Day 1 – St Jean to Roncevalles

Truly one of the most difficult days of my life.

It is the end of May and you would think it was the end of January.

I left St Jean with high hopes. My pack was as light as I could make it. I knew my route. I had decided long ago to follow the advice of the Pilgrim Office and if they said the Napolean Route was too treacherous due to the weather, I would follow their advice. The hospitalieros (hostel hosts) said that the conditions so bad that even the locals, who are familiar with the route, could easily get turned around. 

The way was cold and foggy, rainy with icy droplets hanging in the air. Since it was my first time on the Camino, I was especially alert for way-markers.

At one corner the road seemed to disappear.  I went ahead to confirm the direction. Slowly, coming up the hill, was a man leading a donkey! Following him was a woman walking, and two more donkeys carrying young people, apparently his family.  How often in this day and age do you find families transporting themselves by donkey?

The weather became very cold and stormy. But, after a short coffee and toilet break, I cheerfully headed out. It was the last time I would be cheerful for a while.

The trail began to rise through beautiful country. I decided to take an alternate route which went off the beaten path for a kilo or two, away from the road. It was nice except the the last 500 meters which went straight up before returning to the main route.

Up, up, through rain and chilly wind, along a highway, through wet paths. Not exactly what I had in mind. I had been walking, on and off, with several women from Germany. When I finally caught up with them again, they had lost one. She had decided that the route was too much and had gotten a ride to the town we were heading for. I could understand why she had decided to take the easy way out. This Camino was not what I had expected. 

I had thought it would be a time for reflecting on God, religion, my life, where I was heading in the large sense, a time for prayer and meditioan.

Instead, I found myself fighting to keep one step in front of the other for one, then ten, then twenty more steps. The weather got worse and worse. The path became muddier and more frigid.

This Camino was the one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

The wind and rain was strong and non-stop. It was cold, cold, cold. Dangerously hypothermia-cold.

And seriously uphill. Non-stop uphill.  I was in the middle of the Pyrenees climbing straight to the top. There were no beautiful views of anything because the fog was too dense. And my fingers were almost too frozen to press the shutter of my camera.

If you have ever seen a video of people climbing the Himilayas and stopping every two steps to catch their breath (because the air is thin) you can visualize my trek up the mountain. Except I was my own Sherpa.

Did I mention that this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done?