I am not quite sure how I got here or how I decided to do this. At the risk of sounding cliché, it did sort of just happen, as all pilgrimages sort of do. “The Camino”, as it is referred to is actually the Way of St. James. This refers to any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where history says that the remains of the saint are buried. It is an approximate 900 kilometer walking path from the Western border of France all the way across Spain to the sea.
I guess if you don’t know the song by the Proclaimers that was a poor title choice. And since I don’t have anyone at the end of the 500 miles to stage a movie scene where I run into their open arms, maybe it is still a bad choice. But doing the Camino was a great life choice!
(I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more, just to be with you, just to be with you…..)
St. Jean Pied de Port, at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains in France, is where you begin walking the Camino de Santiago Compostela. Trekkers/travelers/walkers/pilgrims/crazy people first must cross over the Pyrenees. Let me translate, this means trek over the mountain pass for 27 long kilometers of which ninety percent is uphill reaching a high point on the Camino on day 1. My first thought, “I guess if I can do that the rest should be cake”. Or so I told myself when I ran low on shampoo & moisturizer and got a nice dose of the bedbugs. Don’t get me wrong, no complaints. This is in fact what I signed up for but I won’t pretend I didn’t have concerns or questions as to my own decisions.
So you ask what is it like? Well actually, it is quite strange in the beginning. You see people starting the journey that are clearly also “pilgrims” and even denoted as such by the classic sea shell you get at the pilgrims office to affix to your backpack. However, not on speaking terms yet. We are dancing around in the awkward stage of a new friendship. Exchanging glances and acknowledgement without the conversation that I assumed would spontaneously develop on the way and flourish at various times within the albergues, refugios or otherwise dormitory style accommodations reserved just for pilgrims.
I never thought in a million years I would get lost on the very first day of the Camino de Santiago but I did.. I must have been so anxious I made a wrong turn right from the start and wound up on Le Chemin Vert instead of Le Chemin Rouge. Stopping in Orisson gives you a break in that uphill on day one so you don’t push too hard out of the gate. But note it is a bit expensive by albergue standards. I had to cut across the countryside and get back on the red trail….without trail markers. This detour created lots more uphill, many more kilometers than necessary on the day 1 and a few adventures like:
Flagging down a lone car on the country road and getting directions in French – luckily I understood enough with my high school French in tow
A very large white dog barking and coming towards me for a good few minutes before his owners came running out of their farm house to fetch him and subsequently save me (note: the whistle I had brought for such occasions was safely packed in my bag, on my back and out of reach during said attack)
Detouring around a mudslide from the storm the night before
A sign for cheese – at this point I had no idea how I was getting across these hills to the right path so following a sign for cheese seemed like it couldn’t hurt in France, home of fabulous cheese. When in Rome…
No water stops – of course those were not on the wonderful detour I chose
They say don’t worry just follow the other pilgrims, well, I did not see one other pilgrim until 10 minutes before I arrived at the albergue. I was beginning to think this whole thing was a bad joke.
The first albergues were filled with an array of others like me and not like me. We had the Irishman with the hearty laugh, Andres the Russian priest, a German family that does one leg of the Camino each year, many French groups of friends, a German teacher also on her own and 2 girls from California that only decided a week ago to do this. It becomes apparent little by little, village by village, day by day that the Camino evolves and becomes about the people you meet along the way, as well as you, as a person.
Leaving the albergue before it even gets light out is a bit ominous. But to see the sunrise while you are walking in the mountains is just plain awesome. The early morning fog I think is something I enjoyed the most. It is a wise choice to start walking in the morning because of the cool temperatures which take a major turn in the afternoon.
It was a bit comforting to know there were now other pilgrims out there that “knew” me…we became a bonded community sort of getting to know each other along the way. Every time a fellow walker said “Buen Camino” it was a warm feeling. So important especially when taking the journey solo. Although many do and my experience tells me that you get more out of it solo by being more open to meeting new people that will have a special place for you at the end of the journey.
Mornings were simply long stretches, steep and winding walks enjoying the scenery and thinking about the challenge ahead. There is a lot to think about thankfully to pass the many hours and distance. I heard my favorite Sherpa on Everest in my head telling me to go slow and it will be fine. The next stage of the day is midday, which becomes very social. You feel like chatting when you wind up walking with someone and you are excited to take a rest and a coffee con leche at a café as you are passing through a small village where you recognize some familiar faces doing the same. Finally the last few hours become a bit internal again because of walking through the aches and pains of what excessive kilometers does to the body. You are done at this point.
A highlight when you are feeling like you cannot go any further is seeing a small food truck or stand coming up on the path with a sign that says “Donativo” selling cold drinks, local cheese and snacks. The rocks are a lot to take on the feet and already you can start to feel where your weak spots are going to be. Quickly it is easy to see the Camino is going to be felt and found in STAGES. And the beginning will be consumed with the physical.
Lights out 10:00. Snoring from neighbors never out. How do these people not wake themselves up? Fascinating and yet became common when technically bunking with over 100 people at times like a scene out of Oliver Twist. Physically, this leaves you tired as well. But you are certainly not alone.