On the first stage of the Camino Francés (The French Way), pilgrims leave Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, hike over the Pyrenees, and arrive at Roncevalles in Navarre, Spain. It is arguably one of the toughest days of the trip, as it is around 25km (15.5 miles), and has an ascent of 1400m (roughly 4500 feet) before beginning a descent of 650m (2000+ feet).
This is the day where people on the Camino learn whether they have worn the right shoes, protected their feet from blisters and in general prepared enough for the trip.
In the movie The Way, this is where Michael Douglas’s son, played by Emilio Estevez, dies during a storm. (This part was explained unsatisfactorily, I thought—particularly because as a potential pilgrim I was interested in not dying on this stage of the journey.)
Will, who read a dozen books about the Camino, watched a million YouTube videos and talked to everyone who would talk to him about their walks, kept telling me, “Once you make it over the Pyrenees, you’ll be fine.”
This became my internal mantra during our training hikes—all but one on the flat land of California’s Central Valley. But I bought the right shoes and the expensive hiking poles. I lifted leg weights and did 100 squats each night before bed because I was going to make it over the Pyrenees, damn it.
Because I was hardly going to quit then—not at the start of the journey.
We may never know if I could make it over the Pyrenees.
Here in real life, I tripped over my flip flop last week and fell down exactly one stair and possibly broke a toe; I have an unexplained bruise on the underside of my arm and a small welt at my hairline from not fully ducking under a tree branch.
If anyone was going to have trouble on the Pyrenees, it was going to be me.
(And this is to say nothing of my poor, beleaguered, still struggling knee which has a slight dislocation and an unrepaired meniscus tear and randomly clicks and swells. Buy me a drink and I’ll talk to you about it ad nauseum. But not here. Not now.)
The start of any journey is a mix of anticipation and anxiety. The uncertainty, even with a roadmap, is often enough to keep me from beginning altogether. Can I do this? (Yes, probably.) Am I going to enjoy it? (Possibly. Sometimes ‘during,’ not so much.) Will it be what I expected? (No. And that will make it better.) There is something to be said, right at the outset, at the first step on the trail, for the comfort of our own bedrooms, our routines, our pets and our people, all of which are being left behind. There is something to be said about the day’s first cup of coffee poured from the French press, for a reliable shower head, for picking a book off one’s shelf and cuddling up for an uninterrupted hour.
I’m on a different kind of journey now, unplanned and uncharted. The days stretch before me, and while you may be disappointed to learn that I have been watching America’s Next Top Model reruns in all their overblown campiness, I’ve also been reading the news, listening to voices I haven’t heard before. I’m examining things that I believed to be true, things that have been too hard to look at for long without blinking and glancing away.
The thing about a journey (unlike a trip, maybe) is that it changes you—it must. The things that happen on this journey, the things you experience and learn, don’t stay behind in a hotel room or the cramped overhead bin.
They come with you.
They become a part of you.
You become the you that you are because of them. (Too much?)
Paula Treick DeBoard