14 Oct Departure and the Route of Sweet Submission: Dispatch from the Camino, Part 1
From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Pamplona
This is part one in a four part series from writer and author Beebe Bahrami as she spends the fall of 2017 making her way along the Camino de Santiago.
Seventeen of us from around the world, men and women ages nineteen to over sixty, gathered around the long, wooden communal dinner table. Our stone and timber pilgrims’ hostel in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees in southwestern France was set right on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route as it passes over the mountains. I could hear the shuffle of more pilgrims arriving outside, as well as the melodic song of the red breasted European robin.
I felt both the excitement and the queasiness of being liminal — suspended between the familiar and the unknown. It had taken many departures to be here: leaving family and friends, leaving my home, and habits. But to walk a great long walk — to reflect, learn, knock the dust off of my life — called to me fervently.
Before we began dinner, our host offered us an aperitif of muscatel or port wine and asked us each to share what the theme of our Camino would be, were we to reduce it to five words.
“Don’t think too hard,” he offered.
Many of those gathered touched on themes of finding insight, meeting the physical challenge, and uncovering a deeper purpose in life. When it came to my turn, I heard myself say, “lightening up while going deeper.”
I wanted this trek — this great European pilgrimage to northwestern Spain — to help me clear ideas and habits I no longer needed. And I wanted to use that space to go more deeply into what is authentic in life, including the intense beauty of the present path.
– – –
The next morning, we all set out, each of us taking one of two routes across the Pyrenees. Our paths would intersect later, in Roncesvalles, where the Camino continues to Pamplona and onward across northern Spain.
As I packed my pack in our shared dorm room, a young man approached and asked me which route I was taking. To Roncesvalles, there’s the high route, which climbs to a view of the Pyrenees. It is considered the more challenging route. I had done it before and wanted to experience the other route, which follows the river from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port along the valley, in the shadow of steep mountains.
“The valley route,” I answered.
“Oh,” the young man replied, “you’re taking the easy route.”
I shrugged, applying my “lightening up” mentality as best as I could. But deep down, I worried. The high route was hard, but it was also celebrated as hard. You got credit for walking it. And I knew I could do it: I had done it before. The valley route was also challenging — locals kept telling me to be careful on the steep, often wet and slippery path — but perhaps it was also hard because you did not earn credit among your fellow pilgrims for walking it.
This was the first lesson of the pilgrimage: Don’t mind what the others think. For me, I knew the high route was the route of my ego, and the low route, the route of sweet submission.
We set off. At the Porte d’Espagne, the departure threshold in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, everyone else in my hostel went left. I recalled my climb on the high route two years earlier, when I was in constant pilgrim company.
I went right. Here, no one. It was the route of sweet submission, and also solitude. All around me, folds of mountains overlapped in v-patterns. I felt as if I were walking into a multilayered funnel of green, red, and brown which would, at times, spit me into fields spotted with black and tan sheep grazing on vertical terrain.
I climbed. I descended. I climbed. I descended. The sound of the river Nive was a constant companion, suggesting that this may have been the more logical route for pilgrims in the Middle Ages, when access to natural water sources was crucial.
A soft fog rolled in and it began to rain. There were chestnuts falling everywhere, their spiky husks and slippery leaves covering the path. Again, I went up; I climbed down. The path undulated in an up-down shimmy that steadily increased in altitude. I crossed the French-Spanish border, another threshold, and soon had to climb a near-vertical, chestnut-strewn path to the mountain town of Valcarlos. My thighs never stopped burning, and as much as I wanted to stop, the rain goaded me on.
As much as I had climbed, mountains towered on all sides, acting as protective sentinels. The river was ever below us, and the sun tried to slip its light fingers through the narrow crevices and fog. I could see why Valcarlos was where Charlemagne camped back in the 8th century, why he considered it a protective haven after his conquests in Iberia.
Then, I met two Mexican pilgrims on the path. They had just come from helping their family and friends clear the devastation of the earthquake that had hit their country. None of us needed the adrenaline of the high route — we found the route of sweet surrender plenty demanding.
– – –
From Valcarlos to Roncesvalles, the undulating path turned into a permanent climb out of the valley and over the last mountain. Most of the path was narrow, carved into the mountainside with a long fall below, where the river offered a comfort, of sorts.
After hours of vertical, slate-stone trails covered in slippery chestnut leaves, I passed through a sinuous white-trunked beech forest and emerged to see the welcoming village of Roncesvalles. Just before reaching the settlement, I encountered a horse on the path, who welcomed me with a neigh and a yawn. No chance to boast your ego here, either, he seemed to be telling me. Keep on walking the quiet path.
It was easier, now. From Roncesvalles, where I did not see my Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port family anywhere in sight, I continued to the village of Burguete, the path taking me through oak and beech forest. I am now making my way through gently rolling hills and thick woods to Pamplona. I am still endeavoring to keep it light while going deeper, to savor the natural and cultural beauty of the world the Camino traverses. And my thighs are still burning.
They say that this first stretch of the Camino across Navarra engages the body, that the middle stretch across the plains of Castile engages the mind, and that the hills and mountains of Leon and Galicia to Santiago de Compostela engage the soul. I think, when we engage these aspects of ourselves, we become whole. Maybe that is what will happen to me.
To be continued…
For a taste of the Camino de Santiago, join Backroads Active Travel on The Way from Portugal to Spain. And consider other transformative journeys by reading about The World’s Best Travel Pilgrimages:
Latest posts by Beebe Bahrami (see all)
- The Winter Solstice and the Rebirth of Light and Hope - December 16, 2017
- To the Ocean on the Road of the Dying Sun: Dispatch from the Camino Part 4 - December 6, 2017
- Into the Mountains and on to Santiago de Compostela: Dispatch from the Camino, Part 3 - November 15, 2017