When the experts say not to do something, maybe it´s because they know what they´re talking about. There are two routes from St. Jean Pied de Port: the Valcarlos route, which is a trail on the lower part of the mountain, and the Napoleon route which is the more dangerous one that crosses through the Pyrenees mountains via a pass with a steep assent from 650 meters to 1442 meters at Col Lepoeder and then a very steep descent into Roncevalles. The Napoleon route should only be attempted in good weather and only if you are fit.
Also on another note: tradition in the Catholic Church says that if you die on the Camino de Santiago, your soul bypasses Purgatory and goes straight to Heaven. Interesting to note as well, that if one dies on the Camino in Spain, the Spanish government covers the total cost of your funeral and burial.
So, I am alone, and I start off from St. Jean.
Less than one kilometer outside of St. Jean, the climb nearly did me in. I thought: ¨Why am I doing this? I can´t breathe and my legs hurt.¨ I stopped, took another breath and kept moving forward. This was going to be one long walk if I couldn´t even make it outside the city. I noticed behind me a guy and a girl walking very slowly; I paused for some water, and introduced myself. Juna, a physician from South Korea, and Tony a Marist brother from Australia asked me to join them. Of the 25 kilometers to Roncevalles we walked about 9 kilometers to Orisson at 650 meters above sea level. We stopped for lunch, ate on a patio, and planned the remaining part of the day.
Juna left before me because she was a slow walker. I told her I would meet up with her down the road. Tony and I continued to talk while I allowed my feet to continue to breathe. Tony stayed on in Orisson, and after an hour I resumed my walk wishing Tony a Buen Camino.
I was certain I would catch up with Juna, but I did not. At about 14 kilometers into the walk, I crossed the border from France into Spain. It was simply marked by a wire across the path, with white strips of fabric hanging and fluttering in the wind. At Pic de Leizar at 1400 meters altitude, I passed a large stone Cross marking the way forward.
I had heard that storms in the Pyrenees come up very quickly. Within minutes of approaching the stone Cross, the sky turned black, the wind began to blow furiously, and the rain started to fall. I stopped to pull my rain poncho out of my backpack. When I tried to put it on, the wind had other plans. I finally covered most of my body and my backpack, but I had to hold down the poncho from blowing away. I struggled to walk; the wind was so strong, that I was nearly blown over serveral times. I walked against the wind and the pelting rain not know what to do. As I rounded a pass through two hills, I noticed a stone hut on the left. It was very small – about 4 feet high and not quite 3 feet wide. It had an opening and a tiled roof. I made my way to the hut, threw my backpack in, squeezed through the opening and thanked God for the gift of this shelter. I put my poncho on the ground, and I sat with my back to my pack, and my face gazing incredulously through the opening. The rain stomped on the roof, and the wind howled through every crack in the structure. I had thought that I should sleep through the night in the hut, but I wanted to be in Roncevalles before night fall. I waited for at least an hour and a half before the storm passed and the rain stopped. I decided to keep going.
At this point the trail was clear and I had another 11 kilometers to go. The views were spectacular with sheep and horses unfenced at every turn.
I stopped at a juncture to pray at a statue of the Blessed Mother. Again, the views were spectacular.
My legs began to hurt, and it seemed I was walking a lot slower than before. I hoped to get to Roncevalles before dark, but that wasn´t going to happen. I entered a forest that was thick with trees on both sides of me. The light began to fade, and the weather again changed to rain. I put on my poncho which was more manageable as there was no wind. I struggled walking; the rocks were slippery and the trail was serpentine and steep. Before long it was totally dark and I could barely see the trail. I stopped to look for my flashlight, but I could not find it. I tried to use my cell phone app light, but it would not work. I started to get concerned; there were no lights to be seen anywhere, and I was only able to inch my way feeling the stones with my feet.
Suddenly I felt my body tilt forward; I had stepped off the edge of the trail and began to tumble downward through the bushes. I was able to stop myself from falling further down. I sat up, uninjured with only a few scratches on my legs. However, as I fell, my glasses fell as well – off my head. I was not able to find them. I intended to bargain with God, but I decided that I was too tired. I thought: I just want to die; I can´t move forward, and I am totally lost. I had given up. I thought of my parents; I thought of Olyve and all the people I loved. It was over for me, and I was at peace.
Suddenly I looked up to see what I thought was a small glimmer of light. It gave me hope, so I struggled to stand up and climb my way toward the light. I reached the flat of the trail and breathed a sigh of gratitude. The night was no brighter, but I decided to move forward blindly. I noticed that I was not in a panic; in fact I was very peaceful. As I walked a few meters ahead I noticed a light ahead of me. I followed it. It soon appeared again a few meters ahead of me; and I followed it further. As the trailed turned sharply left, I thought I would lose the light thinking it was from some building. But even as I turned, the light was ahead of me. This occured for the next 30 minutes or so – although I had no real sense of time. Finally I reached a flat area; a paved road began to emerge, and then I saw a building up a small incline. It was the Albergue. I was numb; my mind was blank. I only wanted to reach the door hoping to find someone to let me in.
When I reached the portal, the sign posted read that the Albergue closed at 10pm. It was after 10; I could stand no longer and began to remove my backpack. I decided to simply lay out the bedroll on the ground, spread out my sleeping bag, cover myself with my poncho, and fall asleep. Then I heard two people talking. I noticed that another door had opened. I left my backpack and walked towards the two. Both were Italian and surprised to see me. I asked for help. The hospitalerious was asleep, but they were kind enough to lead me to an empty bed on the 2nd floor. It appeared that the Albergue was full. Finally, they lead me to one bunk bed that was empty – a top bunk. They asked the person below if the top bed was free. She looked at me and screamed: ¨Jim, I was so worried about you. I arrived at 8pm, and I thought – I hope Jim stayed in Orisson with Tony.¨ This person was Juna; I was so happy to see her. She began to cry, as I did. We were so happy to see that each was safe.
I went to bed that night thinking that I made it through my first day. 13 hours on the road. It was truly a trial by fire – or rather rain, but I made it. The Aubergue was clean and comfortable. It was a monestary from the 14th century. I passed the night peacefully. The next morning I gather my things, had some bread and cheese with Juna, and we started to walk Stage 2.
What I learned: don´t travel alone, listen to those who are wiser than you and heed their advice; always look for and trust the Light.