We took it steady, stiff and tender from the first day having put us over its knee and spanking our backsides, spinning us, slapping our faces and laughing at our audacity to think we had it measured so soon.
There is nothing like the alarm of a hostel full of people on the move. The Orisson Albergue is small, we were only bunking with 7 other people, but en-mass there is an energy it’s futile to resist.
Besides the only food between here and there was being served between 7 and 7.30am, only.
Our first pilgrim’s breakfast was a stark introduction to life on The Camino. A bowl of tea, two dry rounds of baguette, butter and jam, and by the time we got to a table there was only plum or cherry left. Who eats those, what’s the point in stocking them?
The boys weren’t complaining, and they’d accepted to eat what was put in front of them, and were even drinking tea knowing that was the deal. I was concerned they hadn’t eaten enough over two days to sustain them over 20km, given Ben hadn’t kept dinner down.
And strawberry jam would make it easier to eat dry, day old, crusty bread.
So I found Jacques, I didn’t know his name then but he was about to play a huge part in our day. A short, leathered, ‘spritely’ elderly man, whose eyes were shuttered to the milieu as he helped serve breakfast. I asked him if he could find any red jam, and he smiled and skipped off to get a handful of options. And that’s how it began.
When we left, we went over to say thank you, he took two seconds to register and then he stood up from his breakfast and asked how Ben was. Then he told us what the day ahead looked like, reassured us the worst was behind us. There was a refreshment van up the hill and then to be sure to take the right hand fork at a certain point. We would know it because there was an obelisk like stone, and to look out for it as it was a gentler way.
Then he said he’d seen the boys pulling together yesterday, going back for their mother. He’d seen it all before, but this he noticed.
He told us to take care, and told Ben to keep his mind strong.
It is undeniably beautiful. The mists hung over the valleys as we rose up into the crisp blue sky and to the challenge ahead. However, every time the view caught my breath, my internal draw on my reserves pulled me back to the task in hand. That of walking over Lepoeder, 1400 ft above sea level.
We took it steady, stiff and tender from the first day having put us over its knee and spanking our backsides, spinning us, slapping our faces and then just for mischief spinning us again while laughing at our audacity to think we had it weighed and measured so soon.
We got our first real sense of our fellow pilgrims. There is a school party of Koreans Harry likes, who randomly sit down every forty minutes or so and eat. Lots of The Road is on a road, pilgrims clutter it and the cars have to navigate us like errant sheep.
About 2 hours of walking up hill Jacques drove past, the boys waved. He pulled over and gambolled out of his car to offer us a lift up to the refreshment van. He was leaving his car there all day, he could take our backpacks? We all looked at Ben, who said, no he was going to walk all the way. Jacques patted his back and said he had a lot of respect for that and to stay strong mentally, then he turned to me and said he thought the boys were something special.
I wasn’t going to say this but, it is what it is: I teared up, other people telling me they see the people my boys are growing into does it to me. I did arrive on this walk a little emotionally vulnerable for this nonsense. It’s the point, I think, deep down I want to give them the space and opportunity to choose the men they want to be. Beyond what I can give them. Maybe there’s other reasons I’ll find on The Way, it’s a long road.
Anyway, I’m sure I won’t cry as I kiss a strange old man again to thank him again. Bless him he wasn’t fazed at all.
All I could suggest was that he vomited with the wind as washing his walking boots wasn’t an option. We gave him some water.
Not long later he threw up the water. He was fatigued, his stomach couldn’t cope with the extra strain of digestion on top of the physical challenge.
The wind had taken on a little force, the sun was high and the trail pitched and yawed without relief.
We stopped whenever he had to. He set the goals to the next stop. Slowly the road passed under our feet until he brought us to a halt.
Harry found the stop and start tiring, tiresome. It tested him to go so slowly.
We ate lunch, or Harry and I did, saving half our baguettes for later. I got Ben to drink a little water. There was no sense of how far we’d come or how far there was to go. A brow on a curve was all there ever was just ahead.
We slowly got back up and made for the next turn in the trail, and there it was, just like a kebab van outside a night club on a Friday night.
There were hard boiled eggs and cereal bars and all sorts of things a modern pilgrim might find delicious. And the Koreans. We have learnt Hello in Korean, “Ayon ha theh yo”. I was worried about Ben’s sugar level, and bought a multifruit juice to try a replace his salts, we even got him a little chocolate. He couldn’t eat.
We just rested. Then when he was ready, we got going again. We were 1400meters from Spain.
The sun was beating down, but the wind was tougher. It was so strong birds could not take flight. We watched as a flock of blackbirds took hops against the wind to land a few feet ahead, over and over again until they could catch the wind under their wings and then they were shot away down the valley.
We mirrored their incremental progress across the landscape until all that was left was a short, steep, rocky climb to the summit. Ben still kept stopping. Then a tall Italian, in a bandana, stopped and stripped Ben of his back pack, made him lie down, raised his feet and waited. Harry went to carry Ben’s pack for him and the Italian patted them both on the head paternally and strode off.
Obviously I took the pack off Harry and double-packed it, as we pushed for the border again.
I stood between France and Spain with one son raring to go, already in Spain and the other unable to find the strength to cross from France.
The Koreans were taking group photographs, and when Ben was finally join up they took one of us together. They took so many different angels and handed back the camera with a “You choose”. It was pretty much the last time we were together for the rest of The Way that day.
Harry was frustrated. Ben was in his own private hell. I could not leave Ben, I could not hold Harry back.
Harry slowly drew ahead and then waited for us at a fountain. 765 miles from Santiago Harry dropped our bottle of water with us, saying he’d found one, without a lid, he was happy to use.
I knew I had to give it up to The Camino and let him go his own way.
I told him to remember to go right as Jacques had told us and then trusted him. I can hear parents everywhere drawing a sharp breath, but that is partly why we’re here. These boys have seen and done a lot to draw on, they have resources. Harry has the secret to happiness, and an emotional IQ that draws people to him, and there are so many pilgrims on the route he would be accompanied whether he knew it or not.
Ben and I walked ten paces and stopped. Walked ten paces and stopped.
Then he sat down and cried his heart out, saying he couldn’t go on. Although he knew he had no choice. It was further and harder to go back, and he knew he couldn’t just stay where he was on the side of a path in the middle of nowhere.
By this point he couldn’t keep even a little water down. I watched his eyes roll back in his head as he went clammy pale. I kicked myself for not packing glucose tablets, as that was exactly what he would be able to absorb that would give him energy and balance his electrolytes. I just wished we had glucose tablets.
5mins later a young English man walked up to us, asked if we were OK and said all he had to offer us to help was a packet of Lucozade tablets. Did we want them?
Think what you will.
Ben could barely get enough saliva together to chew the first one, so sipped water. Then threw up. He took another and chewed it. Whether they really were powerful enough or it was a Dumbo’s feather telling Ben it was pure energy and would by-pass his stomach, doesn’t really matter as slowly Ben began to be able to walk longer distances.
We were out of the wind, there was shade, the trail eased to a stroll. Suddenly coming towards us was Jacques, he was just in shorts, bouncing through the heather, breaking off bits and breathing in the smell. We said hello, he took a second and then registered who we were. He clapped for joy to see us still there.
He was concerned for Ben, and escorted us to a small refuge, sat Ben down and systematically went through his pockets pulling out sesame seed snacks, raisins, homeopathy pills, and menthol pills for big breaths. Each thing would help he said. Ben managed to eat the sesame seeds and honey. He drank a little water.
Jon, a Basque, turned up. Jacques spoke no Spanish, Jon spoke no French but between us we managed, Jacques described the trail ahead and Jon offered to drive us back to St Jean Pied de Port. Ben said no, he had to get to Roncevalles. Jon decided to carry Ben’s backpack for me to the final rise.
We had to promise to send Jacques an email when we arrived at Santiago, then he shook Ben’s hand and tapped his head telling him to stay strong, before waving us off.
With time anywhere is within walking distance.
I heard all about the The Battle of Roncevaux Pass which the guerrilla army of the Basques won on Saturday 15th of August in 778. Ben breathed through three more threats to throw up.
At one point a gaggle of day walkers descended upon us, fussed around Ben, suggested water, and then when they heard that made him throw up, all nodded and agreed noisily the churning stomach feeling was hard, then they wished us “buen courage” and went about their day.
We got to the top of the last decent, thanked Jon, promised him an email too and took back Ben’s pack.
Then we began to descend.
I’m just going to throw in that going down with two backpacks was to take its toll, but more importantly we did make it. We talked about the Indian economy and Japanese art as we walked through the most incredible forest with a copper dry-leaf carpet. I took photographs so that Ben would be able to look back and remember it after all the fight is forgotten. At the bottom Roncevalles monastery just appeared suddenly in a pool of sunlight.
It’s such a cliche that you can only do so much for your kids. You can take all the weight you like off them but, you can’t do it for them. All you can do is stand beside them and be there.
That 16km took us 9 hours, and the first thing we saw was Harry’s backpack on the ground across the river at the entrance, so we knew he’d arrived safely. We really enjoyed our cold cokes in the evening sun, together.
PS we didn’t have any cash on us so the hostel couldn’t accept us, and they were so rude and unhelpful and told us to walk to the nearest ATM 3km away (and back) in a most unChristian manner. They really didn’t do any favours to their faith.
My body has never hurt so much in so many places whatever I’ve put it through before so I wasn’t going to walk another step. Fortunately there was a perfectly lovely Basque hotel with one double bed left that took debit cards. We blew the budget for at least two days, but we showered, we ate, we slept and we lived to walk another day.
PPS we met the tall Italian with his wife at dinner that night, so we could thank him. He told us it was their dream to walk The Camino with their sons, who thought he was crazy.
PPS Our culture, the western culture, spends a lot of time in its head. In Africa where I was born and brought up its a physical survival game, in our culture it’s a mental survival challenge. We find it easy to spend time thinking, even dreaming, (read channelling, trancing or whatever your experience is) but we are not grounded on the whole. This was the most grounding, physical experience I have come across and the fact that you have to get up and do it again for 31 days is part of it.