(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

I woke up early on the morning of my departure, February 27, 2005. I’d already laid out my clothes for the journey and tucked everything else into my backpack. Back at home, so long ago, I’d made up daily packets of vitamins for the trek but I couldn’t find them anywhere, and I was a bit panicked about it. I searched my suitcase a dozen times but came up with nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d had every detail covered. And already it seemed like things were drifting afoul. I don’t need no stinkin’ vitamins, I told myself.

I tucked my suitcase with most everything I’d been traveling with into Karen’s closet, and I picked up my pack, which seemed miniscule in comparison. I walked downstairs to my final breakfast dressed in the only clothes I would have for the next month. Karen had hot coffee waiting. She picked up my pack, impressed by it’s size. I met her eyes sheepishly. I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking—will this be enough? Neither of us said anything.

This was the plan. From Exeter, I would take a train to London. In London, I would switch trains and arrive at the Stansted airport where I would hop on a flight to Biarritz in southwestern France. In Biarritz, I was hoping to find a taxi that would escort me about 30 miles to St. Jean Pied de Port, my starting point. Otherwise, I’d have to take a train.

Karen dropped me off at the train station in Exeter just before 10 AM. I hugged her for a long time imaging hers would be the last friendly face I’d see for a very long time. And hers would also be the first recognizable face I’d see upon my return. She’d been so welcoming, so accommodating, so protective, so motherly, so loving, so perfect.

I stood at the entrance to the train station and watched her drive away. When I could no longer see her car, I took a very big breath and turned, moving forward into the station… and into the great beyond.

On the train to London, I sat in a window seat and stared at the clouds—beautiful, puffy floating explosions with light pouring through them. I looked at them so long, so dreamily, that I thought I saw myself swimming in the sky. The train inched along—and I mean inched. It moved at turtle pace and then, without explanation, we sat unmoving for half an hour. I got to Paddington Station more than an hour late. And worse, I was utterly lost trying to find my connection to the airport. I stood reading the board, which appeared like hieroglyphics. Five minutes became ten. When I finally found the connection and the word “boarding” next to it, I began to run repeating, “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.” It was more than just the confusion and the lost time; it was the realization that I would soon be in a place where I didn’t understand the language. And then I’d really be screwed.

Out of breath and sweating, I somehow decided to relax. I thought, No, I will not fight this; I will not fight anything. If I miss my flight, it’s not my flight. This is all okay. Getting lost, missing connections, not knowing—it’s all part of the journey.

I felt myself sink into acceptance. Of everything. It would take too much energy to fight what was coming.

I caught the train to Stansted and arrived at the counter for Ryanair with an hour to spare. I bought my ticket and sat down near the boarding gate. And I became aware of how terrible I felt. My stomach was in knots. I closed my eyes and tried to meditate to no avail. So I scrounged through my bag for some aspirin. In the bathroom, I splashed my face with cool water. And then I discovered that I’d started my period. A week early! Good God, I thought, I’m about to start my toughest day of walking, and I’ll have cramps the whole way!

St. Jean Pied de Port is at the foothills of the Pyrenees in France. It’s name literally means, St. John at the Foot of the Mountain Pass. Although it’s the traditional starting point of the Camino, not everyone begins there. It has a reputation for being the hardest stage of the entire journey, partly because it’s mountainous but also because you must walk about 20 miles all the way to Roncesvalles because there are few, if any, accommodations between the villages. But for me, it was the beginning of the Camino, and I wanted to start at the beginning.

I sat in the airport and studied My Pilgrim’s Guide:

The first stage is one of the more strenuous and is a veritable baptism by fire into El Camino and Spain. You will need to leave early, and it is preferable to shop for lunch the night before as there are no facilities on the Route de Napolean once you leave town. You have a choice of three different paths to take to reach Roncesvalles. Your choice will be dependent on three main considerations: a) prevailing weather conditions; b) your personal level of fitness; and c) the kind of experience you want to create for yourself.

Whichever route you take is likely to be taxing. This stage represents one of the steepest ascents of the whole pilgrimage. However, the climb is rewarded with the great panorama of the Pyrenees. So have all your gear, food and water prepared for an early morning start so you can sleep soundly during the night and hold your inner purpose, rather than your worldly goods, clearly in mind.

Basically, these are the three routes. 1) The mountain: the most arduous but most beautiful route; 2) Country lanes and pathways: the shortest and flattest route that parallels the main road, also the hardest to follow because it’s not well marked; and 3) The main road: the longest, least scenic route, which also carries the most cars.

Obviously, the mountain is the way to go. I mean, why would anyone want to take the road?

I boarded the plane to Biarritz, which quickly filled up with French people, of course. All the announcements came in two languages—the signal that I was about to descend into a world where English was not the preference. I closed my eyes at takeoff, and by the time we’d landed, the sun had set. At the information booth, I inquired about getting a taxi but the woman explained that because it was Sunday, taxis were more than double the price. It would cost at least 120E to get to St. Jean. Conversely, the bus to the train station and the train to St. Jean would be about 8E total. She pointed as the bus was pulling up, and I ran toward it and hopped aboard.

I sat behind the driver, “Train, s’il vous plait,” I said in my best French.

The bus wound through Biarritz, a spectacular resort area that was breathtaking even in the dark, and I imagined that it’s the sort of place you come to when you’re in love.

On the hour bus ride to the train station in Bayonne, I stayed alert, not quite sure which would be my stop. But then I saw a man get off the bus; he was wearing a backpack with a scallop shell hanging from it. I sprang up just as the driver was about to close the door. That man and his shell would be my guide.

We crossed a bridge, and the lights of the city seemed to reach out their reflections to me. It was stunningly beautiful, and I felt so consumed by love that I started to cry. I cried because I had felt so alone growing up, so silent, so untrusting. But at that moment, I was out in the world, all alone, yet feeling totally loved. I looked at those lights, and I imagined that each one of them was a friend of mine—someone who had taken care of me, someone who was thinking of me as I traveled. People all over the country were praying for me and tracking my progress. I thought of the candle that was burning at St. John the Divine. St. John to St. Jean, I thought.

The angels seemed to be everywhere. First, the man on the bus, then another who helped me find the correct train to St. Jean Pied de Port. I stood on the platform, freezing, but warmed by the idea that I was being led. There was something incredibly disconcerting, however. As I waited for the train with these two men, it wasn’t hard to notice that each of their packs were significantly larger than mine. The first man, the Swedish Angel I decided to call him, carried a pack that was about four times mine. The second man, the Polish Angel, carried a pack so large he could barely hoist it up and onto his back. We all boarded the train and their bags dropped to their feet with a thud. Mine rested easily on my lap. It was clear that at least one of us was a fool… and it might have been me.

It was absolutely bone chilling on the train. I tightened all the muscles in my body in an effort to generate body heat. I looked at my watch and studied my map. I was concerned that we’d be arriving in St. Jean Pied de Port so late. I worried that I wouldn’t find the refuge before it closed. All told, my travel time from Exeter had been just over 12 hours.

When the train stopped, I followed the men off. It was pitch black but for one light above the station. All I could see was the snow swirling around it in a blizzard. It was beautiful but… it was snow! The lights from a car snapped to life staring right at us. It seems that the Polish Angel (PA) had made a reservation at the refuge, and the car was waiting for him to arrive. Without that, I certainly would have slept in a dark doorway. It was 10:30 pm. Nothing was open, not even the refuge, which I wouldn’t have found under those conditions regardless.

The car whisked us off to the refuge where the Warden was waiting. He spoke French and Spanish. The Swede spoke French and English. The PA spoke English and Polish. I spoke only English. We cobbled together a lively conversation much like the telephone game. The Warden gave us our passports (a souvenir you have stamped at the refuges along the way), and he all but assured us that the mountain would be impassable: it had been snowing for days, and the conditions at the top were deadly. As he showed us to our room, I contemplated my options—I didn’t really want to take either route left.

We didn’t have the benefit of light since others at the refuge were sleeping. I pulled my sleeping bag from my pack and rolled it out on an available bed. There was no heat in the place, and my sleeping bag was rated for only about 50 degrees so I did the sensible thing—I slept in my clothes including my hat and gloves. I fell asleep trying to quell the cramps from my period and feeling utter gratitude for having arrived.

On the train platform back in Bayonne, I’d written this in my journal:

The journey begins, the next part of it. Tomorrow, I walk. And pray. And search myself cell by cell. I will carry everything I need on my back for the next month. I will evaluate necessities and eliminate what is impractical. I will weigh personal comforts for what they will cost me in terms of effort or money or time. And I will say YES to the universe regardless of what it might bring me…

But who knew it would be such frigid conditions!