It was just over a year ago, on May 13, 2015. (I thought about posting this on Friday, but it seemed like bad luck.)
We still casually refer to it as “the day we walked over the Pyrenees,” as if that’s a normal thing.
This was probably the most dramatic, difficult, culture-shocked day of my entire three-month trip. Not only were we walking into a new country, we were also walking on a new, much more popular Camino path. Gone were our quiet days of encountering the same 20 or so familiar faces along the trail and at the dinner table. The day Eric and I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port, the pilgrim office told us there were 400 credencials issued. There were tourists everywhere. We heard English everywhere.
That first morning, it felt like I was part of a long line of people, stretching for miles, all trudging in the same direction.
The ants go marching one by one, hurrah…
I don’t know if the crowds were unusual. It was the start of a holiday weekend. And with the rumor of bad weather coming, everyone was in a bit of a rush to get started. We’d also considered taking a rest day before setting off on the next stage, but decided to push ahead and save the rest day for Pamplona. (Despite the crowds, it was a good choice. The day we crossed was blustery, but clear. Later, we met pilgrims who started the day after us who were surrounded by sheets of rain and fog the whole way over the mountains. Radio Camino told us about people being “taken off the mountain” with hypothermia and even someone dying, but those stories went unconfirmed.)
If I was tempted to be a snob about being an “experienced” pilgrim among so many just setting out, the mountains kicked it right out of me.
“Walking over the Pyrenees” means crossing via the Napoleon route near the western edge of the mountains, as they dip toward the Bay of Biscay. (Yes, this is the place where Emilio Estevez died in The Way.) The highest pass tops out at 1430 meters (4700 feet), which would put it comfortably in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
So it’s not exactly Mount Rainier, but that steady, relentless, sometimes steep incline for 20 straight kilometers (12 miles) is nothing to take lightly. I hate, hate, hate uphill walking, and this was definitely the hardest day of the entire 1000-mile Camino for me. . I bow at the feet of those who choose to make it their first day…I had 35 days and almost 500 miles under my belt, and I still huffed and wheezed and swore and had serious doubts that I was going to make it over.
And I might not have, except these amazing things kept happening. I would walk around a corner and find myself in the middle of a herd of sheep, or having to hop off the trail because the GIANT MOUNTAIN HORSES with bells were standing, placidly, in the way. Or because everything around me was so mind-blowingly beautiful.
When we finally passed the summit and started down (because of course you have to climb 1250 meters only to immediately go back down 400 on the other side), the crowds and lines of people disappeared, and I found myself surprisingly alone (Eric was miles ahead of me for most of the day) in the middle of a forest, out of the wind and surrounded by the green of spring. I scrambled down the last five kilometers in a weirdly happy state, and arrived at the recently renovated monastery of Roncevalles in time to get one of the last three beds in the building. (After that, they filled the “dungeon” of the basement, and then the overflow spaces in shipping containers outside, and after that I don’t know what they did. By that point I was well into my celebratory wine.)
I call it the most amazing day that I’m glad I never have to do again.
(Click the pics below to see them full sized and with captions)