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 trek from Orisson to Roncesvalles was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and emotionally-jarring leg of my Camino. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some stunning vistas to come, but this little slice of the world is shockingly beautiful on a good day, and it was the perfect day to cross the Pyrenees on foot.
I walked away from Orisson alone, and was on my own for about an hour before I heard a pair of pilgrims walking up behind me. I’d met the two the night before at Orisson, and remembered that they were from Chicago. Andy was in his mid-20s, and had just finished up a teaching gig in Asia. He wanted to walk the Camino before moving back to the States, and his dad, Peter, had decided to join him for a portion of the walk. The three of us chatted a bit as our paces allowed, and walked together for small times throughout the day.
I got the feeling that Peter thought I was unprepared (which was fair – I was). The father-son duo were very outdoorsy, and, along with Andy’s brother, had traveled quite a bit when the boys were younger. Learning from my experiences the day before, I decided that since the day was gorgeous and I didn’t have any set time to be in Roncesvalles, I’d take my time to sit and take my shoes off whenever I felt like it. There were sheep EVERYWHERE, and the trail was often littered with sheep and horse dung, but every now and then you’d find a rock that was just perfect for sitting on to take a break.
It was also perfectly quiet out. The wind was blowing, but you could hear the bells the sheep wore tinkling from a mile away across the mountains. That first day, my ears were actually ringing from the silence! But as I sat there on this particular rock, admiring the landscape, letting my feet breathe, I heard Peter mention me. He and Andy were far down the mountain. He couldn’t have known I’d be able to hear him, and I know he wouldn’t have wished to hurt my feelings. He was criticizing my shoes (New Balance trail runners – perfect choice for the Camino if you have hot feet and you’re prone to ankle blisters from high ankle choices like hiking boots). I heard Andy shushing him in what I was to learn was his characteristically kind and easy-going manner. A minute or two later, I saw them approaching from around the bend and down the mountain. As the song says, voices carry.
Everyday Anna would have been deeply hurt at the thought of being criticized. Camino Anna took into account the cold, damp feel of the stone beneath her tech-fiber covered butt, the amazing breeze wafting across her sweaty toes, the rich smell of grass, mingled with sheep dung, the sound of those bells tinkling across the mountainside, and the sincere tone in Andy’s voice as he had asked his father to stop being so critical of a stranger…and I let it go. Of course, not enough that I’d forget it, but that moment seems set apart from many others, in that it was one of the first major learning moments of my Camino. It was a time when I had a choice – confront someone for being (unintentionally) jerky, or refuse to escalate a stupid conversation and go back to enjoying the hell out of this little slice of heaven. I made the right choice. I hope that I can continue to reflect on that for the rest of my life, and let it guide me into continuing to reject unnecessary drama.
Two or three hours into the day’s walk, there was a special treat waiting for us on the mountain – a little food truck with the last credential stamp in France! There was also hot coffee, tea, and chocolate, juice, boiled eggs (to become a favorite on the Camino), fruit, and this amazing local sheeps’ cheese that was made by the farmer/food truck owner. I ended up sharing some cheese with Andy and Peter, then buying my own wedge for later.
As we happily drank coffee and ate our revitalizing snacks, Natalie and Claire walked up. We chatted briefly, then I walked on.
Most of the rest of the day was walked alone and with various people. Andy and Peter and I crossed paths a few more times, and I walked a while with Natalie and Claire, but once we got into Spain, the path got muddier and more difficult, and I found myself growing weary and retreating into myself a bit more. I took frequent breaks to nibble on the sandwich that I’d brought with me from Orisson and catch my breath.
At one point in the day, I was sitting close to a waterfall that I could hear but not see, letting my feet dangle over an embankment, eating the end of my sandwich. The trail in that area is a popular walking trail for nature enthusiasts, so every now and then a biker or walker would pass me going the opposite way. To amuse myself, I’d say “Hey, you’re heading the wrong way! Santiago’s that way!” Most of the time, the hikers would laugh, but one time, a couple of middle-aged Brits laughed, then stopped and asked me what everyone was doing. They’d seen all the pilgrims, but didn’t know anything about the Camino. They asked me how much farther I had to go, and when I told them, “Oh, about 30 more days or so,” the man shook my hand and wished me luck, lol!
Heading down toward Roncesvalles, you walk through a dimly lit forest that seems almost magical if you’ve been living in the city too long. Along with all the trees, there was also ankle-deep mud that threatened to suck off your shoes, and a thick covering of slick leaves, just to add a little extra excitement. I saw a few people slip and fall, and if not for my trusty walking sticks, would have surely met the same fate. One thing I found out about mud of this type is that my innate reaction to squelching through mud is to get the uncontrollable giggles. A fair number of pilgrims must have thought I was absolutely insane as they passed me on the trail, because I laughed uncontrollably for at least an hour of muddy trail, squelching all the way!
Claire and I caught up just before Roncesvalles, and I asked where Natalie was. It turned out that she’d hurt her knee before starting the Camino, and was nursing the injury still. The pain had come back in the afternoon, so she was taking it slow on the descent into Roncesvalles. There was a waymarker noting directions to the albergues and town center when you first leave the trail and enter Roncesvalles, so I offered to stay there with our packs and wait for Natalie while Claire walked to find the main albergue. A few minutes after Claire walked off, Natalie appeared at the woods’ edge. She was pleasantly surprised to see me, and I felt proud to have made a helpful decision. It seemed like Natalie, Claire and I were becoming an item, which was both a surprise and a relief. Even though it had been really easy to meet new people thus far, much easier than I’d anticipated, I couldn’t believe I’d had the good luck to meet these two kind strangers at the very outset of my journey. Without even meaning to, I’d found my first Camino family.
Claire was eager to get a bunk and get her affairs in order, but Natalie and I were both much more eager to find a drink and let a day on the Camino roll off our backs. We walked together down to the nearest pub, where Natalie got the closest thing they had to a brandy, a Spanish liqueur called Pacharan, and the bartender gave me a double Ballentines on the rocks with an espresso chaser. We sat in the sun, sipping our drinks and getting to know each other a little more, stopping to say hi to various pilgrims we knew from Orisson and the day’s walk. Andy came along and pulled up a chair. Terry and Phyllis soon straggled over. Claire found her way to us, along with a couple of women she’d met earlier. It was a gorgeous afternoon on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and we were all quite content with the task that life had offered us – enjoying the company of our fellow pilgrims.
The main albergue at Roncesvalles is quite impressive. It’s a huge old monastery that’s been repurposed to give pilgrims a place to bed down for the night. I loved the sturdy, well-made bunks, each with its own private locker, and thought it was particularly nice that each set of four bunks makes its own semi-private pod. In many of the other albergues I was to experience on the Camino, you can see most of the room from your bunk. Here, each set of four beds had a modicum of privacy, which is nice when you’re getting eased into the idea of sharing a room with a hundred other people. Natalie, Claire and I were sharing one pod, with the fourth bed belonging to an Irish cyclist who was traveling the Camino with his brother.
After we moved into our bunks and got things settled, I took our laundry down to get washed and dried by the nuns in real washers and dryers, since hand washing the night before hadn’t gone splendidly for any of us, and we were all feeling in need of sparkling new duds. Claire decided to go on a tour, while Natalie and I went to dinner (my first pilgrim meal – spaghetti, fried fish and french fries, rice pudding, and lots of wine). Midway through the meal, the table launched into a half-English, half-Spanish conversation about current Spanish politics, which I found very interesting and enlightening. What really got me was that of three Spanish pilgrims at the table, each had a strikingly different opinion on the current political climate, but they all got along quite well (they were best friends taking just a few days to walk on the Camino) and managed to keep their political ideals separate from their personal interactions. In other words, they were much more civilized than Americans fighting over politics.
Dinner over, we went to the pilgrim mass at the local church, where the priest blessed all of the pilgrims and wished us a good journey. After such a long, tiring day, I was touched by the ceremony, but also just exhausted and ready to hit the hay. I went to sleep feeling very thankful for everything that had befallen me thus far, though a little scared of bed bugs, as Natalie had told me earlier that they typically live in the wooden bunks. Still, I was asleep within minutes and slept soundly until the lights went on the next morning.