Reflecting on the Walk

by Annalise on April 29, 2010

The thought I awoke with on the morning after we finished our big walk was ‘it was like my childhood’. This thought caught me off guard a bit but upon reflection, that was it. It involved a great deal of time outdoors in vast agricultural areas and in the company of some very fun characters (family included); it was a consistent routine including physically demanding and sometimes tedious work; there was great food everyday; and, there was unlimited space for thoughts, imagination and family. Walking each day was also like moving meditation.

Of the geographic areas covered, the Aubrac is perhaps the most remarkable. It is a vast, sparsely-populated area with snow remaining at the higher elevations and centuries old stone fences separating the large grazing lands. Each May there is a huge festival associated with the return of the herds for summer grazing. They dress up the lead cattle with head dresses and bless the herds – only in France! For us there was no head dresses, the ground was boggy at times and many of the villages along the way looked nearly abandoned. Leaving the Aubrac we moved into the hills around Conque prior to descending into the river country following the Lot River. These were the wet and cooler weeks in the beginning. From here we walked through a large region of vineyards (very thirsty walking that!). There were three days where our shoes felt like cement boots as the wet clay soil accumulated with each step. When the rain really came on hard, it was a very greasy slippery mess on the descents. We’d received reports of several others who’d taken a fall in the muck on the trails. Once past our mid point though the weather cleared up and we enjoyed bright blue-sky days through to the finish. The crops we were seeing next including melons which farmers were covering with long plastic sheets to capture every bit of sun in the early April season. The trails in this Gers region were the best with very little ashphalt on the route and great wooded areas to enjoy. Finally we moved into the gorgeous basque region at the foothills of the Pyrenees. Over different parts of the walk we joked at all the things we would have enjoyed for the travel. Robin’s response was inevitably a carrying donkey but we also thought of cross country skis or snowshoes for the snow, a long-board skateboard for the ashphalt and a taboggan for the mud but it wouldn’t have been the same.

The pilgrimage we were on followed the route from Le Puy to Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port along the way of St. James (St. Jacque in France). This is a feeder route to the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in Spain. It is a route followed for centuries by Christians in pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella where the remains of St. James were buried and hence the Cathedral built. The route is marked both as a ‘Grande Randonnée’ (GR) route with white and red paint markers but is equally easy to follow watching out for ancient crosses, chapels, churches and cathedrals; the crosses in particular are all along the route, even in the most remote and uninhabited places. They hold the reminder of the history of this walk. We did stop in most chapels and churches some of which dated back to the 12 century. They were most often open and even if no longer used in weekly services they were well kept and always had candles available to light and leave behind with a prayer. Even on the coldest or most difficult days when sore feed and low energy left us cranky or feeling flat, it didn’t take long sitting in one of these chapels to restore calm. One couldn’t help but consider the number of prayers, ceremonies and sacraments that would have taken place in these ancient places.

I’ve read that this walk is done as a secular exercise for anywhere from between 60% to 80% of those who undertake it, the remainder being on a spiritual pilgrimage. I have to wonder how these numbers would have been arrived at, perhaps they were counting up the candles lit along the way. Having met those with whom we walked, it clearly had a spiritual element simply in the walking and reflection if not in the candles lit.

Our accommodations were generally in ‘Gites’ which are common in France and along the Chemin there are many that focus their services on the pilgrim crowd. Some of the gites were run by the municipalities for the high season of walkers, some were privately run and some were for pilgrims only and operated on a donation for services basis. We generally booked ‘demi-pension’ which included dinner, beds and breakfast. Robin was our booking agent for these stays because although both Dave and I could request the necessary accommodation in French, if the owner went on to tell us how to find the place or ask any unanticipated or complicated questions, we were hooped. We found it more effective to simply have Robin make the calls. And we found that we were very well received, in part we think because of Robin’s age and his language skills. The sleeping rooms in the gites were mostly dormitory style but we managed in all but a handful of nights to book rooms with 3 or 4 beds and had it just for the three of us. The other nights were with our walking friends in larger dorm rooms. On these nights we wore earplugs and the snoring rarely kept us awake long after walking 20+ km. In all cases, the accommodation ranged from simple but clean and comfortable to absolutely lovely. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the stays however was the food. The French absolutely know how to eat! We never had less than a three course meal provided for dinner and on a several occasions enjoyed a five course meal including soup, salad, main course, a variety of regional cheeses with fruit and finally, dessert with coffee. Breakfasts were simple with coffee / tea / hot chocolate and fresh bagettes with jam. It must have been enough because in spite of the distances covered on foot none of us lost any weight.

The walking was ultimately a solitary exercise but mostly we walked in our group of three and often with others where conversations started including what brought each to this. Generally the walkers fell into several categories. There were the veteran walkers; people who had done other parts of the Camino or feeder Chemin routes previously and regularly set out for a week or two of long distance walking. They ranged in age and place of origin but most were European. There were many newbees like us; people who’d heard about these pilgrimage walks from one or more sources. They (and we) inevitably carried too much in our packs, some sending things home, purchasing better suited shoes or gear along the way and taking the first week or so to work in to the grove of walking. Common themes among many of the walkers were major losses or changes in their lives. There were also large groups of walkers supported by baggage transfer services and they moved like a traffic jam from one site to the next. Most of us more individual walkers moved through these groups quite quickly hoping to secure a good bed or place to eat lunch prior to their overwhelming arrival. I’d have to write more about some of the characters we met along the way. There were many laughs, several languages, many close conversations and over the kilometers covered the human inclination to be with others found us joining each evening within our own group. We met several recent retirees, also people who’d experienced the loss of a loved one in the past year or so and a few in their early to mid 20s taking a break after study or some major work project; all walking as they considered the next stage of their lives. Most of the walkers we met were from fairly urban areas with a great appreciation of the quiet and simplicity this experience provided. Over the weeks walking we connected with many people leaving behind contact information “in case you ever come to Calgary!”. For the three of us it was an extraordinary, unique family experience.

Would I do it again? Absolutely yes! We’re in Holland now and enjoying it but for the first week or so we all were missing our walking routine and the space and time to simply hang out with one another. It was a very special time.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

LeeAnne May 2, 2010 at 8:09 am

What a lovely walking experience. Annalise, our parents will be happy to hear that you did not lose weight :-) I’m thinking this should be a Van Ham girl adventure one day.

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