(If you have never read “Camino Quest” you might want to read the short introductory page.
As I walked up into the village along the path on the left side of the highway a sign announced: Valcarlos. We should have found Valcarlos at eleven kilometers; Arneguy at eight kilometers. This should be Arneguy. Ten kilometers is about six miles. We could not have walked eleven kilometers already. Did we walk through Arneguy without realizing it?
Our first day: Iris and I hiked all uphill. My legs, my body, and my mind all functioned in a muddle; at least the map reading part of my mind. The worrying part of my mind operated normally.
Iris lives in a village in Georgia whose name I do not wish to recall. I lived in Iris’ barn, in another part of the state. Ten days ago she called me and proposed this spiritual pilgrimage. Spiritual does not describe me. I am a map-reader; and, a worrier.
I earned my first “F” in high school in French. I brought it up to a “B” once I stopped paying immoderate attention to the French movies the teacher enjoyed screening. What if I don’t remember enough French to ask directions to the albergue? I have never stayed in an albergue. I don’t know what the word means. How do I pronounce it? What if it is full? They call it an albergue in Spain. What do they call it here in France?
We were out of food. Did the village have a grocery store? How do I recognize a grocery store? Nothing looked like it should.
My back, my ankles, my knees, and my heart held up well. No heart attack symptoms on your first day is healthy. My right shoulder knifed some pain. That didn’t make sense. I ignored it. I felt tired but acceptable after this first day. Now, if we could find a place to stay or at least a bathroom. How do you say ‘bathroom’ in French?
I asked at the first store I came to: “Albergue? Refugio?” The woman behind the counter pointed to a Café across the street and up the hill.
The Café looked like a bar – wood paneled in light oak, bar stools, well lit. It connected through an open door to a grocery store – not large but with well-stocked shelves. A woman, who expected us came forward with a smile. She did not speak English but the smiling, young bartender took over.
The bartender spoke a little English and gave me directions and the combination to the lock on the albergue. Located in the basement of the school, I looked for the albergue. Iris, exhausted and in pain, remained on the main road.
The bartender’s directions didn’t make sense. I wandered around the two blocks of the town until I found the school exactly where he indicated.
The fourteen pilgrims in the albergue in various stages of unpacking, cleaning, and eating spoke little English. They showed us around and directed us to two bottom bunks next to each other.
The Albergue at Plaza de Santiago accommodated 24 in bunk beds in two rooms. Next to each room, a unisex bathroom with two toilets, two showers, and five sinks, looked like they had recently been cleaned.
Iris suggested I buy some food before the stores closed. Tomorrow was Sunday and the stores may not open.
I enjoy my Sancho Panza mini-adventures alone. I don’t mind making a fool of myself with gestures and bad verbal skills. I returned to the grocery store where we checked in and found some fruit, cheese, yogurt, and nuts – enough for tonight and tomorrow. I bought some soda for Iris. It turned out rather unpleasant – the picture on the soda can did not reflect the taste. Since I did not carry a knife on the plane because of security, I bought a small kitchen knife. We would need it to chop fruit and vegetables for the next thirty days.
Even though the pleasant shopkeeper did not speak English I learned from her that I stood in a shop in Valcarlos, Spain; not France. When did we cross the border? I may have overrated my map skills. I worried needlessly about my high school French. I should worry about my non-existent Spanish.
In the kitchen of the albergue Iris made a salad and yogurt. She also made friends with one of the German women who needed to practice her English. They both tried to operate the clothes washer. It sat unused in the corner of the kitchen. We puzzled over the universal instructions and symbols on the knobs and buttons. The European design came across as, well, foreign.
The guests in the albergue included a group of German pilgrims, some Spanish men who ignored us, and a British father and daughter who offered us tea.
Unsure of what to expect with this many different people in the hostel I worried about sleeping. Unnecessarily. After our first day of walking each of us knew tomorrow’s trail pushed uphill over the Pyrenees. Everyone turned in early.
When we awoke in our hotel in Pamplona we did not know where we would start hiking. St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the traditional beginning for the Camino Frances route of Camino de Santiago.
We did not know how to get to St. Jean. Despite this we both wanted to set off from St. Jean and hike over the Pyrenees. Tradition favored starting from St. Jean. The path would reward us with magnificent scenery and the completion of our first challenge. However, from St. Jean our next five days of arduous hiking would return us here to Pamplona.
The standard method of travel to St. Jean: ride the bus to Roncesvalles and hire a taxi to St. Jean.
We checked the bus schedules to Roncesvalles. A bus schedule should be easily deciphered despite my non-existent Spanish. It consists simply of times and places.
The bus schedule would not yield its secrets. Also, I began to suspected Iris exaggerated her claim to understand, “a little Spanish.”
Incapable of traveling to Roncesvalles by bus the remaining option was taxi. Shirley McLaine traveled this way in her book “The Camino.” She probably did not worry about her budget like I did.
I did not know what to do. Besides the incomprehensible bus schedule and the potential fortune we might pay a taxi, Iris suffered. Heavy sweats plagued her all morning. What appeared to be bug bites flared up. Why not walk to Santiago from here?
We made a decision – start at St. Jean. Travel there by taxi.
We negotiated with a cab driver to take us to St. Jean for 100 Euros. Iris refused to sit in the front seat but leaned forward and attempted to make non-stop small talk with the driver in Spanish. I ignored them and enjoyed the scenery.
The size of these mountains concerned me. Taller and steeper than the Appalachian Mountains, where I had hiked, snow covered the tops of the Pyrenees. Trails meandered near the road and hikers trudged along, all toward Spain. Some of them looked happy. Some did not. All carried enormous packs. All looked tired.
The road twisted and turned, climbing through the mountains.
Iris yelped something and the cab careened to the side of the road.
What happened? Why did we stop? What are you two talking about?
Iris opened the back door and vomited on the side of the road.
The taxi dropped us off at the tourist bureau in St. Jean. It was closed for siesta. Is it called siesta in France? A young man sitting outside on his backpack directed us to the pilgrim headquarters. They would give us a map of the trail section and stamp our credentials. The pilgrim headquarters was closed. We found a modest restaurant and ate a delicious salad for lunch.
I took stock of our situation. Where are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? Should we stay overnight here or set out. How far could we walk if we started now in the early afternoon? Where would we stay the night? Did we budget this lunch? How do you say, “How much do we owe you?” in French?
None of the other pilgrims appeared to have worries. Everyone else looked young and strong and confident. Except Iris. Iris wandered exhausted with inconsistent symptoms; dependent upon me for everything including deciphering this restaurant, what to order, and how to pay for it.
While standing in line at the pilgrim headquarters waiting for our map and credential stamp a group of tall, muscular bicyclists jostled in. Lance Armstrong clones in spandex pushed to the front of the line. They suggested in some foreign language they peddled fast bicycles and couldn’t wait in any slow line. I took offense at this and berated them in a loud voice. If they did not understand my English, at least they would understand my tone of voice. While I yelled I thought, “Is this the spiritual, Camino way?”
The bicyclists ignored me. The officials stamped their passports first and they left. We waited in line.
The officials explained how to leave St. Jean and we set off. At the edge of town a sign pointed to two different paths. Lost already. Which road to take? We knew snow closed the southern route. Yet the yellow arrow for the northern route might indicate either of two different roads. My sense of direction lacks orientation. Iris instinctively knows the right way.
We hiked through Basque country. Caesar pretty much left the area alone. The Moors left the area alone. Charlemagne suffered an ambush here. How have the Basque people maintained their stubborn independence? We might look at the dogs. A mean dog guards every field, the end of every driveway, every crossroad. The dogs stand there, in the cold rain, growling, or barking; or looking pissed off.
Iris climbed the hills with frequent stops to gulp breath. These paths gained elevation gradually. Tomorrow the trail rose sharply.
Iris complained of stomach pains and bowel problems. We stopped repeatedly and adjusted her backpack. In the light rain showers, we didn’t know whether to keep our ponchos on or off. While wearing the ponchos we soaked with sweat. If we hiked in the light rain without the ponchos the clouds would suddenly open up, soaking us.
Rose bushes decorated the rutted roadway. Eagles flew close overhead, and slugs and snails grazed on the path underfoot. The Pyrenees Mountains have enormous slugs – at least four inches long. Chocolate brown in color, half their bodies looked like a non-skid tread.
Iris stopped to move the slugs and snails off the trail so the next hikers would not crush them. We never did see any other hikers. Nobody passed us because we set off at 2:00 in the afternoon by which time, we eventually learned, the normal pilgrims had already finished for the day.
By 7:00 pm we arrived in Valcarlos: five hours to hike eleven kilometers.