Last winter, I went on a pilgrimage.
I reached the end of the world after two months of walking. It’s a place on the West coast of Spain named Finisterra, or literally “the end of land.”
It’s a beautiful place. A point of land reaches far out into the ocean before finally collapsing into huge jagged stones. The scaffolding of the world is laid bare for all to see, smashed again and again by the huge Atlantic rollers. I spent a morning there, resting my feet and watching the ocean.
I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.
Walking back inland, I passed a small footpath that led up the mountain. On a whim, I followed it. It led to an old water pumping station that showed signs of recent cultivation–half-completed frescoes and small garden plots covered the crumbling concrete walls. The iconography was Christian, but adapted in a way that I doubted the church would find canon. References to the Way of the Stars (the pagan precursor to the path I walked) abounded.
I knocked twice on the main building with my walking stick. A dove-coated dog tumbled out, tail wagging, followed by a sleepy looking man ten years my senior. His stubble was black, and he wore gloves with the fingers cut off. I’d met my first hermit.
After a few confused words in Spanish, and a few more confused words in French (I don’t speak French), we settled into English. His name was Arno–he was from Normandy–he’d walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage six times before being called to stay at Finisterra and build a chapel. He had a girlfriend from South Korea, and carried plastic 5-gallon jugs into town every few days to fill up on fresh water.
I asked if he needed anything, perhaps some bread or cheese? These he turned down, but his eyes perked up at the mention of chocolate and we split my last bar of Milka.
Munching on the candy bar, I asked him if he had many pilgrim visitors.
“Lots, in the summer. In the winter, like you? Not so many.”
Did they ask him many questions? He is a hermit, after all, and hermits are supposed to be wise.
He laughed. “Some. Mostly they feel lost. And I tell them, good! This is a good place to feel lost, the end of the world.”
We paused and munched on chocolate.
I had to go back to real life the next week. What if I lost everything I’d gained in the past two months?
Arno finished his chocolate and stretched his arms back, like he’d heard this question many times. “That’s the thing. There’s only one way to keep something when you’re afraid of losing it: give it away. Give it away every day and to everyone you can think of. You’ll be afraid of losing it, but don’t let that fear control you. Then you’ll know the thing will stay with you.”
He filled up my water bottle and sent me on my way.