(These entries are a series based on my journal and recollections from walking the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick, Sept/Oct 2019.)
My journal entry for this day is brief. Its brevity is a reflection of how overwhelmed I felt by the experience of my first day on the Camino from St. Jean to Roncesvalles.
My entry includes a line drawing I did of one view from the courtyard of the monastery we stayed at that night. My intention had been to slow down enough to do a line drawing every so often as a creative memory from the trip. I did only two more line drawings after that. Ultimately, my camera became the creative capture of memorable moments on my Camino.
The morning started early in St. Jean at the Beilari albergue. We paid for a breakfast sandwich – I was expecting an egg McMuffin and what I was given was an omelet in a baguette – a substantial amount of food – that would be first AND second lunch as we crossed over the Pyrenees. We had previously decided the day before to send our backpacks on ahead and take only daypacks and water as we hiked up into the mountains.
The best way I can describe the feeling I had starting that first day on the Camino is to say that it was just like I felt on my last day on the Camino. A wild mixture of emotions, expectations and absolutely no idea what was about to happen next. Bill, Derrick and I started out just as first light was breaking. The street outside the Beilari was already buzzing with pilgrims when we stepped onto it. We didn’t know it but walking downhill from our albergue toward the bridge and the gateway to the Camino was the only downhill for the day until our descent at the end of the day into Roncesvalles.
The day before I had resisted taking the picture everyone takes on the bridge that leads out of town. Crossing the bridge in the early morning light I stopped, I wrestled with my thoughts and values, I took the picture.
It’s my desktop now.
As we walked west from the village, the road almost immediately started climbing up at a very steep angle. Within minutes I was thinking, “So this is where I die.” It was a recurring thought in the first week of my Camino. The sharp angle of the roads and paths upwards was intimidating. Just before we left home I was loaned two walking sticks by a friend. I took them, sure I would never use them. 15 minutes into our first hour of the many to come I was relying heavily on those sticks as we made our ascent. I developed a very serious relationship with those walking sticks over the next 5 weeks.
At Orisson we stopped briefly to que for the toilet. We bumped into familiar faces, shared quick conversations about the walk so far and when it came my turn to use the toilet, I was given a glimpse of the shape of things to come. We refilled water bottles and kept going, further up and further on, leaving behind the café con leche pilgrims, some done for the day, some breaking for longer than I dared at that point. I was breathing hard and sweating profusely but I knew I needed to keep moving or it would be much harder to start again.
Up and up we went and every time I thought we must be at the peak, another rise appeared around a bend in the path. Along one stretch of the road we saw an older woman, a pilgrim, clutching her leg in pain and sobbing. We stopped beside her. Derrick tried to engage her in Spanish but she spoke something close to German. Bill wanted to help her with his medical knowledge and nursing skills. Suddenly a young, Mexican woman, another pilgrim, stops beside us. She happened to speak German and could communicate enough to tells us what was wrong with our new friend, Anna. It was her thigh, she was having terrible muscle cramps. Bill immediately started massage the muscle therapeutically. I was struck by how intimate an action this appeared to be and started declaring, “He’s a medical professional, everything’s ok, nothing to see here…” I offered Anna some of my extra-strength ibuprofen but it was Bill’s therapeutic touch and the encouragement from our new friend from Mexico City that had Anna feeling better and ready to continue her pilgrimage up and up.
This moment became one of the threads that God would weave in and out of our Camino journey as he brought not just one but both of these amazing women back into our story before it was over.
We walked in beauty. We were surrounded in beauty the way the village below was surrounded by morning fog. Everywhere I looked was something worth taking a picture of, moment after moment to capture in the amber of my memory.
Still ascending, we finally decided to stop for first lunch. (Later, Bill worked out an official liturgy for our daily bread: first breakfast – at the albergue; second breakfast – on the way and before noon; first lunch – on the way, somewhere close to noon; second lunch – on the way or just when we arrived at our stop for the night but not later than 2pm; Siesta – 2-4pm sometimes accompanied by drinks; Dinner – depending where we were 6-8pm; and in especially hospitable locations – evening ice cream.) Our first lunch of the bocadillo – our omlet/baguette sandwich – gave us the energy we needed to carry on over the mountain.
I felt elated when we finally reached the crest and were officially on the “other side.” Then we started our downhill. At the fork in the road the guide seemed to indicate the right path was easy the left was hard and even possibly dangerous. I voted for the right path. If it was the easier of the two I definitely would have died on the other. By the time we finished the descent down this path my feet were wrecked and I was exhausted.
And suddenly, there was the monastery and we had arrived at Roncesvalles. As we approached the monastery where our bags had been forwarded and we were expecting a bed, the mass of pilgrims outside told us, “there are no beds left for tonight, many of us are walking on to the next village…” My heart sank. But all was not lost…
From my diary that night…“Such a rich and painful day. It is so beautiful here. The walk, with more time, could be easier and more fun. So much to see but you have to run by to keep moving.”
Next week, I sleep above the woman who purred, we meet a new friend who becomes a permanent part of our journey and we meet the gourmet of Zubiri…