I wiped the foggy window with my jacket sleeve and saw the sign “St-Jean-Pied-de-Port” swinging from the roof edge as the train ground to a halt. I jumped down from the train as gusts of wind yanked at the hood of my anorak. The wind and sleet pummeled my face and plastered my hair against my forehead. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and started to run for the station. I jumped to miss puddles but felt the icy water splashing up against my legs and running into my boots. There was the sound of the train door closing and then Linda and Ian running behind me. We reached the station door together and burst into the empty waiting room. I looked around searching for someone, then finally went over and rang the bell at the main wicket. Eventually a door at the back of the room opened and a woman appeared pulling the door closed behind her. She had a gray cardigan wrapped tightly around her body. I got a brief glimpse of the room, a small radiator and felt a brush of warm air against my face. Her face was expressionless.
“ Messieurs dames. Vous desirez?”
“Oui, Madame,” I replied. “L’Hotel des Ramparts?”
She looked us up and down. “Vous etes pelerins,” she said. “Regardez, c’est par la,” she gestured through the window, turned and left us standing in the middle of the station.
The room felt cold and hostile. We looked at each other. Linda raised an eyebrow; I shrugged. Through the window we saw “Hotel des Ramparts” a ways down the other side of the street. It presented a dismal sight. Someone had turned on the neon sign but several letters were burnt out. The façade was dark and wet, shutters partially closed blocking out the lights in the hotel. The short passageway leading to the main entrance was wet and covered with mud.
“Let’s run for it,” said Ian. The wind, sleet and rain tore at our clothes and we were soaked again in seconds. We crossed the main street and headed for the hotel entrance. The lobby was in darkness. I shook off my rain jacket and wiped my face with the back of my hand. The hotelier stood up as we approached the reception desk. She looked preoccupied.
“You are early,” she said in English. “It is only 11:00. You will have the time to visit the office du tourism and the Centre to get your ‘carte’ for the Camino. I hope the weather improves. They are saying it will clear this evening but it is mid September and anything can happen.” She pulled the registration forms from one of the pigeonholes behind the desk. The small lamp on the counter threw barely enough light to fill out the forms. She took two keys and passed them to Ian. “Everything should be in order. Please let me know if you need something. “ I looked at her and knew that she would never even imagine what I needed. I lived with fear, doubts and such a sense of doing this on my own – in spite of these dear friends.
Ian passed me a key and I picked up my pack. We trudged up to the second floor and found our rooms. “I’ll come over once I’m unpacked,” I said as I opened the door.
The room was dark, lit only by a shaft of light coming through the partially closed shutters. I opened the windows and pushed out the shutters. They rattled and the wind hit me with force. Outside I saw a low, stark white cloud moving against the hillside of autumn brown and yellow. “Looks like snow” I thought as I closed the window and turned on the lights. The guidebooks warned that with snow we might have dense fog. That would mean delaying our start.
The bed took up most of the space in the small room. The springs creaked ominously as I sat down and opened my pack. I pulled out the damp clothes and hung them out along the top of the dresser. It took no time at all. “I’ve hardly anything in this pack,” I thought. “Wonder if it will be enough.” Then I saw the black silk pants and dressy sandals that Joan had told me I must take. I remembered how serious she had been, her blue eyes drilled into me. “You have to treat this walk like a job. You start at the same time each morning, that way you have a ritual; something you can depend upon. You walk all day. In the evening you take a shower; change into your good clothes. Find a table, order a beer and start reading your book. Everyone’ll be fascinated and come over to talk to you.”
“Good plan, Joan,” I thought. “I’ll start tomorrow.” At the very thought my stomach knotted with anxiety. Tomorrow was Day One and the longest day of the Camino. 32 km and 1300 meters elevation. “Don’t think about. You’ve walked that far before,” I reminded myself.
I changed into a dry, long sleeved t-shirt and headed for Linda and Ian’s room. I knocked and heard Linda’s voice. “It’s open, Pat.”
I pushed the door open and saw them sitting on the bed, closely together. Clothes were piled haphazardly on the bed and the dresser. There was such a strong feeling of warmth and intimacy in the room that I felt an immediate, inchoate longing.
“S-sorry,” I stammered. “I’m interrupting”.
“Come on in. You’re not interrupting anything” said Ian. “Just sorting to see who carries what”.
I sat down on the wooden chair. We looked at each other and grinned.
“So this is where it starts,” Ian said.
“What’s the Lao-tse saying?” I asked. “It’s something about “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step?”
“That’s been around for a while, Pat,” said Linda. “Likely a few thousand years! Did you smell coffee too as we came in? That’s where my single step is headed”.
The sound of our boots on the wooden stairs echoed as we reached the main floor. We sat down at a table not far from people dressed in hiking boots and anoraks. Along the opposite wall was a buffet and coffee machine. People were moving back and forth from their tables like automatons. Others were heads down absorbed in reading and made no eye contact. From where we were sitting I recognized the jacket covers of several of the books we had looked at last night. “Fellow travelers,” I whispered to Linda who nodded in agreement.
“What’s on the agenda this afternoon? Ian asked as he pulled a guidebook from his pocket. “I know we have to get our passport, buy makings for lunch tomorrow… Anything else?”
“That’s after we walk around the town, see what it’s like in spite of the weather, have a glass of wine….” I grinned at him. “You’re seriously organizing us, Ian? It won’t work!”
“He’s a scope and sequence kind of guy, Pat,” Linda interrupted. “When we first got together, I was like you – random, spontaneous, you know. But I’ve learned to appreciate it and the other advantage is we don’t argue anymore.” She ran her hand through his hair with deep affection. I saw again the bond between them. How I wished I had something like it.
We walked from the hotel to the ‘office du tourism’ just on the opposite side of the street. When Linda opened the door and we saw it was packed with pilgrims. The air was humid and warm and smelt of wet clothes. The shelves were covered with brochures, maps and books on every aspect of the Camino.
“Nothing we don’t already have,” I said and turned to leave. It was then that I saw the sign “Excess luggage – Roncesvalles shuttle”. “What’s this?” I asked the clerk in French.
“It’s very simple, Madame,” he replied. “Each morning we have a shuttle that takes excess baggage to Roncesvalles for 10 EU. Guaranteed. Many pilgrims use this service. It is a long day and some things can go ahead. It lightens the pack.”
“Linda, Ian,” I called out. “Just look at this! I’m going to send my sleeping bag ahead on the shuttle.”
Ian looked at me, not smiling. “We haven’t even started and you’re already taking short cuts. I thought we were going to walk the whole Camino?”
“It’s only my sleeping bag that is going in the shuttle. I’m still walking,” I retorted, hands on my hips.
“Well, not me. I’m carrying my entire pack. That’s what the Camino is about – and life too.” His eyes were dark and serious.
I turned to Linda who was looking at Ian. “What are you going to do, Linda?” I queried.
She took her eyes off Ian and looked at me. “Not sure. I think I’ll send some things on too.” Ian shrugged and we walked out the decision hanging in the air.
We followed the steep, wet streets to the Centre de Camino where we would get the passports. Each night along the walk, we’d been told, the passports would be stamped by a hotel or refugio so in the end we would have evidence of that we’d walked. We soon found the Centre just off the ancient, narrow main street. A man named François greeted us at the door. He was keeper of the gate for the pilgrims. He was an ordinary man, average height, graying hair, plain clothes, a worn suede jacket. The warmth of his handshake left an imprint on my hand. I told him in French that we were starting the Camino in the morning, just the three of us. He addressed me with ‘tu’ immediately. The shock was physical; I felt it in my chest. The French never use ‘tu’ unless they know the person well. Yet in his soft demeanor it felt so right. I couldn’t take my eyes off of his face. He glowed with happiness; his features were transformed by it.
“ Here are your ‘passports’,” he said, holding them out to us. “Tomorrow morning you will find the Porte d’Espagne in the old town. That’s where the Camino begins”. Then he placed his hands on my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks. “Just find the old gate, begin walking, look out for the ‘flechas’ you know, the yellow arrows and embark on your pilgrimage”. He smiled at us and added, “You do need one more thing. Choose a ‘coquille’ for yourself”.
The large wooden tub was full of the scallop shells, the pilgrims’ badge. I looked at them and let my hand hover slowly above them. I was drawn to one. It lay cupped easily in my hand, its fluted surface catching the light in the centre. The edges were slightly chipped and felt like broken fingernails. I turned the shell over, running my fingers along the outer surface. It still smelled of the sea. Poor little coquille St. Jacques I thought. Plucked from its home to go across the mountains, the meseta, to arrive in Galicia – perhaps to make it even to western Canada! I felt warmth spread in me. This was such a fine start to our adventure. It was good that my French was serving us so well.
We found ourselves back outside in the fine rain. Linda started “Let’s find a bottle of wine, some bread…”
“And thou singing beside me in the wilderness!” I interrupted. Our laughter was warm and spontaneous.
“And,” Linda continued, “something to put on the bread and we’ll go to our room.”
We climbed up to their room carrying a baguette, some cheese and three bottles of wine.
“This is our first hotel picnic,” Linda commented. “There’s no way though that we’ll ever drink that much”. The cork came out of the bottle with a ‘thunk’.
“ So,” said Linda, sitting on the bed, “let’s figure out our goals. That’s what the guide book says to do first.” The bed sagged as Ian leaned back against the pillows. Linda sat on his right. I perched on a chair near the bed.
“I just want to see what its like to walk that far,” he said. “I wonder if I can make it. I wonder how it’ll go.”
“No problems,” I assured him. “It’ll be really simple. First your left foot, and then slightly ahead of it, put your right foot, then the left….”
Linda and I grinned at him.
“Easy for you to make fun,” said Ian. “Just you wait.”
“Well, I want to explore the Camino as a metaphor,” said Linda. “I think that’s what it’s all about. A metaphor for living.”
“Isn’t it just straight living? After all we are living and doing it – not just reflecting on it,” I challenged.
“No,” she insisted. “I see it from my point of view as a student of literature.
Metaphors are important in understanding life. The Camino, walking this long voyage is a metaphor for life. It will guide my thinking”. She pursed her lips and made a note in her journal. “Your turn, Pat”.
“I have three goals: to speak Spanish again, to see a part of Spain I don’t know and to visit the churches in Burgos and Leon which I’ve read are wonderful. Real marvels of architecture.” As I stated my goals I could hear the confidence in my voice; I believed in them. They were succinct, clear and my reasons for coming.
“Is that all?” Ian looked disappointed. “I thought you’d have something else to say”.
“I can feel that there may be something else – but I don’t think I’ll know that until I have finished. I just…” I stammered.
Linda interrupted. “Surely you’re not going to be that vague? Just think of all the projects you’ve planned. The goals you’re talking about are not strategic; they don’t give direction. There’s no bigger picture.”
“Well –I can sense that there are some parts of my life that I am not claiming as my own. I’m not fully resident in them.” I looked down at my wine; I felt my cheeks flush. There was a silence. I twirled my glass, stuck for words.
Linda came over to me and filled up my glass. “That’s just psychobabble,” she said. “Why don’t we talk about the possibility of spirituality and the Camino? Everyone says the experience is spiritual”.
I tasted the strong red wine as it run down my throat. The pungent smell of cheese filled the room. A sudden wind blew the shutters closed and I heard drops of rain on the roof. In my imagination the lights of the town and the distant sounds of people invaded our space. I wanted to just walk away, leave this conversation, be somewhere else.
“Just what we need!” I exclaimed quickly. “More of the bad weather they talk about in the Pyrenees. Do you know sometimes it’s so bad that they can’t even see the peaks? It’s like walking the prairies. So I’m off ! 6:30 will come soon enough. Sleep tight!” I got up, stretched and closed the door behind me. What a relief to be out of the conversation.
I was lost. There were yellow arrows everywhere. They shone; they changed shape; disappeared and reappeared behind me. I could make out an eerie glow in the distance. Then just beyond the path I saw a distorted, unrecognizable form, coming towards me. It made a low moaning, evil sound. It wrapped around my ankles and I couldn’t move. I awoke with a start. The light was coming in along the door jam. I could just make out the chair in the corner. I was sitting up, sweat running between my breasts.
What a terrible nightmare. It had been so vivid. The luminous dial of the alarm clock said three o’clock. I sank back into the pillows. My mouth was dry and I was restless. It was only three o’clock. I groaned and tried to find a comfortable position. The bed was hard and resisted my every move. Four more hours till we leave. Would I ever sleep? I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept poorly. When sleep finally came again it was skinny and uneasy.
I woke up, checked the alarm. It was 6:30 and pitch black. Linda and Ian joined me at 7:00. There was an eerie silence in the restaurant. Several other groups, drinking coffee, were talking softly. Like us, they had backpacks.
We didn’t say much to each other. Our excess was in an orange garbage bag sitting by the door. The taxi would come at 10:00. It looked huge. I wondered anxiously how we would get stuff back into our packs.
We got on the trail quickly. It was 7:30 still dark and very quiet. Some people had left before us. I had seen them leave but now there was no noise, no boots on cobblestones, no voices. It felt as though we were the only ones walking this ancient pilgrimage. I felt chilled to the bone. Likely because of the air is colder high up in the mountains I reminded myself. My stomach was knotted and my breathing shallow. As I looked back I could see some pilgrims still sitting in the warmth of the restaurant enjoying the smell of fresh coffee. I picked up my pace. The pack sat solidly on my back. I could feel the textured cork of the knob of my walking stick as I listened to the rhythm of my boots scrunching sharply on the gravel.
Just ahead of me Ian turned, his face ghostly in the darkness. “We’re here,” he pointed at the signpost. I ran my fingers along the chiseled letters. Santiago de Compostella – 790 km. “This is it.” said Ian, “let’s do it.” I nodded but couldn’t speak.