Sunday, March 27, 2005

Crossing the Pyrenees

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the ancient Medieval pilgrimage route, winds south from France, carves its way over the Pyrenees, and then turns west towards the coast of Spain. Approximately 800 km's in length, it ends in Santiago, which is the burial city of St. James the Apostle, Saint James the Moor-Slayer.

I started late in March from the southernmost French town, St. Jean-Pied-au-Port. Soon, I had shaken off the last few houses of the village and was winding higher and higher through the foothills of the Pyrenees. You can take the route through the valley (boring, but safe), or you can take the route across the peaks which follows the same path that Napoleon and his army took when they crossed into Spain. The winds turn into regular gales up there when the weather is iffy. I got to the fork in the path and headed up. The hills were gloriously green, the sun was shining, a herd of horses galloped by me, I was alone, independent......Well, when I was about a quarter of the way up, the rain and storming and wind hit. It was a regular gale that torn my rain jacket off. I sure as heck didn't want to head back to St. Jean, but there was nowhere else to stop between there and Spain. At this point, not knowing quite what to do, I sat down and tried to gather the shreds of my rain jacket about me. Who should catch up to me at this point but a British pilgrim.

"I love this type of weather," he announced cheerily. "When it feels like something's working against you, it makes me want to go on even more. If I don't find a place tonight, I'll just sleep in my sack." We walked together higher and higher through the mountains and told the elements to "Do their worst!". The wind was so strong, it was impossible to talk without yelling and it was difficult to stand up. There was snowbanks up there, but you could still see the path. We passed the French-Spanish border which was nothing more than a simple wire fence. Not too hard to emigrate. Surrounded by spires and hillocks within the mountains and deeps chasms on either side, we climbed away from the path and found a small stone cave, clearly built as a resting place for pilgrims in weather such as this. Upon crawling in, we found two disgruntled pilgrims, also hiding from the storm. I cut slabs of bread and cheese with my beloved knife and he cracked out a pile of meat, and we shared our vittles.

On our way down on the other side, we picked up a dying Brazilian. He had a fever or flu or something, and looked like he was ready to give up the ghost. The cheery Brit encouraged him along, and all three of us descended through a thick, misty beech wood towards the first Spanish town of Roncesvalles. This marked the spot where Roland and his men were slaughtered by the Saracen horde.

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