I have a good night sleeping. Since I lost my headlamp I have not had a night light, nor have I needed one. Here however, there will be a problem. In the middle of the night I wake up, need to go to the john and it’s dark – as it often is at night. My solution? Turn on my cell phone and use its faint glow to keep me from bumping into things and to keep from waking the other sleepers. Yes I know, everyone else in the world has already figured this out, but I did do it on my own!
The weather forecast is for storms later today, so after the usual breakfast of bread, butter, confiture and coffee in a bowl, I am out out of here by 8 … and I am the last of the dozen who slept here last night. It’s 24 kilometres to Lauzerte, so I figure being there by 1 or 1:30. At first that’s doable. The path is clear, the weather is good and it looks like a lovely walk along country lanes … until I hit the white mud. I have become today a connoisseur of mud. The black mud is smelly but does not stick. The brown mud is slippery but does not stick. You can see where I am going with this, can’t you?
The white mud is a clay and it sticks to my boots like a desperate child clinging to a parent’s leg. This stuff will not let go. I am sure that it’s sent all over the world to potters who want to throw something on their wheel, and this stuff is just the right consistency. What’s worse is that it looks like an ordinary stretch of path. It’s just that when one walks on it, it accumulates rapidly on the bottom of one’s boots, sliding around and up the edges of the boot like an alien creature. I think that it may be laughing at me. The first reaction is to try to kick it off or slide it off on some grass. But nothing works. I can see places where other people have tried this and it didn’t work for them either. The only solace is that this section of white clay is only about two kilometres long, although it seems much, much longer at the time.
For a couple of kilometres I am on a road, with other pilgrims away off in the distance. Then gradually the skies start to darken and the rain starts to fall, a few drops at first, then slowly in increasing intensity. I stop, put on my rain pants and jacket and put the rain cover on my pack. It’s quite warm, but the promised thunderstorms seem to be just a kilometre or so away. I walk like that for about half an hour, just light rain and at one point it stops, as do I. I start to take off the rain gear … and the rain starts again. I am wondering if this is cause and effect. I test this hypothesis for a while and it does seem to correlate. Rain gear off, rain starts. Rain gear on, rain stops.
Eventually we get it right. I have it all on and the storm breaks over me. I am in a woods, walking uphill, not on a road, it is coming down in torrents and I have to remind myself; “Guy, you are here by choice, you are here by choice.” Then it hails – I think that’s a little unfair. The good news is that the thunder, which rumbles endlessly, is cloud to cloud lightning,not cloud to ground – and eventually it ends and the sun comes out.
As I walked today, I have been thinking about my time in the military. When I was a young tank officer, we used to sit around the mess arguing about how best to employ tanks. We had been trained in tank tactics – at the troop level, four tanks, two moving forward, two stationary and watching. It was called fire and movement. At higher levels, the same principle was followed. Some of the other young officers (we were all young) used to argue that tanks were best used fighting other tanks, much like medieval knights would fight each other. It was all about honour and personal bravery. I thought they were frankly nuts.
It seemed to me then – and it still does – that the best use to be made of tanks was to use them to punch a hole in enemy lines, put through and disrupt their rear areas, targeting communications, headquarters, supply depots and troop concentrations. In that order. Now I recognise that this is much more a strategic view of how to use the power and protection of the tank, “shock and awe” as it was called in the first Gulf War.
The major problem that I had as a young officer was that I thought that strategic thinking was what we were supposed to be doing, rather than tactical thinking, which meant in practice that you had to overtly demonstrate loyalty to the person senior to you who would be writing your annual performance report, on which promotion would largely be based. I spent 25 years in the military, never quite getting this right. I now realise that direct loyalty is required in the military. How else do you get people to go willingly to what both you and they know will be their deaths?
An example: late in my military career, 1977, I was sent to the Army Staff College. I was about 10 years older than most of my classmates and I suppose it was a last attempt for the military to rehabilitate me.
As part of the curriculum, we had to, in small teams, come up with a project that would stimulate and educate our fellow classmates. I ended up in a team with an Air Force pilot, Peter Krayer and someone else whose identity I forget. Since two of us were pilots, we decided to see if we could get one of the new US attack helicopters for show and tell. We contacted whoever it was responsible for the YAH64, a prototype attack helicopter with enormous firepower. The army had shown no interest in his aircraft, so he was delighted for the opportunity to show off his prototype for the Canadian Army Staff College.
Unfortunately, we decided to tell the Land Operations Directorate in Ottawa what we were doing. When they found out, they were simply livid. We were advised that there would NOT be a YAH64 landing in the square at the College and that the Canadian Army had no intention of getting into the attack helicopter business. Our wrists were severely smacked and our project went out the window.
My point, of course, is that both the US and the Soviet Union were developing these advanced attack helicopters because they were deadly weapons on the battlefield at that time. Our idea was strategic, the army at the time was thinking tactically. This little misadventure put paid to any idea of a real career in the military for me. Of course, I had not considered the political ramifications of having a US military prototype land in a Canadian military school. Might have been difficult to explain.
I was a square peg in a round hole and it took me almost 25 years to figure this out. Both the military and my wife had it figured out decades before I did.
Back to the present: I arrive in Lauzerte after 7 hours to cover 24 kilometres, for a total of about 260 kilometres along my route. It is still hard going every day.
The gite here is wonderful. I have a room with two beds but I am the only occupant. The room has an toilet and ensuite shower, with towels – a first for a gite. The bed has sheets, pillow, pillowcase, blanket. I have my own light switch! The food is wonderful, they have and I use both a washer and a dryer, so everything is clean for the morning. I meet Mike here, the Aussie with whom I talked in the evening in Conques, as well as an assortment of friends from various gites along the way.
Tomorrow is Hike for Hospice across Canada. I wish them all well and hope that it raises both the funds and the awareness that hospices need and deserve.