Cat (Catherine)Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Spain, where she’s lived, worked and fumbled her way through Castillian Spanish for the past six years. When not running a language academy, she blogs at Sunshine and Siestas (sunshineandsiestas.com) about life in Seville for a clueless guiri. The Camino del Norte was her first Camino.

Someone was moving outside, making a lot of noise for being 6:30 a.m. in a quiet Spanish town. The last few stragglers of a town fiesta were following a few lone pilgrims as they went out of town, following the faded yellow arrows on the sidewalks, waymarkers that witness where the popular Camino Francés meets the Camino del Norte.

When we got to Arzúa, just 41 kilometers from the finish line, we were met with a long line at the pilgrims’ inn. Having been able to leisurely roll into the albergues at lunchtime during our previous 280 kilometers and find a bed, I experienced pilgrim culture shock. The roads were choked with turigrinos – pilgrims who used tour groups to send their packs along and stay in private albergues.

Gone were the quiet moments on the Camino, where Hayley and I would encounter other pilgrims only at lone bars in sleepy Asturian towns, where beaches where we’d stop for water breaks were practically virgin, where we’d hear just the sound of our walking sticks clapping against the N-634 highway or thrashing through the overgrown vegetation.

When Hayley and I chose to do the Camino del Norte, the route traversed when the Moors occupied Spain for nearly eight centuries, we didn’t expect to be alone. After all, we were traveling in August, the month where most Europeans are on holidays, and the Camino’s popularity – especially amongst Anglos – has grown considerably in the past few years.

We came to love the long stretches where the road, our bodies and one another were the only priorities. Amenities were few and far between, particularly when it came to finding a bar for a second breakfast. There was a lot of highway walking and the terrain was difficult, but our bodies coped, relishing in naps after a hearty lunch and warm shower. But in having one albergue every 35 or 40 kilometers, the other pilgrims became our close friends, our traveling doctors and our cheerleaders.

As we met a few days later in Arzúa, we all gushed at how odd it had been to share the road with pilgrims whose faces we didn’t recognize. We all missed our nights in the town bar, drinking beer and laughing.

On August 11th, we trudged to the Obradoiro, bodies finally accustomed to trekking, our bags no longer weighing us down. We practically skipped into town, lured by the looming spires and the recognition the Compostela would bring. In Santiago’s small city center, we’d run into every single person we’d met along The Way – the Austrian speed racers, the five Spanish friends whose feet were replete with blisters after the first day, the French man we’d communicate with through gestures.

They say all roads lead to Rome, but some seem to lead to Santiago, too.

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