“When the soul wants to experience something, she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.”
Getting to the trailhead of the Camino Frances entailed more legwork of the planning variety than I had imagined. A beginner, and on my own to boot, I celebrated every stepping into, that I achieved. I had chosen a route somewhat backwards in design. Departing from Muscat, Oman, and after a short stop in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, I experienced a harrowing near miss, sprint in Amsterdam to make my connecting flight to Barcelona, Spain. My subsequent arrival at the hotel in Barcelona later that afternoon felt victorious. My gear was intact, backpack, boots and poles (suddenly, my only possessions) minus one fleece, the single piece of warm attire, that I left, regrettably, on the plane.
Early the following morning, I walked to the Renfe train station, my hotel’s proximity to it chosen for precisely this reason, to catch a ride to Pamplona. I relished the four hours by train. The slower pace, after all of the travel during the preceding days, allowed me to find a place of calm and conviction inside. I had magazines, journal, watercolors and sketchbook. However, I scarcely opened them and spent most of the time just looking out the window. For an hour or so near the end of the train ride, I shared my seat with an elderly Spaniard. He was on his way to a medical clinic in Pamplona that he assured me was the best in Spain. I hoped that bit of information wouldn’t be necessary for me to remember. His patience and interest eased me into my first sustained practice with the language and a comfortable footing in a country I had never traveled to before.
The train station in Pamplona was small and finding a taxi to get to the bus station did not prove difficult. I waited, sweating due to the heat, in a short queue outside the entrance and was soon on my way. My driver was exuberant to share all of the fantastic features of his city. I did not catch everything he said but from the snatches I could understand, I was excited to be returning in three days. This is what I meant about backwards. From Pamplona to St. Jean de Pied de Port, I would be crossing over the land I would subsequently walk. All of these arrangements I had made prior to leaving Oman. The YouTube channel, Beyond the Way had introduced me to the website Rome2Rio, and it made mapping out any journey across Europe extremely easy. You plug in your desired destination and it gives you options to get there…by plane, bus, or train…with links to the specific companies you can secure your tickets from. The bus ticket was one of the many important pieces of paper I had printed pre-trip and had with me in my handy clear, plastic sleeve.
At last, the bus station held other pilgrims! Easy to spot with their similar attire and belongings, I studied them. “What did they bring with them? Was what I had similar? Her headband looks great. How fit did they look? What kind of boots was he wearing?” Basically, all thoughts and questions in an attempt to steady myself as I tried to determine how prepared I was for the challenge ahead. After stowing our gear under the bus, we boarded and began the circuitous route through the Pyrenees. The day was clear and I had an incredible view of the majesty I would soon be traversing. Over terrain both beautiful and intimidating, we climbed and descended, taking the big bus around tight corners, hugging the edge of steep ravines. And then, it was in sight. The charming, small French town of St Jean.
The bus came to a stop and dropped us on the side of the road. Truly, what felt like the side of the road. Most of us, including me, were momentarily disoriented, and milled about trying to figure out where to go. I don’t have a problem asking for directions when confused so I went into a nearby restaurant and was greeted by a warm and stunning blonde who helped me find my way. My French is negligible so a bit more wandering ensued before I finally located the Pilgrim’s Office at the top of a steep and cobbled street. I had seen it so many times featured in all of the books, videos, and movies I perused pre Camino, that actually walking into this office, felt surreal. I secured the pilgrim’s passport (for a few euros) that I would need to hold the stamps collected from each albergue, cafe or church, to verify my passage. And then she asked me if I would like to pick out a shell. The Camino shell is the single most prominent, enduring and significant symbol of this journey. With a bit of reverence and solemnity, I walked to the back of the room and made my selection from the large jar. I attached the white and burgundy banded shell to my red backpack with pride, hoping I had secured it tightly enough to withstand the many days ahead. Dinner and checking into my hotel were the final tasks of the day and then, early the next morning, I would be off! This I could scarcely believe.