Day 1: St Jean Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles
Onward! Upward! God help us! – author unknown
My goal was to get on the Camino trail at 7:30 a.m., just before sunrise, knowing the path would be guided by the town’s lights or the use of my headlamp. However, after grabbing my sandwich from the hotel frig and checking out, it took forever since my credit card wouldn’t work with their portable system. Thank God for my backup credit card! I then try to figure out how to best adjust my pack, and FINALLY began my legendary walk at 8:00 am. Not too bad! My emotions are running high and the adrenaline is pumping as I walk down the main street of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, along the path I scoped out yesterday. On the way, I see many fellow pilgrims also gathering and beginning their month-long journey. The energy was alive! I also notice the Pilgrim’s Office is jam-packed, and I pat myself on the back for checking in yesterday during off-peak hours.
As I meander down the cobblestone pathway, I attempt to adjust my walking poles, based on the mini-tutorial the sales clerk offered me back home at the Hiking Shack, and the YouTube videos I watched last night. I’m known as the “Gadget Girl,” for I am pretty smart with gadgets, but for the life of me, I could not twist the poles into a locked state as they fell apart in my hands. I could feel the panic flooding through me! Suddenly, the voice inside, the one with no fear or ego shouted, “Ask someone!” I look to my left I immediately find a couple with trekking poles, thus assuming they could help out. Of course, they do not speak English, but after acting out my best effort of charades, the husband realizes the assistance I am seeking. He quickly pulls apart my poles, shows me the main element had gotten too loose (probably by me twisting the wrong way), tightens the element, and…voila…the poles lock in place! I stand there in deep relief and I thank them in every language I can muster. “Merci” finally did the trick.
LESSON (Camino Gear): I now know that I should test out my equipment at home, before my trip, including how to pack my backpack, and adjust my hiking poles. My morning probably would have gone a bit smoother had I done so.
Now feeling strong that I conquered my first challenge on the Camino, I carry onward through the famous St. Jean archway and ask a pilgrim to take my picture. I continue along the path by the children’s school that was lively just the previous day, where I met the Canadian aunt & niece. I then veer leftwards, up the road, to follow the popular Camino route to Roncesvalles, Spain.
The trek up the Pyrenees is breathtaking, lined with farms, cows, sheep, and wild horses. I can not believe the horses are just grazing alongside the paths with no fences. The hills ramble along, lush and green, and remind me of when I lived in the UK near the beautiful English countryside. I will always remember the meditative and soothing ‘ding-dong’ of the cowbells as I pass each cow, sheep, or horse.
On the way up, the pathway is mainly country paved roads, that later turn into dirt and rock trails. The incline is manageable, although still gives me a good cardio workout. After about an hour, I finally get the hang of my walking poles, and again scolded myself for not testing them out earlier on my home trails.
Before leaving home, I had told all my friends and family to not worry about me on the Camino, and that there will always be people around. Of course, I said this to put their minds at ease; however, I soon learn this to be true. On this first day, if I look in front of me or behind me, I usually see one or more pilgrims along the path. I am realizing, that although I am walking alone, I will never be alone on this journey. I guess this represents all of life… we live our own lives, but we are never really alone. For those who believe in a higher power, God is always walking alongside you. His presence is becoming even more clear to me. Excitement bubbles up inside as I begin this truly life-changing experience, and one I know I will never regret!
Everyone walks at a different pace on the Camino, and on inclines, many are especially slower than others. At first, I treat this as a race, thus feeling satisfied and puffed up each time I cruise by a walker or group of pilgrims. When those with stronger athletic capabilities or longer strides pass me, my ego takes a minor hit. I’ve now realized this is going to happen every minute of the day during my walk; I do not want to ride this ego roller coaster for the entire month. So after a couple of hours, finally, I decide this is NOT a race, and carry on at my own pace.
Around noon, about four hours in, the wind begins to whip by and the mystical mist settles, so I decide to stop. I put on my coat and eat my sandwich while watching those I passed earlier walk by. Others get a similar idea and begin to pull to the side and sit by me beneath a natural rock hill as protection from the elements. Here I meet my first of many Korean friends, a group of four ladies from South Korea, including one of the girl’s mother, who I believe is in her 70’s. Only a couple of the gals can speak English well, but we still enjoy our chat, inspect our own feet, nourish our bodies, and savor the few moments of stillness. TIP (Camino Food): I am so glad I grabbed something for lunch and water in St. Jean last night. The only place to purchase food or water on this first day is at the alburgue in Orisson, about two hours into today’s stage.
Feeling rested and ready to go, I put on my pack and continue my trek up the mountain. The path ebbs and flows, and later is coated with autumn leaves. At one point it becomes quite muddy from the recent rainfall, so I maneuver to the sides. While walking through the serene tree-lined paths, all of a sudden I stop and realize… I am alone. I can only hear the wind and my breath. I have never felt so alive and one with nature!
I mentioned before, that there are three official methods to complete the Camino de Santiago: walk, or ride a bike or horse. A short time later, a couple from Spain ride by on their bikes, shouting the standard greeting, “Buen Camino!” The wife seems timid on her bike and slowly rides over the rocks as she watches her husband confidently plow ahead on the trail. All of a sudden, the wife’s sling-pack falls off the back of her bike, just missing a pile of cow dung! She yells to her husband in Spanish, and I can sense the fear in her voice. Unfortunately, he is too far ahead to hear her. Luckily I was right there. I run up to hold her bike and help her hoist the heavy pack back on. Eventually, her husband realizes she is nowhere in sight and doubles back to meet us. She caught him up on how I helped her and they profusely thank me. They ride off on their bikes, and I get back on pace.
A bit further on the trail, I met the same couple who were now speaking with two other couples from Canada. As the Spanish couple introduces me, they call me their “Angel” on the trail. Seriously, I was only in the right place at the right time, but I guess my white coat probably helped with the story. 🙂 The Spanish couple share with us that they are newlyweds and this is their honeymoon. They actually met on the Camino the year before. How romantic!
So thrilled to hear English, I join the two Canadian couples along the trail and enjoy our conversations as we continue to trek up the mountain. Donna & Wayne, Robyn & John are from Vancouver Island, and I feel at home with them, since I grew up in the northwest in Seattle, not too far from them. The two couples have been friends since high school, and since retirement, travel around the world together. They were part of a larger group touring Europe. When they heard about the Camino, they decided to join the walk for three days. I feel so blessed to have crossed paths and know they will be my friends for life. After a while, they decide to stop for a break, but I feel strong and continue on. Since their pace is faster than mine, I know they will catch up to me at some point.
I mentioned earlier that I met some wonderful Korean ladies during my lunch break. Last night I noticed a very large Korean group registering at the Pilgrim’s Office in St. Jean. I learned they all came over on a tour together, although they do not all know each other. A travel book was recently translated into Korean, thus why so many Koreans are now walking the Camino. One guy stands out since he is very tall. Since I haven’t been properly introduced, I call him the “Tall Korean Dude (TKD).” We have passed each other several times up the mountain. I catch up to him again, shortly after leaving the Canadian couples, and he and I happened to cross the Spanish border together. I have now successfully entered Spain, the province of Navarra, and make sure to take a picture of the stone sign.
A way later, Tall Korean Dude and I spot a flimsy gate, with streamers dangling overhead, and realize we reached the mountain summit! We whoop and holler like dorks, take pictures, and walk through the gate. I stand there in amazement. I have done it; I have walked up the Pyrenees! However, now the hard part… the descent. Thanking God with every step, I dig my hiking poles in the trail and walk downwards toward Roncesvalles.
I take each step very gingerly, and eventually, the Canadian couples catch up to me. We finish our walk together through the most beautiful Beachwood forest. Earlier we came across a fork in the road, following our guidebook we took the path to the left. We find out, although we took the shorter route, we descended the steeper path, not recommended by the St. Jean Pilgrim’s Office. Oh well! The scenery was well worth it.
We finally reach the village, attempt to read a town sign – unsuccessfully I might add – and walk around aimlessly, searching for the alburgue. Roncesvalles’ purpose these days is pretty much to serve pilgrims. The town only offers a couple of small hotels and one large alburgue. The guidebook informs us the alburgue is an old monastery attached to the church. Finding the front door ends up being more challenging than we thought, as we walk around and around. The Canadian couples decide to stay in a local hotel just next door. We say our goodbyes and vow to meet up again.
As I walk inside the alburgue, I feel like I am stepping into a castle of medieval times. The walls are stone and the hallways are lined with beautiful arches above. I arrive just a bit earlier than “rush hour,” so I check in and receive my second Camino stamp (sello).
The host (hospitalaro) from the Netherlands instructs me to first take off my boots and place them in the cubbies.
LESSON (Camino Etiquette): I learned when you first walk into an alburgue, the etiquette is to take off your boots so you don’t track in the mud.
The hospitalaro then tells me to walk up the stairs to the next floor (first floor in Europe) and find my assigned bunk number. I settle in my “quad” of bunks and try to figure out how to use the lock in the locker. My bunkmates, two young guys from Denmark, show me that I need to put in a single Euro coin (kind of like a vending machine) to activate the lock. Once I unlock it, the coin will be returned. SWEET – I am starting to get the hang of his Camino thing!
Our fourth bunkmate is a lovely girl from Korea, Katie, although we cannot understand her English and call her “Hedgie.” (We later learn her name translates in English as “Katie.”) After unpacking, I pick out my evening clothes and try to figure out my routine for the next month. The biggest challenge is how to carry my toiletries, towel, sandals, valuables, and clean clothes to the community bathroom without dropping them on the wet floor. This alburgue wing is only three years old and evidenced by the fresh and modern bunks. I am happy there are separate bathrooms for women and men, as I transition into the communal living of the Camino.
Once showered and feeling refreshed, the noise begins to rise in the alburgue as everyone starts socializing and making plans for dinner. I meet my new friend from Colorado Springs, Marilee. She had been hiking with my bunkmate, Katie from Korea, and walks into our quad to discuss dinner plans. Earlier in the day, I had heard about the other “American” with my same purse, as Rosalie & Elizabeth (the Canadian aunt & niece) informed me. So here she was! Marilee and I laugh as we realize we do have the same purse purchased at REI. She, Katie, and I decide to venture out into the village and figure out dinner.
LESSON (Camino Meal): We quickly learn, by word of mouth, that if we want to eat Pilgrim dinner in the alburgues, we need to reserve a spot so that the host knows how much food to make for the evening. So pilgrims, ensure you make your reservation when you arrive.
We then venture back to the hostel to figure out how to clean our laundry and connect to the internet. On the way back, I run into the host from the Netherlands, who checked me in. He was thrilled to learn I am American and mentioned he would be happy to show me where the movie, “The Way,” was filmed. Taking up his offer, he guides me through the complex towards an older building. He informs me this is their overflow room for the summertime, and that they had just closed it down two weeks ago after the summer rush.
As he unlocks the door and turns on the lights, I gasp at the beauty of the room arched like a cathedral, lined with old bunks, and with a ceiling dripping with gorgeous chandeliers. He allows me to take pictures and spend a few moments enjoying the room’s beauty. While he escorts me out he comments, “The beds are crap!” I crack up, thank him for the personal tour, and feel so special to have seen this room.
At 7:00 pm, I meet up with Marilee and Katie and we walk to the dining hall for our first pilgrim dinner. The restaurant host seats us at a table with several other women, who happen to all be traveling alone as well: three from the USA, three from the UK, one from Korea, and one from Australia. We talk and laugh all evening long. After sharing our stories of why each is walking the Camino, we discuss our plans for tomorrow. Marilee, Katie, and I decide to hike together. I am thrilled to have found friends so quickly! I look forward to learning their walking pace and if we will be compatible hikers. All the ladies at dinner exchange emails and phone numbers, promising to find each other in future towns along the way.
After returning to my bunk to write this post; I lay there in deep amazement. I cannot believe how kind everyone is, and that I am beginning to meet some of the friends I will have for the rest of my life. I am quickly learning we are all in this together; we help each other; we look out for one another; we are fumbling through all of this together. I could not have imagined, that so early in my journey, even my first night, I am already feeling a part of a bigger whole. I am beginning to understand how the Camino symbolizes life, and that we are not alone.
Good night sweet family and friends!