Monday, May 14, 2012

St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles: Short Takes from Day 1

The good news is that Marian and I successfully completed the first stage of the so-called Camino Francés today, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, at 7:30 this morning and ending late this afternoon in Roncesvalles, Spain, after crossing the Pyrenees. The bad news is, we do it again tomorrow.

I have walked 20 miles before, but on the flat with no pack on my back. Today, we walked over 20 miles, climbed 4,000 net feet, descended 2,000 net feet — all the while carrying 10-kilo backpacks. Before the 9-euro pilgrim supper across the street, I wandered around the halls of the new, state-of-the-art pilgrim refuge here* like a zombie with blisters.

My pastor, Father Barnes, and my friend Ferde both did their best to remind me that we are on a pilgrimage, not a pleasure trip. To which I can only reply, Yeah, so?

OK, a few short takes before I crash.

Monday morning, we were served coffee and bread at Kaserna at 7am, and Jacques saw us off in the street. To me he pointed out the fog over the church where we attended Mass yesterday. When there is fog on the church, he explained, there is beautiful weather on the mountain, and vice versa.

The weather could not have been more gorgeous. (See Marian’s photo at the top of this post.) As we climbed above the town and began looking back over the long valley running down the middle of the Pyrenees here at the western end, the fog had neither risen nor dissipated. We looked down on what looked like a vaporous lake with high, foaming billows, and islands sticking up where hills rose out of the fog. It was a dream landscape, in which the constant tinkling of sheep bells was like wind chimes on a friendly neighbor's porch.

For the first 10 kilometers or so we were walking on roadways along which Basque farmers buzzed past us in their ubiquitous white Renault compacts. One of these gentlemen came past when four of our party were walking the left shoulder and the other two the right. He shouted as he passed, “Du même côté, les cons!” To maintain family standards on this blog, I will translate this loosely as, “Use one side of the street, you asses!”

The Camino is many things, and one of these is a metaphor for life. In life, people come and go, disappearing without warning and then making surprise entrances when you least expect them. So it was from last night through today. Around the dinner table at Kaserna last night were Jacques, Monique, Marian, myself, and ten other pilgrims. Of these, four made repeated appearances today on the road to Roncesvalles. Two were Koreans, unrelated to one another: Phillip, a devout Catholic pilgrim about my age, and Song-Mi, a Korean businesswoman of about 35 working in London for the past 10 years but contemplating a change in her life. There is a striking number of Koreans on the Camino.

The two others were Dominik, a 27-year-old Austrian returning to school in the fall, and Erika, a 35-year-old single mother from Lithuania. Early in the day's trek, I gathered that Dominik hopes to walk the Camino in double-time. I told him the Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare, and the basic plot line of that fable played out for the rest of the day, as he and Erika shot ahead, then stopped for a break or nap, and Marian and I plodded by.

I told Dominik that his name was a good omen to me, since St. Dominic was an itinerant preacher who, with St. Francis, helped restore the Church at a time when it was quite corrupt. "Still is corrupt," he retorted, regarding the Church.

Erika was a bit different. She and Marian struck up a conversation; then I walked by her side for a bit. I asked her, as I have asked others, why she is walking to Santiago de Compostela. “Many reasons,” she said, “but not for fun. I want to give a gift to my God, who has been so generous with me.”

Later Marian and I walked ahead of Dominik and Erika, tortoise-like on the brutal final downhill leg of today's journey. (Try walking downhill over rocks after ascending a mountain for seven hours. You will know that you have knees. You will know that you have hips.) I could hear the sound of a rabbit approaching from behind us. It was Dominik, of course, with Erika by his side.

Dominik went past, eager to prove Aesop wrong, while Erika settled in by my side. “As I came down and saw you,” she said, “I thought you finally looked like a father.” She was referring to my limp, my very slow pace, my look of utter exhaustion. “How old are you?” she asked. I replied that I am 60.

“My respect to you,” Erika said, touching her heart before joining Dominick at the head of the race.

[NOTE: The next post in this series on my Camino is here.]

* This new refuge has been opened since filming of “The Way,” a film that showed Martin Sheen's character staying in a dismal barracks in Roncesvalles.

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