Walking the Chemin de Compostelle from Le Puy, Week 1: How to successively obsess with and then loose count of blisters and kilometers

I am sitting in a fancy café overlooking the vast baren fields of the Monts de l’Aubrac, looking at a storm approaching (the same one I outwalked earlier today, first shower of the day) and enjoying a cold beer. Everything, including the word “sitting” is a cause of such unprecedented bliss only people who have walked for seven days in a row will understand. Some say you go on treks like this to discover the beauties of nature or find God, Isay you go there to re-learn how bloody splendid a chair is. 

In short, I’ve been walking. I left Le Puy en Velay, the beginning of one of the most famous going to Santiago de Compostella, and – judging by the number of people who were on the train to Le Puy (I have never seen a train so full with hikers, and I’ve spent most of my life in Switzerland) and at the Cathedral for the “Pilgrim’s mass” – a tradition before starting the walk, at 7 a.m. and after which you can acquire the “credential”, a booklet stating you are indeed a pilgrim and are allowed in various “gites d’accueil” on the way, but mostly allowing you to collect an aray of stamps from churches, mairies and B&B’s. I usually walk on secluded trail paths were you might meet a few (generally old,bearded and laconic) hikers, so this crowd is new to me, with it’s own customs and idioms (you soon learn you are suppose to differentiate the “real” pilgrims from the others, though the definition may vary (usually in favour of the person offering that distinction): the real ones are either those going at least all the way to the spanish border in one go, or those carrying their own backpacks (you can leave it to a transport service, if you are a cheater/lazy person who claims to have back problems – as a french pilgrim told me), or those who have come there to “reflect upon themselves or faith” – but that might not include, for example, an english guy who does meditation, a german guy who does tantric yoga. 

So according to those definitions, I am and at the same time I am not a pilgrim. How quantic of me, I might need a cat. Mostly, though, I don’t care, and that creates a problem when I’m supposed to go on with those conversations: why do we need to order people in terms of their respective merits according to how many kilometers they do per day, again, or how many churches they visit? Maybe I’ll get it on the way. For now, I just enjoy the landscape, which is amazing, I stand in awe of the small chapels and churches built sometimes in the 13th century, a perfection of form and in complete accord to their surroundings, and wonder at the strength of this thing called faith I’m still not sure I understand, that made people build all these, and walk, since centuries. 

And I don’t reflect much. Mostly because I’ve been busy obsessing on a nagging pain in my foot, that probably comes from my ankle and sole having to overcompensate from my permanently-on-holiday-ligaments, it is amazing how pain can become everything you think of, for hours on. When I forget it, I struggle with stupid songs stuck in my head (I did about 15 kms, today, with the theme from “Pipi Longstockings” in German. Am I in need of help?), or I’m busy talking to people on the way (after a few days, people have spread out on the way according to their pace, and you meet and meet again the same people, it is a nice routine), and when I say talking I mean mostly listening, because there is a particular brand of the “hiker/pilgrim doing Santiago”, the one that comes to solve a p or many life problems, and they usually, with the lack of usual social conventions that characterize people who have been lonely or travelling a long time, restitute a complete story of their divorce/heartache/chronic pain of various causes/chronic pain without a cause/anorexic children/friends with cancer and many others to me. I don’t know if this happens to every one on the way, or just to me, as I’m usually the one people talk to in life as well, and I am very glad of it, most of the time, because it makes my job as a doctor easier, and because I love people and their stories. But I’ve discovered I don’t like people with problems that much when, after the end of a day’s walk, I’ve just sat with my book outside in the afternoon light. Then, I could probably do something as sacreligious as burn someone’s second pair of socks. 

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