We made it to the 4km point despite travel fatigue, 31 degree heat and pounding hearts. We were surprised at how we’d underestimated this. This grounds you.
I thought it was ninja parent thinking to break up the first leg into two: an aperitif and a main.
After 16 hours of travel, changing trains, tubes and busses, across two days to get there, I figured we’d take on only 8km for our first climb.
The view featured in the photograph is what I had been aiming for. I imagined our first drink together on the balcony over hanging the mountainside. A quiet celebration of the start of the merry road to Santiago.
As we stamped in at the pilgrims post in St Jean Pied de Port, Catherine, our pilgrim registrar, said, “some of it you climb with your hands up the rocks!” So we were wise to get to the Orisson Albergue and take two days, she said.
We just took note of the directions out of the village, filled a water bottle, smiled at the shell shapes everywhere and set off with new walking sticks.
The first 4km took us fifty minutes. The first 4km brought out our idea of our roles, we walked different speeds and battled our expectations of how it should be.
We made it to that point despite sheer travel fatigue, 31 degree heat and pounding hearts. We were surprised at how much we’d underestimated things. But, we looked at each other and told ourselves we had this.
We just had to take it easy, right? We stopped to admire the view, we heard the cow bells, we did appreciate what we were walking in. But, the physical challenge became all consuming.
The next 4km took us 2 hours and 10 minutes and began a roller coaster of emotions and experiences we could not have ever predicted.
Our different strengths came out, but so did our weaknesses.
Our 12yo managed it with ease, but also with impatience. Our Teen struggled physically, but defaulted to martyrdom to his own detriment. I was just between keeping us together.
Then came the point when we had to use our strengths, but take a leap. Harry had to go ahead to the Albergue, into the hills of France looking for something with no “map” (it is clearly sign posted and there are no other tracks). While I had to “drop pack” and go back for our Teen.
A sore on his toe was opening up and by the time we got back up to my pack it was obvious he was going to struggle, so I had to double-pack it.
At this point the path decided to climb a little more sharply. It rises from 300 above sea level to 700 in 5km.
I had to stop looking ahead as the sight of yet steeper twists played on my mind. I loved the view, every single time I had to stop for breath. I also had to focus on taking one step in front of the other, with Ben.
Suddenly we came out on a road for a moment, and a car was coming round the corner. With no idea how far there was left, there was a nano second to make a decision. I stuck out my thumb.
The driver took Ben. Which left me alone, double-packing, in a fading light. Sometimes there is nothing for it but to get on with it.
I looked up and all I could see was hills rising ahead of me with a single track winding like a drunk’s road home. It’s shockingly dispiriting.
The next thing I saw was Harry running back for me.
I knew he’d made it. He was safe. It couldn’t be far as he was running, and that Ben had arrived.
The albergue is tucked around a corner on the east side of a ridge. With a view down over the Huntto area. Even as we walked to it I asked Harry if he meant where I thought he said, and he said his heart had sunk too when all he could see was the hillside rise above him.
The terrain is deceptive, you can be just around the corner from where you want to be and not know it. Right about now Harry said he was going to get fed up with metaphors.
For the next hour our elation slammed into the apathy of the Albergue staff.
They’ve seen every story. Everybody passes through, once, Pilgrims are inflated day trippers. And we were late. An extension to the day, another coin for the shower to dispense, another bunk to point to. Another soup to serve before the kitchen could close.
We sat on the bench outside to eat unceremoniously, in clothes you literally could wring sweat out of. Our astonishment tumbled out over the relief, in between noticing how good the bean soup tasted.
We had nothing but admiration for our 12yo, whilst being properly trounced by him, we’re deeply proud of him all at once.
Harry was the one we thought we’d have to carry, and he took on the mountains like a Capra.
We bathed him in his rightful acknowledgement. Then Ben’s body went into a mild shock and he threw up.
And then threw up again. And so the night was shaped.
He had to bunk down in communal digs, quietly exhausted and shaking. Harry had to accept there was no light to sit and chat by.
And I had to go to bed knowing that our plan to only do 10 or 12kms the next day, to “pace” ourselves, was not possible. There is nothing but more of the Pyrenees for the 20km between where we were and where we were going.
Compulsory check out was 7am
Our next day turned out to be the most extraordinarily testing day we’ve ever put ourselves through, but I don’t have enough wifi to tell you about it ..
So I’ll leave you with a beautiful panoramic of our first view as we left in the morning.
PS. Tina, this is for you. In between the violent vomiting, sweat and fatigue we didn’t raise much of a glass of anything – but the thought was there in my mind. Thank you.