Forrest Mallard- June 14, 2020
If you are planning to hike the Camino de Santiago along the Camino Frances route, and if you have done the right research, you will learn that there are several traditions in which you can participate as you walk the ancient trail. One of these traditions is the carrying of a stone and placing it at the base of the Iron Cross, or Cruz de Ferro (Cross of Iron). Sometimes, people bring other sentimental objects to leave at this site, such as photos, religious tokens, and letters.
Following tradition, the stone is taken from your home or wherever you begin your journey. As you walk the Camino, you must carry the stone for more than three weeks in your backpack. As you can imagine, even the smallest amount of weight can become a massive burden when you are walking an average of 25 kilometers each day. Still, in order to participate in this ritual, you make room in your bag for the rock and you accept the task.
When you arrive at the Iron Cross, there is also a traditional prayer that could be said when laying down your stone:
O Lord, May the stone which I bring to this holy place Be a sign of pilgrimage to Santiago. When I reach my final judgment, Tip the balance of my life In favor of my good deeds. I lay down this token Which I carry from [starting point]. Please forgive my sins And help me carry my burdens in life. Amen.
On my personal journey along the Camino in the summer of 2015, I was fortunate to meet, befriend and eventually form a familial type of bond with a few others that were on the same path. Our tight little group eventually collected an eclectic mix of people and personalities from all around the world.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Jomayra inhabited every positive character trait of the Latina cliché. She had the energy of a firecracker; on her face was an endless smile; her walk was more of a dance; and her lust for life was without limits.
She met and married a Dutch man, and together they made a life in Valencia, Spain. There was no doubt in her mind that the man she married was absolutely-without-a-doubt her soul-mate, and their two beautiful sons were growing up happy, healthy, and loved.
By the year 2014 however, the after-effects of the 2010 economic crash were still being felt. Every day felt like the walls were closing in on their family and every day, tough choices needed to be made to maintain the life that they had become accustomed to.
One day Jomayra’s husband took the dogs for a walk, and never returned. As friends and neighbors searched for her husband, Jomayra already knew in her heart what had happened.
“Beautiful, smart, successful, best-dad-ever, great lover, amazing husband. I can talk endlessly about him, because he was so much more than just superfluous adjectives. It is impossible to describe him without an eternity to try … and he was gone, and he took me with him. Yes, he left us behind by taking his own life. June 30th, 2014, my dreams and my joy imploded.”
More than a year later, Jomayra was still just a shell of the person she had been. The devastation was so intense and so complete, it was impossible for her to find the joy in her life that had always been there before.
“Barely living for a year on autopilot, too numb to realize that I had finally run out of fuel. I had no strength left, and I crashed. Broken and sobbing with my head on my younger son’s shoulder. He was in his senior year of High School, just weeks away from graduation, and I couldn’t hold it together any longer. Every cell in my body was broken and I had no idea how to fix this pain.”
If she continued like this, she knew she would die too, and so she decided to walk the Camino de Santiago hoping that a long walk would clear her head.
“I felt like I had a choice to make. Continue down this dark and twisted road and let this destroy me, or find find a reason to wake up each day. Then it came to me, my call, to Camino de Santiago; I had to go in search of my healing. For myself and for my children.”
In 1993, Peter’s five-year-old daughter became very sick. A rare bacteria had entered her blood stream, and in only 2 weeks, sweet Esmé became the second fatality in the Netherlands from this rare blood condition.
In 2015, days before leaving for the Camino de Santiago, Peter visited the grave of his daughter. Could there be anything in life that could weigh as much on your heart as the death of a child? It was at the grave that Peter picked up a stone, and put it in his pocket. To take this memento on this journey, it could feel like sharing one last adventure with his daughter, and then with the hopes of leaving this stone at the Cruz de Ferro, perhaps just a little of the weight that was still in his heart could be released.
Solitary and stoic, or so he may seem at first. Peter possesses, what I consider to be, one of the most endearing qualities to be found in any person: a relentless and merciless sarcasm that is not only brilliantly funny, but also good-hearted and a sign that despite the verbal brutality, he actually likes you.
Peter often talks about his time in the Special Forces, and though he is a bit older now, it is not hard to see from his posture and demeanor, that he can still kick ass if needed. Yet beyond the endless sarcasm and brutal military training, the carrying of this stone was evidence of his humanity and the presence of a pain from which no tough exterior could protect him.
On the stone he painted his daughter’s name. She was indeed, coming along for this journey.
And so they walked.
One of the many magical things about the Camino de Santiago, is that within a few days of walking along the trail, everyone knows everyone, at least peripherally. While you might have a core group you are walking with, there is always plenty of opportunity to meet and chat with absolutely everyone along the way. And you do.
“Most of the mornings we start to walk in a group, but within 30 minutes we start to break up as our individual pace takes over. But we know that within the first hour we will all be crowded into the the first coffee shop we can find, begging for a cup of coffee with tortilla de patata on the side. Here we wake up together.”
One day, Jomayra was standing just off the trail, staring at the mountains in the distance, and crying. A small group had gathered around her to see if she was alright, but she insisted that she was just overcome by the beauty of nature. With tears streaming down her face she made a point of telling each of the people around her that we were all so lucky to be here, in this beautiful place, right now. She almost insisted that we appreciate it. We must appreciate it.
The Camino worked its magic and by the third week, Jomayra and Peter had found themselves in a growing group of friends. A random mix of individual hikers that somehow found a common bond. From Australia, Canada, Israel, the United States, the Netherlands, Wales, the Faroe Islands, Germany, and New Zealand, this small group called themselves ‘The Flock’ and eventually they became a Camino Family.
In the third week of our journey, The Flock had found themselves at an outdoor restaurant on a lovely afternoon. This was the first time that Jomayra had an opportunity to speak one-on-one with Peter and they got to the topic of why they were each walking the Camino.
The day after sharing with each other the stories of why they were walking the Camino, something amazing happened.
“I don’t remember how I ended up walking completely alone. That morning the sky was so blue with not a single cloud. I remember the smell. The calming aroma. Instinctively feeling like I close my eyes and life my head, so that they sun can kiss my face. This was all a balm to my ravaged soul. I was so immersed in this profound meditation, that I felt a little lightheaded.”
“Occasionally I would stop, looked around, and see that there was nobody around me. For the first time, I was completely alone. The thought crossed my mind that I might be lost. Maybe I missed a turn while I was walking with my eyes closed. However, I was with myself and for the first time in so long, that was good enough for me.”
“As I stumbled along in my euphoria, I felt someone walking beside me. After a short chat, Peter ventured on. His pace much faster than mine, and I wanted desperately to get back into my zone of joyful oblivion.”
“Occasionally opening my eyes to make sure I stay on the trail, I plodded along like this for some time. Something out of the corner of my eye pulled me out of the zone I had been in. I approached it, and bent over to look at it closely.”
“It was a stone, right in the middle of the path. It is not uncommon to see random artwork alongside the trail of the camino, but not right on the path. I felt like this had to be something else. Something that had fallen from somebody’s backpack. I looked at the name written on this beautiful stone and thought to myself ‘Oh,my god! This must be Peter’s’ But I wasn’t sure because he hadn’t told me his daughter’s name.”
“My heart was pumping and I finally decided to pick it up and just ask him as soon as I saw him. If this was not Peter’s then I would put it back on a side of Camino, but I had to at least ask him.”
“Almost three hours later, I arrived a bit too early at my Alburgue, so sat by the garden to put my feet up. Out of my pocket slid the stone and once again the urgency of finding Peter came to me.”
“I found a man named Rick from our group and I told him the story of the stone.” Rick had heard the story from a Canadian man named Cam, so they went to find him.
“I asked Cam if he could remember the name of Peter’s daughter.
He said ‘It starts with E.’
‘Is it Esmé?’ I squeaked in excitement.
He said ‘Yes!!'”
They were able to return the stone to Peter at the very moment Peter realized he had lost it.
“When I saw Peter the next morning, we both embraced. We both were carrying so much pain and sharing such similar burdens created a special bond between us. I asked him what he was going to do with his daughter’s stone. He told me about the Cruz de Ferro, where people bring their burdens and leave them there.” Jomayra looked into Peter’s eyes and told him “Now I know where I’m going to put my husband’s ashes. At Cruz de Ferro.“
These strangers, with lives so deliberately woven together, bound now in this magnificent moment that seemed impossible. Without even looking for it, Jomayra noticed this one stone and thought it interesting enough to pick it up. Out of the millions of stones along the Camino de Santiago, she picked up this one. Then, to be able to return the stone to its owner through a chain of random acquaintances.
Something magical had happened, and everyone knew it.
Weeks after we began our journey, we finally approached the Cruz de Ferro early one morning. Simply an Iron Cross placed atop a 16-foot, gnarled-wooden pole. Standing tall above a pile of sentimental stones that has been slowly growing for a thousand years.
There was something different about this moment. Though we had explored stunning cathedrals along the way, those places did not command the respect of this lonely icon in the wilderness. This weathered iron and wood.
Jomayra says “I will never forget the silence of all of us going in that morning as we approached the Iron Cross. It was like …we were meant to be together at that moment.”
Instinctively, we approached the mound of rubble solemnly, silently. We took turns climbing the mound to have our moment. Peter set down Esmé’s stone. Jomayra poured some of her husbands ashes. We came together, held each other, and cried.
Through the bond of the Camino, we were family, and after a year of being in an emotional coma, Jomayra returned home with so much life, joy, love, and enthusiasm, that she scared her children.
I just want to let you know that I couldn’t do that long walk without you. You guys witnessed the end of my previous Life and the caterpillar became a butterfly. I remember every hug, kiss, laugh, giggle, and tear that we shared.
As I sat in the room in Ste. Jean on 5/15/2015 surrounded by perfect strangers, the classic question was posed. “Why are you walking?”Rick Wood (Washington State, USA)
I waited my turn.
My response was probably the most honest thing I had ever admitted: “I just need to go for a really long walk.”
I grew up a vagabond. Stable was a place where you kept your horse. The fringe was always my comfort zone.
I asked myself that night, “I wonder who I will meet.”
The next day I met Peter and Cam; two bookend projections of myself. One young, strong, impetuous, and energetic; the other older, still strong, calculated, and wise.
The next day I met Jo; an epicenter of emotion needing equally to give and receive, but like myself missing the essential anchor. I walked the next 34 days with these 3 people. And, as we walked, we flocked together with others. I stayed in my fringe because I know that is the safest place for me, but that flock taught me so much. I learned that it was okay to hurt and to let the energies of others help you heal.
I often see life as the trajectory of a river
And at times you cross paths with other rivers
Their water mixes with yours and your water mixes with theirs
And you often split back into your own individual paths
But you will always carry some of the water with you
And time is a construct
A river is at all its stages at any time
Just like life.
We’re just flowing along it one increment at a time.