St. Jean to Roncesvalles: Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

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Toward the middle of every Camino hiking day, you hit a silent, steady stride. With so much land behind you and so much ahead, there isn’t much to think about other than the current trail. The forest eventually returned, reminding us how much easier it is to breathe when protected by a thick canopy of trees.

I distinctly remember passing a giant stone that read “España” on my first trip. Either we missed it in the haze of the day, or it never existed in the first place. Either way, you do simply walk into Spain. They stamp your passport at the albergue when you arrive and that’s it. No ceremony, no checkpoint.

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The heat, humidity and knee pain really began to wear on me in the final several hours. Once you know the end is near, it requires much more discipline not to fall apart. As we crested one of what felt like a hundred hills, we spotted a path of pilgrims way up ahead, ascending yet another incline. How could we possibly still be going up?

Well, we did. For at least three more kilometers, up we went, the early afternoon sun pummeling the sides of faces and leaving my right clavicle quite burned and inflamed.

After nearly seven hours, we finally reached the signs pointing toward the two routes down the mountain. The first–which I’d taken in 2009 quite regrettably–was now advised against by several guides. This path headed straight down, like a double-black diamond ski hill. The other route took longer but weaved back and forth like a path fit for horses. We took the latter.

Without clear markings, and without a pack ahead of us any longer, I started to get this horrible feeling that we were indeed lost. We’d had our eye on one couple way ahead of us, but it struck me as odd that they only carried smaller day packs. Did we choose the wrong couple to follow?

And then, our guiding hikers stopped and looked around, equally confused.

“Crap. That can’t be good,” I bemoaned.

No longer sure of the path, the couple left the trail, precariously skidding down the last part of the hill to the paved road ahead. They headed in the direction of a car.

“Crap, crap, crap. They’re not pilgrims, are they?”

I was losing my patience, and my knees screamed. Also, now I had to pee, and we were quite far from any hint at a hiding spot, exposed in a scrubland-type sun exposure. No “weeing in a bush” for me, British train lady.

Before we could catch up to ask any questions, the happy couple popped into their air-conditioned vehicle and drove off to what was probably a delightful dinner and a long cool shower.

As the couple sped off into the distance, I started to worry. Maybe we’d gone so far off the trail that we’d somehow looped around Roncesvalles—I don’t remember the town being particularly large–if anything more than just the albergue itself. But as we skid down the brown, dusty side of the hill, a trail cut into the field in the distance. A shell marked the entrance of the woods. We yelped in delight.

Just as we made our final descent, a young wild horse—no more than a few weeks old—appeared before us, blocking the path. His bent knees barely supported his young, clunky body, but his eyes grasped on to mine with sincerity and sturdiness.

Several yards away, stood his mother.

“I’m gonna just stay here for a minute, I don’t want the mom to think I’m a threat,” I told Christina. She stayed close behind me, equally entranced by the young colt. The mama horse stomped its foot in the direction of its child and let out a stubborn whinny worthy of a mother tired at the end of her day of work. I couldn’t believe it, I could tell exactly what the mama horse was saying to the child.

I held my breath, aware that at any moment, the mother might see us as a problem and rush in our direction to protect its young. She neighed once more, this time with more persistence, and at last, the colt tossed its head toward its mother and they ran off together into the nearby field.

I was no longer in suburban New Jersey, watching time pass in my windowless office. I was “elsewhere”, frozen in front of wild horses and watching the communication that goes on between mother and child when they confront their daily dangers of the world—in this case, the danger was me.

We walked on. The final four kilometers of any hiking day feels longer than the previous 20. With six hours of difficult hiking behind you, the final four strain the inflamed pads of your feet, pull at your already threatened Achilles and irritate the raw patches of skin exposed to the summer sun.

Finally, the monastery-turned-hostel rose in the distance. We headed into the office, I sent Ben a celebratory text, and we placed our stuff on one of the 183 beds.

After the best shower of my life, and a good little rest, we hobbled downstairs to wash and hang laundry, my knee in pretty bad shape.

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Our communal dinner, held in the fancy-pants hotel next door, introduced us to a few long-time Camino friends for the first time.

We sat at the table with two men named Pat, both from Ireland, one traveling alone and one with his wife. Solo Pat had just reached Santiago the week before, just to take the train right back to the start to begin the Camino all over again.

We finished dinner and wearily shuffled toward the church. I haven’t been a practicing Catholic in years, but Camino masses bring a sense of comfort to the weary body and soul that I’ve yet to find anywhere else. The churches hold the memories of millions of tired travelers that came before you. Tired pilgrims can barely stand at times, leaning on the pews in front of them or hunching over with their heads to on the pew ahead.

At the end of the mass, the priest welcomed all the pilgrims for a special blessing. With the help of the albergue sign-in, he went through every language represented in the room, from Catalan to Korean. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end.

As the evening finally came close, my grouchiness won out and I shushed a few chatty ladies at the end of the row of beds who seemed to think it was time for a slumber party at the expense of everyone else on the floor.

The moment they flicked off their flashlights and I settled back into my bunk, a deep roar–a growl even–began to rhythmically emanate from the other side of my bed divider. I hadn’t seen who was there before I laid down. Was it a bear? A motorcycle? How can one human produce such a snore?

My knee throbbing and the tendons behind my ankle beginning to seize, I lay awake, trying to desperately seek rest in between the growl of my bunkmate. I was back. And I had signed up for this. I still sought enthusiasm, but I had so much farther to go before I’d find it.

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