As the train leaves Figeac and speeds through the countryside towards Toulouse, my feet yearn to feel the path below them this morning. To feel my muscles warming up as I climb up and down the hills. To feel the weight of the pack on my back. The sun on my head. Tears sit just behind my eyes as I watch the countryside speed away from me until it becomes a blur. My trusty companion, my backpack sits at my leg...its weight leaning against me, its mere presence a security, a comfort. I feel like the path, the trees, the birds, the sunshine, the freshness of the morning are being torn away from my soul. For the last two weeks life was boiled down to a few very simple movements...Get up, pack up the backpack, share a coffee and a bit of breakfast with the other pilgrims, walk, eat lunch, walk, unpack, shower, rinse clothes, eat dinner, sleep. Returning to the reality of a more charged life seemed unnatural.
Every day on the Camino was only full of strength and success...I started walking in the morning and I always arrived at the gite or auberge where I was to sleep that night with no doubt or problems that could not be resolved. Every day was a neat tidy and beautiful package all tied up and completed. Even though there were many challenges faced (including the morning I hiked for more than 2 hours on some nasty, hilly, muddy paths only to return to my starting point...yes it is possible to wander off the Camino!) and more than a little discomfort life felt more compressed and manageable in little one day dosed packages.
Walking in the beautiful countryside and forests from Le Puy to Figeac on the Camino Via Podiensis was one of the most incredible and trying experiences in my life. It may come as a surprise to those who have heard of the Camino that there are actually many Camino routes that crisscross France and Spain and even begin in Germany and Switzerland. This stage of the Camino in France is considered one of the most beautiful, yet physically challenging which is actually why I chose to walk it...and to walk alone and not in a group. Legend has it that the first pilgrim to walk this route was the Bishop of Le Puy in 950 CE. Pilgrims at that time were said to have walked around 60 kilometers a day. This made me feel lazy and soft when I was pretty exhausted after 25 kilometers. I often thought about what he would have seen that I was seeing all these centuries later...the huge rock formations, the rivers, the mountains we crossed.
In the months before I walked, I had done my usual anxiety driven research on the route trying to anticipate and control the weather, the challenges of the steep terrain, even how to recognize and deal with the three types of mud - did you know there are three types of mud? I thought that if I filled my head with enough information, I could handle (control) every possible obstacle. It was my armor against failure. Failure was not making it the whole 250 kilometers to Figeac. All of that anxiety and armor became a giant waste of time the second my feet hit the Camino. Failure became irrelevant. Obstacles were diminished down to small choices. Where is the best foot hold on this rocky climb? Can I walk faster so that I get out of this snow storm before I freeze? Can I walk fast enough to make up for the time I was on the wrong trail?
There were many trials and tests of mental and physical grit, but I always succeeded. No one controlled my day or critiqued my form or my choices or my methods. Every decision, every step was mine and mine alone to own, to take responsibility for, to celebrate. At the end of each day, pilgrims shared their struggles, successes and war stories...celebrating each day the fact that we all made it through the difficulties and length of the walk. When someone had a serious issue, we all gathered and supported that person and cheered them on to muster on or to pause and care for their needs. We drew courage from others who walked the same path as us, but with seemingly more challenges. The most steepest and longest day on the Camino was giving me a bit of angst as I watched the weather and assessed my strengths. A woman who was almost completely blind and a generation older than me said she had done that section two years before and as long as I took it slowly, I would be ok. How could I not draw courage from this woman and her confidence and strength? As I faced the mountains that day, it occurred to me that we all have baggage and burdens, but if we just face each step one at a time, we can handle any challenge that is put in front of us. Our biggest obstacle is our self doubt.
Walking on the Camino has become my annual movable retreat in the countryside. Something I look forward to. Something that keeps me walking every day to stay strong. Something that reminds me that I am up to any challenge this life throws my way. Bring it on!