just felt like it.
Afterwards, I looked back and realised:
Ah…that was the moment of closure. That was the morning we got to say Thank You and Buen Camino. That was how we got to say Goodbye.
So, I walked the rest of my journey without realising that our paths had already diverged. I walked on towards the western horizon without realising that our friendship had come to a gentle conclusion.
By the time I realised these things, I also realised that we had said goodbye already. So there was no reason to feel sad loss at their absence.
For me, Camino presented this lesson to me day after day. People entered and left my life on a daily, and even hourly basis. The ebb and flow was constant. I started out feeling rattled by the loss of so many people in my life. By the time I reached Santiago, I knew how to let go. After walking 500 miles, I was able to allow the natural ebb and flow, and not feel the sadness.
Sometimes the friendship lasts a few hours or days. Sometimes it lasts years or decades. Either way, there is a natural beginning and a natural end. Camino helped me understand this and come to terms with it, so I don’t carry the same sadness in my heart any more. Instead, I carry a quiet gladness that we ever met and that we had a chance to say goodbye.