This is the view that most pilgrims first get of St Jean Pied de Port as they get off the train. I remember it quite clearly, I was wondering what was ahead of me. I had not read much about the Camino before heading off there for a month, my flat mate and college friend had been my sole source of information.
At St Jean my short lived fear set in. I had done some planning, packed way too much, stopped over in Paris to see a friend, and now here I was ready to walk across Spain. What have I done, I though. Fear has always been there in my life, I still do things but I am aware of its background noise. It is odd that I didn’t expect it to be there on the Camino, perhaps it is so subtle that I have no expectation of it till it makes it presence felt. But as usual I trudge on, and I did.
I had imagined me walking in wilderness, I had wondered how I would cope not talking to other people for days on end – oh I was so wrong about the whole experience. I was not committed to walking the whole Camino – I had decided if it was too hard or if I did not like it I was off somewhere else – I had some money in the bank and a completely free sumer in front of me, I was treating it just like a walking holiday – it can be and it can be more than that, so much more.
Getting to St Jean
I traveled by train overnight to Bayonne from Paris. While waiting to catch the local train to St Jean I saw others on the platform who looked like they could be potential pilgrims also. They had their rucksacks, some had walking staffs, some had the scallop shell hanging from their rucksack – they all seemed to eye each other warily. Little did we know that in the days ahead we would get used to just walking up to each other and easily starting conversations. Little did we know of what lay ahead.
What lay ahead for me during the first few days was pain and lots of it. I had done some hill walking, but no real training for the Camino Frances, I had no idea what it would be like to walk 780km and walk day after day. Because I arrived in St Jean near lunch time I had to wait till after lunch for the Camino office to open and issue me with a pilgrims passport – this is required to stay in the pilgrims hostels.
So the first day I only walked 8km, but it felt like 8km up a ladder – it was all up hill. I was a bit over weight and not walking fit – on top of all that my rucksack was just too heavy – 14kg – 10kg should have been the max. I slept my first night in a hostel for a long time, this took a bit of getting used to – the last time I had slept in a hostel I was a teenager.
The next day I walked onward to Roncesvalles, I was still exhausted at the end of the day once again – I have no idea how unfit people like me manage that walk in one day, it might have helped if I did not smoke… The pain and doing something helped the fear dissipate and I just got on with the walk in front of me. I do find the same solution to dealing with fear always works for me – just doing the next thing in front of me.
Oddly, looking back, the more I walked the more committed I became to the Camino.
My memories until I reached Pamplona are still quite vague – due to the pain from my blisters. I learned how to deal with them and had no problems the second time I walked the Camino Frances.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.