12 March 2016
The night before, the volunteer at the pilgrim’s office in St Jean Pied de Port had been very clear. Do not take the “Napoleon Route” over the mountains. They had recently had snow and the path was dangerous. Just the prior week two Brazilians hadn’t heeded that advice and a rescue team had to be sent in to rescue them. He emphasized over and over to take the road route through Valcarlos. I politely listened as he repeated this information over and over. In my head, however, I was thinking, “I’ve seen the movie “The Way.” I don’t want to die on my first day. You say it’s dangerous? I believe you – it’s dangerous. I don’t believe I have super human hiking powers and can prove you wrong.” I smiled and said, “Merci.” He gave me a sheet of paper with color pictures on it, emphasizing where to walk on that first day. Even on the “road” route there were options to walk on the trail. He emphasized there was one spot where we would see a sign to turn left to follow the trail and we shouldn’t take it. He placed a large blue “X” over that. We should follow the road. The rest of the trail would be fine.
As I followed the other pilgrims on that first day of walking, we began chatting. Some pilgrims walked faster, some walked slower. We took pictures and wished everyone walking by “Buen Camino.” Martin from the Czech Republic and I had a similar pace. We chatted as we made our way upward over the Pyrenees. We were careful to follow the road, as the volunteer at the pilgrim’s office warned us. About 12 miles in, we saw the path split from the road on the left. Beside the trail was a sign, which was covered by a heavy black garbage bag. Aha! The trail we weren’t supposed to take! We kept to the road and kept walking, adding layers as we walked higher and higher along the switchback road. After a mile or so, we saw another trail to the left. It was well marked with arrows and a wooden sign with a pilgrim walking. We followed it. There was a stream to the left of the path, the water bubbling and flowing freely. The trees were not yet blooming, so we could see through the naked branches across the countryside. I learned that the Czech word for “raccoon” translated to “washing bear.” This amused me.
We started climbing again. We encountered some snow on the path. And then more snow. That didn’t appear to have been walked on. As I trudged upwards, slipping and sliding, I thought to myself, “I wonder if this was the left we weren’t supposed to take? I wonder if I will, indeed, die on the first day of my Camino?” My imagination ran wild as I pictured what would happen if I slipped and fell off the path or broke a hip or knocked myself unconscious. After a few minutes of that, I decided to focus on foot placement in the snow, carefully choosing what looked to be the least slippery, least deep, snowbank. After a few more miles my suspicion was confirmed as we exited onto the road and had to climb over chains that blocked people from taking the trail. The best laid plans…