This will be a fairly long and somewhat rambling post since the events of the day were unlike anything Clint or I have ever experienced. Today we crossed the border into Spain where we will be for the remainder of our pilgrimage. Our major achievement for the day was to hike over the Pyrenees mountains. This was an arduous and extremely strenuous hike that took us almost 12 hours to complete! Most of the hike was uphill (over 10 hours of the hike) as we experienced an elevation change of 1100 meters (about 3300 feet) – the major challenge was associated with the 24 or so pounds of equipment and water we were each carrying and forcing our tired bodies to keep moving forward. By the time we reached our destination in Roncesvalles we were both whipped puppies to say the least.The trail today was merciless. We started out by getting rained on. It wasn’t a lot of rain, but it was enough for us to deploy our rain gear. But the trail was the real challenge for the day. It just went up, and up, and up some more. As we would round a bend in the road and hope that it might level out a bit we we greeted by a new vista of the continually ascending trail – an endless slope, sometimes as steep as a 15% grade. It was akin to doing 10 hours on a stair-stepper machine at the gym!
I learned one of my first lessons on the Camino today. As far as the Camino is concerned, all pilgrims are created equal, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, or anything else. No slack was given to any pilgrims on the trail today. We saw several who were having joint or foot problems. One husband even ended up carrying his and his wife’s backpacks for a stretch to give her a break.
To help me keep my body moving forward, I finally began focusing on “micro hikes” of 20-25 feet – just looking for some sort of marker on the road (a pothole, some scattered gravel, or another anomaly). I would keep walking forward with my head down until the mark was reached, then glance up briefly to identify the next mark. Looking too far forward just revealed this continuing, seemingly endless upward slope. It was not until we reached the crest of the final ridge of the range, about 10 hours after leaving St. Jean Pied de Port that we finally entered a downward portion hike. And in merciless fashion the Camino continued its assault on our bodies by presenting us with a sharply steep descent covered with a loose gravel for the next hour and a half.One remarkable compensation for this bruising hike was the fact that we were presented with the absolutely drop-dead beautiful scenery that is found in the Pyrenees mountains – grand in scope and breathtakingly magnificent. The grassy slopes hosted frequent herds of sheep cows and horses. The comforting sound of cowbells was almost constant. Clint referred to the cows as bucolic bovines. But, he also made the ironic observation that only the sheep and horses appeared to be wearing bells – not the cows! On occasion we had to thread our way between these peaceful animals, who were positioned right on the trail.
Our initial plan had been to spend the night at an albergue located about 5 miles outside of St. Jean, at a place called Orisson, planning to take it easy on our first day out. However, upon contacting the hostel we were informed that there was no more room at the inn. Word among fellow pilgrims was that this albergue is sold out three months in advance! Since there are no other albergues until you reach Roncesvalles, we were faced with the alternative requirement to hike all the way (over 16 miles) on our first day. We had planned to finish this section on Day 2 of our pilgrimage.
A second bit of compensation for the physical abuse we received on this day is that we had successfully completed this first, arduous test – a rite of passage, if you will – and were now authorized to exercise all associated bragging rights, which we have begun doing. We have also practiced looking down our noses (in a most Christian manner, of course) at those who chose to hike the easier, alternative, lowland route. The feeling, I have to admit, is sweet.
The beautiful albergue in Roncesvalles is situated on the grounds of a medieval monastery. The site also serves as the Camino starting point for many Spanish pilgrims. Even though we were totally bedraggled as we trudged to our beds for the night – our clothes soaked with sweat, hair matted, backpacks akimbo – we had some slight pleasure as a bus load of new pilgrims arrived prior to starting their own pilgrimages on the next day. The looks we got as these mostly young people saw these two old guys who had been through the mill a few times were priceless. I’m certain we gave those new pilgrims pause to consider their own upcoming experiences on the Camino.
Taking off my backpack and shoes, followed by a hot shower, improved my outlook greatly. And a good night’s sleep (no problem sleeping this night at all!) also proved immensely therapeutic. We enjoyed a delightful “pilgrim’s dinner” at a local restuarant. For 9 Euros (about $13.00) our dinner consisted of a pasta course (rotini with tomato and sausage sauce), a pan-fried trout with French fries, a yogurt-based dessert, and all the red wine we could drink – a perfect meal for our condition.
The albergue building, built in the 13th century, originally served as a hospital. Our bedroom was huge – about 30×120 feet. And, for the princely sum of 5 Euros we were privileged to sleep with 120 of our best friends. There was a night-long cacophony of snoring, coughs, and assorted passings of wind, but we slept like lambs.
Looking forward to continuing the pilgrimage tomorrow. The plan is to hike a leisurely 7 miles to the medieval hamlet of Vizkarret.