Typical trail on the first day.
Typical trail on the first day.

We left the United States on a military charter and landed in Rota, Spain seven hours later. After getting out passports stamped at the local police station in town, we took a taxi to the bus station and a bus to Jerez de la Frontera. From there we took a train to Madrid and then another train to Pamplona. I looked over the shoulder of another ‘pilgrim’ and asked which hotel she was going to. I had made no reservations because we had no idea when we would arrive in Spain (military flights, though free, don’t always leave on the schedule you want).

We arrived at a very nice hotel around 11:30 that night. The next morning, we walked to the bus station carrying out backpacks. The bus left shortly thereafter and we arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port (SJPP), France after lunch. After wandering around for an hour we found a hotel (it turned out to be the worst stay of our entire journey).

The next morning we left to begin our epic journey of walking the Camino Frances (it’s a Camino that starts in France). Our initial intent was to walk the entire 800 kilometers (500 miles) and be as much like a pilgrim as we could – not knowing where we would be spending each night.

There are two routes from SJPP to Roncesvalles, Spain – both about 28 kilometers. One involved climbing from 564 feet to 4757 feet over twenty kilometers and then descending to 3116 feet over five kilometers. Most pilgrims (hikers) take that route. We chose to take the lower route through Valcarlos. It had a few hills and valleys for the first 18 kilometers, then a sharp increase into Roncesvalles where it increased from 574 feet to 3461 feet in five kilometers and then a descent into Roncesvalles over two kilometers.

We never saw another pilgrim on this journey. We left before sunrise that morning and had a relatively pleasant journey for the first fifteen or more kilometers. We had left our backpacks at the hotel for transport to Roncesvalles. I figured that one first hike ought to be as unencumbered as possible. Little did I know that our first day on the Camino would be our longest day. Little did I know that many pilgrims were warned not to use this route because of couple from the United Kingdom were lost for five days a month earlier.

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