Not only was my first day on the Camino long, but I also got a late start.

After weighing my pack at the albergue and discovering it was 15 kilos (33 lbs), a hospitalera (albergue hostess) talked me into letting go of some items. She said my pack should weigh no more than 10 percent of my body weight – for me that would be 5 kilos which wasn’t likely going to happen. She convinced me to lay the contents of my pack onto a table and then helped me picked through it pointing out what I would not need. It was really tough to accept. I thought I needed everything!

Reluctantly, I took her advice and mailed three kilos of items up ahead to Logroño in Spain including a pocket knife, journal, quilted make-up bag, down sweater-jacket, toque, mitts, some face cream and an extra rock that I had picked up on a backpack trip three weeks ago. She said I would likely want to get rid of more of it soon enough although I have a hard time seeing what else I could possibly let go of.

The visit to the post office was frustrating due to the language barrier, but I managed to get the box mailed off and then began my ascent into the Pyrenees at approximately 11:00 a.m.

It was a beautiful, clear and sunny day on this 27-kilometre stretch. As planned, I took the Napoleon route – the highest route over the Pyrenees. I followed the yellow arrows and scallop shell symbols that mark the Camino along a meandering road, through green, rolling countryside and up into the high pasture lands of the Pyrenees Mountains.

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Along the way I observed the many herds of grazing sheep, cattle and horses, and contently listened to the sound of their bells as they moved along.

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There were some wild ponies up there too.

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Along the way, I stopped to watch a farmer round up his sheep with the help of his working dog – really neat to see.

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Then I took some photos of the statue of Our Lady overlooking the expansive mountainous landscape.

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There was so much to see and take pictures of that time didn’t cross my mind until I noticed my shadow getting long.

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The sun was beginning its descent and I still had a ways to go, so I considered seeking shelter for the night inside a stone hut; however, after investigating it I thought it would be best to continue.

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It had a wooden bench around the inside perimeter, a steel door and a couple of tiny windows. The idea of sleeping on a hard bench or cement floor wasn’t so appealing. Someone had left a few things behind too – a couple of clothing items and some garbage. I wondered if they might be back so I decided to continue walking.

As the sun sank behind the hill to my right, I noticed the silhouettes of a few horses grazing at the top.

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When I turned around I saw that the hut was now in shadow.

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The sun was close to setting behind the distant hills when I reached the highest point of the day with approximately four kilometres yet to go.

At that point I really didn’t think I could walk any further. My hips were so sore from carrying the now 12 kilo (27 lb) pack. So far the day’s trek had been all uphill. The remaining few kilometres were downhill, but even still, I didn’t think I could muster up the energy to continue.

A fairly wind-sheltered grassy spot on the mountainside seemed like the perfect place to settle for the night, so I unloaded the sleeping bag from my pack and laid it down in the grass. I took my boots off and relaxed. Gazing into the distance at the endless landscape of hills and valleys, I imagined Santiago somewhere out there 800 kilometres away. It was going to be a clear and starry night.

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It was the cows that came around that solidified my decision to hike the remaining distance to Roncesvalles last night. First, I heard the familiar sound of bells clanging and when I turned to look I saw them, those tan-coloured cows wandering and grazing aimlessly to who knows where. There was no way I was going to get stepped on by a cow on my first night, so I packed everything up and continued down the dirt path.

As I hiked down through the forest the evening sky faded and twilight turned to darkness. Eventually, I stopped to retrieve the headlamp out of my pack. I felt safe regardless of the blackness and the ‘unknown’ outside the direct glow of my headlamp. After all there is no dangerous wildlife that I know of in Europe – no bears, cougars, wolves or coyotes like back home. And, I thought it unlikely that a creepy predator-guy would waste time crouched in the trees waiting for a straggling female pilgrim to wander down the path this late in the day. At least this is what I was telling myself. At one point while I was walking I thought out loud, “Yep, I’m walking down a mountain, through a forest, in the dark, by myself, in SPAIN!” Such a surreal thought.

Eventually I reached a junction where a tall wooden post stood. Nailed to the top of it were some wooden arrow-shaped signs. Two of the arrows pointed towards Roncesvalles, but in two different directions – the arrow pointing left said 45′ and the one pointing right said 5′. Hoping the squiggle after the number meant “minutes” I walked to the right, but then I reached another junction where the path teed off at a narrow dirt road. Across from me stood a cement post which displayed a scallop symbol, but with no yellow arrow to guide me I wasn’t sure which way to go. 

The forest was inky black and a faint fluttering of insects danced in the beam of my headlamp. As I stood there puzzling over which way to go, I studied the scallop symbol on the concrete post and wondered if there could be a method to the way it was pointing. If there was I didn’t think to investigate that ahead of time. Finally, I decided to go to the left, but came to another wooden post with wooden arrow signs nailed to it; however they pointed to towns other than Roncesvalles. 

I unbuckled my pack and let it slide off my shoulders and drop to the ground. Then I retrieved my guidebook from the outside pocket, sat down on the shoulder of the dirt road in the quiet darkness and laughed. The map wasn’t detailed enough to show me where I was at that point. Feeling exhausted and quite lost in the dark Spanish forest, I began to seriously consider spending the night right there; however I couldn’t help, but notice the spiders and other bugs scurrying about in the dirt within the light of my head lamp. The thought of them crawling into my sleeping bag or into my hair or mouth while I slept (if I could have slept) made me cringe so I stood up, hauled my pack up and onto my back and retraced my steps.

I continued walking past the junction where the concrete post displaying the scallop symbol stood. A distant light flickered through the black trees and then I could hear the faint welcoming sound of human voices. The tension in my body eased as I drew nearer. Upon closer inspection, I could see the silhouette of a clothes line in front of an old stone building. I had finally made it.

Something moved across the path up ahead and stopped suddenly when it sensed me. I could see the silhouette of its rounded back and pointy nose. It was about the size of a cat, but definitely not. Another mysterious creature of the night I would not want sniffing at my face while I lay on a dirt path in a sleeping bag. Relief would be an understatement to describe how I felt upon arriving at my destination. Slowly, I forced my aching body onward up the path towards the entrance of the albergue.

The sympathetic looks I got from pilgrims as I stiffly walked in told me I must have appeared pretty rough. With what little energy I had left I leaned my weight heavily against the counter and tried to make sense of the Spanish form I needed to fill out. Completely exhausted, I could no longer stand and slowly sank to the floor between the counter and the wall.

I was so physically, mentally and emotionally tired at that point that I struggled to contain the emotion as I sat there. The lump was heavy in my throat and tears welled up behind my eyes. They were relentless and like water finding the path of least resistance in its quest to reach the ocean, the tears came. I had a good cry, but it was good – a good release.

The two hospitaleros were very supportive and kept telling me that it was okay, I had made it. One of them brought me a hot cup of tea with some bread and jam and encouraged me to sit on a chair. My hips ached so badly. Nothing felt comfortable.

When I finished my tea the hospitalera carried my pack and very slowly led me to a separate old stone building, the original monastery, since the main building was full.

It was 9:30 p.m. – late to be arriving. The hospitalera handed me off to two other hospitaleros who sat with me while I sniffled and slowly pulled the boots off my feet. They had many encouraging words for me as well: I had made it, I was safe, I had a place to shower and sleep. They showed me to my bunk which was thankfully not too far from the bench where I took my boots off.

It was an amazing place. There were rows of bunk beds lined up side-by-side along the full length of this magnificent, old, stone room with the pointed stone archways. Circular chandeliers hung down from the wooden beams above like old candelabras from medieval times.

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It was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before. Classical music played softly, but as soothing as it was, the tears still came. I allowed myself the emotional release I obviously needed. I knew it was about more than just the days trek. It was also about letting go of things.

I slipped on the over-sized flip-flops I was given and shuffled slowly and stiffly down the stairs to the washroom where two French women were preparing for their showers. They looked a little concerned as I sat down on the floor and waited my turn, but I reassured them my tears were a good thing.

Never have I ever been so thankful for shelter and a bed as I was last night. After a good sleep I woke up this morning to beautiful cultural music at 6:00 a.m. It was time to get ready and back out on the road. Last night I had asked if I could stay another night at the albergue, but the hospitaleros encouraged me to continue, to keep my muscles limber. Besides, pilgrims are only allowed to stay one night in any of the albergues. There are always more pilgrims arriving each day so they need the room for them. Not only that, but an albergue is meant to be a place of refuge. A pilgrim’s purpose is to walk and to contemplate why they are walking, not to vacation in cheap alburgues at five to ten euros per night!