The Saint James Way is like a river with tributaries springing up all throughout Europe and running together here and there before finally joining completely at Santiago and dumping into the ocean at Finisterre. I indulge in this metaphor because on the Way you feel it: You are a droplet belonging to a much bigger body.
We flow the same direction at only slightly different speeds. Though we might never meet some of the people traveling parallel, we feel a bond for the larger whole. When we sit down to dinner together, we relax. When we cry in front of each other, we don’t look away.
This is probably because our needs are real and shared. One woman told me how she was crying quietly by herself in a beautiful old church because she didn’t understand the French schedule and had found nothing to eat all day. (Churches are more dependably open than restaurants and shops in rural France.) Someone noticed her tears, and though she hardly knew enough words to explain her need, she soon had a full meal of snacks from other pilgrims’ packs. A pilgrim priest, Father Patrick, who spoke only French and smiled a lot, walked with her to her gîte.
I told her that I, too, had cried in front of others, and that also had to do with lack of food.
Another pilgrim told me told me he’d also cried and almost quit after the first several hundred kilometers. Maybe that is the testing point. “The Way is not always so nice,” he said. “Sometimes it punches you down and kicks you in the face.”
Yet sometimes in our points of weakness we find ourselves carried by the flow. After my bag was stolen, the story became a legend of our stream, and people started looking out for the American with the big hat. After one jolly dinner at which I never mentioned the pack, several women offered me their own clothing. Another time a man stopped and opened his pack during a downpour to outfit me with a poncho. One woman checked to make sure I had the money to get home. Hostel owners were unfailingly generous, but that was true before losing the pack. To me, though, the most amazing of all the French kindnesses was that not one person ever said I should have known better.
Because of this general magnanimity, I felt like I’d washed up on dry land when I arrived finally in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and shared a hostel with tourists and newly beginning pilgrims. They bragged, flirted and refused to loan me a phone charger in ways that contrasted so strongly with encounters I’d had before, with the people who’d helped me take off my shoes and bandaged my blisters. I had to remind myself these newcomers were not so different. They were just at a different stage in the journey. They might not yet have lost and gained everything. They might not yet have cried in front of someone who didn’t look away.
That last night in Saint Jean, though, I found a few old/new friends and went to the cathedral for a special evening mass. Father Patrick, the pilgrim priest, was another person who sent out ripples of stories during our season of the Way. He was traveling from Le Puy to Santiago and holding mass at every stop, delivering messages that were simple but memorable, as one pilgrim explained. Once, for example, Father Patrick had spoken about the Lord’s Prayer, saying it contained everything needed in any prayer, but you had to think about the meaning of the words – and you had to listen.
They might have also said that, though he was young, he had three completely different sets of smile wrinkles: one set over his forehead for the surprised and amused smile, a second on either side of the mouth for expressed mirth, and a third branching out from the eyes for the smile that was most tender and kind.
Though we traveled parallel for many days, Father Patrick and I didn’t cross paths till that last day of my journey. There, like a gift, he preached a message about Jesus calming storms. “Do not worry,” he said. “God is with you.” We closed with a spontaneous group prayer and gorgeous a cappella in the great stone cathedral.
The next morning, my fellow pilgrims began the brutal ascent into the Pyrenees, and I got on a train heading back toward Paris.
“No!” I cried, and again, “Non!” In case any French listeners hadn’t understood.
I stood in the middle of the road leading from Eauze to Nogaro and waived the lime green rain cover, all that was left of the full backpack I’d left near the fountain just 5 minutes before. I was wearing a pink tank, a short purple wrap skirt, my boots, jacket, a wide-brimmed hat and my money belt, my sole remaining possessions on this pilgrimage across France.
My hysteria attracted a small crowd, which was what I wanted since I didn’t know how to resolve my own crisis. Within a day, the entire town of Manciet knew of my distress, and an effective few rallied to my aid. I even saw an elderly gentleman in matching pale blue slacks, sweater and cap combing back streets and ditches with his cane. I was at the time driving around checking dumpsters with three joke-cracking gendarmes.
I left Manciet two days later with a full heart and pack – a t-shirt and toothbrush, not to mention almost-free food and lodging from Monique, trousers and a mini rucksack from Colette, a guide from Jacques and a notebook and pen from George. I don’t initiate the story of the theft, but it precedes and follows me along the way. Many kind pilgrims have reached into their packs and pulled out clothes or gear they saw I needed, and gîte owners have insisted on giving me food or discounts. What’s more, those girls playing at the fountain found my iPod in the grass. The thief, who was seen grabbing the pack and getting into his buddy’s car, must have dropped it out of the pack in his rush.
Because of all this extraordinary goodwill and grace, it took about three days for outrage to set in. What’s gained by the theft of a pilgrim’s pack? Not much I’d guess.
This is what is lost:
- Changes of shirt, panties, bra and socks. Any pants at all. Shower sandals.
- Two beautiful dresses (one, due to the shopping spree, new with embroidered lace, the other a hand-fitted favorite).
- The medical aids to care for blisters, etc., sunscreen.
- Obscure herbal meds for keeping stable with celiac disease.
- All toiletries and my natural-products, no-animal-testing makeup.
- Tampons and pads at the relevant moment on the weekend when all shops were closed. (Review item one.)
- Mementos, patches of countries across oceans, the knife found on Mt Baker, the pill tin from Uzbekistan, a favorite necklace of no real value, the scallop shell from the Amis de Saint Jacques in Le Puy.
- Cool, well-used gadgets, solar light, silk bedsheets, etc.
- A $300-three-years-ago computer, not worth much except to me!!!!! Yes, I have backups, but I could choke at the loss of recent writing, research and beautiful photos
- Time sitting in hostels and sports bars, coaxing weak wifi to cooperate for calls to banks and changes of dozens of passwords.
- Money, I needn’t bother tallying the cost of replacing necessities because I can’t even withdraw money anymore without a hoopla of security measures, so I have in hand just enough for a few days food and lodging at a time.
- My journal and about two dozen written and mostly stamped postcards and letters.
- Chèvre, may it spoil in their bellies, causing gaseous discomfort.
“How can you continue now?” a few hikers asked.
How could I not? Though I carried only a little, I felt the weight of each gift, of each kind word and prayer or request for prayer. I wasn’t just finishing the way for myself now. I was doing it for all those who helped me along the way. And, weirdly, I was also doing it for the thieves, whoever they are.
Today I have one day, 28 km, to go. I, personally, do not feel much kindness or mercy toward those thieves even now, but I know someone who does, someone who lost more than I did. So, God, if my journey or losses buy such favors, I ask for those thieves the strength to resist future evil impulses, the hunger for good and lives of renewed joy, generosity, freedom and lightness of being.
Two days after writing that post about “finishing the race” I lost the will to keep walking. The change happened suddenly with the answer to a question. I, like many others on the Camino, had been praying about future choices, and when understanding came I lost my sense of meaning in walking.
It was hot, 90 degrees. I had new blisters from my new insoles. And, what with celiac-induced illnesses and fatigue – Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was indeterminably far away.
What’s more, I’d heard of a place called Rocamadour, where questions were answered and prayers granted. The city was built on a cliff in three tiers, castle, church and commerce. At the center were seven chapels and a black statue of the Virgin Mary. I could have walked there earlier on the way, but I didn’t know about the detour route, and at this point The holy site was more than 100 km behind me. Yet it was also the only place I could happily picture ahead of me.
The day before I’d walked 32 km, dragged along by a hiker I met that day who first enjoyed my company and later realized I was in danger of fainting on the road. “Never again will I hike over 30,” I’d sworn to myself repeatedly.
To the dismay of the pilgrims and hosteleros who told me St. Jacques was the other direction (but with the encouragement of a friend who reminded me it was for freedom Christ set me free), I hopped on a bus and three trains, walked 4 km and reached the cliff-side road leading to Rocamadour shortly before sunset.
It is possible to stroll to Rocamadour along a cliff top road and drop down into the city by elevator, but that is not the pilgrims’ way. Pilgrims walk down into the valley toward the lowest tier, taking in views of the castle tower, ramparts and church walls growing like flowers out of the cliff. Below the road curved past now-closed shops of fois gras and leather handbags toward the base of a great stone staircase.
Pilgrims throughout history have taken the 216 steps on their knees, one sign read. Many famous people had come there on pilgrimage, another read. I just walked up, but I felt the holiness of the climb, like Christian’s moment ascending the hill to the cross where he loses his burden.
My pack weighed about 35 lbs since I’d splurged on a shopping spree at one of the train transfers. At a grocery store at the same stop a woman had noticed my scallop shell and asked if I was a pilgrim. When I said yes, she kissed my bag where a rosary hung and spoke to me for a long, mysterious time in French. Then she gave me some food and a slip of paper with her name, Renee, and asked me to pray for her. I said I would.
Climbing those stairs I wondered if I could still call myself a pilgrim if this was my last stop.
The next day I attended a string of religious services in French and even something Slavic. The most understandable message was a stained glass picture of Jesus wearing a blazing red robe and a knowing smile as he patted the head of a sheep. He looked more Middle Eastern and clever than he generally does in windows, and the picture gave me comfort. During one mass the nuns I was staying with pushed me forward to receive a pilgrim ‘s blessing.
After mass I wandered and wondered what to do next. I ate and felt ill, as is not unusual, and climbing the 216 steps required a couple of stops. An American couple, Linda and Biff, had stopped and prayed for me for guidance in my next choice of direction, and now I wondered what that could be. Hunkering down somewhere to write seemed sensible, but I’d come on this pilgrimage partly to escape from some of those old writing projects, and I didn’t feel ready to go back.
I prayed delirious gibberish at one of the chapels, then crashed at the hostel mid afternoon. When I awoke I knew I should ask to book another night. I should start researching my next location. I should do a lot of things, and I would do none of them. For a reason I could not explain all I wanted was to go back to finish the walk toward St. Jacques.
I went up to the top of the cliff along the Way of the Cross, stood on the castle ramparts overlooking the whole valley and watched as purple storm clouds blew in overhead. When thunder rumbled, I started back toward the hostel. The smell of dust filled my lungs as the wind picked up. I had to pass through a stone corridor, and the wind blew a heavy wooden door shut in the arched gateway in front of me. I pushed it open and passed through, hearing it slam. A few seconds later it banged open as the wind switched directions. Dry leaves swirled around me in a dust devil, then another. The wind switched directions several times before I reached the hostel, and big droplets dampened my green cardigan.
Then the downpour began, and a hostelero ran inside after me with a box of wine and other supplies for the evening dinner with the nuns.
“Morning rain doesn’t stop the pilgrims,” he said.