On the Camino: French Heavens and Basque Shadows

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of photo essays about Path Walker’s recent pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.You can read Part 1 here.

Pilgrims have no idea what they are getting into. The hills do not stop. The first day on the Camino creates a slideshow of indelible images in the mind, filling the heart with unforgettable feelings, and testing travelers—as any great adventure does.

It is early when we leave St. Jean and Jacques sends us on after tea and toast. We climb slowly out of town as its residents begin baking bread and sweeping store fronts. The air is foggy and cool and we hustle up the streets to the outskirts of town where we find our first shell. We will pass hundreds and, ultimately, they will guide us 800 kilometers to Santiago.


Spirits are light as we make our way past hamlets and streams along the road, which begins to climb into the west. We see other pilgrims in the distance and imagine being where they are after an hour of blissful walking. Our packs begin to find their fitting on our backs as K swings her camera out to take the first of countless photos.

 

Fogs begin to lift gently as we begin to ascend untold meters in the thick, gray heavens of north eastern Spain. We are following in the footsteps of Napoleon, Charlemagne and countless Roman generals. I took a slightly different path last year and the site where one could hear the fateful blast of Roland’s trumpet emerged like a beacon as my friends and I stumbled through the rainy fell on the Spanish side of the border.


This journey is different and we are taking the high route. We begin to pass other pilgrims and they greet us with smiles and words in various languages. We are all bonded by the Camino now and exist solely as pilgrims. We meet our first Americans while climbing a hillside around a.m. They are a couple in their 50s from Washington and we take a breather and share our stories.

Soon afterward we continue ascending and both of us decline to stop for coffee as we have made so much progress and passed so many people. The last sentence is a testament to the wrong mentality one begins to shake loose while on Camino.

Remember

1.You can’t pass anyone as you are all on different trails.

2.Always stop for coffee; you will likely never be here again.

The country begins to open up into rolling hills and slopes. Short breaks for water and granola bars become necessary.

A few hours in and St. Jean lies both distant and well below us. I imagine Jacques welcoming the guests for that night.

Fields of sheep slowly start to become closer. Packs of specially bred black sheep stare at us and allow us to pass while a few dogs sleep in the cool grass of the mountains. Horses run free and families of them eat while wandering toward us, only to stare and return to their children.


The shepherds are largely absent and on various hills we can only see flocks being driven by a pair of dogs who appear to be chasing a thousand snowballs.


We arrive at a van selling refreshments high up in the mountain and stop. They sell us chocolate and tea and make new markings on their van. They have a daily tally of who has passed, and we are the first two Americans. The Germans, Italians, and French make up the majority but several Koreans, Australians, and a pilgrim from Iceland have already made it this far.

I move over to a cliff and lay my bag down. I settle into the grass and enjoy my tea while staring off into the mist-filled, green lifts of the French/Spanish border. The tea is warm as the cool air leaves my chest and I feel my legs are beginning to ache. I watch pilgrims who are still hours away in the distance. I thank God for such perfect moments.


Hours later and we are reaching the peak. The sun is pressing on us now as we begin to part sheep flocks and speak loudly to warn horses of our approach. We lose a layer of clothing. We wave goodbye to the last moments of France and begin passing into the Basque valleys.

Of our descent, I will say two things. Going downhill is much more difficult than going uphill.

By the time we arrive in Roncesvalles, we are done for the day. We duck into the newly finished albergue. The previous year we had stayed in outdoor trailers with five bunkbeds, a space heater and a shower 40 yards away. The new albergue is beautiful and we put our items under mounted bunkbeds and shower. Upon our return we speak to the young men sharing the beds in our nook. They are in their early 20s and from Barcelona. They left for the Camino as no jobs were available back home and they thought this was the perfect time in their lives to make the journey.

We eat lunch in town, nap, and then attend a pilgrim’s Mass before dinner. We recognize So Young Kim from last night at Jacques’, and we exchange embraces and talk of the day’s hardship. We sit with our nookmates and two older Frenchmen. We are served pasta, bread, and a whole trout caught in the local river. The river is the same rivers mentioned in The Sun Also Rises and Hemingway vacationed nearby with his family. Bottles of wine are passed around and mammoth helpings of pasta begin to fill our tired bodies. The table is lively and we exchange stories from the day while sharing freely of our thoughts and fears for the next day. We return to the albergue and look forward to the supreme pleasure of rest after a long day’s work, dinner amongst friends and excitement for the morning.

This day has tested all the pilgrims and the blisters and muscle pulls can be observed in every bed I walk by. Last year, my friends and I became lost and ending up walking 55 km before a French mechanic pointed us on the right path. I still remember the stiffness in my neck and running half-naked across a field to the showers as the rain sapped any warmth our bodies had gathered in the trailer. That night I remembered thinking just how great everything was and that my friends and I would have these memories forever.

I pace the hall trying to stretch my legs in the albergue. I know we won’t all reach Santiago, and I just hope those who won’t realize they are already receiving their reward. To experience the Camino, even if just for a day, is to gain its rewards forever.

K, the boys from Barcelona, and I brush our teeth and then read until lights out. Soon the corridor is filled with the snoring and groaning of 100 pilgrims. I roll a tennis ball under my feet in the darkness and reflect on a day well lived. I then lay back and hope to join my nook mates in beautiful dreams of tomorrow.

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