Seattle is well into the rainy season, which people in other parts of the world call winter. We had record amounts of rain in October, and November is its usual dark and puddle-filled self. So when, while editing, I came across this little piece in my Camino book-in-progress, I thought this would be a good time to share it.
People often ask, “You’re walking outside every day? What do you do when it rains?” The answer, of course, is that you walk.
(Note: when it rained, I left my camera safely tucked away, deep in my backpack. The pics are all taken in the aftermath of the deluge, the next day.)
We woke the next morning to a sound we hadn’t heard since we arrived in France: rain.
Lots of rain.
Our pod of pilgrims got up reluctantly and geared up for wet weather. We lined the insides of our packs with plastic trash bags, hid all of our important (and water-sensitive) papers and gear deep in the middle, and then wrapped rain flies over the whole mess. We ate a subdued breakfast, glancing often out the window, while Claire (our host) clattered around us, telling us how to put jam on bread.
Finally, there was nothing else to do but put on our gear and set out.
Most pilgrims we met took the “more rain gear is better” approach. They had waterproof rain pants and ponchos and waterproof boots and deep hoods. At the first drop, they disappeared under a pile of Gore-Tex.
Eric and I had a different approach. Maybe it’s because we live in Seattle, where rain is a daily companion. Maybe it’s because we were naive and overconfident. But in order to keep our packs light and our bodies mobile, we opted for a “quick-dry” attitude instead of a waterproof one. We had rain jackets, and I had a brimmed hat to keep the rain out of my eyes, but beyond that, we just rolled up our pants and acknowledged that we were going to be wet.
Of course, “quick-dry” assumes that there’s some point where the rain stops long enough for drying to be possible.
At first, the rain was kind of fun, even as it soaked my pants and turned my shoes into swamps. We dodged mud puddles and sang nursery rhyme songs from childhood, changing the lyrics to make them dirty. We came upon Jan, plodding at his own, unique Jan pace under a giant poncho and hat. We slowed for a while to chat about where he’d camped the night before, and how heavy his tent was when it was water-logged. We made sure he had enough water and food for a long day of walking. But Jan’s pace was too slow even for me, and the rain was falling heavier, and so we kept moving.
Unfortunately, this was a day of dirt trails that wound through and behind farms. The well-worn paths quickly filled with mud, and then as more water poured in from the fields, became ponds. I tried to skirt the edges, sliding and inching awkwardly along, snagging clothes and skin on the thorn bushes that lined the path. It was slow, painful, and ultimately pointless. I was drenched and mud-covered no matter what I did.
We passed our two-hour mark, and my body started to ask for its mid-morning break. But there was no shelter, nowhere to rest that wasn’t just as wet and covered in mud as we were. We walked on.
At some point we stopped singing. Lunchtime came, but there was no shelter. Now we were both well and truly wet, and tired, and hungry. We walked on.
Finally, at the four-hour mark, and still in the middle of nowhere, we came to a cafe—really a barn filled with picnic tables in someone’s backyard. A sign out front advertised hot soup.
We were saved.
The barn was crowded with pilgrims seeking shelter. We were all wet and shivering in the unheated space, but our general attitude was that at least we had dry seats and a chance to air out a bit. Our hosts brought out gallons of soup, and coffee, and quiche, and anything else warm. We commiserated together about what a miserable day it was, and I marveled again at how much more French even I understood every day.
After an hour, fortified but chilly, Eric and I pulled on soggy socks and shoes, wrapped ourselves in jackets and packs, and set off again. It never stopped raining. It was still coming down, light but steady, when we limped down the last steep hill and into Figeac, the largest town we’d seen since we left Le Puy. There were ten thousand people here, and more than one crossroad.
Which created a dilemma. Once again, we had no reservation. But this time, we also had no idea where to go.
Tired and wet, we lost track of the red and white path markers, crossed the first bridge we found, and wandered down a street until we saw a friendly red door and a sign that said Gite d’etape.
Once again, the Camino provided, this time in the form of Le Coquelicot, The Poppy.
Walking into the low, stone room felt like entering a cave, with the only windows at the front, looking out over the darkening street. It was probably another converted horse stable. But it was warm and dry, and the owners, a young couple from Morocco, welcomed us despite our mud, and offered us the last beds available, a double room with a private bathroom.
We draped clothes everywhere to dry, put our shoes by the electric heater, washed the mud off in long, blessedly hot showers, and curled into the common room to journal and wait for dinner. Our host was solicitous, generously offering us the smattering of English he knew and patient with our efforts to communicate. He had moved to France as an adult, he explained through pantomime and Frenglish, before he knew any French, so he knew what it was to be surrounded by words that didn’t make sense.
Strangers in a strange land…
We gathered at long tables and passed heaping plates of Mediterranean chicken and couscous and beans and vegetables. Our own pod was scattered and gone, and we didn’t know any of the pilgrims at the table, but they, too, had marched all day through the rain, and so were immediately strangers-who-were-friends. We’d been through the mud together.
I went to sleep happy.