It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. I showed up in a small town in France with the directive to look for yellow arrows or seashells which would lead me 500 + miles across Spain. And… it worked.
I arrived to St Jean Pied de Port, a small town in the southwest corner of France, by train. There were other pilgrims on the train (I could tell by the backpacks and the walking sticks), so I followed them into town. I started chatting with Harry, an older gentleman from LA who said he had previously walked the Camino and vowed never to do it again. And yet here he was. I wondered what drew him back. I wondered if I would feel the same at the end of my trek.
As others pealed off into hotels and hostels, I made my way to what I thought was the pilgrim’s office. While listening to the volunteer tell me about what trails to take and which to avoid, I wondered if I really was in the right place. Had I seen a sign on the door? I don’t remember seeing a sign. Was I actually at an albergue (a hostel only for pilgrims)? I looked around. It could have been the reception area for an albergue, I guessed (having never been in an albergue before). Would he soon ask me for money? I looked at him and asked him, rather confusedly, “Where am I?” He laughed and said I was in the pilgrim’s office in St Jean Pied de Port. I thanked him. He drew me a map, directing me to the local municipal albergue.
I arrived and placed my things on a lower bunk bed, saying hello to other pilgrims I had seen on the train. After a few attempts, I found a restaurant that was open and ate a mediocre meal. I fell asleep, wondering what it would feel like to be on the Camino (it didn’t feel like I was on the Camino yet, though I guess technically I was).
In the morning I woke early, mainly due to others stirring in the room. I began what would become a familiar routine of packing everything back into multiple dry bags and stuffing them into my backpack, then double, triple, quadruple checking to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind. In the kitchen, I quietly ate a slice of white bread with butter on it and drank a mug (perhaps the largest mug I’ve ever held) of strong black tea. I listened to the others talking. I filled my water bottles. I walked outside. I looked around. What now? I didn’t see any of the magical yellow arrows I was supposed to follow. I wasn’t even sure whether I should head left or right on the small street I was on. I heard others coming so I busied myself with tying my shoes and adjusting my backpack. Groups of people took pictures together, documenting the start of their journey. What I didn’t know then was that these people had just met. They seemed so friendly, I assumed they had traveled together to start the journey. I engaged in some banter, and when they started walking, I followed. And as we walked, I saw the first shell. I was on the right path…