This morning I get up, have breakfast and ask if there is an opportunity for a bed this evening. They tell me that they won’t know unless someone calls and cancels and it may not be until late in the day that we will know if I can stay the night. I decide that this won’t work and I ask if they can check for me at the refuge at Orisson for a bed. They do this but warn me that it is unlikely that there will be one available. There are only 18 and it is a holiday weekend – again. But they call and there is a bed reserved for me if I can be there by 2 PM.
They also tell me that an American pilgrim died in the hills between here and Roncevalles earlier this week. He got lost in the fog. I don’t know what happened to him but it is instructional. Mother nature isn’t benign, nor is she malign. She’s indifferent. If you ignore the warnings of the locals – and they are very quick to warn people if going over the pass is a bad idea – then you are, quite literally, on your own.
Since I have a bed at Orisson, I am committed to going the higher route. I have discovered that the high route involves a climb of 1200 metres, and the valley route involves a climb of 800 metres and the high route offers me a much better view and a break at the halfway point, based on height. So that is where I go. Out of Saint Jean, immediately into a climb and ever-increasing vistas. On the distant hills the herds of cows are just tiny dots. The hills are really high, but even here no mountains.
The weather is cooperating. It’s overcast, warm but not hot and little wind. Even so, with the constant climb I am soaked within 20 minutes and sucking back a lot of water. At the 5 kilometre mark there is a little gite, where I refill my water bladder, which has just gone dry. The chemin S-turns up a hillside and there are cows on both sides of the chemin and on the trail itself. Happily, they are as docile as one expects from cows – they are year-old heifers, no bulls and placidly chew their cuds as I walk by.
Soon after I come upon a woman sitting at the side of the path. She has been crying and is quite distraught. It is her first day and she had no idea of the physical effort required to climb this steep and unforgiving hill. After a few minutes she gets up and we walk together very slowly up the road. She urges me to go on but I can’t leave her. She is just on the edge of complete breakdown. She tells me that she has never failed at anything in her life, four degrees, children, career, but she can’t do this.
I urge her on, a step at a time. I tell her that Orisson is only a kilometre away and I am sure that they can order a taxi for her to go to Roncevalles. We walk slowly, very slowly and talk, stopping often and she continues to keep moving, occasionally weeping but mostly under control. At one point she asks me; “Aren’t you tired?” and I realise that I am not. It’s a lesson for me that even here on this steep, long and unrelenting climb, if I walk slowly enough, which I am doing because I am staying with her, it is an effort that I can readily manage. So the French are right; “Doucement, doucement”. Slowly, slowly.
Then we come round a corner and there is Orisson. She immediately brightens up. We go inside, I confirm my bed and ask if, by chance, there is another bed available. There is and I ask her if she wants a bed or a taxi. She immediately takes the bed and goes off for a sleep.
The view from here is breath-taking, probably 20-30 kilometres. And who is here but Francois. We are starting to be old friends. We have touched lives a dozen times in the past several weeks and it is, for me, very encouraging to watch him come slowly out of his shell. He tells me that he has changed to better boots. He had a friend from home s end him a pair from his home and he has sent the air that he was wearing home.
At this gite, the young and attractive woman, Pantxika (pronounced Panchika) who runs it, very efficiently by the way, tells me that there are many Americans on the chemin right now, mostly due to the popularity of the movie The Way. She also tells me that she is in the movie, in some scene walking behind Martin Sheen. I am going to have to find out exactly which scene. Tonight there are 5 Americans staying here, out out 18 beds. That is four more than I met the entire way in Spain 5 years ago.
After dinner, Pantxika asks us to say who we are are something about our camino. People are quite shy, so I stand up and do my, by now familiar, dog and pony with the little paragraph about the real camino is inside me, etc.
Some of the people here I already know like the two young German girls, sisters Victoria, dark-haired and Patricia, blonde, both little from near Leipzig, whom I met back at the gite in Estaing on a rainy day in April. Some are new like all the Americans and Robert from Toronto, who have just started today from Saint Jean. He is concerned because by mistake he left behind in Paris his month’s supply of medication, worth about $1,000 and some electronic bits. He is a big loose limbed man, very pleasant. And there is a young pretty Dutch woman, Nicole, walking with her father. Her English is so good and so accent-less that I take her for an American. This will get me in trouble later.
Early to bed because it is another 20 kilometres with quite a climb in the morning. The weather looks promising.