The Road to Santiago.
October 1 , 2002
  Medieval bridge


Had breakfast with a Belgian who is traveling to Santiago by bicycle. He had already covered over 1,000 K (600 miles).

Started at 10:00 am. It was a lovely path through the woods with sycamores and oaks over head. Along the path were beautiful crocus-like purple flowers. Wild holly and black berries bushes on either side. After about a half-hour of walking, came out of the woods behind a farm. I called to the farmer and asked him how far it was from Roncesvalles — He said 3 K (1.8 miles). Easy going so far. Followed the road for a bit, then I saw the yellow arrows off to the left behind another farmhouse. The path continued over a wooden bridge and along the farmer's fields. As I walked along I noticed about a dozen buitres (buzzards) circling overhead. Was that a bad sign? Were they waiting for poor, tired pilgrims? Was it a portent for me?

Not much later, I came to my first steep slope. Aye! I decided to take it one step at a time. Actually it was thirty steps. I counted out loud — one, two, three . . . . twenty nine, thirty, then rest! Then I counted in Spanish — uno, dos, tres . . . . ventinueve, treinta, descanse. I did this for about six or seven sets of English followed by Spanish. Suddenly I was at the top. After a rest of about three minutes, I continued on. A little later a pair on trail bikes went by. I called out to the man how far from Roncesvalles. He checked his odometer and called out seis (six) — 6 kilometers. That meant I had only gone about 4 miles. Then I saw a village clock that showed 11:45. I had gone only 6 K in about two hours. At home on Plum Island I could do three miles per hour easily and that's about the same as 5 K. but at home it was on flat ground. I had 16 K more to go. At the rate I was going, I had another four and one half-hours left to walk before I arrived at the shelter at Zubiri!!


The Start of the first Spanish section (highway sign pointing the way)

A few minutes later I came to a beautiful stone fountain with cool, cool water. Much better than Perrier and it was free.
Two hours later I reached a small village, exhausted! I decided to stop for lunch. At a small bar I order a menú del dia and ate it outside. When I asked the young waitress how far it was to Zubiri, her answer made my heart sink. She said once (eleven) kilometers. Still a long way to go!!! Aye!!!

Soon a Swedish couple stopped for lunch too. They told me that they had walked this part of el camino a few years ago and were only going as far as Logroño. When I asked the woman if it got easier from this point on she rolled her eyes and said, "No!"

After lunch I continued with trepidation, but was determined to succeed. But about 45 minutes later my resolve began to dissolve. I developed a bad cramp in my left thigh and decided that I should find the nearest place to stay. I saw a man in the field and asked him if there was a hotel in the village. After he answered, "No," I asked him where the nearest one was. He answered "Zubiri, ocho kilometros." Zubiri was my goal anyway. And since I had 8 K left, it meant that two thirds were behind me. I decided to go on.

A little later I was sitting on a stone wall when the Swedish couple came by. When I commented on the difficulty of the steep parts, she said, "Yes and this next one is almost 300 meters straight up!"

"What?" By the time I realized what she said, they were gone. I figured that I'd better keep moving because I didn't want to get stuck on the mountain after dark. Around the bend I saw what she meant. The stone path had a slope of at least 55 degrees. One, two, three . . . . twenty — I began counting again. Before long I stopped every ten steps. It took a while to finally reach the top. Then the next few hundred feet were easy but then came another rise. This went on for what seemed forever when my legs were so cramped that I had to stop. I took off my pack and leaned back against the slope, afraid to bend my legs because they were cramped so badly. Eventually, I found my bottle of ibuprofen and took three in a gulp. It was 4:30 and I knew I had better not rest for too long.
I kept going. Another couple of slopes up and I was shouting at the top of my lungs, "I think I can, I think I can. Reciting the story of "the little train who could" which my mother often told me when I was a little kid. Suddenly I saw a radio tower directly ahead and knew that I had reached the summit. I started shouting, "I knew I could, I knew I could," finishing the tale. For I knew that the rest was downhill and that no matter what, the rest was going to be downhill. And barring a twisted ankle or a stumble I was going to reach Zubiri.

Well, that almost happened. There is "downhill" and there is "downhill." The trail was very rough, worn by a thousand years of pilgrims' feet and the effects of rain and erosion. The soft rock had worn away leaving parallel ridges. It was like walking along the molars of a giant mountain demon. At one point the path was four feet beneath the surface on either sides.

Once the surface changed it didn't get better. Sure it was smooth, but very steep and consisted of shale. I felt like I was going down an advanced ski slope but during the summer. The path kept traversing back and forth across the mountain. Suddenly I rounded a curve and saw the village below me. I was so excited that I almost slipped.


Pilgrim Dudley.
Ready to go (outside Roncesvalles shelter — pilgrim Dudley with backpack)

I walked slowly into Zubiri with my back killing me and my legs aching like the devil. It was 7:30 and I had been on the road 9 1/2 hours, two hours longer than it takes most pilgrims. But as the Spanish say, "¡Mas vale tarde, que nunca!" (Better late than never.)  

It's too bad that pilgrims encounter probably the most difficult part of the road at the beginning of the trip. Many pilgrims expressed the thought that it would have been great to have had a few days to gradually get soft bodies toughened up, acquire the knowledge of how to rearrange overloaded packs, and the preparation of the mind by degrees for such strenuous hiking. But if we had known how difficult it was going to be some of us might not have tried at all.

¡Mañana me yoy a Larrasoaña, O jala! Tomorrow I go to Larrasoaina, God willing!

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