Walking this route the traditional way, or as close to traditional as is tolerable for me, comes with some challenges. (We’re carrying our packs, as opposed to having them transported and staying in pilgrim albergues as opposed to the more comfortable casa rurale B&Bs.) Despite the blisters, those challenges aren’t about the walking. In fact, that’s the bit I find soothing, meditative, prayerful.
This morning, as usual, we set off well before dawn. I heard the call of owls out on the hunt while we ate a pre-breakfast snack beside the track. For most of the way we had the path to ourselves, encountering other pilgrims, and only a few, when we stopped for coffee and pastry and then later tortilla.
With two weeks of walking done, many walkers are suffering – blisters are minor complaints. Some people are wearing knee braces, their gaite ungainly; achilles, backs, shoulders, hips are complaining and, for some, giving out. The exuberance of the first day at St Jean Pied de Port has gone, people are generally quieter. It suits me.
That same fatigue after a day of walking doesn’t always lead to good behaviour when everyone wants a shower at the same time – especially for those uncomfortable with a bit of sweat. There are vast cultural differences between what people are prepared to tolerate and it shows up in the bathroom.
We have the option of buying ourselves out of those situations. And today, I was sorely, sorely tempted! In fact I felt some sympathy for the hermits of Our Lady of the Crag. We passed the ancient hermitage earlier in the day.
But there’s a greater price to pay than just the extra euros. Sometimes new friendships are forged in those fraught situations, too. And we’ve had the privilege of some memorable conversations, usually involving a lot of laughter, over the shared pilgrims’ meals offered in most albergues.
The pleasure of meeting up with those same people, unexpectedly, days later, the sight of their familiar faces in a crowd of strangers, the swapping of survival stories, the sharing of news about others not here yet, outweighs all the irritations engendered by those less graceful under pressure.