9 days - just a "neuf"
Hiking 20 to 30 kilometers a day with a backpack for days on end is not for everyone. Don't forget, this was used as a punishment in the Middle Ages. And yet I signed up, because if this experience speaks to you, it will change you forever.
Some people choose to do this walk for religious or spiritual reasons, others just love hiking and nature. For me, it was a mixture of patrimoine - walking in the land of my ancestors - and a blurry blend of religious/spiritual growth. I wanted to take a pause at this point in my life to look at where I had been, to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses, to show appreciation and let go of regrets, and to shape my intentions for the future. Although I didn't take the 2 months to make it to Santiago, my 9 days was just "enough" to accomplish all of this and more.
The decision to begin in Le Puy-en-Velay was a bit random, but as I have been told, you don't choose the chemin, it chooses you. My "french family" - whom I have known for almost 30 years - lives near Lyon, and some of them have started in Le Puy. They gave me the layout of the stages, plus offered to drive me to Le Puy and accompany me for the first few kilometers. This was motivation enough, but when I saw photos of the cathedral and chapel perched on teetering cliffs, I knew I had made the right decision.
As promised, Bernard and Jeanne drove me to Le Puy on Thursday, leaving time to explore before setting out early Friday morning. Jeanne was recovering from knee surgery, but Bernard and I climbed the 268 steps to reach the top of the Chapelle Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe, keeping watch over the city. It was back down again, before ascending the staircase to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy - this time to get my first stamp in my credential - the official pilgrim's passport. We headed back to lunch at the hotel, and found a large group of local police having a meeting. I took this as a sign that I would be abundantly safe on my path!
That evening, I cracked open my new journal and wrote of my excitement and fears. "What will I discover about myself? Will my body take a toll so that my soul can soar? Can I do this? C'est parti!"
I walked into the 7 am Mass, depositing my backpack on the floor next to about 50 others. At the end of the service, the priest asked the pilgrims to stay as others filed out. He talked about the journey ahead of us, and offered us words of encouragement, in French and English. I was completely caught up in the moment and had the overwhelming sense that my departed loved ones were all surrounding me.
Several nuns dispersed into the aisles, asking which countries we represented and carefully keeping count. The priest encouraged us to write out an intention and leave it at the base of St Jacques' statue. We were also invited to take an intention left by a pilgrim who had already begun his journey. They were written in all different languages. I took one in French - a person wanting to find love in their life. I was given a small metal shell, and a prayer book. After the benediction, the grates in the middle of the cathedral opened up, revealing a hidden staircase - the start of our adventure.
My Arizona camino hiking group had helped me prepare, mentally and physically, and I am forever grateful to everyone who gave me advice. Someone asked me "what are you most afraid of? Whatever it is, it will probably happen to you the first day". The answer? Rain. So of course, it rained. For two days. I paused at the bottom of the hidden staircase to add a rain poncho over my rain jacket. Yes, two layers were definitely needed. Bernard stayed by my side for the first hour and a half. We laughed, sang marching songs, and talked about how special this trail would be before he turned around, sending me off on my own.
The trail was very well marked and although I would see people, then be alone, I wasn't worried about getting lost. Likewise there was a WC at the edge of each village, so I checked that worry off my list as well. Despite the continuous rain, my mantra became "I am dry, I am confortable - all will be well". My feet were toasty and dry, up until that point. Then, the path became a small river, and there was really no other option than walking through the running water. Now my feet were drenched. And yet, I wasn't cold or uncomfortable. Once I realized that I was still fine, I simply continued walking. When I arrived at my "gîte de charme - Le Clos des Pierres Rouges", I was greeted with a warm smile and all of my wet, soggy items were taken and hung to dry. I had thought that stuffing your shoes with newspaper to dry them was urban legend, but it truly works! A warm shower was followed by apėro and a lovely dinner with our gracious hosts. Day 1 was in the books!
I expected to be exhausted, but I woke up at 5 am and had a hard time falling back asleep. I was ready to go! To my surprise, I felt no aches or pains, and my damp shoes had not produced one blister! I vowed to continue my Vaseline/toe sock habit daily. After a lovely breakfast, we set off for another day of continuous rain, this time with a tough descent filled with roots and rocks.
Days one and two were about mastering the terrain and my pack, and getting my body into a rhythm. After a few adjustments, I hardly knew my pack was there. There was little time for contemplation, but I learned that my body was much more capable than I had thought. I would catch my heart beating wildly, and I would be huffing and puffing, and then everything would slow and I would be prepared for the next ascent. I was amazed by the fact that this challenge, in the rain, did not at all dampen my mood. I was in the moment, in awe of my body's capacities. I was dry, (mostly) comfortable, (mostly) and still upright, despite the slippery mud that made up a majority of the path, including the drastic descent. The rain let up only for the last 10-minute walk into town. I reached my gite, La Flore, and was graciously taken in and stripped of all rain and mud gear. Florence did all of my laundry while I showered, then I took advantage of the leg and foot massage machine they had in a little roulette outside of the house. Sublime!
One of the best parts of this journey is the people you meet along the way. There are no CEOs, doctors or other titles - you are simply a pilgrim with the same type of clothing and gear, walking from Point A to Point B. In a way, it is an interesting social experiment, as people are reduced to their essence. I was absolutely blown away by the kindness and generosity that surrounded me. Everyone had a petit "bonjour" or an anecdote to share - everyone seemed to look out for the well-being of others. It is a shared experience as much as an individual one, and there is something so special that happens when people truly see you at your most humble.
As the stages are well planned out (especially in the guidebook Miam Miam Dodo), you tend to see the same people several times. My second night at La Flore was where I met people I will never forget. First, the hosts, Florence and Régis, were amazing hosts that provided a lively apéro and the friendliest table of 10. Michel was traveling with his adult children, Antoine and Nathalie. Over my nine days, we walked together a few times, shared a few meals and a lot of great stories. Michel is probably the most outgoing, positive person I have ever met, and I am honored to have spent time with him and his children. He talked with everyone, and I mean everyone on the trail, and left each person smiling or laughing. In one beautiful village he stopped a women in her yard to tell her that she had the most glorious garden he had seen and thanked her for making his day with her flowers. One day he told me "j'ai une ampoule mais ça va, ça éclaire mon chemin" (I have a blister, but it's okay, it lights my path - the word for blister is the same as lightbulb). His positive attitude was contagious. Although probably in his mid-seventies, Michel ascended and descended steep hills much faster than me, providing great motivation! When I decided to end 2 days early, Nathalie proposed that I ride with them and stay overnight in Bordeaux at her home before heading back to Nice. I am still stunned by her kindness and generosity.
When I first met Carmen (at the farm with no heat) she had hurt her foot, but you would never know it as her bubbly, outgoing nature is all you see. I eventually drove back to Lyon with Carmen, her husband and their friend instead, as it was a quicker route, but the fact that 2 families would offer a ride to a stranger they had spent mere hours with, still warms my heart. And there were others who would leave a mark as well: Peter and his grandson traveling together from the Netherlands; Brigitte traveling with Katia who had a bruised rib and nasty blisters on each heel, but never complained. Then there was Joel and his university friends who met up to walk 4 days together each year. I was tired when I went to dinner that night, and dreading conversation at a table for 12, especially seated next to 4 men who shared private jokes as only old friends can, but it proved to be an amazing evening. One minute Joel was laughing at his friend who smeared butter on another guy's glasses, and the next minute we were talking about conquering our personal weaknesses on the trail. A few nights later I shared a private tour with a couple from San Francisco. Our gîte owner Gilles proposed a night tour of the Roman church next door. I found myself branding a flashlight and climbing to the hidden chapel while Philip (who is bilingual) translated everything for his wife Amity who is from Thailand. It is these fleeting moments shared with strangers that stick with me. I hope that I somehow enriched someone's path along the way as well. Sadly I don't have photos with those I met. Maybe it seemed too invasive - maybe I just knew their faces would stay with me regardless. I did take a photo with Léo, the owner of one of my favorite gîtes, as he was simply a cool human, and he looks a bit like Père Noėl!
Many people travel in pairs - husband/wife, brother/sister, friends ... or small groups. There are some solo travelers like myself, but it is more the exception than the rule. While the camino trails in Spain tend to be melting pots of all cultures, the overwhelming majority were French on this path (an important consideration if you don't speak French). There were the occasional Australians, Dutch and Americans, but I mostly immersed myself completely in French, which was an absolute delight for me.
Day 3 was Mother's Day in the US. It was to be a long day - 19.6 miles (31.5 km) but it was sunny and beautiful, and as my day started with a lovely text from my daughter, I was ready! The trail was marked "green" for "easy" most of the way, and it was an absolute delight! I had moved past the challenges of body/trail and decided it was time to focus on mind/soul. I took stock of my life to this point with all of its incredible highs and lows. I forgave myself for past mistakes, and in giving myself grace, suddenly saw new ways to overcome these weaknesses. Somehow my steps became lighter and the landscapes greener. I decided to pop in my headphones and listen to some music. John Denver's lyrics struck a cord and a wave of emotions mixed and churned until they released in sloppy wet tears streaming down my face. Could anyone see me? No, I was completely alone with only unconcerned cows bearing witness.
The landscapes kept changing: from deep forests, to rocky pastures that resembled Ireland, to rolling hills. How did I get here? I can barely see a trail ahead of me, and behind me it is green as far as the eye can see. I saw wild flowers that I have never seen in the US. At times I would just stop and appreciate the 360-degree views, knowing my camera would never do it justice. It was in this state of awe that I felt such harmony with nature - such a connection of mind/body/soul - entrenched in the moment. I looked around and all I could see was a field of wildflowers followed by rolling hills. Pure bliss.
The first 2 days I was sad to pass through villages without stopping, without taking my camera out because of the unending rain. But after that, each village meant countless photos! There were several that stood out - including some "plus beaux villages de France" - Estaing, St Côme d'Olt and Conques. These are not villages that most tourists come to see, and I was all the more grateful to have been lead to them. They oozed old world charm, and the colorful flowers dressed them up for spring.
There are numerous chapels and churches along the trail, bien sûr! As often as possible, I would stop to light a candle and say a prayer for those in need. The list grew longer and longer, and I found that I would start each day with a list of intentions. It was a lovely practice that I hope will stay with me.
Likewise I found that more and more of my day was spent in gratitude. The more time I spent in a state of appreciation, the more I wanted to spend time there. One day I noted that although I was working my body and was tired at night, I wasn't exhausted as I often am at home. Curious and with time to contemplate, I realized that mental exhaustion comes from worry (inquiétude), and I didn't have anything to worry about as my day simply consisted of going from Point A to Point B. Gratitude and inquiétude are opposites, and you can only be in one state at a time. A small but beautiful revelation for me. I choose gratitude.
Of course it is impossible to fully convey the depth of this journey. And my journey will not be like yours. If you are inspired to go, I will leave you with some tips.
If you go ...
1 - Book your accommodations well in advance. May is the busiest month to start in Le Puy-en-Velay and as the villages are very small, rooms fill up quickly.
2 - Train for ascents and descents. This region is VERY hilly and I am told that the terrain is much "tougher" than the camino francès in Spain
3 - Get a well-fitting backpack. Mine was larger than I needed, but the fit was perfect! A huge MERCI to REI for fitting me perfectly, then showing me how to best pack all of my gear before I left. They are experts and willing to help!
4 - The trails are well-marked on the GR 65 but do pay attention to the arrows. When you turn the wrong way, there is an X marking the road/path.
5 - Buy the guidebook MiamMiamDodo if at all possible for your route. It shows the terrain, plus highlights, restaurants and accommodations.
6 - There are not many restaurants in these small villages. Plan your lunches in advance! I usually reserved the "picnic" provided by the gîte for the following day. Pack some protein bars from the US if you can - they are hard to find in France!
7 - There are WC or dry toilets located as you enter most of the small villages. Bring your own TP just in case. As you never know where your next opportunity will be, don't pass one up!
8 - Bring a baseball cap or brimmed hat. Not only will it protect you from the sun, but it keeps your raincoat hood from falling over your eyes. Speaking of rain gear, buy a raincoat that covers your backpack as well.
9 - Don't overdress! As a lady explained to me - you are never cold from your neck to your knees. It is your feet, hands and ears that get cold. A light headband and gloves are quite useful!
10 - Last but MOST IMPORTANT: each morning rub Vaseline between your toes and all over your feet. Then put on toe socks, which have a separate compartment for each toe, much like a glove for your hands. This prevents friction and you will have blister-free, blissful feet!
It is impossible to sum up this journey in a blog post, but I hope to have given a glimpse of my experiences. I plan to do a video that compiles my favorite photos and video clips - a way to relive the stunning vistas (and a way to showcase all of the photos I took by accident while putting my phone away!)
Will I do another stage? Time will tell. For now, I am basking in the beauty of this unique experience. Un grand merci aux pèlerins qui ont partagé mon chemin. A huge thank you to the pilgrims who shared my path.