On reservations, I said I couldn’t predict how far I’d want or be able to walk from day to day. Millions of pilgrims before me made no reservations and accepted “come what may.” Que sera sera!
Skidoo and Bienvenue
Sometimes you just know: it’s time go. I was in a situation. I couldn’t eat or sleep. Sometimes I had to remind myself to breathe. By making tracks, creating space— maybe I could regain balance. I announced I was leaving for a pilgrimage. I’d walk through the Midi-Pyrénées on the GR65, the greenest of four French pathways considered part of le Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, leading to Santiago. Secretly, I wanted to lose myself. Granting her blessing, my wife implored, “Just go, but please come back.”
Purchasing plane tickets via Paris to Toulouse meant I was really going. My wife and I went to REI and selected a backpack, walking sticks, gloves, a space blanket. I stuffed the backpack as close to feather-light as my tendency to allow for every eventuality permitted. In early October, I flew out. Not counting work trips, this was the first time in 33 married years I’d gone anywhere solo. I hadn’t used a backpack regularly in nearly that long. I smiled as I remembered carrying Emily, now 30, then 3, on my shoulders for long hikes.
An old work buddy, Jack, and his wife, Lauren, fetched me in Toulouse, packed me into the backseat with pillow piles, and drove to their refurbished stone farmhouse in the Aveyron to help me to acclimatize. Two owners ago, their home had been used by a farmer neighbor solely to house sheep. Jack’s crafty rehabilitation of the house’s “barn” half yielded a new master bedroom, Lauren’s Sunset Boulevard staircase, and a dining room that awaited King Arthur’s arrival. Five years earlier when Jack first retired and they moved to France, I’d suggested that, instead of stopping work cold turkey, he continue part-time. Lucky for me, he agreed. Two weeks before my arrival, Jack had thrown in the towel irrevocably—“I’m really done this time”—out of disgust with the new parent company—a disaffection I shared. If I accomplished nothing else, I’d buy the man lunch.
Our days quickly developed a pattern. For breakfast, we drank strong coffee from customary bowls along with bakery-fresh, toasted pain de campagne (country bread), Rignacoise baguette , thick-sliced multi-grain bread, and croissants or pain chocolat, with home-stewed jams (apricot, plum, cherry, quince), and yogurt made from a near neighbor’s comely brown goats. Every day, the three of us visited a different nearby village—Clairvaux one day, Panat another. Jack an I hiked for miles across farmers’ fields, visited nearby ruins under restoration, devoured wild plums growing alongside 5,000-year-old dolmens, and talked about everything from the time the bakery truck arrives to how one’s knitting gets ripped. As often as possible, we drank Marcillac wine—a local varietal—accompanied by dry, redolent goat cheeses. After a light dinner, we switched to Ratafia, a spicy liquor made by farmer neighbors who speak old patois—a cross between old French and Occitan.
I didn’t want to leave, but had to hit the road. Lauren said it was imprudent: first, I hadn’t prepared physically; second, I didn’t speak French; third, I had no reservations. I blew off the first: I’d been training all my life. I refuted the second: English is the EU’s common language, everyone under 40 speaks English, and any two people who want to communicate can get around the trivial matter of language differences. On reservations, I said I couldn’t predict how far I’d want or be able to walk from day to day. Millions of pilgrims before me made no reservations and accepted “come what may.” Que sera sera!
Lauren switched strategy: “But you can’t leave. The Villefranche market isn’t until Thursday, you have to see that. And Mr. Boyer only makes éclairs Friday. And the brocante [antique flea market] is Saturday.” I said, “I am grateful, but I’ve got to go.” So Lauren typed up a list of B&Bs for every village through which I might pass and reserved a bed at the Monastery in Conques, thereby committing me to arrive on a specific date. I took Jack and Lauren out to lunch in Belcastel to celebrate Jack’s retirement. En route home, Lauren asked Jack to stop for bread at the fifth-generation Boyer family bakery and asked me to accompany her. Once inside, she inveigled Mr. Boyer into demonstrating the mysteries of éclair making. After breakfast the next morning, she packed me some hard Comte cheese and dried blueberries, saying “this will keep you from the door of starvation.” We three then drove to GR65, where we first drank more strong coffee and finally we said au revoir.
Some guidebooks claim each day walking on The Way will be more physically taxing than any prior day of your life. Such presumptuous claims are made by men who never had the occasion, like my wife had, of going through 40 hours of hard labor. My take: walking 10 to18 miles—or 6 to 10 hours—daily was tiring, but no more so than long runs in my 20s along Maryland’s C&O Canal towpath or New Orleans’ levee. Then and now, I often let myself get dehydrated—not smart. But after my first day, I can’t say I suffered. I don’t believe pilgrims with whom I crossed paths really suffered either, unless in silence. Two older women from Provence said that, whenever they encountered a difficult stretch, they thumbed it.
A 21-year-old Japanese student was creating a reputation for himself for “tearing up the trails” by traveling a marathon’s distance daily. We ended up sharing dinner, bunk room, and breakfast. I noticed he’d already worn completely through two toes on his toe-shoes and wondered: why aren’t his toes bloody? how long will he tolerate running on bare skin?
My first day my legs shook uncontrollably after three hours, then stopped shaking two hours later. Someone said they shook due to dehydration, but then why the shaking stop and never recur? Overall, the GR65 had walkable surfaces and was sufficiently marked that an alert individual who understood the marking system (parallel white and red lines mean “come this way,” but white and red X means “wrong way”) would have to try to get lost. I veered way off course twice early on because I misunderstood how turns are marked (red and white lines hooked toward the turn). But doesn’t getting lost lead to our greatest discoveries? I encountered a medieval chapel outside of Espalion only because I’d gotten lost.
The easiest trails include newly-asphalted roads and paths cleared of rocks and debris. The other 80% tended to be rocky and hilly, but varied enormously. The most difficult to navigate had been transformed by mountain waters into riverbeds and back-filled with rocks of varying size and stability. I felt like an old, arthritic mountain goat, especially when rock-filled trails went downhill. Even in my running prime in my 20s, I hated long downhills and applied the brakes constantly. Here the risk was toppling: once you’re off balance, the backpack’s extra weight throws you off balance even more. I learned you never stop using the walking sticks because, with each step—especially over precarious rocks—they nudge your back into balance. You keep moving with the confidence the sticks will keep you in balance.
I only fell once and it wasn’t because I lost balance: my right foot caught a root. As I kept trying to right myself, it felt like I was in flight, making a slow descent. After I finally acknowledged there was no way to pull out of this landing, I flipped 180 degrees and rolled, landing first on my left elbow, then hard on my right. After confirming no broken bones, I looked around and saw I’d come within millimeters of cracking my head into a foot-thick stone wall.
Chestnuts were the persistent nuisance—so plentiful almost nobody gathered them. Once, I saw old men gathering chestnuts into huge baskets and dumping them into their trucks. Many had popped out of their shells voluntarily and were roast-ready. Where this year’s joined those of past years, chestnuts blanketed the trail, so there was no way to avoid trouncing them. Many times daily, my ankles turned, but walking sticks righted me. Before traveling home, the two women from Provence emptied their backpacks and filled them with priceless chestnuts.
I veered way off course twice early on because I misunderstood how turns are marked (red and white lines hooked toward the turn). But doesn’t getting lost lead to our greatest discoveries?
I didn’t need to speak French to know that, when she raised her arms to the heavens and said Quel Dieu journée parfaite nous a donné!, this meant, “What a beautiful day God has given us.”
I’d already proven before I reached the GR65 I didn’t need to speak French to communicate with non-English speakers. I’d gone out for a walk in the countryside near Jack and Lauren’s and I’d missed a turn. On a fiercely blustery evening, I walked long after sunset along a paved road before I saw a lighted house. The owner spoke only French but, using pantomime, I readily conveyed I was completely turned around. He understood and promptly led me to the home of an older English-speaking couple, who drove me home.
The locals from the villages through which I passed didn’t speak English or, if they did, I never reached finding out because we rarely got past “Bonjour.” One woman wearing a red sweater ran up a hill to welcome me as a pilgrim. I didn’t need to speak French to know that, when she raised her arms to the heavens and said Quel Dieu journée parfaite nous a donné!, this meant, “What a beautiful day God has given us.”
Every pilgrim with whom I crossed paths spoke English well. Most hailed from France or Switzerland. Curiously, none were from the USA, the UK, or Germany. On the trail, we typically talked about: where we called home, where we’d slept last night, where we hoped to sleep the coming night, why we walked, how far we planned to go.
From one-on-one conversations, younger pilgrims confided they were going in circles—nothing stuck, they’d hit a wall, felt blocked, wanted to get their bearings, and sought guidance in careers, relationships, spirit. Older pilgrims said they searched for peace and guidance re-prioritizing now that work and family no longer sapped their energies. One retired policeman said he did penance “for all the unethical things I had to do.” A woman in her 20s walked with her prospective mother-in-law (who had walked to Santiago years earlier) so they could work through proactively the tensions such relationships often involve.
Pilgrims fell into one (or more) group based on perceptions of their journey. One group viewed their walking as fundamentally spiritual, though not necessarily Christian. A second group viewed it as ecotourism in communion with nature. For a third group, the walk was a competitive athletic event requiring speed, endurance, and efficiency. Still a fourth group wanted to learn about the social, cultural, religious and artistic significance associated with every town, bridge, wall, church, hotel, restaurant, monastery, ruin, community bread oven, dolmen, monument, cross, and garden along The Way. The mix in aspirations formed the lens through which pilgrims saw their external and interior journeys.
At meals served at Gite d’Etapes (shelters for pilgrims, sometimes within convents or monasteries), group conversations normally took place in French. Once, when I said I could probably get by in German, two tri-lingual Swiss pilgrims switched to German. One young Swiss pilgrim belied an anti-American attitude when he said I shouldn’t bother to investigate availability at a particular Gite d’Etape because he was certain they wouldn’t accept Americans. Even if my lack of facility in French impeded communications, the real barrier wasn’t language.
Room at the Inn
It was already well into October when I began walking. I didn’t anticipate that most B&Bs would already have shut down until Spring. Lauren’s list didn’t take this into account either. I had two problems finding “room at the inn.” The first was repeatedly following signs advertising the distance to a B&B which, when I arrived, was shuttered. This reached a ludicrous extreme after I began walking with three other men—one French, two Swiss—and our last-resort B&B was shutting down for the winter as we arrived. Only the night before I reached a city of 6,000—an utter metropolis in the Midi-Pyrénées —and discovered both of its B&Bs just closed for the season. It reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s famous line: “When you get there, there’s no there there.”
My other problem was, I rarely reached my destination before sunset because I began walking late, got lost, diverted to visit churches or other places of cultural significance, attempted ill-advised shortcuts, and/or took far too many photos. Typically when I arrived, everyone was already sitting down to dinner. One evening, I became certain I wouldn’t reach my destination timely, and investigated an 18th century shepherd’s shelter as my prospective night’s quarters. There was no door, but I wasn’t concerned about intruders. The shelter even featured a raised bench to elevate a lonely shepherd above mother earth. What urged me on was Jack’s remark, “You don’t have to worry about the vipers (serpents in French) because they only come out at night.” I told myself, a serpent would make a strange bedfellow, kept walking, and reached the convent, Angele Merici, at dinner time, and after dinner, was afforded not only a three-person room but an entire floor to myself!
The worst case was when I reached a village after 10 p.m. and—when I had no good reason to think I would find a place to sleep—was rescued by the English-speaking office staffer from the prior night’s shelter, who simply happened to be visiting, and had just met with the parish priest. The priest, still awake, generously offered me space on the kitchen floor to sleep on, and even provided a huge roll of yellow bubble wrap in which to cocoon myself for the long, sleepless night. Every other night of the journey, I’d a bed on which to sleep.
Most rooms were multi-bed dormitories, though in Fall traffic was low, so there was little crowding—except, of course, if the Gite d’Etape was the only show in town. Sometimes, dormitories were segregated by gender; other times, they were coed. Nearly always, restrooms and shower areas were coed. For example, at one Gite d’Etape, where I shared a room with five men, there were two rest/showering rooms: one for men and women, and the other for women and men. That is how, standing at the sink, brushing teeth together, I learned from the daughter in the prospective mother- and daughter-in-law duo, to say bonne nuit to end the day.
It reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s famous line: “When you get there, there’s no there there.”
I carried a retractable drinking glass, but sipping straight from dragon’s lips was unusually thirst-quenching.
There was minimal starvation risk along The Way. As a last resort, I always had Lauren’s Comte cheese and dried blueberries to nibble on. Because villages along The Way had traditions of honoring pilgrims, I came across occasional baskets of pears, apples, or plums clearly left for pilgrims, and freely helped myself. One household left out three large bags of quince next to a crucifix, so I assumed they were meant for pilgrims. I’d eaten Lauren’s quince jam and it had a nice bite. I learned, quince must be peeled and cooked before eating because its skin is tough and fuzzier than the fuzziest peach; and, its meat is extremely hard. Whenever I related my quince experience, it drove knowing listeners into uncontrollable laughter, so I suppose that’s why I was supposed to frustrate myself eating one. The Way also takes pilgrims by many fruit trees, where I usually picked over freshly-fallen fruit. Occasionally, I picked fruit off trees situated on no-man’s-land. Because it was Fall, most figs had been picked already or fallen rotting on the ground. One night, a young man drinking wine on the street with a friend offered me a glass of red wine, saying Voila! with added hand flourish. I accepted, with gratitude.
Some families put out water or ice tea, with paper or plastic cups. Occasionally, they even left soap for washing. Periodically, I encountered an “au potable” sign to indicate water available from a faucet was potable (safe). Cemeteries were the best place to find potable water because water was needed to fill vases for graveside flowers. Cemeteries often had historically-significant water spigots shaped like mouths of dragons, lions or gargoyles. I carried a retractable drinking glass, but sipping straight from dragon’s lips was unusually thirst-quenching. On the way to Conques, I reached a village (either Espeyrac or Sénergues) just as a fierce rainstorm struck and enjoyed use of its newly-built pilgrim shelter—restrooms, water, and various packaged snacks. It even had showers, but I skipped because I knew I’d be getting one naturally. Some older pilgrim shelters were built around community bread ovens where people had gathered for centuries while they all waited for their breads to finish baking.
The Gite d’Etapes fed us extremely well. The meals tended to emphasize carbohydrates, such as vegetarian lasagna, on the assumption pilgrims burn off calories like runaway locomotives. One night at the monastery in Conques, visiting high school students ceremoniously carried their leftovers as an offering to the pilgrims’ table! Overall, the Gite d’Etapes served lots of fresh vegetables—some unfamiliar to me—plus stewed, dried, and fresh fruits, and many un-smelly cheeses, including fromage blanc—white cheese—a dead-ringer for Greek yogurt. And, for breakfast, there was lots of coffee and with dinner the red wine poured freely. Some Gite d’Etapes offered lodging and meals at predetermined rates; others asked for donations. None turned away pilgrims who couldn’t afford to pay.
Whether the trail took me through a deep forest, across a farmer’s field, or through a small village, I felt a friendly solitude I hadn’t experienced in years. At home, I often get to walk through urban forests or along a towpath overlooking primordial twists in the Potomac River gorge. What made this different was being far from home in a place that tolerated and even adulated the presence of pilgrims. My lack of facility in French may have given me an added buffer. Now and then, I just stopped, didn’t take pictures, looked all around, and focused on breathing, quietly. Thoughts of the “situation” occasionally encroached, but mostly the solitude—and knowing I wasn’t at immediate risk of being thrown from pan into fire—won out.
Some days, I went hours without seeing other humans except for an occasional farmer driving a tractor or silently moving cows from one field to another. I mostly conversed with the horned Aubrac cows, whose eyes conveyed welcome. When they moved in unison, their bells resounded like a small carillon. Sheep, less prevalent, had a habit of staring.
Old Romanesque churches, built in the 12th through 14th centuries, afforded a different type of solitude. Villages, anchored by churches, developed along The Way because pilgrims carried money to buy food, lodging, indulgences and relics. Pilgrims also required counseling and medical assistance. Small chapels typically were empty when I arrived. The abbeys, such as at Conques, usually were filled with tourists—even in Fall—so solitude was more elusive there. Most Gite d’Etapes had chapels for use only by pilgrim lodgers, formally for evening and morning prayers, informally whenever the spirit moved.
Most Gite d’Etapes had chapels for use only by pilgrim lodgers, formally for evening and morning prayers, informally whenever the spirit moved.
She guided me through a dark forest after sunset.
Openness to Possibility
An advantage of not over-planning is openness to possibility. Walking solo—and not taking into account another’s predilections—tends to increase odds of being open to unplanned connectivity. For example, when I reached a tiny village, found no lodging, and was weighing my options, the eyes of a German shepherd caught mine. She gestured to me to follow and, having nothing better to do, I followed. She led me up a long muddy hill along which six-foot-high crosses were planted at irregular intervals. At each, she paused, as if in reverence. On accessible crosses, others had left rocks to signify burdens left behind or safe passage. Then the shepherd brought me to a chapel dedicated to St. Roch, patron saint of dogs. According to legend, young Roch came down with plague, secluded himself in the forest, and was nursed back to health by a dog that brought him stolen food and licked his wounds, after which Roch traveled to save other plague victims. The shepherd and I entered together, stayed briefly, exited together, shared lunch, and after I said farewell, realized her plan was to walk with me.
We walked together for the next nine hours. In that time, she saved my life when a long-horned Aubrac cow charged, she scooted under the barbed wire and counter-charged the fussy cow, and sent the cow scurrying. She guided me through a dark forest after sunset. Then later, as we walked along a relatively busy, occasionally-lighted road, I saved her life by coming to agreement on safety rules: she could roam freely, but if I heard or saw a car coming, and yelled “come here now,” she had to come immediately to my side and remain there, with my walking stick (staff) between her and the road, until I gave the all clear. I fully expected to sleep alongside the shepherd in a dark alley somewhere, but that’s the night I was rescued and ended up resting on the priest’s kitchen’s floor cocooned in bubble wrap. Meantime, my rescuer drove the shepherd, Zita, home based on the tags hanging from her neck.
Happenstance and Au Revoir
Most things would have happened anyway, but your presence along The Way changes in some small way how some unfold. In the beautiful medieval city of Figeac, I encountered students and teachers from the public high school (lysee) on the street—some blocking traffic—on their fifth day of striking in anticipation of a National Strike. I talked with the students, who said pushing back the retirement age (from 60 to 62) precipitated the strike, and feared the change would “keep old workers in their jobs longer and make it even harder for us to ever get jobs.” A student from a Catholic school, where they were holding a teach-in instead of striking, offered to share her sandwich in exchange for conversation.
Before leaving Figeac, I found an even large demonstration, where the radicalized students and representatives of the railroad union were digging in for the long haul based on the quantities of bread, wine, fruit, and small children in baby carriages. The demonstrators all freely offered to share whatever they had. And a man my age—who traveled from one demonstration to another in a stationwagon on top of which he’d latched a fake nuclear warhead marked Democratie—offered to share his cannabis.
After I reached Paris, I went out for a walk on my final night before flying home. I saw two women standing like sentries on a street corner. They didn’t lie or sit on the ground, have a collection plate, or make entreaties to passersby, so I never guessed they were homeless. After passing them twice, I felt compelled to return to find out what they were doing there. The 30-year-old daughter, who spoke English, said she and her mother were both university- educated and led reasonably comfortable lives, but something happened, and they lost everything besides what they carried in their grocery cart. After half an hour, I tried to place a five Euro note in the daughter’s hand. After consulting with her mother, she said, “You don’t have to pay us to talk with us.” We went on for roughly another hour. It turned into a balanced give-and-take, with them asking me as many questions as I asked them. Finally, the daughter turned and said, “People stop and talk with us because they have a need. What is your need?” I gave them some answers, but it seemed they found them unconvincing. They disappeared into the night after we said, “Bon Nuit.”
On the flight home, I thought about Zita, the protesting French students, and the homeless women who asked, “What is your need?” I was glad to get home to my wife and our two adult children. My work life unraveled and I soon left an employer for whom I’d worked for over 30 years. Ultimately, that is how my “situation” ended. A few months later, I began working at a different company in the same industry.
Nine months after I arrived home, my wife and I flew back to France, and stayed with Jack and Lauren. Mr. Boyer had died so we never enjoyed his éclairs; we had his son’s instead. For breakfast, we drank coffee drunk from customary bowls accompanied by toasted pain de campagne , Rignacoise baguette , thick-sliced multi-grain bread, and croissants or pain chocolat, with home-stewed jams. Over the course of the day, we drank Marcillac with redolent goat cheeses as often as possible, and quaffed Ratafia after dinner. We shopped at the Villefranche market and were reunited with Zita, who seemed to remember Ginger—whom she’d never met—better than me. We had lunch with my rescuer—who’d arranged sleeping space on the floor of the priest’s kitchen—whose husband’s new business was renting their 30 donkeys to pilgrims. Then we met our two children at the train station and the next morning resumed pilgrimaging as a family. Because it was summer, we didn’t have to deal with freshly fallen chestnuts—only leftovers from years past.
On the flight home, I thought about Zita, the protesting French students, and the homeless women who asked, “What is your need?”