Today it is one year, give or take a day, since I walked the Pamplona – Leon Section and completed my 1530 kilometre amble from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago. Approximately 400 kilometres in 15 days. This year I have no long walks scheduled, hopefully next year is the Via Francigena. In 2016 maybe the 88 Temples in Japan.
The low light of last year’s Camino section undoubtedly was suffering a ‘march fracture’ in my right foot, fracturing 2 metatarsal bones only 150 kilometres after Pamplona. A lovely sunny day, pleasant country side and kapow. With no warning, my right foot suddenly felt like I was dragging a lead weight on it while at the same time going numb. Took my boot off that night and I had a swollen bruise from the ankle to the toes. Nothing to be done except to push on with no idea what I’d done, finally having it diagnosed in London 7 weeks later. Such is life. All is fine now apart from scar tissue pressing on nerves meaning that my toes feel tingly or numb most days: very much a first world problem, right?
Another disappointment though not actually a low light, was walking the Meseta. My reading had led me to imagine a wild high plateau of solitude and starkness, in other words, precisely what I love. Um, no. It was civilised – crops, irrigation canals, flowers, little birds singing – nothing like what I expected and so soft and colourful compared with the country Australia of my childhood.
Waling through the wind farms high on the hills after Pamplona, the air reverberating and humming like a giant pulsing heart so that my body sang for hours afterwards.
Staying with a family in Mansilla de las Mulas in a lovely little house and eating dinner with them in the courtyard at night, waking in the morning to storks preening and grooming in the church tower outside my window.
Meeting and walking with strangers who became friends for a while.
Celebrating my birthday in the tiny village of El Burgo Ranero, drinking in the bar and writing while the old men played cards with much shouting and laughing until their women came and swept them away home. The daughter of the family discovering it was my birthday and making a ‘special’ vegetarian meal for me.
Lots of other stuff.
Oh, and I remember having a snack near a creek, actually more of a swamp, and a family of rats coming out of the reeds to watch, eager for scraps, nervous of coming close, much twitching of whiskers and squeaking. Yes, I left crumbs for them as a fitting symbol of the Camino.
Next year I plan to be back on the pilgrimage trails, this year I shall miss it.
The decision is made. My next long walk will be the Via Francigena, the old pilgrimage route, from the Great Saint Bernard Pass to Rome. Some 940 kilometres, I plan a leisurely timetable of 6 weeks, allowing days to detour and wander on the way, commencing in June 2016 once the pass is open for walking and aiming to arrive in Rome late July.
Commencing here –
and finishing here –
I have walked from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago along the Via Podiensis and the Camino Frances, 1500 kilometres or so depending what book or map you believe and this one will be quite different in character and terrain.
This gives me 14 months to have my novel-in-progress published, in the process of being published, self-published into probable oblivion or consigned to the rubbish bin.
Step one: start learning Italian.
Step two: start pondering ideas for a novel set on the Via Francigena. Maybe a series of linked short stories?
Step three: stay open to this changing. The 88 Temples pilgrimage in Japan is tempting… or a stroll in the Cotswolds or the new walk along the Turkish coast or ….
Again, there is no religious element involved. It is the joy of wandering and writing and of meeting people and experiencing places the old-fashioned way; by foot.
Tom learns bizarre details of two pilgrim deaths on the Chemin near where he is currently walking. The deaths had been almost an intellectual puzzle to solve, now they take on a grisly reality.
The bodies of two elderly female pilgrims have been found in nearby villages, meticulously posed on the steps of little village churches in positions of prayer. It is as though they have fallen asleep and been taken by the angel of mercy whilst in the act of prayer; calm, meditative expressions on their faces and no sign of struggle or harm. No sign of violence and one could be simply the death of an old pilgrim struggling to reach the church for succour and shelter; two deaths the same is stretching coincidence too far.
Nobody except Tom seems to know or to care.
What is he to do?
Tom begins his commissioned walk from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the 734 km journey which I undertook in 2013 as preparation for this novel.
In 12 days time it will be one year since Anika and Tom parted and agreed to meet again in a year.
The two have had zero contact in the last year.
Much will happen to our hero in the 12 days until the two lovers are supposed to be re-united.
The weather is bad on the Aubrac plateau; snow and sleet and wind churning the path to mud and ice and few are walking in such wild weather.
Tom travels through the forests near Domaine du Sauvage and learns of the deaths of two pilgrims in the woods. A few days later he hears of the death of a third pilgrim and what was abstract when read on a computer screen becomes real as he walks the same paths upon which they walked and died and hears their stories from the locals.
The reality of the deaths is heightened by the drama of the wild weather and the handful of scared pilgrims huddle together as news of the dead pilgrims spreads along the Chemin.
In the midst of the fear and of the rumours, Tom is astonished to meet Charo, whom he had met previously when crossing the Pyrenees on another day of wild weather and who had told him a bizarre story of an elderly pilgrim ‘vanishing’ near the ancient monastery refuge of Roncesvalles: intriguingly, there was talk of Anika accompanying the woman before she died.
What is Charo, a most unlikely pilgrim, doing walking the Chemin alone?
Is it a coincidence that she has met Tom again?
Will Tom lose faith that he and Anika will meet on their anniversary (how? where?) and instead be tempted by the attractive and flirtatious Charo?
How and why are the pilgrims dying?
How can Tom combine solving the mystery of their deaths with writing his novel about their deaths?
1. It is less crowded, only 10-15% the number walking annually.
2. There is less competition for sleeping places each night despite there being fewer accommodation possibilities
3. It is prettier especially through the Aubrac plateau and overall the first section to Cahors
4. It is physically more challenging
5. The path leads through private vine yards and farms, it is often more intimate and personal
5. More of the little churches and chapels are open
6. Sorry Spain, the food generally is much nicer
7. Superior wine, especially in Gascony and not discounting the fine reds of Rioja (my apologies to them all)
8. Some days in summer you will not see a single other walker
9. Because of the smaller numbers, the whole 734 km feels less ‘commercial’
and less driven by the ‘Camino business’
10. Many of the villages are charming – again, apologies to the fascinating villages in the Montes de Leon
Both are great, my personal preference is the Via Podiensis and, of course, the crossing of the Pyrenees.
Back in Brunswick Tom researches the deaths of pilgrims walking or cycling the Camino in the last decade and discovers a spike in deaths in the last two years. Moreover, the deaths occur at certain times and in certain sections of the Camino or Chemin de Saint Jacques in Spain or in France.
Tom finds no obvious explanation for the spike in numbers and for the location and timing for the deaths, though he can sense a pattern.
Tom writes a poignant piece about the deaths, combining the scant facts, with a dash of poetic licence, for a major daily paper and, for the first time, receives an income! Maybe his fantasy of earning a living from writing could come true.
He then blogs about the deaths of pilgrims and allows himself some speculation on what is happening and why. The response to his blog is astonishing. He is inundated by conspiracy theorists with wild explanations and hints of dark secrets. There are references to the Knights Templar, always good for a conspiracy theory, and there are even wilder ideas about the church and religious curses and hidden treasures which to Tom’s mind, are nonsense. He has uncovered a world previously unknown to him and in his innocence and with his philosophy training he is tempted to answer and have a rational discussion. Wisdom prevails and he stays silent and eventually withdraws his blog entry.
Then there is an amazing development: Tom is commissioned by a magazine to walk and write on the Via Podiensis in France! More money!
Tom agrees and decides that while undertaking his journey he will see what more he can learn about pilgrims dying on their way to Santiago.
If only he knew where his investigations would lead him!
1. Not every walker is a pilgrim.
2. Not every pilgrim is a saint.
3. The one pebble on the path will always find the tender part of your sole.
4. The other side of the path always looks smoother for walking.
5. Not every albergue is a heart of camaraderie and communal food and wine.
6. Not very hospitalero is a welcoming and generous host.
7. Not every local inhabitant is enamoured of peregrinos.
8. No path is ever truly flat or straight, regardless of what the books or maps may say.
9. Not everything that happens on the Camino has meaning, let alone is a sign or a miracle.
10. Anything can be interpreted as a sign or a miracle if this is what you desire to see.
You take yourself with you when you journey and it is the journey and not the destination which is important. Unutterably banal, true nonetheless.
I was reminded of this truism when a passing acquaintance sneeringly dismissed the Camino, saying ‘Oh yes I’ve done [sic] the Camino, it is just a bunch of people racing from one refuge to another to get a bunk for the night.’ It can be this and we have all seen those who appear determined to ‘do it’ as fast as possible; I met one woman who had walked from Geneva to Santiago and immediately turned around and was walking back, averaging 40 km per day with no pauses. It would be easy to say that this pace was blinding her to what was around her and that she was ‘missing the point’, but what was the point for her? A few hours in her company and it was apparent that she was experiencing a personal crisis and this was the best path for her to follow. The first time I walked part of the Camino, I knew my competitive nature well enough to be fearful that I would be one of those who did it at top speed and then wondered what all the fuss was about; so I forced myself to stop for a day every four or five days in a small town or village where there were no sights I would feel obliged to see, nothing I would feel compelled to experience for dread of the comment later ‘Oh, didn’t you go and -‘. Of course then I started to feel superior to those who did not do this and it took last year’s walk from Le Puy en Velay to Pamplona to help me see that this is pure ego and judgement. What does it matter how we walk the Camino? To state the obvious, we reach the same point via different paths and each path is equally valid, so let it go and just walk it as you want. If a driven and competitive creature like me can let it go, well then…
My fictional characters are walking because each has suffered great loss and sorrow and each is seeking forgiveness and most difficult, self-forgiveness. If others wish to do it as an adventure or as a bucket list tick, so be it.