That day was unreal, surreal, out of real. It felt that we were walking not through fog which feels wet to the touch, not through clouds which shimmer and slip, but through a wall of orangey-white light-sucking smoke. We waited for the sun to emerge but it didn’t. Not at all. And that evening it rained grey petals, coating us in a layer of darkness.
Day 49 of our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was always going to be a special day and we had planned for it from the start. When we had packed, unpacked, repacked our rucksacks back at home we had always each included a pebble from our garden, one that we would leave at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro which was where we were headed that day. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims would leave their stones as symbols of their past sins, ask for forgiveness at this, a cross at the highest point of the Camino de Santiago, and then, cleansed and free of sin, walk the final few hundred kilometres of their journey. In these different times, when a pilgrimage is not necessarily a voyage made in order to guarantee entry into heaven or to revere the mortal remains of a saint, the objects left at the foot of the Cruz have a different signification. In the end, I didn’t leave my stone, saving it for the Atlantic 16 days later; instead I placed a small blue stone carved into the shape of a scarab beetle among the photos of people who had died, necklaces, poems written on slate, flowers, shells gathered in other lands. But that is another story.
We usually left our hostel before full light so it wasn’t strange that the sun was not yet awake. But as we picked up pace and walked upwards through the dry dusty gorse and firs, we noticed a faint smell, as if someone ahead was smoking a cheap cigarette. And yet there was no one around, another peculiarity of that morning. We had become used to passing or being passed by other pilgrims, and the closer the got to our goal of Santiago the more people joined the Way. But today: no one, an eerie nothingness.
By the time we got to the almost derelict village of Foncebadon, we knew that something was wrong. The smoke was now so sharp in our throats that we were constantly having to sip water; our eyes were prickling; and we were both beginning to feel slightly sick. Visibility was only a few metres and the sky the colour of sulphur. The Cruz de Ferro was not many kilometres ahead but by then the promised view point was totally obscured: no green mountains rose to meet us here because they were shrouded in deathly smoke.
Perhaps because of the eerie atmosphere, the lack of light and the few people, my experience at the cross was particularly intense. We had walked, by then, over 1000 km, having begun from our house in the south-west of France at the end of the summer. Already the pilgrimage had served many purposes for me, not least enabling me to prove to myself that despite having had ME a decade before, it was possible to do such an expedition. I had spent time grieving on the walk, too, for my parents and a parental figure, all of whom had died within a short space of each other a few years before; but the reflective nature of the walk had led to a form of transformation for me: the grief had shifted and become something less burdensome. These were among the many things I was thinking about as I laid my scarab beetle at the foot of the cross in the smoke.
But I was also aware that the strangeness of the day had not been caused by a freak of nature, it hadn’t even been a freak. Fires, started in some cases deliberately and able to continue their own journey because of the way we are changing our world, were eating their way through the woods and farmland of Portugal and north-west Spain; those particular fires killed over 30 people that month. Only a few kilometres away it turned out, this ancient route, travelled by pilgrims for over 1000 years, was on fire.
That night, after we had walked our way through the cinders into the medieval village of Molineseca, we found ourselves at a restaurant sharing our table with various pilgrims from all over the world: a Dane, a Canadian, a Croatian, an Irishman, Alex a Frenchman and myself an Englishwoman. We talked about the cross, inevitably, but then we talked about the fires, about the Paris climate agreement, about Trump and our frustration, and then we talked about what we could do, no matter how small, to make a difference to this fast-burning world. And then the next day, we got up, put on out walking boots and our heavy rucksacks and carried on walking, this time through the now-smoking woods of north western Spain.
Sophie Breese is a teacher and writer who walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela this year, beginning at her house in France and ending in the far west corner of Spain, Fisterra.