Crossing Over 






Giles Ryan

 
© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan



Photo by Guillaume Groult on Unsplash
Photo by Guillaume Groult on Unsplash

Someone asked, was crossing the Pyrenees now much harder than ten years ago, and the answer is, certainly yes! Napoleonís way is much harder than Charlemagneís. But then I realize the question isnít about mountain passes, itís about my age. 

Well, perhaps my slow understanding is natural, because I never want to think about age, push it away from me, and so perhaps I miss more than I realize these days, I grow slowÖ.. but letís move on.

To answer the question, Napoleonís way was, physically, the most difficult thing Iíve ever done in a single day, at any time in my life. 

I come to see this in the first mile or so when two young men approach from behind me, clearly overtaking my pace. Their voices are American, and as they pass I see that one is wearing a ball cap with Harvard above the brim, so I strike up a conversation and they slow their pace. They are two friends from Virginia making this hike together. I tell them I spent most of my early life in that state and graduated college in Williamsburg and whatís more, my younger son went to Harvard for law school. It turns out that one of the two is an Air Force pilot and his Harvard companion is an undergrad, having started college after five years in the Marine Corps. Together we enjoyed these coincidences, but my pace is slowing them down, so I encourage them to go ahead; I will certainly see them again along the way.

One third of the way to the peak, breathing hard and my inner shirt wet from the effort, I stop at the cafť in Orisson, famous among pilgrims. Iím seriously worn down by the extraordinarily steep ascent to that point, far more severe than the Valcarlos path. And Iím extremely cold from the rain and the low temperature and the strong wind. Iím trembling with chills, and I find little warmth in the crowded interior, where many other people are quite cheerful, congratulating themselves on their progress, which aggravates me until I listen to their conversations in English and French and understand that for many of them, their cheer makes sense because theyíre staying in Orisson for the night, will go no further, will save the next two-thirds for tomorrow. 

My aggravation and envy do nothing to warm me, but suddenly my phone rings and itís my son Dave! He has taken a break from work and called to ask how Iím doing. We speak for a long while, I assure him Iím just fine and ask him about his work ó is everything going well? are his wife and boys well? ó and as we speak I feel myself grow warmer, my trembling goes away and Iím just fine. Not for the first time, I reflect how a call from one of my sons will have this roborative effect.

By now, others sit with me and share the table. Hearing American accents, I ask where theyíre from and it seems this is a day for coincidences, for I learn that one young woman is from the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle while her companion is from Orange County in California. I answer that my wife and I live in Bellevue, across the Lake, and our older son and his family live in Temecula in southern California. But the coincidence ends there; theyíre staying the night in Orisson to recover from the effort so far, while I must press on. I wish them well.

Later, walking on the upward path again with the rain and wind in my face, I think of many things, including children and the raising of children. A few days before, taking the Metro across Paris, a young man offered me his seat and I declined, but he insisted and so I sat, telling myself that I was just fine standing, but we must always encourage courtesy in the young because thereís never enough. Moreover, recognizing their good manners, we acknowledge, at one remove, their parentsí good work. Anyone who has raised children will understand this. I would expect both my boys to offer their seat wherever they might be, and I flatter myself they will. 

My mind is full of this and other thoughts as I go up and up. I learned long ago that whatever is difficult may become less so if we distract ourselves with thoughts of something else. The path, fortunately, offers many diversions along the way, so that I see something that takes my attention, then this makes me think of something else, and as my mind wanders, a mile of upward slope has passed without my notice. 

Along this path ó and all the way to Santiago ó one is never truly alone, and animals are often there to keep company. I see horses along the side of the path and wish I had an apple or something to share with them, but they seem content with the rich wet green of the grass. Farther on in the dense cloud, I hear the sound of bells and I know these are the bells around the necks of cows and sheep. The farmers who set them to graze these hillsides use these bells so they may find their animals and bring them home safely in the murky dimness. Suddenly now, a group of twenty or more sheep cross the path before me and I must stop and wait for them, and they are in no hurry. Taking a chance to catch my breath, I watch them dawdle their way along, and I wonder why they are crossing to the other side but the reason is clear ó the grass is greener. 

Farther along still, I see at the side of the road the skeletal remains of a sheep with some scraps of fur still attached. The bones are picked clean, clearly the work of tidy vultures, perhaps with the help of crows, for Iíve seen their dark forms now and again. This sheep is not the only one, poor fellow, for I pass by two more sets of scattered bones, all bare of flesh, nothing wasted.

As I move farther on and up the slope, I must stop more often, rest a moment and gather my strength anew. I can see no more than several yards ahead, for the clouds and misty rain obscure the view, but I sense the highest point is near. Is this so, or has hope run ahead of reason? But no, I have it right, and late in the day the end of the slope suddenly takes me by surprise. I reach the cloud-shrouded peak and tell myself, here I am after all this! I did it! A ten year grumble finally redressed! Iím exhilarated and amazed all at once.

But the sky is low, the rain grows more intense and the wind grows more insistent, it speaks to me in its commanding voice and says, ďWhat are you feeling so good about! Donít you know we can blow you off this mountain whenever we wish? Take your meager self away!Ē 

Well, whatever the wind may say, my satisfaction is complete. What more can a fellow say? And yet I confess Iím seriously worn out, even knackered. But this does not mean I am, in fact, a knacker, an old word in English meaning a farm animal beyond use. Certainly I still have my use and can do more, but I must now make the descent, which is always harder, more demanding of the balance and the knees. Indeed, as the world knows, no one ever falls up, we always fall down.

Very late in the day I arrive at Roncevalles ó but we must say Orreaga in deference to to the Basque people because this is their country, whatever maps may say. The rain has stopped and I near the ancient place where my son and I stayed ten years before. But the promised refuge is a promise unkept, and Iím astonished to find that there are no beds at the monastery. Whoever heard of such a thing? But a kindly man makes some phone calls and finds a bed for me down the road in Espinal. And so I spend the night.

But to answer the question leading to all this, yes, the higher road is harder still, and I imagine this is so whoever you are, whether you do it in the present, or wait ten years.

Zubiri ó May 17, 2023


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