One of the highlights of our day and the physical high point of the Camino was the Cruz de Ferro (Cross of Iron). It actually sounds more grand than it is. This small iron cross is mounted on a tall wooden pole. The heritage of this site is uncertain – with some claiming ancient Celtic origins, some connecting it with the Roman God Mercury (god of travelers) and some saying it was reclaimed as a Christian site by the 9th Century hermit Guacelmo. This is how one writer describes what happens at the cross: “For centuries, pilgrims have brought a stone to the place (either from home or the flatlands below) to represent their burden. The stone and the burden are left here, leaving the pilgrim lighter (literally and figuratively) for the journey ahead.” (From Camino de Santiago, Anna Dintaman & David Landis, p. 188.)
So I actually didn’t have all this figured out when I arrived. I guess I should have been reading ahead. I did know about the leaving of a stone and I brought one that I picked up on a walk along the American River. But when Lena asked me, “What did you release when you left the stone?” I had no good answer. So I spent the next hour of so thinking about things of which I need to let go. It is actually a great question, and if it is of any interest, I decided I needed to release the pleasing of people (I know, big surprise). So, for now, that’s what my rock stands for.
Except I think I people create their own interpretations of all this rock-leaving business. I read somewhere that you are supposed to turn away from the cross and throw the rock backward over your head like you are at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. (Huh?) People leave memorials to loved ones who have died. People write intentions on rocks, attach ribbons and notes, even create a rock as art piece. Part of the fascination of Cruz de Ferro is seeing—in fact walking on—other people’s rocks. You can imagine, if every pilgrim from centuries back brought a rock, that’s a lot of rocks. I found myself wondering, does the Spanish government or the church have a rock disposal service when the pile of stones gets too high? Surely, what I saw today couldn’t have been all of the rocks from all the pilgrims from all the centuries of the Camino and before!
Please don’t think I don’t take this seriously. I love the idea of unburdening myself. I love the idea of releasing. And I love the idea of remembering. It’s what humans do, isn’t it? Remember the Jacob of the Bible who erected an altar (a pile of stones) to commemorate where God met him? It seems to me that Cruz de Ferro is something just a bit more formal than what I see everywhere along the Camino. Memorials to people who have died. Rocks in various shapes with messages like “Pray for South Africa” on them. Crosses made out of sticks and stuck in fences. People leaving articles of clothing or personal items in a high place or “holy” place. Even some graffiti fits this category. We are people who commemorate—so as not to forget a person or a commitment. Rocks are that ancient, solid, everywhere thing that helps us do it best.
One more thing about rocks—today they were also our enemy. On this beautiful day, we hiked far, 20 miles. And much of that hiking was downhill. Sounds easy, huh? But on those down slopes there were a lots of rocks in the path, some to avoid, some to slip on, some that stubbed our toes, some that threatened to twist our ankles, and some just to make our feet sore. With all this heralding of stones, stones of remembrance and stones of release, frankly I was glad to be off the darn things and walking on human made sidewalks for the last four miles of our journey.