Miracles on the Caminois serialising in Mike Gardner’s blogs, which were followed by thousands of fans across the word.
Mike honours his best friend of 50 years on the iconic Cruz de Ferro
This was going to be a big day for me. La Cruz de Ferro, which is just 2,000 metres from my hostel, is a majestic place, standing at 1,504 metres above sea level. After the cathedral in Santiago, it is the most sacred part of the Camino and it has, over many centuries, become known as a metaphor for all that is special about the pilgrimage. It is a tradition that pilgrims take a stone to place at the foot of the cross to signify their commitment to make a fresh start when they return home after reaching Santiago de Compostela.
We are all going to try to be better people. Well, that is the plan, anyway. There are literally millions of stones here. Your stone represents your sins and even non-believers can find this symbolic gesture comforting and helpful; perhaps even an inspiration. No, it is the second custom I was struggling to get my head around – the one where you place pictures or items of clothing on the cross; actually attaching them to it – absolutely anything you want, relating to loved ones who are no longer with us.
I had two photos, one of my mother and father, who enjoyed long and fruitful lives and another of my best friend for around 50 years. His name was Steve and he died two years ago.
I was confident I could handle recollecting my parents’ part in my life without too many problems, but Steve was another matter. I set off from Foncebadón alone and wishing my Camino family could be with me. I needed them. After less than 50 metres, I heard the unmissable, booming voice of my Russian son Kazim and alongside him Victoria, my Russian daughter. It was all a bit too much – I told them how I was feeling and they said they would take care of me and I knew they would. Such inexplicable and coincidental events are commonplace on the Camino and you soon stop questioning them and just go along with the ride, without thinking too much about them.
I turned around a short bend and La Cruz de Ferro was right in front of me; just like that. If you are not spiritual, it is just a wooden pole on raised ground with a cross on top, but it means so much more. It is the soul of everything that is good about this unique experience. There is no getting away from it. There were around a dozen pilgrims in front of us and there was a lot of emotion going on. A lady from Canada, who I had met the night before, had placed something at the foot of the cross and was starting to cry. A tall, strong man was standing rigid-straight for what seemed a long time with his arms held out in front of him. It was impossible to rid myself of the idea that he was asking for forgiveness, perhaps for some misdemeanour that had happened a long time ago.
I grabbed my photos from my bag and Kazim could see I was in a bit of a state. He took hold of my hand and led me to the cross, right in front of it, so I could feel its power. He took the photos from my hands and grabbed hold of the heavy duty pins I had brought specially for the occasion. He reached up with those huge arms of his and pinned the pictures to the cross, way, way higher than I had thought possible. Then we began walking backwards together, very slowly and staring up at the photographs. I remember thinking, at the time, that we did this in perfect unison, like dancers who had been practising the same move together for an important performance; it was done. We turned around and that was it. We walked for what seemed like a long, long time and no-one said a word. We all knew it was better that way, just for now.
I started to think about Steve and instead of the sadness of loss, I could feel only an overwhelming joy and gratitude for everything this special person had given me. It was uplifting and joyous and not unpleasant in anyway and I wasn’t expecting it. When I met Steve, we were 16 and I was a choir boy reading Superman comics. Steve changed my life so much. He was kind and thoughtful and caring and loving. He gave everything and he asked for nothing. He was my hero. Steve’s life was unfolding in front of me as I walked ahead of my friends, trying to make sense of all these emotions. I gave a eulogy at his funeral. There were more than 600 mourners and the priest said he had never seen anything like it. I thought of his wonderful wife Diane and their children and grandchildren, but I wasn’t depressed because it was all so uplifting. Yes, he was taken from us too early, but Steve squeezed more love into his 65 years than a thousand lifetimes. My Camino family caught up with me at just the right time and everything just clicked back into place, just so; like a computer rebooting. I know I will never forget today. Never.
Next month: A pilgrim from Belfast who paid £800 for a pair of sunglasses.
Miracles on the Camino by Mike Gardner can be downloaded onto your Kindle, mobile, tablet or computer from Amazon books for 4.32€. It has more than 80 pictures and is also available as a hardback and can be delivered to your house in Spain.