Some Reflections on the French Portion of my Camino...
In the beginning this is going to sound like a lot of whining. I don't want to be whiner. Above all I don't want you to get any message other than "This is an amazing experience..."
I have had a lot of trouble finding reliable information (especially troubling in this Internet age) about the route from Lourdes to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. There is a lot of commentary including warnings about such things as bad way - marking and less than reliable lodging information. After months of digging and reading, I put together a reasonable portfolio of English language electronic resources. At Lourdes, I was given a printout of the most up to date route and lodging information (in French) which I immediately photographed and saved in my phone. I was ready.
what I was not ready for was the complete and utter aloneness of the experience. I have literally seen NO other pilgrims on the Chemin de Compostelle for 5 days. I met one Fin in one of the places that I stayed and I know a French woman named Gaille is one day ahead of me because I have seen her name on the pilgrim registry at 3 hostals. I have encountered the occasional biker or runner here or there. I have had 4 conversations in 5 days 2 with strangers, one with an hospitaler, and one with a pharmacist who was particularly interested in what possesses a 53 yo American to do something like this.
Being alone has mostly been okay. This is a retreat: Time to pray, time to reflect, time to enjoy nature, time to do something so radically different. At one point on Tuesday I was listening to John Michael Talbot's 'Table of Plenty' album and burst into an impromptu praise and worship in the middle of the French Countryside. Those cows and sheep have now received the Gospel! Generally, it's good for an extrovert to have these times. I get that.
But there is a downside to all this aloneness too. When involved in a strenuous undertaking, it is good to have supportive and encouraging voices reminding you of the good of it. Every person I know who has walked the Camino talks of the amazing experiences of the people they have met along the way: the sharing of stories, the sharing of encouragement, the sharing of misery.
I have had the amazing encouraging voices of friends at home, and I really appreciate all the electronic encouragement, but I am an external processor (I work things out by talking about them more than by thinking about them) and I am missing that part of this experience.
Yesterday the aloneness contributed to some frustrations and, in the afternoon turned dangerous. It was, for the most part, a good day. It was raining hard all morning. I think I handled the hiking in the rain with grace and good humor. I was worried about my feet getting wet. But the Goretex lining of the boots and the rain pants Matt Risi gave me worked to keep the bottom half of me dry. I found out that my 'rain jacket' is anything but waterproof so my upper body was kinda wet and cold all morning. Good lesson to learn and easily resolved.
The rain probably contributed to my getting lost in the morning. I was looking down a lot to watch the path (wet, muddy, uneven) and probably missed a trail marker. I ended up turned around and walked BACK to the village I had just come from on a different path! costing myself an hour and more than 2 miles of traveling. Thanks to nice stranger who had, by chance, seen me both leave by one path and return by the other, I got pointed back in the right direction, mad, wet, hungry, and an hour later than I wanted to be, but going in the right direction.
I finally arrived in the ONE village on my whole route with a restaurant/bar and had lunch about 1:30 (Amazing Roast Beef!) After lunch, I tended to my feet, I wanted to make sure they were not wet. The blister from the day before was bothering me a bit, but it was bandaged and padded. My feet were moist, but not from rain, from sweat. the outsides of my socks and the insides of shoes were dry. The moisture was what had been wicked away by my incredibly efficient hiking socks. I checked the blister, it was ok. I dried my feet, put on my boots and headed out.
The afternoon was beautuful. The fog cleared from the mountains. The sun was out and warm. All was good. The way markings and my maps were all in agreement. In the afternoon, I had choices. I intentionally chose the shorter, less scenic (relative term) because of the lost hour in the morning. It was already turning into a long day. The afternoon path lead me through a forest and the way was well-marked.
Until it wasn't.
At one point, the path emerged from the forest into an area that had been clear cut recently. no more trees, no more way markings. Ok. Fine. The path was still clear and the way was intuitive. The river to my left would lead to the city to which I was headed. My intuition was correct. I made one wrong turn, but it was easily corrected.
The problem of the afternoon was not getting lost, it was the length of the journey. At the 9 hour mark my left foot was killing me. The pain from the previous day's blister was causing me to walk in a way that was rubbing another blister on the same foot. I could feel it, but I could do nothing about it. I had to press on. But my stride became slower. I stopped frequently. I was exhausted, but had no choice. There was no place to stop. Rest was only assured by reaching Oloron-Sainte-Marie, the largest city on my itinerary until Pamplona.
11 hours after I started walking, I walked into Place de Sainte Pierre in Oloron. I had arrived. My phone had a string signal, but I realized I had never received a call back from the hospitaler at the hostal where I would spend the night. I bought a bottle of water and sat down in the square and tried to call him again. No answer. I left another message. Google maps gave me clear directions for the 15 minute walk to the Hostal. Not bad.I could do it. I found the hostal. It was clearly marked, but also has clearly not been opened for a long time.
So much for the "up to date information" from Lourdes. I checked my resources. This was the #1 listing on 4 different lists. OK. I had 4 other possible places. To make a long story a little less long, none worked out. OK. The third hotel I went to had a room at a reasonable price (I actually has a couple if "hotel nights" in my Camino budget, so this doesn't break the bank.)
The worse part of the day came when I removed my boots from my aching feet. I realized I now had, not one, but four blisters of varying size on my left foot! Why always the left? OK. I can deal with this. cleanliness us the key. Don't let them get infected. But the pain is ridiculous. I knew there was no way I was going to walk on that left foot on Friday. What to do? I still have 4 day's walking to get to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to officially "begin" the Camino Frances. And I am already a day behind schedule.
This is where being alone so completely sucks. This situation demands discussion. Talking with another person. Weighing options. Pros and Cons. Assurance that the course of action to be taken was the best course. It's just the way extroverts operate.
One thing was certain: I could not walk on this foot tomorrow. Friday would be a rest day, a decision day. If I am to complete the Camino in the time allotted, I could not fall 2 or 3 days behind schedule. So I read. I read all I could get my hands on about blisters. Care. Prevention. Walking.
I consulted the itinerary and saw that the next 4 stages included 2 20 mile days. More importantly, I noticed that there were no stopping points, places with hostels or hotels, that I could make the decision to shorten the day (as I had already done once in the journey). Given my further frustrations: waymarking problems (I am an inexperienced hiker who should not be running around the unmarked backcountry of a foreign country by myself), nutrition & hydration concerns (many of these little village have no restaurants, cafes, or markets where supplies can be replinished during the journey; AND sports drinks for replenishing electrolytes simply are not sold in France - no Gatorade, powerade, aquarius. In France, "sports drink" means energy drink - like redbull), and further housing concerns (the biggest city on my itinerary has no center for pilgrims, how can I trust the list I have with regards to smaller places), I decided to throw in the towel on the French route in favor of the success of the better-known and well-traveled traditional route. And in favor of my poor left foot. Always the left. Very Sinister.
I consulted a pharmacist today about treatment for my existing blisters. This aftetnoon, I took a train to the City of Pau. I will be here overnight and tomorrow I will head for Saint Jean. These are not lost days, the interior work of pilgrimage continues and the healing necessary to continue is facilitated by my staying off the foot.
I will re-begin the Camino on Sunday or Monday one or 2 days ahead of schedule. AND with a lot of other pilgrims
This feels a little like failure. But ultimately, it feels like success.
The Pilgrim Priest
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP is a priest of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in the Western USA. From April 20 - June 1, 2015 he walked from Lourdes, France to Santiago de Compostella, Spain. This page contains observations, images and reflections from the Way of St. James.
Fr. Bartholomew Hutcherson, OP, "The Pilgrim Preacher" is an Itinerant Preacher and member of the Western Dominican Province Preaching Team. He is available for retreats, conferences, and Parish Missions. He offers pilgrimages periodically and shares images and reflections on this website as "virtual pilgrimages."