Upon arriving in St. Jean de-Pied-de-Port to begin the Camino Frances, I met a woman who relayed a story about her taxi driver on the way into town. In short, he explained to her “the magic” of the Camino, that simply, because of what he referred to as the “magnetic energy field” in the area in combination with the Milky Way above, Pilgrims walking “The Strange Road to Santiago” would witness or experience magical events.
I have only spent four days on the trail as of yet but I have to say, I am already a believer.
Heading off on my first day on The Way, my fellow pilgrims and I were met with torrential downpours and I immediately started having doubts about not purchasing walking poles as the ground was sure to be muddy and I knew from others that there were many steep downhill parts that could get pretty treacherous for even the most avid hiker (which is not me).
Noticing the day before that the price for walking poles in town was cheaper than the ones I bought in the U.S. (before returning them to the store, thinking that T.S.A. would never let me carry them on the plane), I set off around 8am to begrudgingly make my purchase before heading up the mountain to my first over-night stop at the Refuge Orisson albergue. As I had feared, the store wasn’t open yet and wouldn’t be open until 10am and I was beginning to regret not buying them the day before.
Being the woo-woo person that I am, I decided to head to the coffee shop across the street to consult my tarot cards on whether to wait to buy the poles or to just start walking. When I went in, I spotted an American couple finishing their coffee at a communal table and had the feeling I should sit next to them.
We exchanged greetings and, as is the custom when traveling, the first question that came up was “Where are you from?”
“Colorado, ” I replied.
“Oh! Us too, Colorado and Nevada. First time on the Camino?”
“Yes,” I said, “And you?”
“This will be my third, and she and I did the Norte for our honey-moon a couple years ago.”
“Awesome, well I was just about to ask my tarot cards whether or not I should buy hiking poles for this trip, any advice?”
“Yeah,” the woman piped up, “my first piece of advice is stop consulting tarot cards!”
I laughed, and so did they.
“Ahh,” I said, “but the tarot cards led me to you. No, but for real, poles or no poles?”
As it turns out, they had successfully completed all of their long hikes throughout their many adventures, never once using “sticks”.
Satisfied with their answer, and not really wanting to wait another hour and half for the store to open, I set off to Refuge Orisson, eventually reuniting with the couple on the steep ascent to the same albergue (hostel) where they and about 40 others would be staying for the night.
We arrived in Orrison a few hours later without peril, as it is hard to hurt yourself hiking when huffing and puffing uphill at a snail’s pace. After a quick lunch of soup, a leftover banquette from the my morning’s breakfast, and a beer, the sun finally made its appearance for the day and I spent a lovely afternoon sipping wine and chatting with various pilgrims on the deck, enjoying the gorgeous view of the mountains and valleys below.
At some point, I noticed a woman sitting on the other side of the table pull out a bottle of wine from her backpack.
“Smart lady,” I said to her. “I just overpaid for mine at the bar.” (Side note: If you end up making this trip yourself, make sure to pre-book at Orisson as it is a pretty excruciating first day to attempt the entirety of the leg to Roncevalles as there is a lot of elevation to manage, up and down; and second, heed the example of this “smart lady” and tote your own booze and food as Orisson is quite more expensive than any other albergue you’ll encounter on the Camino.)
We got to talking and she explains that this is first solo trip in 64 years and that while she has faith that she will be okay, her daughter is a little concerned. As it is my first solo trip (in 38 years), we chatted about the pros of traveling solo (as there are many) and had a few laughs and finally got around to introducing ourselves.
“What’s your name?” She asks me.
“Your kidding, that’s my husband’s name (with a y).”
“Haha, no way!”
“Of course it is,” and I explain that ever since my grandmother died (also Mary), I have felt she has been sending Mary(s) to look after me.
She decides that it would be funny to take a photo with me so she can send it to her daughter to reassure her that “Mum” is fine and she’s found her new “Kym” to look after her.
But it turns out that it is Mary that ends up looking after me…
The next day I head with the couple from Colorado for most of the day but we end up splitting up at the fork before the descent into Roncevalles (side note: the trail to the right at col de Lepoeder, although a tad longer, is easier on the knees). Ending their day in Roncesvalles, they went right, and me, heading farther down the trail to the town of Espinal, I went left. It was the first time during the walk that I found myself completely alone in the woods, seeing only four other pilgrims on the way (the perk of not staying at the main stops).
Heading down the mountain, I begin to understand the benefit of having the walking sticks, as the trail becomes uncomfortably steep and, as it had rained for the last two few days, its very muddy. I try to stay mindful with each step but after 12 miles of walking, the brain tends to wander.
Just as I heard the bells of the cathedral in Roncevalles, seeing the fence that separates the trail from the road ahead, my left foot slips, shooting my left leg diagonally across my body in front of me. Luckily I catch myself as I’m sure that would have been the end of my MCL or my ACL (or whatever). Two minutes later it happens again and I’m glad no one is around to hear me taking the “lord’s name in vain” so close to the church ahead.
As I emerge from the woods to the paved road ahead, the weather turns stormy once more (rainy this time of year) and I decide to power on to Espinal rather than stopping for a beer in Roncesvalles as was my original plan. The trail is much easier from that point on and is flat for the most part. My mind wanders again to the events of the day and I remember Mary and think to myself that maybe I should write my next blog post about my grandmother.
I cross a few streams and I find myself longing to stop to put my feet in for a quick break but I don’t want to stop in the middle of the trail in case another pilgrim should happen upon me as the only place to sit is on the stone overpasses over the creek and they are pretty narrow but I look back as I cross one of the last streams to reconsider and a rock catches my eye at the bottom of the stream. I can tell it has been written on and I now I’m forced to stop to see what it says.
I take off my pack, pull up my sleeve, and reach my hand into the water to pull out the smooth, heart-shaped stone…. it reads “Love for Everyone, Hatred for None” and its signed Mary…
Feeling a little goose-bumpy, I replace the rock into the water where I found it, re-don my pack, and set out again on the trail. I eventually give into my desire to soak my feet but I’m completely lost in thought about the sequence of the day. I keep thinking that the Australian Mary would love this as we had been talking about “woo-woo” stuff at Orisson, me telling her everything I learned about the Pagan history of the Camino, her telling me I should make sure to read Louis Hayes when I get home to Colorado.
Finally, I reach the town of Espinal and locate my hostel. I check-in, drop my pack off in my room, and head to the bar for a beer and some wifi before dinner. I turn the corner for the bar and at this point in the day I’m not even surprised that I see Mary standing at the bar ordering a wine with two other women I had met at Orisson.
I grab her arm and she turns to me, her eyes immediately lighting up.
I laugh in response, understanding immediately how she feels to see another familiar face on a trail full of strangers.
“You won’t believe what’s happened to me since Orisson.”
Mary relates her day’s events about having hooked up with another woman solo-traveler from Australia who led her on a record pace to Roncesvalles.
“Yes, I saw you two pass us early on,” I say.
The other Aussie had reservations at Roncesvalles but Mary had sent her pack on via paid transport to Espinal and had decided to cab over to meet it, not wanting to head back on the road solo so late in the day.
“So when I get to my hostel, it’s empty, not a soul in the place,” and she expresses how she suddenly had been overcome by regret, feeling so isolated, thinking she had made a big mistake not sending her pack to the Roncesvalles Municipal church where most of our cohorts from Orisson had stopped for the night.
“And when I get there, Kim, I pick up my pack and someone else’s pink and purple poles are attached to my pack….”
….As I am running out of time and battery, I’ll let you connect the dots from here but I will say we did our best to track down the owner of the poles and eventually do but as it turns out, she has already purchased a new set and isn’t thrilled at the idea of carrying extras.
I am introduced to the expression, “The Camino Provides” as she explains that she hadn’t even paid for the poles now in my possession as someone had left them in her car a couple years prior.
The story doesn’t end here and in fact I have two other “magical” stories that I hope to share with you all soon enough but alas I have been having too much fun at the Aloha Hostel here in Pamplona, meeting fellow travelers and being educated in Espanol by a lively Spanish land owner on holiday from Bilbao by the name of Lourdes (so much fun!)