Anna’s Camino: Day 5 (continued) – Zabaldika

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Hanging by the front desk at Albergue Parroquial de Zabaldika.

It’s a long walk from Zubiri to Zabaldika, and that last kilometer or so made the walk seem interminable, as we wound up, up, up a steep, rocky hill. One of my realizations from the early days of the Camino is that I particularly dislike being introduced to new elevations at the end of the day. That being the case, I bitched my way up that hill like a champ. I’m not sure anymore if the moaning and groaning was all in my head, or if I was being verbal, but I’m guessing by that time of day I was letting my discontent be known to anyone within earshot.

It might just have been my mood at the time, but the hardy weeds and bushes clinging to life here and there made the hill seem like an area where only the strong would survive. The detour path from the Camino up to the albergue leads straight into a lush, green church garden, which seems a veritable oasis at the end of the arduous climb. The garden isn’t visible from downhill, though, so on the way up, I didn’t even have the promise of a beautiful place to take my mind off of the climb. Instead, I concentrated on what had quickly become my main goals: a nice, hot shower, a place – any place would do – to sit down, and taking off my shoes. It’s amazing how simple life can be, if you let it.

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The church garden, via the albergue’s FB page.

Claire was trailing behind us for the last part of the walk, but as Natalie and I got close to the abbey garden, we saw a cyclist mount his bike and take a path parallel to ours that went DOWN the hill. I stared after him with a mix of awe and trepidation. “Now there’s a sense of adventure,” I thought to myself.

No, wait, I’m lying. What I really thought was something closer to, “Is that dude insane?!?”

The garden was small, but nicely tended. Green grass, flowering plants, and trees made it an inviting spot to rest, even in early October. At that point, though, I couldn’t see that beauty. I didn’t have the energy to do more than wonder where I’d be able to put my pack down. Claire had caught up by this point, and the three of us walked through the garden, past the door of the 13th century church, and towards what looked to be the front door of the albergue, in a little building attached to the church. Just as we got there, an older gentleman with a wizened face stepped out. He addressed us in Spanish, so Natalie, the polyglot of the group, spoke back. After a second or two of confused back-and-forth, he broke into English with a very strong Gaelic lilt, and we all relaxed.

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The church, with the albergue connected at the left side of the photograph.

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This is the albergue (photo also from their FB page). The church is on the backside of the building, hidden by the trees to the right of the photograph.

Michael and Kathleen (pronounced lovingly by Michael as “Kat-lin”), a married couple from Ireland, were the last volunteer hospitaleros of the year at the albergue. It turned out we’d arrived just in time to ring the church bell and take advantage of the nuns’ hospitality before the albergue was officially shut down for the season. Michael was quite surprised to see us, as the night before there’d only been a couple of pilgrims, and it seemed like the pilgrim traffic was dying down for the season. He was about to be even more surprised, because before the afternoon was out, it was a full house!

As we signed in and took off our boots off, I noticed a handwritten Spanish translation of the traditional Irish blessing (“May the road rise to meet you…”) taped up to the wall. I’m getting teary now, just thinking about that amazing couple who cared for us like their own children during our stay in Zabaldika. They truly were the face of hospitality, and as I write this from the hotel front desk where I now work, I realize that my conversations with Michael and Kathleen started a little chain reaction in my life that is still coming to fruition today. One might even say that my journey into hospitality has a great deal to do with the love that they showered on the weary travelers who came to their door that day.

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The best was yet to come. After boots were off, Michael led us up to the sleeping quarters. It was up two short flights of stairs, so my quads and calves, which were seizing up by then, were definitely not happy with me. However, to everyone’s great joy, there were NO BUNK BEDS. If you’ve walked the Camino before, you’ll understand how something like this might make your heart leap in your chest, might fill you with woozy relief and make you overly emotional. If you haven’t walked the Camino yet, make sure to plan ahead and get a spot at Zabaldika, because the no bunk bed thing is HUGE, I promise.

Beds chosen, showers taken, and fresh outfits donned, it was time to explore. My nose led me downstairs to the kitchen, where Kathleen was cooking up something that smelled amazing for our dinner. We still had a while before dinner, so Michael suggested stopping by the chapel to admire the artwork and have our credentials stamped. The church was still locked, so a few of us sat in the garden to wait, and along came a gorgeous, very friendly little tortoise shell cat. It broke my heart to see that she was limping, as though she’d recently been injured. I sat down to give her an available lap, and she sat with me for a few minutes before rushing off to chase a bug.

Eventually, an elderly, yet spry, nun in a smart outfit of slacks and sweater arrived with a key to the chapel. She didn’t speak any English, so I wasn’t able to talk with her, but she had a very kind demeanor, and as each pilgrim filed in to have their credential stamped, she gave them a little laminated sheet in their language with information about the church, as well as a couple of printed handouts to keep. The church was tiny, and quite charming. It was the handouts that really got to the heart of me, though.

I should interject here to mention that there’s a thing called the Camino moment. It’s unique to each person. Some might have just one moment, others might have a couple, or even many. It’s something like an epiphany, a time when you are touched to the core by something you experience on your Camino. I learned so much on my walk, and had a bunch of great experiences, but only three that I would call legitimate Camino moments. My first was in Zabaldika, reading the handouts the nun had given me:

El Camino

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor is it a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside in the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make you a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on your own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds community, community that greets the other, that takes interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen to, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others.
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered the the authentic “camino” begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way,” in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with the Father who is waiting for you.

I got to #5 and started sobbing uncontrollably. I sat down in a pew and cried for the next five minutes or so. Then I went up to ring the bell, because the nun said we could (not the bell on the right – it was cracked and the townspeople hated to hear it – but the one on the left was fine), and, feeling like everything was right with the world after a good cry and bell ringing, not that that made much sense to me at the time, I went inside to see if it was time for dinner yet.

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Still looking a little glossy-eyed from my pre-bell-ringing cry. This picture was taken as the bell was ringing; it wasn’t as jarring as I’d have imagined beforehand.

Kathleen was a miracle worker. She laid out a feast for us that night, most made from scratch, and all made with short notice, as almost all of the pilgrims had shown up late in the afternoon. She’d changed her plans from a simple dinner to feed Michael and a few pilgrims to a lovely multi-dish affair that allowed around 15 of us to all have seconds (and a few had thirds!) She and Michael were vegetarian, so she made an effort to cook some dishes for omnivores, like bangers and mash (with chorizo, of course) and shepherd’s pie, and some for vegetarians, including an amazing bean casserole and a veggie shepherd’s pie. Bread, sliced meats and cheeses, and plenty of wine and water kept us all very happy, too.

The best part, however, was the conversation. It was the first time since Orisson that I’d been lucky enough to be part of a communal dinner. I was sitting next to Michael and Kathleen, and chatted with Michael about music (as soon as he’d heard I was from New Orleans, he’d chortled with glee and proceeded to interrogate me about local music – turned out that he was a huge folk and blues fan). To my right sat a young Frenchwoman who, it turned out, was a singer. I can’t remember everyone sitting at the table, but the conversations flew fast and thick, and the strands of growing connection between people who had been strangers just hours ago seemed to me to be almost visible. The Frenchwoman (I want to say that her name was also Natalie) was walking with two brothers from Denmark, who had started walking from their front door and had been on the road for months. There was also a father and his teenage daughter from the US, Mark from Australia, a Polish man with whom no one could speak (he had limited English and no Spanish or French), at least one Spanish man, one or two guys that I’m forgetting, and of course myself, Natalie, and Claire.

One of the pilgrims noted that Kathleen’s command of French and Spanish were both very good, and she told us that she’d been a languages teacher before she retired. She and Michael spoke a few words to us in Gaelic, which they speak in exclusively when talking to each other. I found that particularly touching, as it’s a beautiful language and it seemed like a lovely representation of their devotion to each other. Towards the end of the meal, I remember just looking around, watching everyone as they shared stories of home, and feeling completely at ease with my life for what felt like the first time in a great while. That’s probably the moment when I realized that no matter what, even if Natalie and Claire were to walk on without me the next day, I would never be alone here unless I wanted to be.

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Our Savior of the Sticky Notes. Actually, I’m not certain why Jesus is surrounded by post-its, but at the time I assumed that these were prayers from visiting pilgrims. I loved how modern and accessible the nuns were; it made Zabaldika feel more homey.

It was Sunday, and the priest who would typically give mass was doing so in another village. Instead, the nuns invited us to come back to the chapel for singing and a group meditation. However, after dinner, I could barely keep my eyes open, so I decided to call it an early night while the others went to hang out with the nuns. Although I did what was right for my body, it turns out that the group meditation was quite impactful, and Natalie and Mark were still talking about it weeks later. If you end up in Zabaldika and the nuns invite you to come hang out, don’t miss it!

Kathleen and Michael met us back downstairs in the kitchen in the morning, where once again the lovely Kathleen had laid out an amazing spread. At some point in the night it had occurred to me that Michael might enjoy listening to one of my favorite American folk artists, Greg Brown, so I asked if he’d heard of Greg before. Michael’s eyes lit up, and Kathleen started laughing, “Now you’ve done it!” It turned out that Greg Brown was also one of Michael’s top folk singers, and he enthusiastically told me about the time they’d traveled to see him play at a jazz festival in the US. Before leaving, I wrote down a few local New Orleans bands that I thought he’d get a kick out of. I wish I’d thought to get their contact information, just to keep in touch and send a postcard from New Orleans.

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This “burrometer” was hanging by the front door of the albergue. Good to know that silliness exists in every culture!

 

It’s not easy being a hospitalero, sending away new family every morning, and welcoming another wave of soon-to-be family every afternoon. I thought that Michael and Kathleen were doing a bang up job of it, though. Leaving hurt a little more that day than it normally did. What made it worse, though, was another encounter with the sweet little local cat, whom I’d mentally named Encanta. After we’d formally left the building, boots on, packs and sticks in tow, there were still a few matters that Claire needed to catch up on via email, so we all sat just outside the front door, where we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way as the albergue got cleaned and readied for a new day.

Very soon, Encanta came limping up, and after a minute or two, she hopped onto my lap. I held her for close to a half an hour, and realized that, except for our brief meeting the day before, this was the first decent dose of animal time that I’d gotten since leaving home almost a week before. It hit me then how much I missed my cats, and how necessary pets were to my wellbeing. I soaked up all the love I could, and gave Encanta all the scratches and kisses I could before we had to leave. From that morning until the day I left Spain, I entertained thoughts of finding a way to adopt her and bring her back to the states. I’m sure she’s just fine with the nuns, but next time I’m heading through Zabaldika, I intend to check up on her.

 

 

Anna’s Camino: Day 5 – Zubiri to The Abbey

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The Abbey, located in Ilarratz, Spain. Image via their FB Page. Visit them and click “Like.” They’re always in need of volunteers and donations, so consider helping them restore this gem!

A funny thing happened on the day we left Zubiri, but it’s hard to find a way to put it in words, since the change was literally all in my head.

At the end of my last blog post, Natalie, Claire, and I were at the municipal albergue in Zubiri, Spain. The next morning, I awoke in a manner that would become pretty much the norm for the rest of my Camino: people started to stir and pack up around 6, and I stubbornly stayed in bed until around 6:30. Eventually I took my earplugs out and wrapped them in my eye mask, deflated my pillow, and sat up to see where my girls were at. Claire was also on a top bunk, and she and I made grumpy little morning grins to each other as we tried to pack up as best we could without crawling down from our bunks just yet. I had a momentary thought that I was SO lucky to have ended up with two other non-morning people.

I was still getting my packing routine down to a science, but it went something like this: tuck earplugs into special pouch, tuck pouch in sleep mask flaps, deflate pillow, wrap sleep mask (with earplugs) in pillow, stuff pillow in its own bag. Next step is to change pants in sleeping bag if at all possible (pants were stored under pillow all night, along with pillow bag and sleeping bag bag). Slide out of the sleeping bag, shift over just enough to pull it out from under me, zip it up and roll it up, then stuff it in its bag (which was under the pillow all night, with the pillow bag). Get out of bed, pack PJs, pillow and sleeping bag in backpack, change shirt (typically wore sports bra to bed to make it possible to change out in the open in the morning, since bathrooms could be touch-and-go first thing), off with the hiking socks, on with foot treatment stuff (Un-Petroleum Jelly from Alba, moleskin, toe tubes for little toes), on with socks. Pack everything else into pack, and roll out with pack and walking sticks, either towards breakfast area if there was one, or to boot storage if I needed shoes on first. From waking up to walking out, the entire routine took about 15 to 20 minutes, giving me plenty of time to get out before they kicked us out, but still stay in bed for as long as possible.

We three met up in the communal kitchen/dining area to eat breakfast. I can’t remember what we had, other than cafe con leche from the kitchen’s vending machine. It wasn’t that great, but it was much better than anything you’d get out of a vending machine in the US. That was the morning that I started getting into the habit of texting my boyfriend “good morning,” since I knew that I was waking up just around the time that he was going to bed each night, and it was fun to have a few minutes to say hi before hitting the road. Claire was trying to get a few things settled via email before leaving for the day, so we dragged breakfast and chatting time out a bit, and were the last to leave the albergue. As we were leaving, Claire noticed that Natalie had decided to leave her Keen walking sandals behind in the donation area. Natalie had decided that they weren’t useful for showering, she didn’t need them for walking, and they were just weighing her pack down. It turned out that they were the perfect fit for Claire, so voila! she had a new pair of sandals. We shuffled off together, the slowest of the pack, but happy to be walking together for another day.

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A bridge somewhere between Zabaldika and Ilarratz.

Natalie had already walked the Camino Frances a couple of years before, and was walking this time with the intention of stopping at places she hadn’t stopped at before. Other than that, she had time, and didn’t mind if she walked a shorter or longer day than other pilgrims. Claire had a shorter amount of time alotted to walk the Camino, and was concerned with schedule and budget. She was particularly interested in visiting all of the churches she could along the Way, and no matter how “in a hurry” things got, she’d still stop to check if the churches we passed were locked or not. My biggest goal on the Camino was to relax and stop worrying so much about making other people happy. I wanted to use the walk to step out of myself for awhile and find a way to be more content with myself. My only concerns at this point of the Camino were to get to know my new friends, to walk as far as I was comfortable, and to make sure to try tortilla as many times as possible.

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Exactly how I was feeling by Day 5.

We had talked a little bit the night before about our itineraries. We were all looking forward to getting to Pamplona, and many peregrinos were going to be walking straight from Zubiri to Pamplona. However, we all walked a little slower, and our friend Terry had suggested that Zabaldika was actually the perfect place to stop for the day. The abbey there dated from the 13th century, and in recent years had been abandoned until a small order of nuns moved there to reopen the place and turn it into a warm and welcoming albergue for passing pilgrims. She said we might even get to ring the church bell if we behaved ourselves! So we talked it over, and set a course for Zabaldika and the nuns.

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Gotta love a good industrial area.

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Photo taken before I realized how much I detested the paved portions of the Camino. If you look carefully, you can see that on each side of the pavement in the distance, there’s a well-worn path where smart pilgrims have elected not to kill their feet.

It turned out that Claire had a close friend, Neil, whom she said owned an old abbey between Zubiri and Zabaldika, so we decided to stop in and see him along the way. As we got closer to what I was thinking of as Neil’s hangout, I realized that I hadn’t quite understood what Claire had meant by “old abbey.” La Abadia de Eskirotz y Ilarratz, known simply as The Abbey, is rather unassuming, compared to many other Spanish religious structures. It’s presumed to be a 12th century fortress that was converted into a church sometime in the mid 13th century. Neil and his partner purchased the property from the diocese and began restoring it, but have been met with some unfriendliness from the local community during the course of restoration, presumably because the couple are outsiders and locals fear that the building will be put to bad use. However, as we three pilgrims saw during our private tour of the building and chat with Neil, the church was forgotten and unloved for quite some time. It was looted, the ceiling was falling in, there was water damage and settling, and it was in danger of becoming a ruin before it came into private possession. Furthermore, Neil and the team of volunteers who have been working for years to bring this beauty back to life have pledged to never use it for financial gain or in any way that would damage the building, grounds, or local community. They simply want to restore a gem back to its original state – and they’re doing a damn good job.

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These rosettes in the front portico are said to have been created to capture the exact spots where holy water fell when the priest was blessing the door of the church at its opening.

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Inside, looking at the main altar. This altar would have been hidden for centuries behind the type of altar one typically sees in churches throughout Spain – a giant, elaborately carved and heavily gilded/painted wooden structure that probably concealed much of the back wall of the church. Amazingly, this mostly intact painted altar is so rare that it’s worth more, culturally, than the altar that once hid its presence.

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That skull and crossbones is an original lectern from the middle ages or early renaissance, found tucked away in the attic when Neil and his crew moved in.

 

Neil and Jacobie, his volunteer, met us at the door of the building, and Neil and Claire quickly got to catching up. Several more pilgrims walked up as we did, and the volunteer gave us a quick tour of the place, explaining the architectural details that remained intact, including several very important and unique touches, like rosettes laid in stone at the front door, stars carved in the door lintel, a remarkable painted altar which was in spectacular shape due to being covered by a later altarpiece (now missing, presumed looted), and a small medieval lectern that was found tucked away in the attic when the team started renovations. After the other pilgrims had left, Natalie and I sat down with Jacobie over a wonderful cup of homemade cafe con leche, and asked her story. It turned out that she had grown up in South Africa, like Neil and Claire. She moved to London for work, but had taken time off recently to walk the Camino Frances. During her walk, she visited The Abbey and met Neil, and the project stayed on her mind after she finished the walk and went home to London. After a month or so, she called Neil to see if he could use any help, quit her job, and took off for a couple of months of volunteer work at The Abbey!

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This photo is also via The Abbey’s FB page, taken from the Camino as you come up alongside the church. The gravel path you can see in the mid-ground leads down from the Camino, by the graveyard, to the front door of the church. You can just see the built-in benches on the portico where Natalie, Jacobie, and I sat to have coffee and a chat.

At one point, I asked to use the bathroom, and I was pointed upstairs to the staff toilet, typically off limits. The tour we’d taken had only led us into the large, open main floor, so I was excited to get to go up where the choir would have been. I didn’t realize that there was a whole second section to the building beyond the church, itself. (I should have, since it’s an abbey, and that means there had to be some form of living quarters, but that’s what you get for turning your brain off and going on a long walk.) Up the stairs into the choir, then through a doorway, into a dark, spooky hallway, down another set of stairs, and you’re in the other half of the building. It was a sturdy enough space, but one that’s not exactly confidence-inspiring if you’ve always had the secret fear of dying by falling through a floor. The ceilings were low, and the beams were quite hefty. Some looked to have been touched by fire, but it might just have been centuries of fireplace smoke. The bathroom was absolutely charming, though. It was flooded with light, covered in old floral linoleum, and the plumbing didn’t work, so you had to use a couple of buckets of water to make the toilet flush. I was weirdly happy over the entire experience, especially knowing that not many people got to see the bones of the building the way I had.

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Behind the scenes. The floor is obviously strong enough to camp out on, but I’m a coward.

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Beams. Much more impressive in real life.

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Probably my favorite bathroom experience on the Camino, just for the novelty. Note that the door is missing a window pane, so when you’re on the toilet you’re just staring out at the big open room with the tent in it:-)

After the bathroom, I walked back outside to find that Claire was getting a tour of the grounds. Natalie and I tried to let them have their distance, since it’s not often that two old friends get to have a private conversation when one has moved to a different country, and they only had an hour or so to catch up before we’d have to move on. While Nat and I were looking around the building, she pointed out that you could see exactly where the old Camino had been in relation to the building. It has moved slightly over the years, as the path was widened and improved by the local government, but the old path is still there to see, running right beside The Abbey, like two old friends, still close enough to talk.

Eventually, we bid The Abbey farewell and walked on. Zabaldika was another two hours’ walk away, and it was already getting on towards afternoon. As is the way on The Way, our paces varied. Sometimes we’d all be walking together, other times one of us would fall behind or move ahead, and sometimes we’d all be walking alone, lost in our own thoughts. When we walked together or in pairs, we’d typically talk about our lives back home. For my purposes here, I won’t ever share anything deeply personal that a Camino friend shared with me, because the Camino is a place where many people go to figure themselves out, free of judgment, with the help of other people who are in something of the same spot. As I quickly learned, almost everyone I met had an issue or two that they were trying to work out by walking, and some days were heavier than others. You never had to talk with anyone if you didn’t want to, but often people were surprisingly open about their lives and what they were hoping to achieve, so it could feel a bit like a big walking group therapy.

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Follow the arrow.

That day, I remember a specific conversation that Natalie and I had. It means a lot to me, because it was the beginning of a shift in my perception. One of the big problems that I was dealing with for a year or two before the Camino was a feeling of being left behind by my best girlfriends. For much of my youth, I just assumed that I’d be the first married, with kids, and a house/picket fence/etc. My biological clock ticked for about a year in my early 20s, and by my late 20s I was starting to secretly dislike the idea of ever having children. By the time I hit my early 30s, I was getting out of an eight year relationship and realizing that I really, really didn’t want children – and I didn’t have too much faith in ever getting married, either. Nor did my finances look like they’d ever be right to own a house, or a car, or even have a dog, for that matter. In short, the traditional “American Dream” was not where I was headed, even under the best of circumstances. Without any of those things in my future, where did that leave me? What would my life be? Was it worth living? I didn’t know. And while I was sorting through all of these weird questions, one by one, almost every one of my best girlfriends got married and started having children. I was happy for all of them – they’d found good partners, professions, homes, and had moved on to the next step that worked for them. But as they became wives, then mothers, they shifted into new life perspectives, becoming subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) different people. They were still my friends, but our friendship had changed. I felt alone, left behind, and like it was horrible of me to ever talk about how hurt I was out loud, because I was the freak who couldn’t get her shit together, not them. At the same time that I was thinking that I was a loser with no life to look forward to, I was also thinking, “Hey, look at this amazing life I get to live now that I’ve figured out I don’t want to get tied down to other people!” But that was the smaller thought, being buried under all the “Gee, what a loser, might as well just die” thoughts. That’s where I was hanging out, mentally, on the day Natalie and I had our first heavy talk.

As we walked the path, Natalie and I got to talking about life as a single woman without kids. First, a little about Nat. She’s cool with a capital C. She’s about 15 years older than I am, but looks a little younger than me. She advocates for the disadvantaged and abused for a living, plays banjo in a folk band and guitar in a rock band, and splits her time between small homes in the Yukon and Mexico. When you’re talking with her, she’s truly seeing you, and she brings joy with her into a room. She’s just got this amazing inner light that attracts people to her, and her genuine goodness is evident as soon as you have a conversation with her. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that she was one of the first people that I noticed on the Camino; how could I not?

As is my wont, I started rambling on about the sorrow and anger that I’d been harboring, and once I got started, I laid everything out on the table: how I was lost and lonely, but had no way of peeling that away from the anger and sadness, so I couldn’t talk to the people I needed most in my life anymore. She listened to everything, interjecting here and there to clarify something I’d said. Then she gave me a truth. She said that she’d been through a similar thing, but it had passed. And yes, her friends had become different people, and she’d been forced to make some changes to adapt, but in the end, the kids grew up, and most of the friendships remained and grew strong again. There was more detail, of course, but these were the basics that allowed me to accept that I was allowed to grieve for old times and old feelings, without feeling guilty. I was allowed to be frustrated that things change, but it was also time to realize that while my friends were building their own life stories, I had time and space to do other things with mine. You know, things like spend a month walking across Spain, or hours writing blog posts about architecture and emotions.

It was a good talk. Afterwards, we caught up with Claire and took a short break by a beautiful, fast-moving river. We drank tea and had some snacks, and I took off my boots and laid back on a makeshift bench while Claire and Natalie described their homes to each other. It was a beautiful afternoon.

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Claire, sorting out a few things. I believe she has the tea canteen in her hands. Also, check out Natalie’s amazing orange pants. A few days later, I was able to describe her to an innkeeper by her pantalones naranjas (and it worked).

 

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The first time I saw this font, but certainly not the last. Claire’s beloved umbrella hangs on the fence, too.

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The river where we stopped to rest and have snacks.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about Zabaldika. It was one of my favorite spots on the Camino, so I want to spend a whole post just about that night.

Anna’s Camino: Day 4 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri

 

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There are several weird things that I remember most about my time at Roncesvalles: how difficult it was for me to crawl up into the top bunk without bumping my shins on the bed frame, how very hot the hot water was in the bathroom taps, how loud the toilets were when they flushed, and the feel of my bare feet on the dormitory floor as I walked downstairs to rescue my boots from boot storage. There was warm wood, cold stone, and also a place where the floor was nubby and hurt my feet a little. The floor in boot storage was dirty. I also remember borrowing one of Natalie’s skirts while all of my clothes were in the laundry, and looking through the huge pile of throwaway items that pilgrims had left on a table downstairs in the main corridor.

That pile of left-behind stuff at Roncesvalles was an eye-opener, for sure. There were so many weird and random things in it from all over the world. My favorite was an entire set of foam hair curlers, left by someone who’d given up beautiful curls in exchange for less back pain, I supposed. I’d packed rather sparingly, only bringing 14 lbs of gear with me, including my pack. Still, by the time we hit Roncesvalles, I’d figured out that I could get rid of my hair conditioner, and I was calculating what else could go at some point. While I tried to find ways to make my pack lighter, Claire, who had packed on a budget and was always keeping an eye out for new and better gear, found a couple of nice clothing items in the pile and actually ADDED things to her pack. Natalie, who was a hiking pro with plenty of experience in her native Canada, had a heavy pack but also exactly what she knew she wanted and could carry all the way to Santiago. She’d even brought a “going-out” outfit with her, including comfy dress boots!

In the morning, we retrieved laundry from the nuns, packed up, and moved down to the dining hall, where Claire cooked up a quick batch of oatmeal. I’d intended on just waiting while she finished her meal, then heading out on an empty stomach (I’m not much for breakfast), but Claire insisted on feeding all three of us, and we had a hurried breakfast together as the volunteers shooed lingering pilgrims out the door to start getting ready for the new batch of wanderers who’d be walking in in a few hours.

It was chilly and just getting light out when we left the albergue, but by the time we made it to the edge of town, it was fully light. Terry and Phyllis were taking pictures by the Camino distance sign on the edge of town, so we stopped and got into a few shots, then walked on together. Terry and I got to know each other a little better, and found that we both had a penchant for reading Camino journals and related stories. Natalie, Claire and I quickly outpaced Terry and Phyllis, but exchanged hopes that we’d meet up again down the road.

The walk out of Roncesvalles led us through an oak forest that was said to be inhabited by witches, as well as through a small town famous for its witch trials. I didn’t realize it until later, but once we reached Burguete, we were in Hemingway country. This part of Navarre was where Ernest Hemingway used to love to vacation with his family. It’s famous for being a great fishing spot, though I mostly admired the lovely architecture. I was still new to the Camino, so I hadn’t really grasped that the architectural styles would be changing drastically as I crossed Spain. In hindsight, I wish that I’d have taken more time to admire the buildings and historical markers as we passed through, since they were very different from anything I’d be seeing down the line. Burguete was the first place we stopped at that morning, since I needed to use the bathroom and we were all interested in finding a snack. I’ll always remember the cute little pub where I tried a delicious slice of spinach pie, as well as my first bite of tortilla (Spanish omelet). There was also a new and exciting find – a Jai Alai court! I’d always thought of Jai Alai as a strange ballgame from the 1960s that is typically only played in American casino towns, but it turns out that it hails originally from Spain. Burguete’s neighborhood Jai Alai court reminded me of any municipal basketball court in the USA, with a few small differences.

After our bathroom and snack break, we were off again. I had to laugh on our way out of town as we witnessed a rare sight, indeed – a group of cyclists in spandex and aerodynamic helmets was cycling down one lane of the road, when they were suddenly passed by a group of motorcyclists, clad in black leather and looking like hell on wheels! It’s not every day that you see biker gangs’ worlds collide in such a manner. After we left Burguete, a lot of the rest of the walk was rural, through lovely stretches of farm fields and woodland areas. At one point we passed a field with a bunch of fat, farting horses. We stopped to pet one of the horses, and in getting closer to the paddock, I grabbed at a weed to move it out of my way. And that, children, is how I found out about stinging nettle. I can tell you what poison ivy and poison oak look like, but until Spain I’d never seen a stinging nettle. For the next five minutes or so, both hands and one of my shins burned like crazy! I even took a picture, in case I needed to tell a pharmacist just what I’d gotten into.

Up until now, I’d had relatively little pain, other than the normal muscle aches and sore feet from walking more than I was used to. This was the afternoon that the lactic acid buildup started to get to me and I started to get into real muscle soreness territory. By afternoon, my calves were done for the day, and were not afraid to let me know it! Luckily, I hadn’t experienced any blisters or serious foot pain, mostly because I had taken one big lesson very seriously: whenever I started to feel a little bit of “heat” from friction in my shoes, I stopped immediately and treated the issue. I was wearing socks with built in liners, and also applying an organic petroleum jelly substitute (Alba’s Un-Petroleum Jelly) to my feet every morning before putting on socks. I also took breaks to take off my shoes and socks and give my feet air, put on more jelly if I felt I needed it, and address any hot spots with a piece of moleskin. On top of that, I had two pairs of shoes that I’d switch out as the mood hit: a pair of New Balance trail runners, and a pair of Teva Tirra sandals. Spoiler alert: I walked for 35 days, and never got a blister or any serious foot injury. Each peregrino has their own method of foot care, but mine worked perfectly, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Natalie walked ahead of us that afternoon, since she had some health issues that needed care and Claire and I were taking our time. Before we split up, we looked over our various guidebooks and decided to meet up in Zubiri at the municipal albergue. I wasn’t excited about going to the cheapest albergue on the list, since I’d heard it could be dirty, but I also didn’t want to split up from my ladies, so I kept my opinion to myself. It turned out to be just fine. I hobbled into town that afternoon just behind Claire, and we grabbed beds in the same dorm as Natalie’s, just a bit farther down the room.

The municipal albergue was pretty bare bones, with shaky metal bunk beds that made me scared to have the top bunk. I was quickly getting used to the first come, first served rule as far as beds went, and even though I am not fond of heights or shaky beds, I resigned myself to the probability that I’d be sleeping on the top bunk for the next 30+ days. This night was the first time I remember making the conscious choice to get a bed by the door, since I knew I’d be getting up at least once during the night to use the bathroom. To my dismay, the bathroom wasn’t in the same building, but in a smaller outbuilding across the courtyard. I remember grabbing my things and heading to the bathroom to shower, and my legs being in such pain that what should have been a 20 second walk took a couple of minutes. Other pilgrims lounged in the sunny courtyard, journaling, chatting, and hanging out laundry, and several gave me looks of pity as I slowly made my way over towards the promise of a nice, hot shower and clean clothes. By now, my quads had seized up, too.

After taking a shower and washing my clothes, I regrouped with the girls, and we decided to find a pilgim meal somewhere close by. We walked back into town center to take a look at various available menus, and eventually chose a sports bar with a lot of locals inside. I can’t remember all of that night’s dinner, but I do remember that I ordered steak, with some amount of trepidation (steak in a sports bar? eek). However, I shouldn’t have been worried. It was one of the most tender and delicious steaks I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, and it cost about $5 US. All I could think of was all of the fat, happy, free-range farm animals I’d walked by over the last couple of days, and that fair treatment certainly pays off in the end. Over the course of the pilgrimage, I’d start to think more about the animals I was meeting, and have second thoughts on consuming meat, but for this day, I was very satisfied with my perfectly cooked piece of cow.

As wonderful as dinner might have been, I was exhausted, and almost fell asleep before dessert. I decided to leave the girls and head back to the albergue to see if my clothes had dried on the line yet, and get ready for bed. What awaited me was a mini nightmare for a new pilgrim: the clothes line was empty. My clothes were missing!!!!

I was so exhausted and confused that instead of taking a second to consider what might have occurred, I jumped right to worst-case scenario. Sobbing, I walked into the communal kitchen and announced to all of the pilgrims there that my clothes had been stolen. The people who could speak English popped into action, asking what I’d had on the line, where it had been hanging, and if I needed anything else. A few non-English speakers comforted me with kind eyes and pats on the back. I’m sure a few people rolled their eyes (as I’m doing in hindsight) at the sight of an over-tired, emotionally distraught woman in blue elephant pajamas, sobbing over a few things that could be easily replaced. I was mostly worried about a special t-shirt that I had worn that day, and intended to wear when I reached Santiago de Compostela. After a minute or two, I regained my sanity enough to stop the waterworks, and a helpful peregrina helped me retrace where my laundry had been. As it turned out, a married couple had washed their laundry earlier and hung it close to mine. The wife had sent her husband out to grab their things off of the line and throw them in the albergue’s only clothes dryer to make sure they were dry for the morning. He’d grabbed anything that looked vaguely familiar, including all of my clothes. I apologized for being a head case, and she apologized for sending her husband out to grab the laundry in the first place. He joked that he wouldn’t need me to pay rental space in their clothes dryer, and all was good. We hugged, the communal kitchen was once again a tear-free zone, and we all went to bed soon after, with nice, dry clothes.

Getting out of bed that night to hobble to the bathroom was torture. I resolved to pick up any and all available drugs as soon as we reached the next pharmacy. Other than that, though, no bed bugs and no excessive snoring from anyone in the dorm, so life was pretty good!

BTDubs…Here’s My Pink Hair

I’ve been trying to take a snapshot of my new hair (pink, as promised), but have failed miserably. Here’s a professional snapshot that was taken at my friends’ wedding last weekend, instead. That’s my friend Damon beside me. Doug is out of the shot, but is what I was looking at as the pic was taken. He hates photos, so he was making ugly faces to 1) avoid being photographed, and 2) make me laugh and ruin the shot. He won.

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Enjoy this; I have a feeling life is going to force me to dye my hair brown again soon (boo hiss).

Anna’s Camino: Day 3 – Orisson to Roncesvalles

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For much of the morning’s walk, all I could hear was the wind and the chiming of the tiny bells the sheep wore.

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.

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The first of many beautiful horses I was to see along the Camino.

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.

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A hint at the mud that was to come later that afternoon!

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.

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The Virgin of Orisson (Verge d’Orisson)

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.

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Taking a break. I could hear the waterfall, just couldn’t see it!

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!

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Only 765 more kilometers to go – piece of cake!

 

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.

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Thank goodness for Scotch (and the kindness of bartenders).

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.

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Statue of the dying Roland, as Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) is where Charlemagne’s nephew, hero of “La Chanson de Roland” took his last stand against the Basques.

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.

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The moon from the albergue window when we woke up the next morning and prepared to leave for Zubiri.

 

 

Anna’s Camino: Day 2 – St. Jean to Orisson

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The clock tower in St. Jean Pied de Port, taken as I was leaving town in the morning.

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.

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Gary took this pic of me right before we parted ways.

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.

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View from the roadside during one of my breaks.

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.

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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.

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A prettier view of Refuge Orisson than I could have taken, via their website. If you’re not sure about walking all the way to Roncesvalles (or even if you are), I’d encourage you to try to get a room here for your first night. It’s a great place, and worth every penny.

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.

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One of the last things I saw before leaving Orisson was a statue of St. James greeting the sunrise. I felt invigorated, and ready to face the new day.

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.

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My first Camino sunrise:-)

Anna’s Camino: Day 1 – St. Jean Pied de Port

I’ve struggled with posting photos of my Camino for a few reasons, foremost being that I miss it so much, and was afraid that going back through the photos would be too emotionally difficult. But the time has come to rehash my journey in more than just memory, and I guess I’ll start the process by sharing some photographs with you.

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The line to get into Notre Dame de Paris, where I got my pilgrim credential stamped for the first time. When I visited in 2005, I found the cathedral to be a spiritually uplifting place, but this time it felt too cramped and taken over by tourists. Then again, I didn’t get a lot of sleep the day before, so I might just have been in a crappy mood.

My journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was pretty arduous. I flew from New Orleans to Paris, spent a day in Paris doing a bit of sightseeing and getting my pilgrim’s credential stamped at Notre Dame de Paris, then took a night bus to Bayonne, from where I was to catch the first train out in the morning to St. Jean Pied de Port. This entire journey was more than 24 hours in the making, and since I don’t sleep well on planes or in automobiles, by the time I got to Bayonne at 4am, I was exhausted.

I was the first to arrive at the train station, and it wasn’t open yet. A couple of South Korean pilgrims, WooYung and Lee, arrived right after I did, and we spent an hour making the most of our limited shared vocabulary. The first train was supposed to leave for St. Jean Pied de Port around 8am, and we planned to grab the train, get to St. Jean, spend the day sightseeing, then start our respective Caminos the next morning. Unfortunately, none of us were particularly stellar with the French train ticketing system, and due to a series of miscommunications, we missed our train by about five minutes. The next wasn’t leaving for a few hours, so while we waited, we picked up a fourth pilgrim, a German teenager named Dennis. The Koreans suggested that we might as well get a beer in the train station bar, so we filed in to order breakfast and beers. I shocked the guys by ordering a shot of whiskey to go with my espresso, sealing my Camino cred from that point forward. The Koreans were amazed to see a lady drinking whiskey, and for the first time in the journey, I felt a little more relaxed.

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Poster of the Pope in Notre Dame de Paris, saying “Have the courage to swim against the tide. Have the courage to be happy.” It felt like a message from the Universe.

Eventually, we caught our train, but while we waited in the station, many more pilgrims started to file in, finding friends or making them, hanging around and looking awkward with their boots, packs, and walking sticks. Once we finally made it onto the train, I noticed that pretty much everyone heading to St. Jean was a pilgrim. One woman in a pretty knitted cap caught my eye (and my ear) as she quickly made friends with every stranger sitting near her. I didn’t talk to her, but noted she was friendly and a little louder than I tend to be, and made a mental note to catch up with her once I’d had some sleep and wasn’t feeling so overwhelmed.

The train tracks were being repaired further down the line, so at some point the train stopped and we were transferred to a bus. I marveled at the winding roads and the local flora. Several topiaries caught my eye, including one large bush that was cut to look like a basket. I made note to tell my mother. I also admired the local architecture, and found myself a bit peeved to not have a little more time to explore St. Jean before heading out in the morning.

The bus let us out at the train station, and our merry gaggle of pilgrims disembarked with no clue of where to go. We didn’t know it then, but it was the first of many days where most of us would just stop worrying and start following the guy ahead of us. Luckily, someone up there had a clue of where they were going, and we all made it to the Pilgrim Office, where we stood in the road and waited for someone to let us in. It started misting just a bit, and I got my first taste of “just dealing” – no umbrella, just my pack cover and a sense of humor.

We gave our names and countries of origin, listened to a spiel about how to leave town in the morning (which, it turns out, I really should have paid attention to), and got a very handy guide to distances between towns, available albergues, and elevation between St. Jean and the next town, Roncesvalles.

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The view from my hotel room in St. Jean Pied de Port.

After all of the pilgrim preparation had been taken care of, I said goodbye to my Koreans (Dennis had already found new friends) and headed off to find my hotel. Unlike most of the pilgrims I met, who opted to stay in albergues right off the bat, I’d rented a private room for the night. It was a great decision. I ended up with a beautiful, private room where I was able to hand wash my clothes, do a little journaling, and catch up on most of the sleep I’d lost on my way from New Orleans to St. Jean. I was nervous about the next morning, but excited. I was finally on the Camino Frances!