Women of the Way: Embracing the Camino
"Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing." ~ Barry Finlay
The Pyrenees are a range of mountains that form the border between France and Spain. According to
legend, Pyrene was a virginal princess who was raped by drunken Hercules. She subsequently gave birth
to a serpent and ran away to the woods crying. Her sobs attracted wild beasts that then attacked and
killed her. When the sobered Hercules found her remains, he mournfully screamed from the
mountaintops, "Pyrene!" and the rocky pinnacles echoed back "Pyrene!" Since then, the mountains
have retained the wept-over name.
Most Spaniards start the Camino in Roncesvalles, while other nationalities start in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port,
France. From France there are two routes: one over the mountain (Route Napéolon) and the other
through "The Valley of Charlemagne." Dennis and I decide to see both the Pyrenees and the valley. Since
it is a long and steep climb out of France, we decide to climb over the Pyrenees from Roncesvalles,
which is already at 900 meters (2952 feet) above sea level, and return through the valley the next day.
Leaving Roncesvalles that morning, we have difficulty finding the trailhead. Our guidebook is unclear
about where the trail starts because it is written for pilgrims descending into Roncesvalles, not for those
leaving from it. We find a path in the beech woods leading up the mountain, but it does not look well
traveled. We ask directions; one pilgrim says he came down that path the previous night. A French
pilgrim tells us that the path we are contemplating is the hard way up the mountain and that a much
easier access starts behind the abbey. Figuring that "the easier route" is the one through the valley, we
proceed to the woods and unceremoniously take our first step on the Camino.
This is our first mistake. Our second mistake is not taking sufficient water and food for that day's tenhour hike. Our third mistake is not understanding that the towns in this area have different names,
depending on the language. The Spanish Roncesvalles is Roncevaux in French and Orreaga in Basque.
Since the guidebook names do not match the names on the signposts, we are often unsure of where we
Immediately the woodsy path becomes arduous, with a steep ascent. Here and there, it seems as if our
noses touch the ground. Dennis estimates that we are climbing at a 35° to 45° angle. He uses his pole to
help with the precipitous slope. I find it difficult to maintain a stride with poles and hike without them.
Soon I am panting, my chest heaving as I gasp for breath. I place each step with intention, and, at times,
use my hands to pull me up the mountain. Under the guise of looking at the view, I stop often to catch
my breath. My nonchalant breaks do not fool Dennis; he knows that I cannot continue at the rapid pace
I set for myself and encourages me to slow down. At this slower gait, I notice the individual stones, the
shape of the leaves, and the clarity of the cerulean sky. The slower I go, the more I notice. I am not
thinking of reaching the top or getting to the other side; I am happy doing what I am doing, climbing the
Pyrenees on a sunny September day. As I get into my rhythm, the effort diminishes. It is still a difficult
climb, but I am no longer gulping air or working as hard. As this transition happens, a peace flows into
me. I am actually having fun!
Once above the tree line, we are exposed to the hot September sun. Fortunately a light breeze keeps
the perspiration in check. Several hours later, we reach the highest point on the high route, the Collado
Lepoeder at 1430 meters (4961 feet). Looking back we can see Roncesvalles below us and realize that
there are two ascents from the town: the steep one we have just climbed and a longer one through
Puerto de Ibañeta (the Roncevaux Pass), a mountain pass where both the Route Napoléon and the lower
route join. According to the signpost, the way we just came is called “Camino de fuertes pendientes"
(Way of steep slopes). Looking down, we realize that the road behind the abbey would have been an
easier climb than the way we came. I am humbled. It is not a matter of misinterpreting the French
pilgrim earlier that day, but of second guessing what I thought he meant.
Dennis and I study the signpost, trying to determine which way to go. There are four arms with names
that do not match the guidebook. We decide to follow the sign with the scallop shell. Based on the
20.8 kilometers (12.9 miles) distance, we determine that Donibane Garazi must be the Basque name for
St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. According to the sign, it is five-and-a-half hours away.
From this high point, the view is breathtaking. The Pyrenees range as far as the horizon and I realize just
how immense our planet is, how parochial my life has become, and how much I needed this venture. As
I stand upon the mountain with the wind mussing my hair, I do not fret the past or fear the future: I just
Everywhere I look, there is beauty. Peaks poke through the clouds, reminding me of frilly Elizabethan
collars. A few mountains are green with forest or pastures; most are bare and rocky. Flocks of sheep and
herds of wild horses dot the highland pastures. It is impossible to describe the magnificence and majesty
of the Pyrenees.
Apart from signposts at trail crossings and occasional cairns, we see very few markings. Perhaps we miss
them because we are hiking the trail in reverse to what is customary. Even without the markings, we do
not get lost. Pilgrims walking this path for more than a millennium have etched the Way through the
It is a hot day; the sun pours down and I consume most of my water. I berate myself for carrying only
one bottle, especially since my backpack has a pocket on each side for water containers. I am
disappointed when there is no water at the modern stone shelter, Isandorre. I traipse up and down
several cols (mountain passes) before arriving parched at the Fontaine de Roland. I guzzle the cold
spring water that tastes so fresh, without traces of chemicals or minerals, quenches my thirst, and cools
The pilgrims coming from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port say that there are no other fountains from this point on
to France. I see a woman who is walking barefoot. I cannot imagine myself doing that. Sharp cutting
rocks, hot asphalt, entangling roots, hay-stubbled fields, animal and human waste are my reasons for
not doing so; besides, my feet are too tender. This woman says that she has been walking barefoot for a
long time and has developed heavy calluses. She believes that she will have fewer foot problems than
those wearing shoes. I wonder if she will be refused admittance to restaurants, stores or churches for
not having footwear.
My tank top provides no protection from the cutting backpack straps that have rubbed sores into my
upper body. It's too hot to wear a long-sleeve shirt, so I stick a shirt under the straps and across my
chest to prevent further abrasion. It looks silly, but is effective. I munch on granola bars, the only food I
have, and gulp more water before filling the bottle and continuing the hike.
I know we are on an overall descent, but marvel at how many hills we climb. As I pass the Col de
Bentarte, I see a second shelter, Aterbea. This is a low, stony structure built into the mountainside,
resembling a sheep shed. I guess it would be inviting to those lost in a storm. On the rocks behind this
building is a lammergeier, or bearded vulture. The bearded vulture is Europe's largest and rarest vulture,
with a wingspan of up to 2.8 meters (9 feet); we are lucky to see it. I see numerous large birds of prey
flying over the mountain: vultures, eagles, and other raptors, but I cannot distinguish one from the
Even though there is a cool breeze, I am hot from the exertion. My hair clings to my head, beads of
sweat shimmer on my brow. My body is working hard, yet I feel energized, strong, fit. I must be on an
Shortly after this shelter, the mountain path turns into a paved country road. St-Jean-Pied-de-Port is
18 kilometers (11 miles) away. To get there we must descend 1100 meters (3600 feet). Soon we are at
the cattle grid (animal barrier) that marks the frontier; I step carefully over the metal grating and into
France. Continuing down the road, we walk by the Refuge Auberge Orisson where many hikers end their
first day's climb. It does not cross my mind to stop at the inn to ask for water; I am still too new to the
pilgrim's ways. From here, the road descends steeply, winding down the mountain and I consider myself
lucky to be walking down rather than climbing up to this point. From this height, I see glimpses of our
destination below and the road as it zig-zags into the valley.
The last several kilometers are difficult. Not only are we unaccustomed to walking all day with the
backpacks, but we have not eaten enough food to fuel us. Our bodies are stalling, or "bonking." Dennis
is more affected by this than I am. How could I have put in all the time and effort in planning the trip,
and not plan the first and most arduous day? I am an experienced hiker and should have known that
climbing the Pyrenees is no walk in the park. In my haste to start the Camino, I was reckless. I should
have asked the café where we ate breakfast to make sandwiches for us. What was I thinking! Why
wasn't I thinking? I have been too long enamored with the idea of walking the Camino; I must now push
aside my infatuation and start being practical.
Then, the Camino provides. We come into a patch of wild blackberries. Many pilgrims have picked over
the lower branches, but Dennis uses his walking stick to lower some of the higher branches and we
munch on the succulent berries. This unexpected treat helps energize the last hours of our day's walk.
When we arrive at the old town gate to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Dennis sits, spent, while I try to locate the
auberge (French inn). In front of us is a great looming citadel with a large portal. I do not realize that this
is the entrance to the city, and proceed to the train station to ask directions. I then walk back to Dennis
and we set off, adding what feels like miles to our walk as we enter the Rue de la Citadelle from the
back, climbing old granite steps, and walking uphill on a narrow, cobblestone street lined with red
sandstone walls. The inn is located in the heart of the medieval old town, just down the street from the
Accueil Saint Jacques, which is the pilgrim's office. We are exhausted. At last, we enter the Auberge du
The inn is pristine, with white walls, dark wood beams, and dark tiled floor. A staircase on the right leads
to the second floor dormitories. The dining room is bright and overlooks the terrace. As lovely as it
sounds, it does not feel homey. The hosts do not greet us and seem too busy to be friendly. Everything is
I soothe my aches and wash the road dust from my body in a steamy-hot shower. When I leave the stall,
I notice that the shower water flowed into the bathroom. Embarrassed, I check to see what I did to
make this mess, but can see no reason for it. I conclude that there must be cracks in the shower tiles
that conduct the water into the room. I find a mop and pail in the corner of the room and sponge up my
mess. At this time, I do not know that the mop and pail will become ever-present and the swabbing up
of spilled water a nightly routine.
We share a room with Trish, a woman from Canada who arrived that day on the train from Paris. Excited
about starting her adventure, she wants to chat, but we are too tired. That night we share supper with
Trish and other pilgrims from Ireland, Germany, and France. The hostess offers an aperitif, a half shot of
sherry. Dennis and I are in a celebratory mood, having crossed the Pyrenees and completed our first day
on the Camino. Everyone except Trish will start their hike in the morning; she will visit the town and
await a friend's arrival. Before retiring, I want to check my email, but the French keyboard frustrates me
and I go to bed.
The next morning my thigh muscles are screaming and my legs wobble. Trying to get down the stairs to
the dining room for breakfast is excruciating. I am hoping that today's "easy" walk will keep the blood
flowing and help the thighs recover. I did not drink enough water yesterday to wash out the lactic acid.
Today, I promise myself, I will drink more.
Prior to leaving St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we visit the pilgrim's office to get directions for the lower route.
There is information for cycling the lower route, but not much for walking it. Since the Accueil Saint
Jacques encourages pilgrims to take the Route Napoleón, they only have a one-page sketch showing the
route through the valley. From there, we go to a deli to buy ham-and-cheese sandwiches for a picnic
later in the day, then to the local outfitters to buy wool socks for Dennis, because he has forgotten his at
home, and then we walk out through the citadel portal and towards the valley route.
We do not get very far. Once outside the gate, there are no markers or signposts indicating the way. We
need to ask several people before finding someone who can tell us how to walk to Arnéguy, a small
town on the border between France and Spain. Once again, not having a good guidebook or accurate
map causes us to walk an extra mile or two.
We follow the D933, a fast vehicular two-lane road all the way to Arnéguy, missing the path through the
beautiful tranquil forest with a bubbling brook. The guidebook explains that there are several footpath
options: the Camino, marked with yellow arrows; the French GR 65, one of the European network of
long-distance trails, but it does not describe the markings (a blaze consisting of a white stripe over a red
stripe); and new blue and yellow posts. How can we go wrong with three different markers? Dennis,
having recently hiked the Appalachian Trail in the US, is accustomed to looking for blazes and sees
several GR markings, but, without an accurate guidebook, he is unable to interpret their meaning. I do
not see any markings, either because I am counting on Dennis to find the path, I am distracted, or
because they are not there. Eventually, we would learn to look for a variety of trail markings. Some, like
the yellow arrow, remain constant throughout the Camino; others are specific to a region.
In Arnéguy, I ask a policeman for directions, specifically inquiring about the Camino, which he does not
know about. I do not think to ask about the "Chemin de Saint Jacques," the French name for the
Camino; perhaps, he would have recognized that name. Eventually we find a trail, but miss a turn and
end up climbing about 600 meters (2000 feet) on a switchback road up some mountain peak. Dennis
keeps insisting that, according to the sun, we are heading in the right direction. I no longer hear the
highway nor see the river; we are too high. The bucolic town across the river with its white houses and
tiled rooftops, steepled church, and vibrant green pastures appears smaller with each switchback. At
one point, there is a sign in Basque and French stating that the hill is infested with vipers; we walk in the
middle of the road. Dennis keeps assuring me that we are heading west and soon will descend into the
next town. I am starting to have doubts.
It is getting late and we are out of water. When I hear an old truck whining its way up the mountain, I
stop the driver to ask for directions and water. The balding, paunchy Frenchman is wearing a green Tshirt with the saying "Time to make it happen." He tells us that the trail we are following is très désolé
(very desolate) and that we have to descend about 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) to get back on the Camino.
My weariness and disappointment must have touched his heart. He talks with his wife and they agree to
turn around and take us to where we missed the turn. We hop into the back of the white Nissan pickup
truck and they give us a bottle of cold Perrier. As I swig the delicious water, I can feel my body respond;
my temperature lowers and I can speak more clearly with my mouth no longer parched.
At the missed turnoff, we are amazed to see a bare sign the size of a storefront window with a tiny
Camino sticker in the upper right-hand corner. The "trail angel" tells us that he used to work on the
corner and was constantly whistling to pilgrims to point them in the right direction. Why no one
improved the marking is a wonder.
In gratitude, we offer money to pay for the gas and their time, but these two kind Frenchmen refuse to
take it. Instead, they ask that we pray for them when we arrive in Santiago. I promise to think of them
and their kindness and generosity when I get to the cathedral. Once again, the Camino provides for us.
We cross the border river into Spain and hike uphill to the town we kept seeing from the mountaintop.
Valcarlos/Luzaide is a small village with a population of about four hundred inhabitants. We stay at Casa
Marcellino, a refurbished historic hotel with modern amenities. Our room has twin beds with a private
bath and overlooks the street.
The tub is short, but deep. I fill it with hot water and soak my overworked and painful thighs. Although I
cannot extend my legs, the hot water helps alleviate the tightness. Because of the wrong turn, today's
gentle walk was more strenuous and steep than I had anticipated, and, once again, without sufficient
hydration. My quadriceps are rock hard, my legs wobbly.
I use the handrail to hobble down to the dining room. That night I feast on hake, a white fish, Dennis has
pork tenderloin, and we share a bottle of red wine. After two exhausting days, sleep comes effortlessly.
The next day we leave the hotel at 10 a.m. and have no trouble finding our way out of town; there is
only one major street. The trail markings are still inadequate, but we do not get lost. I am spent and my
thighs ache from the two previous days' climb; every step uphill is an effort, every step downhill
produces a moan as it stresses my thighs.
Determined not to run out of water, we fill our bottles at a natural spring trickling down the
mountainside. It is cold and tasty and—I hope—safe to drink.
At Puerto de Ibaneta, the two routes from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles merge. There is an
upright flagstone slab commemorating Roland's call for help to Charlemagne using an olifant horn, an
ivory horn made from an elephant's tusk. I am too tired to find this fascinating, though I vaguely recall
reading about it in The Song of Roland in college. Instead of checking out the monument, I stretch out
on the grass, lean against my backpack, and shut my eyes. Dennis is the history buff; he can tell me all
about it later.
From here, it is only 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) to Roncesvalles. I am tired and achy; feeling the toll of the
last few days. As we approach the monastery grounds, a large Charolais cow comes clomping down the
center of the two-lane road, her cowbell announcing her presence. We let her by—she is bigger than we
are. Suddenly she stops, and then looks right, left, and behind. She is apparently lost. She then looks
directly at me and moos plaintively, as if to say, "Where am I?" Dennis and I find this hysterically funny—
even the cow cannot find her way.
This time the monastery officials allow us to camp and we set up our tent in a field behind the abbey. I
make reservations for dinner at the hotel and am lucky to get the first seating. All the walking has given
me an appetite, and I can hardly wait until dinner. Finally, the doors to the comedor (dining room) open
and hundreds of pilgrims scurry to tables. Dinner is served family style, with piles of pasta for the first
course and a choice of chicken or fish for the second. We talk about our getting lost with those seated
with us at the table. Everyone says that the Camino is better marked in Spain.
Sated, we return to the campsite. It is quiet. This silence is very different from the bustling abbey
experience a few nights back. Since we are sheltered from the abbey lights, the starry sky is
extraordinarily brilliant, the clarity of the twinkling Milky Way takes my breath away; I am in awe. No
wonder the Camino is sometimes called the "Way of the Stars."
I use my headlamp to finish reading about Margery Kempe, a medieval pilgrim. I had started reading her
autobiographical account before leaving home in hopes of better understanding the medieval pilgrim's
travails. Her mystical antics have been a source of merriment to me, even though it was seriously
Just before I fall into a deep sleep, I think about how easy it must have been for pilgrims in Margery
Kempe's time to got lost; they had few guidebooks.