“The sky is not my limit…I am.”
― T.F. Hodge, From Within I Rise: Spiritual Triumph Over Death and Conscious Encounters with “The Divine Presence”
After a suprisingly restful night at the albergue in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, I was finally ready to start the Camino. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I set off at daybreak on what I discovered from my Michelin guide was going to be a grueling ascent to the Spanish border and then a steep descent into Roncesvalles, the resting point of the first stage of my adventure.
The trek over the French Pyrenees is approximately 25 kilometers and although there are days on the Camino that exceed this distance, physically, this day is especially punishing and can take up to eight hours to complete.
Because I chose to hike in July, after about 10 a.m., I realized that I had a previously underated adversary- the rising sun. Duh. It is a bit of a blur, but at one point, before reaching the top of the mountain, I found myself pressed against what I can only describe as a ditch with about ten other people trying to find just a smidgen of shade.
Several times throughout the day, I found myself asking, “What the hell am I doing here?” I think I actually hallucinated at one point. But then, I finally arrived at the top of the mountain and I realized what made all the suffering worthwhile.
At first, I saw a flock of sheep. Then, goats. Then, a huge family of horses. They were everywhere! And, I was the only person for what felt like miles. I took a sweaty selfie and admired the view.
At this point, I also noticed a landmark. “La Vierge Du Chemin” or “The Virgin of the Way”. She stands on the mountain and is the first of many, many Virgin Mary statues on the Camino. But, she is especially significant as she seems to be watching over everyone that makes it to the top of the mountain.
I tried to keep my distance from the horse family. They were beautiful and busy grazing. There were babies and mamas and pregnant mamas and the last thing that I wanted to do was to disturb their routine. But, as I wound around the top of the mountain, the family started running in my direction. Running. I froze, then got out my camera and captured a few images as the horses got closer and closer. Magic.
At the very limit of the French border, I came across a family, the first people I had seen in hours, who had driven to the spot to have a picnic. They were sitting near a cross statue that is another stopping point where pilgrims leave prayers and take photos.
The rest of the day, was pretty much downhill. Literally, not figuratively. While I met many people later who complained about the descent into Roncesvalles because of its wear and tear on the knees, I found it refreshing after climbing upwards all day. Most of the climb down is through a Birch forest and notably cooler. I finally felt in a zone after struggling for hours in the heat. Then, miraculously, I found myself at my destination.
Roncesvalles is a little village with a pretty big history full of stories and relics dating back to the defeat of Charlemagne and death of the French commander Roland by the Basque in the Middle Ages. The Basque pride is real and over the following days, I saw a lot of graffiti demanding freedom for the Basque people.
The municipal albergue in Roncesvalles is huge, sleeping around 150 pilgrims per night. Although pretty crowded, I found the amenities surprising: a private locker, electrical outlets, wifi and a young priest bearing wine in Solo cups. What?? Completely unexpected, but after what reminded me of being in labor for eight hours, I wasn’t going to ask too many questions.