Happy 2018! I’m so excited to finally be able to say “my book releases this year.”
To celebrate, I want to share one of the most meaningful memories of my Camino journey. It happened on the infamous Day I Walked Over the Pyrenees.
As soon as we crossed the Nive River, the road started to climb.
Eric wished me luck and disappeared up the hill. We’d talked already about how we shouldn’t even try to walk together today; our paces on inclines were just too different. He promised he’d stop every hour or so and wait for me to catch up.
The sky was overcast but dry, and the sun shone weakly behind a flat layer of grey. I looked back every few minutes to see the white walls of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port behind me, until they disappeared as I went around a corner.
And then I climbed some more.
The ascent was relentless. Each step felt like I was on a staircase. My leg muscles were burning when I reached Hunto, the cluster of houses 400 meters above and five kilometers past Saint Jean.
Wait. That had only been five kilometers?
I tried to imagine doing what I’d done so far four more times that day, and as my mind slipped away from the present and into the future, I lost my battle to stay calm and focused. There was an undercurrent of panic in my steps. My heart was already pounding and my breathing labored when the Camino path, now marked with Spain’s yellow arrows alongside the familiar GR65 stripes, split from the paved road and shot up an even steeper set of rocky switchbacks.
The wind picked up as I left the cover of trees and started up the open incline. It was a breeze on my face at first, enough to cool the sweat. But as I got higher it picked up some more, and then some more. Of course it was blowing against me, making each step harder. I felt myself drift under its pressure toward the outer edge of the trail, which fell steeply, though not dangerously, downhill.
Logically, I knew I wasn’t going to blow off the side of the mountain. The wind wasn’t that strong. Rationally, I knew that I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This mountain was steep, but I’d climbed steeper (albeit shorter) hills in France. This was something I could, eventually, do.
My mind knew all of that, but all I could feel was panic.
I’ve never had a full-on panic attack, or at least not one that’s been confirmed by a medical expert, but I came pretty close that morning on the side of the Pyrenees. I couldn’t catch my breath or slow my heart rate. The tears started, and with them the mortification of knowing that all these strangers were watching me melt down. (Of course, most of those strangers weren’t watching me at all. They were fighting their own battles with the windy, steep, terrible mountain.)
I was barely six kilometers in, and it was over. I’d have to retreat to Saint Jean and admit defeat. Eric would have to come back for me.
The inner chorus predicting my failure was almost as loud as the wind.
Through all of it, though, I kept planting my walking poles and pulling myself forward, foot by foot. An object in motion tends to remain in motion… And then, as I rounded yet another hairpin turn and passed another pile of rocks, it happened.
Before we left for the Camino, people liked to ask what I was most looking forward to. I think they expected me to say something like “the cathedrals” or “a life-changing revelation” or (if they didn’t know me at all) “spending a day hiking over the Pyrenees.” My standard answer, though, was “sheep.”
It was a bit of a blow-off. I was trying hard not to create any specific expectations about would happen on my Camino. But there was one thing that I really, really wanted to experience. My Camino dream was to walk along a narrow country lane, lined with walls or hedges, while a flock of sheep herded by a solemn shepherd flowed around me like I was a rock in a river. That, from the perspective of my city-and-technology-driven life, was the quintessential “Camino moment.”
I had no way of making my fantasy become real, but I knew it was possible. I’d seen plenty of videos of sheep encounters on the Camino. But so far, I hadn’t been so lucky. Eric and I had shared the road with farmers herding cows a few times. And I’d had a close encounter near Ostabat, when a small flock of sheep crossed a road a few hundred yards ahead of us. But by the time we got there—and I practically ran to get there—the sheep were already settled in their new field, the gates were secured, and the shepherd had moved on. My sheep dreams remained unfulfilled.
Until now. Because meandering down the mountain toward me was a flock of the ugliest sheep I had ever seen.
Seriously. They’d been shorn recently, so they were all bristly, mud-colored fuzz and knobby shoulders and ears. Several of them had bright blue marks on their sides, as if they’d been tagged with graffiti.
There was no pastoral road, and no fences to keep the flock together. In fact, I wasn’t sure I even could legitimately call these animals a flock. There was no shepherd or caretaker in sight, and the animals seemed to move at their own pace and direction. They were coming generally downhill, toward me, but they kept their heads down, nibbling what little grass existed on the open hillside.
They were less like a flock and more like a collection of grazing sheep under the effect of gravity.
But gravity was working in my favor, so I stopped, delighted, as they swarmed around me and into a field on the other side of the road. The animals paid little attention to the steady line of humans crossing their path, and to my surprise, most of the humans paid little attention to the sheep. They, too, kept their heads down and their feet moving forward.
Not me. I stayed until the last gangly lamb passed. And in the process, my pounding heart slowed, and my breathing evened out.
When I started walking again, the road was just as steep. The wind blew just as hard. The only thing that changed was my perspective. All my attention was on the piece of magic that had just happened.
Later, when I caught up with Eric, he told me about a conversation he’d had with a devout Catholic from Eastern Europe at about this same time. It was her first day on the Camino, and she could barely control her excitement. This was a holy place, she told Eric.
When he mentioned that he’d been walking for a few weeks already, she asked if he’d had a “Camino miracle” yet.
Eric pointed at the miles of rolling mountains that were a hundred shades of summer green, dotted with flowers and farms and dappled by sunlight. “Look around. This is the miracle,” he told her.
He thought she seemed disappointed by his answer, and they soon parted to walk their own Caminos.
But he’d hit on something.
“The sheep!” I told him. “The sheep were my very own Camino miracle.”
If you’ve walked the Way of Saint James, did you have a Camino miracle?