September 14 – 17: St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Zubieri, Spain

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Main street – St. Jean Pied de Port, France

September 14: St. Jean Pied de Port, France

This ancient capital of the Basque region nestled in the Pyrenees is a welcoming place to start, The storybook village is crowded with pilgrims from all over the world, excited to begin their adventure.

We stay at the Beilari, one of the many albergues in town, except that this one comes with a recommendation. Albergues are hostels run exclusively for pilgrims, who show their pilgrim passport and receive a stamp (a lovely souvenir by the end of the trip).

All 22 guests are greeted warmly, settle in and later we all congregate around the long, wood dining tables. Our host serves us a glass of port and asks us to introduce ourselves, say where we live and why we are doing the Camino. We are from the U.S., France, Malta, Brazil and Australia and we immediately feel a deep connection to each other.

We set the table together as our host tells us that for this night only, we are a family and will share a home cooked meal together. Impressively, he repeats this all in English, French and Spanish and tells us that he plans to learn German during the off season.

We are told not to set alarms and the next morning awaken to the sounds of a Gregorian chant. After sharing breakfast, we head out together on our first day.

September 15: Orisson, France- 7 miles, 3 hours

It’s a strenous, uphill walk, so we plan to stop in the albergue in Orisson before continuing through the Pyrenees tomorrow.

We sit outside all afternoon, delighting in the travel stories from our newfound friends from the U.S., Switzerland and Australia, even though traveling through India on a motorcycle and hiking in Nepal are not on our bucket list.

Before dinner we are asked to, once again, introduce ourselves, which seems to give you as much insight into others as it does to yourself. I fall asleep wishing I could have given all 38 new members of my new one night family a group hug.

September 16:  Roncesvalles, Spain- 9 miles, 5 hours

This is so much better than our 2016 experience; it’s not raining, the trail is better and the rooms at the monestery have been renovated.

It’s a long, uphill climb, but the scenery is breathtaking and the only sound you can hear is the occasional cow bell. I have a sudden urge to run through the hills, twirling around and singing the words to “The Sound of Music”, but suddenly remember the Camino golden rule: never take an extra step that is not necessary.

There are two bunk beds to a cubicle and we are sharing it with a French couple that speak no English. My French friend and I soon find something we have in common; we both keep hitting our heads on the top bunk, laugh and high five each other.

We enjoy another home cooked dinner, then a big group of us gather to toast a U.S. couple celebrating their thirty-sixth wedding anniversary.

September 17: Zubieri- 14 miles, 6 hours

Of course, things could always be worse. Last time it rained, but today it’s hot and the shale, tree roots and loose rock make the path unrelentingly difficult as we trudge uphill and then descent, over and over again.

At our albergue Palo de Avellano, we meet an older couple who left from their front door in Germany and are now heading home.

Two Tylenol and one power nap later, I am ready for a glass of wine. At the bar, we are invited to join a woman from Holland sitting alone and then run into a couple from Texas.

At dinner, we’re seated next to five men from Denmark who met when they were six years old and travel together once a year. We laugh and talk, almost forgetting that it’s lights out at 10 pm.

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Following the Yellow Brick Road; Why I Am Walking the Camino Again

Photo Following the Yellow Brick Road

The 2011 movie “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen, sparked a resurgence in the Camino. His son, Emilio Estevez, who also wrote, produced and directed it, has compared his story to “The Wizard of Oz.” Sheen is Dorothy, Oz is replaced by Santiago and the pilgrims that Sheen meets along the way seem to have something in common with the tin man, scarecrow and the cowardly lion. The yellow arrows that mark the way along the Camino are today’s yellow brick road.

Walking out of the theater that afternoon, I remember Mr. Wiz* vowing to walk the Camino someday. I thought nothing of it again, until 2016, when I accepted an invitation to join him on a 500 mile walk through Spain.

Then an unathletic version of myself, I was not about to miss out on an adventure. I started training and had found my sport; I could walk! Standing on that mountain as I tested out my first pair of hiking boots, I felt positively giddy. No matter that it was the 4-foot, plastic mountain in the center of the REI shoe department; I was hooked.

Following one of the ancient paths that pilgrims have traveled for thousands of years to the cathedral in Santiago, Spain where the remains of St. James are said to be buried, the Way of St. James evokes physical, spiritual and mystical qualities. As you walk each day, wishing each passerby “Buen Camino” (a good walk) can result in everything from a smile to hours of heartfelt conversation. Every 24 hours, relationships are made and lost, as people walk ahead and then catch up to each other (which usually results in lots of hugs and a celebratory glass of wine). A simple gesture, a chance encounter, a small town on such a large world stage; there is such beauty in the incongruity of it all.

Standing on line to receive our Compostela (the certificate of completion) at the end of the trip, a fellow pilgrim mentioned a national pilgrim organization. Members of our local chapter of the American Pilgrims on the Camino all seem to have that same sparkle in their eyes; they are interesting people of all ages that are united by a sense of adventure and purpose. And when family and friends have heard all your stories and seen your photos more than once, this is the group who is always anxiously willing to share it all again.

This band of spirited souls with a zest for life understood my newfound feelings. I now try to focus on the present, listen more and go with the flow. I have a newfound respect for the uncomplicated aspects of a simpler life. I seem to be more curious, inquisitive and adventurous. Solitude has become as important to me as socializing. Meeting other pilgrims and sharing our common bond has been invigorating.

So, accepting Mr. Wiz’s invitation once again, with my hair cut short, nail polish removed and no makeup packed, I will venture out with a couple of outfits in my backpack and see where life takes me this time. These are not requirements; you make your Camino your own. This is just my way of not letting a more complicated version of myself get in the way of the simple pleasures that the Camino is known to provide.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.