Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Day 28: Running with Dragons!

Dscn1542bSeptember 8: Today was an exciting day for me because today, I was going to walk into Pamplona—by far the largest city so far of my hike. It was also the only city that the trail goes through that I had heard of before I got the idea to do this hike because Earnest Hemingway made it famous for the Running of the Bulls. (Of course, the locals would tell you that they made Earnest Hemingway famous.)

That whole bull-running business happens in July, so none of that would be going on during my visit. Just as well, too, since I’ve heard that it’s all but impossible to find lodging during that time and even the dumpiest hotels charge exorbitant prices.

The hike into town was short—only about 15 kilometers (less than 10 miles). Exactly what I wanted too so I’d have all afternoon to explore the town. On the way into town, I met another pilgrim, Brian, an American from California, and he told me that he wanted to camp out along the trail but that everyone he mentioned the idea to told him he was crazy and it was much too dangerous. I rolled my eyes.

“Yeah,” I told him. “That’s only because they’re all scared of the dark and believe giant, man-eating monsters come out at night.”

I’m a little annoyed when I hear people claiming that it’s crazy or dangerous to camp outdoors. What, exactly, do they think is going to kill you? Bears? Wolves? Hippos? I’m not saying that it’s impossible that there are no predators out there that might think they’re the top of the food chain, but come on—if they wanted to make a meal out of you, they don’t have to wait until dark to do it! The very same people who will take a nap outdoors in the middle of the day will tell you it’s crazy dangerous to do so at night, and it annoys the hell out of me.

Then there’s the class of people who think that there’s a roving band of people out there planning to jump unsuspecting campers. But here’s the thing: After it gets dark, you almost never see anyone out on the trail. Roaming groups of bandits tend to do their work in cities. If they’re on the trail, it’ll be during the day when victims would be easy to find. I’ve spent the night on the trail and I can tell you one thing: Banditos aren’t roaming the trails at night.

Dscn1551bSo it really annoys me when I hear about people who’ve never spent a night outdoors claiming that it’s a crazy dangerous thing to do. How would they even know?

So I told Brian that there’s absolutely no reason in the world not to camp along the trail if that’s what he wants to do. After all, I’ve done it plenty of times and never had any issues. He asked about the legalities of doing so, and I had to admit that I really didn’t know. Just set up camp late in the day, break up camp early in the morning, preferably away from roads and buildings, and nobody will ever be none the wiser.

I wished I met him a day earlier, though, and he could have camped out with me. Tonight, however, I planned to stay in Pamplona and look for bulls. I wasn’t going to be camping tonight.

I split off from Brian when we passed a supermarket in a suburb of Pamplona. I wanted to restock my food supplies and he continued on.

Walking into town, there was no doubt I was in Basque country. The sidewalks even had graffiti telling pilgrims that we were in Basque country and calls for independence from Spain. I wondered what percentage of the population here feels this way. A small (but very vocal) minority? A large (but mostly not very vocal) majority? I don’t know. Things seemed peaceful enough, though, except for the graffiti.

Arriving into the old quarter of Pamplona was a bewildering experience packed with thousands of people. Pushing through the crowds along the Camino was no easy task! I stopped briefly at the cathedral and noticed a few people up in the bell tower and wanted to figure out how they got up there. I looked around the cathedral, looking for some obvious way to get up there, and eventually gave up. As I was about to leave, though, the bells started ringing and I realized that the people I saw weren’t mere tourists. They were bell ringers! I was a little disappointed to learn that mere tourists such as myself wouldn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the views from the top.

I headed back into town to find some lodging, pushing my way through the crowds, when I saw a giant head approaching. It towered above all the other heads of the crowd, a massive head that could have been ten feet tall bouncing its way through the crowds. Then I heard the music. It was a parade!

More giant heads followed the first one, dancing their way through the streets. It was the most disorganized parade I’d ever seen in which street people like myself seemed to join and follow along with the parade at whim. To my right, I noticed three pilgrims I’d never seen before. I recognized them as pilgrims because of their packs and the scallop shells hanging off of them, and I knew they spoke English because I could see a paperback book strapped to one of their packs with and English-language cover. I pushed my way closer to them.

“Do you know what this is all about?” I asked the group.

“We thought it was because we got here!” one of them answered.

That sounded like as good of reason as any. =) We chatted a bit while the parade marched passed up. I took a video of the proceedings—this sort of stuff just doesn’t show up as well in photos. In the meantime, I learned the family of three was from Ireland, hiking the Camino for a couple of weeks on their holiday.

Dscn1555bAfter the parade had passed us by, I asked where they were planning to stay the night. I didn’t really know where I was going for the night yet and maybe they had a suggestion. They had a reservation at a hotel in the old part of town, the Hotel Eslava, at a reasonable 35 euros per night, so I asked if it would be okay if I followed them and check if the hotel had an extra room for me. They said sure and off we went.

They got us lost a bit along the way. Our maps showed all the main streets in Pamplona, but none of the smaller streets we were now navigating, and since I didn’t even know where we were going, I wasn’t much help at all for navigation purposes. But eventually we arrived at the hotel and the family checked in. I inquired if there were anymore rooms available, and there was, and checked into my own room for the night.

I got online briefly to email Amanda and my mom about having arrived in Pamplona. I didn’t call them, however, since it was probably 3:00 in the morning Pacific time. Nobody would be up. I took a shower, cleaned up, and switched into my camp clothes, and washed my hiking clothes in the shower. Then headed back out again. I was in Pamplona! I wanted to explore! I wanted to sightsee!

When I got back on the streets again, it was eerily quiet. The streets were all but deserted, and all of the businesses closed. I knew the Spanish took their afternoon siestas seriously, but it was disorienting how completely the streets emptied after how crowded they’d been before. What happened to everyone? I imagined people as cockroaches that scattered as soon as someone turns on the lights in the room. They all ran for cover, indoors somewhere, hiding until the lights are turned off again.

I read in my guidebook that there was an impressive statue of Earnest Hemingway near the bullpen, so I wandered over in that direction to check it out and was completely underwhelmed. As far as statues go, I thought it was just awful. It was basically just his head, and the torso of his body seemed unfinished. There was nothing at all below his chest.

I also hoped to find a decent statue of a bull that I could pretend was trampling me, but I never did find any in my wanderings. I did follow the path that the bulls run, conveniently marked on a map of town I picked up at the hotel, and tried to imagine the crowds running along this path a couple of months before, but I couldn’t. Not really.

Dscn1576bI stopped at a small market and picked up a couple of snacks and a drink where I saw a girl buying a six-pack of beers. She kind of looked like a camino hiker, but without her pack. I didn’t recognize her, but she introduced herself and asked if I’d like to join her for a drink. “I’m so pathetic,” she said, “I bought this beer to bribe people to talk to me.” (Okay, that might not technically be an exact quote, but she said something to that effect!)

I told her that I didn’t really like beer, but that I was more than happy to sit down and chat for awhile. I didn’t find any of my friends from the trail in my wandering around town and it was more fun to explore with some company around. So we took a seat by a monument and chatted for the better part of an hour. Her name was Hilary, from Vermont, but currently living in Paris with her husband. So we talked about Paris for a bit, because, you know, that’s the kind of thing that two gringos in Pamplona tend to talk about. =)

A few other pilgrims eventually joined us, and we chatted for the better part of an hour before everyone went off in their own direction, and I started wandering around town again. The hoards of people started coming out on the streets again. The lights in the proverbial room must have just been turned off because the cockroaches came back out in hordes. =) It’s positively eerie the way crowds come out and disperse like they do, in such a synchronized manner.

Eventually, I ran into a bunch of pilgrims that I did already know, and I wandered around with them a bit, stumbling into new parades. I also learned that there was a medieval festival going on which explained all the knights in shining armor and dragons wandering around the town. (Though admittedly, it still didn’t explain the giant heads—not to my satisfaction, at least!) I took more videos of the knights and dragons doing their thing and eventually headed back to my hotel near sunset. I had work to get done online!


I’m beginning to suspect that there might be Basques around
these parts….

The bridge going into the old part of Pamplona.

Most of the hike through the suburbs were
pretty boring, but the castle walls around the
old part of the town were wonderful!

It occurred to me, while walking into Pamplona,
that I didn’t have any pictures of my eye.
So I tried taking a photo of my eye. It
didn’t really turn out well, though.

One thing I’ll say about the Camino markings in Spain—they
look like graffiti. Just spray painted on the ground, on walls,
on rocks—it’s really quite ugly and tacky. Seems like
they could have spent a little money for waypoints that
looked a little nicer and more legit!

A view of part of the cathedral. I wanted to
figure out how to get up to the top of the
tower where I could see people. Turns out,
they were just bell ringers, though! Not tourists!

At first I thought Wassa was in this costume
with the big head and all, but it turns out,
he was still in California keeping an eye on AQ!

Dance, Giant Head Man! Dance!


The view from the plaza just outside of my hotel. =)

Stupid Hemingway statue.

This was the only angry bull I saw in Pamplona.

A self portrait in a funhouse mirror. =)

I didn’t see bulls running through the streets,
but there were definitely dragons!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Day 27: Good Morning!

I pose with a road sign on my way out of Roncesalles.
Santiago, here I come!!!! =)
September 7: The lights of the hostel click on at 6:00 AM sharp, and pretty much all 200-or-so pilgrims started packing up to hit the trail. They definitely wanted to make sure everyone was awake, though, going so far as to even play music through the alburgue. In my opinion, they couldn't have picked worse music. It was slow, organ-type of music like you'd expect to hear in a church that was more likely to be me to sleep than wake me up from one. They should have tried playing something to get people's hearts pounding like Eye of the Tiger. If that didn't wake up everyone in the hostel and get them pumped and ready to head out, nothing would!

For me, however, it was still too dark outside. I've been trying to take at least one photo every single kilometer I hike, so I can't hike in the dark. My camera doesn't take very good shots in the dark. Unable to sleep with all the light and noise, I read my book for a bit instead to kill the time.

By 7:00, I was finally ready to hit the trail myself as the sun finally started lighting up the landscape.

In Burguete, a short hike out of Roncesvalles and one of the places Earnest Hemingway like to hang out, I stopped at my first Spanish store to resupply some of my food. Roncesvalles had no markets for resupply. The store wasn't very big, but I already liked it vastly better than most of the French stores I had to resupply from. They had better backpacking options that I could cook with my stove, and I loved that fact that I could now read many of the labels since they were all in Spanish.

Burguete was a favorite place for Earnest Hemingway
to stay while in the area.
The sheer number of pilgrims on the trail continued to surprise me. I ran into the Israeli girls again and told them, "Boker tov!"--good morning in Hebrew. Tamar seemed amused at this, so even after noon passed, I continued telling her "boker tov" whenever I saw her. Eventually, she would sometimes sneak up on me in town or someplace when my guard was down and beat me to 'boker tov.'

I met a lot of other nationalities, however, but I didn't know how to say good morning in their languages, so I started asking everyone how they would say good morning in their native languages, and I started keeping a list of them in the back of my journal. Today, I would learn it in Dutch, Korean, Chinese, and in Polish.

The Chinese version was most problematic for me. I repeated what the Chinese girl said, but she shook her sad sadly in frustration as I failed to nail the pronunciation over and over again. I swear--to my ears--it sounded exactly like she said it--but she just shook her head and rolled her eyes for several minutes. Then I said it once, and she perked up. "Yes! You got it!"

"I did?" This was actually a surprise to me, because honestly, I thought I said it the same way I had said it before when she said I got it wrong. I said it again, and she shook her head again.

If this little episode taught me anything, it's that I don't think I will ever try to learn Chinese. I tried saying it for a few minutes more, and sometimes I got it right, and sometimes I didn't--but as far as I could tell, I always said it the same way EVERY SINGLE TIME! It was very frustrating to me!

When I first heard good morning in Dutch, I immediately knew I was going to have trouble with one of the sounds the man used. Somehow, he managed to sneak in a strange k sound between two consonants and I wasn't sure how to make that sound with my mouth. I tried stumbling through it, and I stumbled I did--the man thought it was pretty amusing--but he told me it was good enough that any Dutch speaker would have no trouble understanding what I was trying to say. I just had an accent, but it was good enough for people to understand. Whew. I didn't want to go through another Chinese experience! I still tried to get that strange sound into the words whenever I told anyone good morning in Dutch to make my pronunciation as good as possible, and none of the Dutch I met had any trouble understanding me. =)

Korean took me a minute or so to say, but once I got it down, I had no trouble repeating it. I imagine I still had a gringo accent, but none of the Koreans had any trouble ever understanding me. Given the sheer numbers of Koreans hiking the trail--I must have passed at least 20 of them on the trail this afternoon--I had a lot of practice using it. =) "on-yon a-say-o" (that's how I wrote the pronunciation in my journal) became the standard greeting I'd use for any Asian-looking person I met on the trail, and nine times out of ten, they really were from South Korea and knew exactly what I was saying. (That one time out of ten, it was someone from Japan, China, or--in one case, New Zealand.) Invariably, the Koreans always seemed the most excited when I greeted them in their own language. =) Perhaps it's the shock of an obvious white guy from the United States actually knowing how to greet them in their language. The two people who taught me the greeting in Korean also said that they didn't really have a greeting for "good morning"--that's it more of an all-purpose greeting that can be used at any time of day--which just meant I had that many more opportunities to use the phrase throughout the entire day. =)

I crossed Vivian a few times throughout the day--my new Australian friend that I met the day before--and when she learned about my quest to learn how to say "good morning" in as many languages as I could, she asked me how do I say it in Australian.

"Good morning?" I asked, wondering where this was going.

"No," she told me. "It's g'day mate! You have to say it like you had a stroke or something."

I laughed and tried to say it like she did, but she always criticized me that it wasn't drawling enough. From then on, I started saying g'day mate to any Australians I met on the trail. =)

Then there's the Polish good morning. I distinctly remember when I learned that one. I was sitting at a viewpoint, high on a ridge, just relaxing. I had planned to cowboy camp that night so I was in no rush--I didn't want to set up camp until at least 7:00 in the evening so I had a lot of time to kick around and kill. I decided to stop for four hours at one particularly nice viewpoint at the top of a ridge chatting with all sorts of people passing by. Some stopped to talk for a few minutes. A few others stopped to talk for as long as a half hour. I think they were mostly just exhausted from their day's hike and I was a convenient excuse for them to stop and rest.

And it was during this four hour break in the afternoon that a Polish girl wandered by. I didn't know she was from Poland just by looking at her. In fact, the only nationality I could really peg with any sort of consistent accuracy was Koreans. But I was eating a snack, and she wished me "Buen provecho!" as she walked by.

This got my attention because it suggested she knew Spanish--or at least knew it better than most people on the trail. (Which is really odd when you consider that I'm actually hiking in Spain, but English was actually more common than Spanish! One girl I met who was actually from Spain said she hadn't met a single other Spaniard so far.) So I asked her about that, she she stopped to chat for a few minutes, which is when I learned she was from Poland.

"Ooooh!" I said, pulling out my journal. "How do you say good morning in Polish?"

I wrote it down, made sure I was saying it right, and eventually she continued on her way. My journal entry for the day started: Learned how to say "good morning" in Dutch, Korean, and Chinese. I wrote a bit about each of those experiences, completely forgetting at the time about the Polish version which I added later in my journal: Oh! And I learned it in Polish. Lots of studying to do!

I find this amusing--the passing nature of my Polish entry, because as time would tell, the Polish girl would play a much larger roll in my hike than all of the others combined. I didn't even write her name down in my journal. I'm not even sure I asked her name at that first meeting, but I would later learn her name was Karolina and had I known how big of a roll she's play later in my hike, I'd probably have written much more about her in my journal that afternoon. I didn't even write that she told me how to say 'good morning' in Bulgarian, which I faithfully wrote down but had no intention of memorizing until I actually met someone on the trail from Bulgaria. With all the new languages I was learning, it seemed prudent to save languages from which nobody came from for another day. =)

Most churches I saw tended to blend together
after time--all old, majestic affairs. This one
had a decidedly modern slant to it!
But I couldn't write a biography of everyone I met this day. I talked to dozens of people throughout the morning and afternoon, and I had enough trouble just trying to remember where they were all from. At this stage of the hike, I was just recognizing faces--a bewildering number of faces!

After my four hour break, I started getting itchy to walk again and headed down the trail, eventually pulling into the small town of Zubiri where I was immediately told by about five different pilgrims that all of the alburgues were already full.

"No problem!" I told them. "I was planning to camp out anyhow!"

But I was a little curious what other pilgrims without the gear for camping out would do about this problem. I was a little surprised that lodging was so difficult to come by. It was September now, well after the July and August peak season, but all of the alburgues were still full?

Rumor had it that more than a thousand pilgrims left Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port within a few days of each other and that this September had pilgrim counts far higher than anything they had ever dealt with in previous years. Even back in May, the numbers were double what they had from previous years, and it appeared that the unexpected large number of pilgrims were straining the capacities of the alburgues.

I bought a pint of vanilla ice cream to eat, filled up my water, and chatted with the other pilgrims wandering around town until, about an hour before sunset, I headed out on the trail again to find a place to camp, eventually stopping just past the town of Aquertta.

The campsite was perfect. Well-hidden from view, far enough off the trail so there weren't any signs of toilet usage, on relatively flat, cleared ground.

Then a car drove past. Through the trees, I didn't see a paved road a mere 30 feet up the hill from where I set up camp. I didn't mean to camp so close to a paved road, but since it took more than an hour before that car drove past, I didn't worry about it. If I couldn't see the road, they weren't going to see me. And it clearly wasn't a very busy road if I could be camped here for an hour before a car drove by.

At sunset, I heard giant BOOMS coming off from the distance. I have no idea what that was about, but it sounded like someone was shooting off a cannon.

At about 10:00, well after dark, I was about to turn in for the night when I heard music filling the air. The nearest town was nearly a kilometer away, so I was a little surprised that I could hear music at all. It wasn't especially loud at this distance, but it must have been incredibly loud at the source to carry so far. Certainly none of the pilgrims in town would be getting much sleep with that kind of racket! At 5:00 in the morning, I woke up when the music finally stopped. The sudden quiet actually woke me up! I was more than astounded that whoever it was was allowed to play such loud music so loud and so late at night. Nobody in that town could have gotten any sleep at all. I heard there was a festival of some sort going on, but I had no idea what it was for. Just that they know how to throw really LOUD parties!

I so wish I had one of these in my backyard. =)
You don't even really need markers to follow the trail.
Just follow the pilgrims ahead of you instead! =)

Even in Spain, the stop signs still say "STOP". *shrug*

The plaque on this memorial dedicates this 'monument' to a
Japanese pilgrim who died in 2002 at 64 years of age.
I assume he died on the trail at this point, but the plaque
doesn't actually say (nor what he died from).

Another food truck, parked along the trail. Definitely a popular stop for pilgrims!

Pilgrims loiter on the streets of Zubiri.
(Most of the people in this photo are pilgrims--not locals!)

The trail passes through some industrial areas here. I don't really know
what this plant is for, though.

The picture of the bicycle going down the stairs
made me laugh. =)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Day 26: Over the Pyrenees and Into Spain!

A pilgrim pack outside of a gite.
September 6: I woke up bright and early, took a shower, ate breakfast in my room, and felt oddly anxious to get going. I'd been looking forward to this day for a long time--over the Pyrenees and into Spain!

The weather was overcast but was expected to clear later in the afternoon. I certainly hoped so since I wanted to see the famed views from some of the tallest mountains found on my entire hike. I planned to take the Napoleon route--called so because it was the route Napoleon followed in his day to... I'm not sure why he was out here, actually. To invade Spain? On his way to Egypt? Whatever the reason, though, I was following in Napoleon's footsteps. Or maybe he was such a visionary, he was following in the footsteps that he knew I'd be walking a couple of hundred years later? =)

The trail out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port followed along a steep, paved road late in the morning. There are few places to break up the 28-kilometer hike between Saint Jean and Roncesvalles--quite a long haul for most of the pilgrims who would be starting their first day. Consequently, I assumed I was bringing up the rear of the mass of pilgrims leaving Saint Jean. They needed to start early to get over the hump and cover the distance to Roncesvalles. I, having already hiked over 700 kilometers, was in fantastic shape, and considered a mere 28 kilometers a "short" hiking day. In fact, only five other days on my trip were shorter. It really was a short hiking day for me! Had I still planned to push onto Lisbon, I would have covered a lot more distance. But I wasn't in any rush now. Nope. I was going to take my time hoofing it over the Pyrenees.

Coming out of town, a tall Irishman caught up with me. He slowed down to chat for a few minutes, which is how I learned he was from Ireland. "Jack, from Ireland?" I jokingly asked--a reference to The Way that he didn't seem to get. I realized this when he started to explain to me that Jack wasn't really a very common name in Ireland. Then he picked up his stride and pushed on beyond me.

Into the Pyrenees!
He was the only person to hike faster than me all day. Oh, sure, others passed me at times when I sat down to admire the views, or stopped to eat a snack, or slowed down to talk to others along the trail. But then I'd get up and keep on at my own pace and quickly catch up and pass them again. I was the rabbit--not necessarily winning any races, but taking long breaks to admire the views and enjoy my time in the Pyrenees--while the turtles, tired and exhausted, plodded onward.

I talked to a lot of people along the way too. English, it appeared, seemed to be the most common language of the trail. I had people to talk to. A lot of people to talk to! It was a welcome change from the relative loneliness since Le Puy. A surprisingly large number of them were Americans. I read that about 5% of the people who hiked this trail were American, but my informal numbers suggested a much higher percentage and I wondered how much The Way had to do with that.

In addition to the Irishman--who I quickly caught up and passed when he slowed down to walk with a cute girl from Brazil--I caught up with Charles (the New Zealand priest that I ate dinner with two nights before). He was quite surprised to see me since he thought I had gone over the Pyrenees the day before, and I explained my decision about cutting Lisbon off my hike and that I decided to slow things down instead.

I also passed a large number of Asian-looking folks, most of whom didn't seem to know any Spanish or English, and naturally assumed they must be from South Korea. I don't normally assume Asian-looking people are from South Korea--Japanese tourists would usually seem like a better guess. But my earlier research on the trail highlighted the fact that a surprisingly large number of Koreans do hike the trail--even more than Americans do (or did). Apparently, someone hugely famous in South Korean had hiked the trail then wrote a bestselling book about his experiences, and ever since, the trail had become a mecca of sorts for South Koreans.

Looking back down to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
One of the Koreans, I was amused to note, appeared to be carrying a bear bell. There aren't a lot of bears wandering around in Europe, and it was not pleasant to listen to, but I pushed on ahead up the mountain and didn't have to listen to the clutter of those bells for more than a couple of minutes.

I also met two young girls from Israel that spoke no Spanish or French--just English and Hebrew. I told them "Boker tov!"--Good morning in Hebrew and chatted for a few minutes before pushing on past them. I didn't ask about their religious proclivities, but I was more than a little fascinated why a couple of girls from Israel would be on a pilgrimage to Santiago. Now, I know the girls might not actually be Jewish, but let's face it--most people from Israel are and I had no reason to think these girls were exceptions. I wouldn't have expected to see any Israelis on the trail, and I found two within hours of leaving Saint Jean.

I continued to great everyone I met with a hearty "Bonjour!"--at least until I learned their nationality at which point I'd tell them hello, boker tov, or buenos dias as necessary, which covered every language I knew how to greet people with. Well, that's not exactly true--I also remembered how to say 'good morning' in Swiss-German, but I never did meet any folks from Switzerland hiking the trail.

It was easy to spot the non-French people when I said, "Bonjour!"--they would reply with their own bonjour, but it was always hesitant--like they didn't have the confidence to say it with gusto. I had no doubt I still butchered the word and my accent would never fool a native Frenchman, but I think it fooled everyone else! At least until I started speaking English.

A place to stop for food, drink, or rest.
When people told me "Buen camino," I'd annoyingly correct them and say we were still in France. It's "Bonne route!" =)

Near the top of the ridge, I reached a food truck selling drinks and food to pilgrims along the trail and claimed to have the "last stamp in France." The most fascinating thing about this truck was the writing on it. Many pilgrims had signed the truck, and the side of it contained a long list of countries that ticked off the nationalities of everyone who passed by during the morning. I told the proprietor that I was from the United States and he added a mark next to the appropriate row.

I bought a Coke and had him stamp my credential, then laid out and admired the views through the now-patchy clouds. I felt on top of the world. Sheep dotted the hillsides and hikers dotted the roads. I knew this was the world's most traveled trail--in 2010, a whopping 272,703 people registered the completion of their hike in Santiago--but the sheer number of pilgrims still astounded me. At one decent viewpoint, I counted more than 20 hikers ahead of me along the road before it curved out of sight and another 20 hikers behind me before that direction curved out of sight. It was a busy little trail!

I continued hiking, up and up. The initial steep ascent leveled off into a gradual ascent, climbing above the clouds and into spectacular views. Okay, not High Sierras spectacular, but it's own special beauty. At the highest points, a ferocious wind blew over the ridge tops and I had to secure the strap of my head tightly around my chin to keep it from blowing away. I twirled my trekking pole in the air with joy. Life was good!

Near the top, I knew I was getting close to the Spanish border--marked by a cattle crossing. A water fountain was just on the French side of the border, and a rock monument was just on the Spanish side of the border, but the actual border, I was told, was marked by nothing more exciting than a cattle guard. People could walk between the countries without any border patrol or checkpoints, but heaven forbid, the cows and sheep certainly wouldn't be allowed to wander between countries at whim!

The clouds and fog are finally starting to burn off!
At the fountain, I had another hiker use my camera to take a photo of me getting water. I took pictures of myself walking over the cattle guard. And I asked another hiker to take photos of my hugging the rock monument on the Spanish side of the border. I was in SPAIN!!!! Goodbye, France! I loudly proclaimed "Buenos dias!" to anyone who would listen, and followed up with a "Buen camino!" as I tore down the trail leaving them in the dust. =)

The trail eventually reached the highest point over the Pyrenees, then proceeded to crash steeply through a forested slope towards Roncesvalles. It was quite steep over loose rocks and I had to slow down or risk a seriously ankle or knee injury.

Near the bottom, I started to tear based a woman, wishing her a "Buenos dias!" but got the sense that she was having trouble and slowed down to talk. I asked where she was from--Australia--and how she was doing. She had a hiking partner who had left her behind, though, which she was a little bitter over. And, this late in the day, was feeling the pain of the downhill slope and distance that had been covered. I had met others on the trail who were hurting--physically, at least--but this one seemed to be hurting more internally and I felt bad for her. I wanted to cheer her up. The camino should be a fun adventure, not a miserable slog.

She asked if I could get her water bottle out of her pack which I happily got for her, then returned it to her pack afterwards, and I walked with her the last kilometer or two into Roncesvalles just chatting and her mood seemed to improve.

We walked into town together, and I formally introduced myself and she introduced herself as Vivian. I didn't know it at the time, but I'd be seeing a lot more of her before our hike was done. When she caught up with her friend in town, she introduced me as an "angel" for having gotten her water for her. She must have been feeling really down if that's all it took to make oneself an angel in her book!

New kinds of trail markers that I hadn't
seen before.
I checked into the alburgue in town that could host about 200 people at once. The sheer size of the place kind of intimidated me--the gites I passed never held more than a dozen people or so at a time. Something of this scale was completely beyond my comprehension, but I was curious how it all worked and made a point of staying there rather than camping out.

The guy who checked me in asked for my passport, which I handed over. Upon noting that I was American, he asked if I would get back to the United States before the election.

"Yes," I answered.

"You vote for Obama?"

Now he was getting into uncomfortable territory for me. I don't really like talking about politics, especially with strangers, but it seemed pretty obvious that he wanted a certain answer so I went ahead and said, "Yes." But good grief, I can't even escape the election propaganda even in Spain. (Not all of it, at least.)

"I give you a good bed, then!"

"Uhh... thanks," I told him. =) He stamped my credential and assigned to me bed #248, a top bunk on the "second" floor of the building (third floor if your American). Let it be known, I suppose, that bed #248 is considered a "good" bed, but to be perfectly honest, I'm not really sure what makes it any better than any other bed in the alburgue.

I picked up my pack and left by saying, "Merci!" then quickly correcting myself and said, "Gracias!" I was in Spain now. I had to stop using French! For several days, I found myself speaking French instead of Spanish. Oui instead of si, or bonjour instead of buenos dias, and merci instead of gracias. It's a tough habit to start, and it was a tough habit to break!

I took off my shoes and put them in a large rack with a bunch of other shoes--they weren't allowed in the alburgue--and walked up the stairs to my little space. The accommodations were nice, clean, and efficient. The setup was remarkably private for such a huge number of people. If you've seen The Way, Martin Sheen checks into this alburgue in Roncesvalles--a giant room with over a hundred people in a single room. I wasn't in that room--these new accommodations were recently built to replace that room. That old room is still used as overflow, however, whenever the 200 beds in this new place fills up. The next day, I met a few people who did stay in the overflow room, which surprised me because that meant--holy cow!--all 200-or-so beds where I stayed had filled up! Dang, that's a lot of people...

When I say that sheep dotted the hillsides, it was not a figure of speech!

Hikers, hikers... everywhere!

This is a pilgrimage trail, after all....

These pilgrims decided to stop and smell the sheep!

The views really were quite wonderful!

The food truck with the last French tampon....

The list of nationalities of everyone who passed by so far
in the morning.

The Fontaine de Roland--and my last French water source.

That's Spain on the other side of that cattle guard!!!!!

I take my first steps into Spain....

Oh, Spain! How I love thee!

A shelter--I guess in case hikers get caught out in storms?
It was pretty disgusting inside, though. You'd have to be pretty
desperate to take shelter in that thing!

At the high point on the Napoleon route, looking down to the steep
drop into Roncesvalles at the valley bottom.

Vivian entering into Roncesvalles.

Inside the church at Roncesvalles.

Some of the racks of shoes at the alburgue.

My first Spanish sunset....