Our first walking day was the scary one: fifteen miles and 4000 feet elevation gain from St. Jean Pied-de-Port up over the Pyrenees and part-way down again into the tiny village of Roncesvalles. It is one of the traditional starts of the Camino; the path is known as the Route Napolean.
Some of our group knew before they left that they wouldn’t attempt it and others decided on the eve of that day not to walk the whole way, since there were options to be taxied to a point not far from Lepoeder Peak and then to walk a shorter distance. In the end only five of us opted to do the whole distance.
But most of us had been thinking about this day for weeks — for months. We consulted our pilgrims’ guides. We studied the footage of Martin Sheen’s ascent up the mountain in the movie “The Way.” We calculated the grade of the path. Was it really 18%? If so, for how long? How much of the path was paved, and were there rocky parts? Would there still be snow at the top? We talked about it the way children (at least, children of a certain era) talked about sex, trying to piece together details of an irresistable but terrifying mystery we had yet to experience.
I felt I had trained pretty well beforehand, having abandoned running for more walking and hiking in the weeks before the trip. But I hadn’t managed to do the 12-mile training hike I’d intended, let alone a 15-miler. And the thought of hiking for eight or nine hours, the average time required for the Route, was daunting: if nothing else, because of the sheer tedium.
I thought when the day came it would be like road races, where I always arrived at the starting line with butterflies in my stomach. Or like the first time that, at the encouragement (amounting to insistence) of my former husband, I biked one of the classic Tour de France climbs in the Pyrenees, the Col d’Aspin. When I first saw the jagged, rocky peaks looming straight up out of the plain, I felt nauseated with fear.
But the morning of the walk, after all the discussion, training, build-up and anxiety, I felt surprisingly calm. Before our bus left Roncesvalles (we were already installed there and had to drive to the starting point in St. Jean Pied-de-Port) I’d gotten an e-mail from Jim entitled “May the Schwartz be with you.” It was a line from Mel Brooks’ film “Spaceballs” and was of course a spoof of the “Star Wars” line “may the force be with you.”
So was the Schwartz with me on this partly foggy morning?
Chuck was with me. An accomplished hiker, Chuck was in fact with me all the way over the Col de Lepoeder and back to Roncesvalles. We parted ways early on with our three fellow pilgrims, who were taking things a little slower. We drank tea and shared a sandwich fromage at the refuge at Orisson, nine kilometers from the start. We took pictures of cows — blondes Aquitaines — with big, rectangular bells around their necks, of shaggy sheep, of the wild horses on the plateau just below the peak. Chuck gave me occasional tips: lengthen my poles for the steep downhill, tighten my bootlaces, walk backwards uphill for a few yards to take the strain of my quads and Achilles’ tendons — because the uphill for the first seven miles or so was indeed very steep. We talked about this and that, we talked with other pilgrims. We learned — because we almost set off on what would have been a disastrous downhill detour — that a white line crossed with a red meant: “Do not go this way.” (Two horizontal lines, one white and one red, are signs of the Chemin de St. Jacques, as the Camino is called in France.)
My past was with me, because the deep, green valleys, the outcroppings of white-washed farmhouses and then white stones on a grass-carpeted plateau, belonged to a topography I knew and loved, though mine was in the Central Pyrenees. It was similar enough. Now I was revisiting the Pyrenees by way of an ancient pilgrimage route, not on a bicycle but on foot.
The thoughts of friends who know I am on a pilgrimage were with me.
Jim is always with me while we’re both still walking, or maybe some day just sitting, unable to walk. He has helped trace the generous and forgiving boundaries of our life together.
Was He just behind me when my heart was pounding on the rock-encrusted, winding dirt road below Orisson? As my hip joint started to feel as if the top of the bone was rubbing a little too close to the socket? When suddenly we saw a marker on the pavement that showed we’d come half-way? In the intense pink wild hyacinths or tiny, white-and-rose daisies along the side of the chemin? Or along the last three kilometers through the woods, where Chuck and I ran into a retired Canadian who told us about his hiking trips through Turkey and helped pass the final three-quarters of an hour until we finally emerged in Roncesvalles?
I think so. Unless it was Schwartz.