Thursday, November 5, 2009


Not the Camino I want-but the Camino I need?

Lots of heavy rain with thunder and lightning during the night. We got to the taxi office early and Madame informed us the weather was "very bad". It seemed she was right as heading up to the rain turned to sleet then sleet to snow. The taxi stopped at the Cruciero and we found ourselves pretty much in a 'white out', our tracks were covered in a few minutes and the snow was blowing horizontally at great speed.
To our surprise there was another vehicle there so we all went over to speak to the driver. It was a basque shepherd who when he'd gone to get his ewes off the hill had come across two pilgrims who'd had to overnight on the mountain (Camino angels come in the most unexpected guises)-they turned out to be the two pilgrims we'd seen the day before heading up late in the evening. Despite both being seasoned hikers from Colorado, with all the gear including a tent, they still seemed pretty shaken by the experience.
The 'good shepherd' said that it was too dangerous to cross and to go by the valley. When a local lad gives advice like that you don't ignore it-well we don't. So we headed down to Arneguy telling everyone we met en route about the conditions at the Cruceiro and, in case a tally was needed on the other side, trying to keep a rough count of the people we saw. It became rather like one of those memory games you play as a kid "female, cowboy hat, German? Couple thin red ponchos, light shoes French. Dark gray jack-rude or maybe hard of hearing Japanese/Korean gentleman?" etc etc.
Then we slogged up the Valley route in rain and sleet and snow which was.....'character building' stuff. But it wasn't the Route Napoleon I had dreamed of completing.....maybe it's true what they say and I'm getting the Camino I need rather than the one I want! (well I'm going to put the RN on my 'to do' list then!)

When I put on my fluorescent green poncho, bought the day before we left and very much a last minute panic purchase, it proved not only to keep the snow out of my pack and jacket but also to keep Frances in fits of laughter- she won't lose me that's for sure. That brought to mind the story of the Black valley farmer who when asked by the Kerry Mountain rescue team for a description of a missing German walkers jacket (a swanky Gortex florescent number) paused and said "Lads ye never saw the like, twas a remarkable colour". I now have a 'ponchoed alter ego' the 'Jolly Green Giant'

Ave peregrinos. Here she is again at Roncevalles- This time welcoming us safe and sound- but the next time I am definitely going to upgrade the red ribbon offering to the Vierge d'Orrison.

Frances in the cloister Roncevalles-"perhaps we will leave it till May the next time Nell?"

Snow falling in the cloister at Roncevalles

and clothes thawing at Ronsevalles

Book in for the pilgrim meal at Hostal La Pousada and spend the next couple of hours writing up journal (actually just dozing by the fire with it falling off my knees every 15 minutes) and trying to keep track of who has 'checked in' against our tally from early this morning. Warming hot ports really get the circulation going again and we chat to other pilgrims as they 'debrief' on their day.
It seems that those who set off later in the morning got better weather, and people were able to cross over the high route from about 11am on as the snow had stopped and visibility cleared. Frances could have pointed out the early start I had agitated for ended up actually scuppering our plans for the RN...but as usual she's both kind and diplomatic. Sitting warm and cosy in the bar I find the contrast with our situation this morning incredible and somehow that seems to makes everything feel, taste and sound better.
At dinner we meet Steve from London, Katherine from Germany, Sebastian from Germany, Emily from South Africa, Sean and Emily from USA (the benighted pilgrims) a lovely New Zealand couple and a young German lad Johannes -in a sense this is our 'graduating class' though only a few of us are planning to go all the way.
The variety of intent and approach around the table is fantastic. Steve only heard about 'this walk' a week or two ago and decided to come, Sebastian has been preparing for it 'for all of his life', Katherine had to choose to either walk the Camino or go to Disney World in Florida (both lifetime 'must do' things for her) and the Camino won out. Some had read and re-read the guides had print outs and maps and knew where they would be and stay on a day to day basis, others were 'going to follow the markings and other pilgrims' and were going to stay 'wherever'. Some had little knowledge of the Way, some were walking encyclopedias, others weren't interested in engaging with the cultural/spiritual aspects so much but focused on the physical attainment side of things-it's really amazing such diversity all directed toward the one goal. There seem to be as many Caminos as there are pilgrims!
As the majority around our table hadn't heard of the Pilgrim Mass we tentatively suggested that they might consider joining us for the service after the meal and quite a few did.
I'm glad as its a very beautiful and moving service especially hearing your countrys name being called out and realising that you are the pilgrim it refers to. Seeing all our faces in a candlelit semicircle receiving the pilgrims blessing- made me a little tearful and I walked out into the darkness feeling both more apprehensive of the days ahead but also somehow stronger and more confident that we could do it.
Head back to the bar and meet up with a German chap we had seen in SJPP, he's is making a documentary on the Camino Frances and is lugging all the gear himself which must weigh a tonne! Emily the South African lassie tells us she had walked up to the gap between Pic de Laiser Atheka and Col de Bentarte with a group of 3 others, including one pilgrim who was an alpine guide, but had decided to turn back at that point and take the valley route. She is fit and determined and takes lots and lots of notes as we are all chatting. Head back get our gear ready for the morning and fall into bed.

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