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Postcards Along the Way (Mile 5.1)

Jennifer and I are taking something of a sabbatical this month and walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500+ mile pilgrimage from France, across northern Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, the traditional resting place of St. James. I’m writing a bit about the experience along the way.

29 April (Mile 5.1 / KM 8.35) – Woke at sun-up, around 7am, packed for the day and arrived downstairs to find breakfast waiting. Muesli and fresh bread with butter and jam. Our hosts made us a sandwich to pack for lunch: a pepper and onion omelet in a fresh baguette. A journey of a 1,000 miles may start with a single step, but an omelet sandwich doesn’t hurt.

We set off down the cobbled streets of St. Jean and cleared the town after only a few minutes. What waited for us beyond the town border was a lot of pretty country, and a lot of pain. Now listen: I’ve done a considerable amount of hiking, and most of that hiking involved climbing at least some part of a mountain. Last October, we spent five days on the Appalachian Trail, from Amicalola Falls to Neel Gap, and in those five days we peaked 14 mountains along the way totalling around 10,000 feet of elevation if memory serves. So I’m not new at this. But the five miles from St. Jean to Orisson are the longest steep I’ve ever had to walk. According to my watch, we climbed over 2,100 feet of elevation against only 98 feet of descent. Folks, it was hard. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’m exceedingly happy that we reserved a bed at the Refuge Orisson so we didn’t have to continue on the other 12 miles to Roncesvalles like many folks do. I told Jennifer several times (in order to remind myself) that we are not in a race, and I’m here to enjoy the walk, not to rush to the finish. To be honest though, being passed along the way by a huge group of 30+ tourists hurt me more than the hike. Remember what I said about humility? This is it. Being passed on a hike by an 87-year-old lady who weighs 47 pounds will humble you. Though I suppose passing by my hulking figure of American manhood probably made her day. My pleasure, ma’am. Don’t mind if I do.

As we approached the end of our climb up the Pyrenees mountain range, we ascended into the clouds and the world became no more than the few yards before and behind us. At times we teetered at the edge of the pathway, sensing the great expanse of hills and vales that lay below us, but all we could see of them was a vast white emptiness. One misstep and I could imagine falling into the abyss, nevermore to be seen again (in reality, I’d probably just end up in a hedge, pricked by the gorse and filled with more of that every growing sense of humility).

Respite: I don’t need language to comprehend that. Pete Peterson

But after what seemed like hours and hours of ascent (it wasn’t), a figure emerged into the visible world ahead of us. It was a white-haired woman in a blue coat who was wobbling in a worrisome way and was obviously struggling to put one foot in front of the other. As we passed her (yes indeed, I did pass one white-haired septuagenarian. Thank you, ma’am. Don’t mind if I do), we called out the traditional “Buen Camino!” And she cried unto the heavens “Mon Dieu! Le repit!” (My god! Respite!). We agreed, for she’d shouted the very truth burdened on all our hearts. And lo, a few moments later, out of the cloud emerged the welcome site of the Refuge Orisson. A stout building jutting out of the mountainside with a vast deck of tables and chairs overlooking the valley. At least I assume it overlooked something. As far as we could tell, it merely struck out into nothingness.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a bustling pub where 50 or 60 pilgrims were gathered for their longed-for le repit. Ours came in the form of a cafe con leche (glorious) and the much-dreamt-of omelet sandwich. With a sense of legitimate joy, we greeted Gary and Joan and several others we’d dined with the night before. We all had a sense of “You made it!” More than a sense, I suppose, for we had indeed.

After eating, we were shown to our room (once again with Gary and Joan). Time for a nap. Now I’m back downstairs in the pub with a pint of beer that tastes heavenly. There’s a group of Asian pilgrims to my left. A few French to my right. A smattering of others around the room. I don’t understand what anyone is saying, and I’m okay with that at the moment, because it’s plain that everyone is happy. Respite: I don’t need language to comprehend that.


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