Before I left for El Camino de Santiago nearly two years ago, my dance teacher told me she had seen the film, “The Way”. Wide eyed, she recapped a scene at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where robed priests swung a censer across the church, releasing white smoke into the air. My innards tightened, as if that would prevent me from remembering the spoiler. I wanted the entire journey to be a surprise, so much so that I refused to read ahead in my guide book or look at photographs online. On the trip itself, when other pilgrims discussed, anticipated or strategized around what was coming next, I chose not to engage. Yet, weeks later, the day before I arrived to Santiago, my teacher’s comment popped into my head. I decided to try to make the service.
Covered by my red rain poncho that, over my backpack, turned me into a petite Quasimodo, hair damp and wild from the Galician rain, I filed my way into the crowded cathedral. I spotted an older couple I had met weeks before and squeezed into the end of their worn pew. Gazing around the cavernous space, I recognized several others from the preceding six weeks, including a few from the first day. Many bowed their heads and crossed themselves, an experience they had been anticipating for upwards of 40 days and nearly 500 miles. This service might have been the capstone of their pilgrimage or a way of sealing whatever pact they might have made with God or with themselves, a place of refuge. My trip wasn’t over yet; I had promised myself I’d continue to Finisterre, another 3-4 days on foot. I was no longer a participant but an awkward gawker, trying to discreetly snap a few photographs, resting my body in the meantime.
* * *
Near the end of my road trip, I almost bypassed Yellowstone National Park. Awash in fatigue and knowing the park was enormous, I thought I’d save it for a less crowded season. Following the principle of my adventure, to make each decision in the moment, when I awoke one morning in White Sulphur Springs, MT, a few hours away, I decided to go through. Did I need to explore its every feature and trail, to make sure I didn’t “miss” anything, or could I appreciate what I did see and leave it at that, without comparing my visit to some orchestrated hypothetical? Sometimes less is more, I decided.
Entering the park at the northwest corner, near the Roosevelt Arch, I flashed my national parks pass and driver’s license to the ranger, much as I showed my Pilgrim credencial to gain admission to venues in Spain. Without pressure to see as much as possible, I chose to only drive south along the road that parallels several geothermal areas, culminating in Old Faithful, before exiting. If I left with a sense of longing, I could return. En route to the most famous geyser, I stopped at lesser known sites along the way. The Spasmodic Geyser entertained young and old with its frequent, spastic spewing, as if it were throwing an odd kind of tantrum or miming an emotional monologue. Strong winds danced the steam across the ground until it eventually vanished into the air. The Grand Prismatic Spring, a wide cauldron aglow in turquoise and orange, with white vapor rising from its hot surface, mesmerized me and dozens of onlookers. Would Old Faithful top the exuberance of this geothermal wonder that evoked the colorful, volatile crust of a distant planet?
Driving towards Old Faithful reminded me of approaching the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Suddenly, what had been a straightforward path twisted and turned, with one culminating in an enormous asphalt lot and the other in a grand cobblestoned plaza. In both places, throngs of people seemed to emerge from nowhere, converging on the scene from either cars, tour buses, bicycles or on foot. Wood benches, erected in a wide semi-circle, marked the far perimeter of the geyser. Early arrivals occupied many of the seats, licking ice cream cones and slurping sodas to beat the heat, nearly an hour before the geyser was expected to erupt again. I’m not a fan of waiting, especially when tired, and I considered moving on. I had already appreciated many astonishing things that day and in the preceding weeks. Did I need to add that iconic experience? Did I want it to see it for my own sake or simply to avoid having to explain why I didn’t see it?
Looking around, I noticed that the park service had, in protecting this natural wonder, built its own version of a cathedral and plaza. Behind the rows of benches stood a large cafeteria with huge glass windows, allowing viewing of the geyser from indoors. Plenty of space between the wooden seats and the building allowed folks to gather and roam. As the predicted eruption time neared, even more people flocked to the site. Nuns in flowing habits, men in shorts and baseball caps, Mennonite women in aproned frocks and bonneted heads, families speaking French, Japanese, Spanish or German congregated around this geologic feature. I became intrigued by the scene, a mashup of a sporting event, the UN General Assembly and a religious service. Despite my fatigue-induced edginess, I decided to stay. Old Faithful blew on its own time, approximately every 90 minutes. That so many visitors were waiting for this moment, several times a day, many days of the year, filled me with hope that there were still things in this world for which people would slow down if not come to a halt.
I bought a sandwich wrap and eased onto a log in a rare bit of shade, the equivalent of perching in the back bleachers. As more onlookers milled around, a charge of anticipation filled the air. A murmur rose from the benches in front of me. Tourists readied their cameras and phones. Despite the wearying heat, I stood and approached the back row of benches. Old Faithful had started gurgling and spitting steam into the air.
“She’s getting ready!” said a thickset woman with a dripping ice cream cone.
The geyser burped more steam as its warm up continued. Hundreds, if not thousands, of eyes remained riveted upon this hole in the ground, awaiting its next utterance.
* * *
In Santiago, as eight red robed men prepared the botafumeiro (“smoke expeller”), a nearly six foot metal censer or thurible, I rose from my seat, maneuvered into the aisle and aimed my camera. Huddled around the botafumeiro, filled with coal and incense, the men knotted several ropes to the thurible. As a group, they heaved it forward and back to launch the vessel on its long, rhythmic, oscillation. Whooshing through the church, at ever greater amplitudes and velocity, the censer billowed white smoke, originally believed to help fumigate the often filthy pilgrims that passed through the church’s doors.
At the climax of the censer’s swing, the normally coy Galician sun shone through a small window high in the cathedral, sending a powerful spotlight through the smoke. Had I been a believer, I might have thought that the impeccably timed intersection of light and vapor was God’s doing, a bit of showmanship to remind who’s in charge. A deeper hush descended on the worshippers and visitors. Eyes, heads and cameras followed the hypnotic swing of the censer as it rose and fell, rose and fell, along a 65 meter arc, trailing smoke in the upper reaches of the building.
The pendular movements slowed, and the team of red robed men gathered to steady the censer and unravel its many ropes. The human intervention after the sublime swinging brought me back to earth, to my stuffed nose and aching shoulders. When the mass concluded, I said goodbye to my pew mates and made a beeline for the exit, thirsty for fresh, non-denominational air.
* * *
Old Faithful’s sputtering intensified. More and more people stood or moved in their seats.
“Ooh!” cried some folks as steam sprayed into the air, in a volume and height that was less impressive than some geysers I had seen earlier in the day. Had I waited for nothing? But like the swinging censer which gathered momentum and height, Old Faithful’s eruptions magnified until its white mist shot more than a hundred feet into the bright Wyoming sky. Onlookers cheered nature’s unbridled expression, devoid of dogma.
As the geyser quieted and retreated underground, the crowds slowly abandoned the benches for the visitors center and parking lot. As I left the upbeat atmosphere at Yellowstone, I wondered why so many had gone to great lengths to attend either the Santiago mass or visit Old Faithful. To what were we compelled to bear witness, beyond the spectacle of white smoke or steam? Did the ritualized observance of transience, regardless of context, subtly remind us of our own impermanence? And is that, ultimately, why people come together? I couldn’t be sure, but I felt a rare gratitude for the diverse crowd, which reminded me again of nature’s power to unite.