I stepped off the bus in Irún with all the emotions — excited, scared, uncertain, like stepping into the unknown, and knowing the trip back to Bilbao on foot would take the next week.
I wandered a bit, finally finding my first arrow. Seeing it caused my heart to rejoice, perhaps like the wise men seeing again the star after their interview with King Herod. The few other pilgrims ahead of me, quickly dispersed and disappeared. So, I just began to walk, wondering, how do I do this way?
I was encouraged with the word I had received prior to departure: “My son… I’m walking with you all the day long, as you put a foot one in front of the other. Do not imagine that you walk alone. No, I walk beside you, before you, and it is true, I’ll be with you all the day through… you are clay in my hand.”
That first arrow pointed up this sidewalk toward the main part of town. I got to the first corner and saw no arrows. The guidebook said the arrows were tough to find, and so gave street directions. But finding no posted street names, these were no help. For the next half hour, I wandered one way then another, finally saw a woman and asked: “¿Perdon Señora? ¿Dónde está el camino de Santiago?”
This woman was beautiful, with this bright smile and gentle spirit. She spoke only French and Spanish. And clearly I was not comprehending Spanish at that velocity, so she took me by the arm, and walked me a ways, and while pointing and gesturing, said: “a la derecha. ¿Lo entiendes?” Thinking I understood, I said, “Si! Gracias!”
I however missed whatever was “a la derecha,” ended up lost, again, on this quiet Sunday morning near an apartment complex. This older woman spotted me, looking like a lost pilgrim, and said, “¿Eres un peregrino? ¿Necesita ayuda para encontrar el camino?”
I understood she thought I was a pilgrim and something about the “Camino” and knew she wanted to help. “Si! Si!” I said. She had been walking with two gentlemen, and called to them that she was going to walk me to the way, and they waved her off.
This woman walked me to this street and pointed across the road and there I saw the signs for the Albergue, and then I understood that was what was “a la derecha” from the first woman who had helped me. And there on the sidewalk was a yellow arrow. I wanted to kiss her! “Muchas Gracias!” I exclaimed.
The guidebook said that after some distance I would be directed to the left onto a path. That was when I began my mountain ascent.
It was steep. Perilous at times, where only to plant my foot next to a tree secured me from sliding down the steep slope. There were many hiking up this hill to church and others who were pilgrims.
It was during this hike that I began to realize that the references to the numbers of meters of ascent and descent referenced in the guidebook meant something. That day the ascent was over 700 meters, and I began to realize it did not mean “all at once” but time and again.
After about 2 hours in pleasant 75F degree temperatures, sweating profusely, I arrived at the Church of the Lady of Guadeloupe (Santuario de Guadalupe), famous for miracles that took place here a few decades back and for her protection back in 1638. I rested outside the church, surrounded by worshipers; the sanctuary was already packed. I took off my shoes and socks, rested my feet, and listened to the Psalms, Hymns and Prayers and the message in Spanish. I saw other pilgrims moving on past the church and up the hill behind me. Still up!
After that rest the climb felt immense but was beautiful. I was hiking across this idyllic grassy, firm turf among grazing sheep and horses. The view looked down to the sea. It was breathtaking. I stopped at this great overlook for lunch. One guy said we had climbed some 2700′. I don’t know if he was accurate, but it certainly had felt like an enormous climb. Somehow that sounded more significant than the equivalent meters. I chatted with six Americans on a guided tour of the Camino at the summit for a bit.
I then climbed up more and more to the top of the ridge.
I knew, eventually, I would need to come down. At the height of this climb the yellow arrows stopped and I again couldn’t see where to go. Some guy up there, awaiting his tour clients, told me to take this road back down to the highway I could see far below me. His designated road would force me to backtrack, and not wanting to do that, I decided to go cross country, through this sheep pasture, down to the fence I could see that ran along the highway.
It had seemed like a brilliant plan, forgetting a steep, sheep pasture would be filled with uneven, wet, slimy earth, and sheep surprises (!), and also filled with what I discovered were various shrubs with thorns. In the end I had to backtrack anyway, for there was no going straight down this steep, steep pasture, so I had to go across it. The sheep ignored me as I slipped, stepped, and stumbled down, down, DOWN to the fence.
What I had also forgotten was that a fence meant to keep sheep in, might not let me out. So, once I reached it, I had to backtrack more along it to find a way through. It was barbed wire. There were no gates. No openings. Finally I came to a place where someone had jimmied the wire to open up a place to slide through. It was not an especially wide opening, and the mud below it was slick, the drop to the road was still about four to five feet. My pack caught on the way under, but broke free and I was out, on the road. I looked up at the way I had come, shaking my head. “Ah, your Camino, Shimer!”
Follow the arrows — I had a lot to learn.
Now I was walking, against traffic on this highway with cars zipping toward me. Thankfully there were not many of cars. It was a small, two-lane highway, so this actually increased their speed — everyone knows small roads with the danger of head-on collisions, are more exciting driven fast! After a mile this French couple climbed down from a trail off the mountain still on my left to the road and spotted me. The woman asked me in English,
“Are you an English speaker?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Then she began to speak in French, gesturing expansively and caught herself, “Oops! That was French!” she said, laughing.
Then, continued, “You are on the wrong way. It is not safe to walk on the highway. If you follow this path up through the trees you will see a tower, if you turn right on the path by that tower, you will come to a second tower and then you will see yellow arrows again.”
I followed her directions. The walk was long but it was my first day. I could do this. I came around a corner that rounded into a village. The path cut through narrow streets and I could see the sea close at hand. There was a woman, Anita from Chili, I’d seen earlier standing at the corner of the road. I greeted her and she asked me if I knew where the albergue was. I said “Just up this hill, according to my guidebook.” And it was.
Situated on a bluff overlooking this picturesque harbor and towns connected by a ferry this albergue was the sweetest place. The woman Ann greeted every guest warmly and said “Mi Casa, su Casa!” This was our home. “You need not set an alarm for there is no hurry. You cannot leave before the first ferry. I will awaken you in the morning with music.”
My entire body ached from the soles of my feet to my shoulders. I washed my clothes, hung them to dry in the wonderful air, stretched, and then headed down, down, down some 250 steps into the small medieval-feeling village of Pasajes de San Juan,
After more wandering, I found another small bar, serving food, but still found no grocery store for my breakfast. I took the ferry across to the other side and back, but none open on a Sunday. On one of my returns to the Albergue, Anita, from Chili, told me she had found a grocery (without a difficulty), and food, and told me where to find it, but when I went it too had closed. I had literally walked up and down those stairs five or six times by the time darkness came.
The music that awoke us the next day was not the quiet, gentle stuff of my imagination, but wild, rock music! Ann, the hostess, certainly had awakened us! I forced my sore feet into my boots, shouldered my bulky pack on my sore back and made my way down the 250+ steps to the water and caught the first ferry at 7 am. The sun was just rising over the harbor. I got lost once by this stairway, then found my way again. Somehow the view alleviated the pain. I was grateful, deeply grateful to be on this Camino.
And began my hike up, up, up out of Pasaia Donibane toward San Sebastian, having learned that I do this Way one step at a time. My brother Ken Mosesian had written me, “My dear friend: May you open yourself to receive every rich blessing God is waiting to pour out upon you… Benedict vos omnipotens Deus, Pater et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus. Amen.”
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My dear Brian,
Your latest email about the Camino certainly made for very interesting reading, and it seems to me that you discovered a lot about being lost, and then about being found! What incredible experiences.
Now I trust that by now you have fully recovered your health, but I wonder if you were able to make Dresden? I’m sure you will update me when you have opportunity.
I enjoyed preaching at West Bridgford last Sunday morning, and also loved the time at our Fraternal on Thursday.
I thank the Lord that at last my ulcer is healing following the angioplasty in December. My practice nurse thinks that my leg will be fully well by Easter. Wonderful prospect.
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