Trail Day 1: Why is Everyone Passing Us?

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Photo by: J W Foster


09/17/2012, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncevailles, 25.1 km

Joe: We woke early. We were anxious about our readiness for this journey and our ability to make it to the other side of the mountains by nightfall, we wanted to get an early start. Dressing and packing was a slow process in the darkness and the cold. On the old wooden box serving as a bedside table there was one small lamp with a light bulb the size of a Christmas tree ornament. It lit the angled ceilings of our attic room with barely enough light to see by. We were excited and anxious to get started. Shouldering our backpacks we took our first steps on the Camino de Santiago. We tried to make our way quietly down the narrow rear staircase but our ackwardness with our backpacks and the old age of the home caused the boards to creek and groan as we worked our way to the ground floor. We felt better when we heard other guest whispering in their rooms. They were making their own preparation for the Camino. It was 0600 hrs when we hit the cobbled streets of Saint-Jean and we were the first pilgrims out.

It was cold, dark and misty. We could barely see the signs and the soon to be familiar yellow arrow blazes pointing us in the right direction. Elaine lit the trail in front of us with her headlamp as we walked through the empty streets and started ascending out of the village. The multistoried village homes quickly transitioned to farmhouses, barns and fenced pastures. We continued to ascended and then ascend some more up into the mountains. The sun started to light the eastern sky after about an hour and we soon started to hear voices gaining on us from behind. As the young and old alike approached and walked past us in the morning mist we started to wonder whether we were in over our heads. It didn’t take long for us to recover from the shock of being passed so effortlessly by the other pilgrims. We were soon saying to ourselves “They’re pushing themselves too hard.” “This isn’t a race, we are going to just take our time and enjoy the journey.” The sun eventually burned off the surrounding mist and the vistas opened up before our eyes. These were actually clouds that we were climbing through. The temperature started to climb right along with us and at the same time so did our pain, our exhaustion, and our heart rates. Still, the young and the old passed us by. “Buen Camino” was all that we could say between our labored breaths. How are they doing this to us? We searched for answers…anything to help maintain a shred of dignity we could grasp hold of in the face of our snails pace. This is exhausting work, it must be the altitude, we are not accustomed to it. My ultimate embarrassment was the white-haired elderly lady that looked to be at least 70 hiking with a group of middle age women that, yes, passed us by.

Reaching Orrison we took a much needed mid-morning break from the fatigue. Breakfast consisted of café-con-leche and a potato omelet that looks a lot like a quiche but with less flavor. By now there were a number of pilgrims on the trail, many crowding in at the bar at the Orrison albergue. This is a popular point of convergence simply because it is the only show in town, the next real establishment isn’t available until Roncevalles about 16 kilometers and several mountain-tops away. This was our first taste of the camaraderie we would continue to experience throughout the Camino. Pilgrims pulling off their backpacks, setting them down on the ground and walking off into the bar without a worry. Most seemed more relaxed then yesterday, and spontaneous conversations between strangers lit up like torches all around us. After replenishing our water supply at a single roadside fountain we kept on climbing into a sky so blue it could have come straight out of a crayon box.

The march up the steep slope of the mountains was grueling work. We ascended above the tree-line where there was little shade or shelter. Herds of cattle and sheep grazed on the hillsides undaunted by the strangers coursing through their home. We had become part of their scenery but the grass proved far more attractive and in the end, they paused only for brief seconds to acknowledge the exhausted pilgrims. Elaine and I stopped often to readjust our gear, drink some water, tighten our shoes, then loosen them, then tighten them, then loosen them later still. We reached the top of the mountains and walked along the ridges and mountaintops. It was beautiful, the bright blue sky above us, billowy clouds below us and a hundred shades of green spread out to the horizon. The trails were not as steep up here and the temperatures were lower as was the oxygen. We found ancient fountains built into the sides of the hills to replenish our constantly dwindling supply of water. The Spaniards simply route spring water to bronze taps mounted in elaborate granite headstones. We must have each drank a gallon of water. We were in a constant state of thirst. Reaching the other side of the mountains, I soon found that I’m a much better climber than a descender. Elaine labored more than me on the assent but when we finally started to descend it was my turn to lag behind. It was very steep and gravely and my knees rebelled from the pain. It took all my will and the fear of being left behind to force my knees into submission so that we could make Roncevailles by nightfall.

We completed our first day of the Camino de Santiago walking through lush forests, crossing cold mountain streams and finally stepping into the courtyard of the Roncesvalles Royal Collegiate Church of Saint Mary. Since the 12th century this church has been receiving all manner of pilgrims: sick and well, Catholic, Jew, pagans, and heretics, the rich, the poor and the vagabond. I’m not sure which category we best fit into but after what we’d endured for our first day we were certainly open to any category that would get us through the front doors and into a bed. We were guided by fellow pilgrims to the most deceiving sanctuary. From the outside it looked like an ancient addition to a century’s old church but on the inside it was actually a fully modernized albergue capable of caring for up to 183 pilgrims. This albergue is manned completely by volunteers. All the hiking shoes are checked at the door and placed in the “mud room.” Next, is the line for bunk bed assignments in any one of the many 4-person “quad” cubicles. Most of the arriving pilgrims were walking around in a daze from exhaustion, but some still had enough energy to laugh and sport with the hospitaleros. As we settled in upstairs in our assigned quad and looked around, we noticed a guy wander into the girls showers without even noticing. Sometimes the confused souls were gently guided by the half-dressed women over to the men’s side, sometimes they were just left alone to have their shower and leave without a clue where they were. Our bunkmates were two beautiful 20-something women from Berlin that we’d met earlier on the trail. I knew I was out of my element when instead enjoying this man’s slice of “quad-heaven” I bet all three women that I’d be the first to fall asleep…….and eventually, I was. We’d ascended a total of 4000 feet and descended 1400 feet today. I’d read that the first day is always the worst, we sure won’t argue with that.

Elaine: Growing up in New York City, I’d never hiked more than two hours or longer than it took to get to the nearest McDonalds or on a healthy day, to the Subways for sandwiches. Arriving at Roncevalles was like reaching the Holy Land for me. I could have ended my trek right there and felt completely happy. When we first saw the Church of Saint Mary, I was struck by it’s enormity. I was also taken by the way it was collocated with an equally high-traffic, upscale hotel on the other side of the courtyard. I read a sign on the wall that said, “Do not talk to the pilgrims, they are here for rest.” I was actually grateful for the caution. I had visions of tourists interviewing the exhausted pilgrims prodding for esoteric reasons for why they were doing the pilgrimage when all they wanted to do was get showered, fed and rested.

Crawling into bed tonight, I got the answer to my question about whether I could sleep with a bunch of strangers around me. The answer was yes and no. Every muscle in my body was exhausted in a way I had never experienced before. My mind, on the other hand, was racing. I had seen such beauty today. The skies were so blue they looked like they were photo-shopped. The cows and sheep walked freely among us with no fear. Our birds-eye view above the clouds, the rugged and simple homes along the Way, it was like a dream. My mind played the scenes of the day like a projector in my head with no option for pausing.

I started this day with great fears, worrying that I couldn’t hike very far or climb mountains. I learned I could walk as far as necessary if I can but occasionally stop to catch my breath and rest my feet, and above all, if I can loosen my expectations about where I should be and when.

Lesson for Today: Looking up at clouds in the sky while lying in the grass is sure to nourish one’s tranquility. But reaching out to clouds so close you can touch them is soothing to the spirit. Maybe it’s because we subconsciously feel closer to heaven.

“March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path. And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” – Khalil Gibran

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