I decided a week ago, after staring at the border between France and Spain, that I was going to hike over the Pyrenees from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to Uterga, Spain. I was planning for the distance to be 100km and to take the lower route of the Camino Francés that people traverse in bad weather. I had only hiked once before to Mt. Pagasarri near Bilbao (30km hike). I was ignorant when I hiked Mt. Pagasarri. I embarked on the journey at 3pm with two granola bars and absolutely no water.
There were several points during that hike where pure luck kept me going. If I had taken a different fork in the road of the “Camino Viejo,” maybe I wouldn’t have been able to find water. I also started the 8 hour hike late in the afternoon, meaning that a good 2 hours of my hike were completely in the dark. I used the remaining battery life on my iPhone to get me to a suburb farther outside of the city than I was expecting. I learned that while I have anxiety ordering food in a restaurant in Spain, I have no anxiety when it comes to being lost and hiking in the dark. I was able to act quicker and not panic about every little noise in the bustling trees around me. If I wanted to hike the 100km nonstop, I would have to be more prepared.
I went to a hiking store in Bilbao on a few different occasions and bought a headlamp, a poncho, protein and energy bars, two pairs of wool socks, and a highly recommended pair of hiking boots. I bought my bus ticket to and from Pamplona and a one-way ticket to Saint Jean. I sat nervously in Bilbao waiting for the moment when I could finally start the hike. I’m ignorantly fearless most of the time, but this hike was something that even I thought seemed like a bit of a stretch.
It was hard to look out the bus window as I journeyed to Saint Jean, knowing that within 12 hours I would be walking the entire distance on foot. We weaved through the mountains for almost 2 hours. The bus dropped us “peregrinos” off on the side of a main road. I decided to follow everyone else, hoping that I would find my hostel before everyone else found their own. Mine actually ended up being the first hostel on the road that we walked down.
The hostel in Saint Jean was a three story house with beautiful, wooden floors. Each floor had its own cozy couch and various paintings on the walls. I walked up the stairs to see an older french couple watching the news in their living room. I stood there in shock for a second, feeling like I had just broken into someone’s house. The woman came over in her dark, purple glasses and assured me that I was welcome. I bought the camino passport from her at their check-in counter before retreating to my 4-person room on the top floor.
I overheard a Fleet Foxes’ song coming from the room from across the hall. “Is that Fleet Foxes?!” I blurted out. A girl with short, curly brown hair stepped into the hall and introduced herself to me. She and her 2 sisters were from Australia and had been traveling for several months. They asked if I could help them adjust one of their backpacks, and I quickly told them how inexperienced I was. After we all settled down in our rooms, the 3 Australian girls and I went to a nearby bar and had a drink.
It was the perfect mixture of French and Spanish. I was able to order a Basque drink– in Spanish– in a French bar. We sat there talking about travel more than anything. The Camino rarely came up. The three of them had been couch-surfing and doing “work-away” across Europe. They traveled much cheaper than me; it was quite impressive. They told me about how they moved around a lot, so they didn’t really own much. Something that we all agreed was for the better. They told me about their genius, sound engineer friend who created some of the coolest things. He works full-time in pest control, and I thought that it was kind of a shame. I joked that we should take all of our remaining money and invest in his genius.
When we got back to the hostel, the French woman kindly gave me a map for the first 27km to Roncesvalles. She pointed out a danger area around the 20km mark, some refuge huts that were along the camino, and she also recommended that instead of taking the lower route like I had planned, to take the route to the top. It was a tough decision, but I decided to change my plans accordingly. Instead of hiking to Uterga (just outside of Pamplona), I would hike to the top of the Pyrenees on the camino and continue until I reached Pamplona.
The next morning, we all sat downstairs in the kitchen eating breakfast: 3 older French gentlemen, the 3 Australian girls, 2 spaniards from the south, the owner in her dark, purple glasses, and me. I tried some of the vegetable paste that the Australians offered me; it was salty and gross, but it was so random to get to try something that was brought from Australia. I got my socks wet sitting outside with everyone on the patio. I drank bitter coffee and listened to everyone else talk. I felt right at home with the wood floors and french commotion. My alarm on my phone started going off, so I headed back up to the room and put my stuff together.
I started off by going 5 blocks in the wrong direction. The Australians followed me, and eventually I had to admit to everyone that I thought we needed to turn around. We turned around and I picked up my pace, waving goodbye to the Australians behind me.
I caught up with a Canadian guy, who looked only slightly older than me. We got to a crossroad, and after figuring out that we spoke the same language, started talking together as we hiked out of Saint Jean. I was quite lucky to have met him. We both had similar camera lenses, similar travel outlooks, and both of us had up and decided to do this hike a week ago. He was an experienced hiker who had finished a 900km hike in Canada recently. He told me travel stories that I couldn’t even believe. Anything from biking down the most dangerous mountain in Bolivia, to driving across the Chilean border in a Jeep Wrangler with a soldier holding a machine gun. I was incredulous when he told his stories, but deeply enthralled with his endless pursuit of the world. The fact that we crossed paths told me that I was heading in the right direction.
The humidity and fog was so bad that I had to take off my glasses at times to wipe them off. The path to Leopolder, the highest point, zig-zagged through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. We wore ponchos and danced with the green giants. Our minds empty, eyes full, with one foot in front of the other–we hiked into the confusingly beautiful. We cleared Leopolder in 5.5 hours and descended into Spain shortly after.
WE WORE PONCHOS AND DANCED WITH THE GREEN GIANTS. OUR MINDS EMPTY, EYES FULL, WITH ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER– WE HIKED INTO THE CONFUSINGLY BEAUTIFUL.
I hiked with the Canadian for 27km until we reached Roncesvalles, where he stopped for the day. He was the only person who was hiking as fast as me, and so with Roncesvalles, I hiked west to Pamplona alone. I tried to get some food before leaving the town, but the bars only offered a 10 euro ticket that gave entry to a “peregrino” menu starting at 5pm. In the next town over the supermarket was closed. I walked into a fine-dining restaurant asking if I could order something “para llevar.” The 15 year old in front of the bar went to ask his father, who politely told me there was a cheaper option for me up the street.
I wouldn’t find a place to buy food for another 15km. I walked into a bar in Viscarret, explaining that I just hiked from Saint Jean. “No es posible,” he told me without hesitation. I pulled out my camino passport and asked for him to give me a stamp for Viscarret. He gladly complied saying that the distance was too much for a single day. I told him my plans to hike straight through to Pamplona. He gave me two free sandwiches and offered me a cigar. I was so revved up by the whole thing, that I sat down and smoked half the cigar before I realized how terrible of an idea it was. I explained why I shouldn’t smoke a whole cigar as politely as I could in spanish, trying not to offend his generosity. He wanted me to stay longer and rest, but I insisted that too much rest would keep me from hiking through.
I spent two minutes on the WiFi letting everyone know that I was safe before I ventured into the hardest 30km of my life. The next 10km to Zubiri consisted of small hills going through a forest along the main highway. It was mundane and quiet. I think that stopping in Viscarret had slowed my momentum a little. I picked up my pace as night began to fall. I knew that I wanted to cover as much ground before then. I had been inspired from my hike to Mt. Pagasarri to attempt a portion of this hike at night. It was a real challenge to voluntarily hike through Spain with only a flashlight attached to my head.
I got into Zubiri a little after 9pm, where the kindness of the people once again kept me motivated. I was offered a free shower and leftovers in their community fridge. I got the stamp on my passport and insisted once again that I needed to continue. I had read online about hiking the camino at night. I knew that a few people had attempted it at a later part of the hike that followed closer to the highway. The rain had began pouring down heavily as I walked into the desolated streets of Zubiri at around 10:30pm.
It took me a long time with my headlamp to distinguish that I needed to actually retrace my steps across the bridge entering the town in order to continue the camino. It was quite discouraging. I knew that the 22.8km to Pamplona was going to be the hardest portion of the hike. My friend Ben had warned me that I needed to pay close attention to my surroundings. Sleep and food deprivation, a limited headlamp view, and faulty, rocky paths made my night almost insurmountably challenging.
This portion of the hike is up or downhill for the most part, but there was no substantial elevation change. I jumped from one side of the path to the other in the pouring rain. I looked down to keep the light focused on the few meters in front of me. I made sure to stop every few seconds to get a grasp for my surroundings. It seemed pointless at times, but I knew that a wrong turn in the path at night would get me lost. It was the most vulnerable I have ever felt in my life.
Sometimes I would see something in my peripherals. I would swing my head quickly to the side to see that it was only a tree stump or a fence post. I had been doing fine so far, hiking at a dismal but safe pace in the dark. The thought of something jumping into the circle of light in front of me started to bother me. Shortly after, my head swung side to side nervously trying to keep everything illuminated. I knew that the noises around me were not helping. I plugged in my headphones and tried to listen to my workout playlist. It was helpful to tune out the noise and just focus on one rock at a time.
The rain and wind had picked up quite a bit. A louder noise came from my left. I stopped in my tracks reaching up through the hood of my poncho trying to remove my headphones. The hood of my poncho was tight around my head, considering I was wearing two jackets underneath. I panicked and shouted as loudly as I could in the direction of the noise. I shined my headlight in the direction of the sound for a good minute before bending down to pick up a few rocks. I was smart enough to not run, but irrationally scared enough to leave the path to face my offender. I never found out what the sound was exactly. It wasn’t a fallen tree branch or fence post. I scoured the surrounding area for something or someone to make sense of it all.
I was losing my grip and I knew it. I had already trusted the nature of Spain this far, and there wasn’t any other option but to continue on.
I got to Larrasoaña after calmly walking for a little while longer in the dark. I spent a while on the outskirts of Larrasoaña on my iPhone reading underneath the tent of my poncho. I calmed down quite a bit and continued to hike. I stopped later on once I had found a good resting spot and positioned myself against a tree. I retreated into the safety of my poncho and read until I could sleep for a little while. I wasn’t concerned with setting an alarm out here. I woke up a few hours later and ate some nuts and raisins. I had almost forgotten about my sandwiches, but I couldn’t get myself to eat but a few bites.
I walked through Villava, thinking I was finally in Pamplona. I walked until I found a sign saying “welcome to Pamplona/Iruña,” and turned right back around. I walked back out of Pamplona and Villava into a forest-like part of the path a few kilometers out. I had finally hiked to Pamplona, but I knew I couldn’t stay. My bank card hadn’t been working at any of the ATM’s (I can’t use ServiRed). I also was aware that no hostel or hotel would accept a “peregrino” at 6am, yet alone someone who didn’t have any money left. It was miserable to leave Pamplona, but I knew I was better off sleeping somewhere removed. I fell asleep quickly after resting my head on the more comfortable part of my backpack. I left my fear in Larrasoaña; the exhaustion was too much to fight at this point.
I woke up in the warm afternoon and walked back into Pamplona. My feet were stinging in agony while the rest of my body seemed to be doing okay. My clothes were wet and stuck close to my skin as I walked into the noisy sunlight. It took almost two hours for me to walk into Pamplona again. I stopped at every park bench that I found. I got the genius idea of using my extra socks as inserts in my hiking boots to try and alleviate the pain. While pulling my extra socks out, I found 5 euros in coins at the bottom of my front pocket. Food! Pop! Whatever!
The only map that I had for my hike was the first 27km out of Saint Jean. I had no idea how to find the bus station again. When I had been waiting for my bus to take me to Saint Jean, I had walked around in a large park behind the station. I walked around the outskirts of a few parks unsuccessfully. I even asked a few people on the streets if they knew where the bus station was. Everyone pointed me towards ambiguous places that led to nowhere.
I walked through a third park agitated. Nothing there seemed to look like the park I had seen a few days ago. I still had over 4 hours to find the bus station, but I was getting to the point where I needed to rest my feet every few minutes. I went to sit on a bench when I noticed that “J + P” was spray painted across it. It all came back to be in an instant. I had seen this bench on Friday! I peered out at the other end of the park to see the entrance to the bus station. I was so ecstatic that I took out my camera and took a picture of the otherwise normal park bench. I walked with a smile on my face towards the station.
I washed my face in the bus station bathroom and rolled deodorant all over my neck to try and mask my terrible smell. After an hour in a proper chair with WiFi, I walked around the immediate area outside of the bus station and found an ATM that I could actually use. I withdrew 20 whole euros and went back to the bus station café and ordered a gigantic, hot pizza. Thirty minutes later I was on a bus home to Bilbao.