The First Chapter

At the Madrid Airport, I noticed just one other person with a backpack.  On the Pamplona train, there were two.  The entire bus to Roncesvalles was full of future El Camino de Santiago pilgrims.  After 30 hours of travel from Boise, Idaho, I was finally with “my people” who would become the foundation for some serious camaraderie for the next 35 days.  My first friend was a German organized crime detective named Peter, who shared a taxi with me to St. Jean Pied de Port, France

It was very dark as the taxi shifted through turn after turn on the 45-minute ride to St. Jean.  As the taxi was departing Roncesvalles, my walking destination for the next day, I saw two lone pilgrims on the road.  They were cloaked in rain ponchos with strappy packs draped over their shoulders.  They appeared to be spent.  I wondered how my arrival in 24 hours would compare to these worn walkers.

As the driver raced though each corner, I became a bit nauseous but tried to stay focused on the dark patches of land.  Searching for a trail, I looked through chestnut, birch, and hazelnut trees.  The lush green slopes met the creek beds in the enclosed valleys.     It was easy to feel that this was a historic, even mystical place, to begin the adventure.

At about 9 p.m. local time, the taxi dropped us at a narrow bridge that led to the only major road in St. Jean.   A light rain fell and the temperature was on the cool side as we walked down the moist cobblestone street, lined with two-story buildings on both sides.  They were continuous with only a small break at the end of each block to allow for a side street.  Most of the windows were shuttered and the businesses protected by large metal sliding doors.  I could not read a single sign as they were all in French.  A lone building with a clock tower straddled the single lane with a narrow arch as its foundation.  We were the only two souls walking in the deserted village.

Peter found the official start of the route: the pilgrim’s office. I had given up on all logistical thoughts and was pleased to place my trust in these matters to my friend.  I assumed his super detective powers would skillfully navigate the final destination of my long day of travel.

With trepidation we passed through the arched doorway.  The small room was filled with four tables and four gracious people eagerly awaiting the new arrivals. Each table had two chairs for pilgrims and one chair for the host.  These stations were cluttered with stamps, maps, and fresh passports protected by plastic bags.  The smiles of our hosts created a sense of warmth, but I quickly realized with some concern that I was the only English-speaking person in the building.  My comprehension ended with Bonjour.  My new detective friend again helped me with communications.

I had ordered my Pilgrim Passport online in advance, but Peter needed to get one.  I remember receiving my credential in the mail and admiring the blank booklet.  It had my name, U.S. passport number, city and state.  The “beginning” date was still blank.  At the time, I knew this tiny booklet would become a treasured and meaningful possession for the rest of my life.  It looked so clean and untouched in my Boise home.

The Pilgrim Passport is given to each peregrino and allows access to the albergues or adult hostels where one can rest for the night.  At each stop, the hospitalero (hostel host) places a stamp on the passport.  In Santiago, the passport serves as evidence of the trek, and a compestela (certificate of completion) is given to each person.  To get the certificate, a person must walk a minimum of 100 kilometers (62 miles).  The trip from St. Jean is 789 kilometers (490 miles).

Due to the late hour, the people in the pilgrim’s office became the allocators of the remaining bunk beds in town.  They sent us to 21 rue d’Espange to stay at le Chemin Vers L’Etoile.  This albergue was a short walk from the office.

Upon arrival at the hostel, the hospitalero was flirtatiously helping three young women from France. The mood of the room was light until another young lady from Hungary arrived with tears streaming down her face.  All attention turned to her until we determined that her tears, framed by red dreadlocks, were from a joyous place.  She was emotional about being at the start of the Camino.

In a commanding tone, our hospitalero advised our small group of pilgrims with broken English. “This is your trip, your life, your adventure,” he said.  “Do not make the trip for anyone else.  Make ‘eet for yourself.  If you walk with a new friend and they walk too fast, say goodbye.  Let them go.  This is your trip.  Your Camino is for you.”

It seemed a bit selfish but sure made sense a few days into the trip.

It was a thrill when it was our turn to “check in” for the first night of sleep.  I gave the hospitalero my credential, and he smashed it with his handheld stamp tool that left a green imprint of a logo, name, and city.  My first stamp was truly exciting.  My remittance of 15 Euros was the most expensive albergue of the entire trip, but it did include breakfast.

Our host took us up two flights of squeaky stairs, through a hall, and into my first group sleeping quarters.  There were six sets of bunks for a total of 12 beds.  The room was about the same size as my bedroom at home.  The windows were open with a clear view of the dimly lit street.  A slight rain was falling as I unpacked my backpack and put my sleeping bag on the bottom bunk.  Peter and I took a short stroll through town, stopped for a drink, and returned to 21 rue.  After sleeping very little on the three planes, one train, three subways, one taxi, and two buses that had brought me here, I found no problem sleeping in a room full of snoring strangers.