My non-fiction piece “Burning My Boots in Cabo Fisterra” won second place in the I Must Be Off international travel writing contest. 2015
Read it here:
Burning My Boots in Cabo Fisterra
“Come with me to the ends of the earth,” joked Miguel, a handsome Andalusian who was young enough to have been my son.
“The ends of the earth?” I repeated, unsure if I had understood his rippling Spanish.
We were strangers who had just met a few hours before. Both of us had taken shelter from the rain inside a Santiago café.
“Cabo Fisterra,” said Miguel. “It’s only a three day walk from here.”
Three days? I could certainly walk three more days. I’d just finished walking alone for five hundred miles across Spain on the Camino Frances, starting out from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France.
Miguel, too, had just completed a solitary pilgrimage, coming up from Seville and following the Mozárabe route to Santiago.
“And you can burn your boots when you get to Fisterra,” said Miguel.
I looked down at my boots. They were mud-encrusted and the heels were worn. For a minute I questioned in my head whether the Spanish verb quemar really meant to burn.
“In the Middle Ages, pilgrims first went to Santiago, then they would continue on to Fisterra and they’d burn their clothes or shoes there,” Miguel explained.
“Because they probably stunk,” I said.
“Or as a sacrifice, to give thanks,” said Miguel.
I was silent for a minute. Something about giving thanks choked me up a bit.
“So, will you come along?’’ he asked.
Now if I had been a young woman, I would have assumed that Miguel was trying to seduce me. But he had already told me – within a few minutes of our meeting – that I reminded him of his grandmother.
“You have a kind smile just like my Abuela,” he said. “But, she could never walk a Camino like you. Nunca. She has bunions, and other problems.”
I kept to myself the knowledge that I, too, had bunions and arthritic toes. At that moment, I was grateful that my aging body worked at all. I was sixty-five.
“And what else is there in Fisterra?” I asked.
“Magic,” he said, softly.
Like all charming men, Miguel must have sensed something about me that I didn’t know myself.
“You don’t want your pilgrimage to come to an end, do you?” he asked quietly.
“Not really,” I said, “I’ve got a bit of a let-down feeling. But all things end, I suppose.”
“Yes, yes, that is true. But the earth comes to an end too, and you should see it.”
I laughed. I knew that there were several places on earth with that ancient distinction. Lands’ End in England. Finisterre in Brittany. Finis terrae, said the Romans.
“Fisterra is waiting for you,” he said.
“I leave at dawn,” he added, dramatically.
From café window, I sat and watched the arrival of more and more soggy pilgrims in the cathedral plaza. Some were embracing or crying, others were wandering around in a daze. The long anticipated trek was over…the damp Pyrenees, the red clay of Rioja, the dry Meseta, the cow dung of Galicia.
And now, suddenly, this young stranger was putting a bug in my ear, beckoning me to the sea. I started to envision dinners of fresh fish, wide empty beaches, and days of sunshine.
Did I mention that Santiago was thick with grey clouds and a hint of sadness?
So I set off.
But not with Miguel.
I assume he left the refugio early the next morning. This particular grandmother needed to eat breakfast and find a washing machine and take a day or two of rest.
Practicality before magic.
I pictured Fisterra like Cape Hatteras, where, decades ago, my husband and I had climbed the lighthouse with our baby son jiggling in a back pack. Windy and invigorating. Or maybe it would be like the Danish island of Møn, in the Baltic, where we had gone family camping. The smell of the sea stayed in our clothes for weeks.
I would find out.
The route to the coast wasn’t particularly difficult. I walked slowly. Miguel, being young and fast, would have come and gone by the time I arrived.
When I got to Fisterra, I could see a small hotel, a few restaurants, and blue fishing boats bobbing in the harbor. The actual end of the promontory was up another hill. I would walk there later, but for now, I needed a place to stay. I began looking round the Plaza del Ara Solis.
And that’s when the magic started.
“Senora, I have a good house,” said a voice behind me. I turned and saw a woman who had a toddler in one hand and a market basket in the other.
“Perdón?” I said.
“I’ll rent you a room. Cheap.”
A place to stay fell into my lap, just as if I had been granted a wish by a genie.
Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t follow a stranger to her house. But Fisterra is part of the pilgrim world and has been a spiritual place for millennia. I was not the first soul to be lodged by one of its inhabitants.
We exchanged names. I followed Bianca to her mother-in -law’s where she left her toddler and some of the onions from her market basket.
“Now we’ll go up to my house,” she said.
She led me through a maze of lanes. With each step, we got higher and higher, the roaring sea dropping below us on either side.
Bianca showed me to a room on the second floor. From the window I could look out on the Atlantic, churning frothy blue and endless. Fresh laundry snapped on a clothesline in the wind.
I took off my boots and my backpack and stretched out on the bed. A real bed. A clean bed that smelled of citrus. On the Camino,I had grown accustomed to sleeping on sticky plastic sheeting, with a bad-breathed woman or a snoring man on either side of me.
I knew I would sleep well that night.
I put my boots back on. Bianca said there was a path which led down to the water. Braving the wind, I hiked to a wide circular beach. I breathed in the iodized air and threw stones into the Atlantic. I thought about the same ocean sloshing back and forth between the Iberian Peninsula and my home near New York. I thought about all the peoples who had come to Fisterra over the centuries, each with a story.
Later, after a welcome shower, I walked to a restaurant in the village. The first course was an array of shellfish. I gorged myself.
Before I went to bed, I looked at the night sky and thought about my good fortune.
Tomorrow I would go to the very tip of the Cabo, following the same path that the ancient Celts and Romans had trod.
I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t set fire to my boots. But maybe I would say a prayer of gratitude to the gods for bringing an old lady with bunions all the way to the end of the earth.