I forgot to mention (forgive me, I’m new to this) that when I left St. Jean to cross the Pyrenees, I had a choice of two routes: the Napoleon route, which followed high mountain paths, or the Valcarlos route, which followed lower mountain paths. Both go from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side but obviously, they each have different scenery and different stopping points along the way. But they both begin at Point A and end at Point B, so you would think that there’s not much difference between them.
You would be wrong.
It seems that people can spend a long time debating which path to choose and trying to determine which one is the “true Camino”. Whether we admit it, the ego can influence this decision: we all want to demonstrate that we’re fit, strong, and totally able to cross up and over the Pyrenees on the high mountain route. No problem! Many of us start out full of energy and excitement, and want to prove our enthusiasm and commitment by choosing the high Napoleon route. Crossing from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is just over 25km in distance and if you factor in the ups and downs of the hills, the distance amounts to 32km. That’s not a walk in the park. On the Napoleon route, the altitude goes from less than 200m (at St. Jean) to a high of 1450m, before it steeply descends down into Roncesvalles. I don’t know about you, but I’m not used to climbing 1200m every day and then having steep descents too. So the Napoleon route is both steep and long, and it requires fitness and stamina, especially if you’re to walk it all in one day. Many people do, and they experience what’s known as the “baptism of fire”. Many people sprain or break their bodies on the way over. Others survive relatively intact but find themselves unable to walk 2-3 days later, either through exhaustion or delayed injury. Many people survive it and find it genuinely comfortable, and come away neither injured nor exhausted. I met all sorts on the Camino.
I walked in early September when the weather was good and the paths were free of snow. I also walked at a time when it happened to be sunny and clear. It’s not always this way. I met a person who left St. Jean a week after me and found the Pyrenees to be so foggy and misty that she couldn’t see a thing. So, people use their ego, their level of fitness, and the weather report in deciding which route to choose. I’ll say it now: forget about the ego and use common sense. There is no “true path” if you break your ankle on Day 1 from over exertion. There is no admiration for anyone who gets lost in the fog on Day 1 and puts their life in danger from hunger and exposure. Mountains are mountains, and they don’t care whether you live or die, make it to Roncesvalles or collapse in a heap. They don’t care about keeping up with other people or being embarassed. They don’t care whether you cover the same distances as your friends or enemies. The Pyrenees are beautiful and expansive, and more grassy than I expected, but they don’t have any ego about your Camino. The track is the same length and the same steepness every day of the year and those things are not changing. The weather, however, does change, along with one’s level of fitness and stamina, so these are the best measures for deciding which route to take. The Pyrenees are what they are and there is no “easy route”, there is only the route you feel most equipped to handle.
I chose the Napoleon route. I wanted to have the view and in my heart of hearts I knew I wanted that experience. I made the decision with a lot of humility, and a prayer for the necessary stamina and strength. There was no way I could cover the full distance and altitude on my first day out, so I decided that the most sensible thing to do was to pace myself and to stop in Orisson for the night. Ego was not entirely happy – I walked (only) 8km and climbed 600m and by noon I was finished for the day. Ego thought I was being soft and that I should join the dozens of others making their way to Roncesvalles. I even met people who were going further than that, so Ego told me I was definitely a wimp when compared to them. Once I’d confirmed my reservation at Orisson, Ego had to just shut up becasue there was no way I was turning down that bed. I wasn’t tired enough but I’m delighted I stayed because:
- It was a definite act of self-care, pacing myself, and listening to my own body
- It was very, very hot that day and I was glad to get in to the shade
- It gave me a chance to process the fact that I had arrived, I was there, and I was on my way
- I had dinner with the entire hostel and I met some of my best friends from the whole trip
- The food was great and the wine delicious
In the middle of the night, a group of 100 or so pilgrims passed outside our window in the dark, walking from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. I already thought that walking that distance and covering that altitude was pretty extreme, but to do it in the dark seemed even more dramatic. Even in my state of half-sleep, Ego really thought I was a wuss. I woke long enough to hear the sound of boots, walking poles, chatter, and laughter pass outside my window. They stopped to have coffee and drinks, knowing that there was no where else to stop in the next 15km. Head lamps broke through the darkness and I thought the light would wake me entirely, destroying my beauty sleep. No fear, I was asleep again in seconds. I thought they were kind of crazy but from my bottom bunk bed I silently wished them a Buen Camino. Walking in darkness? Well done to them. Maybe I’ll do it next time.
Orisson was a chance to catch my breath and ease in gently. Stopping off was the right decision for me.