The End of the World
I have seen the End of the World.
And to be honest…it’s actually pretty nice. Pretty severe, even harsh at times. I was surprised by the number of tourists and the tables selling bric-a-brac souvenir kitsch.
The symbol of Santiago (i.e. Saint James) is the scallop shell, and it has also become the symbol of the Camino de Santiago and its pilgrims in general. There are plenty of local legends of Saint James showing up to save dying pilgrims with water from his scallop shell, and back in The Day, pilgrims would take home a shell to prove that they had completed the Camino.
The problem is that the city of Santiago is about 100 kilometers from the coast. The word Compostela derives from Camino de la Estrella that is “Path of the Star” with the legend regarding the rediscovery of Saint James’ body involving a vision-blessed shepherd following a star to the west to find the tomb (which may sound familiar if you didn’t nap through the entire Christmas service).
Pilgrims are an intense lot (kind of the original Extreme Sports crowd, only with less Gatorade and more diphtheria) so many pilgrims continued to follow the path of the star onward past Santiago to the farthest western point in the (medieval) world, a town called Finisterre, as in Fin de Terra, as in “End of the World.”
I, despite my lack of either Gatorade or diphtheria, did likewise, and so found myself one bright June day, sitting on the fiercely hot, jagged rocks below the lighthouse that caps the peninsula about 4 kilometers west of Finisterre (the End of the World is actually not quite at the end). It is a drastic place, and you can feel the weight of all the powerful moments pilgrims have had here over the years.
(This is despite the busloads of tourist who manage to walk all the way from their buses to the tables selling souvenirs. I don’t mean to scorn them, it’s cool that they want to come here, but the folding tables piled with mass produced crap seem profane in such a place. As an example, the Spanish word for any shell is concha, though Santiago’s symbol is specifically the scallop shell. The tables however were piled with conch shells, despite their irrelevance to Santiago and this area entirely.)
One of the traditions for Finisterre is to burn something, usually some of your clothes. I suspect the irritation of a month of the same two shirts and the relationship between the perseverance of sweat and the effectiveness of hand-washing have something to do with it, but it is at heart a purification ritual.
Purification is a recurring element on the Camino. You bring a stone from home to leave at the Iron Cross in the mountains of Leon, and/or one in Santiago, and/or you burn your clothes in Finisterre. The idea is always to leave behind something from your life that you want to get rid of. Destroy it, purify yourself.
I thought about it for a whole slew of kilometers, and not that my life is perfect by any means, but to be honest there isn’t really anything I feel like burning out of my life. So I reversed it, cuz I’m just Mr. Unique like that, and took something from The End of the World instead. A little piece of quartz, fits between two fingers and kind of hangs there by itself.
It is a reminder of the lengths humans have gone to to try and rid themselves of their mistakes. Of the unthinkable vastness of human experiences and this chapter of my own. Of the temporary nature of reality, from a place that was considered for centuries to be the westernmost point in the world, and here I was sitting, a guy who had spent his entire life up until a couple years before, far far west of there.
So greetings from the End of the World, the beginning of some, and the continuance of mine.