Camino del Norte

Day 3: Irun to Pasaia

Start: 7:45am
Finish: 12:48pm
Distance: 19 Kilometers (11.8 Miles)
Elevation Gain: 490m    Loss: 489m
Where I Received the Cello: Hospital de Peregrinos – Pasai Donibane

The alarms in the Albergue rang violently at 6am. It was the same sound as the bugle call I recognized from war and military movies. With swift action, everyone was up and moving within minutes which felt like a battlefield all its own. I discovered I’m one of the youngest Pilgrims here and amongst quite a few Camino veterans. Through some of my conversations at the end of yesterday, I found most people here are on their third, fifth, and tenth Caminos. Being such fresh blood with an already battered body from my lack of preparation, I followed their motions and got ready to begin the day.

My feet were slow to mobilize and I felt creaks in my every movement. I have to remind myself this isn’t a race and this is my third day compared to their first. The eagerness was within me and I hoped my bones would join in on the excitedness. It’s a war between my mind and my body and I think both are in losing battles today.

When I finally hauled my bags downstairs, I could smell a fresh pot of coffee being made. I followed the scent into the kitchen where dozens of still-sleepy eyed faces shoved biscuits and plain white bread with butter and jam from their plates on the table to the mouths. The volunteers were very much waiting for all of us to clear out, but not without my coffee.

Jaime, the man who brazenly threaded my blister was awfully sprite while his walking companion of seven consecutive years was more muted in our goodbyes. The offered I joined them in their walking, but I wanted to keep at my own pace. I’m not a functional human before the hours of 10am so I didn’t want to damage a friendship in the early stages of growth. They waved as they charged off and I slung my pack over my shoulders, clipping in for the day ahead.

The trail this afternoon was more of what I was expecting the Camino to be. Following the arrows from the hostel and beyond the city of Irun, we turned left and headed into the hills. That’s when the trees swallowed us whole. The road became rocks and the rocks became mud and it felt more like a trek than a walk through a city. The motions felt familiar as I climbed and I heaved, my body returning to its favorite state of being. I was so happy to be in hiking mode that I almost forgot the aching of my feet in each step.

Almost.

Guiseppe, a former lawyer from Sicily, was the person I played tag with today. He wore thick spectacles and had pepper strands in his otherwise black hair. His lisp was heavy, but his English was perfect. He was on his second Camino and had pleasant things to say about his first experience. I listened to him talk about how more challenging the Norte will be compared to the Frances, but I didn’t take his warning seriously. I was more interested in his words than thinking about the added pain my body was soon to endure.

We reached a fork in the trail as well as signage explaining the decision that was ours to make. The higher route was meant to be the original Camino route with sweeping panoramic views of the ocean, while the lower route remained inland with very little rise and fall of elevation. Listening to my feet as well as the rain, I chose to take the lower route. Guiseppe insisted taking it with me, but I encouraged him to do what his heart was calling him to do. I promised we would share a meal together when we reached Pasaia. Still feeling torn about my decision to take the easier way, he assured me, “Remember, it’s your Camino.”

This is the first time someone made it okay for me to continue in a different direction than what I was intending and I was grateful for it. We took a photo together before parting ways and I promised our paths would align again.

I left him hoping the magic of the Camino would deliver on the promise.

The trail was heavily marked with yellow arrows making it easier to follow blindly. I was able to focus more on my surroundings than being concerned if I was lost. Not needing my phone for navigation meant really listening to what my body was saying. My heart was in synchronicity with the birds and I was thrilled to be immersed in nature. A few locals passed me while on their afternoon walks the other direction. A puppy, no older than a few months, came sprinting towards me. I bent down to greet his slobbery nibbles and he tugged on the Buff wrapped around my wrist. His owner was mortified, but I was so lost in the joy of the moment to care. It’s the little things that make up the magic here and I’m not one to shy away from interactions of tangible magic.

When I popped out on the main road three hours later, I was surprised to see Guiseppe standing there. He was drenched to the bone from the rain but he was smiling from ear to ear. He always seems to be in high spirits and in this moment I was grateful to know him. He shared the few photos he was able to take and I regretted not taking the high route with him. My body throbbed in tune with each swipe, reminding me I made the right choice on its behalf. We followed the road for a while, finally finding the iconic yellow shell mounted on the stone wall of a garden.

We navigated the steep descent to Pasaia together and stopped to greet the sea on our arrival. This small fishing village is protected by towering cliffs on both sides of the inlet. I was told there is a ferry which is almost required to get from one side of town to the other. A few hundred stairs still stood between us and the first walls of the city. Upon our entry, we were immediately swept away by the charm of the streets. Recognizing a few of the Pilgrims from the Albergue, we stopped in at the same taverna for a cafe con leche and well-earned snack.

I wanted to continue with the others departing, but my body just wouldn’t allow it. Even after food, coffee, and a beer, my feet had other plans for the remainder of the day. The Albergue in Pasaia opened at 4pm to start welcoming Pilgrims so I ordered another beer and settled in to watch the town whirl around me. It was mostly locals shouting despite being within earshot of each other. My brain was still operating in French so I couldn’t make out anything they were saying despite my wanting too. I was craving connection to pull me from the frustration of staying behind. The only other Pilgrims I saw enter the city didn’t look like they intended to stay for long. I wondered if they would continue to San Sebastian or be one of the ones fighting for a limited bed in the Albergue. I wondered if I could muster enough strength to haul my belongings to San Sebastian, but every time I stood, my feet reminded me they weren’t moving any further today.

Despite the exhaustion, I couldn’t help but think of how perfect the afternoon had been.

Except for the constant rain.

Every time I stopped—to eat, to pee, to take a photo, to stretch—the rain decided to fall even harder. The elevation gain is far greater than I expected it to be. Having to do it with busted feet and a small stream for a trail, I don’t have the patience to make it to June in these conditions. If there were breaks throughout the day, perhaps I could win my mind over, but I’m more tired of the rain than being in my body. And my body is feeling all kinds of busted.

As much as I want to stay on the Northern route and follow the sea, if the weather continues to be this violent, I may have to retreat to the Camino Frances. Even if I’m equipped to handle it, I’m just not in the headspace to deal with the cold and the constant pelting rain. If I head south, the forecast is predicting sun all through next week and in the low to mid 20’s. The tradeoff is significantly more tourists than I think I’m wanting to handle. I’ll give myself an opportunity to acclimate before I opt to take a bus towards sunnier horizons.

I wish I weren’t so determined to see the sun and holding onto my grievances about the weather, but I’ve been caught in an emotional spectrum of greys and storms since February. The sun is always the thing to boost my spirits and with how dark life has been recently, I need beams of literal light to guide me through everything that’s emerging. Walking alone gives you a lot of time to think and the kind of discomfort inclement weather brings seems to amplify any negative emotions that arise. Alas, this is what I came here to do and it’s going to take a lot more than shitty weather to deter me from reaching Santiago.

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