First Day of Hiking. August 7th 2012.
A shaven headed young man with a Chicago twang and a backpack is eying ours and yelling, “Hey, are you guys going to Saint Jean? Wanna split a cab?”
“No thanks, it’s only an hour on the train”, I reply.
“Suit yourself,” he smiles, as a car pulls into the lay-by beside him, “I’ll see you there.”
That afternoon, in picture postcard market town of St Jean Pied-de-Port (Saint John [at the] foot of the pass), Rob and I join the queue at the Pilgrims Passport Office; a small community hall furnished with foldout tables. It is best, a leathery old woman with a clipboard informs us, in broken English, to avoid the full force of the mid-Summer sun. Starting early each day will ensure us a place at the next hostel and help us avoid sunstroke so we must not walk now, but get a bed for the night and rise with the birds.
“Drink all the water”, the old woman warns, wagging her forefinger, a finger that looks like a giant dried-out party sausage, “all the water.”
We collect the first stamps of our journey, pick up some simplified, photocopied topography maps (our bibles for the next 5 weeks) and allow ourselves to be drafted into one of the crowded lodgings down the road from the office. Here we are allocated a bunk bed; the one shoved up against that of the youthful, hairless American whom we met at Bayonne Station. This is our first inkling of the way the Camino chooses your friends and teachers for you.
I can barely cope with the delay. Some inner beast is trying to claw through my ribs to get started, but instead, Rob and I are chatting about home and breathing in the honeysuckled air of St Jean as we dally around the miniature undulating green hills decorated with picket fences and rose bushes. We are The Borrowers, clambering through a box of pink and yellow French fancies, stopping every now and then to lick the icing. ‘Just lead me to the pain’ is all I can think, ‘I don’t want to have a nice time, I want an exorcism.’
But life is a delay. The big thing never is… because there’s always something else looming on the horizon, just waiting to usurp the last challenge.
About three hundred of us have descended on St Jean, just today, and the place is over-full. A grey-dressed matron points latecomers towards the tiled floor and we thank our lucky estrellas that as yet, our insubstantial roll-mats remain unfurled, still strapped to our bulging backpacks. A sore spine is the last thing one needs right before a jaunt up and down a mountain, and that’s what we will be doing tomorrow, after a 5.30am breakfast of dry bread, and hot chocolate served in a bowl.
It is well known that the first day of the trek is the hardest on the body. Every latent muscle will be harshly awakened, each last lung cobweb rattled, by the arduous slog over a small portion of the Pyrenees; a 27km task that must be completed in one hit. If you’re fit, the climb is not a particularly big deal, but the chances of you having a weak knee or ankle from repeatedly slamming down on the tarmac on your morning jog, are high. We’ve all got our deficiencies…
Bodyshock is what happens when you throw yourself into physical exercise unprepared. Toxins released from between those stuck joints that are suddenly popping open with unfamiliar movement, begin swimming again in your blood. Your brain produces oxytocin and serotonin, flushing your thoughts with heightened emotion. Various latent bits of you grind and pump and creak into action; is it any wonder that dozens of buried memories are surfacing like bubbles in lemonade?
I’m angry with myself for not bothering to get fit before this stupid trip, or ever actually. Being chucked off the school netball team for fighting that aggressive lass with the big hips from our rival girl’s grammar down the road (she was using illegal marking tactics and the umpire was biased against me), pretty much put me off sport at 13. It’s only fun if you win, right? And if you’re not going to win, do something else at which you can be the best. All this kind of rubbish is going around and around in my head and I’m groaning at how obvious it is why I’ve gone from A* kid to underachieving kidult. My attitude stinks.
Rob and I keep pace, we chat about mutual friends and bands we’ve seen and gigs we were both at before we knew each other. On the steep bits we grit our teeth and pant and pretend it doesn’t hurt. Towards the summit there are numbered wooden posts at decreasing intervals and somewhere between 75 and 65 I decide it’s time to break out the Dictaphone. Somewhere between 35 and 25 I realise I’m just saying “fucking hell, oh my god I can’t breathe, ffuhhh ffuh fucking hell” a lot into the microphone, so I put the stupid thing away.
We reach the summit, relieved more than elated, pause for a high-five and then with rumbling bellies, begin the descent. It is day one: I’m still all about the goals and not the journey. Something I hope deeply will change.
Watching the body beautiful (in the minority) edge precariously down the steep incline on the last 5k, so as not to inflame those tendons, is strangely enjoyable to me, as I stride / slide down past those who had overtaken me on the gasp inducing uphill struggle. Uh-oh, this liberating holiday feels suddenly like a competition. And yes, I’ve accidentally omitted to be moved by the scenery because I’m too busy fighting the straps of my backpack and thinking about chocolate cake and how I wouldn’t need to do a fucking boring 500 mile hike to mark some sort of new beginning in my life if somebody loved me. I am 30, loveless, jobless, childless, up a mountain; who gives a shit if the nimbus cloud-formation looks heaven-perfect in the azure (there’s no other word for it) sky.
Starved, sweat-soaked and dehydrated (the nozzle of my hastily purchased ‘camel-back’ flask tastes like a wellington boot and I can hardly bear to chew the water out of it), we arrive in Roncesvalles, Spain: about 9 hours from when we started. Hostels are now called albergues, food is tinned, cured or stale and the conversation around us is conducted in French, Spanish, German, Portuguese or Italian. Rob and I have enough Espanol to get our needs met, but not nearly enough to make new friends. I allow myself to wonder how lonely this trip might be if we fall out or agree to go at our separate paces out of some spiritual (or physical) necessity. Am I having fun? Is the Camino working? It’s way too early to tell, but my whole body feels like it has been tenderised by meat-mallet wielding cannibals, so that’s something.
A simple stone castle, pristine and modern, the albergue sleeps 300. Back-packers stream through reception for the entire afternoon, and everyone has the same idea: boots must be removed immediately. It is sickeningly hot.
Feet disgust me; they always have. When I was a hormonal teenager and used to sneak into clubs, lie about my age and snog young men who smelt of Lynx Java and too much hair-gel, I sometimes considered actually going home with them – and then I’d picture their feet in my minds eye and think, ‘no, I can’t do it; I’m only ever going to be able to have sex with a person who has feet, when I am genuinely blinded by love’. This display of pungent body-parts in the albergue is a window into hell: all around me are stinking, moaning, barefoot pilgrims, and their swollen, blistered, bleeding stumps. Oh god, it’s so disgusting.
And this is a warning: if you ever fancy doing the Camino in Summer, do not wear brand new hiking boots, do not wear woolen socks and don’t think a packet of Elastoplast will protect you if you do. It won’t. You’ll end up like our new friend David who has to bin his sparkling Scarpa Kinesis Pro GTX’s, or whatever they are, in swap for some ten euro velcro sandals which he lines with Always Ultra to soak up the puss from his infected burst blister wounds. (Sanitary towel innersoles appear to be the brainchild of a motorbike doctor who whizzes up and down the Camino, doling out Betadine and painkillers to the broken and foolish.)
It’s about 7pm. I’m laying on a piss-proof sheet in a corridor of bunk beds with strangers to all sides. Rob has been allocated a bed somewhere out of view. Stragglers are still arriving, exposing their battered plates and tossing their full-sized shampoo bottles into the trashcan amnesties in every corner. That’s the other thing: carrying a ten pound back-pack feels like dragging a horses carcass along behind you, from a rope tied around your neck (but only for the first few days). We learn quickly to shed every unnecessary ounce in the name of alleviating backache. It’s a shame, there are some interesting-looking paperbacks, expensive hairdryers (hiking hairdryers?!), and shitty slogan-t-shirts I’ve got half an eye on, adorning a table by my bunk; but instead of taking them, I rise stiffly to add my spare cycling shorts to the pile.
On a stomach full of macaroni and wallpaper glue (food options are cheap, and limited), I dream about my seventeen-year-old self, sitting in the passenger seat, being driven to a hardcore show. The guys have picked me up from school, and I’m struggling into a black t-shirt with ‘Refused’ emblazoned across the front. The anger of youth screeches at us through tinny speakers. Our comps (compilation tapes) are crappy recordings of cheaply produced seven inches; whatever Vique Martin has recommended in the pages of Simba, or that guy who used to be in that band who now works in Select-a-Disk on Berwick Street. I choose ‘Lightbringer’ by ‘Fabric’ from our collection, most of which have covers lovingly crafted from the torn pages of skate-magazines, swap the tapes, close my eyes and home in on the drums. We have the distro in the boot (distro: small collection of records lugged in crates to community sports halls and dilapidated pubs to sell to other broke collector enthusiasts at little or no profit during scrappy, screamy, gigs, in order to feed the addiction of the next post-punk generation) and in my dream, I’m plotting to set fire to it. I have absolutely no idea why.
In the albergue in the morning, I don’t jump out of bed so much as slide awkwardly sideways off it, onto the tiled floor, where I try, and fail, to gather my thoughts. Many of the other pilgrims are already up, though moving about uncomfortably, like crabs. It seems none up us can straighten up. The whole place smells of farts.
A hot shower (one of the few to come) washes away my dream nostalgia and the dirty, guilty feeling it has left. I drink vending machine coffee and eat cereal bars, with Rob, in a canteen area. We check our topography map, pick another albergue about 25K from where we are now, and that is it. All we have to do now is walk. No other responsibilities, no entertainment: one plan, the same every day, for the next five or six weeks. I’m thinking we are going to run out of conversation pretty quickly: my boredom threshold and patience levels have always been somewhat of an issue. Am I having fun yet? Am I getting it? Oh no, I tell myself, no, no, no. It’s not enough to stomp out your frustrations. You have to really feel them first. Feel them and then let them go…
By Rachel James