Three years ago today, Claire and I took off from St. Jean Pied du Port on our hike to Santiago. Every year since, I have made an announcement that I would finally track my trip day by day; at least make an attempt to document the experience. And every time my goal has been too large. So I’m going easy on myself this year and writing when I can, about the days that stand out in my mind. Hey, it’s a start.
St. Jean to Roncesvalles
The first day of hiking was one of the most notable experiences, for obvious reasons and many unforeseeable ones. I was asked at a rehearsal the other night if I have ever had a near death experience. It took a few days to realize it…but the raining hike over the Pyrenees definitely counts.
Claire and I spent the night prior in an abandoned monastery, built in heavens knows when, on the side of a hill at the base of the Pyrenees. The town of Pied du Port translates into “the foot of the pass.” This would infer that there is a pass through the Pyrenees, which even with a quick glance is clearly an exaggeration. Nonetheless, we were thrilled with anticipation. Claire and I put on all our gear, took some silly pictures, and then settled into our cots and sleeping bags nice and early to prepare for the next morning. And then it hit us, sleep wasn’t showing up. Neither of us could fall asleep. And since there was one light switch for the entire floor of “bedrooms,” there was nothing to do but wait and pray for the Sandman to show up. I dozed off for what I think was 4 hours and woke up to Claire reading Harry Potter in Spanish with her headlamp. She ventured out into the hall and had found a stack of books from past hikers. We changed places and she fell asleep as I stayed up. Who knows why, but even my sleeping pills did nothing. It was like our first day of school. Just instead, first day of walking across a country.
Comparable to our mornings to come, we woke up relatively late, probably about 6am. We were rookies, and never could have prepared ourselves for what was to come. We naively wandered through the town in hopes that something was open for breakfast (ha!) and eventually settled on some snacks from the night before and carried on our way. A few basic calf stretches and off we go!
The sun greeted us for our first several hours of climbing and provided an incredible view of the path ahead and behind. The way is not marked as clearly while still in France so a keen eye is very important, otherwise you may end up wandering the fields of Southern France with the sheep. We were warned by a Camino volunteer the night before that planning for day 1 is very important. There are only two stations to fill up water, and two places to eat. Our hand-drawn map had a large yellow “X” drawn on a picture of a pump and was labeled “LAST WATER.” I do have to say though, that even with a lack of sleep, our excitement trumped the overwhelming fear I expected.
Not even an hour into the hike, my mind began to wander. Where am I? How did I get to the mountains of France? How many millions of people had walked the same steps I had and would be over the next five weeks? All I wanted to do was take out my cell phone and text everyone I loved how beautiful this was, how I wished they were here, and that I missed them. But we didn’t have phones (other than my emergency box phone to call home once a week). The urge to tell the world through Facebook and texts that you were having a life altering experience would have to wait. Instead, we would just need to experience the moment.
Speaking of “experiencing the moment,” I have to say there is one quick way to be completely present in the now. Pain. It didn’t take very long to get a small taste of the physical challenge ahead. As we were later told that day, “Hey, they don’t call it a Catholic Pilgrimage for nothing.” Though we wanted to stop and rest as much as possible, we did some math and started to worry about arriving before sunset. Number one rule in the guidebook: you don’t want to wander looking for markers in the dark. So we carried on through the wiggly muscles and figured out our tactics to climbing hills. Claire was “slow and steady wins the race” while I climbed in spastic spurts, with short rests in between.
I remember specifically on a hill before our lunch spot, that we met a girl we wouldn’t say goodbye to until Santiago. It was Courtney. A bright eyed student from California with enough drive and enthusiasm for the hike to make even the most exhausted person keep walking. We chatted all morning, shared lunch, and she developed into our cheerleader.
After lunch, the three of us took off from the lovely house which fed us and we glared up at the mountain ahead. This time, an ominous mist was forming and it was difficult to see the peak of the hill. It was clear then that the extreme change in altitude was enough to enter into new weather patterns. The air cooled and a light rain started to fall. Even with our ponchos (one which made Claire look like a lovable dinosaur), we were worn out after another few hours and stopped at log cabin/bar which served heavenly hot chocolate. It was a lively hostel, a place where many people had spent the night to break up the trip. The pit stop revived our souls and when we went outside, it appeared that the weather had lifted.
We were wrong. We entered the higher parts of the mountains, and when the mist occasionally cleared, you could look down the mountain we had climbed. The fog was a slight concern since the path markers were often covered by moss as well, but the hot chocolate kept us truckin’. To our dismay, the rain began again and we gave in to looking like poncho dinosaurs once more. More upsetting than the rain, was the wind. I can deal with rain, cool, no problem. It’s just water, right? But rain + wind = wall of painful water smacking you in the face. My only pair of pants were soaked in a second, mainly on the right side of my thighs which was facing the wind. Claire and Courtney’s poncho caught the air, and puffed up like a parachute. At this point, things were still funny. Our humor darkened with each turn, the ever-thinning crowd of fellow hikers, and the presence of animal bones. It’s like in dramatic horror films when you see what will happen to you if you stop walking. Don’t be that cow! He stopped to fix his boots in the cold rain too!
Cold rain turned into sleet as we climbed higher and our dark humor turned into grouchiness and concern. Courtney was our shining light through the pain and her tactic for dealing with the incessant wind was yelling comically into it. The fog thickened but we knew we were approaching potentially the most crucial road marker of our day: the arrow to cross the “field.” What is the field? Glad you asked. It is a kilometer stretch of well, a field, that isn’t marked by a footpath. Once you find an arrow and a pile of rocks, you turn and walk in one direction toward a path of woods until you see the entrance of the path on the other side. In beautiful sunlight, this is slightly tricky. In thick fog and sleet, this is life threatening. Off the edge of this unmarked area in a drop into…something. I’m not sure what because I couldn’t see it. I just knew the ground ended. For all I know it could have been dragons and rivers of lava. In the movie “The Way,” I believe this is where the character is thought to have fallen. Awesome sauce.
We knew where to turn because at last we saw another group of hikers. A few young ladies from Korea had stopped with their map and looked terrified in the blowing rain. We encouraged them to keep walking but the language barrier was too difficult and they waved us on. They appeared to be waiting for someone but we worried about their safety. We stepped on to the saturated grass of the field an instantly my boots filled with water. Oh Ginny. Why didn’t you spend that extra $50 on water proof boots? Mine were water resistant, which meant they protected again a light drizzle, not a monsoon over the Pyrenees. At this point, all I could think was, “Thank goodness my parents don’t know that this is so dangerous,” and, “Oh crap, what did I get myself into?” Each step was five times heavier with the rain and the water began to creep up my wool socks, the only thing on my body which had avoided the rain so far. Are you serious, Pyrenees?
By some miracle, we reached the other end of the field and climbed up a final hill to the marked path once more. The hill had become a stream due to the rain, so we were nearly bent all the way over, using our hands to steady ourselves. The only thing to do was to yell through the pain. There wasn’t a choice to stop walking, we would get too cold and cramped if we did. Fear set in big time.
At the height of the madness, and honestly I don’t clearly remember when, we reached a peak of the cliff, and the sky cleared. It was here that we passed a large ancient rock which read “Espana.” No border control in the middle of the woods. Just a rock, and a kilometer marker to Santiago. My emotions erupted and we collapsed under a tree for the first time in hours. We rung out our socks, checked our poor map (which was basically paper goo at this point), and ate the rest of our sandwiches. Saving those was the best decision of the day.
The sad part? We still had 10 kilometers or so to go. The great part? The rain had stopped and it appeared that we were done with climbing. In the next few hours we were blessed with rich green magical forests, and our conversation returned to normal. My pants even began to dry. When the final kilometers were approaching, we began our descent. If you’ve ever been a hiker or runner, you know that downhill can be just as painful. It turns out that there were two ways to get down the mountain. One was a slow and steady winding road, fit for a carriage or tired hikers. The other way a steep precarious drop. Guess which one we found?
My leg muscles shook and yelled as we slowly stumbled down the steep “path” of tree roots and rocks. Eventually we sat on our bums and scooted our way down the Pyrenees. With tired hearts and muddy butts, we sat at the bottom of the path and ate our last Luna bar. I was weary. But for the first time, we met the Canadian Family. They were hysterical, and continuously a source of advice and positivity. It’s cool I call them the Canadian Family. We were “the American girls” to everyone else.
On our final walk to Roncesvalles, we came across a group of people (and oxen) dressed in Viking outfits filming a movie. Yup. If you want to feel like you’re on drugs, walk for 9 hours over a mountain and then run into a period film shoot. They had the balls to tell us to go a different way around their set. No PA could have stopped me from the hope of food and a bathroom ahead. A giant troll couldn’t have stopped me. So we charged through and may be accidental extras in a Spanish film.
At long long last, around 6pm, we reached the town. Our Pilgrims passports were stamped (a pamphlet that acted as proof of where we hiked), and we claimed our bunk beds in a room of 200 other people. Yet with all of the noise and light, I fell asleep. Me. The insomniac that whined at my roommates throughout college for leaving their laptops on because the light would keep me awake. I was told Spain cures insomnia, and it sure did.
I woke up just in time for dinner and ate an entire fish. Yes, an entire fish. Do I like fish? Nah. But it was the same meal they had apparently served there since it opened, probably in like the 10th century. You don’t mess with a good thing. We celebrated with the room and smiled at the Korean girls we had worried about so many hours before. We made our way back to the hostel and I told my family and boyfriend that I was still alive, though a little worse for ware.
Was I upset after all this? Not in the least. I finally felt like I was going on an adventure I had dreamed about as a kid when I still had a wild imagination. I crossed the Pyrenees. By foot. We were told that a record amount of people crossed that day, even though we should have been stopped in St. Jean due to dangerous weather. For the first time, I felt like I was a part of something so much bigger than myself.
I slept like a rock that night, and awoke to choir music blasted by several nuns on a cassette tape. Off to day 2…