I remembered how quickly I had said “yes” to Linda’s invitation. And at each stage in the planning when I could have backed out, wanted to back out, I hadn’t. I just hadn’t been able to escape the call, it had been so strong. Today I imagined the presence of all those pilgrims who like me had felt the fear, taken the first steps, and kept on walking. I peered into the darkness searching for something. God knows what, maybe an affirmation that I wasn’t alone. Suddenly from the deep shadows two forms appeared. “Buen Camino” they toned from deep inside their hoods. I gasped, startled and clutched the walking stick more tightly.
Linda and Ian had already started walking. The outline of their shoulders melded to make one solid form. Linda’s head was tilted back and turned up toward Ian. Part of her profile was a luminescent white, her eyes deep in shadows. When I dropped in behind them I realized that the trail was wide enough to walk abreast. Instinctively I reached out to contact them, then stopped. It was futile. They were moving farther ahead and I knew I couldn’t maintain their pace. The darkness and silence circled around my body. The sense of loneliness deepened.
We continued walking, heading slowly through the thick, resistant night. I looked down trying desperately to see loose stones and to gauge the steepness in the dark. I felt awkward and disjointed. My muscles felt taut and the rub of the zipper pants against my thighs was distracting. The material hissed with each step.
Although the first part of the trail was a gradual climb, it soon changed and became a series of switchbacks. I was panting and I could feel a trickle of sweat down my back. I looked for Linda and Ian but they had gone ahead. We’d agreed about this in Calgary. We’d talked about how we’d manage our different paces. Like all hikers we knew and respected the idea of pace. None of us was willing to change or to ask the other change. All of us finally accepted that because we wouldn’t even try to change our pace, I’d walk alone a lot. Yet on this first morning, loneliness ached in my chest. I so longed to share this time with them.
I focused on my body and how it was responding to the challenge as the path steepened and the footing became more problematic in the darkness. My muscles seemed clumsy and ill coordinated. This was the first stage of finding my rhythm. Slowly the coordination became smoother and a sense of well-being flooded my body. It felt as though my core essence was to walk, to be a person who moves through the landscape on her own power. And the key to that identity was the experience of having my own pace. It was not about speed but rhythm that gave me intense pleasure.
I turned and looked back to see the first rays of the sun shining over the foothills. The morning air curved sensuously around my body, the pack shifted subtly with each step. I am where I should be I thought. This is the beginning of an adventure like no other I have ever tried. I stopped, zipped off my pant legs and began walking again, the air cool on my bare legs. The sense of freedom was exhilarating. In front of me, the early morning sun explored the treetops and deepened the shadows at their base. The night sky had changed from inky blue black to a soft, iridescent lime green. As the clouds turned pink, rays of sunshine spread across the sky, the few stars flickered and went out. I felt warmth on my back and could see the way more clearly.
The path was busy that morning. There were pilgrims walking in twos and threes, some chatting; others folded into deep silence as though meditating. For a while a man walked with me explaining the training program he had followed so that he could walk his best time daily. He was focused on how to do better each day.
“You could just enjoy the Camino, walk at your pace, smell the roses and talk with other pilgrims. Why not?” I asked tentatively. “For centuries pilgrims have walked, ridden, covered the distance. Everyone says that it’s a beautiful pilgrimage to be involved with.”
He looked at me eyebrows raised. “I can’t imagine how dull that would be.” he replied. “If that was what I wanted I would have walked in the Yorkshire dales where I live.“ He picked up his pace and soon left me far behind.
So this is how the days will go I reasoned. I’ll spend some time with Linda and Ian, some with strangers, some alone – perhaps, mainly alone. I looked again for Linda and Ian but couldn’t see them.
The countryside changed gradually from rolling hills to higher mountains. There were cows grazing in the grassy meadows, ponies tethered on the sides of hills and sheep followed by shepherds and their dogs. At the pass I found Linda and Ian again. I hugged them in the sheer pleasure of just seeing them so far from Calgary. A large wrought iron marked the summit for pilgrims. Beside it was a small shrine with a cross. On the ground around the cross were pieces of paper held down by rocks. There were small packages tied to the single rail fence around the shrine. “Those are prayers from pilgrims”, Linda explained. “I was talking to a guy who is walking the Camino for the second time. He explained it to me.”
I looked at the bright colored paper. “It reminds me of the medicine wheels on the prairies”, I said. “Around those wheels are also bundles for the gods, prayers in envelopes and stones brought from far away. As offerings, I guess”.
We stood silently. The mountain wind was strong, uplifting and cool. The sky was full of puff clouds and the sun was warm. Hawks circled lazily above us. I pulled an apple out of my pack and munched on it. The juice ran down my throat – sweet and cool. There had been no inns or stops on the morning’s walk.
“Pat”, Linda called out, “come on over here.” I walked over towards the edge of the hill where Linda, camera in hand, was reading out loud. “The Virgin of Orisson is just to our left. The guide book says we should see her.” I followed her reluctantly.
“This is just the first of so many statues of virgins. We’ll see more than enough.” I said to Ian. He grinned and nodded. But when I got there I saw a statue of a fragile, very young mother cradling her son. Her face was turned down towards him in loving adoration. It’s the age-old story I thought. The miracle of birth and the unconditional love of a mother caught here by some unknown sculptor and left on a wind and snow swept hillside. I looked around at the peaks and valleys. They would have chosen this spot because it’s the highest – closest to God and visible to all travelers.
We moved off together talking about the Pyrenees, their color and their beauty. I looked around admiring them but felt suddenly awkward and a foreigner. The Rockies were my landscape; I had explored them on foot, on horseback and on skis. I knew them intimately through all the seasons. As I thought of them I could smell the air and see the evergreens, defiant wedges of black, against the back drop of moraine slopes and the first snow-laden clouds.
I was soon walking again on my own. Linda and Ian were walking ahead of me talking with other pilgrims. Occasionally there were bursts of laughter. This would be our pattern. I found myself thinking of the way we met up in Heathrow. We had timed our arrivals close together. I had been a long way from feeling confident that we’d find each other even though Linda had reassured me. My stomach had knotted as I walked into the packed customs area. What if I couldn’t find their friend’s apartment? How would I manage? I was watching the carousel for my backpack when I heard Ian’s voice. “You look like you’re going on a pilgrimage,” he intoned, arms outstretched. “Shall we travel together? Have we met in a previous life?”
I had turned and hugged them both. “ I’ve been thinking about how much longer the Camino would be on my own,” I had said. I smiled at the memory and the longing to share at least this first day with them surged in my chest. Be reasonable I chided myself. Over the next 30 days or so we would live together, develop new understandings of friendship, time and space. Not one of us had ever walked 800 km. It had to have a reality of its own.
The sun was higher in the sky and the pack poked at my back. I felt thankful for the cool, big wind that made the day so enjoyable. It smelled of pine trees, civilization and far away places. I leaned on my walking stick and was conscious of my lungs pulling deep. The path had become rocky and steeper. My backs of my legs were aching; a constant reminder of the effort climbing took. I could feel the rhythm as my legs swung back and forth. I threw my head back. The sky had wispy clouds, the presence of the wind and immense pale blue void. No birds. I reveled in the physicality of the walk; the feeling of my clothes, the trickle of perspiration between my breasts, the strain on my leg muscles, the sound of my breath as I panted, the sun in my eyes. I thought again about my decision to come on this walk and how it had come unbidden. Perhaps it came from my body and the deep, unspoken joy I felt in meeting physical challenges like this. Yes, I felt that in some sense my body had made this decision, recognizing its needs, knowing it would feel like this.
From a distance I could see a wooden fence at the top of the ridge I was following. It was made of hewn logs and as I came closer I could see their rough surfaces dried and sun burnt. They were woven in a clumsy zigzag with dense bracken growing between them and along the fence line. I stopped mesmerized by the form and color. My boots crunched in it and the air was filled with its fragrance and the dry, sere smell of autumn. I ran my hand along the twisted top board. The surface was crisscrossed with gouges and deep lines. It rasped against my fingers as I caressed it. I stretched my hand along the top and wrapped my fingers around it. It was so thick. The trees that had gone into making the fence had been giants, the products of time and the sky above them. We stood silently together, the fence and I, held in the moment.
“Buen Camino” a man’s voice called out. The moment was broken. I turned quickly, embarrassed at being caught and called back “Buen Camino”. I hurried back to the path. “Do you often check out fences?” he asked jokingly. He came up to me with great energy, swinging his walking staff, not breaking his stride.
“Nope”, I replied. “But they caught my attention. I wonder how long they’ve been there.”
He eyed the fence. “Well, about 70 maybe 80 years. They built their fences to last”. We both fell silent.
“Well, I’m off – maybe I’ll see you again somewhere.” He lifted his hand and grinned at me. I watched him head down the trail. A man in a hurry I thought. He was soon out of sight. There was no one on the trail ahead of me; I was walking on my own again.
I looked back down the trail. The village of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port was no longer in sight. From somewhere came the deep and melancholic sound of bells chiming. They reminded me of Francois and the warmth of his embrace as he welcomed us into the legions of pilgrims who had walked the Camino.
I thought about what I had read in the guide book about how it had been the Celts who first walked the path all the way to Finisterre, on the Atlantic coast. They had wanted to see the sun set in the ocean and miraculously rise again during the darkest point of the winter solstice. Then came the Roman armies and the Christians. For each individual and each group, there was a calling, a quest. It could not be ignored or denied. So they left their homes, security and followed the path that lead to danger, possible death and salvation. Like each of us, they had their reason and their goals. In that sense, nothing had changed I thought to myself. We would live those experiences too.
It was early afternoon as I came across a steep meadow of grass, lush and green in the sunlight. In the middle of it stood several mountain ponies, knee deep in the greenery. They raised their heads to stare at me, their jaws rotating, their gaze speculative. I called out to them “So, my beauties, good food today, eh?” One of them wagged his ears and lowered his head. Nothing was visible but his ears. I whistled as I would with my own horses. No reaction. Even my whistle is foreign I thought. I tried again and called out to them. Their bells bonged with the rhythm of their movements and echoed against a nearby mountain. I had stopped, leaning on my walking stick. I heard laughter and looked up the slope. Not far from me part way up the slope sat two women. I could just make out the cadence of their voices and the occasional word. They grinned and waved to me. I was sure they were québécoises.
“Salut”. I call out.
“Salut, toi” came back the answer. “Don’t you know these horses don’t speak English?” They pronounced it as ‘h-English’?
“What part of Quebec are you from?”
“We’re not from Quebec” came the reply. “We’re acadiennes.”
They got up and made their way slowly down towards me following a horse path through the bracken.
“I’m Chantal,” said the taller of the two. “I’m from Moncton, Nouveau Brunswick. And my friend here is Agnes. She lives in Quebec city now.”
“And I’m from Alberta – I’m an Anglophone, bilingual and Western Canadian. We represent Canada, right?” We laughed in agreement and turned back to follow the path.
“You are interested in the francophonie, so I will give you a little test – ok?” Chantal was grinning with anticipation. Her dark eyes sparkled. “Do you know that this is the 400th year celebration of acadien settlement in North America?”
I felt my face turn red. “No, in fact I hadn’t paid attention to that.”
“So that’s the kind of bilingual Canadian you are – limited in your vision of our country?” She looked at me, not smiling.
“Try educating me” I pleaded. “I’m a good learner and I know a fair amount about l’Acadie and the Diaspora”.
“Well, said Chantal, “I was the head of the organizing committee for the last four years as we built up to the final preparations for this past summer. I’ve been traveling across the Maritimes and Quebec – even been out to the west a few times to do interviews, bring more publicity. And of course down to la Louisianne. There are so many connections still alive today. Especially in the family names. They link all of us acadiens to our home and our heritage.” She didn’t sound much like other Acadians I knew.
“Where is your accent from?” I asked curiosity getting the better of me. Chantal turned to look at me.
“I was born in Saskatchewan, I grew up in southern Alberta. Then my parents moved to Montreal. When I was just 12 we lived in Algeria for five years. I did my degrees in Paris when my father’s company moved him again. So my accent is really mid Atlantic.” Her voice was soft and her life story was unique.
“And you can hear in mine that I have spent some time in Quebec as well as in France but mostly in Alberta?” We both laughed. I felt a surge of warmth in my chest. “You know, when I think of my accent, really any accent, I think of identity”. I said. “Without our accents we would be missing part of our passport. But what I would like to know is how did you decide to walk the Camino?”
“I have always wanted to – for as long as I can remember. But I began planning it last year. I’ve been walking each day to get fit. Ronald, my husband, was not interested. He has his work which is very important to him.” I looked over at her. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead. There was a lull in our conversation.
“I convinced Agnes to come with me. As you see we walk at very different paces.” Agnes had fallen behind us. I realized with surprise that she walked slower than I did.
“Agnes and I have something in common” I said. “We both walk slower than our companions. Last night, we, that is Linda, Ian and I, had a bottle of wine and some cheese in their room. We talked again about my slow pace and I told them not to worry about me alone behind them. We’d just arrange where to meet in the evening. They still held out hope that we’d walk together. Today is day one and already that’s not happening.” I gestured to the empty path.
“Agnes will leave the Camino in a few days and go back home. Then I will continue to the end by myself. I love walking this old Camino,” she added. It sounded like a personal reminder. The silence stretched out between us.
I hesitated then asked, “Do you feel a religious pull?”
Chantal chuckled. “Not much religion in me or in my family. We are too free spirited to kowtow to a priest and a church. No, for me it is just something I wanted to do – badly. And this seems to be the perfect time. I have finished my work. I don’t have another job. No one is depending on me to be there. My children are at University.” I saw her smile became radiant. “I have no responsibilities, no expectations but to enjoy each moment as it comes. To let myself walk, stop, smell the roses…” she gestured to the landscape and the clouds above us. “This is a perfect time in my life. I want to get to know more about myself at a rhythm which suits me.” She laughed and whirled around to Agnes. “Come on, Agnes!” she shouted. “ Its time to celebrate!”
Then to me, she continued, “This is just like being a kid and walking out across the prairies. When I was growing up in Moose Jaw, we spent whole days out on the prairie once school finished. No worries, no cares, no sense of time passing. That’s me again.” I nodded to her and smiled. I knew the smell and the heat of a Saskatchewan summer.
I lost track of them that afternoon when we bumped into some other francophones. I never saw Agnes again.
The day grew hotter. I left the trail and headed for a shady spot and a flat boulder I could see in the grass. I took off my pack and sat on the warm rock. I tipped my water bottle and found the water cool and refreshing. I wiped my mouth on my hand, screwed the cap back on the bottle and laid back on the rock, folding my shirt under my head.
A spiraling hawk caught my eye. He was following invisible pathways in the blue, head swiveling from left to right. His cry was shrill and pierced the silence. He swung to the right, soared higher till I could no longer make him out. I sighed deeply and shut my eyes. The warmth of the orange light inside my eyelids mesmerized me. There was the lazy buzz of bees nearby in the bracken. I could feel myself falling asleep so I sat up. There were two hawks now catching up drafts. I checked the time and stood up slowly, putting the water bottle in my pack then swinging it up, I heard the sound of the scallop shell scraping against it. Suddenly one of the hawks plummeted town to the ground, his speed controlled, his wings snapped out at the last minute as he grabbed a small animal. I saw him fight to gain altitude and then he was off, winging his way to the west
It was late afternoon when I caught my first glimpse of the bell tower of the monastery at Roncesvalles. As I got closer I saw Linda and Ian at a small table, three beers in tall glasses in front of them. “This one’s for you, Pat,” said Ian. “I didn’t think you’d fuss about the brand”. The sharp tang of the beer and its coldness sliding down my throat. This was how I had imagined the day would end.
“The perfect ending”, I said lifting my glass to them. “Salud, y pesetas y amor”.
“So what did you think, Pat – that was our hardest day according to the book” Ian looked relaxed.
“It was just another day of mountain hiking,” I said with some relief. “The elevation gain – those 1300 meters didn’t all happen on one ridge – so it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated this morning. Maybe we should just chuck the guide book.”
Ian clasped it to him. “You can’t do that,” he said half serious, “How will we know where to go?”
“Dead easy”, I replied. “We are walking west to the Atlantic so the sun is always on our back; there are huge yellow flechas – arrows – to mark the path. And also everyone we met today called out “Buen Camino” so they’re fellow travelers and bound to help us. And the book does set up false expectations.”
“Easy for you to say”, Linda piped up. “After all you speak Spanish. Just think of our international language without words. Ian and I could always use our French but then…” she let it trail off.
There was a lull in the conversation as we sat in the sun. I undid my boots and groaned with both pain and pleasure. Ian motioned to a waiter for a second round of beer. Linda sat leaning back, her chair balanced, eyes closed and her face turned up. Behind us the stones of the cathedral were softened by the rays of the late afternoon sun. The waiter approached with his tray of beer. Ian reached into his pocket at the same time I did.
“This one’s mine, Ian” I said firmly, sorting my change.
“No, the next one is yours” he said handing a bill to the waiter. “Are our rooms ready?” he asked. The waiter looked nonplussed. Ian looked at me.
“Estan listas las camas, senior?” I asked.
“Si. Si, Senora” he replied. “Por dios, usted habla espagnol.” I smiled at him and at Ian who was popping the lid off the beer.
“Ian shows the signs of a misspent youth, Pat,” said Linda lazily squinting at me through one eye.
“Now for the serious business”, said Ian. “We have to look at tomorrow and decide how far to walk.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “Why don’t we go visit the cathedral, hear mass being sung and get our first blessing as pilgrims. We have a few minutes before it starts.” I suggested.
Linda’s chair hit the ground. “Sounds good to me” she said. “Come on Ian, leave your planning till later.”
We walked into a twelfth century church filled with light from the stained glass windows. Other pilgrims came in behind us, stopped to kneel and crossed themselves before finding a place to sit. The chant of the monks resonated in the nave, deep strong voices of men singing with conviction of their beliefs. Their red robes underlined their timeless presence. I was mesmerized by the voices, the colors and the fragrance of incense. I had often sat in Catholic churches and had been deeply moved by the sound of Gregorian chant. Yet this evening, in the context of this church, it took on new meaning. In the corners and shadows of the church I could imagine and almost see hosts of people. Their clothes were from centuries past but the shells on their hats marked them as pilgrims walking on the trail to Santiago. I could pick out wounded men in army dress whom Roland had likely led into the fatal battle against the Basques. The legend told that on dark nights the sound of his horn was still heard in the valley. I could see them in my mind’s eye, a pageant of people who had passed by here, who had lived and died in this place. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself. It was ages old, this Camino, and to be on it was to be in touch with its past, its present. So many others had lived and breathed it and so I sensed would we.
We left shortly after the blessing for pilgrims and went to Casa Sabina where we were to have our first pilgrims’ menu. The tables were long and lined by wooden benches. The group was large, at least 50 people. There was energy in the hollow room where the noise of voices, plates and cutlery, different languages reminded me of going to camp. The meal was simple fare as befitted pilgrims. It began with soup made of faded vegetables that had long since lost their flavor. Then followed the pasta and, in a chipped bowl, a tomato sauce with a meager number of meatballs. Baskets of bread lined the centre of the table. The service was simple, women from the town I thought as I observed their plain clothes. But the carafes of wine soon warmed the conversations.
Not long after the meal was over, I was rubbing at my eyes that were grainy with fatigue. It was hard to focus and my head seemed too heavy. At that point another pilgrim came over and offered me a taste of a liqueur he said was made from blackberries. It went down my throat with burning haste. I spluttered “What in heavens’ name is that?”
“That’s Patxarran. It’s local. Made in Navarre ” he replied, looking amused.
I looked over at Linda and Ian.
“Well, that‘s finished me off” I said bravely. “What time are we meeting in the morning?”
Linda set her jaw and said, “We need to leave earlier. Let’s be on the trail by 7:00. The heat was bad today and tomorrow they tell me it will be worse – 38+C. “
Ian and I looked at her.
“What was wrong with today?” I asked. “We got here in good time”.
Linda said nothing but looked at Ian and raised her eyebrows.
“Aw, I don’t like early mornings, Linda, as you know” his voice pleaded. “Let’s be on the trail by 8:00.”
“Good” I said quickly. “That’s settled.”
Linda had the good grace to join in the laughter and we started to leave the dining hall.
Suddenly we heard someone calling “Hey, you from Victoria? So are we!” We stopped, turned and saw a tall heavyset man with white hair and a beard walking hand in hand with a short, gray haired woman. “I’m John and this is my wife, Eleanor. I saw your jacket” he gestured to Ian’s navy hoodie. “We’re from Victoria, too. Australia.”
“I think it’s a different Victoria,” said Ian. “We’re from Victoria, a city in Canada. I think you’re from Victoria, a state in Australia. This is my wife, Linda and our friend, Pat.”
“Too right, mate,” said John. “Big difference but we’re all doing the Camino though.” I looked at the two couples. There was a palpable affinity between them. Linda and Eleanor had started talking about how they had gotten in shape for the walk, the two men were moving back to the bar.
I said good night to them and walked up the stairs to my room. I washed slowly at the sink by the bed, looking in the mirror, which reflected back to me a white, tired face. I hope I’ll sleep tonight I thought. Last night had been fraught with such anxiety and nightmares. I shivered. Where had they come from? Suddenly I realized that they had lurked in my thoughts all day. First day nerves I thought. I’m so tired I’ll do better tonight.