Charlotte Davis tells us about pilgrims’ curious habit of bringing pieces of their homelands to place beneath a wooden Spanish cross named Cruz de Fierro.
For some years pilgrims have brought pieces of their homelands to place beneath a wooden cross on a remote Spanish peak. Reminiscent of a Gaelic cairn, the repossessed shingle of a hundred nations sucks the noise from the hilltop creating a peaceful yet eerie atmosphere. The mound’s absorbent mass, with air pockets between the stones that dampen noise, the stillness has helped to earn the Cruz de Fierro its reputation as a ‘thin’ place: one of the hallowed places in the world where the tangible proximity of another world gives it a crackling, magical atmosphere. Though people come to the place with diverse expectations and some with none at all, visitors agree that it has a distinct feeling beyond its unsettling quiet, as if your hair is standing on end or something miraculous is about to happen.
A spiral path climbs up to meet the wood of the cross at the top of the mound. There must be thousands of stones of all different kinds here. Flint, sandstone, pale, worn flat and round. Some are inscribed, proclaiming in many languages their thanks, their wishes for peace, their memories of a loved one, their generous blessings, their luck for onward journeys or greetings from and to countless disembodied names. Some are encircled with rosaries or adorned with mandalas, portraits, badges with emblems of countries, groups, ideologies, religions, movements. There are ribbons, beads, and among all these, as always, the familiar splay of the scallop shell. The wood of the cross itself is weathered and cracked. Smaller stones have been lodged in its crevices, pins penetrate its scarred wood, tattooed with more proclamations and symbols in fading pen and crayon. Up the cross’s torso curls a string of Tibetan prayer flags, one minute hanging limp in the silence, the next fluttering in the eddying mountain air. Now and then a stone tumbles a foot or two as the mound settles to its angle of repose. The dust whirling around the cross adds to the site’s strange dynamism.
Most visitors are pilgrims whose Camino delivers them there. Stones are fecund with symbolism and here they embody the burdens pilgrims carry on their journey through life. The Camino permits them to set these burdens down. Approaching pilgrims adopt a fervent veneration for the site. Chatter deadens and cameras hang limp while one by one pilgrims, as if ascending to Calvary, pick their path between the sentiments of their predecessors. Many hold their palms against the wood of the cross. Most crouch and place their stones with emphasised ceremony at the top before descending.
Three cyclists, glistening in lycra, swayed the last burning meters to the crest of the hill, their elation was palpable. Dismounting their bikes, wordless and ruddy, they removed their helmets and one by one with reverential calm, climbed to the cross. Fingering glasses into his bronzed nose, one knelt to inscribe, kiss, and with shaking shoulders, kiss again the stone he had brought and the words he had etched there.
Unselfconscious, mesmerised, an American woman in her late twenties placed her hand on the wood of the cross, and then her forehead. She murmured to herself, surrendered and wept. Later she told me she hadn’t expected the Cruz to have such an effect on her, she had brought a stone from Colerado, though its significance and the burden it represented only crystalized for her here on the walk. She was ‘ready to move on’ and was setting it down here, cleansing herself. Leaving it behind.
The Cruz de Fierro, like the smaller cairns that punctuate the Camino’s length, is a physical manifestation of the solidarity between receding and preceding pilgrims. The Cruz ends an exhausting two-hour climb, and a psychologically challenging week crossing the meseta: Spain’s shadeless plains, ricocheting with thunderstorms. They say that everyone cries at least once on the Camino. For many, the Cruz de Fierro, a site of great importance for modern pilgrims, is that moment.