Three loves have come together once again: hiking, writing, and travel.
My non-fiction vignette entitled Roncevaux-Roncevalles appears in the anthology “Write to Move” edited by Sharon Chisvin, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Winnepeg, Canada and printed by Hignell Book.
The Covid pandemic is a strange time to publish an anthology of writing celebrating the freedom of movement, but current restrictions make the subject even more poignant. Obviously, the project was conceived long before the current global crisis.
You can purchase a copy of “Write to Move ” to see all these inspiring stories. Read my piece below:
The snow came as a surprise. It was the first of May, and I was walking, alone, through the Pyrenees from France to Spain. I reached into my backpack and grabbed some thick Thorlo socks to use as gloves. They were thoroughly wet within half an hour as the snow fell faster and faster. The ground became soft and slippery, but I noticed a few local goats continued to leap confidently from rock to icy rock. Who owned those goats? Did they have a goatherd? Were they wild? I didn’t know.
There was a lot I didn’t know. For one thing, I thought it would be warmer at this time of year. Just before arriving in Saint Jean Pied de Port, the last big settlement before the border, I was already feeling the cold. I found my way to a second-hand shop run by volunteers from the Eglise de l’Assomption. For two Euros I bought a heavy, navy blue wool sweater which I could imagine a goatherd having the sense to wear while tending his goats through spring snowstorms. This one had a few moth holes, but was still serviceable.
The grey-haired woman who sold me the goatherd’s sweater was a walker herself. She’d done the Camino de Santiago, the Camino del Norte, and the Via de la Plata trail too. She told me that the famous pass at Roncevaux might be closed.
“Passez la nuit à Orisson,” she cautioned. “There’s a little auberge there.”
I welcomed her advice. Besides, I figured that by the time I reached Orisson, I would be more than ready for some hot soup, a boule of warm bread, and a tidy bunk with feather quilts.
There’s something about starting a long walk, even one where you’re not perfectly well-outfitted. I always feel powerful. Alive. My body in sync with my soul. As if every step were bringing me closer to an understanding of the planet, of its history, of my own place in it.
I already knew a little bit about this mystical shoulder of Europe, the point where the Iberian peninsula hangs off the rest of the continent. As a schoolgirl, I read about the Battle of Roncevaux where Basques ambushed Charlemagne’s army after the Franks attacked Pamplona. In French class, I had suffered through readings of La Chanson de Roland, but I always struggled to keep straight who won or lost, what was fact and what was fiction. I knew, too, that there was another Battle of Roncevalles during the Napoleonic era, but I can’t say as battles have ever really interested me.
As I walked, I kept thinking about how much bloodshed has unfortunately taken place as people have fought over territory, or because of differences of god or tongue, custom or culture. I much prefer to think of the world as borderless, a place where everyone is free to live, work, and wander.
When I arrived at Orisson, my hair a tangle of wet knots, my quick-dry hiking pants soaked through, the innkeepers took me under their wing. Perhaps they could tell that I was a bit of a dreamer. No longer young. Fueled by enthusiasm. Full of sweet memories of a youth spent hiking, climbing trees, and idly looking at clouds.
“Will the path be like this the whole way?” I asked.
“You mean with the snow? Mais non, it will be clear. You’ll see,” they said.
In the middle of the night I woke up to pee, to ponder, and to look out the window. The snow had stopped and thousands of stars were piercing the dark sky.
By morning, the innkeepers said that the pass was open.
“Just follow the arrows and you’ll get to Ronceveau,” they said. “But by then, they’ll call it Roncevalles, You’ll be in Spain.”
After a fat bowl of warm milk, some crusty bread with jam, and a slice of hard cheese, I set out again, my boots crunching in the sun-spackled snow.
But I kept wondering….how would I know that I’d made it across to Spain? And would it matter?
I climbed and climbed, first hugged by the trees, then by boulders. I kept looking for markers. Surely there’s a stone monument acknowledging the border. Perhaps a memorial to slain Moors, or Basques or Franks.
I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, but I felt buoyed simply by the walk itself. The magical effect of “shinrin yoku” or what the Japanese call forest bathing was giving me a natural high. At times I passed other hikers or pilgrims and I exchanged greetings. I was delighted to be in motion, my walking stick lightly touching the earth with each step.
After a half an hour or so, I came upon a dazed young man leaning against a rock. His eyes looked hollow and he asked me for water. I noticed that his lips were so parched that little bits of skin flaked off when he spoke. He didn’t know a word of French or Spanish, but his English was perfect, even though he was a bit disoriented and clearly thirsty.
I poured some of my canteen water into this stranger’s open mouth and handed him a squished pear and a plastic baggie filled with dried apricots. I sat with him for a short time while he perked up. We began to chat. He was Dutch, which explained his mastery of English. He’d been hiking for a few days, got a bit lost, and had used up his water and food the night before.
“Do you think we’re in France or Spain?” he asked.
“We must still be in France,” I said, “Because we’re not yet at the pass.”
“I’ll follow you”, he said, as if I knew where I was going. As if anyone could tell where one country starts and another one ends.
He continued behind me, half my age, but half my speed. Now and then I looked back and saw him carefully putting one foot in front of the other on the rocky path.
At last I reach what had to be the highest point, no doubt the natural border. There was a little chapel and signs in Basque and Spanish. From there, I began a long descent, waiting first for the hapless Dutch boy to appear from behind.
In the early afternoon, in Roncevalles, I stopped at a monastery albergue where plump monks, speaking softly with Castilian lisps, showed me to my room.
“Dinner will be served late,señora” they said, “as in the Spanish manner.”
With time on my hands, I decided to go exploring. Although I had been walking all morning, I couldn’t resist a saunter around the tiny town, thinking about battles and borders, stones and blood, all the lines we constantly draw between ourselves and our neighbors.
Later, at dinner, across the wide wooden tables of the monastery refectory, I met up with my young Dutch companion. He had recuperated fully from his bout of dehydration and he ate a hearty dinner, as did I.
For dessert, we stuffed ourselves with creamy Spanish flan, as thick and soft as yesterday’s snow.