Day 1 on the Camino

First things first – Mom, don’t read this post.

Said bridge of destiny…

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.

Smiling…before the climb

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.

Ascending the Pyrenees.

You can see the bad weather rolling in…sigh

The famous Mary statue. The Mother of Jesus, there to protect pilgrims from Mother Nature.

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.

The last picture I took that day.

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.

Franz & I starting out Day 2

Why I’m Kicking Italy to the Curb

I couldn’t get motivated to plan my Spring Break trip to Italy. The thought of figuring out train schedules, flights, hostels, sights, etc. all made me want to take a big nap.  “What’s wrong with me? It’s Italy for God sake!”

So, I started thinking maybe this was a sign that I’m not suppose to go to Italy.   Then an idea popped in my head – “El Camino de Santiago de Compostela”. The moment it entered my brain, it would not leave and kept giving me those wanderlust butterflies.  Within a few hours I was online googling and sending a text message to my friend, Holly, who has experienced “El Camino” twice. Within a couple more hours, I was obsessed and had already looked up train schedules, maps, books, weather and rented the movie, The Way. Italy, who?

I know what your asking yourself – What the heck is “El Camino de Santiago de Compostela”?
The “El Camino de Santiago de Compostela” (known in English as “the Way of St. James” or in French as “le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle”) is a group of paths, throughout Europe that people (pilgrims) have been walking for thousands of years.  These paths all lead to the amazingly beautiful cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain which is dedicated to the Apostle James. The path I will be taking is conveniently called “The French Way” and starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, 800km (500 miles) east of Santiago de Compostela.  This particular path is also said to be the most important Christian pilgrimage in the Western world.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Who is St. James, anyway?
You know, it’s hard to say. Every website I found had information that didn’t match the previous. So, here’s what is consistent:

  • He was a BFF’s of Jesus and one of his first apostles.
  • James is the patron Saint of Spain, so, of course, the Spaniards adore him.
  • He was a pretty good fisherman.
  • JC himself gave St. James and his brother, John, (also an Apostle) the nickname, “Sons of Thunder”, because of their “fiery tempers”.
  • James was the first martyr in the name of Jesus. After his death his body was sent to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. There is a rumor that the body never made it, but, nonetheless, the city has a shrine (the cathedral) dedicated to him.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “Stacie, who are you kidding? A religious pilgrimage? You? Seriously?”
I know, I know, I know, let me explain.  The “El Camino” is not just for the religious.  Along the way, I will meet people who are walking for a variety of reasons, purposes, goals, causes and probably some people who are doing it because they feel like it.  The only requirement for the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a purpose.

So, really, what does this mean?

The French Way

Each day, I plan to walk, approximately a half marathon, more or less, through the mountains, farmlands and villages of Northern Spain. Unfortunately, it normally takes about a month to complete the entire path and I only have 15 days to spare. So, I will start in St. Jean Pied de Port with a goal of making it to Burgos, which is a little more than 1/3 of the way.   At some point in my life, I would like to return to Burgos and finish in Santiago de Compostela, but we’ll see.  Remember the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.”

I will follow the shells throughout Spain.

I will carry my clothes, sleeping gear, toiletries, etc. in my backpack (weighing no more than 14lbs). In St. Jean Pied de Port, I will be given a “Pilgrim Passport” which allows me to sleep, eat and shower in the (mostly Church run) pilgrim only hostels. The path is indicated by little arrows and shells throughout the Spanish countryside.  I know.  This might be the smartest, coolest and/or stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

Note to Mom: I’ll have a cell phone for emergency purposes and also plan to update this blog along the way (internet connection permitting).

And most important, the purpose
I’m not sure when I’ll have the opportunity for something like this in the near future. A voyage like the “El Camino” seems (nearly) impossible with a job and kids. So, I’m taking this last opportunity to be a bit of a free spirit, unplanned, adventurous and to hopefully satisfy (or tame) those little wanderlust butterflies that are constantly floating around in my tummy.

And for your viewing pleasure, here is the trailer to the film, The Way, which takes place on the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

A final note to Mom: Don’t pay any attention to that part about the kid dying. They did that for dramatic effect.