Our pilgrimage has officially begun! We woke up at sunrise this morning, drank some coffee and ate some baguette, and headed out the door behind the French proprietor of the guest house we were staying at, a 80-some year old lady who spoke only French, who was urging us forward. We walked to the end of the driveway -- before we realized she was turning her car on, ready to drive is back to the start of the Camino (we were 2 km out of town, and had just been planning on walking.) It seems like an even greater gift now that our tired feet have crossed the Pyrenees and stumbled up to the pilgrim hostel in Roncesvalles, 15 miles and a range of mountains from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Two things that have been not exactly surprising, but surprising nonetheless -- first, how many people are here! Walking on bare open mountain ridges today, there was never a time that we could not see at least five pilgrims or groups in front of us, and the same behind us. Each water stop was crowded, and every time we stopped to take a break at least 10 people passed us. July is the busiest month for the Camino, so it makes sense, but it's still stunning to both of us how many people are here. (What has also been funny today are the numbers of native English speakers, or of groups speaking English in order to establish a common language. We would walk up to a crowded water fountain area, and all around us we heard nothing but English.)
Second, it's funny to find how few people have any religious motives behind this, or even any religious experience to speak of. This makes sense, I suppose, but is surprising on two accounts: one, because it really shows how few people have been exposed to a faith life, and second, because somehow all of these people are walking this pilgrimage walk without having any concept that it has, or ever had, a faith component to it. Our Swedish friend from yesterday, whose real name is Michael, asked us yesterday, "So ... is it still possible to walk this as a pilgrim in a religious way?"
As we were walking along an open, narrow mountain road today, the wind was so loud that we could barely hear anything, including cars coming up behind us -- and by coming up, I mean driving by at 60 MPH three inches from my right hip. As this was happening I started being aware of a muted "AAH" noise from far behind about 30 seconds each time before a car nearly sideswiped me. Turns out this sound was coming from a very eccentric and highly energetic 31-year-old Belgian man whose name we can't remember, and his friend Kevin. They eventually caught up to us, like a gigantic Belgian cyclone of energy! We immediately bonded because just like Rachel and I, awkwardly stuck with identical packs, hats, hair wraps and shorts (we discovered more identical things we separately purchased), they are also outfitted in matching packs, shirts, shorts and hats. They are like our brother pair, as said by many pilgrim groups we passed who have teased us about this.
Crossing the Pyrenees was amazing, beautiful, breath-taking, grueling, long and so hot. We kept going up and up, until finally I thought we couldn't go up anymore -- and then we went up more. And then, suddenly, we descended. Fast. Our Swedish friend, Michael, was with us and two Irish girls beginning this decent. On our map it said "Pelligro - Danger!" next to one (faster) route down, and we read this as being the path to the right. As we began, Irish girls first and Rachel and I behind, Michael turned right at the crossroads and we were all, "Ooh, he's walking the dangerous route!"
We then proceeded to descend the steepest hill, short of a cliff, I have ever experienced. For the entire length of the mountain we plunged straight down, except for one break where some horses with bells stood in a clearing. Then down, down, down ... I was beginning to despair of my toenails reaching the end of this journey with the rest of my body. We were also getting a little worried about Michael, whose path was somehow worse...
... until we bumped into him checking into our albergue (hostel) and he said, "Oh good, you're alive! You all went down the danger way!!!" Mystery solved.
We spent the rest of the afternoon making new friends, doing our laundry in the sink, and sticking our sore feet in an ice cold stream. We ate a delicious "pilgrims meal" in the company of new Australian friends, and attended the pilgrims Mass at 8 PM in the medieval monastery adjacent -- it was wonderful.
To get Wi-Fi (pronounced "wee-fee") I am sitting outside in the middle of the courtyard and it's getting really cold -- to be continued!