Even before I flew across the ocean I was anxious about today's walk. The walk from St Jean Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles is 28 km over the Pyrenees mountain range that separates France from Spain. The first 3 km are ok, the next 2 to Huntto are crazy steep, the next 2 to Orisson even crazier at 10% grade. We follow a road much of the incline. Then slightly less awful for 14km before tricky downhill at steep grades over rock. A natural barrier that allowed France and Spain good separation.
So I add Lourdes as I've mentioned, a 138km extension it turns out that brought on blisters and dehydration because there aren't water fountains and stores open like in Spain. Hobbling into SJPP knowing that the forecast was rain didn't help.
But the reading I gave myself for today was well inspired m by the Holy Spirit. From Isaiah 41:10 "Do not fear for I am with you. Do not be afraid for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my right hand."
So here's what happened. After stopping at the church for prayer, I headed up hill. Everyone was excited. Young Austrian couple (in shorts!), Americans, French, Italians, German, etc. Me I was excited but nervous. My hip was hurting me I noticed since the blisters arrived. I guess I'm compensating my footwork to minimize pain. But it wasn't predictable pain. Well I figured it out. The steep 2 km to Huntto got me achy. So achy I thought how am I going to do the remaining 15km which get worse?
So I sat at Huntto at the refuge to get some water and think how can I adjust my pack to put less pressure on my right hip, especially as I try not to slip on the wet road? And then a van pulls up. I saw it going up and now it's coming down. And it's filled with backpacks. I ask the woman if she is bringing the mochilas to Roncesvalles. She said yes. I thought, whoa, what are the odds that all morning long I'm sitting where she's doing a stop? I figured she's an angel sent to lighten my load. She said 8e when I asked how much and I moved my daypack out of the big bag, packing my lunch, all my water, my gloves, my scarf, my REI poncho, and an umbrella that I got at the dollar store for use in Paris but might be useful here. Off she went, and I'll see my backpack in 15km and a thousand feet up.
I couldn't find my ibuprofen during that time so I thought I'd have to do without. The next 2 km were still painful but tolerable with the considerably reduced weight. But I looked pained. A Portuguese couple offered me figs. Not sure what pain I looked like I had.
But we all passed each other in turn and soon most got to Orisson. Before the crazy steep climb, people were having coffee, soup, and other warmers. I saw it was 10:30, a slow but respectable 2.5 hrs to that 8km point. I rested, found the ibuprofen, had some, refilled water, and at 11 started again. With luck I would get there at 4 or 5.
But then things turned bad. My hip stopped hurting yes. But, in less than 100m, it really started to rain. I put on my rain poncho and realized I didn't transfer my jacket. Thankfully I had the gloves. It was a cold rain that soon became driving.
Around 11:30 - with visibility down to 25m, less if you know that people with glasses exercising and wearing scarves have fogged up spectacles - the hail started. Now I was freezing in my thin quick dry shirt and getting tenderized. My lack of vision made it unclear where I was heading so I had to use my walking stick to make sure I was still on the road.
But the hail was nothing compared to the sustained, I'm guessing, 20-25mph mountain winds that were blowing all our ponchos into the air. The gusts were terrifying as one doesn't want to be pushed off the mountain road. And, get this, I put away any thoughts of taking pictures for fear of losing my fingers.
By 12 I realized that my poncho was getting torn apart. That's when I really started to get nervous. Was I going to be pushed or accidentally walk off the mountain or will hypothermia and exposure get me first?
I turned to my prayer. I turned to it hard and repeated it over and over. And yet I was lamenting. Why God would you send me an angel only to let me die on the mountain? Because the angel took my jacket?
I was scared. Maybe getting irrational. Not a single person stopped for lunch in that crazy weather. I think. I don't know. The parade of people thinned out dramatically and I wondered at times if everyone turned around - and a couple did - and I was the sole fool left.
But another messenger, a tall German from his accent with a hood that covered his whole face except a narrow chin with a blond goatee, like the chin of Ted Neeley, in Jesus Christ Superstar, walked past me. He smiled and said Buen Camino. I said, I'm trying but it's really cold. And he said "You are fine. I'll see you in Roncesvalles." He said it so calmly. So assured. And he marched ahead. His bright red pack in the distance helped guide me that I could tell where I was going.
And then the metaphor of following a Christ-like presence hit me. It warmed me. It comforted me. I would have cried if I wasn't afraid of the tears freezing. I followed him until, nearing the peak and the weather subsiding, he disappeared over the other side.
My walk down, tricky as it already was going to be, proved a muddy mess. Images of my spring mud run with Stephen's family came up. My poncho now looked like the ribboned brushes at a car wash, held together only by my freezing hand. But it was downhill, and the weather was calm. And the sun actually came out through the trees, the trees that I wouldn't photograph for fear of frostbite, for almost 90 seconds combined on the way down. And all those people in shorts had trousers thank goodness.
It was 3:45pm. I got my backpack, checked in, and slept. And wept.
Did I meet an angel after all? Or did I meet a messenger who was assigned to test me? And I haven't seen the German fellow since.
I'm sure he's here. He's always here. We just need to notice Him when he comforts us.
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