Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncevalles
Having been unnaturally hurtled through the time-space continuum by plane, train, and automobile over the last three days (0-1, 0-2, 0-3), today the pace will slow significantly. Now, “my feet is my only carriage.”
A pilgrimage, done right, is full of learning opportunities. Our first lesson on the Way was what constitutes a good breakfast. When I hear the phrase, “good breakfast,” my mind and body expects fried eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns, biscuits and lots of coffee. In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port albergue terms it means a piece of stale baguette toast, margarine, apricot preserves, and a shot-glass sized cup of coffee. Lesson learned, adapt-improvise-overcome.
We started late by pilgrim standards but there were still a few stragglers along with us on the streets.
A half a mile or so later, we’ve cleared the town and now are on the Napoleon Route, the general’s preferred passage getting his troops in and out of Spain. The guidebook says to take this route only in good weather. I’m not sure how today’s weather rates on the goodness scale, but oh well, if a 19th century army can do it, so can we.
Well out of Saint-Jean, that is to say, too late to go back, things took a turn for the worst. The mist turned into a downpour. The temperatures dropped at least ten degrees (Celsius or Fahrenheit? Yes). And the Route Napoléon transforms from a stroll in the French countryside to a steep ascent into the Pyrenees.
Several kilometers into the day, soaked to the bone and lungs gasping for air, I began to question my irrational decision to begin this journey. I “sat alone and pined and pondered, oh, the chosen roads it had to wander.”
Why did I choose this trip? Why is it so cold in the summertime? How many more kilometers to Roncesvalles? How many kilometers until we start the downhill trek? Will the whole pilgrimage be this hard? Will it ever stop raining? Why am I here? Is there a Taco Truck higher up in the mountains ahead?!?
Three things happened the higher we hiked into the Pyrenees, 1) the heavy rain was replaced by a dense fog, and 2) the dense fog obscured the view of the path ahead. This was a good thing because no longer could I fret over the looming trail in the distance but was forced to worry about the path of the moment. One foot in front of the other.
And the best, 3) as we slogged up to the pinnacle of this trek we had the good fortune to walk with a family from Florida; a dad, mom, and daughter. They were all teachers in the same private school and each year they spent part of their summer vacations hiking different sections of the Camino. The good conversations distracted my weary mind and body and made the slog go by faster.
We finally made it to the Col de Lepoeder, the pinnacle of this trail! It was all downhill and easy from here, right?
When we visited the Pilgrim office in Saint-Jean the night before, the local curmudgeon prophesied that this day would be wet, and as such, we should turn right at the Col de Lepoeder for an easier descent into Roncesvalles. He said the normal descent is treacherous in wet conditions. To follow this veteran pilgrim’s advice would have been the rational thing to do…
We turned left and let me just say the descent was STEEP and SLIPPERY and TREACHEROUS. I cursed the heavens, Napoleon, Roland, Martin Sheen and the Saint himself. I slipped and slid. I questioned the miles to kilometers formula and my very own existence. The descent into Roncesvalles, 4.1 km, was the most brutal part of the day.
Despite the hardship, we made it into Roncevalles wet and exhausted and satisfied at our day’s work. We learned that a dry place to sit and a warm pilgrim meal shared with good people will lift the spirits!
27.1 kilometers down, only 871.9 to go!