Although several of the pilgrims at Beilari, like me, plan to stop at Orrison, just 9km from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, my day gets off to a late start, and I split off from the group to begin the journey alone.*
This first day of climbing into the Pyrenees is not as grueling as I expected. Though it is not without its moments of difficulty, the strongest memories center around the community of pilgrims I meet along the way.
After the steepest climb, a little more than 1km away from Orrison, weary pilgrims gather around a fountain (a faucet, really) on a grassy mound next to the road. We shed our shoes and socks to dry out, wet our buffs in the water to cool ourselves, find what shelter from the sun we can manage under hats and packs and join in laughter, conversation, and friendly teasing of one another and banter with those passing by or stopping briefly for a rest.
When we finally arrive at the albergue in Orrison, the first word that comes to mind is "quiet." A large, shaded deck with a view of the Pyrenees is already marked with a few pilgrims sipping on a cold beer, lighting a cigarette, or scribbling thoughts into journals. The uncertain silence continues for nearly an hour of the afternoon, before a few who have ordered food and drinks start sharing with those around them and get started with the small talk:
"Where are you from?"
"Where did you start?"
"Are you doing this alone?"
"Why are you doing the Camino?"
The common conversation starter to which we are so accustomed is noticeably absent in the first verses of the exchange - the Camino has very little to do with what you do, and everything to do with who you are. It is not surprising, then, that within these first two days of the journey, my "Camino Family" - those who will see me through some of the best and worst moments of pilgrimage, some of whom will greet me with tears and hugs at the cathedral in Santiago - has already taken shape.
At the close of the day, just before heading in to our second communal feast, a few of us gather on the side of the road, at the top of a steep hill overlooking the mountains beyond. The sun has passed behind us, leaving a soft light and welcome breeze in its wake. We sit cross-legged, knee-to-knee, gazing at the view, breathing in deep, and meditating in gratitude for the gifts received and the abundant graces that fuel our hope for the road ahead. In this moment, it is clear that the Camino is not so much about where we're going, but where we are: the only thing that is ever certain and eternal is the "right now."
What are some obstacles that keep you from being fully present in the "right now"?
What are some practical steps you can take to be more mindful of the present moment?
As with most evenings to follow, I wind down on the top bunk, massaging my sore legs with lavender and propping my feet up on the wall to relieve the swelling from the day. Others drift to sleep around me, and I find a brief relief from their snores as I listen to the few songs I remembered to download to my phone. And then I hear it: THE SONG. The song that sums up so much of my intention and hopes for the Camino in a way that I still haven't found my own words to describe. I could point out the lyrics that were meaningful for me, but I'll allow it to speak to you as it will.
When people inevitably ask, "Did the Camino change you?" the undeniable response is the affirmative. And while much of that change took place within me, an equal amount of that change was a direct result of my attentiveness to those who walked with me - most of the time, that "getting out of myself" was the most difficult part.
Who are some people in your life who help you "get out of yourself"?
*My thoughts stall on this concept of walking "alone."
While it's true that I started the pilgrimage on my own, and many days walked on my own, it is entirely inaccurate to say that I did the Camino alone. It's difficult to pinpoint the moment my "solitary sojourner" status melted away into the collective pilgrim body.
Did it happen when I took my first steps through SJPP this morning?
Perhaps it was on yesterday's train to Bayonne, when I met two pilgrims returning from Santiago.
Or was it when the first pilgrim greeted me with a "buen camino" while I picked the bones out of the cod in yesterday's lunch,
or that first communal meal on the back patio of Beilari?
Did it happen when I finally bought the one-way ticket to Europe four months ago?
I'll boldly claim that anyone who has walked the Camino de Santiago will agree: I became a member of the "pilgrim collective" nearly 10 years before setting foot on the path, the moment I heard about the Camino de Santiago and the desire surged in my heart - "I have to do that." I became a pilgrim when the Camino called.
And as I have discovered, day after day...in the weeks of walking and the months that have followed...the Camino has a lot to say.