(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of my book draft #PilgrimStrong. It’s a partial account of the most difficult day on the Camino. Pilgrim stories about the Pyrenees are legendary.)
The higher I climbed, the colder it became, and the more harshly the wind blew. The gloves and toboggan came out, and I was thankful for the walking stick I purchased in St. Jean. Heavy moisture now made the rocky path fairly hazardous, and the stick must’ve saved me from a nasty fall a half-dozen times.
Adding to the concern, my only water bottle now had only a few swallows remaining and I was pretty sure there was zilch by way of stores or fountains between me and my destination. Three sips of water and six miles of hard walking ahead. Not good.
A few kilometers short of the summit, a small, modestly constructed shack became visible through the fog. Signage indicated it was an emergency refuge for pilgrim protection in rapidly deteriorating weather. I decided to get off my feet and take a break inside. Maybe there’d even be a water faucet for a refill.
As I opened the door, and to my surprise, four other Argentinian pilgrims were inside with the same idea. It was a little self-assuring to know I wasn’t just imagining these conditions as difficult. There was no water inside, but in the first act of pilgrim kindness I received one young man gave me his half full bottle and said I should keep it. I’ve never been so thankful for a bottle of water.
We visited, sharing a few stories from the day, and in 10 minutes they moved on. I stayed inside another few moments to enjoy the absence of wind, and a rickety, rough wooden bench that felt like the finest sofa at the Ritz-Carlton. It was surreal that I was even in a place, and doing something where an emergency weather shelter was deemed necessary. As exhausted as I was, the thought was kind of cool.
Moving on, I finally reached the summit where a propellered anemometer for wind speed measurement stood some 40 feet tall. The propeller’s movement was so rapid it sounded eerily like a jack hammer in the middle of nowhere. My thrill at reaching the summit was quickly diminished when I could see the rigorous decline that lie just ahead. At the summit, the Camino gives you about 50 yards of level path before it goes from straight up to straight down.
Just as my legs had spoken clearly to me on the beginning incline a few dozen yards outside St. Jean the day before, they spoke even louder now on the first, necessarily short, careful steps downward. It’s painful in a way that makes you close your eyes and grit your teeth, and it must be endured if you’re to move downward beyond the Pyrenees. With a top-heavy 24 pounds on your back, slippery rocks on a decline make for some bad footing. My stride was no more than six inches much of the way down. The stick was a Godsend.
Downward to Roncesvalles the Camino transitions into a mysteriously beautiful forest. As I continued the descent, the wind progressively subsided, and an even heavier still-hanging fog set in. At this point there’s almost no variation in the trail and so the fear of taking a wrong turn diminishes. Eight hours into the day’s trek now I began feeling weak.
Four o’clock passed, then five, then six. I was hungry and now genuinely concerned the kitchens would close before I could get a meal.
At 6:20 p.m., I approached a gate and passed over a small bridge that led into Roncesvalles – the first sign of civilization I’d seen in a long time. I walked straight in the nearest restaurant for a dinner reservation, checked in at the albergue, washed my face, and went back to eat.
I’d been on my feet an incredible 10 hours that day.
I slept off and on that night, but it just felt good to lie down and be off my feet. There were repeated dreams of scenarios from my life where there was no turning back.
By God’s grace, I’d ascended and descended the Pyrenees mountain range. Maybe I’d earn that pilgrim badge after all.