By S. Carter
It's 5 a.m. and there is a slight chill in the air. In the distance there is the faint sound of a helicopter. As it gets closer, with great frustration, I say out loud, "Really?!? Again?" As it gets even closer, I can hear the moaning and fidgeting of other sleepless souls. The helicopter hovers over the campsite for a moment and then lands, it sounds like, right outside our tent. Almost like an SNL comedy skit, this helicopter has been visiting us every hour since 1 a.m. This is not the start of a two-week walking pilgrimage through the south of France I anticipated. Nevertheless, what a way to start: an unexpected challenge testing our acceptance of what is.
I moan as I shuffle my body in our sleeping bag from side to side and adjust my tiny, slippery inflatable pillow in between my head and shoulder so the blood can flow back into my right arm. My right hip is supporting the majority of my weight as it digs into the one-inch foam mat I call my mattress. Through the tent to the right of us, I can hear another pilgrim snoring. Behind me is the sound of a tent zipper. 4,153 miles away from Ann Arbor I struggle to find physical comfort after a sleepless night. I am grateful to be on this exploration with my girlfriend and inspiration, Jule (pronounced "Ula"), who has previously walked the main path in Spain, El Camino Francés, and completed this pilgrimage once already, in 2006. Seemingly undisturbed by the flying alarm clock and the lack of sleep, she starts to get up and dress. I sit up, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. Let my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago — The Way of St. James — begin.
We put everything we need into our packs. We have a tent, sleeping bags and mats, shoes, clothes for hot, cold, rain or shine, first aid, food, water, utilities, toiletries, and a few personal items — all the result of an inventory we planned weeks ahead. My pack is packed full! After I put it on, I know I won't be getting many souvenirs. Our packs weigh anywhere between 25 to 30 lbs. depending on how much water and food we carry.
Six a.m. with bags packed, we start our walk to the center of town for a special ceremonial blessing and morning mass for all the pilgrims. The Romanesque Cathedral of Notre-Dame sits on the top of a hill surrounded by the narrow twisting streets overlooking Le Puy-en-Velay, a picturesque little town in the south of France. Le Puy is a major station on the Santiago pilgrimage, starting point of Via Podiensis, one of the four main paths going toward Spain on the pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James. We arrive along with about two hundred other pilgrims to form the first congregation of the day. Although our faces show remnants of a tired, and for some sleepless, night, our faces beam like those of children on Christmas morning, full of wonder, anticipation, and excitement for the adventure about to start. We gaze wide-eyed in the direction of the priest who is welcoming us into the house of God at this early hour. With no sleep and my 30 lbs. bag leaning against a tall stone pillar, I feel as light as air, filled with a sense of humility and honor that I will be walking where so many other beings have before me. I learn that I am only one of two Americans in the crowd gathering at this church today when the Father asks all pilgrims to introduce themselves.
We pick up a small paper book to collect unique stamps from all the places we visit on our Way. We are also gifted a small silver token with the image of a shell. Jule surprises me with a scallop shell that she collected herself at the beach in Finisterre, Spain, at the end of her pilgrimage in 2006, and I attach it to my backpack. The shell is the symbol of The Way; it garnishes the pilgrims and the path. For over a thousand years, pilgrims would travel by foot or horseback to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the tomb of Saint James the Great (son of Zebedee, brother of John, and Christ's cousin) and many would continue on to the sea, where some would look upon the sea for the first time in their lives and where they believed the world ended. They would choose a shell to remind them of the epic journey and its profound impact on their lives. Evidence of these shells has been found thousands of miles away, all over the European continent. The shell is the landmark showing you that you are on the right path. Towns like Le Puy have bronze shell medallions about the size of a hockey puck embedded in the roads and on buildings.
Saint James, patron saint of Spain, spent a couple of years evangelizing without much success and then was beheaded by Herod in 44 A.D. in Jerusalem. His disciples took his body to Jaffa on the coast, where a stone ship was miraculously waiting and took them back to Spain. They landed in Santiago de Compostela after only one week, thereby providing proof of angelic assistance. Saint James was buried there in a tomb and forgotten for 750 years until a hermit had a vision in which he saw a very large bright star surrounded by a ring of smaller ones shining over a deserted spot in the hill. It was found to be the tomb of Saint James.
We leave the downtown of Le Puy and head up and up. In no time at all I am gasping for air, my legs burning, my pack feeling like I am carrying a statue of Saint James. We aren’t even out of the city limits. Doubt slaps me in the face. If this is how I feel after the first twenty minutes, how am I going to make it two weeks? My mind is racing. I didn't do enough uphill training back in Ann Arbor. I brought too much stuff. I thought I was in better condition. I can't do this!
Just then we come upon a group of ten handicapped pilgrims, some of them blind, and another ten people accompanying them. They all have smiles on their faces, chatting and seemingly without a care in the world. There is a sense of contentment just to be out walking. One blind man speaks English and appears to be so excited to "show off" his English with an American that the smile on his face couldn't have been brighter. We talk about how excited he is to be walking on such a beautiful day. As I continue, I tighten my backpack, drop my doubt, and lighten my load. As we ascend higher and higher, looking over my shoulder, the distant view of the small town below confirms that we have begun our experience of The Way.
The path takes us from the street in a small village to a narrow sand trail, from rocky paths through magical forests, from enormous medieval stone churches to vast open plains. We meet curious donkeys looking for a snack of green grass and a lucky one who gets a special treat of sugar cubes. A variety of cows spot the landscape. Some herds seem to be on their own doing whatever they please. Others stand on the path and moo at us as if to say, "Oh, am I in your way?" I am amazed by the little calves in their playful innocence reaching out their tongues to determine if I am friend or foe.
As I walk all day long in nature, it allows my nervous system to reset and my mind to unwind and open. No distractions from cell phones, computers, cars, or advertisements. No schedules, deadlines, or time frames. I don’t have to go somewhere or meet anyone. I am just walking. Just Jule and I. When you have time and space there is no need to fill it will idle conversation. At times we walk in silence with our own thoughts. When we talk it isn’t conversation, it is authentic communication. We talk about how action, passion, and intention are essential in almost every part of life — when developing friendships, starting a creative project, or even making a delicious cheese. We form an action plan to make documentary films that address some of the issues we see in the world, like taking care of our planet and the people in need, as well as the visionaries that have solutions and are making a difference. We discuss art, science, food, wine, philosophy, the condition of the planet, human consciousness, and on and on. I realize that all these things are not separate. That when you are living a full life, all things are accessible to you at all times. I always knew we were connected, but now I start to feel it in my body.
We average 20 kilometers, or about 12.5 miles, a day. We stop once before lunch to check out some sites, fill up our water, grab a snack, and then off again. We come across a tiny church that couldn't hold more than ten people on a ridge overlooking an enormous valley and landscape. At the very top are ruins of a fort where the French army had a vantage point. Eventually, it was taken over by the French resistance during the revolution in the 1790’s. A strange feeling comes over me as I walk through the same path as the pilgrims, warriors, and victims before me. I feel that I am part of the cycle of people experiencing the same piece of land but under drastically different circumstances. Gratitude comes over me as we continue down the mountain.
If we are close to a village around noon, we stop for lunch to sample local cuisine; if not, there is no shortage of wide open fields with postcard-like views to make lunch feel like a five-star getaway. Rationing food and water is something new for me. It's not like I can just waltz to the refrigerator or hop on my bike and ride downtown. If I run out of water, I have to walk, who knows how far, before I can fill up. Abundance and accessibility are not options any longer.
The sad part is that, at age 46, I feel more responsibility for my well being than I ever have. But gratitude is abundant. Every bit of food has flavors and textures. I feel it giving my body the strength and nourishment I need to continue my pilgrimage. My body becomes a vehicle for all experience, not just pleasure. Like when I feel like I can’t get another blister or when my knee swells up so much I’m unable to put any weight on it. In these moments, I’m thankful to have a strong physical yoga practice, but even more important is yoga’s emotional impact. It’s the practice of equanimity. To stay present to the sensations and allow them to come and go like the passing landscapes. Pausing the walk for short yoga practices throughout the day reminds me to be soft with the body, strong with the breath, and stay in the moment.
As we enter a village to stay the night, our first priority is to find water. A spout sticking out of a wall with water flowing out into a long basin looks promising. We look around to see if there is anyone that can give us the thumbs up that the water is drinkable. Staring at the flowing water, getting our fingers wet, we taste it, then gulp it down like we are in a post-apocalyptic movie. We fill our water bladders then hunt for food. Turning down narrow streets we find the one road that is lined with boulangeries, fromageries, épiceries, and wine shops. It's like we won the lottery. We buy a freshly baked baguette, locally made cheeses, yogurt, salami, and wine. Every town and village offers something different. Each region has its own family recipes passed down for generations with unique flavors, each just as delicious as the next. The challenge is that we need to be selective of how much we buy since we only have so much room in our packs. I never realized how much a full bottle of wine could weigh you down.
We give ourselves options for a place to sleep. We use a four-person tent for the majority of our nights, but there are two other options: a gîte, which is someone’s home where they rent you a room, or a hostel, often times a large dormitory-like space shared with many other pilgrims. Both fill up quickly, so you need to reserve a bed or keep your fingers crossed for one to be available.
When we enter the small village of Aubrac, we quickly determine that there is no campground, although a friendly restaurant owner offers his lawn/parking lot. We see only one tent pitched in a small yard with a donkey seemingly guarding it, so we decide to find another option. There is a tall four-story stone cylinder building used as a monastery that houses pilgrims. A very narrow spiral staircase takes us up to the third floor where a round room holds four bunk beds, each with a blanket and pillow. The ceiling is 15 feet tall and the walls are made of 12-inch stone blocks. One tall window looks south over the village and one tiny window at the very top faces north. It looks like something Disneyland may have copied for one of their fairytale castles. For 13 euros we share a bedroom with five other pilgrims.
Meeting other pilgrims and getting to know them and their story is a vital part of the experience of The Way. The next morning, on our eighth day, we meet a husband and wife from the northern region of France, as well as a young man traveling by himself. We chat with Pascale and Alain, the couple, during breakfast and listen to their impressions of their pilgrimage and the places they passed. Just like us, they enjoy the local foods and are headed for Conques as their final destination, recommending we stay with the monks at the abbey. Then, as we are stretching and getting ready for take-off, we meet Silvan in our dorm room. The young man is struggling with a swollen ankle, so we exchange a few first aid remedies before we are off. Leaving the monastery we understand more fully that this communal experience of sharing, support, and connection is what makes pilgrims walk as far as they do.
At the end of the eighth day, we are about an hour away from Saint-Côme d'Olt, where we planned on spending the night, but my right knee can’t handle the downhill impact any longer. Unfortunately, Yellow Cab doesn't frequent the El Camino, so I have no other choice but to breathe deeply, give gratitude to my left leg, and take one step at a time. Arnica gel, Advil, and double wrapping seem to have no effect. As I hobble into a campsite, my body collapses, shivering from a fever brought on by fatigue. The overly gracious owner of the site gives us a caravan for my recovery. Jule nurses me back to health with a delicious potato cheese meal that would make any body part feel better.
We are two and a half days away and just a mere 30 miles from Conques, our intended destination, but our pilgrimage must end here. We spend three nights in Saint-Côme as I give my knee the rest it is demanding. On the third morning, a cab meets us at the campsite. Disappointment washes over me as I watch out the window of the car driving 50 m.p.h. past the paths I should have been walking down, wondering about the experiences I will miss. I feel defeated, cheated, and angry with myself and with my body for failing me.
As we pull into the beautiful city of Conques, I am reminded that experiences are all around me at every moment. If I don't see them, it is my fault. Feeling the warm air in this ancient valley, I take a deep breath and accept what is. As I reflect on my pilgrimage and think of my usually comfortable and convenient life, I can't help but look forward to my return to that place—Saint-Côme d'Olt—where my Way found an unexpected ending. I know I will return there one day to resume this pilgrimage, to reunite with the stream of pilgrims that went before me and to explore the beautiful countryside that is still ahead.
Thank you Jule for your help in writing this.
Carter has lived in Ann Arbor since 2011. He is an artist and independent documentary filmmaker currently working on a project called “The Visionaries of Ann Arbor.” Carter also works as a screen-printing consultant and has been a yoga instructor since 2006, teaching private lessons and in studios around town. He can be reached at CarterYoga@gmail.com or through his website, onecarter.weebly.com.