A Pilgrim Tale: day two

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They serve us BOWLS of coffee for breakfast, and I kinda want to kiss them. There is also orange juice, and toast with butter and marmalade. We pick up our preordered chorizo sandwiches and stuff them in our packs for lunch. We thank our innkeepers, fill our water bottles, and begin.

It is difficult to keep my eyes on the road because there are fathomless views in every direction. As we climb over and through the mountain passes, new vistas present themselves at every turn. Freely roaming flocks of sheep (and herds of horses) are everywhere. We sometimes hear their baaing and bells before we see them. We watch a shepherd moving his flock. He drives along the road (with his sheepdog leaning over his shoulder) whistling through the open window. And his sheep scurry along the grassy hillside right alongside him, as if he were walking with them.

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We leave the path to climb up to the Vierge d’Orisson (the Virgin of Orisson), the first of many shrines along the Way honoring the Mother of God. The setting is breathtaking. And it is good to reflect on her example of humble submission here at the beginning of our pilgrimage.

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The wind is ferocious. The shirt and socks I safety pinned on the outside of my pack because they were still wet have dried completely by mid-morning. We attribute the wind to the altitude, a theory supported somewhat by the many trees that have grown with a permanent lean in one direction. But this is unusual, even here. Later this afternoon, pilgrims will be removed from the mountain, and tomorrow the pass will be (unofficially) closed. The winds are clocked at 120 kmp (80 mph).

We have packed a lunch because we have been told there will be no food til we reach Roncevalles. Imagine our delight when we happen upon a food truck cozied into a little indention in one of the hills. We buy fruit and hot cocoa and homemade sheep cheese. Sheep cheese will become an obsession. (There might be some in my refrigerator, even as I write this.) Here we meet Steve, who some years ago quit his job, sold everything, and bought a sailboat. He has a water catchment system and mostly feeds himself on the fish he catches. He is on pilgrimage while his sailboat is undergoing repairs in Trinidad.

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We pass a stone hut built into the mountain. It was formerly used by shepherds, but is now sometimes used as emergency shelter by pilgrims caught out in bad weather. It will be used tonight. Not far past this, we cross the inauspicious cattle gate that marks the border between France and Spain. The path is littered here on both sides with clumps of heather and delicate crocus blossoms.

The descent into Roncesvalles is the steepest I have ever encountered. Anywhere. Ever. I am grateful for both my ankle brace and my poles. And for the trees that now protect us from the wind.

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The Albergue Colegiata at Rocesvalles is one of the most efficient we will encounter in our whole trip. We are pointed toward a large, orderly closet where we deposit our boots on shelves. We check in and are assigned numbered bunks, and directed to our respective floors. Large, spotlessly clean rooms are divided into tidy cubicles of four bunks, each with a locker at the end. You insert a coin to turn the key and lock the locker. Your coin is returned when you unlock the locker and take your things. Showers and toilets, also pristine, are arranged in a long room at the end of the hall.

We have the pilgrim supper at the nearby hotel which consists of soup, bread, wine, and a delicious local trout. Our dinner companions are Mike and Paul, two Mennonite boys from Winnipeg who have just finished college and are out adventuring and figuring out what comes next. Thresholds seem to be a common theme on the Camino. Later they, and we, are joined by Rhys, a vivacious young woman from Oregon they have come to know already, and who will later adopt Mike and me as her Camino uncle and aunt.

This evening we attend our first pilgrim mass. Though we understand little of the language, it is good to be in this sacred place with these people who are already knitting themselves into our hearts…

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Travel notes:

All photos in this and all other posts taken with my iphone 5c (sometimes edited/compiled with instaframe/instagram). When every inch and every ounce counts, a smartphone is a marvelous multi-tool. Camera, computer, repository for notes and contact info, ipod, etc… We did not activate our phone service, we kept them in airplane mode with wifi activated. Wifi, pronounced “Wee Fee” :), was inconsistent and sometimes, like at Orisson, completely unavailable. But we found it often enough to be able to stay connected to family.

Also, there are a great many travel guides for camino travelers. The one we used, and saw most often among English speakers, was John Brierly’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago.