I can remember the moment I thought about my first Camino blog post. How I would re-tell the story of Day 1. You know DAY 1.
I was standing on the side of a mountain (well, that is, if being doubled over and leaning on my hiking poles counts as standing). I was trying to catch my breath and thinking “I am getting my ass handed to me just a few hours into my first day.” I started to laugh because it reminded me of the movie Wild. All I could hear was the loud sound of my own labored breath and looking out to this incredibly beautiful landscape. I was so dizzy and lightheaded that I wasn’t paying attention. I was just trying to figure out how to take a breath and stand up straight at the same time. Every 10 steps I repeated this process, trying to catch my breath and fight the yellow spots.
Two hours into this 800 km trek and I was seriously doubting that I would make it another hour.
It was April 29, 2015.
I feel like my Camino journey started the day before when I boarded an early train from Paris heading south toward Saint Jean Pied-du-Port. Through a Camino forum, I found another traveler who booked his ticket on the same train. We happen to have the seats across from one another, so we made plans to meetup. I knew that Stephen was a retired adventurer from Alabama and he would be easy to spot in the middle of the busy Paris station. I managed to get turned around in the city that morning and I was running late. I had trouble finding my assigned car with two trains connected end to end. Fearing the train would leave without me, I hopped into the first open car door, carrying two cappuccinos and ran right into another traveler. With coffee flying every direction, I hear a man with wonderfully warm southern accent say “You must be Le-ah!” My first experience with Camino Magic.
So, covered in coffee and laughter, we sat down and spent the next 5 hours talking. I was happy. This part of travelling is square in my wheelhouse – the trains, what was left of the beloved french cappuccino, meeting new people, and gorgeous landscapes. Stephen knew a bit of my story, but I remember feeling thankful that I was getting to hear his story in person. He told me of his marriages and family, about his business, long life of adventures, and his struggles with addiction and subsequent sobriety. When I asked him about the Camino – why now, why this route – I remember the sadness that came over his face. His quiet response: “I thought I was walking to honor my parents. But I realized I need to make peace with my daughter. It’s hard to let her go.” With permission I took his picture and let the moment settle. I listened, he told me their story, and I offered my compassion. I knew there would be many stories like this from pilgrims in the weeks to come, but his was special. He gave me a shell, and I was thankful to be sharing this time with him.
At the station in Bayonne, Stephen and I walked into the main entrance and waited for another pilgrim we connected with on the forum. I remember Stephen asking me how we were going to find her and I told him I have a feeling she will find us. At that moment a very nervous and teary Australian pilgrim walked up and asked if we spoke English. With great relief, she told us a long story of being lost, and getting on the wrong train, and now she is in the wrong city, and she was struggling with people understanding her English, and now she must have missed her ride to Saint Jean, and she didn’t know what to do, and then more tears.
“Are you Jenni?” I responded.
She let out a great cry of joy and laughter. She in fact was exactly where she was meant to be, with the people she was meant to meet. Turns out Jenni and I were staying at the same alburge that night too. She had found her group with the first try and after a lot of frustration and confusion, she could relax and share the burden. She was not alone any longer.
We spent our first night at the Beilari in Saint Jean Pied-du-Port. When I made my reservation, the owners mentioned that if I was unwilling to stay for dinner and participate in the community activities, please stay elsewhere. This was a private alburge, in an old house – an idyllic structure in the midst of an old, idyllic small French (but really Basque) town. After a quick welcome orientation with several others, we were escorted to our rooms. My room had three beds, complete with dark creaky wooden floors and tall windows. I found a blanket and a pillow with my name and a welcome note. It sounds odd but, to see my name in writing, sitting there waiting for me made me feel as if I belonged there. I was in the place I was meant to be.
The evening meal begins with a community gathering. There was a special welcome, a blessing, and then a toast. During the toast, I unexpectedly began to get emotional. This thing, the mammoth undertaking, the Camino, it was really beginning. All the months of planning and training. All the nervousness about the challenging few days ahead of us. This was really happening. This was my most important undertaking in life to date, and here it was. Looking around the room at all of my fellow pilgrims, I felt like I was in community for the first time in a long time, and tears began to fall. We were asked to introduce ourselves and explain why we chose the Camino. So here I am, fighting back ugly tears and I was chosen to go first.
Ha. I am not one to cry a lot. Especially not in a room full of people I don’t know. All I managed to squeak out was “My name is Leah. I am from Dallas, Texas… and I am feeling really emotional. That is all for now.” My tearful laughter was followed by their laughter, and a few cheers. As their hands reached out in support, I knew I had found my people.
After Dinner, we walked across the street to the Pilgrim Office to register and received our credentials. This practice is a right of passage for pilgrims and I wanted the credential only issued in France, so I waited until my arrival. I watched with glee as my pilgrims passport was signed and stamped (stamps are called sellos in Spanish). The passport allows access to alburges and is required to receive a compostella in Santiago. The idea is to receive a sello anywhere you stop along the way – alburges, hotels, restaurants, churches, etc. My first sellos came from the Pilgrim office, and then the Beilari. In the weeks to come, I was proud to produce my Chemin du Saint-Jacques Carnet de Pelerin, signifying my start in St. Jean.
The next morning, after breakfast, Stephen, Jenni, and I walked around St. Jean for more coffee and shopping for some last minute items. They were both spending another night in town before starting the next day. I took my time leaving because I knew I had a short hike and I didn’t want to rush things. I was also enjoying their company and wasn’t too keen to walk on alone.
When it was time to move on, they decided to walk with me for a bit out of town and up the first few hills. After about 30 minutes, we said our good byes and walked separate ways. As I turned around and watched them go, I remember feeling excited, and free, and empowered, but really nervous about what was to come. I let out a nervous exhale and turned back toward the path up the mountain.
About 90 minutes later, there I stood (sort of), legs burning, dizzy, feeling the altitude, and laughing at myself thinking “What the hell am I doing up here?!?” I expected that feeling to come, but not so soon. I must have looked crazy, laughing to myself, red in the face, barely able to stand. I knew this is how a blog post should start, especially if it was going to be my last. I was just hoping this day wasn’t really like Wild and that I was not about to lose my hiking shoes. How the hell would I get down the mountain then? As I started to laugh again, I heard a friendly “Hello there!”
And there stood Ian.