Harrowing but Wonderful 1st Day by Roger and Rella Remedios
In March 2013 Rella and I flew to Madrid. Our plan was to fly to San Sebastian and then take the bus and train to St. Jean Pied de Porte. The plane changed course in mid flight and landed in Bilbao instead. It had snowed heavily in San Sebastian and the pilot decided that Bilbao was safer. A bus then took us to San Sebastian. When I logged onto the Camino Forum I found out that the Pyrenees above St. Jean had been hit with a snow storm and the Route Napoleon was closed. In addition, the Valcarlos, though still opened, seemed likely to close also if the snowfall continued. We went to bed that night thinking that our Camino Frances would likely be shortened. We considered taking the bus to Pamplona and starting there.
The next morning the situation in the Pyrenees was no better and we started researching buses to Pamplona. While on the Camino Forum I came across a mother and two young daughters (I believe 8 and 12) that were on their way to St. Jean to begin the Camino. The mother commented that they were from Vermont and a “little” snow storm would not deter them from starting the Camino in the Pyrenees. In reading this, Rella said to me that we did not come all this way to start our Camino in Pamplona. She also said that if the mother and two young girls were brave enough to head for St. Jean why not us. (Two weeks into the Camino, we met this family and thanked them for giving us the courage to start in St. Jean)
The evening before our departure on the Camino, we did a reconnaissance to determine the way out of St. Jean on the Valcarlos. The next morning we followed our route and thought we were well on our way, when Albert, an Italian pilgrim, called out to us that we were heading for the closed Napoleon. We were very thankful for his redirection because ten days into the Camino we learned that a Brazilian pilgrim took the Napoleon two days after us and fell to his death. His body was discovered in the snow, days after he went missing.
During the trek to Roncesvalles on the Valcarlos we walked through snow and snowy conditions. Once when we went off the main road onto a detour the snow was so heavy that we backtracked to the main road. Along the way we only saw one person. Umi was a young Japanese travel agent walking by herself.
We walked with Umi until her pace became too slow for us. We kept her within eyeshot for much of the way. When we lost sight of her we stopped until we could see her again. Twice we stopped and waited for her. She indicated that she tired and would be ok if she slowed down. I offered Umi half of my saved bocadillo, but she declined. I then offered her a piece of our dark chocolate bar and she gladly accepted it. This occurred once more before we reached Roncesvalles.
We lost contact with Umi over the subsequent days, but saw her again in Puente La Reina. Rella spotted her with five pilgrims talking outside of a cafe. When she saw us she ran over and hugged us both…telling us that if it weren’t for us she may not have made it to Roncesvalles. Umi then reached in her jacket pocket and handed us an oversized bar of dark chocolate. We ran into Umi several more time along the camino to Santiago de Compostela. That first day symbolized the Camino to us…Albert helped us and we were able to pass that help on to Umi. A harrowing, but wonderful, first day.