Reflections on the route to Santiago- a year on
Just over twelve months have passed since I began walking from Le-Puy-en-Velay towards Santiago de Compostela. I find myself thinking back to those walking days, thinking about the people I met, the landscapes I passed through, the thoughts that passed through my mind, the weather conditions at the time….
Mostly what I recall are the kindnesses that I met along the way, and the simplicity and rhythm in that walking life, that have left an imprint deep within me. It was a joyful time.
My time in Europe began in Paris. I followed some of the route that medieval pilgrims took through the city: past the Tour St-Jacques, newly restored, into Notre Dame, then up the hill past the Sorbonne, along the Rue St-Jacques to the church of Haut-Pas. There it seemed like I had stepped back almost into another age, and waved goodbye to the city with the throng of ancient pilgrims.
Unlike medieval pilgrims, I took the train to Le-Puy-en-Velay, and there my ‘time apart’, from the rushing madness of so much of modern living, began. My first climb was up to the cathedral of Le Puy that looked so solid and foreboding as I approached from below. I was surprised to enter and see light reflected from the glass of a crucifix hanging above, a simple and glorious light. Two days later I was to depart from Le-Puy-en-Velay with the blessing of the bishop resting in my memory: in kindness he had switched to English when he spoke to me. Despite my ambivalence about so much of my Catholic upbringing, it seemed like I walked under the protection of this blessing on my whole journey to Santiago.
The time for departure had arrived, and I climbed the hill out of the volcanic basin that Le-Puy-en-Velay rested in, to the flatter lands above. Immediately I had a sense of joy. Seeing the sunlight on the back of some seed heads, seeing the green of the land as I walked along, brought a sense of peace that was to remain within me for the whole walk. Even on difficult days, when I was saturated and cold, or when my ankles or feet ached, I still knew that peace resting within.
The route unfolded through some beautiful landscapes, up and down hills and past many old villages and towns. But not everything in the next ten days was easy. My feet became tender, and after three days of saturation, crossing and descending from the Aubrac Plateau, I had blisters. And there was lots of time to think. Not all of those thoughts were easy ones: sometimes as I thought of others I was reminded of times I had been thoughtless or careless of them, and had inflicted pain. One of the treasures of the Camino was that I had time to reflect on all this, and to think about how I wanted to act in the future, and how I wanted to treasure those I knew. And there was plenty of time to dialogue with a God I still don’t know very well. Somewhere in these early days, I Iearned to be thankful for all the good that each day brought.
When I think back to those walking days, one of the strongest things in my memory is the kindness of people that I met. There were so many French-speakers who took special care of me because I did not always understand everything that was going on. There were four ladies from St Etienne who saved a place at the meal table for me, and who were prepared to speak slowly for me so I was not lonely at dinnertime. There was the man from Quebec who made me speak French with him in the dorm in Figeac, but who quickly sprang to my defence when I did not understand some instructions I had been given. There were the lovely ladies in the gîte in Limogne-en-Quercy with whom I laughed outrageously: I think only long-distance walkers can understand the kind of laughter that erupts after days of walking. There were Françoise and Roger, who ran after me on the plateau above Cahors to give me fresh, cold water on a very hot day, when they knew I had run out. There were the two lovely ladies who saw my tears as I sat beside the River Lot in Estaing, on the day I had decided I needed a rest day for my blisters: they took me across to the café and brought me a hot chocolate and we talked while I cried. My list of so many kind people could go on and on….
There are of course also some special people with whom I shared more deeply. There were Lyne and Denis from Montreal: we met near Cahors, met often over the weeks to come, and walked into Santiago together two months later. One of the very special times we had together was at Orisson when we watched a rainbow in the evening, stretched out in front of the vast landscape of the mountains. This is a memory I will treasure forever. And there was Francis. Sometimes on the Camino you only needed to meet someone for a few days, yet came to appreciate the depths within them. Francis struck me as a prayerful man who thought a lot about others. When we met for the last time, on his last evening in Santiago, he told me I was a beautiful flower of the Camino, but that a flower sometimes has to die to make a seed. His words remain within me.
I hope that I too helped some others along the way. I know that Francis, who met me at a time when I was struggling with pain in my ankles, respected my courage. I know that the Englishman, Keith, was inspired by my determination. My thoughts still rest with a very unhappy young woman I met in a village café one morning as I walked towards Astorga, and I hope that something I said in our conversation may have helped her in her desperation.
I remember also, the landscapes. So many different landscapes, with pictures of winter and spring and early summer, are in my mind. There were the mountains that I crossed, sometimes being rewarded with spectacular views, and sometimes seeing only mist. In Spain sometimes the track spread out far into the distance ahead of me, and red poppies dotted the green crops of the fields. There were also the ‘close-up’ parts of the landscape, like slugs crossing the path, and the spider webs covered in dewdrops in the early morning. It was always a special time walking in the early morn, enjoying the quiet as the world awoke for a new day.
All these things seeped within me as I walked. Walking became such a natural thing to do. And the rhythm of walking brought a special kind of peacefulness that seems to still reside deep within.
The life of a long-distance walker was a simple one. I carried only what I needed, and what I thought I needed got less and less as time went on! There was a simple rhythm to everyday that revolved around walking, then finding shelter, food, a place to wash your clothes so you could wear them again the next day…. And there was friendship with others, who also walked with joy and simplicity.
Finally, after nearly three months of walking, I stood in front of the cathedral in Santiago, in the company of Lyne and Denis. At that moment, I knew that I had achieved something that was at the one time both simple and remarkable. It was simple, as really the walk was just a succession of day walks, most of them not very difficult. And yet it was also quite remarkable, as I had walked some 1600km, and had been walking for so many weeks.
The Camino touched me deeply. Tears. Laughter. Simplicity. Kindness. Friendship. An ever-lightening load of possessions. Time to reflect. Rhythm. Landscapes. An easy place to talk with God. Thankfulness.
Was I a walker or a pilgrim? I never quite decided. But on my thirteenth day after leaving le Puy, as I descended into the valley that held the medieval gem that was the abbey and village of Conques, I knew I had changed within.
It seemed when I had finished in Santiago, that my life had changed forever, that this walk was indeed a life-changing experience. But in the months afterwards, as I returned to the busy-ness that is the life of a full-time teacher, it was hard to hold onto that vision. I felt somewhat ‘down’ for a while, as if I had really learned nothing, and that I would make no changes in my life.
But as the months have passed, I know that is not true. Something about the simplicity and the rhythm of that walking life lives on deep within me. I know that I value some things more strongly, and others hold no sway over me. Slowly, as the months pass, I try to listen to that joyful peace within, that came to me as I walked. I don’t know exactly where it will lead, but I know that the journey I began the day I walked up the hill out of Le-Puy-en-Velay, is continuing.
3 May 2009
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