This post would be over 3,000 words if I wrote out the whole day, and that still only dips into my “book” version of this telling currently in progress. So I will make it halfway.
(Also, I do not currently have time to proof it, so–sorry for the mess!)
I experienced all five stages of grief while crossing the Pyrenees. Denial, anger, bargaining, and for a fleeting moment, acceptance. I then looped back around to a few just for good measure. I suppose I was mourning the passing of my normal life for the next five weeks or even the life before and after this particular Camino.
Even though this was my second hike from France to Santiago de Compostela–799 kilometers west of where I stood–this one, as they all are and will be–was different. I entered the first Camino with the weight of unexplained sadness. The five weeks opened my eyes a story I’d been suppressing since I was a little kid (more on that later), but I did go into it with something precious–enthusiasm.
Somewhere between 2009 and 2017, I’d lost enthusiasm for things. I hadn’t lost love, curiosity, or even gratitude. But that extra energy required to feel enthusiastic about something? Well I’d grown too angry, tired and practical to remember what that felt like. And so I knew I carried a different weight heading into this trip, and the Pyrenees is damn crazy way to kick things off.
I felt surprisingly okay rising after my fourth night of not-so-great-sleep. At least I’d slept more than the first time I crossed in 2009, and also, the weather looked like it would be stunning today. Eight years earlier, we crossed in dangerous fog and sleep, missing most of the beauty that the Pyrenees offers, and also probably risking our lives.
Anyway, I made it down to breakfast before Christina, who was feeling quite under the weather and sat down with the group of excited/terrified hikers as the hospitalera served us toast, coffee, juice and her famous “rum cake.”
“It gives you the energy you need for the crossing,” she told us like a sweet, worried mother, “Do not get stuck in the heat up there or they’ll have to come and rescue you!”
A rather green-looked Christina came down the stairs.
“Rum cake?” I offered. It looked like I’d offered her a bowl of chili. Got it, no rum cake.
I’d always imagined I’d kiss the ground of the Camino when we finally got walking on the first day, ecstatic to finally be back. But we were too busy trying to find the road itself. There’s no giant welcome sign, and the markings in France are not as clear as in Spain, where the famous yellow arrows begin.
As we finally began our ascent, still on the paved road, the heat began to rise, even as early as 7am. Christina did not look great.
“Hey. So I have a thought. I didn’t sleep well, you’re not feeling well. Let’s start this off right and take another day in St. Jean. We can rest, take a day to take care of ourselves.”
Christina was not playing my denial game. She sat for a few minutes, got her bearings, and somehow, started plugging along with new-found speed. Perhaps it was my threat of turning around. But I meant it! Wait!
I’d told people for years about the intensity of the first 5 kilometers. Pied de Port–in the town name–loosely means “at the foot of the pass.” This doesn’t seem like a “pass” to me. In 7 kilometers, you climb approximately 600 meters–or 1,968 feet. That’s about 164 flights of stairs.
As must as I wanted to hang onto my chipper, rum-cake-induced mood, the sun was already bearing down my back as I climbed. I was an hour in, and drenched in sweat from head to tow. My right knee, still in a brace, screamed every time I hyper-extended it as I stepped into an unseen pothole. And the brace, which I’d yet to figure out, dug its velcro into the back of my leg. Meanwhile, everyone flew ahead of me.
I should have trained more. All I did was sit and my desk. My body is a mess., Why can’t I remember how to sleep? Why on earth is this a common starting point for people? Why did I even come back?
After a turn off the road, my knee rejoiced to walk on the pliable, muddy earth yet again. My bad mood persisted as I tried to explain to some young American girls that you can’t play with wild horses, who–at their beckoning–decided to charge the path ahead of us. I gave the girls a stern look after my warnings, the ones I usually saved for unruly high schoolers.
But alas, it was time for second breakfast. In my moment of morning exhaustion, second breakfast was always there to remind me that everything would be okay. If I could just make it from meal to meal, I could get through this trip. If I filled my stomach with potatoes at eggs, there was nothing to fear.
We sat at an empty Orisson–the only major stopping point on our crossing–and inhaled a Spanish tortilla on a giant baguette. Give me all of the carbs! Christina felt compelled to get a coke, something neither of us drank at home, and with one sip, I bought my own. It may have been the best soda I’d ever had in my life.
For the first time all morning, I looked out on the how far we’d come, and stood amazed at the beauty. After today, may I never cross these mountains again.
Before hitting my next stage of grief, I have to say–with much importance–that all of this was not terrible, far from it. We’re talking about 8-9 hours of walking in stunning sunlight with endless breathtaking views. Hikers are pretty far apart at this time of the day, so Christina and I chatted about everything that comes to mind in 8 hours of wandering. I told her about how I’d missed all this last time, how it was all encased it sleet by this point.
We took another rest by the famous Virgin Mary Statue that looked out over the mountains at the Pic D’Orrison. As we sat in the field and aired out our swollen feet, I thought of Mary and the Basque Goddess Mari looking over us–if that’s a thing. I love myth, I truly believe in the power of a story. And whenever women make their way into such Patriarchal tales, I celebrate. Mari and Mary were here in some way, even if it was just in my head.
As the mountain continued to rise–we have to go down sometime, right?–I started to worry about Ben. I told him we’d make it over by now, and that I’d check in when I got to Roncesvalles. But even if I used data on my phone, there was no signal (obviously). All we had were an occasional “land line” that went straight to emergency centers in case we got stuck or injured. I had to make peace that he didn’t know where I was, and if he was worrying, that I couldn’t do anything about it.
But I hated this. I hated the idea that something I did for myself caused someone else so much pain. I felt trapped in the mountains, that every time we saw a kilometer marker, it seemed we didn’t go remotely as far as it felt, that they were playing tricks on my mind. Was I supposed to solve some sort of riddle or fight a dragon before I was allowed to truly pass and see humanity again? How was it possible that we still had 15 kilometers left?
In one of our hours of silent, frustrated walking, a story popped into my head like a saving grace. I suddenly remembered an article I came across just before leaving about how the Pyrenees were a common secret escape route for those fleeing the Nazis in World War II. An entire underground system looked out for those fleeing into Spain. Farmers and families along the way welcomed refugees, feeding them and keeping them safe for the night. Our route was now the specific passing for these people–I believe it was farther south and took much longer–but I thanked the mountains and the souls that lived there before for saving so many lives. (More about this story here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-15690262)
And I thanked the energy of the Camino and the lands it crossed for the selfless assistance for those in need seeking asylum during such a horrific time. I breathed this in.
When I came out of my haze, I’d walked a few more kilometers without even realizing. And up ahead…was the infamous descent.
I’m off to a pool party, so, more tomorrow! Buen Camino!