My first day on the Camino Frances started with breakfast at the Albergue Beilari, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The lights had come on early and by 6:30 my fellow pilgrims were seated at the long tables in the dining room, ready to eat and start the day. I sleepily got myself up and dressed, headed downstairs to join them, filling up with a breakfast of muesli, whole-wheat bread, coffee, juice and lots of fruit. Our hosts packed some of us lunches and I took mine back upstairs to put in my pack. I searched my room for any stray belongings, carefully stowing everything away, then returned downstairs and sat down to write postcards and have a second cup of coffee. Most pilgrims were heading out the door already, strapping on their packs and adjusting their poles for the day’s walk, heading towards Roncesvalles, 25 kilometers away, over the top of the Pyrenees, the first stop in Spain.
I lingered, not sure what to do. The day was March 29. It was foggy outside and light rain was predicted for part of the morning. I had read contradictory opinions about how far to go the first day, some saying that given the jet lag, a pilgrim should stay an extra day in town to recover. Others said that perhaps a short day was in order; the village of Valcarlos was halfway to Roncesvalles and some of my companions told me that was their plan as they headed out the door. I was “practicing” not being in a hurry, but I also just didn’t know what to do and envied the certainty that most of them had as they departed. I pulled out my guidebook and looked once again at the first day’s climb over the Pyrenees.
A few minutes later Joseph, the man who ran the albergue, gave me the just the thing I needed. Standing in the kitchen, pouring me a third cup of coffee, he asked me how far I was going that day. I told him that I wasn’t sure, perhaps halfway to Valcarlos, perhaps to Roncesvalles, but I felt conflicted by all the advice. With a calm certainty, he looked me squarely in the eye and said simply, “You can do it,” meaning I could make it to Roncesvalles. I became aware instantly that this was one of the signs—a nudge from God—that I was wanting to be attentive to as I walked the Camino. So, it was decided quite simply: I was heading over the mountains.
I wandered around town for another hour, taking pictures, nosing into shops, buying a pocket knife. Wrapping on my raincoat, I went back to the Beilari and picked up my things, then headed down the narrow street towards the gate leading out of town. I paused to take a selfie and record a brief video as I crossed the swollen River Nive. Looking down I recorded my foot by a scallop shell embedded into the sidewalk. My pilgrimage was beginning. It was 9:30 and I was a full two hours behind most of the other pilgrims.
* * *
Setting out by myself along the road that first morning, sky grey, a cool, light rain falling, my mood darkened slightly. Rather than feeling hopeful and remembering the first sign I had been given, I rather began to wonder what on earth I was doing here, not knowing anyone— a husband, father of six children, grandfather of two, with another one on the way—setting out to walk an 800-kilometer pilgrimage across northern Spain at age 61. A seasoned and frequently solitary traveler, I felt unexpectedly lonely. My wife Jane was eventually going to join me, but that was still over four weeks away. I knew only a bit of French, and not much Spanish. I had dreamed of this moment for two decades, but now that I was here I was having unanticipated doubts. It was Maundy Thursday, Holy Week. I was even missing celebrating Easter with the family at home. Was I doing the right thing?
The wet weather and my indecision about how far I could go that day had given me the late start. The Camino guide books and documentaries frequently depicted happy people walking with companions past ripening vineyards and rich fields of wheat, or through shady-green forests, chatting and laughing in an easy stride on dirt paths, as they take in the gorgeous scenery. Instead of being green, the trees were bare and there was snow in the mountains and for the first few kilometers I was walking alone on asphalt, in the rain. I saw only one other pilgrim in front or behind me and then just barely. Four weeks until I would see my wife.
As I meandered the hilly, quiet lanes, the rain slowed to a drizzle. My pace picked up, my feet and legs felt lively despite jet lag from the day before and the walking poles clicked in rhythm with my steps. I walked like this for an hour and began to turn my mind outward, taking in the scenery around me. While the leaves were not yet out on the trees, the pastures going up into the misty mountains above were a deep green and I noticed beds of begonias and other flowers, newly bloomed. Surrounding me were earthy scents of the damp world awakening after a long winter. I listened to the gushing streams, swollen with the melting snow, song birds and bleating newborn lambs. In spite of the dreary weather and my loneliness, I gradually felt an inner peace and decided that self-pity was not supposed to be part of this adventure. I was where I had wanted to be for so long, and I had all the time in the world. With that, a surprising phrase came to me— “It’s a great day to be alive!” I didn’t know where it came from, but that would stay with me over the next five weeks, even in the coldest, wettest weather or the longest, dullest stretches of road, especially when I was alone. Monotony, cold, heat, boredom, loneliness—they were all occasional parts of the journey; I was on my long-awaited pilgrimage, and they were to be appreciated. That surprising phrase was yet another inner sign to me.
Soon, small patches of blue sky broke open, the sun came out and with it the doubts and the loneliness evaporated like the mists on the mountains. The cool, air now felt crisp and refreshing. I peeled off my raincoat, finding a place against a fence post where I could set down my walking poles and backpack while I stuffed the clothing in. All this walking was generating heat. Maybe this is going to turn out alright after all, I thought to myself. I finally spied pilgrims on the road ahead of me and eventually overtook a few more, saying Buen Camino, the customary pilgrim greeting, as I passed. The road gently climbed as I traced the French and Spanish border through small villages and shopping plazas, their signs greeting me in Spanish, French and Basque. I bought fruit in a supermarket and after completing my first ten kilometers around noon, stopped at a bench to enjoy my sack lunch at an overlook in Valcarlos. There was one more brief rain shower before I left town, so I ducked into a small warm café for a café con leche (two shots of espresso and hot milk) and a pastry while I waited it out. I set my poles against the wall, unshouldered my pack and introduced myself to another man entering, a German pilgrim named Ziggy. We sat and chatted about the walk so far that day; I was glad to be indoors and dry. The caffeine boosted both my energy and spirit.
When the rain passed, I bade Ziggy farewell and commenced my trek along the narrow and climbing highway, squeezing tightly up against the guardrail as tour buses swished past. I was unnerved by the traffic and wondered how soon I could get off the main road.
The French woman in the Pilgrims’ office had warned me quite emphatically to stick to the blacktop roads, the dirt roads being possibly too muddy or snowy, but the close brushes with the tour buses were too much for me. I came to a dirt turnoff leading into the tiny hamlet of Gañecoleta and hesitated, wondering if I should chance it. My map clearly showed that an alternative route went down there, but she had a big “x” over it. Moments after I decided against it, a woman in a small SUV came up the dirt road. Rolling down her window, she pointed back down the road and told me in Spanish that the dirt road was okay—I should take it. I was about to learn my second important lesson of the day about following the signs.
The road led downward into a narrow, rocky ravine and soon I passed the handful of houses that made up Gañecoleta. Dramatic rock outcrops rose a few hundred feet on the left-hand side of the road; a stream was below, on the right. I knew the route would eventually have to go up again and within a few minutes I hit a steep concrete road that I supposed would take me eight kilometers atop the pass over the mountains. I felt surprisingly strong, striding confidently, my hiking poles clicking in rhythm with my steps, as I chugged upward. I was glad for the traction the solid road gave me.
I had gone about 50 meters when I heard a loud whistle behind and below me. I kept going. I heard it again, then twice more, before I turned and looked back and down. Was that whistle for me? Below, next to the last farmhouse, a man was waving his arms and beckoning me back down the hill. “What the…?” I whispered to myself.
I walked all the way back down the concrete road to the bottom of the hill, where I met the whistling farmer. He began to admonish me sharply in Spanish and while I couldn’t get much of what he was saying, what little I couldunderstand—along with his gestures—was clear. I had missed the path. He pointed to a wooden sign post and the yellow arrow pointing to the right, to a narrow path alongside the stream. He then grasped his own head with both hands and pulled it upward—I needed to keep my head up! Yes! I had been walking with my head down, deep in thought, lost in my own interior world, when I had cruised right past the signpost. I understood enough of his message now: on the Camino, you need to keep your head up. Don’t look down, or you’ll miss your way. Pay attention. Just to be sure, he gestured again, tugging his head upward two more times. When he was finished, I nodded in embarrassment and said, “Gracias!” Humiliated, I headed along in the direction of the arrows.
Now I knew there were two kinds of signs to follow on the Camino—the inward signs that we detect in our spirit, and the outward signs painted on posts, bollards, sidewalks, walls, rocks and even on guardrails. Both guide our way, both are easy to miss and both require our attention. I did my best to focus my attention on both from that point onward.
This story is adapted from Russ Eanes’ book The Walk of a Lifetime: 500 Miles on the Camino de Santiago.