I was told by others who had made the journey “don’t have any expectations.” When I travel I like to be surprised. When I read about a place or see pictures, somehow it takes something away from the experience. I went with no plan, no hotel reservations, and no expectations. I had no physical expectations and in fact, if I was needed along the way (for first aid or cooking) I was willing to abort the mission to help. I wanted the spontaneity and flexibility that is built into the Camino.
So with no hotels booked, no expectations, and the bag on my back, I made my way to St. Jean Pied de Port— a crazy charming village about 9 hours from the Madrid airport.
I met some friendly Australian women (somehow that is a redundancy), a French model, and an animated Argentinian gentleman in his early sixties all on our way to St. Jean. The nervous excitement was almost palpable. We knew we were about to embark on a difficult and rewarding journey. But everything was unknown. I was so nervous that a very strange thing happened to my first finger. It became numb and turned purple. Disembarking the bus, we headed out to find the Pilgrim Office and then to find a Gite (lodging). Walking down the cobble stone streets it felt like we could not go wrong with our choice. We found a gite with a shared room. I think there were 8 people in our room. The idea of sleeping with a bunch of others might sound awful but it is actually quite endearing. There is a certain openness that is shared in these settings. Like going for a long car ride with someone —you end up sharing things because there is a proximity that exists.
The Australian women planned to walk up and over the Pyrennes the next morning. 25 very difficult kilometers. Originally I planned to walk to Orisson which is 8 km. But the Australian girls seemed confident that they could do it. I looked at them. And a voice in my head said “if they can do it, then you definitely can too.” So I made the decision to go up and over the Pyrennes in one day.
I did not do any training. As someone who tends to overtrain, I chose to take the two weeks before the Camino to rest. Good choice. My bag weighed a total of 13 pounds. I knew this because I literally weighted every item that I put in my bag to ensure that I was not carrying too much. The heavier the bag, the greater the risk of blisters and injuries.
The Australian girls were still sleeping when I left. When I walked out, I followed the other pilgrims—the backpacks and walking poles gave them away. I quickly learned to follow the yellow arrows and symbolic Camino scallop shell. The walk was tough. I met many people up the mountain from all over the world.
Back in Tucson I had a friend from Argentina but I did not really know many people from different countries. That first day I met a lot of Europeans. Because English is the universal language I was able to talk with most of the people I met. When I finally got to Orisson—I was so relieved. There is a restaurant there with a stunning view. And pilgrims swarming all over. Few people stayed there because there is only one accommodation and it is quite small. So the rest of us continued our way to the summit. Orisson to Roncesvalles (our destination) is completely remote—no restaurants or food opportunies. It is a dramatic and stunning landscape. And hard. Did I mention that I was jet lagged? I had literally travelled over 24 hours the day before.
The summit was a great reward. It was very cold. There was still snow on the ground. But the sky was blue and the sun was out. We took off our shoes, snacked, relaxed in the sun. I felt comfortable and yet there is an uneasiness on that first day. Who am I? How do I fit in here?
I joined a little group of Dutch and Danish and descended the mountain. A steep decline. One of the Danish men said it was his second attempt to walk the Camino. His injured knee could not make it the last time. Unfortunately it did not seem like he would make it very far this year either. I hope he made it. I never saw him again. That is how it is on the Camino. You meet so many wonderful people—sometimes you see them again. Sometimes not.
We arrived at the monastery in Roncesvalles mid-afternoon. This is a very large accommodation for pilgrims at a beautiful, majestic monastery. 10 Euros (back then equivalent to about $11). We did not make it in time to sign up for the early dinner so we would have to wait until 8:30 pm until dinner. At dinner I was reunited with the Argentinian and the two Australian girls. I would not see the Australian girls again. But I met up with the Argentinian man 2 weeks later with incredible joy.
That night I barely slept. It was not the bunk bed. Because the bunk bed was very nice. And it was quiet. I think I was nervous. And jet lagged. I had made it over the Pyrennes but could how would I do the next day?
At 6am the next morning the bell rang and over the loud speaker we were told we needed to get up and be out by 7am. I do not know what came over me that morning but I had a fierce amount of energy. One of the older Danish guys (I do not remember his name) and I headed out. We were so wrapped up in conversation that we missed the arrow. While we were trying to find our way back when we met a young Lithuanian girl. Truly stunning with ice blue eyes and white blond hair with a gigantic bag. She was lost too.
A motley crew—the older Danish man, the American woman (me) and the young Lithuania girl (who we would learn had only just begun to speak English). They both said they wanted to walk to Pamplona that day. What? Pamplona. That would be a 47 km day (plus the kilometers we had used getting lost). I agreed to walk with them as long as I could.
When we stopped for lunch we were all pretty tired and the Danish guy had two beers I thought for sure he was finishing for the day. Maybe we could all stay together. I would learn that Europeans use beer for fuel. So after a bit of lunch and a short rest, he announced he would continue on to Pamplona. Jovi, the Lithuanian girl agreed. But what about me? My new best friends were leaving. We said good bye and they left.
After about 10 minutes I put my shoes back on and my backpack and I started to run. My legs were so sore from the day before but I was not going to let these two strangers go without me. And so we walked the 25 km more to Pamplona. We arrived in the pouring rain at 9pm that night. We had walked approximately 47 km in 15 hours.
It was here that I realized that I had so much more potential than I possibly could imagine. But I never would have made it without those two. It was not like they cheered me on as much as we were in it together.
I think about the two of them often. I do not know what happened to the Danish guy. I never saw him again. I stayed with the Lithuanian girl another 4 days until her blisters got so bad that she had to stop.
Back then I never would never have guessed that 4 weeks later I would meet another crazy Danish guy who would agree to walk with me through the night--nearly 100 km.