The first day of the Camino is supposed to be the most difficult– 26 km up and over the Pyrenees from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles. The high trail was closed because of late snow, so I made my way up the valley along the river near the highway (along with many other pilgrims). Parts were soon familiar– a hawk circled above, periwinkle was blooming on the banks, and the cherry trees were starting to bud. In many ways I have been in perpetual spring, having trekked from September through December in the Southern Hemisphere, then traveling to Nepal in late February, and, after a brief interlude on the equator in Tanzania, hiking here in April. I am constantly surrounded by new growth, an unintended but welcome consequence of my chaotic calendar. Another plus was how strong I felt on today’s walk. Granted, it was only 26 km over a 1050m pass, but I felt good the whole way, so this should be a good trek. The one disappointment was how much was on pavement. Not sure how my knees will take 780 km of paved roads. The scenery though has been first rate. Not spectacular like Nepal, more rural like parts of New Zealand. Much of today’s walk was through farms– sheep not yet shorn and dairy cattle. A tractor passed hauling a wagon with ensilage, the smell was overpowering and evocative. Suddenly I was standing in my front yard back in Woodstock Virginia watching Tyrone Epard come by on a tractor. He was standing while driving, a shock of white-blonde hair in the wind, hauling a turd-hearse on his way to one of the many fields on what was then the Epard farm. Smells are the key to long-lost memories. What set today’s walk apart from many is that I’m on a pilgrimage route. Many of the people I walk with are here for a profoundly spiritual journey, stopping to pray briefly at crosses on the wayside. It was also a border trek today, starting out in France, crossing into Spain and back along the border for much of the day, before finally crossing the pass at Roland’s monument and heading into Spain for the duration. I kept thinking of Walter Benjamin who crossed the Pyrenees in 1940, only to be threatened to be sent back to Vichy France and chose instead suicide. National boundaries can have disastrous implications. Today the borders are not policed, and I made the descent into Roncesvalles early afternoon, settled into the pub with the other pilgrims enjoying the end of a first day’s trek.
T. Hugh Crawford