First things first – Mom, don’t read this post.
When I arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port at the Pilgrim’s Office, one of the items given to me was a map for Day 1. Normally, you have the option of taking a path over the mountain or through the valley to Roncesvalles. However, this Spring has been particularly unusual and it had snowed the night before making the mountain too dangerous. She told me I must take the valley and then she gave me the directions, which called for me to “cross the bridge in town and immediately go RIGHT”. So, naturally, when Jim, Audrey, Franz and I set out the next morning, we “crossed the bridge in town and immediately went LEFT.” Not even 10 minutes into the Camino we had made a careless mistake.
Once we realized our mistake, we were 10km into the 27km day. We mutually agreed to keep moving on – no guts, no glory. Also, there were a handful of other rebels in front of and behind us. As we continued to ascend, we were all really excited about the challenge, the beautiful views and the bragging rights. However, our excitement was short-lived as kept going up and up and up and up. Eventually, it began to rain and the wind was blowing so ferociously that it was hard to walk. After hours of this, Audrey and I jumped into a trench so we could have a little something to eat without swallowing the wind.
After 6 hours, we stopped ascending and the path flattened out. We all laughed and exhaled with relief….that is until we saw the snow on the ground at the Spanish border. Minutes later the fog rolled in. And as if I wasn’t freaked out enough, it started sleeting and then snowing. I just wanted to get to Roncesvalles so, I increased my pace. Stupid move – 20 minutes later, I looked behind me and Audrey, Jim and Franz were gone. Fortunately, there was a group in front of me, so I decided to keep up with them. However, they were too fast and I eventually found myself alone and in my worst case scenario.
In the film, The Way (now streaming on Netflix), this is how the main character’s son dies. He was alone, Day 1, crossing the Pyrenees, it started snowing and he lost the path. I am not experienced in mountain climbing. I did not have mountaineering equipment (poles, boots, etc.). There was fog. I was totally alone and to be completely honest – I was really, really, really freaking scared. There was so much snow and ice that I fell many times. Instead of trying to catch myself I just went straight to my butt. I don’t know if this was smart or not, but I just didn’t want to break my arm or leg trying to catch myself. I kept repeating self affirmations…Stay calm. Don’t freak out. You are strong. Just keep moving. Stay alert and keep looking for the arrows and flags. Damn, I wish I had watched more Man vs. Wild. I thought about writing my name in the snow so the others knew I was okay or to help the search party. My heart was pumping out of my chest.
Then, I heard it…the voice of a German angel, “STACIE, STACIE, STACIE”. It was Franz. I knew I was going to be alright. He was from Bavaria and quite an experienced mountaineer. Plus, he was big enough to carry me if I broke something or passed out from a panic attack (more likely). Eventually, he made his way to me on the trail and gave me one of his hiking poles. I was soaking wet, but warm because I had kept moving. He said Audrey and Jim weren’t too far behind and that we should just keep going. From that point, it still seemed like forever until we reached Roncesvalles. I looked at my watch – we had been hiking for nearly 8 hours. I wanted to cry tears of happiness and relief, but I had no energy left.
We checked in, showered and waited for Audrey and Jim who came in nearly 2 hours later. At dinner that night, the only thing we could talk about was the days traumatic events. After a huge meal, I called Fabien crying. I was really scared and debated hopping on a bus to Barcelona. Laying on the beach drinking sangria sounded a lot better than being alone in the mountains.
Obviously, I continued, but as other pilgrims heard our story, they usually countered with the fact that the day before our mountain crossing, there was a woman who got lost and had yet to be found. Or that the following day, 5 hikers had to be rescued by helicopter.
I will always cherish my Camino experience, but I regret not going right at that bridge. I do not feel a sense of accomplishment for “conquering” the mountain, but more a sense of stupidity for putting myself in such danger. None the less, for this and so many other non-related reasons, I consider myself to be one of the luckiest girls in the world. Also, I’m lucky for my new friend, Franz.