Following is an excerpt from Jennifer Johnson’s book, An Awakening Walk, 500 Miles to Self-Love and Acceptance on the Camino de Santiago, which chronicles the incredible challenge she gave herself and now offers others.
The first day is the hardest for hikers of the Camino de Santiago – the path is steep, almost sixteen miles over the Pyrenees with only one place to stop, Orrison. Some people stay here for the night at the only Albergue (hostel) for which a reservation is necessary. I did not make a reservation.
I am not a fast walker, so there are many people passing me. This first part is not only very steep but also on asphalt. I tell myself to take one step at a time, put one foot in front of the other, stop, rest, and start walking again. The scenery is gorgeous as I move higher and higher. It’s a perfect day, sunny with a bit of cloud cover.
Making it to Orrison at 11:00 a.m., I’m glad I decided in advance not to stay here because I feel strong and want to keep going. Stopping only to rest and fuel up with coffee and orange juice, I sit at a table by myself. After a few minutes, Ren, Ashley, and Lucas, a family from Colorado, join me. Ren, the dad, walked the Camino several years before, and he has brought his kids to share the experience. Lucas is fourteen, tall, and lanky; Ashley is twenty, very cute, short and petite. She confides that she is a bit hung over and does not fully understand what she has gotten herself into. I confide that I feel the same!
I move on, knowing there is a long way to go before the day is done. The path seems to go straight up. The scenery is magnificent and the view expansive, with rolling green hills going on for miles. There are many varieties of birds and fauna, sounds of cowbells can be heard somewhere off in the distance, and the occasional stray cow and donkey cross the road. Seeing many charming farmhouses and cottages dotted among the stunning landscape of the Pyrenees, I wonder what it would be like to live here.
I breathe it all in, Mother Nature’s beauty, grateful to be here and following this path with no worries about the future. In this place, it is easy to just be present.
There is much time to think on the Camino. So much searching, and now here I am still searching, walking the Camino at age fifty-three. I stop often, my legs aching. The family from Colorado is going about the same speed. They pass me, then I pass them; we stop, chat, and move on. I have no idea where I am or how much farther it is to today’s destination.
The path seems to go on forever. There is a German hiking group nearby. They are very loud, all talking at once, and I can barely stand it after being so silent. I fall back and let them move ahead until their voices fade away. I love the silence and the soft sounds of nature. I walk and walk and come upon the Germans again. They are on a lunch break. I pass them and keep walking, but they soon come up behind me. They are so loud – how can they listen to each other when they’re all talking at the same time? I let them pass again until there is silence – my mind clear, a walking meditation.
Soon my legs and feet feel like they are on fire; I don’t know if I can make it much farther. An American group comes up behind me and two of the women walk with me for a while. They are surprised I am traveling alone. They are from Atlanta, Georgia, and when I voice my concerns about making it to Roncesvalles, they offer me positive reinforcement. But soon they are gone, walking very fast, and I can’t keep up. Finally, I reach the summit and opt for the easier way down. It’s a bit longer but not as steep. I’ve heard that many people get hurt at this point from descending too fast.
I finally hobble into Roncesvalles at 5:00 p.m. It’s taken me nine hours to cross the Pyrenees! By now every step is torture. After walking into the small town and finding my hotel, I check in, shower, and lie down to rest. Suddenly wide-awake, ravenous and excited about dinner, I find the dining room. It’s bustling with activity, and I ask to be seated in the far end of the room in order to avoid the noisy German group. My dinner is a typical pilgrim’s meal: insalada mista (green salad), roasted chicken with potatoes and a local white wine, which is well deserved and delicious. I actually feel really good; the endorphins must be kicking in. I can’t believe I made it sixteen steep miles on my first day!
Jennifer Johnson lives in Rancho Mirage and now takes others on inspirational walks through her travel company, Winn Journeys. An Awakening Walk, 500 Miles to Self-Love and Acceptance on the Camino De Santiago is available at Amazon.com. For more information visit www.WinnJourneys.com.