The Camino Day 1: A Bruja, Sirens, and The Tricks of Memory

Day one of the Camino was arduous and exhilirating all at once. When I left St. Jean Pied de Port this morning, the city was covered in a lovely fog that stretched out for the first hour before the sun burned it away, revealing a verdant, lush set of valleys and hills that I eagerly set out to cross.

I even found myself thinking about Edward Abbey’s admonition in Industrial Tourism and the National Parks: A Polemic, when he writes, “a man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” It felt true; crossing up the first of the high points I had to cross today, I was thinking less about sore knees than watching slugs move slowly across the road and being accosted by a hundred, cowardly, bleating sheep.

But then the bruja struck, leading to my one bit of advice for anyone who travels the Camino: do not listen to the kindly-looking old woman five or six miles outside of St. Jean Pied de Port, for she is a bruja in disguise. Smiling, with her dog at her feet, she kept saying “Compostela…main road…main road,” pointing back miles from where I had come. As there had not been any pilgrim signs for sometime, despite my nearly having conquered the first height, I turned backwards and repeated a large section of my journey. Odd that a witch would take such sustenance from confusing poor travellers, but she succeeded today.

Unbroken, if a bit discouraged, I headed on, eventually getting back on an alternative track that took me back to the main path. Eventually, problem number two for the day appeared: water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Two spots with promised fountains turned out to either be dry or unsanitary, and my water supply became very low. And then the Pyrenees stared me down in earnest. A long, 8 kilometer crossing, with no water loomed ahead, and I trudged forward.

It was a real struggle. Alternating between a winding mountain road and a path that was beautiful, but gaining in elevation, the whole time, I struggled through the last section of the day’s journey. But here’s where I learned something about the generosity of the Camino. Winding around yet another switchback, I stumbled across three Irish women, enjoying lunch and singing. Now, I’m no fool, and I’ve The Odyssey, but when one of those Sirens offered me some water, I raced forward and accepted the generosity immediately. She even gave me the rest of her bottle and offered me lunch. No hideous fate befell me, and I had the energy to continue, bolstered by the camaderie and generosity.

After that respite, the climb began in earnest, and I really struggled to make my way to the top, frequently pausing to catch my breath and wanting to take a nap. After a long climb, I finally reached the top, and found a church that was a rest stop for pilgrims and those traveling by car. I took off my shoes, and just sunk into the cool grass to rest for a bit before the last mile into Roncevalles. And then, another gift of generosity: an older French woman, lunching with her husband and son, offered me some of her water. When I said yes, she delicately poured it into a glass that held about four ounces. Not wanting to appear rude, I sipped at for a bit, and returned the glass. Sensing my need for more water, she next pointed at my water bottle, and with a mixture of hand gestures, English, and French, she convinced me to take the rest of her bottle and fill mine.

One of the things I was really thinking about at the beginning of the journey today was a memory from high school, when my friends and I used to bike short distance rides outside of our town. One of our favorite rides was the 15 mile loop between Laurel and Park City, where we would often stop for oatmeal or bacon and eggs before going to class in the morning. It was an easy, great ride, but there was one hitch: every day, coming over the last hill and racing into Park City, we found ourselves chased by what seemed like the most ferocious dog in the world, who seemed always right on the verge of catching the last rider. So we’d pedal as fast as we could, the wind whipping in our faces, the fear of Cujo in our hearts, only to laugh and cheer when we’d outrun him. Every time we rode he was there, and every time we just managed to escape.

The thing about that memory isn’t just that it’s vivid, decades later; it’s that when I remember it, I’m remembering from the first person. I’m not watching myself getting chased by a dog; I’m seeing it through those eyes again, feeling the shuddering of the bike below me and feeling the thrill of the wind in my face. I remember being there, not seeing myself there.

As we age, our memories seem to slip into that third-person view, where we’re watching ourselves act, not recalling what we experienced, but some memories are so powerful that we hold them as something real that we lived, not something we recall having happened, and those are the memories that matter most. Riding with my friends down that hill, seeing the falling stars at Camp on the Boulder for the first time with someone who became a lifelong friend, the first time my Grandpa took me to a baseball game in Great Falls; those memories are locked in the first person because they were so powerful, each in their own way.

Today was one of those days. I want to keep the bruja and the sirens, the bite of my Lemon Kas soda and the generous gift of water, the pain in my feet and the joy in my heart, firmly in that first-person, vivid memory as long as I can.