Guest Feature – Pyrenees Initiation: A pilgrim’s first challenge on the Camino de Santiago

Note: The following is an entry from Jen Hoffmann’s blog about her journey on the Camino de Santiago. Jen will be visiting the Salem Summit on Tuesday, September 6th at 6:00pm to share with us a few of her stories from her travels and reflections on what it means to walk the Camino. 

Jen with Shaeen

written by Jen Hofmann

Getting on our way

If a pilgrim begins their Camino in France, their very first challenge is to cross one of the highest mountain passes of the entire 500-mile journey. Unlike most of the Camino, this stretch has almost no services or places to stop along the sixteen-mile stretch to Roncesvalles (ron-thess-ba-yes). It’s daunting to many.

A second alternate route through Valcarlos is used in cases of heavy fog and snow—which was the case on my Camino in early April 2015. Technically, this lower route is 1,300 feet lower than the traditional Napoleon route. However, this fact leads some to conclude that the walk is a breeze. It’s not. The reason: An unforgiving 45° angle. The Valcarlos route deserves a little respect.

On this route, Charlemagne’s retreating troops met their demise. Roncesvalles’ hard-to-pronounce name means Valley of Thorns. It’s not for wimps. We stayed in Valcarlos overnight, but on the second day of my Camino, my walking was so slow, it was comical. My legs wobbled. I stopped to rest frequently. I was in reasonably good shape, but it took me most of the day to walk just over seven miles.

Up and over to Roncesvalles

The views were stunning. The morning clouds dispersed early, treating us to vistas of the steep cleft valley, thick with gray branches about to burst into leaf. Well into the day, we could still see Valcarlos behind us, receding into the distance. I lingered at these stops as much to enjoy the view as to rest my body.

At lunch, we sat down beside the trail and discovered that heather and gorse make lousy, prickly seats. Valley of thorns, indeed! I learned to sit on my pack. To cool my feet, I popped off my shoes and discovered my first two blisters on my right foot. If you’re a hiker, you care about this detail: inside pinkie and outside big toe. Ouch.

The previous day had been flatter, and we’d chatted to pass the time. On this segment, we talked less because it was just too strenuous. In the forest, everything light brown with dry oak leaves, too cool yet for even little buds to be showing. It was so quiet, I could only hear my labored breathing and my  footsteps falling on the forest floor. Then the path went from impossibly steep to steeper yet. I still don’t know how I got to Roncesvalles. None of my flat-land distance training prepared me for this.

After hours of walking and resting, we had a glorious moment at the Ibañeta peak and stopped to take in the view. The climb now finished, we basked in the gleaming sunshine, awed by the green landscape below us and the snow-capped peaks above. Taking shelter from the wind, I poked my nose into the tiny chapel at the top, but found it locked. Through the clover-shaped notch in the thick wooden door, I could see a brilliant rainbow of rectangular panels inside.

The descent took much less time, but I had assumed that walking downhill would be much easier. I was wrong. The trail was slippery loose rocks. At the end of a long hike, this required concentrating hard to avoid falling. Then, finally, the trail became a small paved road and before us appeared the massive pilgrim hostel, all aglow in the late afternoon sunshine. At last!

The process of arrival

The amazing thing is that once you arrive, you don’t sit down for long. There’s so much to do.

The Dutch volunteers checked us in with impressive efficiency and precision. We stood in line, got our passports stamped and a bed assigned to each of us. Shoes were relegated to their own room to keep the albergue clean. We went to the basement to wash clothes by hand in the sink, volunteers standing at the ready to help with machines. The albergue in Roncesvalles is a really impressive operation—immaculately clean, comfortable, and modern.

The downside is two hundred people share in one massive room, divided into pods of four by “walls” that don’t reach the ceiling. Snore city.

We proceeded to our beds to discover we were sharing a pod with a giant, bushy-bearded Russian man. It was awkward, to say the least. Tight quarters. No privacy. He spoke not a word of English. I unpacked and immediately cleared out to do errands, barely acknowledging him. I would regret this later.

A dinner not to be remembered

The evening meal was interesting. To be fair, the logistics of feeding hundreds of pilgrims each day, economically and efficiently, must be rather complex. However, I was still very much in the mindset of an entitled traveler, not a pilgrim. I laughed at Katrin’s accurate evaluation of the restaurant’s “mossy” fish. We were pretty certain that the pasta, served family-style, had been recycled from an earlier feeding. For dessert, I ordered flan and was baffled when I received a cup of yogurt.

After dinner, we went to a bar for a glass of wine and talked about life, goals, uncertainty, and what to do after you quit your job without a plan (we’d all done it). After a lackluster dinner, this was a delightful dessert.

A serving of humble pie

When I awoke the next morning, the big, scary Russian guy leaned out of his top bunk and extended his arm, holding a chocolate candy bar, raising his eyebrows in a question. He was making an offering to us. After I’d snubbed him.

Humbled, I asked how to say thank you in Russian. That moment taught me not just how to say spasibo, but the value of being the first to offer warmth and smiles to a stranger. Of receiving unearned generosity. Of finding common ground despite outward differences.

Between the difficult walking, the unusual circumstances, and a cast of hundreds, the second day of my Camino taught me gratitude and humility—not for the first or last time on this amazing journey.

Jennifer Hofmann is an author, blogger, and two-time pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago (once in reverse!). You can read more of her Camino stories at jenscaminojourney.com.

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