Arrival in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
~ T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Rhythmic clacking and chatter fill the air as I look out onto a mountain landscape in a foreign land and think back to my days behind a desk; a life of not-so-quiet desperation. I wasn’t that different from most people reaching middle age in our consumer culture, but I was one who asked, “Is this all there is?” Stuck behind that desk, day after day, I was desperate for something more but unsure of exactly what that ‘more’ was. In my mind, a storm was brewing, but outwardly I wore a painted-on smile. I would have to shed everything I had and was … to get me to this moment.
I know the first step in any journey is deciding to go. I look back and don’t remember the exact moment, only that it took an agonizingly long time to make the irrevocable decisions that started this journey. I had to navigate a sometimes difficult course and completed it just over two years ago, when this journey began.
The clack, clack, clack of the single-car train continues as I head higher into the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the southwest corner of France.
The train stops in front of a two-story white stucco building with crimson shutters and a terra-cotta roof. A sign above a door tells me it’s the end of the line: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I grab my black-and-gray Deuter backpack from above me and follow the crowd of fifty or so other pack-wearing pilgrims out onto the platform.
Pilgrim? Why do I use that term? Its simple definition is: a person who journeys a long distance to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion. I have arrived at a modern-day starting point for the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James. The Camino de Santiago is an ancient route that pilgrims have walked for over a thousand years, journeying to the remains of Saint James, a disciple of Jesus. Saint James is buried in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, approximately 500 miles to the west of where I stand. While I’m not walking to Santiago de Compostela as an act of religious devotion, I am making this pilgrimage hoping to uncover what direction I should head in life; moving towards a better version of myself. Every pilgrim arriving here has their own reasons for making the journey.
The small French enclave of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port lies in the Pyrenees’ foothills; its name translates to Saint John at the Foot of the Pass. Saint-Jean sits on the Pyrenean Mountain Range’s western edge, which runs along the border between France and Spain for some 270 miles. Spain lies only a morning’s walk up the mountain.
I head towards the center of town, walking with a spring in my step along a tree-lined street, every home the same white stucco topped by a red-tiled roof. Wisps of cloud float above, the temperature ideal on this early August afternoon.
While I haven’t read much about the Camino, I know a stop at a local office helps inexperienced pilgrims, and I head there first. It takes only a few minutes to reach the principal street in town. This narrow, cobbled lane must be pedestrian-only, as there are no cars, only a stream of smiling faces.
A line of pilgrims extends outside Les Amis Du Chemin de Saint-Jacques, translating to The Friends of The Path to Saint James. On one of the two doors to the arched stone entranceway, the English translation is more direct: Pilgrim Office. I join the line. In front of me, a group of three women who appear to be in their early thirties are speaking English.
“Are you American?” I ask.
“Yes!” the tallest of the three replies. “Are you?”
“Yeah, from Chicago,” I say. “Where are you all from?”
“Idaho,” the tallest one replies.
I find they’re old friends from back home, and they’ve been planning this trip for some time. We talk as the line slowly moves us inside. The room we enter has a festive mood, decorated with photos, posters, maps, and depictions of someone I assume to be Saint James, the instigator for this frenetic activity. My new friends and I find a hanging scale and weigh our packs. The metric scale weighs my pack in at just under 8.5 kilograms, while one of the other’s tops out at 13.2.
“Of course, mine is the heaviest,” San Diego, the shortest one, says.
“Let’s convert to pounds,” D.C. says as she pulls out her phone.
Our packs range from 18 to 29 pounds. Mine is the lightest, probably thanks to my previous backpacking experience. I am a fanatic about packing light, a concept I recently carried over to my personal life— learning to differentiate my wants versus needs.
Posted on a wall is a chart showing the number of pilgrims from various countries who have checked in here over the past few years. The prior year, France (9,049) topped the list, followed by Spain and the U.S. (6,271), and not too far behind were Italy, South Korea, and Germany. The total number of pilgrims registering at this office last year was over 58,000. Not all who start here intend to walk all the way to Santiago de Compostela, but last year well over half did.
“Yikes!” I say. “There must be over 300 pilgrims a day who check in here during the busier summer months.”
“That’s a lot more than I was expecting,” Idaho says.
Slowly, each pilgrim or group of pilgrims is called to meet with one of five volunteers sitting behind a long row of adjoining tables. They share basic information on the Camino and provide a multipage spreadsheet listing the accommodations all the way to Santiago de Compostela, along with a printout showing the elevation changes for each stage. A volunteer waves the three women forward. Soon I am sitting in front of Armelle, a bespectacled French woman in her early sixties with a kind smile. She asks in her accented English, “What country are you from?” The U.S. “What is your mode of transportation, by foot or bike?” By foot. “Do you need a credential (pilgrim’s passport)?” Oui.
“Do you need help finding accommodations for tonight?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I’ve already reserved a bed, but thanks.”
She points out a few things about tomorrow’s walk and then, using a highlighter, marks a few of her favorite places to stay. She hands over the small stack, smiles, and says, “Buen Camino.” Good journey.
I walk over to the three Americans, still talking with their guide. “I hope to see you again,” I say, then head out to find my gîte,French for a hostel. Tonight’s is the only reservation I have made, but now, realizing the numbers competing for beds, a seed of concern is sown. I head down the same cobbled street and cross over a bridge. A few doors down, a shell-shaped green sign tells me I have arrived at my home for tonight, Le Chemin vers l’Etoile, The Path to the Star.
Entering a dark, narrow hallway, I head towards an empty front desk ahead in the light. I find stairs off to my right leading up. Dark-stained wood rails climb and encircle the lobby below, with wrap-around balconies on the two floors above. I ring a bell on the desk.
“Bonjour,” says a man approaching from somewhere in the back. His voice is familiar; he must be the man I spoke with yesterday.
“Passport and credential, si vous plait,” he says.
I hand him my newly purchased credential and my passport. He jots down information from my passport and christens my credential with a unique stamp that has the name of this gîte, and by hand, writes today’s date.
He then looks up at me and asks, “Would you like breakfast in the morning?”
“Yes, please,” I say.
“Okay, that will be twenty-three euros (€), eighteen for the bed, and five for breakfast,” he says. At the current exchange rate of $1.10 = 1€, the cost works out to just over $25. I hand him a twenty-euro note and a five-euro note—my supply of euros, fresh from a stop at an ATM upon my arrival in France. He hands me a two-euro coin in return.
“I will show you to your room,” he says. I follow him up to the second floor on thick oak steps, evidence worn into the wood of the thousands of others who have climbed these stairs. He leads me to a room filled with ten metal bunk beds, where a couple with sleeping bags are resting on thick mattresses, packs alongside.
“You may take any bed,” he says, and as he turns to leave, adds, “Breakfast will be available at 6:30.”
I stick my head out a large window to find scores of people strolling along the pedestrian thoroughfare below, then stake my claim on a bottom bunk. I shower in the communal bathroom, followed by a brief nap. Then I head out to explore the town, hoping to run into the three Americans I met earlier.
I pass back through the Porte Notre-Dame, a pointed archway under a tall clocktower attached to Église Notre-Dame du Bout du Pont, Church of Our Lady at the End of the Bridge. I wander along this picturesque street, the Rue de la Citadelle, filled with two- and three-story buildings hundreds of years old. Lines of red, green, and white pendants hang in a zig-zag pattern above the uphill-tilting street. I make my way back past the pilgrim office and its new batch of pilgrims, past numerous shops, bars, restaurants, and at least a dozen other places where one can find a bed for the night. The tightly packed buildings are all dressed in white stucco and trimmed in crimson, with a few rule-proving exceptions. The street flattens out as I near a tall stone wall with another narrow, arched passageway at the far end of this medieval village.
A path appears next to a sign reading Citadelle. I follow this steep pathway that runs along the stone wall. After a few minutes, I reach an overlook, a bit winded by the climb—and look down on this quaint village, eyeing the mountains beyond. I laugh to myself when I think this short walk has left me short of breath, and tomorrow I must climb to the heights staring back at me. Nevertheless, the panoramic view from here is stunning.
Behind me lies the citadel, and I stand atop the rampart, the outer wall of the fortifications built to protect this seventeenth-century fortress. The châteauesque stronghold is off-limits to visitors, so I wander along the rampart and glimpse a dirt trail running through the grass growing between the rampart and the fortress’s base. Thinking it may circle the protected center, I navigate my way down to the trail and proceed to make a large loop around this centuries-old fortification. It ends when I pass through the historic La Porte Saint-Jacques, The Saint James Door, the arched passageway I spotted earlier.
On my stroll back along the narrow street, I stop in front of a small outdoors shop, Boutique du Pelerin. Outside, a mannequin wearing a bright red poncho directs me inside. The store has everything a pilgrim might need, from backpacks, boots and shoes, to clothes for any condition, hats, hiking sticks and poles, sunglasses, bookshelves full of guidebooks in at least a half-dozen languages, and anything else someone who plans to walk 500 miles might possibly want.
I’m only browsing, as I feel well prepared. I won’t carry a guidebook on my journey; between a mapping app downloaded on my phone and the information provided earlier today, I’m confident I’ll find my way.
My next stop is a bakery. It is well into the evening, and I haven’t eaten a proper meal all day. I walk out with a bag full of croissants—I am in France, after all. Before I reach the bridge, I turn off the main drag onto a pathway that runs alongside the shallow Nive River. Finding a low stone wall, I sit and devour my pastries, a mix of sweet and savory, before I continue my exploration of this charming town.
I pass couples and small groups either walking together or dining on the patios scattered throughout the village. There is an equal number of others who, like me, stroll in solitude. Besides French, I have heard Italian, German, and English spoken here. I am delighted by the feeling of simply being in another country, especially here, where people from all over the world gather. I had assumed most are here for the Camino but find that Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a destination itself. Its history and natural beauty draw many to this quaint village, tucked away in the corner of France.
I overhear a well-dressed middle-aged couple tell a twenty-something woman in shorts and a T-shirt, “Be safe. Call often,” in what I think is a British accent, or is it Australian? I watch them share long hugs before they head in opposite directions. Parents a bit wary about their child walking alone in a foreign land. I imagine they are either starting or ending their own European adventure, just not one on foot.
I’m excited to start my walk but a bit anxious about tomorrow’s hike up into the mountains— the most strenuous day of hiking on the entire journey. Since arriving here, I learned there are two options when leaving Saint-Jean, elevation 594 feet. The most common, and more difficult, is the Napoleon route, which climbs to 4719 feet, meaning a gain in elevation of a whopping 4125 feet. It starts with a constant uphill climb for over twelve miles (twenty kilometers) and then descends for more than three miles (five kilometers) to the Spanish town of Roncesvalles, the most common day-one stopping point.
The other option is the Valcarlos route, where the distance is comparable but the elevation change is much less severe. This route makes its way through a valley towards the town of Valcarlos instead of over the mountain. The bulk of the climb on this route is near its end and won’t reach its high point until it arrives in Roncesvalles, located at 3114 feet. I will be going over the mountain, wanting to challenge myself physically after years of rotting behind a desk in my old, sedentary life.
This journey is needed to help me rebuild after the shedding of my old self. Trusting my mid-life course change will lead to a more authentic me. I move forward, optimistic my choices will also lead to a more meaningful life.
Where will this walk across Spain take me? I know my physical destination but am uncertain of the emotional journey. How will I have changed when I board my flight back to the States five weeks from today?
Lying in the dark, I stare up at the metal springs of the bed above me; I think of Tom Hanks’s character at the end of Castaway. After years of being lost, he returns to find his old love has moved on; now alone again, he stands at a literal crossroads in the plains of Texas, unsure of where his life will lead. He turns in one direction, then the next, imagining the possibilities with a glint in his eye and the corner of his mouth upturned. I, too, find myself in a similar situation—unsure and looking for direction, excited for what is to come.