Preparing for the Way

My flight from London to Biarritz, France went off without a hitch. It was easy enough to catch a bus to the Bayonne train station, where I would catch a second train to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, the beginning town of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (or the Chemin de Saint-Jacques in French). On the way, I met Zain, a pharmacist from San Francisco, and we spend much of the way comparing notes on our plans for the pilgrimage.

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On a sad note, we learned that the train to St. Jean, which I had been excitedly anticipating for months, is currently under repair and has been replaced by a bus. All my romantic notions of chugging into St. Jean on a train with my backpack on the seat next to me immediately dissipated. Womp womp.

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The bus ride, though, was just as scenic and enjoyable while I listened to my impromptu French-language playlist on my iPod, but as the road started heading uphill and the clouds began to thicken and darken, a sense of panic started to build inside me. Oh my God, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I am purposely deciding to hike through these mountains with a ridiculously heavy backpack on my shoulders? In the attempt to distract myself, I blasted Plastic Bertrand at full volume on repeat, because it is physically impossible to be nervous when listening to this:

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St. Jean Pied-de-Port lies in the Basque region, so most signs are in both French and Basque. What a quaint little town it is. I think that I would have been more thoroughly delighted if another part of me didn’t feel as if I was going to throw up.

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A friendly American couple in my dorm room welcomed me after I checked into my hostel, but I was scared by the expression on the man’s face when he lifted my backpack. “Oof!” he grunted. “You are going to have a tough time with that one.” OhmyGodohmyGodwhatamIdoingthispackiswaytooheavyandI’mclimbingoverthePyrreneeswithitinjustover24hours.
A delicious crepe dinner and a good night’s sleep did absolutely nothing to assuage my fears, and by this morning I was in a full-out panic attack. And I realized that I hate French. (OK, maybe this is a tad dramatic, but I just don’t get it. All the consonant combinations end up sounding like “unh.” And when you can’t understand things when you’re having a panic attack, it feels like the world is ending).

I think the owner of the hostel sensed that I had gone to crazy town, because he popped into the hallway, where I stood with the contents of two different backpacks (one to carry, and one of stuff to forward directly to Santiago) strewn haphazardly on the floor around me. One by one, we went through what I was putting into my main backpack. By the time we finished (and by the way, this was humorously completed with his poor English and my even poorer French), my pack was still not light, but it was manageable. And then he said something that made all the difference: “You can send this bag to Roncesvalles, where you will sleep tomorrow night, and just bring a tiny bag with you on the hike. That will be easier for you.”

And then I was better. I picked up a pilgrim shell and my credencial or “pilgrim passport” that will be stamped at every place I stay to verify that I walked the whole journey to Santiago. Tomorrow I am sending my main pack ahead of me over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, where I’ll meet up with it at my hostel there. I won’t worry about straining my knees and back and feet on this first and most difficult day of the trek. When the terrain flattens on day 2, I will take up my bag again.

So this is actually happening. Say a little prayer for me.

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12 thoughts on “Preparing for the Way

  1. Ann Zitko

    Becky, I so love to read your updates. I just read this latest one outloud to Dorothy , Susan, Frankie, Frank and Mary. We all wish you well and say a little prayer!

  2. Helena

    buon camino. I’m so excited for you. Keep sending lots of pictures. It will bring back great memories.

  3. Melanie Carpenter

    Hi Becky, I am a friend of Helena’s and I walked the Camino in 2001… Seeing the pictures of your starting point brings back memories of insecurity; indeed, “what did I get myself into” etc. …
    By now, -a week into your pilgimage you probably are not much wiser but are enjoying some well deserved time “getting to know yourself better” and along the way, getting to know all kinds of people…
    This “discovery walk” was one of the best things I ever did for myself and wish I could do it again…
    Have a safe and wonderful pilgrimage, what a gift, – cherish each moment that you are making these memories of a life time !!!
    Melanie Carpenter

    • Thanks for the response, Melanie! You’re right: it’s only been two days, but it feels like I’ve been walking for a week, and people I met this morning already seem like old friends. It’s a funny thing, this Camino! Glad to be joining the tradition.

  4. carlsonken2

    Way to go. You are doing so great! You look amazing too! Totally ready! Enjoy every moment and sing a little country music for me!

    • There’s my buddy in full life coach mode! Thanks, Ken :). I will find an appropriate moment to start belting out some Garth Brooks for you. (I hope it’s not “The Thunder Rolls,” because I’ve already decided that I prefer not to walk in the rain!)

  5. Milen@Vidko

    Becky, we’ll be with you in spirit, and we’ll say a prayer also! Toughest looking pilgrim I ever saw!!! Milen

  6. M Jakomin

    Lots of luck to you. We’ll keep you in our prayers! The Jakomin family

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