We awoke in Roncesvalles to a carnival atmosphere. Music was playing outside. Buses were parked in the lot near the Abbey. People were milling about. I was dumbfounded at the number of pilgrims! I started to notice many without backpacks and realized that they must be shipping their packs ahead with delivery services. We saw some of this in Orrison but apparently many feel that carrying the backpack lessens their experience.
There were barricades along part of the road and signs moving us toward the Camino route. Across the road was a sign: Santiago de Composela – 790 Km. We cinched our packs and started down the path. The day was a little cool and slightly cloudy – perfect walking weather. We spoke of our journey so far, laughing gratefully about the good fortune of staying at Orrison. Knowing that a one day trek over the mountains would have been really painful. This morning, we also started our first Camino tradition: saying the Rosary together as we started down our path.
One striking element of Spain has been the abundance of beautiful old churches. We expected to see them but they are literally in every village, are very old, and we have yet to see one that was not beautiful. The landscape was flat and the trail wound along a highway until moving behind a Buguete and out into the countryside. Given all of the activity behind us, I was surprised to see no one on the trail. We left after the first wave and I figured the second wave of pilgrims must be on a different schedule. We had just started an uphill climb into a woods when an armed man on a motorcycle came up behind us and started speaking. “No entiendo” I said. He motioned behind and said “runners.” Apparently, we had left at the beginning of the annual Roncesvalles to Zubiri Marathon!
A few minutes later, the first runner appeared behind us and flew past us up the hill and down an incredibly steep decline into another town ahead. Before long, we found ourselves in a mass of runners. “Buen Camino” they called as they passed. Gracias? Y usted? I suppose that is the correct response. We felt like we should start cheering them on but couldn’t quite find the right words. As we approached the next town, we entered to cheering crowds along the village streets. Some of the children even high-fived us as we passed. After a while, we became a bit self-conscious and were relieved to leave the town and begin a hike up a very steep hill into woods at the top. Soon, the runners were past and we were left with the quiet of the day and the trail meandering through the forest.
Several hours into our day, we came to Viskarret and Cafe Juan right along our path, playing American music loudly, and beckoning us with the promise of a Coke and something to eat. Seeing two guys we recognized from Orrison as the West Virginia boys at one of the tables, we asked to join them. Jay, six months retired, and Michael, recently retired, had decided to celebrate Michael’s recent freedom by tackling the Camino. Everyone has a story, I thought, as we discussed their journey to this point and the winding roads we all follow through life. Jay’s arthritic kneels were braced and Michael sported a robust mustache reminiscent of Sam Elliott. At first I thought they looked out of place on this road but I later realized that there really is no normal pilgrim. Just those who chose to make the pilgrimage.
A steep climb out of Viskarret tested us as it wound through charming cobblestone streets and houses built vertically up the hill, taking us up above the forested path we had been on earlier. Along the way, we encountered two Spanish women walking part of the Camino on Holiday. It was an awkward encounter as I was trying to find a room for the night in Zubiri and was not focused on the conversation. At first, I mistook them for French and misfired with my choice of language, then I overestimated their command of English until one started making fast-paced yipping noises, which Sally later told me was the woman’s way of telling me I was talking too fast. I laughed out loud and recovered later in the day when we encountered them – apologizing in my best Spanish and telling them that I would speak “mas despacio” next time. They were a good-spirited pair.
Today ended up being our most social day yet. We later encountered a young Russian woman who we had seen the day before. Her English was pretty good and she always had a bright a smile. We later learned that her name is Ala and have since discovered that she is an incredibly optimistic person – we always look forward to seeing her along the Way.
The final stretch into Zubiri was a really steep decline down a rocky path. At this point, two seriously intense descents had added major tenderness to my quads and each step down burned. Fortunately, muscle break-down and repair is far preferable to injury as we started to see knee braces and hear of other injuries along the way. The way into Zubiri crossed over a stone bridge that arched over the Arga River – a river we’ll see on numerous days. Zubiri was a lovely little village and we stayed at Pension Usoa – a three bedroom apartment rented as double occupancy rooms to pilgrims. Sally did a load of laundry and was thrilled to be able to hang our clothes to dry! We’ve been plotting ways to foil our homeowner’s association to hang clothes out when we return…
We were delighted to discover that Claire and Gabby, two from our original group in Orrison, were staying in the same pension! We ended up seeing them at dinner and learned a bit more about this interesting pair. Gabby is from Colorado and recently quit a job with a software company. Claire is a relatively recent college grad from Luxembourg who was studying in Canada and is on a break from a longtime boyfriend. Both see the Camino as a path between today and what will be; a tomorrow that is currently uncertain for both. The restaurant became quite the hub of activity for us as we saw the two Spanish women on holiday, Chris and Nora (who we met in Roncesvalles), and Michael and Jay again. For dinner, we had a salad and a pizza, naturally supplemented with wine.
Many of those we’ve encountered so far are seekers. Seeking self. Seeking answers, Seeking a way forward. Few would admit that they are seeking God and for those that might suggest a quest for the divine, they would most likely not group it into any kind of “religious” category. And yet, I can’t help but believe that the empty place within, that gap in understanding, fulfillment, or direction is, in fact, a quest for God in the most traditional sense possible. A search for higher purpose and meaning in a world full of veneers – shiny surfaces on which to slip and slide as we seek solid footing on firm ground. As Augustine said, “My heart is restless until it rests in You.” I see much restlessness on the Camino.