It starts with a steep uphill grind, a small test of our mettle as long-distance walkers. Can we survive this first day, a 25 kilometre climb over the Pyrenees, taking us from the quaint Basque village of St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, across the Spanish frontier into the province of Navarre and ending in the small pilgrimage outpost of Roncesvalles?
This was the first day of what would be a 38 day, 926 kilometre walking journey across Spain on the ‘classic’ Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, known as the Camino Francés. There are numerous pilgrimage routes, all leading to Santiago de Compostela near the west coast of Spain, but the Camino de Francés is by far the most popular.
Traditionally the route starts in St. Jean Pied-de-Port although it is more of a gateway for a network of pilgrimage paths starting further east, in Paris for example, and siphoning through the stone gate of St. Jean where the now singular path winds its way to Santiago de Compostela.
Nor is Santiago necessarily the end point of a pilgrim’s voyage. Continuing west, we followed the Camino Finisterre to Spain’s wild coastline at Finisterre, literally land’s end, and still further to Muxía with its stone church precariously pitched on a rocky outcrop at the edge of the North Atlantic.
This was our first attempt at a long-distance walk. The Camino had been on our radars for at least two years prior to actually setting off. But timing is everything for two North Americans living the North American “dream” of work-before-all-else. Slotting in a two-month stretch of pure walking is no easy task. In the spring of 2012, my wife, Gail, and I made the commitment to do the pilgrimage that fall. So began a summer of training and packing.
Gail and I are not novice walkers. We would typically walk 10-15 kilometers a day. It was our daily ritual, our way of getting to work and back home, our way to relax. Walking 20-30 kilometres day-after-day with a heavy backpack was another matter and we worried that we would be capable of completing this strenuous journey.
That summer, we set off on a series of long walks of at least 20 kilometers around Winnipeg, our smallish home base situated on the prairie expanse at the heart of Canada. A city so small that a 20 kilometre walk in any direction would land us in farmland, so prairie that the most challenging hill is a five minute hike to the top of “Garbage Hill”. Yes, a former landfill site turned city park.
Fortunately our little community has been blessed with an expanding network of multiuser trails, many of which pass within walking distance of our house. Out the door we trekked 21 kilometres to Lagimodière-Gaboury Heritage Park, 23 kilometres along the Yellow Ribbon Trail, 27 kilometres to Fort Whyte Nature Centre and so on. Then we did it all again, this time with loaded backpacks and walking sticks. Then a few more times on back-to-back days, simulating the daily grind of the Camino. For a little bit of vertical training we headed to Spruce Woods Provincial Park, about a two hour drive west of Winnipeg. Here, on a typical hot, dry, sun-baked summer day in Manitoba, we hiked the Epinette Trail for 32 kilometres. What this trail lacked in absolute vertical height, it more than made up for with its constant, exhausting ups and downs over small hills, often on sandy footing.
By this point, we were reasonably comfortable with our ability to complete the Camino. And then disaster struck. On a casual walk of no more than 15 kilometres I suddenly developed a sharp pain along the front of my left lower leg. The pain intensified and walking became near impossible. This just a month before our trip to Spain. A visit to Pan-Am Clinic, a local sports injury clinic, revealed a shin splint requiring physiotherapy and total rest for a couple of weeks followed by a very slow resumption of my walking regime.
By the time we were leaving for Spain, the pain was gone and I had rebuilt my walking stamina to about 10 kilometres a day. My physiotherapist was not reassuring with his parting advice that I had better approach the Camino cautiously and walk very slowly or risk re-injury.
So began our adventure, our eagerness to get on with the walk tempered by lingering concern that my left leg might not be as eager to participate.
That first day, climbing out of St. Jean and into the foothills of the Pyrenees, was an exhilarating experience. Gone were any concerns about a tortuous climb, about shin splints, about not completing the trek. We were in the moment, taking in the mountain top views, the deep forests, the sheep and their herders, the scrambles off trail to nearby shrines, even the overly large baguettes we had prepared for lunch, packed with meats and cheeses.
By the time we had descended triumphantly to Roncesvalles for our first night, we were high with the anticipation of a great, long walk across Spain.