The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Getting to Spain turned out to be more of an adventure then we thought.  We were flying stand-by and all the flights we tried to get on were full.  A day later we finally got on a flight to Madrid.  After arriving it was a hurried rush to get a bus to the train station, figure out how to buy tickets from a machine and run for the train to Pamplona.  We made it huffing and puffing and the train left  30 seconds after we boarded.  Once in Pamplona we hiked (no taxi) to the bus station, had time for some wine then took the bus to St Jean Pied de Port, France.  This town was to be the start of our 500 mile trek.  

Once there, although we were exhausted and lost,  we walked all around town trying to find the Camino Office so that we could get our Credential.  It’s a little booklet that you get stamped at various places along the Camino and this stamped Credential proves you’ve actually done the Camino.  

We were so tired and lost and didn’t know where to go.  So as we were wondering along one of the little cobble stone streets I saw a darling, gray haired, little old lady sitting in a doorway.  She sweetly told us where the Camino office was, where we could eat dinner and where we could find an ATM.  I told her we needed a place to stay and her eyes lit up and she said she had rooms to rent.  We asked to see the room which was on the 4th floor with no elevator.  She made us take our shoes off before walking up the highly polished wooden staircases.  The room was large with 2 king sized beds but the drawback was that the bathroom was one floor down on the 3rd floor at the other end of the house.  She looked at us so sweetly and said the room was only $60 euros and that this was a real bargain compared to all the hotels in town.  I felt like when I said “Well yes, O.K. we’ll take it,” her eyes glowed red behind our backs like she was a little “She Devil.”  She had us in the palm of her hand.  

We left our stuff in the room and as we were coming down those highly polished stairs in our stocking feet Boom! Boom! Boom!  Dick’s feet had slipped  and he came careening down half a flight of stairs on his back.  I was so stunned that I turned around to run back up the stairs to see if he was O.K. then I tripped, banged my knee and slid down a few more stairs.  Dick’s elbo was bleeding, he bruised his hand, arm, knee and legs, and bent his thumb backwards.  In the meantime “She Devil” was behind us on the stairs and didn’t say a word.  But I know she was cackling inside while her eyes glowed from brown to red.  Dick said he was O.K.  I gave him a Kleenex for his bleeding elbo and we walked down the cobble stone street to the bargain of a restaurant that “She Devil” had recommended.  We ate what they call the Pilgrims Meal — a 3 course dinner which consisted of salad, a little leg of chicken and half a potato followed by dessert.  Wine was extra and the whole meal was no bargain and left us still a little hungry.  

When we got back to the room we found there was no top sheet on the beds, just a bottom sheet and a bedspread.  I think she expected us to sleep in our sleeping bags.  We were too exhausted to get our sleeping bags out of our backpacks so I decided I would sleep in the pajamas I had decided to bring at the last minute.  Anyway, by now it was dark and we had to put on our headlamps to find our way down the stairs and to the bathroom, this time in our bare feet so we wouldn’t slip.  

After a good nights sleep and still jet lagged we were up at 6 a.m, dressed with backpacks on and ready for our first day of trekking.  The house was dark so we put our headlamps on to find our way down all those stairs.  Dick had bare feet but not thinking, I had put my socks on.  Afraid that I’d fall I grabbed the bannister and when I put my stocking foot on the first step it slipped out from under me and I went barreling on my back, down the full flight of stairs like an out of control freight train.  I bruised the palm of my hand with the bruise going up my wrist, bruised my elbo and legs and hurt one of my toes which was swollen and bright red.  But the good news was that my backpack had saved me.  Otherwise my entire back and head would have been bruised, too.  I wanted to cry but I knew “She Devil,” with her glowing red eyes was cackling behind her closed door knowing she had triumpthed over yet another unsuspecting tourist.  What a way to start our first day of trekking!  

Once outside we saw the little clamshell insignias imbedded in the cobblestones and on the walls of buildings and we knew we were already on the Camino.  The morning was cool and crisp and the sun was just coming up.  Despite our aches and pains we were excited about starting our trek.  The first block was downhill and such a delight.  The second block out of town was a steep uphill climb with no end in sight and it was then that I knew this was going to be hell.  After all we were trekking the Pyrannes mountains of France and Spain.  As we walked uphill, trying to get used to our heavy backpacks (mine 20 pounds and Dick’s 23 pounds) Dick told me to go on ahead of him because we each needed to walk at our own pace.  At this point there were lots of other backpackers who were also starting their trek.  The walk continued uphill along the side of a country road.  It was really difficult for me and I had to stop often to rest and catch my breath.  Dick was so far behind me that he was nowhere in sight.  It was really slow going with a steep incline.  When I would get at a place where I could look down the mountain and see the path, once in a while I would spot Dick so I knew he was O.K.  After a while I knew I needed to stop and rest.  So I sat on a tree stump at the side of the road and a young Australian who also needed a rest sat down beside me.  He was exhausted and complaining about his tight hamstrings.  I thought, “O.K. this is even hard for the young ones.  After more gruelling uphill I stopped for another rest and a German couple came over and the woman sat down beside me.  She wasn’t really personable and just continued speaking to her husband in German.  He was standing a few feet away from me, then turned his back on me and started to pee.  I thought, “Oh pl-eeese!  Couldn’t you do this across the road or somewhere far away from ME?!  That’s when I got up and left and continued my uphill climb.  

This was such a hard walk and I never saw Dick again.  I figured he was just a little behind me but didn’t really know for sure.  After 3 hours of this gruelling uphill walk I came to the only spot in the road that had a little snack bar.  Lots of Pilgrims were there eating and taking refreshments.  I decided I would stay there and wait for Dick to catch up with me.  I was hot with no coat on but was wet with sweat.  As I sat outside at a picnic table the wind started blowing and I started shivering uncontrollably.  I put my coat on and went inside and ordered a cafe con leche and two ham and cheese sandwiches.  I knew Dick would be hungry when he got here as we had not eaten any breakfast.  I thought about ordering a cafe con leche so it would be there when he arrived because I didn’t think he was far behind.  I drank my cafe and waited and waited.  Still no Dick.  I had another cafe con leche and he still wasn’t there.  I texted him and told him I was waiting there for him and when he texted me back and told me he was just getting water from the fountain at the side of the road I knew he had a long way to go.  He finally arrived after 2 hours of my waiting there.  He was just spent.  He had some cafe con leche and we ate part of our sandwiches and then I knew it was time to go as this would be a really long day with 25 kilometers of mostly all uphill.  We started walking together and Dick stopped and said, “I can’t do this.  The periferal neuropathy in my feet is killing me.  It’s so hard to walk.”  I told him I would walk slowly and walk with him to make sure he was O.K. but he said he wanted to walk alone.  I gave him some euros and told he should get a ride to take him the rest of the way to Roncesvalles.  I then told him that once he got there he should get us a hotel room for the night.  I did not want to stay in the Pilgrims hostel where you have to share a room with other people.  

We parted ways and I started my uphill climb.  The wind was still blowing and it had turned trecherous.  It was a headwind and the strongest I had ever felt.  It was never ending and the frequent gusts felt like they would knock me over.  It was so loud and roaring that I couldn’t even hear a car that passed by me on the little one lane road.  It was so difficult walking uphill against this trecherous headwind.  When it would get stronger and louder I knew I’d be blown so hard that I couldn’t stand in one place.  So I developed a system of crouching low to the ground until the worst of it was over.  But this wind was horrible.  It was relentless and never stopped.  This combined with the horrible uphill was almost more than I could take.  I was struggling uphill, feeling sorry for myself when suddenly a huge gust of wind came barreling at me, blew me 4 feet off the path and I landed sprawled out on my back with my legs headed downhill.  If I hadn’t stopped where I was I could have slid 40 feet down and ended up in a creek.  Again, because I was on my back, my backpack had saved me.  I wasn’t hurt at all, my pride wasn’t even hurt because there were no other trekkers around to see this (and laugh at me)!  O.K. now it’s 4 falls in less than 24 hours — 3 for me and 1 for Dick.  And where was he anyway?  I was hoping beyond hope that he had gotten a ride to Roncesvalles and had a nice hotel room reserved for us.  I was sure he couldn’t have continued walking.  I tried texting him but he didn’t answer.  I tried to find him on “Find My Friends” but I couldn’t locate him.  

I picked myself up off the ground and started walking again.  I started talking to the wind, willing it to stop.  But it continued on as fiercely as ever, blowing me a few steps back or a few steps sideways.  At times I had to stop and hold onto a post or the side of a rock wall, crouched down in hopes I wouldn’t get blown over again.  Other hikers were doing the same thing.  As I walked I could feel sprays of a light rain hitting my face but because the wind was so strong I never really got wet.  It dried the minute it hit me. I wanted to stop, to end this day.  But there was absolutely nothing, no hostel, no town, no hotel, and no restaurant until I reached Roncesvalles.  So I had to keep going.  

The uphill was so hard that I developed a system of counting my steps until I reached 20, then stopping to catch my breath, then repeating this sequence over and over.  The wind was relentless, the path kept going up, I passed patches of snow and kept thinking I was at the summit but when I would round the next corner it was more uphill.  A couple of times it was followed by a little downhill but then the uphill cimb would continue.  Then I was finally there.  There were a few hikers at this one spot and they said this was the summit.  I knew it was downhill from here.  It was then that I chose the wrong path — I chose the trecherous one — the one that went straight down the mountain.  Now it was an extremely steep downhill with a muddy path and that relentless wind.  There were a few other hikers I would see from time to time and that was comforting because we were encased in woods and if something happened I wasn’t sure how long it would be before anyone found me.  

And then finally the path ended in a road.  I found the clamshell Pilgrim sign, turned right and within a couple of blocks was in Roncesvalles.  It was 6 p.m.  I couldn’t wait to get to that hotel where I was sure Dick would be waiting for me with a glass of wine.  But I thought, gee I must check to make sure he didn’t check us into the Pilgrim Hostel — the Albergue.  So I made my way there and stood in a line of people only to be told they had checked in a lot of people but had no idea if he was one of them.  I tried texting him but it kept saying he wasn’t available.  So then I walked to the hotel but they said he wasn’t checked in there.  A very nice receptionist told me that the hotel was full so she didn’t think he could have checked in, but that now a couple of rooms had opened up.  She suggested I try the other places in town to see if he was there.  There were only two more and after walking to them I found out he wasn’t there either.  So I went back to the hotel and asked if there was still an available room and the receptionist said “yes” but this one is on the 4th floor and there is no elevator.  OMG, this is happening again.  But it was now 7 p.m. and I needed that room and considered myself lucky to be getting it.  I had to stop and rest a couple of times going up those stairs but finally made it there.  You can’t believe my relief when I walked inside.  It was a studio apartment with a living room, a kitchenette, and two huge beds.  Oh, and the bathroom was there, too.  It even had a blow dryer!  And it was only 65 euros.  I was in heaven!  The first thing I did was to strip off my shoes and all my clothes.  Then a hot shower and blow drying my hair.  At that moment I felt life didn’t get any better than this.

My earlier attempts to find Dick had failed when finally I received a text from him that said “We are 2 hours away.”  I said “Are you walking?” and he said, “Yes.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I also didn’t know who “we” was or why he would be walking with any other hiker but knew I’d find out about that later.  I knew he would be hungry when he arrived so I had two Pilgrim meals sent up to the room.  I knew I could reheat them in the microwave when he arrived.  The food looked great, steak, french fries, soup, bread, dessert and wine.  

It was now 9:30 and getting dark.  10 p.m. still no Dick.   Close to 11:00 he finally texted and said he was close.  I told him the hotel I was in but knew he wouldn’t be able to find it in the dark.  I went down to reception and asked how I could get to where he would probably be entering town.  One of the ladies was so nice and accompanied me outside to where we might find him.  We went out of the hotel and around some alleys and into a huge courtyard and there sitting on a wall on the far side of the courtyard were Dick and two women.  They were lost and didn’t know where to go.  I was so relieved to see him!  He had picked up these two ladies while he was walking and overheard them saying they didn’t have a flashlight.  They were out of shape and one of them was quite heavy and had just been in two auto accidents.  The other had just lost a son so they decided to walk the Camino, as many people do under conditions of loss.  They said they had no idea it would be this hard.  They were planning to stay in the Albergue but it was closed and locked up for the night.  When I told them every other place in town was full the receptionist suggested they walk to the next town to try to find a room.  WHAT??  I told them we should go back to the hotel to check if they might have one room left and if they didn’t, we had two beds in our room and they could stay with us.  They said, “But we snore.”  And I said it doesn’t matter, so do we.  At least you’ll have a place to stay.  Thank goodness the hotel had one room left.  They checked in while I went to the dining room which had closed 2 hours ago and asked it they could get some food for these women.  They were so accomodating and brought them out two huge bowls of pipping hot soup, some bread and some wine.  The women were so greatful and kept calling us angels and said they never would have made it without Dick staying with them and lighting their way.  Dick was so exhausted I had to carry his heavy backpack up to the 4th floor and he had to take rest breaks on his way up the stairs.  His feet were killing him, his hand was beginning to go numb and I had to take his shoes and socks off for him.  He finally showered and we ate dinner at 12:30 a.m.  It was 1:30 by the time we both fell into bed.  What a day…