There are lots of pictures this post, so if the page is sluggish to load, that’s why. Hopefully it’s not too bad.
My last post I mentioned the singing Basque man at dinner. He has various videos of him up on Youtube showing him singing and saying cheers at the beginning. Here is one, it has a lot of the same songs he sung:
Leaving the singing Basque family’s home on day 29, I was met by an incredible sunrise in the early morning. I tried to capture it and its various iterations for the next 30 or 40 minutes, along with the increasingly hilly landscape it rose over.
One thing I’d been hearing about the Basque Country was that the weather is subject to rapid changes within a couple hours: fog here, almost rain there, sun to end the day–this was how the day was for me. Many–probably most–anthropologists believe that the geography of an area has important effects on how a culture develops, the traits of the people. It’s certainly not an exact science, but it makes me wonder how the geography helped form this strange culture, the language of has unique and, as I understand it, vague origins, far different from other languages in the area.
Several French people have said they think the Basque people are a little crazy. I’m not sure if that is or isn’t so, but different I have no doubt; I noticed it almost immediately my first full day in Basque Country. The people appear a little more weary, distant, aloof, less interested in the activities of strangers walking through their lands. I don’t know anything of the history of Basque France, but in Spain it’s a tumultuous and sad tale. Their pace of living is a little different too, maybe easier. Waiters don’t immediately come serve you, and in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, impromptu singing sessions by locals drinking in the bars in the middle of the day could be heard from the streets.
Alas, even with several more days to go, I’ll understand almost nothing of these people, but they’re nonetheless fascinating, as is their old way of life, still practiced by many and evident in the random shepherds you see and the sheep dotting the landscape everywhere. It feels like a privilege to walk through these lands, to see shepherds ply their trades along the same grasses their forefathers did.
Regardless of the people, the landscape the Basque live in is incredible. The Le Puy Way was stunning from Le Puy-en-Velay to Conques, but since it’s often been missing that same grandiose effect on the soul. That hasn’t made it less joyful for me, but it’s noteworthy because, finally, I’ve come to a place that surely rivals the early part of my walk.
Fog here regularly hangs low in the valley later than it should even on sunny days, while the Pyrenees’ jagged peaks awe the heart.
Also, here is a typical Basque house, easily picked out due to the same deep red found on the same parts of every house. A few kilometers from Saint-Jean, a festival’s parade traveled through St-Jean-le-Vieux, the chef statue being pushed apparently suggesting their celebration of a rich tradition of great food.
Arriving to Saint-Jean, pilgrim’s still walk through the age old Saint-Jacques gate that goes right into the old town, where I managed to get a photo taken of myself.
And here are a couple of the town.
As would be expected, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a lot like Conques with all the energy of people beginning and ending their pilgrimage, here perhaps a hundred pilgrims or more that I’d never seen just starting their journey, most going all the way to Santiago on the Camino Frances.
Beyond this, though, Saint-Jean was different for me, different than it was in Conques where my body was at its lowest point, and different than Le Puy-en-Velay where the timid anticipation and uncertainty of what lies ahead shows in how you look at people. I only recognize what I had felt by seeing it in others, here, the uneasy waves and hellos they give to me and to each other. In reflecting on this, in walking into and around the town that evening, I had an air of confidence in me I readily lacked before, the confidence of knowing what lies ahead, just another day’s walk, the confidence that my body has adjusted and that any new problems I’ll be able to handle.
I can’t recall exactly now what I said I wanted to find on The Way, and perhaps I’ve already found some of those things and won’t find others at all. But more importantly, for myself and everyone that walks this, what you want to find or expect to find from the beginning is not really what you need to find. What you need only emerges after the countless hours of walking meditation, the lengthy conversations over dinner covering everyone’s walks, how far and for how many days. For me, in talking to someone about 5 days ago, I realized that one thing I subconsciously wanted, needed to find–and perhaps not the only thing but certainly an important one– was confidence. If you’ve known me for awhile, it’s likely shown that at times I frequently lack confidence in myself, my abilities, my self-efficacy. I don’t know why. But through walking, plowing over hill, down dirt road and trail, into and out of villages and churches and bakeries, through my own strength and willpower, I’ve begun to find a confidence in myself and only in the presence of others who face the same proverbial mountain to climb as I did, do I realize this newfound esteem. Hopefully, after this journey is written in stone and the next one begins, my confidence will continue, even to shine ever brighter.
Day 30, The Pyrenees (August 22nd, 2016)
Usually I’m among the first to leave in the morning, but after eating breakfast and setting out, I found that many others were already eagerly beginning to walk, and many more surely already had long begun. But only I wandered off this morning in one particular direction. The morning was another fog-soaked one, and as I left the town and traveled upward, the fog began to clear, opening up views that didn’t let up the entire day, only improving the higher I climbed. It’s funny, when you see a view so beautiful, repeatedly beautiful, one that doesn’t let up throughout the day, it makes you question all the silly pictures you’ve taken before, as though nothing could compare to the ones you take now.
The path climbed high above the town to a small mountain 3,500 feet high, where horses seemingly half-wild, or at least living an existence hardly interrupted by human masters, roamed freely, even coming not a few inches from my face, eager to make new friends. Sheep graze here too, mostly along steep mountain precipices, appearing as moving specks of dust upon giants of nature. Everywhere up here, vultures fly too an fro, but the finicky beasts must not like humans as they set off to the skies before I even get close. Sometimes I’ve even seen them congregating circularly in large numbers high above the clouds, perhaps having a meeting or discussing something.
When I reached the highest point of the day, a mostly downhill journey from there, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by feelings of joy, at the views but also at the horses galloping up hills, the sheep herds grazing, the dozens of vultures gliding in every direction in search of carrion. For more than a moment the thought occurred that I could simply turn around and just instead walk the entire length of the Pyrenees along the GR 10 in France or GR 11 in Spain, to experience fully this human-touched but still at times raw majesty existing on the frontier between two great nations. I kept onward to the north, however, my own indirect way to Santiago, after assuring myself that someday I’ll come back and walk the entire traverse. Someday.
Nonetheless, the day was something.
At one point the yelling of a shepherd around the bend in the dirt road I was walking down alerted me to the herd of sheep he was moving. Unlike my run-in with cattle a few weeks ago, sheep are as docile of beasts as exists, and even would stop in their tracks were you in their way. I moved to the side as much as I could in order to let them pass. Apologies for the uncleanable spots my camera lens seems to have acquired.
In some places, the ferns coating the mountainsides were drying out at different intervals, baking under the ofttimes relentless summer sun, hoping to hold out for the next batch of rain to prolong their largely ill-fated existence. They show a range of life from green, yellow, orange, to red and brown. The patterns looked a bit like oil slicks on a street.
The day finished with a steep descent to Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry, a touristic town that’s heavily Basque, a river running through it, even a Roman bridge still crossing as it has for hundreds and hundreds of years.
There’s a pattern to these days in the Pyrenees: in the morning ascension, sometimes steeply, around 3,000 feet, some more throughout the day as it go up and down ridges followed by a short and necessarily very steep descent to the next village. The days have grown hotter again, and I’ve taken to carrying 3 liters of water to last me between towns, as finding any place to refill during the day on this route isn’t likely aside from towns, which are generally 12 or so miles apart. It makes my pack quite heavy during the morning, but less so towards the end of each day. The heat today made it easy to take an afternoon siesta, napping near the cliffs. I don’t think I actually rested too well though, constantly aware of how close I was to the edge.
Another pattern is that you can see from far away the mountains you’ll climb and the ridges you’ll traverse, some of them I’d even seen yesterday. Yes, the far off ones.
Here are a few pictures of the sunrise and the often jagged, fern-covered mountainsides as I climbed steeply and steadily this day.
A constant companion for many days since I began in Le Puy has surprisingly been the moon, which seems so out of place as it lazily coasts across the sky all day only to finally drift out of sight around 3 or 4.
Today had a different variety of horses, these ones much shorter and reserved than the previous day’s friendly, taller ones. They seem to graze and wander freely and largely uninhibited; I wish I knew whether they were wild or not; it’s a pretty thought to think they are, rare vestiges of a beast that epitomizes man’s subjection of nature.
Aside from more incredible views, something else new and unmistakable appeared on the horizon and grew more clear the further I walked: the ocean. It may be hard to make out, but it’s behind me on the left in the first picture and in the left-center in the second.
The day finished in Bidarray, a town with not much to speak for it given the wonderful views around.