From time to time, and usually in the summer, I post photographs that friends send back from their travels–South America, the Balkan countries, the Middle East, anywhere and everywhere a traveler’s fancy has taken them for pleasure or pilgrimage, fun or enlightenment. Makes no difference the target, for travel–and the traveler’s alertness and openness to the unknown within and without — is its own reward, the road rather than the destination, the big prize. In his gem of an essay, “Why We Travel,” Pico Iyer writes that travel is “a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing.”
Yesterday, my dear friend Rose Giovanetti sent me photographs from her travels–from Finisterre on the western coast of Galicia, Spain, the end point of her weeks-long walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The Romans thought Finisterre was the end of the world beyond which was the void, the huge rocks opening onto the ocean’s wild waters, the tired traveler face to face with the unknown and the unknowing.
Tradition has it that those who walk the long, long trail of the Camino engage in rituals to unburden themselves of their sins or desires–add a “stone of sorrow” to the piles along the way, build a wooden cross, attend a church service, or burn their shoes when they reach the journey’s end at Finisterre. But for me, something far more modest, less dramatic will do as it has in the past: leave something, some object there, at the point where the earth ends, where all our knowns and knowings come up against mystery of the waters’ horizon. Leave it for the ones who have left or who have been snatched too soon, always too soon. This time, too, my friend has carried a tiny something from me all the way to the edge of the world. This time, too, from an elevated point on the cliffs, she’ll toss it into the waters for someone dear to me who has left this world.
She is standing at the edge of the cliff, tired traveler, custodian of sorrows. Soon, she will throw the tiny offering into the waters for the ones–hers and mine– who died too soon, too soon. If there is good wind, the ribbon will catch the glow of the sun, twist in the immense blue for one last time, and then fall in the ocean’s lap, into the final unknown. Her eyes will well up with awe.
Finisterre, the earth’s end, the Romans thought. But for the one who returns, for the pilgrim or the secular traveler, there is the road back from the edge, from the earth’s end. In the encounter with such bedrock truths, with a teetering figure on the cliffs, destination is a vanishing points, agendas and plans are ruses, and lives lived and now ended are slivers of light on “uncharted seas” (after John Fowles.)