Today the weather dawns bright and clear. It is quite cool, which is a very good thing since there is a long climb ahead of me. Although I have done the worst (i.e. steepest) part of the ascent, I still have about 20 kilometres to travel and about 600 metres more of climb before I get to Roncevalles. I have breakfast with the group, the language is mostly English, which is a huge change from the last month. I will talk later about the effect on me – it isn’t entirely good.
I see the woman whom I helped yesterday but I don’t know whether she will call for a ride or attempt the next section. From here it looks difficult, even for me after five weeks of steady walking and hill climbing. All those hills over the last weeks are like hills with training wheels. Yesterday’s climb to here was brutal and I know that today’s, while less steep overall, may still have particularly difficult sections. I would give her odds of less than one in a hundred of making it from here to Roncevalles on foot.
So off I go. The part I can see in front of me is a steep climb up and around a corner. When I get there, the landscape opens up and I can see forever. There are huge hills, a few outcroppings of rocks and very few trees. What trees there are, are stunted. Except for the rocky bits, it is all upland meadow. The chemin winds off into the distance, always climbing, but not steeply.
At some points it is level or even descends a bit. I could do without the descents because I know I will just have to climb back up around the next bend. The chemin here is a road surface, wide enough for the occasional vehicle that labours past.
Off to the sides are pasture lands, with a few scattered concrete block structures that take me a little while to figure out. They are three walls, no roof, about five feet high, in the shape of a shallow rectangular ‘U’. They all face the same way, so it’s easy to figure out where the prevailing wind is. They are shelters for the herders if they get caught up here in bad weather, which is both common and extremely dangerous. You just sit down inside the arms of the U, cover yourself with whatever clothing you have and wait the storm out.
The shelters also work for pilgrims caught out here, if they can figure out what the shelters are. There are multiple warnings for pilgrims about not attempting this option in anything but good weather. I saw several signs in Saint Jean and in both the gite and the pilgrim welcome centre in Saint Jean we got verbal warnings. One pilgrim dies here this week and I would guess that there are more who go unreported or underreported. It would not be good for business to advertise the losses on the mountain.
There are herds of cattle and sheep on the steep hillsides, no fences anywhere. At one point, there is a vehicle stopped with pilgrims clustered around. When I get there I see why. They are offering drinks, chocolate bars and cookies, as well as the last opportunity to get a stamp in the pilgrim passport in France. What amazes me most are the prices.
If this were Canada, I would expect to see prices elevated as steeply as the surrounding landscapes. Instead, a chocolate bar is half a Euro, less than I would pay in a store in any town. So the couple operating this little ‘store’ must be pilgrims too or at least very sympathetic to pilgrims.
I walk up around a corner and there are horses, a small herd of them on both sides of the road. The stallion is over on the right, standing quite still, quite alert and clearly the head of this herd. He is big, brown with huge strong legs and now I know where the expression ‘hung like a horse’ comes from.
There are perhaps a dozen mares and two foals, one a colt and the other, a patchwork of brown and white, staggering along beside its mother, trying to get milk and not quite succeeding. This foal is only a day or two old at the most. Her attempts at walking, legs out to the sides for balance, remind me of my granddaughter Bella, when she was trying to figure walking out.
I can see ahead a couple of kilometres where tiny figures are slowly making their way up a slope off road to a point between two rocky outcroppings, where they disappear. This may be the Col d’Elhursato (Elhursato Pass) at 1152 metres, the second highest point on this leg of the chemin. I get to the point where the chemin finally leaves the road and heads off up the hill. The path is good, dry, a few rocks, mostly just hard surface and steep. Slowly, slowly I climb, drinking lots of water and taking frequent rest stops, just noting that each step, no matter how short, is moving me in the right direction.
And the good news is that this IS the first of the two passes, so only one more to go before I reach the steep downhill into Roncevalles. There is an enormous feeling of victory and satisfaction at this point. This has been an arduous demanding climb … and I have made it.
Beyond the pass the chemin continues over rolling ground. At one point the path is over a small mass of dried mud and stone. I look uphill to the left and see that there has been a small landslide at this point which accounts for the hummock of extra material on the path. That would have been an interesting moment. I pass a stone maker that says Navarre and I assume that I am now in Spain. There is no other indication of a border that I can make out.
The path continues to climb quite gently until I pass Roland’s Fountain. Roland was the officer in charge of Charlemagne’s rearguard as he retreated from Spain. The rearguard was caught in this hills and killed to the last man by the local Basques. The Basques were quite properly annoyed because Charlemagne’s army had pillaged Pamplona, a Basque city, as it moved north.
Several centuries later the ‘Chanson de Roland’, the Song of Roland was written. This song is to France as the King Arthur story is to England, the heroic myth of larger than life and braver than life characters from a time shrouded in history.
I continue walking until I enter a huge beech forest. The ground is steeply uphill to the left, steeply downhill to the right. The path is marked with upright posts on the right, one every 50 metres. They are sequentially numbered starting with one and have at eye level a little legend ‘SOS 112’ with a telephone symbol. It’s clear that people get in trouble up here and this is a very quick way to locate them accurately.
In the forest there is a small memorial to a 64-year-old Japanese pilgrim who died here in 2002. It is just another reminder that we are all here temporarily.
Still climbing very gently in perfect walking weather, I come to the Col de Lepoeder at 1440 metres the high point on this whole section. Almost immediately I come to the steep descent into Roncevalles. The advice we have all been given is to take the road to the right, which is what I think that I am doing but instead I take the off-road trail down through the trees.
It is a steep descent and would be deadly in rain or mud but I have neither today. I stop where there is a convenient tree trunk as a seat and have some of the sandwich I brought from Orisson. The two German girls catch up to me, big smiles, chatting with me as they pass.
Again, slowly, slowly works. This isn’t a race so it doesn’t matter that I am likely the slowest person on the path. There are reported to be at least 400 beds at the gite in the Abbey at Roncevalles, so I am not concerned about finding a place to sleep.
And I finally arrive. Roncevalles is a tiny village of 30 inhabitants, a huge church and abbey, a hotel and two restaurants. The gite is inside the abbey structure. I am here at one and the gite doesn’t open until two, so it’s stack the backpack and poles against a wall, off with the boots and on with the sandals. And here are the German sisters, Victoria and Patricia and the Dutch woman Natalie. Her father has not yet arrived.
I get into a little potential trouble when I ask Natalie if she has an adapter for the European power outlet. This is because I still think she’s American. I am looking for ne to borrow to recharge my camera battery, since I lost mine weeks ago. She says; “No, we all use the same power plug in Europe” and that is when I discover that she is Dutch, not American. I apologise for the error, since many Europeans, not to mention most Canadians, do not want to be mis-identified as American. She laughs and says that it is not a problem for her. That makes it not a problem for me.
The enclosed courtyard is covered with white stones, easy to walk on but very bright in the sunlight. It is just a little to cool to sit in the shade so I move to a bench on the sunlit side of the courtyard opposite the gite door. The story is that the gite is one huge dortoir or sleeping room, so imagine my pleasure when I discover that it has all been renovated with modern facilities and cubicles or ‘boxes’ of two bunks in each. I am assigned bed 121 which is, happily, a lower bunk.
I talk with the German sisters and they want to know how I learned German. I tell them about my service in Germany and they want to know when that was. When I tell them they laugh and say; “Our mother was 10 that year.” That puts everything into perspective, so I tell them that they could easily be my granddaughters.
We decide that they are honourary granddaughters, which gives me a total of six grandchildren, two by blood, Cian and Bella Thatcher, and four honourary; Craig and Kaitlin O’Hagan – who were named honourary grandchildren when it didn’t seem as if Carroll and I would ever have any – and these two lovely young women from Leipzig.
At about 6 PM in walks the woman from New Orleans, the one I helped yesterday. I can scarcely believe that she is here, and neither can she. She says that she is so tired, but she is also quite triumphant. She has accomplished something that she was sure she couldn’t do. It is a great illustration of the relative importance of physical strength and mental strength. She had a weak moment yesterday and she is now confident that she can go all the way to Santiago … and I expcet that she will. She goes off to get a bed and sleep.
My granddaughters and I have dinner together at one of the restaurants where I had previously made a reservation. I had been warned that it was necessary to make a reservation. There are about 400 pilgrims here and two small restaurants. Do the math. I offer to buy dinner but they will only agree if I buy one and they buy the other, so that’s the deal. It turns out that I have to pay for all three in advance, so they don’t get to pay. After dinner, Patricia very shyly tries to give me 10 Euros. I tell her, no, just some red wine, which I intend to mean a glass of wine for later. They agree and then it’s off to bed.
It is early to bed again here. The gite closes at 10 and the lights are off until 6 tomorrow.
And, oh yes, I found a friendly American couple from Portland, Oregon with a power plug adapter which I borrowed and recharged my camera battery, so I am good to go again.