For over a thousand years, people walked The Way of Saint James toward Santiago, stopping en route at other sacred places. By the mid-20th century, pilgrim traffic slowed down to a trickle. Roughly fifty years ago it began booming back, as part of a global uptick in pilgrimage in several faith traditions.
Although the Way began as a religious pilgrimage, and continues to be a means of spiritual revitalization and restored perspective, for many it has become any of several other things: an act of ecotourism in communion with nature; a competitive athletic event; and/or a means of gathering knowledge about the social, cultural, religious and artistic significance of the villages through which they pass. And while a religious network of inns exists to support pilgrims, these accept anyone arriving on foot. Some even accept those arriving with donkeys.
At a time when my anxiety was going through the roof—I couldn’t eat, sleep, breathe—I heard about The Way from a friend. She told me her husband had been trying to convince her to go for years and she could no longer say no. “We went for three weeks. Next summer we’ll pick up where we left off. I can’t imagine a better way to leave everything behind.”
Whether or not pilgrims have religious motivations, they nearly always seek healing. That often includes shedding or learning how to better manage unfathomable levels of anxiety.
People start walking on The Way from all over Europe. In Germany, people walk on Jakobsweg. In France, it’s le chemin St. Jacques. Four paths of le chemin cut across France. No matter where you are, even if you never reach Santiago—purportedly, where the remains of the asostle St. James the Greater are buried—you’re on The Way.
I took the greenest and most widely walked route, the GR65, also known as the via podiensis, the route from Le Puy, which receives pilgrims from Geneva to the east. I viewed walking on The Way as an act of pilgrimage even though I had no immediate plans to reach Santiago. Many pilgrims do like my friends: throw themselves into walking a stretch, return to their lives, pick up next time where they left off, always focusing on The Way, hoping to someday reach Santiago.
My anxiety about the journey shot up after friends I visited in the midi-Pyrenees—not far from the GR65—insisted my walking The Way was imprudent: first, they said, I hadn’t prepared physically; second, my French was inadequate; third, I had no lodging reservations. I blew off the first: I’d been training all my life. I refuted the second: English is the EU’s common language and any two people who want to communicate can get around language differences. On reservations, I said I couldn’t predict how far I’d want or be able to walk from day to day. Millions before me made no reservations and accepted “come what may.” My friends insisted on making reservations at the Monastery, even though it was several days in, so I had to arrive on a specific date. The also equipped me with dried blueberries and hard Comte cheese to keep me “from the door of starvation,” and saw me off.
After I refuted my friends’ three reasons why I shouldn’t go, I kept wondering, were they right? Would there be room at the inn? Or, for that matter, would I even be able to find an inn when day was done? Would I be able to find my way? Would I go without food and, more important, would I be able to find potable water? Were the guidebooks that warned of vicious dogs being overly dramatic? Would I hold up walking 15 or more miles per day when I’m accustomed to doing only five?
I had to stop asking questions. I was walking to restore balance, not by ruminating, not by over-planning, but by surrendering to The Way itself and letting it work its wonders. The moment my feet touched down, I felt lighter, freer. I took in a gentle deep breath and let it go, slowly. It was an unusually warm October.
An inviting metal sculpture of St. Jacques at the Church of Saint-Pierre de Bessuéjouls
The Benefits of Getting Lost
I don’t know what I was expecting—perhaps the yellow brick road—but once I got into a rhythm, it wasn’t readily apparent how to keep from straying. I knew that a white-over-red stripe painted on a tree, rock, fence, or the broad side of a barn meant, “Go this way.” It took me far too long to figure out that a red-and-white X means “Not this way” and a hooked white-over-red symbol means turn right or left depending on a hook’s direction.
There were many times when a “Go this way” symbol wasn’t readily visible or suggested two or more different courses of action. The solution was educating intuition through trial and error. In the meantime, my uncertainty, caused some anxiety, especially as a day’s end approached, and I still needed to find dinner and a bed. Other pilgrims educated me too but, because it was October, traffic was light, and I often went hours without seeing a soul.
Even though getting lost means losing time and wasting footsteps relative to a goal, and the prospect of going off course causes anxiety, getting lost also has benefits. When I travel to a new city, I usually get myself lost by design, claiming there’s no better way to become familiar with a new place. After going miles out of my way a few times, I was forced to admit to myself that this didn’t apply to the GR65 because it was far more expansive than any city.
Still, getting lost leads to discoveries one otherwise might not have made. One day, long before I knew I was lost, I saw my first porcupine in the wild. A couple of lost miles later, I came upon the 11th century chapel of St. Hiliarian, named after a local 8th century saint. A cemetery abutted the chapel. Both were empty except for a woman in her 30s who was meditatively re-arranging flowers over and around a recently-disturbed, above-ground tomb.
Had I not gotten lost, I wouldn’t have come upon the magnificent partly Romanesque, partly Gothic chapel or learned that one of the best places to go when in need of safe drinking water (eau potable) is a cemetery abutting a church. Their water spigots were often worth the trip. One church’s water spigot, accessible to pilgrims without entering the cemetery yard, was an ornate dragon’s head and the water shooting from the dragon’s mouth was its fire.
The carvings came as part of an unexpected gift because I strayed from the path.
Where Will I Stay Tonight?
The prospect of being obliged to following a pre-determined itinerary caused me anxiety. I resisted creating even a secret one. It threatened the sense of mystery. It violated the notion I was surrendering to The Way. From a practical perspective, being unable to predict how far I might want or be able to walk each day, I was uncomfortable making reservations. I could have called ahead and made same-day reservations for the town I planned to reach that night. However, I insisted that for over a thousand years pilgrims had no way of doing this and took their chances. The exception: those possessed of overweening wealth, who sent ahead couriers. Why should I make reservations merely because I could? And since it was October, and the pilgrim traffic was slow, I’d have little competition in finding a bed.
One early day, as the sun crested toward the horizon, I began doubting I’d arrive before dark at the convent where I planned to spend the night. I came upon an old, stone-and-masonry shepherd’s shelter, evidently-abandoned. It had a dirt floor. A concrete bench had a rustic wood-slat top, which at first looked like a tolerable bed. I had a space blanket, but no sleeping bag. Then it struck me, the bench was habitable for vipers, who’ll come out to play after dark. I re-joined the lingering sunlight. After dark, a 500-year-old nun answered the convent door. She might have been trying to convey that the Gite d’Etapes for pilgrims was further down the road. I couldn’t understand her. I joined a multi-course dinner of pilgrimage volunteers, after which I was escorted up to my 4th floor, solo, three-person bedroom.
While correct about pilgrim traffic being light, I didn’t take into account that by mid-October most Gites close for the winter, greatly restricting options, especially for late arrivals.
At first glance this stone shepherd’s shelter looked like a safe place to spend the night.
I hadn’t slept in a dormitory-style room since I was 17. It wasn’t so much that I minded sharing a multi-bedded room with others, but that others might mind sharing with me. I’m often restless during the night, produce sound effects (my nose, thank you), and can be back and forth to the bathroom. While it was reasonable to think I would be dog-tired and sleep hard, the opposite was equally likely: I would be sore and unable to get comfortable on an unfamiliar bed, in unfamiliar surroundings. And it was true that I went out like a light, but only for a couple of hours. Then the restlessness, sound effects, and up-and-down behavior began. Dorm life wasn’t for me. Was it an essential part of the experience? No, because we each create our own rules. Is it essential to spend a night cocooned in bubble wrap on the floor of a priest’s house? No, but when all the Gites in a town had closed for the season, a priest took me in, and that’s what he offered as a bed. I had the kitchen floor with adjoining bath all to myself.
I did try pilgrimaging dormitory-style. After experimenting, I made a conscious decision to ask if I had the option of paying extra for a private or double room. But even when a Gite had them, they usually made just so many private or double rooms available. If I could get some restless sleep on the priest’s floor cocooned in bubble wrap with my hip bones grinding into the linoleum, you’d think I could sleep in a bedroom with six other pilgrims of various ages and genders. The biggest problem with dorm rooms was that they weren’t designed to allow multiple people to charge cell phones and other electronic devices simultaneously. Sometimes early arrivals hogged the outlets. I opted out of competing and typically charged my phone and/or camera batteries the next morning, while everyone else was preparing to hit the road.
This dormitory-style room served as a double because only one other pilgrim sought lodging.
Keeping Away from Starvation’s Door
I knew I had my dried blueberries and Comte cheese to nibble on during the day. I wasn’t accustomed to eating lunch so I was satisfied with the prospect that Gites would provide ample breakfasts and dinners. Still, could I be sure? What if I arrived long after dinner? What if I had to get off early? The last question was purely theoretical because I knew it would never happen.
Turned out there was no reason for concern. Most Gites served multi-course dinners with freely-flowing wine, either as part of the cost of lodging, or for a nominal fee. At many Gites, payments for lodging and meals were voluntary offerings. Breakfasts varied widely from simple bread, coffee, and fruit, to more elaborate meals including cheeses and meats. Soft cheese, which looks like yogurt, was my big discovery. Many served coffee in bowls, following Aveyronnaisecustom. On one occasion when the priest took me in at 10:30 p.m., he gave me a sandwich with something to wash it down. I quickly dispensed with any notion I would starve.
Where Gites left off, people living along the pilgrimage route picked up. Many left out drinks (water or tea) or fruit (apples, pears, plums) for pilgrims. The family that left out a basket of quince must have laughed at my attempt to bite through its thick, furry skin. Nearly anyone in France whom I told about it laughed uncontrollably while repeating, “You have to cook it.”
Families along the pilgrimage route sometimes left out fruit or drink for passing pilgrims.
Staying hydrated is far more important than constantly feeding one’s mouth. Other than nibbling on berries or sampling fallen fruit, I gave little thought to food during the day. However, to avoid feeling weighed down, I carried relatively little water. Years ago, as a long-distance runner, I even enjoyed the high associated with dehydration, but I had no interest in testing the limits of my ability to tolerate dehydration during my pilgrimage. It was helpful in terms of maintaining hydration that it was easy to pick up recently-fallen fruit.
It’s probably fair to say I effectively ran out of water daily. “Effectively” means I kept a reserve of a few sips that I almost never touched. I was constantly looking for “eau potable” signs. If there was no sign, I wouldn’t make assumptions about potability unless from a water fountain intended for human consumption. There were many times I found water and wanted to drink, but absent a sign vouching for its potability, I passed.
The prospect of running out of water added to anxiety related to reaching the next Gite before nightfall, in time for dinner. It was ironic that cemeteries attached old pilgrimage churches became my most reliable water source, because water represents life.
Old churches often offer potable water at the inner or outer walls of cemetery yards.
Keeping One’s Footing
Terrain varies greatly and can change dramatically on the same day. The route I walked rolls through the midi-Pyrenees, but major towns are nearly always built on rivers, and require steep descents on arrival and an even steeper ascents at departure. I didn’t know what quite to expect. My friend who had gone with her husband the previous summer told me that one day the terrain was so rocky they caught a cab past that stretch. My roughest day I couldn’t have anticipated. In my years long past as a long distance runner, I loved running hills, but wasn’t a fan of long, twisting downhills. One stretch required going downhill for two hours over rocks used to fill in a path, which rains had turned into a succession of ravines. Using the walking sticks unconsciously to make adjustments, I satisfactorily adapted to the role of arthritic mountain goat. Some days, stretches of trail looked like stones crafted and placed by a performance artist to remind us that this wasn’t supposed to be easy.
While the typical stretch of path was relatively flat and not too rocky, there were chestnuts—not horse chestnuts, but the kind people eat—strewn nearly everywhere. One day, I saw two old men filling giant baskets with chestnuts, then loading them onto a truck. And two pilgrims I met emptied their backpacks at the end of their journey, mailed their clothing and other possessions home to Provence, and re-filled their backpacks their precious chestnut cargo.
Even while on a relatively flat surface, walking on the trail felt more like a climb or a dance.
In October, chestnuts littered the trail, with this year’s joining remnants from prior years.
Lions and Tigers and Bears
At least three pilgrimage guides spoke to the risks of confronting angry dogs along The Way, noting that, even if walking sticks aren’t needed for mobility, they come in handy in fending off dogs. I didn’t worry because as a summer postal carrier and decennial census taker, I learned long ago how to get along with dogs. I was more concerned about feral cats. Walking through woods near Mt. Tremblant three years earlier, I came upon signs warning me to beware of lynx and to stay on asphalt pathways to lower my risk of encountering them. I was hoping that few wild cats inhabited these Aveyronnaise hills. My friends joked I would be far more likely to encounter wild boar. I joked back, “Have no fear, I have experience with bores.”
Cows are everywhere throughout the Aveyron. Most wear impressive horns that cause naïve cow-gazers to believe they’re bulls. Au contraire! They’re mostly gentle creatures that create an almost idyllic-looking landscape, especially when wearing melodic bells and crowns made of wild flowers. However, they’re not always mild tempered, as I learned the hard way.
I was fortunate that hours before I encountered an intemperate cow I made the acquaintance of a kind-looking German shepherd named Zita. She led me up a long hill to the chapel of St. Roch, the patron saint of dogs and dog lovers, and led me inside. Sitting in the third pew, she seemed to meditate. Afterward, I shared some Comte and blueberries with her. I tried saying goodbye, but she wasn’t ready to part. Over the course of eleven hours, she shielded me from oncoming traffic, caused a charging cow to run off, and guided me through a dark forest. I hated parting with Zita, but that was a condition of the priest’s taking me in for the night.
Maybe the brown-and-white mottled cow was just fussy. Maybe she got upset when I took her picture without permission. My friends nearby warned me: “Barbed wire won’t stop a charging cow.” As she built up steam, I could see this cow wasn’t going to let a little barbed wire keep us apart. At the decisive moment, my shepherd dodged under the fence and counter-charged, sending the cow rearing back on her hind legs before running off. I have two pictures of that cow. In the first, she’s standing still. One can’t see the whites of her eyes because they’re red. For the second, I was falling backwards so I only caught a blurry image of her front heels held aloft.
Aubrac cows often seen in the Aveyron have long horns that result in being mistaken for bulls.
A German shepherd led me up a long hill into the chapel of St. Roch, patron saint of dogs.
The Weight of Organized Religion
The prospect that the pilgrimage would be dominated by traditional Catholicism caused anxiety about religious practices that no longer govern my life. What I learned early on was that heavily-trafficked stops offer both commercial/non-religious lodging and the religiously-connected Gites. That meant I’d have a choice. And when offered a choice, I consistently picked the religiously-connected Gites so I got the inside scoop. Once inside, I had more choices to make (e.g., about going to Mass). I was impressed with the dedication of the staff and volunteers. I got to know a staff member at a Monastery who came from Canada as a volunteer, settled down, and stuck around.
Many of the churches along the pilgrimage route date back to the 12th century. Over time they’ve experienced many forms of orthodoxy and nearly all were seriously vandalized during the Reformation and had to rebuild. As churches expanded or needed repairs, new architectural and art forms were added. Some of the recent art forms suggest openness to contemporary and abstract art and other religious traditions, making them more inviting for contemporary pilgrims.
Stained glass window in the Chapel of St. Roch suggests a question mark with Zen influences
Maintaining Human Contact and Getting Home
I went on the pilgrimage to get away from people, at least certain people. I certainly wasn’t seeking to meet new ones. I looked forward to listening to the trees conversing. I wanted to get lost in the darkest part of the woods and take solitude into my lungs. When pilgrims met along The Way, we talked about where we were from, where we planned to spend the night, and what motivated us to walk. Pilgrims typically arrived at Gites solo. Especially over meals and with the help of freely-flowing wine, the sense of being alone gave way to shared purpose, being part of a fabric, even connectedness. Most of the dinner conversations took place in French—after all, we were in France—and it flowed readily. Keeping up with a rapidly-shifting conversation in French was nearly impossible. It also wasn’t essential.
One-on-one, I enjoyed conversations with other pilgrims on the road and at the Gites. Younger pilgrims confided they were going in circles—nothing stuck, they’d hit a wall, felt blocked, wanted to get their bearings, and sought guidance in careers, relationships, spirit. Older pilgrims said they searched for peace, hoped to gain control of a medical condition affecting themselves or a loved one, or sought guidance re-prioritizing now that work and family no longer sapped their energies. One retired policeman said he walking as a way of seeking forgiveness, “for all the unethical things I had to do.”
I always left solo as did every pilgrim I met except for those traveling as couples. Now and then, I talked with restaurant managers and even people I met along The Way. Once, a middle aged woman in a red sweater ran up a hill, greeted me as a pilgrim, and with her arms reaching toward the sky announced, “Quel Dieu journée parfaite nous a donné!” (What a perfect day God has given us!) Ritually exchanging “Bonjour” and quick smiles with passing strangers often reinforced the sense of being cut off. I sometimes had to remind myself, I’m merely a pilgrim, by definition I’m only passing through.
As I walked, using my walking sticks to propel myself forward or regain balance, the prospect of a National Strike related to pension reform loomed in the background. Posing no immediate threat, it caused little anxiety. And allowing it to cause anxiety would have interfered with my surrendering to The Way. Still, as I got closer to the day when I would catch a train to Toulouse and a plane from there to Paris so I could fly home, I began to experience some break-through anxiety about whether the strike would interfere with my getting home. That would be just desserts since, when I left home, my private thought was that I wanted to get lost in the deepest, darkest forest and never return.
Toward the end, I visited a town already in the throes of the National Strike. The public high school students and faculty were on their fifth day of striking. Students, faculty, and union representatives were in the streets together. First, I talked with the students not directly involved in strike actions about what this meant to them. Then, as I walked the streets, I stopped residents and interviewed them.
The next day, I was supposed to catch a train, but despite assurances that the trains were running, when I reached the train station I discovered the railroad union called a strike. I sat on a bench waiting for my alternate transportation by bus. A high school student sat next to me and offered to share her sandwich, ham on baguette. She described the teach-in that her Catholic high school was holding instead of striking. Suddenly she bolted, “That’s my bus,” and barely caught it. I didn’t realize until the bus pulled out that it was also mine.
I had over three hours to kill before the next bus so I walked into town. The town square was filled with strikers: students, teachers, railroad workers, union representatives, elected officials, family members. Again, I started conducting interviews, focusing on the student activists first. I watched as the clown-nosed student leader was interviewed for television. The railroad workers offered bread, cheese, and wine. Students offered Coca Cola. An older itinerant striker offered cannabis. I accepted all offers except the cannabis. When it was time to walk to the bus, some of the students walked with me.
Student activists on strike as the country prepared for the looming National Strike
The night before I was scheduled to fly home, I went out for a walk in Paris’s residential Eighteenth Arrondissement. Almost back to my hotel, I stopped and talked for two-and-a-half hours with two homeless women, a mother my age and a daughter my daughter’s age. They invited me to ask whatever I wished but our exchange quickly turned into a three-way conversation. Toward the end, the daughter caught me off guard, “People stop and talk with us because they have a need. What is your néed?” I offered a succession of answers. After shrugging off each one, they suggested I give their question more thought. Part of my answer: I need people. I was ready to go home.
News reports that night indicated that the strike would start halting air travel at a time yet-to-be-determined the next day. By morning, it looked like the window for departures was closing rapidly. After the fiasco with the trains, I worried I might not even make it out. Even after I boarded the flight, I stayed concerned about being deboarded. But no sooner had we gotten off the ground than I began thinking about going back to resume talking with the two homeless women and to find Zita, my companion dog to whom I said goodbye when the priest took me in.
Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after retiring from a fruitful career in public health research. He’s since published nonfiction, poetry, and photography in over 130 journals and anthologies in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Publications include Barren, Columbia Journal, Ilanot Review, Kestrel, Litro, Lunch Ticket, MAKE, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review, and Typehouse. Two years ago, he wrote and acted in his first play. A nonfiction piece resulted in a role in a soon-to-be-released, high-profile, documentary limited series. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals on the front lines and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and mountains.