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.
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that the train to St. Jean, which I had been excitedly anticipating for months, is currently under repair and has been replaced by a bus.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.
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:
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.
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.