I woke at 6:30 am from the rustling of bags of other pilgrims. The first day of the hike brought with it a constant slide of new people, many French, German and Korean. I passed a lot of people and it was a fun to guess group’s nationalities as I approached and say one of the four “Ciao, Bonjour, Hola, or Guten Morgan” I sound stupid trying to saying HALLO so “good morning” in German will do. It was an overcast and gloomy day. The first day was supposed to be the highest ascent of the entire trail, roughly 2500 feet. Early in the morning, I came across a gregarious Aussie woman in her late thirties, a wayward globetrotter. She pushed the conversational cadence and snuffed out 1 or 2 second silences like a vicious enemy on the battlefield. This pace led to a fast and anxiety ridden conversation, regardless of her friendly disposition. We got to the topic of timetables for finishing the hike and I arrogantly informed her of my plans to finish in under 25 days. She was maintaining a very slow pace and I wanted to pass her but felt awkward about my separation strategy. She then said “Well don’t let me slow you down!” “Ok, see you soon.” I said as I picked up speed. I felt impotent. These “exit strategies” became much easier in the continuing days. Greeting someone with a “Buen Camino” or letting a conversation begin and end more organically while respecting each person’s space and journey.
In the higher parts of the French Pyrenees, I was immersed in the fog that blanketed the fields. Flocks of sheep roamed freely and horses grazed. I petted the horses, they were not contained in any sort of fence or property. Next, I came across this 40 something, athletic, stern Irish woman with a short, boyish haircut. Her wooden staff and brusque manner immediately indicated a technical authority on all things Camino. She informed me it was her fourth time doing the Camino. Her longest walk in a day on the Camino was 45 km, when the hostels close to Santiago were too packed to sleep in. After 30 minutes or so, a group that she knew previously caught up with us and I took the opportunity to walk ahead on my own. I found that I preferred being the first one to depart in these interactions when there wasn’t an immediate connection. I didn’t want to be an imposition on a person’s “finding myself” trip. By 11 am, the sun came out and revealed small pockets of clouds hovering over peaks of lush greenery for miles around.
I ran into Estelle and Juan, the Spanish couple from the day before, when I started the descent for the day. They greeted me as if I were an old friend. The rocky terrain and steep gradient made for a more physically taxing descent than the ascent had been. I needed more balance and control over my weight. This is where I started to think the walking sticks weren’t completely useless. They were ending their trip in Burgos, about 200 km. The three of us had a three course “pilgrim meal” for 10 euros for lunch when we arrived at our stop for the day, Roncesvalles. The only hostel in town held 100 plus pilgrims and we were all in the same massive floor. The facilities were modern and clean. An organization from the Netherlands had purchased it the previous year and there was a rotation of new volunteers from the Netherlands that cycle in every 2 weeks. I had dinner with a few new people from France, Portugal and a girl who spoke four languages from the German speaking part of Belgium who detested “Man-splaining” and “Man-spreading”.