I mentioned in the last post that my adventure on the Camino began as a study away program through Missouri State University. Our group consisted of eight strangers and two professors. Aside from myself, the seven other students also started as strangers and became some of the most colorful and inspiring people I have ever met. If it weren’t for Kathryn, Kelly, Matt, Mike, Cassie, Meghan, Alyssa, and Dane (our fearless professor) this journey would not have been as incredible as it was.
Let’s fast forward a couple days between departure and actually making it to the start of the Camino. Fair warning this will be a lengthy post as I attempt to capture all that took place on my first day. There are several different paths leading to Santiago de Compostela, however the primary historical path starts in the French Pyrenees in a enchanting commune named St. Jean de Pied de Port. All those who wish to backpack on the Camino gather here to register and receive their peregrino (pilgrim) passport. This passport allows peregrinos to document their journey to Santiago with stamps. Once you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, you may turn in your passport as proof of your journey and receive a certificate…but that’s for a later post.
Our first day started out slowly but with excitement. We slowly gathered downstairs for breakfast at our first albergue. Albergue is Spanish for a hostel where peregrinos sought shelter. A couple other peregrinos were eating breakfast as well and that is when I met Katrine. Katrine kindly spoke to us and answered our questions having hiked the Camino a couple times before. During our conversation Katrine delivered a priceless bit of advice; “Love your feet, they are your friends, and at times the only ones you have”. I didn’t know the weight of her words until much later in my journey, but I never forgot them.
Breakfast gradually came to an end as we became anxious to get on the trail. Some of us were ready to go explore the town a little bit more as the rest prepared for our first day of hiking. The rain fell softly in a thin sheet of mist, leaving a faint scent of the mountains surrounding us. There is a citadel up on a slope that Matt and I chose to go explore until the rest were ready. Curiosity grew as we got closer to the bridge leading up to the citadel. It was originally built in 1628 and additions were built around it over the years. The bridge leading up to the main building consists of old wood planks with rails made of thin wire. Leave it to me to slip on the damp planks and fall backwards onto my backpack all while impaling my raincoat sleeve on the wire. For those of you who know me, this was bound to happen and is no surprise. However, with a five week hiking adventure before me, slipping on a damp bridge wasn’t what I viewed as a good omen. Laughter aside, Matt helped release me from the wires and we continued exploring the area. As we walked around the exterior fortress walls we noticed some basketball courts wedged between the towering walls. Voicing our confusion as we walked on, Matt and I came up on a group of younger school kids walking ahead of us. Marching forward, Matt and I noticed a sign that informed visitors that the citadel is now a school. A school?! Charged with newfound curiosity and excitement, Matt and I momentarily obsessed over the fact that these children were casually going to school in a historical fortress.
Shortly after our discovery of the school, Matt and I joined the rest of our group and made our way to the trail. Oh the trail. We had been forewarned about the difficulties of the trail that lay ahead, yet I was still completely unprepared. The whole day was a string of beautiful scenery, chaos, fear, and laughter. Eight of us gingerly walked through town following the markers to the difficult trailhead, while Meghan and Stephen (our other professor) took another route. Our spirits were high despite the mist that continued to coat everything. Only stopping to take pictures as we left the main part of town.
The next 3 to 4 hours were spent following gravel roads and muddy pathways. As a photographer, it took a lot of restraint to keep from stopping every 15 steps to photograph the rolling hills, mountains, and clouds that surrounded us. My legs were aching something fierce, my contacts had fallen out forcing me to wear my glasses, and the dropping temperature was seeping through my damp clothing. Nevertheless I pressed onward.
At this point I was walking alone and was able to take in all that was around me. Other peregrinos were passing by as my aching legs carried me, but I never let myself give up or give into my aching muscles. Reaching Orisson proved to be much more difficult than reaching the summit later that day, but I was encouraged by signs alluding to Orisson being close.
The little cafe provided to be a much needed sanctuary for all wary pilgrims, promising warmth and nourishment for all. Inside I found Dane and Kelly and joined them with a warm bowl of the best vegetable soup I have ever had. Alyssa joined us shortly after as we held friendly conversation with fellow pilgrims. After a needed break, the four of us decided to continue on our way. Here is where the real challenges of the day began. What happened next is still difficult to talk about, but it is an important part of my journey.
I had just walked outside and found Dane and Kelly standing off to the side with distraught expressions. I softly asked what was wrong and that is when Dane informed me that a man just barely up the road had collapsed and two men were desperately trying to resuscitate him. It was then that something I had seen in the cafe tied into what was happening no more than 50 yards from us. While we were eating I noticed one of the owners of the cafe ran outside with a telephone in hand. At the time I thought nothing of it. Now I realized that she had been informed of the man and had run out to call for help. Once Alyssa joined the three of us outside, Dane again informed her. There was nothing that we could do, no matter how desperately we wanted to help. EMTs were on their way and the two men were doing everything they could. Dane made the decision to keep us moving. We slowly walked up to the men and asked once more if there was anything that we could do. One of the men thanked us, but reiterated the fact that we could do nothing, as the second man continued CPR. With heavy hearts and tears in our eyes we slowly moved on, clinging onto each other for support and comfort. In the distance I could hear the ambulance sirens coming up the mountain; a faint sound of hope. I had a realization as we kept moving forward, we heard the sirens come up the mountain, but there was only silence that followed. The four of us quietly spoke words of comfort, trying to lighten our heavy hearts. Something Kelly said has always stayed with me. “If he was meant to go today, at least he was doing something meaningful and surrounded by God’s beauty. If he was meant to find God today, at least he is no longer in pain”. Kelly was absolutely right. The Camino is historically a pilgrimage road where people come from all over the world in order to renew their faith in God, and if this man was on such a journey, then there is no better place to find God than to be at peace with him. I dedicate much of my journey to this memory in honor of this man. May he always be at peace.
From that moment onward, the hike didn’t feel as intense. The slope was kinder and more gradual. However, the rain and wind had other plans in store of us. The mist from earlier that day became heavier, making everything including us, wet and muddy. Kelly had walked ahead leaving me, Dane, and Alyssa to face the changing weather. The temperature dropped, the rain persisted, and the wind was so strong that it repeatedly caused Dane’s poncho whip around in an airborne frenzy. Now it was my turn to pull ahead. Dane and Alyssa were not far behind, but I reached the top alone. It took me a moment to realize where I was, and once it set in I couldn’t contain my excitement. I threw my hands in the air and let out an elated “wahoo!”. I had finally made it! Surely the hardest part was over!
Dane and Alyssa joined me shortly after and we began our descent. Despite what had happened earlier that day, the descent to Roncesvalles, Spain marked a second round of challenges. Approximately 45 minutes in, the three of us realized just how little energy we had left. Upon this realization, we spotted a group ahead of us struggling with something. To our dismay, one of the members of the group turned out to be Kelly. Kelly was accompanied by an American brother-sister duo John and Chris, as well as two sisters from France, Hortense and Ségolène. Unfortunately, Hortense has mobility restrictions but they are not match for her contagious joy and beautiful personality. Up to this moment the two sisters had traversed the route with Hortense using a batter powered motor cart that carried all of their belongings. Now, if you can recall, I briefly mentioned that there is an alternative route to Roncsevalles. That route was the one the two sisters had intended to take. However, due to poor directions, they found themselves here… an important factor to keep in mind as the rest of this story unfolds.
Dane, Alyssa, and I quickly catch up with the group and immediately began asking what was going on and how we could help. As it turns out the battery in the cart had died about three hours prior and Ségolène had been pushing the cart all that way (including
over the peak) until John and Chris found them. Shortly after Kelly began to help as well. By the time we found them, they were nearly devoid of energy. Quickly forgetting our own pain and exhaustion, Dane Alyssa, and I began to help push. Over the next five hours we all desperately pushed Hortense and her cart up and down the rain soaked mountains.
Skillfully alternating turns pushing and steering, we finally reached a point where there was only one direction to go…down. A gravel road lay before us going one direction and a rocky path led in another. After deliberation, we decided to take the rocky path. I was running ahead throwing as many large loose rocks out of the way as possible while the others were using all of their strength to keep Hortense from sliding down the mountain. At last we had seemingly reached a point where the ground began to flatten. Although our legs may have felt relief, flatter ground meant mud, and lots of it. We pushed as far as possible, but we were surrounded by deep pools of mud. The sun had begun to set and as a result the temperature was plummeting. Our bodies were spent, the sun was almost gone, and we were unfit to spend the night in the woods. We were quickly losing our chance of getting to Roncsevalles without outside help. The decision was made to call 112, the 911 equivalent in Spain. Thanks to Kelly and her Spanish skills, help was on its way. Unfortunately, the help didn’t show up. Being the only one in the group to have service, I typed up a message to the rest of our group to send help. That help didn’t come either. Suddenly, Matt and Mike showed up and we all got excited taking their arrival as a sign that help was on its way. That wasn’t the case. According to Matt, they had left to come look for us long before I had sent the message out. Time for another call to 112. Luckily this time help did show up.
We all stood together talking and trying to keep morale high as we waited and waited for help. Matt and Mike kindly stayed with us either out of compassion or for fear of losing their way in the dark…I choose to believe in the first option. Just as the last bit of light was fading, Matt, Mike, and Alyssa chose to walk ahead to our the monastery turned albergue. At last help came in the form of a Land Rover plowing through the trees. Shivering uncontrollably from exhaustion, dropping temperatures, and rain soaked bodies, we explained to three (very attractive) Spanish firemen what had happened. I will never forget their reaction to the sight of us all standing there. One looked at us and exclaimed “are you crazy?!” with his hands in the air as another took our picture. After quite some time, the firemen put Hortense and Ségolène into their Land Rover and took them to the monastery in Roncsevalles.
Those of us remaining stayed back with the cart because the firemen had to come back for it…and well personally, I couldn’t move anymore. Alyssa had walked ahead with Matt and Mike towards the monastery. Chris and John followed shortly after not wanting to stay there in the dark. This left me, Kelly, and Dane with the cart. The sun was long gone and the temperature had dropped further. Eventually, the firemen returned and we began our journey to the monastery. Now this came with a whole new set of challenges, however, these challenges meant a whole lot of laughter. The cart was much too heavy to be hoisted onto the roof of the Rover, and too large to be put in the back. This meant that one of the firefighters volunteered to ride it down as the rest of us drove behind him laughing at the absurdity of it all. It was phenomenal!
It was 23:45 by the time we got to our destination. We hadn’t eaten in at least eight hours and had been in the mountains for at least 16 hours straight. As we drove up we saw Mike standing there with a box full of food graciously donated by the monastery. Seeing Mike standing there was one of the best things I saw the entire day. We finally joined the rest of our group in a trailer that belonged to the monastery. Explaining all that happened was incredibly difficult but ended in laughter. I had never been so grateful to be in a tiny shack with so many people.
Despite all that had happened, the first day was by far the best and worst thing to happen. I met some of the most inspiring people and experienced an adventure beyond anything I could imagine. I will always be thankful for that first day on the Camino.