I wrote in my diary, ruefully, a few weeks into my pilgrimage across France, that I’d thought by now I should be able to leap at least small hills in a single bound. But even after weeks of walking, I still struggled up steep inclines, stopping intermittently to catch my breath.
And then one day, suddenly, I could fly.
I like to blame it on the mountains, the Pyrenees, swelling on the horizon as I walked.
I’ve approached mountains before. When I was young, every few summers my family would drive from Winnipeg, in the prairies, through the Rockies to Vancouver, where my dad’s family lived. It was always an exciting moment, when someone saw the mountains, a tiny jagged line on the horizon.
But back then, we were in the Rockies within a few hours. Approaching the Pyrenees was different. I was walking.
It took a few days, from the first time I spotted the mountains until the day I began to climb them. I liked the idea of the approach as much as the reality of it, I think. Just the thought of walking up to a mountain range and through it was magical.
Soon after I began to see the Pyrenees, I wrote in my journal: “This trip has so many moments … where it’s worth all the trouble of being human just to be walking across France in the rain, looking at the Pyrenees.”
I wound my way up hills and down into valleys in the days before I reached St. Jean Pied-de-Port, at the beginning of the pass. Dipping into valleys, I wouldn’t be able to see the snow-tipped peaks strung out along the horizon. A French friend I walked with awhile would laugh at me because I would constantly exclaim, “Les Pyrenees! The Pyrenees!” when they reappeared.
It might sound corny, but they filled my heart with joy. My diary is full of references to the mountains:
“… they are just so much more pointy and mountainy-looking than anything I’ve seen so far. (How’s that for a description from someone who wants to be a professional writer?)”
“It’s magical, watching them slowly grow bigger. I love it, love it, love it.”
“There were some nice foresty bits today, and cow-y bits, and some rather boring town-y and corn-y parts. Sometimes it feels so flat, but then you go up a hill or the trees clear away and there are the Pyrenees.”
I am the sort of person who can always find something to worry about, but in general I was filled with joy those days before the mountains. I was feeling good physically, too.
At the beginning of the trip, I wasn’t in terribly good shape, so negotiating the frequent hills and valleys of the Chemin du Puy (one of the French routes of the Camino de Santiago) was a constant challenge. And just when I was feeling like I could handle going about 20 kilometres a day, my feet developed blisters. They weren’t terrible—just two per heel—but they did bring a bit of pain to every step. Finally, just as the blisters were turning into sturdy callouses on my heels, I got bronchitis—coughing, fever and all.
As I approached the Pyrenees, I was still coughing, but my illness was only a cold, not really so bad at all. My body, finally, was not only working but quite possibly in better shape than it had ever been in before.
The day before I reached St. Jean Pied-de-Port, I had a ridiculous amount of energy. I had a choice between two route variants. I took the shorter, flatter one, since I’d climbed enough hills that I automatically bypassed any I could possibly avoid.
Halfway through the bypass route, I lunched with some friends, new and old (old being acquaintances of more than a few days, on the Camino). Then I set out on my own, and soon came to the juncture where the two routes rejoined. Consulting my Miam Miam Dodo—most useful of guidebooks—I discovered I was only a few kilometres from the town where I planned to spend the night.
And so I backtracked, up the high route, about a kilometre uphill, heading for a place where my guidebook showed a small chapel. I was exhilarated. I was alive. I sang as I almost bounded up the hill.
I got there to find the view spread out magnificently below me, of the towns, of the Pyranees still in the distance.
The chapel itself was locked, but I didn’t care. I felt like doing something ridiculous. It was warm for an autumn day, but not swelteringly summer anymore. I was hot from the climb, though, so I decided to dump water from a tap outside the chapel on my head. I immediately began to cough, and decided I was insane, but I didn’t care.
I sat down on a lovely little bench to rest, but I didn’t feel like resting that day. For the first time I can remember, I only felt like moving, moving, moving.
Then I went back down the hill again, feeling alive and ridiculously energetic.
I had amazing days and more difficult days after that, but none matched the sheer exhilaration of that day in early October when I felt like I could fly.