Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Camino de Santiago - Day 1

Day 1 - Pamplona- Cizur Menor - Uterga 17km

As soon as you summit Monte Alto Perdon (Mountain of High Forgiveness), you will fully comprehend why the catholic church pardoned many heinous crimes and various other sins in for walking the Camino. If you are like me, only reasonably fit and carrying a backpack weighing more than a small child, you will come to this understanding much, much earlier in the ascent.

The first day of the Camino began easily enough. After walking around in the Casco Antiguo in Pamplona I quickly discovered that my hiking shoes, although they felt like a warm hug standing around my house, were a disaster to walk more than 100 meters in. I know , I know I should have tested them out before I left, but the problem was solved easily enough with a Corte Ingles, Spain´s mega department store, in close proximity. I abandoned my old pair of hiking shoes on a bench in Pamplona hoping they might find a home with one of the guys who lost their shoes in the bull run. I replaced them with new Merril´s that are working out perfectly.

We left Pamplona about 2pm which is VERY late to start a day on the Camino. Most peregrinos, the Spanish word for pilgrim, don´t mess around. They are up well before the sun, clean, dressed and rummaging around their backpacks, loudly crunching their clothing and bags of sausage, cheese, and bread for the day in the dark. It was only 4 km to the first town Cizur Menor, which we completed easily. It was about 4pm when we arrived in the sleepy little town, invigorated from having talked to 2 perfectly normal pilgrims, a music teacher from Liverpool and a girl from Frace, on the way there. I was hesitant to begin the 12.8 km hike to the next town of Uterga so late, but Paul was excited about making some more progress so we decided to press on. After all, the first part had been easy. We walked through the lush green grounds of the Universidad de Navarra, mostly downhill. The weather was beautiful, cool and breezy, which was a nice change from the 116 degree weather we left behind in Vegas. No problemo, we thought. If we had only known what lay ahead of us...

We knew we were in for a little mountainous terrain, but thought we had seen the worst of it during the ascent in the first hour. If this was what the mountains were like, give me ten more mountains we laughed. We were tough. We were peregrinos, finally on our way! We were mastering the outdoors, we didn´t need any autobus to help us along the way. We didn´t need any doctors or police to help us. Silly Spiderbat, what did he know? The green landscape swirled around us. We delighted in all of the strange and beautiful wildflowers and the green countryside with wheat fields as far as we could see.

And then it began. The small hill we had taken for the great Monte Perdon was behind us and gave way to another ominous trail that rose endlessly from our feet stretching to the horizon above. This daunting scene was dressed up innocently in the vast robes of countryside. It looked like a scene from Don Quixote, complete with giant white turbines at the summit, which I preferred to think of as windmills. We started up the hill and Paul walked confidently forward, full of energy. I started in a similar manner, feeling like I was rising up to meet the challenge, but slowly and surely my back began to squeal in pain. I tried to ignore it for a while, but after about 30 minutes of the steep climb it felt like each item in my backpack, every article of clothing, my poncho, my camera, all of my battery charges, my journal and even my toothbrush were conspiring to crush and melt me under their weight as punishment for packing too much. They crushed my spine until I felt like discs would slip out avoid the pressure. I began to cry. I looked at Paul climbing ahead of me. I struggled to keep up and finally my back could take no more. Tears streamed down my face. I couldn´t do it any more. I had to rest. I had to shed the pack. I didn´t know I could carry on up the mountain.

Only one day and the Camino had already broken me. I wondered if it was like the military, if everyone who passed through had to be broken down first in order to be built back up stronger and better than before. Maybe this was meant to humble me before the long walk I was about to undertake. Paul came to my rescue. He asked what he could carry to help me lighten the load. I sobbed and shook my head not sure what to say. I leaned down to reach into my pack. Paul stopped me and took the whole pack from me and strapped it on the front of his body. This brought more tears, this time of gratitude. I couldn´t imagine how he could bear the weight of both packs, but he did. I rested for a few minutes and noted that this walk would actually be rather pleasant without the weight of the bulging backpack. When I had recovered I started to ask for my backpack back. I asked every few meters until we got to a stopping point where we sat for a moment. We shifted around and repacked until the pack was much more comfortable. The sun was burning brightly almost directly overhead. If I didn´t have my cell phone telling me it was 5pm, I would have thought it was noon.

We continued to struggle for another hour up the hill, Alto Perdon challenging us with every step. Only one pilgrim passed us the entire day. He was a Spaniard on a bike and told us to be careful, the rocks on the wasy down were very dangerous. Great. As if we needed anything worse. All the way up we heard a loud whooshing sound that sounded like a plane taking off. We we finally clawed our way up the final few steps we found out that the sound we had heard was the ¨windmill¨turbines. As we rested on top of the hill, I sort of understood the pride that Super Spider Bat had exuded. I felt faintly like Wonderwoman myself and I could detect a little bit of superpower in Paul too.

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