I’ve been getting serious again about the book, and have (finally) been making some progress. Here’s a bit of Chapter Three, still tracing the early days of our walk from Le Puy.
I felt good that night, surrounded by a people from all corners of the globe, enjoying the wine, feeling secure that my basic needs of the next twenty-four hours were covered.
And I felt good the next day as the now-friendly and familiar faces gathered around the breakfast table. I was settling into the French routine: the bowls of coffee; the untoasted bread; the rhythm of getting the pack on, straps adjusted, shoes tied just so. Eric and I had left St Privat alone, but we left Sauges surrounded by what we called our first pod of pilgrims.
Together, we passed fruit vendors setting up for an outdoor market, and followed the red and white stripes that marked our path around corners and through town, to the bridge that sent us out into the countryside again.
The Belgian and the Smoker eventually outpaced us, waving goodbye as they set off briskly. Eric and I meandered along with Eugene, pausing to admire the stone crosses by the roadside, which had encouraged workers of another time to both piety and hard work.
The wind did no favors to our baguette, which we’d unwisely left whole, sticking out of a side pocket of Eric’s backpack. Exposed to the air, by the time we stopped for lunch it was as dry as a crouton.
The nip in the air and the bite in my calves told me we were gaining altitude. The wind was steady and working against us, but the climb wasn’t as steep as the day before. We arrived at our destination, a tiny village set deep in a valley, hours before most gites even opened.
We tracked down our host, a sullen woman who managed both the local bar and the only pilgrim accommodation in town. She spoke no English, but took our money and pointed us to an empty room full of twin beds.
The long hours of the afternoon gave me plenty of room for doubts. Should we have kept walking? Tried to push ahead another fifteen kilometers?
Was I a wimp? Was I failing as a pilgrim?
It was hard to let go of those ideas as I watched figures trudging past us throughout the long afternoon. Hard to not make this a competition, or at least a comparison. Everyone we knew went farther that day. Why didn’t we?
I cooled my tender feet in a frigid mountain stream and reminded myself again and again that we didn’t have to rush, that most of the people we’d met were on a tighter timeline and were only walking for a few days or weeks. Eric and I were pacing for a marathon, not a sprint.
Then I told myself again that this wasn’t a race at all, that this was the only time I was going to be in this place, and if I rushed through, or if I pushed so hard that I really injured myself, I would miss something lovely, and for what? It was only April. Our flight home didn’t leave until July, regardless of when we reached Santiago.
I was where I should be.
Sometimes I even believed myself.
The question of distance plagued me, on and off, throughout the Camino. We met pilgrims who walked thirty or forty kilometers every day. For me, even after two-and-a-half months, thirty was pushing my limits. (Our record was thirty-five, but that was an accident, and another story for another day.)
I missed the pilgrims who pushed on, and who we never caught up with again.
Looking back, there’s not a single day when I think “I wish we’d gone faster or farther,” but there are plenty of places I remember and think “I wish we’d lingered.” I would love to have a few more days in Aubrac, in Galicia, in Pais Basque. I’m glad that we walked only twelve kilometers on the Feast Day of Corpus Christi, and stopped in time to watch the residents of a small Spanish town parade with the statue of the Virgin Mary and some sketchy fireworks. I’m glad that we arrived most afternoons with time to share stories and beers with other pilgrims.
I know that every single day, whether we walked five kilometers or thirty-five, gave us what we needed.
And in the end, we all ended up in the same place.
So if you have the chance, take your time. Walk as few miles as you can each day, and give yourself time to soak your feet in the stream, or explore the abandoned-looking chapel. You won’t regret it.