Preparing for my 10-day Pilgrimage on the Chemin de Compostelle
The word "pilgrimage" evokes images of people in the middle ages - or even before! Why would I want to do a "pilgrimage" in 2020? My announcement has brought me many blank stares and half-hearted smiles, so I'll lay it all out, one step at a time.
As you know, I LOVE France. I want to explore every region, every city, every village. The beauty of France constantly surprises and delights me. When I am driving I am easily distracted by beautiful churches, quaint villages, sunflower fields, cows or sheep grazing ... I have made some rather questionable stops along tiny roads to take photos! What better way to see the countryside than to WALK slowly, appreciating everything about the country I adore?
The most famous part of this pilgrimage is in Spain, ending near the coast in Santiago, so it really hadn't been on my radar. When I saw that there are 4 main routes that start in the French countryside, I thought I had better learn more ...
(Skip this part if history puts you to sleep!)
Legend has it that after the death of Christ, the disciples dispersed to different parts of the world to spread the Gospel. St James (Saint Jacques in French), went to Spain. He converted only 7 disciplines and eventually went back to Jerusalem. Around 44 AD he was arrested by King Herod Agrippa and beheaded, becoming one of the first Christian martyrs. His body was shipped to Spain with his companions, and his body was buried in a tomb on the hillside. Alfonso II declared St James the patron saint of Spain and built a small church and monastery over the tomb. Since the early Middle Ages, pilgrims have set out for Santiago - as a profession of faith, or for various other reasons. Unlike pilgrimages to Lourdes, where the destination is most important, le chemin de Compostelle is more about the journey itself.
Why the shell?
In the Middle Ages, people walked to Santiago and back. To prove they had reached their destination, they picked up a scallop shell, which were abundant on the Galician coast. It has now become the symbol for the walk. (If you have always wondered why scallops are called "Saint Jacques" in French - voila!)
As I learned more and the idea began to percolate in my mind, I was still hesitant about sleeping in dormitories where the possibility of bed bugs and strangers snoring in the bunk next to me were possibilities! (I'm told that while bed bugs are rare, the snorers are rampant!) Then I learned that there are many gites and hotels along the way where you can have your own room! Game changer!
Timing is everything, of course. As longevity runs in my family, I can say that I am at a mid-point in my life, which is a great time to hit the "pause" button and do a bit of introspection. My kids are blissfully independent, and there are not yet grandchildren to miss out on, so it seems a good time to step away.
I have also learned that walking is good for the heart. And this heart has some healing to do after the loss of my dad this past fall.
the way ...
I made the somewhat arbitrary decision to start from Le Puy-en-Velay, mostly because of my dear French friends who had done this route, but it seems to be more and more apparent that this is THE route for me. (More on this later...)
The busiest and warmest time to do the walk is July and August, but as I grew up in Minnesota, I hate being too hot - and I am not a huge fan of crowds. After talking logistics with my French friends, we chose May 1st as a departure date. I was hoping they would be able to drop me off at the start, but the generously offered to even walk the first kilometers with me. I have known Jeanne and Bernard for 25 years, and I am so touched to begin my journey with them at my side.
With the plan set in motion, it was time to TRAIN! I realized that walking roughly 20-30 kilometers (12-18 miles) a day for 10 days, with a backpack, was going to take some training. I love to walk and hike, but my longest walk to date has been the 3-Day Susan J Komen Breast Cancer Walk where you do 60 miles in 3 days. I wanted to set a goal - maybe 1200 miles for the year? I was walking, of course, when I had the idea that my yearly goal should be the distance from our house in MN to our house in AZ! A visual goal that I can plot on the map is highly motivating for me, even if that made it 1600 miles to walk in 2020!
As of January 1st, I started to keep track of my miles walked. Not my total steps/mileage throughout my day, but just miles when I was on a walk or hike. Fortunately it is easier to do these activities in Arizona in the winter. I'm well on my way! I am appreciative of family and friends who walk and hike with me - merci mille fois!
Getting the right backpack and knowing how to pack the right gear is essential. I have spent many hours, and many dollars at REI getting outfitted. I am confident that as properly prepared as I feel, I will spend many hours complaining about my packing choices while on the route! I have chosen a Gregory brand backpack that fits like it was made for me. For added insurance, I call him "Gregoire" in the hopes that he will have my back in France.
As the departure date approaches, I have started to pour over maps, and get my first accommodations booked. (My biggest fears involve getting completely lost in the French countryside or having nowhere to sleep). I was pouring over "Miam Miam Dodo" - the guide to where to eat and stay on the route - when this place caught my eye. Over my 25 trips to France, I have rarely seen my maiden name of Parent. And here was not only Oustal de Parent, but the owner's name was exactly the same as my dad's. Yes, this is the route for me.
I have no doubt that I will be guided on this trip, and that I will meet amazing people along the way. I am sure to meet an Agnes as well. My dad's aunt Agnes Beaumont suffered from childhood polio and always walked with canes. While I never got to meet her, my dad and I did go back to the house where she lived in Chassell, Michigan. I have her ID bracelet, which I will wear on the route, as I think it would make her happy to walk in the land of her ancestors.
They say that The Way changes you. It is already having a positive effect in my life. And so, voila - this is what I am doing and why. 10 days - O blisters - Infinite beautiful memories. That is the goal. I check in regularly on Facebook and Instagram, and will no doubt have much to share at the end of May.