Day 3: Roncesvalles to Zubiri — Finding enlightenment by going @ss over teakettle

Getting started

In the morning, we picked up our shoes from their assigned room and departed, walking beneath the stone arches of this bastion of medieval hospitality. Before leaving Roncesvalles, we (Marisela, Katrin, and I) stopped at the infamous road sign that reads: SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELLA 790.

A daunting prospect, despite knowing the distance is in kilometers.

But walking a mere 22km (13.8mi) this day would teach me about limits. I would recognize when it’s time to stop — and discover the consequences of ignoring this knowing.

It would also be a day of learning how to receive help. Of being seen and supported. Of being broken down to be build up anew. Looking back, I marvel at how much I learned in the span of a day.

The better part of walking

In some ways, this morning’s walk felt like the first real day on the Camino. Instead of dreading a sheer climb, the level walk just outside of Roncesvalles was lovely. It wound through the open forest, meandering just off the road and through a town once famous for its witches. Like the day before, the sun poked through the mist and became bright.

We stopped for breakfast in Burgete where I had my first chocolate — a beverage I’d mistakenly believed to be hot chocolate when I ordered it. Instead, I was served a thick, fudgey soup intended for dipping churros, crunchy twists of deep-fried batter. Even as a chocolate lover, I couldn’t finish it all, its sweet richness filling me up (along with my pastry). Later, I learned to order ColaCao — the Spanish equivalent of Swiss Miss — as my warm-up beverage of choice. I passed around the chocolate with a spoon so my friends could try it.

Everyone leaves their packs unattended. It’s the norm. Everyone else knows not to touch them. But as we picked up our packs to go, I discovered my first loss on the Camino: my precious scallop shell had either fallen off, or been taken while we ate. Having carried it for 3 days from Saint Jean Pied de Port, its loss felt like a painful poke in the gut. Resolving not to get too wrapped up in how it disappeared, I vowed to get a new one at my first opportunity.

The morning unfolded beautifully. Lots of gentle ups and downs, marveling at the fairy-woods filled with beech trees and wild boxwoods. More wildflowers revealed themselves gaily along the path: wild yellow primroses, vivid purple violets, white daisy-like flowers that closed shut at night, wild hellebore, and yellow swamp mallow.

Pausing to rest beside the path, I delighted in sitting with my dear friends, all of us barefoot in the sunshine, enjoying a shared snack of cheese sandwiches, fruit, and chocolate. I loved saying hello to other pilgrims as they passed. I loved walking a stretch of path on a ridge of pine forest, deeply inhaling the scent of winter’s fallen needles, and peering through the dark trunks into the valley’s fields far below.

The lesser part of walking

After lunch, I started to feel a growing fatigue.

I kept looking at the map thinking Zubiri must be here soon. And yet it wasn’t. The sun was less high now and could feel afternoon descend. I started to worry that I didn’t have the energy to make it to where we were going. We crossed a main road and I oriented myself on the map. We were still miles from the next bed. There was nowhere to stop for the day.

So we took a break at a conveniently-placed truck-turned-snack-shop. This is the place I fell in love with Fanta. I couldn’t have enjoyed that blissful can of orange refreshment more.

Still, I knew I couldn’t walk much farther. I had blisters that were growing painful. My brain was fried. Despite my better judgment, we left this cozy spot and began our downhill descent. In his guidebook, Brierley gives this section of hill an exclamation point (danger, use caution). It was slippery shale and all downhill.

That hill took everything I had left.

The dangers of fatigue

Have you ever been so tired that you aren’t really thinking?

You’re on automatic pilot, just trying to get there, dammit, and you keep going even though you know you should stop? That was me. I distracted myself listening to gorgeous birdsong, one creature singing “zuu bee zuu bee” repeatedly, as if announcing we were getting closer to Zubiri.

Not being able to see the town left me feeling increasingly annoyed at the pace of the day and not being able to stop somewhere sooner. As if it was someone else’s fault I was in the woods in the middle of Spain. I just wanted to be done. We made it to the bottom of the slippery hillside, my knees wobbly, and finally spied the town through the trees wayyyyy down the hill.

“I can’t do it,” I thought to myself tearfully. It was after 4pm and I was mentally, physically, and emotionally done. 

Then it happened. The day’s big event.

Pilgrim down

We finally arrived, walking over Zubiri’s lovely medieval bridge and along the cobbled streets. Just then, I broke an important rule: never mix walking with any other activity (like eating, reading, etc.). In this case, I was looking in my guidebook for an albergue.

In an instant, I felt my foot twist awkwardly — and my ankle with it — in an uneven spot in the cobbles. As I began to fall sideways, I yelped, but the weight of my pack changed the direction of my fall and I wrenched my shoulder attempting to break the impact.

There I was — on my back like a turtle, legs akimbo — in the middle of the street.

Everyone was staring (concerned, I’m sure) and my fatigue and pent-up emotion burst. I began to cry softly, utterly humiliated to have attracted the attention of locals and lounging pilgrims. I wanted to disappear right then in a puff of smoke.

Yet my dear, sweet, supportive friends swooped up beside me like angels, dusted me off and spoke reassuringly to me. Katrin took my heavy pack and carried it, still wearing her own. Marisela walked beside me and spoke kindly as I hobbled. I tried to apologize and be strong. “Don’t worry,” she said (which became my favorite Marisela Mantra). They had walked as far as I that day, and yet here they were helping me, doing more than their fair share.

Pilgrim back up, only better

And I, whose unspoken goal in life is to fade into the woodwork, to make as few waves as possible, who wouldn’t dream of imposing or putting someone out, allowed herself to be helped by these people I’d known for only 4 days.  I was too tired to fight it. What blessings come of challenging situations: in pain and the center of unsought attention. In that brief and generous moment, the stone within my heart cracked open to receive their care.

At the albergue, my friends checked me in, paid my board, and got my passport stamped while I sat on a bench with my ankle elevated. Katrin, who is a surgical nurse, consulted with me about what kind of painkillers to take — and then gave me some.

Marisela said to me at dinner, “You help everyone, but you won’t let anyone help you. Why are you different?”

In all my years, no one had called me on this core issue of my life. I couldn’t have been more grateful for her piercing insight, for it changed the course of my Camino. And quite possibly my life. I needed to stop holding myself as separate. I need love and support and community as much as anyone else. And thanks to these generous friends, I received exactly what I needed.

Despite my bruised ego, I was physically fine. The evening ended with a happy reunion with Marlyse (who’d made us dinner in Valcarlos). Katrin and I sat in the clover by the river at sunset while I journaled. We enjoyed a delightful, delicious dinner with laughing people from all over the world. A perfect setting for a healing heart.

Side note: I don’t mention albergues by name unless it was a stellar experience. El Palo de Avellano was one of my favorite on the Camino. The owners are a delight, they employ numerous local staff, and the dinner was far and away among the best I was served in Spain. It is worth the 15€ if you happen to stop in Zubiri.

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