I woke to the sound of creaking bunk beds, rustling backpacks, and hushed chatter. 5:30 a.m. Time to go. I put my boots on, packed my sleeping bag, and went downstairs.
Small talk of good weather and stellar walking conditions and free bread as stiff as stones. I devoured as much of it as my mouth could muster and went on my way.
The first day was supposed to be arduous: 27.4 kilometers from Saint-Jean to Roncesvalles, with a gradual gain of 1400 meters in elevation. It was dark, cold, and misty out. Regardless, I equipped myself with a smile, shouldered my rucksack, and put one foot in front of the other.
For most of the morning I walked along a narrow road populated by small farms and modest homes. A constant stream of white vans drove by, presumably transporting those who were daunted by the unavoidable ascent over the Pyrenees, or those who were physically incapable. The air stank of manure and wheat, though I felt invigorated by a sense of new beginnings.
After 5-6 kilometers of walking in the twilight, I reached the base of the Pyrenees. I allowed myself a short break, then began the ascent. As I climbed higher into the sky, the sun rose to fulfill its daily task. Clumps of green became discernible blades of grass, darkness turned to shadow, cowbells and birdsong filled the air. The landscape was awakening.
I was amazed by the sheer variety of walkers - young and old; American and Canadian, English and Irish; German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish; Korean, Japanese… the list was endless.
It was easy to discern those who were on vacation from those who were in search of something greater. The vacationers were often the couples or groups. Their conversations were light, suffering was a force to be avoided, they lacked a spiritual connection to the Camino. Conversely, the seekers usually walked alone. They connected with other soloists and seekers, their suffering was meaningful, the Camino had called to them.
Of course, these were only superficial observations. A person could have been walking for deeply personal reasons, but had decided to go with others because they were simply terrified of walking alone. And certainly there were the spiritual bunch who acted like hound dogs on a life-or-death mission; they often lost sight of the very thing they were seeking - it was often right under their noses.
I arrived at Refuge Orisson two hours later, an albergue about 8 kilometers west of Saint-Jean. I took a break and bought myself another round of breakfast – espresso with a Spanish tortilla. The mountainous air was cool and refreshing, the views from the terrace stunning.
Back on the road, I was greeted by a cheery social worker from South Korea named San. He didn’t speak much English, but he always had positive things to say to me, and he laughed at my jokes. I appreciated his lighthearted nature, and we got along just fine.
We met another South Korean named Jackie moments later. She had worked in hospitality for a year before deciding that she was dissatisfied with where her life was headed. She was a seeker, and unlike San, her English was fluent. She understood my jokes but didn’t laugh at them the way San did. Regardless, we welcomed her company and walked together for the next two hours.
Solitude exists only in stolen moments during the early stages of the Camino. San and Jackie needed a break, so I continued on without them, knowing that we would meet again in Roncesvalles.
A continual stream of other pilgrims took their place. It was overwhelming at times, all the ‘Buen Caminos!’ and fleeting conversations. I appreciated their earnest attempts to connect, but I often wanted to be alone. That was something I was still in the process of learning: how to accept and be open to the unexpected company of others.
I arrived at Roncesvalles early in the afternoon. It’s a small town with two restaurant-bars, a hotel, and a gothic monastery that accommodated 200 or so pilgrims. After checking in, I idled in the courtyard, called my parents, and wrote in my journal. Later, Jackie and I got a drink at the bar to celebrate our first full day of walking. Afterwards we went to the nearby restaurant for dinner with some of the other pilgrims.
The standard pilgrim meal consisted of an appetizer, the main dish, and dessert, of which was always accompanied by a bottle of red wine. Always. By the end of the night our tongues had grown loose, and we began to exchange stories of who we were, where we came from, and why we were walking the Camino.
The Spanish couple at our table had recently returned to Spain after having lived in London for several years, stating that life in the city was too complicated. They preferred the simple lifestyle of Spain, and they were walking the Camino to celebrate their homecoming. Another man from Italy shared that he had been walking every year for the past five years. He liked the perspective he gained and the people he met.
“Everyone has a story to share on the Camino. I come here to learn and listen,” he said.
After dinner, I retreated to my bunk bed and journaled about the day.
Walking in unknown territory nourished me. I felt alive and powerful, small and humbled beneath the Spanish skies. Perhaps I was here to write the rest of my own story; to rediscover and map the terrain of my own heart.
I checked the contents of my rucksack again. Three outfits and two pairs of socks. A sleeping bag and a down jacket. Phone charger, toiletries, another set of shoes in addition to my boots. Just in case.
Emergency medical supplies for three days. The KIND bars have been shared and devoured; my 1-liter nalgene bottle is filled to the brim. My California license plate––the only item of sentimental value. A journal and my writing tools.
Nervousness. I took a deep breath.
Excitement. I let it go, slowly.
They’re two sides of the same coin, and I was standing on the precipice.