In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
The morning that I started walking the Camino, I woke up before dawn. It was dark out, even though it was almost 7am. My clothes were still damp from the night before, since I’d hand-washed everything that I’d been wearing for the last 48 hours of travel. I was a little grumpy to have to put on slightly damp, very cold, clothing, but there were so many other things on my mind that I was mostly just congratulating myself for having done an OK job of getting them slightly dry overnight.
Mostly, though, I just remember being a little anxious about what I was about to do. I had no idea of what I was getting into. Sure, I’d spent months researching and asking questions, and reading every Camino journal I could get my hands on, but now that I was here it was finally hitting me that there was no real way to be prepared. All I could do was just step out the door and continue to put one foot ahead of the other for as long as the road went on. So that’s what I did. I finished packing up my things, turned off the lights, locked the door, and started walking back towards town.
First thing’s first, I found an ATM and took out 300 euros to put in my money belt. I wasn’t sure where I’d see my next ATM, and I also knew that I’d want to keep my fees as low as possible, so I took out the maximum amount the ATM allowed. I was a little nervous for a minute or two about having that amount of money on my person, but that was the last time that kind of fear even occurred to me. Coming from New Orleans, it quickly became apparent to me that I’m used to a much higher level of threat and crime on a regular basis than is happening at any given time along the Camino. Once I started to get a good feel for the people along The Way, I stopped being afraid. Of course, I continued to keep my money in a safe spot and remain on the lookout for anything or anyone suspicious, but my anxiety level about personal attack was at a negative level in comparison to what I feel on a daily basis walking around in my home city.
After getting cash out of the ATM, I walked back towards the pilgrim office, where I’d told Lee and WooYung that I’d meet them in the morning. I waited around there for awhile in the dark, watching pilgrims straggle past me in small groups on their way out of town. There was a certain air of apprehension. The streets were still dark and quiet, and except for the sound of walking sticks clacking against the cobblestones, there wasn’t much to tell you that the pilgrims were all leaving town. I waited around for a few more minutes for my buddies, then decided to see if the little pilgrim gear store I’d seen the day before was open yet. I still needed to get walking sticks, and it was misting a bit, so I thought a raincoat might be in order.
While I was picking out my walking sticks, the talkative lady with the pretty knitted hat came in to buy a few things. We stood together at the register for a few minutes and chatted politely as the shopkeeper rang up my new raincoat, walking sticks, and headlamp, then I stayed near the shop to wait for my friends and the woman walked off. I realized I still hadn’t asked her name.
After another ten minutes or so, I decided my Korean pals must have left, so I started walking. I quickly caught up with small group of people, including a 50-ish Canadian man named Gary. We chatted on our way out of town and up the winding road that led up into the mountains.
Things quickly got difficult for me. I’d known that the hike over the Pyrenees was going to be intense, but nothing had prepared me for how horribly out of shape I was when altitude was thrown into the mix. I’d been going to the gym daily, and doing a lot of running and weightlifting, but hadn’t had the opportunity to work on an incline. Walking up into the mountains on the way to Orisson was a very good lesson in what I wasn’t very prepared to do. I huffed and puffed along with Gary for awhile until I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep walking all in one go. We hugged and bid each other Buen Camino, and my fourth Camino friend walked on without me.
I used my raincoat to make a waterproof seat and plopped down on the side of the road to take a breath. I tried not to get too scared about how much trouble I was having breathing, and how hard my heart was pounding. Instead, I took calm, steady breaths, and focused on enjoying the landscape around me. It was absolutely gorgeous. The day was cloudy and a little misty, but I’d worked up a good sweat on the walk up, so I was still warm despite the chill in the air. Now and then, small groups of pilgrims would pass me. Most asked how I was doing, and offered me a snack or a piece of chocolate. I declined the offers politely, but thanked everyone for their care.
After awhile, it was time to pick up and get started again, but to my dismay, about 20 minutes later I was again huffing and puffing and feeling dizzy. So I stopped again. And started again. And stopped again, and so on. It took me almost four hours to walk the 9 kilometers (just under 6 miles) from St. Jean Pied de Port to Orisson. Along the way, more people offered me chocolate, and I started to accept, lol. It was still a lovely trip, even though for awhile I was sure I’d die of a heart attack.
For a while, I watched a group of pilgrims playing fetch with a neighborhood dog. A little later, as I looked back over the route I’d just taken, I noticed two fast-moving hikers covering a lot of ground. They were way in the distance, I could barely tell they were people, but the way one of the little dots moved made me think of WooYung’s determined gait. From then on, every time I stopped to take a little break, I’d scan over the trail behind me and down the mountain to see if I could see those hikers, and as they got closer, I realized that I’d been right – they were Lee and WooYung, moving steadily closer. I remembered that they’d mentioned having been in the military, and it dawned on me that there was no way I’d ever keep up with these guys once they passed me on the way to Orisson. Sure enough, once they got close and saw me, they slowed down a little to walk with me, but eventually we said our goodbyes and they moved on.
The rest of the morning is a bit of a blur. I was alone on the Camino Frances, but other than the persistent thought that I might keel over before I even got to my first albergue, I was having a pretty good time. The landscape was gorgeous, though misty. Every pilgrim I’d met thus far had been very kind and pretty interesting, so I was relatively sure I’d meet people I had something in common with. And there was another thing. I knew that I had 45 days in Europe, and the bulk of my trip was ahead of me. It was just starting to dawn on me that all I had to do was walk and eat and sleep. Luckily, I’d had the forethought to reserve a bunk at Orisson instead of deciding to walk all the way to Roncesvalles as many (stronger, hardier) pilgrims do. A lot of people decide to do a much longer trek from St. Jean Pied de Port all the way over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in one fell swoop, but I’d had a feeling that I wasn’t up to that kind of a hike on my first day. And I was right. By the time I saw Orisson on the ridge, around 11am in the morning of my first day’s walk, I was DONE. I wanted a shower, a bed, and a glass of wine, not necessarily in that order. Most of all, I didn’t want to walk another step.
The first thing I remember about Orisson is seeing that they had soup on the menu, and realizing I was absolutely starved from the day’s walk. The second thing I remember is seeing the woman in the knitted cap again. It wasn’t quite time to check into our bunks yet, so the pilgrims who’d chosen to stay overnight instead of walking on put their packs to the side and ordered lunch in Orisson’s sizeable communal dining area. Offerings were simple but hardy – ham and cheese on baguettes, a thick, creamy vegetable soup, coffee, and wine. I ordered food and sat next to the only person I knew, knitted cap girl, who turned out to be Natalie, from the Yukon. Within minutes, we were chowing down and talking like old friends. It turned out that this was Natalie’s second time on the Camino Frances.
Once we were allowed into our rooms, Natalie and I shared one of the three bunk beds available. The other beds were taken up by Phyllis and Terry, old friends from Seattle, Claire from South Africa, and Karen from Canada. Dreamy, yet pragmatic, Claire intrigued me from the start. I was also interested at the friendship dynamic between Terry and Phyllis, and gave them silent props for having the guts to do this kind of thing with a friend. Karen had a streak of “diva” to her, but once she and Claire got to talking about meditation techniques, I took it as a cue to remind myself to stop judging books by their covers.
All sorts of things were odd about that first night in an albergue. There was the shower, which operated with a token, and cut off after five minutes. That was eye-opening. Then there were the little hygienic disposable covers to put on the mattress and pillow. I was so scared of bed bugs, despite the precautions. Then there were the heaters, which we were informed wouldn’t be turned on until night time. Everyone had clothes that needed to be washed and dried, but with air-drying the only possibility, and so much dampness in the air, we resigned ourselves to wearing damp clothes the next day (which I quickly found to be the norm if I was hand washing my things, since I never ended up walking into town in time to catch a full afternoon’s dose of sunshine).
That night, after an afternoon of getting to know new people and figure out Camino routines, everyone met in the dining room for a lovely communal meal. We introduced ourselves, shared where we were from, and shared what we wanted to about why we’d each taken to the Camino. There were people from all over the world in that room, yet it felt like being surrounded by family.
That night, we found out that Terry snuffle-snores in her sleep (we all agreed afterwards that it was a very sweet sound). We also found out that Phyllis couldn’t sleep with any noise. After she firmly reprimanded the sleeping Terry for snoring – waking up all of the rest of us – I struggled to get back to sleep, but never quite accomplished the deep rest I was looking for. I was afraid this was to be a pattern for the next month, but my body quickly adjusted, and I slept better on the Camino than I typically do at home.
The next morning was my first real experience with what it was going to be like to wake, pack, and breakfast before a long day’s walk on the Camino. Luckily, I wasn’t the last out of bed, since that honor was reserved for Karen, who’d taken sleeping pills, was wearing ear plugs, and had to be firmly shaken to wake up!
After a quick breakfast with a bowl of coffee, I was off. I didn’t know whether to wait or walk on, given how slow I’d been the day before, so I walked on alone, leaving my new girlfriends behind. I figured if we were meant to walk together, we’d see each other during the day.