As I flew to France to begin my Camino journey, my heart began to race. I saw my life in images passing before my eyes: my daughter’s face, my son’s wedding day, my grandson’s face. I felt a sudden surge of panic. As the flight attendant read off her list of safety instructions, I remembered that I had come here to learn and to trust God. I prayed—God, please lead me where you want me to go and bring me home—and fell asleep.
I woke up in France, alone and tired, with only my high-school French skills to depend on. Although I’d been overseas before, I had never traveled alone. For the next 30 days, I would be completely on my own. I missed my family. I took a bus and a train to St. Jean Pied de Port, the starting place for my Camino pilgrimage. I’d been advised to take a few days to get acclimated to the time and altitude change, but I wanted to get started. So I set off on my pilgrimage the next morning at sunrise with a 20-mile walk.
The day was cloudy with a light drizzle as I started on my journey. I felt surprisingly good considering the eleven-hour flight I’d just taken. A beautiful French woman pointed towards a marker—a yellow arrow. It was my first sign. Scattered along the path, these yellow arrows are the only thing keeping pilgrims going in the right direction.
On my first day, I walked through treacherous terrain at a 5,000-foot elevation. People die on the Camino, and most deaths happen within the first few days due to falling rocks and steep cliffs. As I approached Roncesvalles, my legs shook and my feet ached. It took all my will to move each foot in turn. After I checked into my hotel, I made the first adjustment to my pilgrimage: I bought a red 12-speed mountain bike that I named “Ruby.” Encouraged at the thought of traveling by bike the next day, I sank into a deep and grateful sleep.
At breakfast the next morning, a gentleman named Fernando asked if I was a pilgrim. I would hear that question many times over the next month. I told him I was and that I would be riding my bike to Pamplona. He looked at my ordinary shorts and blouse, and his face turned serious. “Well, you’re going to need these.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a pair of biking shorts. I was speechless. I’d heard that the Spanish people were generous, but I hadn’t expected that level of giving.
I declined and reassured Fernando that I would be fine. He warned me that I would need better equipment just to survive, let alone finish. I said goodbye to Fernando and took off. As I started the day’s uphill ride, I realized what he had meant. The paths went from narrow, gravelly passes to rough roads filled with rocks and boulders. It was the longest day of my life.
Finally, I neared Pamplona. Tears were running down my face. I felt so stupid. I couldn’t finish. It was too hard. As I pushed my bike up a hill too steep to ride, I kept repeating: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Suddenly, I felt a rush of energy wash over me, and I began to sing and to praise God. I wouldn’t be going home the next day. I’d be going to Estella.