5000 feet gained in elevation, 22 miles walked, 478 miles to go! On 4/30, I arrived in St. Jean by myself as Will took a later train to spend more time sightseeing in Bordeaux. I switched trains in Bayonne and entered a train full of pilgrims and backpacks. As we arrived, the train erupted in Pilgrims.
I followed the stream of Pilgrim’s up the hill and found the Pilgrim’s office in order to get my Pilgrim’s passport and attached the scallop shell to my pack making me official.
I dropped my pack at the albergue, stepped out into the cobblestone street and was suddenly so overcome with emotion that I burst into tears. I felt such a rush of gratitude and joy that I was actually here and undertaking this journey at this transitional time in my life. Luckily, I was wearing sunglasses so was able to collect myself before drawing any stares. I wiped my face off and proceeded to check out the gorgeous town.
I met another pilgrim, Ivana from Connecticut and we got some wine as she told me she had been planning this for 15 months and was here to renew her faith. Will arrived later, we all got dinner and then I got to experience my first albergue…about 15 people in a room, a chorus of snores (a snorus!), and very little sleep for me. Still jetlagged and already on 2 nights of little sleep, I started my first day of walking on about 3 hours sleep.
At 6am, I showered, repacked my backpack, met up with Will and headed out of town to climb the French Pyrenees. Some walk up and over in one grueling day, but we decided to break it into 2 days so had booked at an albergue in Orrison, a town on the French side of the Pyrenees. It was beautiful and sunny and as we walked out of St. Jean, there were streaks in the sky overhead that looked like the scallop shell that is the symbol for the Camino and the marker that guides you along the 500 mile path. Talk about your good omens.
The scenery was beautiful and the walk was all uphill and got steeper as we went. The irony of this walk is that the steepest and most dangerous part is day 1. Unfortunately many have died walking over the Pyrenees, especially when there is bad weather. We passed a few red-faced, puffing Pilgrims and on the steeper parts, I could really feel my lack of sleep and at times felt a little dizzy and nasceous.
We arrived in Orisson around 11am where there was one small albergue.
We got to handwash some clothes, hang them on the communal line, and sit and chat with the others also staying there. At 6:30pm, we had a communal dinner, about 50 of us, and they served chicken, peas, potatoes, bread, and many lovely carafes of red wine. After dinner, one of our hosts said, “A tradition we have here is that each person tells us where they are from and why they are here.” I had heard many different languages throughout the day, but everyone now spoke in English or at least made their best effort. The people in the room were from different places from all over the world from places like Namibia, Denmark, Ireland, Tasmania, Germany, South Korea, France, Spain, New Zealand, the U.S, England, the Netherlands to name a few, and then they shared their stories. Some were there because friends had encouraged and inspired them, others had religious reasons, some had health issues they were overcoming, some were there supporting their partner’s Camino dream, and one young man in his 20s from Ireland said, “I lost my mom 6 weeks ago and now I find myself here.” Another man from the U.S.in his 40s said his wife lost her long battle with cancer a year ago and he was walking this for her. A German woman said she was struggling with muscular dystrophy, so was walking while she could. She had actually started her Camino by walking out her front door in northern Germany and was walking this Camino for the third time. The whole experience was really moving and afterwards I had a new appreciation for the people in that room who weren’t strangers anymore.
Day 2: I slept in a room with 3 bunk beds and 6 people. Three were from Tasmania and had strong Aussie accents and called me what sounded like Raaaytch. They were a family: a couple in their 40s and their sweet 8 year old daughter Lily. You see Pilgrims of all ages but she was the youngest I’d seen so far. Thankfully, no one snored, so I had the best sleep, and woke up at 6:30am refreshed and ready to put in a full day of walking. We had a communal breakfast at 7am and we all greeted each other like old friends. We headed out into a thick mist, and I felt a little concerned as some have died during bad visibility by walking off cliff sides, but after a few hours the visibility improved and I was so thankful that at the last minute I threw gloves in my pack. It drizzled here and there and towards the top, there were patches of snow.
Sadly, we also came across a lot of markers indicating Pilgrims who died there.
Overall, we had about 3 hours of lots of uphill, an hour of some steep downhill and then for the next two and a half hours, it flattened out, and the weather warmed. The landscape was just stunning and the ground was covered in leaves.
We emerged from the woods into a town called Roncevalles where most Pilgrims stop and stay but we pushed on another hour to the small village of Espinal.
We had walked from France to Spain and I was elated to be back in Spain. I had moved to Madrid, Spain after grad school for a year in 1995 and this was very life-changing and defining for me. I learned the beautiful language of Spanish which opened up my worldview and gave me a fearlessness of travel that led to going to about 40-50 countries in the two decades since. In many ways, coming to Spain feels like coming home. We settled into our new albergue (13 beds in the room this time), took showers and headed to our communal pilgrim dinner.
Afterwards, we hung out in the pub with the Irish guy I mentioned before who was really interesting and had lived in Beijing for several years. The next day was supposed to be another tough and long walking day and I found I was completely looking forward to it. My body and feet felt great, I felt like I’d been hungrily drinking in the beautiful nature around me all day, and I looked forward to meeting more of my fellow humans on this crazy walking journey.