The Beginning of Something Big

(excerpt from my work in progress, my book about my first Camino)

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I moved through the streets of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in a daze. The pilgrims I’d met at the bus station in Bayonne- Steve and Peg, Susie and Helen- were all walking up the hill ahead of me, but I trailed behind. I wanted everyone to pass me. I needed a minute, an hour, a lifetime, to understand where I was and what I was about to do.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a small, 12th century Basque village in southwestern France that sits beneath the Pyrenees Mountains. It’s the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés, the most popular of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims walk the difficult first stage through the Pyrenees and into Spain, and continue for nearly 500-miles until they arrive at the cathedral in Santiago. Some start even further back, maybe on one of the routes through France, or even in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany. But they all funnel here, to Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, a village that has come to signify the beginning of something. The beginning of something big.

I looked around, spinning slowly in a circle. There were cobblestoned streets, moss-covered bridges crossing a sparkling blue river, red wooden balconies under brightly colored shutters and lined with overflowing flower boxes. 

The cafés here were bustling, filled with a mix of pilgrims and locals seated under the umbrellas and awnings, drinking tall glasses of cold beer, tiny cups of steaming espresso. There was a hum and a chatter, a nervous and excited energy. I trailed behind what must have been a hundred pilgrims, all of us trudging up the hill, heading towards the Pilgrim’s Office to pick up our credentials, the passports that would prove we were pilgrims.

I didn’t feel like a pilgrim, not yet. How could I? I’d read books and blogs, researched gear and logged my training walks, but nothing could prepare me for this: for this mass of people and this tiny village and these dark and looming mountains, mountains that leaned in close, that absorbed the pilgrim energy, that whispered a greeting, or maybe a warning.

The man behind the desk at the Pilgrim’s Office issued my credential, explaining that I would need a stamp every night to show where I stayed. With a swift and efficient flick of the wrist, he pressed my first stamp into the booklet and penned in the date: June 26th, 2014. He slid the credential back to me, then laid two sheets of paper on the table: one showed hostels and services along the route, the other was a list of elevation profiles for each day’s stage. 

The office was crowded, someone’s pack bumped into my elbow. I leaned towards the desk and strained to hear what the man was telling me. He spoke in quick French, and I caught every third word. Mountains. Water. Bed. I glanced at the leaflet in his hand, the one that showed the elevation profiles and I looked at the first one, the 24km stage I would be walking the next day. The squiggly line immediately shot straight up, and kept going: up and up and up, and then it barely leveled out before it went just as steeply down.

I knew the first day would be challenging, I’d known it in the months when I hiked in my local park, when I tackled the modest hills, when I practiced with my loaded pack. But standing here was another story. Here, I was surrounded by those looming mountains and also by looming strangers. Strangers speaking a dozen languages and everyone seemed to be in groups or pairs, laughing and joking and smiling. All with their shiny packs and their brand new shoes and their walking poles. They seemed ready in a way that I didn’t. The mountains seemed larger in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.

The man behind the desk pushed the papers across to me and nodded sternly. Could he see it, too? Could he see my fear? Could he see that I was out of place, that maybe I didn’t belong here? 

My next stop was my auberge- a pilgrim hostel. I’d made a reservation for this first night, but for the rest of the Camino I would stop when I felt tired and search for a bed. My guidebook promised there would be plenty in the towns and villages lining the route. But for now, I was relieved to have a destination, to have a place where someone expected me.  

I found the auberge and pushed against its tall red door. The entryway was narrow and dark and silent. There was a line of shoes along the wall, a winding staircase, a vacant desk with an open notebook. I stood at the desk for a few minutes, and just as I wondered if I should try to find someone, an old woman with long gray hair appeared from the back of the hostel. She gave me a hard look that softened just marginally when I told her I had a reservation.

“Come,” she flicked her finger and turned, leading me up the staircase and into a small room. There were four sets of bunk beds and a small window in the corner. She nodded at one of the bunkbeds, pointing to the one on top.

“Dinner is downstairs, at 7:00,” she said, and walked away.

I looked around. There were packs propped against the walls and wet clothing hanging from the ends of the beds and a smell that I couldn’t quite identify. It was socks and sweat and mud but it was also soap, and grass, and fresh air. Somehow, it was all of these things, all at once.

Downstairs, long wooden tables filled the dining room and pilgrims were already seated and chatting when I walked into the room an hour later. I found an empty seat and swung my leg over the bench, smiling at the others already seated. When they all said a quick ‘bonjour’ and went back to their conversation, I realized that I had just sat with a group of French pilgrims. After picking up enough of their conversation, I learned that they had all been hiking through France for the past several weeks. Saint-Jean was just another town along their trail, and not the very beginning, like it was for me. I looked to the other tables, and French was being spoken at each one. Where were the hundred other new pilgrims that I’d seen at the train station in Bayonne, the ones in the Pilgrim’s Office?

Dishes of food circled the table: a creamy soup, wide egg noodles, potato gratin, lamb chops, bread, wine. The other pilgrims were interested when they learned that I could somewhat understand them, and I struggled to answer their questions. I pushed the noodles on my plate and took a sip of wine as a slim man told us that he averaged 45 km a day- a marathon distance- and was planning to get to Santiago in under three weeks. It was ludicrous. I hoped to average 25 km a day- 15 miles- and had five weeks to get to Santiago.

The other pilgrims marveled at his mileage and he shrugged. “I like walking,” he said. He turned to me with a smile. “And you, why are you walking the Camino?”

I swallowed, and I’m sure a thin layer of sweat broke out over my forehead. I’d been dreading this question because I wasn’t even sure how to answer it for myself. But now I had to say something, and I had to say it in French. I stammered out a few words until the speedy Frenchman swooped in. “This is a transition for you, yes? You are marking the time in between: what came before, and what will come after.”

How he concluded this from whatever words I had managed to string together I didn’t know. But he wasn’t far from the truth. My fingers twisted around the stem of my wine glass and I let the conversation fold over me. His words filled my head: what came before, and what will come after. 

The terrace was empty after dinner, and I sat on a wooden chair facing the garden. Vines crawled over a stone wall and the leaves were lush, dripping with rain from a quick storm that had passed through the village while we were eating dinner. Rounded clouds filled out the sky, blazing with golden accents from the setting sun. The Pyrenees simmered beneath the burning clouds, dark purple masses, immovable and ancient. Still whispering, and I couldn’t make out the words but they lulled me just the same, a sound that was far away, just barely at the edges of my mind.

Twilight fell and the air grew cool and damp and I sat up with a start. I turned in my seat, to look in the kitchen for signs of other pilgrims but the room was quiet and I was alone. How long had I been sitting there?

I moved quietly through the auberge and up the stairs to my bunk room. The lights were off and the others were in bed, their bodies tucked in sleeping bags, their faces covered with eye-masks. A slow exhale emitted from a corner of the room as I took a step towards my bed, the floor creaking beneath me.

I froze in the doorway. Before leaving for the Camino I’d read about people like me- pilgrims who made noise late at night or early in the morning, when everyone else was sleeping. They flashed their headlamps and rustled plastic bags and every sound was magnified, disturbing, inconsiderate.

I hadn’t even started my Camino and I was immobilized before my pack, unable to extract my toothbrush without making a sound. It was impossible. A volume of noise rose up around me; people shifted and turned in their beds.

Once I managed to climb up into my bunk, the situation grew worse. I hadn’t unzipped or arranged my sleeping bag, but any movement I made shook the entire bed, the frame wobbling, the mattress coils squeaking. The zipper snagged on the fabric of the sleeping bag, every sound was magnified. I tugged at the zipper but it wouldn’t budge. Below me, a woman sighed.

Again, I froze. As slowly and quietly as I could, I lowered myself on top of the still zipped-up sleeping bag, and rested my head on the pillow. The pillow didn’t have a pillowcase, and then I started to think about how many people had slept on this mattress, how many had used this pillow. Were there bed bugs crawling around me? I tucked my head carefully, bringing my chin down to my chest and curling tightly so that no part of my body would touch the mattress or pillow.

After a minute, my right arm started to cramp. A soft breeze was blowing through the open window and I shivered. I knew I needed to sacrifice the sixty second disruption to my fellow pilgrims for the chance at a decent night’s sleep before the first very difficult day of a 500-mile walk across a country. “You have to climb a mountain tomorrow, Nadine!” I told myself. “Just get in your sleeping bag!”

But instead of doing the normal thing, I inched my body to the very edge of my sleeping bag and pulled the remaining fabric over my body, which was only enough to cover half of my leg. 

Outside the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Inside, someone started snoring, loudly. In my bed, my arm was going numb. I shifted, and this continued through the night: the cold, the snoring, the cramping, the sensation of bugs crawling over my body. 

I managed an hour or two of sleep and then I was awoken by the first alarm. People began to stir and soon most of the room was awake: rustling bags, shaking beds, creaking floors, not one of them paying attention to me: the American girl who couldn’t explain why she was walking a Camino and hadn’t even managed to get inside her sleeping bag the night before.

I raised my head and looked around. My body was flush against the mattress and I was half-covered with my still zipped-up sleeping bag. I was groggy and uncomfortable and chilled to the bone. My phone’s bright screen shone the time out at me: 5:10am. 

The French pilgrims were already dressed, moving fast between their beds and lockers, where small bottles of shampoo and yesterday’s clothing were waiting to be arranged in their packs. The sky outside was still dark, a band of soft gray light was inching slowly above the horizon and when I sat up in my bed I could just barely make out a faint outline of mountain peaks.

I moved through those first minutes of the morning slowly, and by the time I walked downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast, I was unsure about a dozen things. The clothing that I’d washed the day before wasn’t dry, and so I’d clipped it to the outside of my pack: my socks, underwear, bra and t-shirt were hanging, limp and damp. It looked ridiculous. Did I look ridiculous? I walked down the stairs in my socks, wondering if I should wear my shoes. Other pilgrims were filing past me, already out the door and ready to walk. The morning was still dark, but was I starting too late? Should I have brought pajamas? Why hadn’t I crawled inside my sleeping bag last night?

Outside the kitchen window I could see a dim, pale blue light beginning to fill the sky. I approached an empty place at the wooden table, and a woman pointed towards the corner of the room, where a large carafe was sitting on a small table.

I filled a mug with dark coffee and poured a stream of warm milk out of a glass pitcher. Just as I returned to the table, the hospitalera filled an empty basket with piles of toasted bread. A dozen hands shot out and reached for the toast, so I snatched up a piece too. I layered it with butter and thick red jam, took a large bite and then sipped my coffee. Around me people were eating quickly, emptying the bread from the baskets, gulping down coffee. People stood up to leave and others came to sit down, but I stayed in my seat, only rising to fill my mug with more coffee.

When I finally stood up from the table I could feel my legs shaking beneath me. I’d spent a few minutes staring at the coffee grounds lining the bottom of my mug, listening to muted voices discussing the day’s walk, wondering what in the world I was about to do. The speedy Frenchman from the night before turned to me as I stood. He smiled and the rest of the table grew silent as he spoke.

“Bon courage, ma fille.” The others around the table nodded, chiming in. “Bon courage.”

Courage.

The word entered my ears and then spread through my body, to the tips of my fingers, the ends of my toes. Into my heart and all around my gut, the rolling and trembling place where maybe I needed them the most.

His other words, the ones from last night, played in my head, too: What came before, and what will come after. 

In that moment, my eyes puffy from lack of sleep, my wet clothing pinned to my pack, the taste of red jam on my lips, I couldn’t think about courage. I couldn’t think about the before or the after, either. I could only think about the now.

The now: when my pilgrimage begins.



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