(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.)

February 28
Day 1: St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, 31km/19m

I burrowed all night and managed to not just stay warm, but also get some restful sleep. Most of the pilgrims had departed by the time I was up and alert and ready to go. I was lingering, waiting for my PA (Polish Angel) to get ready. The idea of starting alone was daunting to me so I asked if he wanted to walk together.

He struggled to hoist his bag onto his back. Not wanting to lift it from the floor, he heaved it onto his bed, put his arms through the straps and stumbled like a weightlifter to straighten his knees. How much did it weigh? I wondered. Sixty pounds? Eighty pounds?

More than three feet of snow had fallen on the mountain, and to walk the preferred path was to risk your life, we were told. Instead of crossing the mountain, we would be forced to walk around it (at least the peak of it). I quickly decided that what I most needed was a view OF the mountain rather than a view FROM the mountain.

We left the refuge together in the light of early morning, and I saw St. Jean Pied de Port for the first time. So beautiful. So European. The trickling water, the crisp air, the ancient stone buildings at the edge of the river Nive. A bridge arched over the water. The white-capped mountain towered beyond. Snow had piled up in doorways and blanketed the pathways. It was hard to be in such a postcard-perfect locale without taking any time to explore it. It was the sort of place that was meant to be discovered, and yet I had merely crashed there for the night.

My PA and I passed quickly through the city and began, at first, to follow the road. We had 2 km of pavement before we could veer off onto the pathway that traversed alongside it. I knew that the pounding would accumulate quickly and begin to take its toll on my feet and body, so I pulled out my trekking poles, something I’d never used before. I’d read that they could absorb 25% or more of the impact of walking. The metal tips struck the pavement, tapping out a rhythm and marking each footstep. It was odd using them like this—on flat ground—but I was willing to accept any help I could get.

It wasn’t long before we saw the way markings—shells and arrows—leading us off the road and into the countryside. The way markings would be, that first day and for the next month, the sight of happiness.

There was a little snow. It was cold. The ups and down of the terrain were made easy for me by the poles. I felt fantastic, and more so with every step. We passed a babbling brook. The snow had melted in patches revealing a burst of colors beneath it. The air was fresh and clean. I could not have felt happier. I could not have grinned any bigger.

The first half mile passed quickly and we were already leaving France and entering Spain. I thought of my rabbi. I thought about how perfect it was that I’d started my period the day before. Perhaps I could use the blood of my ovaries to cleanse the blood of his people. Just a thought.

My travel companion spoke a lot—he of little faith. Mundane things, mostly filled with fear and concern. I took it all. I wanted his companionship; it was a safety net I needed that first day. When I began to judge him for his lack of depth, I stopped and tried to bless him instead. That felt better. I kept marveling at the beauty of the countryside while he seemed to lose a sense of hope. He brought too much. He didn’t train enough. Already, he was fighting what was there. He was a beautiful example of another way—the way I was not going.

And he had reason for misery. If the mountain was not passable, imagine our surprise to find the alternate route covered in snow. It started slowly but quickly accumulated. One foot became two and then three. Travel became a concentration of inches. With each measured step, the snow would collapse beneath our feet. We’d lift each leg, throw it forward and fall through the snow again. At times, the snow was up to our knees. Other times, it was mid-thigh and higher.

Progress was arduous to say the least. Conditions were stellar for downhill skiers and polar bears—walking pilgrims, not so much. I felt like I was in Antarctica, so I decided to go the way of the bear—like I was meant for it. My PA was miserable. It seemed that he could only complain while I could only smile. I did my best to talk him out of it but he was intent on having the experience he was having. I hadn’t imagined that it would be so cold, yet I was warm enough; my clothes and shoes were water and wind proof. I seemed to have everything I needed in my tiny bag.

And there were miracles to be found—mostly in the form of footsteps. Others had come before, and their trail was clearly marked. Following literally in those footsteps meant we weren’t falling through the snow as much, and we could also see how deep each step would be. Not only did I feel like I wouldn’t lose the path but I felt comforted knowing I wasn’t alone: those footsteps were encouragement and inspiration. My PA did not take heart, however. He was unraveling rapidly. I kept having to wait for him to rest, to gather his strength and will.

With our ascent, the snow continued to mount and with it came the swirling wind. Keeping our balance was an effort but I had those trekking poles keeping me upright. My PA had that heavy pack, which pulled him and dragged him down. Finally, he burst in an eruption of tears. He wasn’t going to make it, he said. He told me to go on without him. He was embarrassed and ashamed. He assured me that he would be all right. I was torn. If I waited for him, my first day of travel would be far longer and more frustrating than I would have liked. However, if he didn’t make it to the first refuge, I would always wonder—did he stop, did he find lodging, did he die?

He did, however, have a tent, a food supply and a goddamn Coleman stove in his pack! When he pulled out his cell phone—that was the comfort I needed. He would be fine.

I stayed with him until we got back to the main road. There, at least, he would be near civilization. We said our goodbyes, and I nearly ran off, losing him in the blinding snow.

My left shoulder began to ache. I’d chosen a backpack without a spine, and even though it snapped snuggly around my waist, my shoulders still had to carry much of the weight. My shoulder aches to remind me that I carry my burdens too heavily, I thought. And it’s my left shoulder: my feminine burdens. I must find a better way.

I put my trekking poles through the straps and across my shoulders. The poles not only lifted the weight, but I when I hung my right arm over the end of the poles, it lifted the pack completely and gave a great arm stretch. I started to laugh. And then dance.

That’s when occurred to me that I could do it all—the cold, the terrain, the hundreds of miles—and I could do it with happiness. I thought, What if there is no emptiness and despair? What if all of it, even the pain, is enjoyable? It was a radical thought but it was a possibility. What if all the darkness I thought would come up for me doesn’t? What if I’m more content than I imagined? What if I’m happier and more tender and more open? What if? I couldn’t stop smiling, in love with the world.

At the apex of the road, I was left unprotected. It was just absurdly windy and cold. I used my poles again to pull me forward, steady myself and ease the pounding of the pavement. The one advantage of taking the main road was that signs began to mark the distance to Roncesvalles. With each bend of the road and each new sign came new hope, even as the sun was setting and darkness was on its way.

I entered Roncesvalles at about 6 pm and walked down the middle of the road to avoid the snow piles and slush. I passed a restaurant on the way to refuge and smiled at the thought of food. I’d walked almost 20 miles on about four protein bars, and I was ready for a mound of something, anything.

The refuge was a welcome site. A very welcome site. I paid the warden, stamped my passport and entered a huge room filled with mostly empty bunk beds. Only a few sets of tired eyes looked up at me and smiled as I entered. Three sets of tired eyes, to be exact: two men and one woman. Space heaters were tethered to electrical outlets and glowing toward wet clothing that was draped on the barren bed frames. I tossed my pack on a bed along the wall and dropped down next to it, crazy tired and crazy happy.

At the restaurant, I ate a mound of pasta. Pasta never tasted so good.

The refuge was quiet. The other pilgrims were either sleeping, reading or writing. My body yearned for sleep, but I wanted to write as much as I could about the events of the day. It was hard to control my hand as it moved along the page. I wrote in sloppy, chopped sentences. And just before the lights went out, my PA entered, a look of desperation in his eyes. I was happy to see him. I could sleep, knowing that he was safe.

There is a young blond man in his 20s with piercing blue eyes from Germany. There’s an Italian, mid-30s perhaps. And a young woman from Argentina.

My feet hurt but not badly. No blisters. They have perhaps fared the best. My legs are sore, but not much. The last 5 miles on the pavement made them ache. The first 15 were good. One thing is certain: I’m going to get skinny here on this trail.

My bag can be a bit draining but there is something beautiful about having everything I need on my back and nothing more. It’s a great act of trust to know that what I need will come to me. And it has. My powers of manifestation sometimes blow my mind.

I think about my rabbi. I think about this war that Bush has insisted on. I’ve decided that on this trip, there will be no “people.” We are not from other countries, we are not at war, we are walking. It is so beautiful. Do governments and religion create separation but otherwise, people just are? I told my PA today that I am sad about my government; I am ashamed. I told him that it is not who we are: a group coveting power and money most of all. At least I hope it’s not who we are. We are certainly out of balance in regard to money and power. But tonight I sleep with three men in my room of bunk beds: the German, the Italian and the Polishman. These are “my people” tonight. Maybe tomorrow, too. I trust them immediately. I care for their wellbeing. And we share a common language, English, to varying degrees.