18 May Miramont to Arzacq

I have a really good sleep in my double bed with comforter. I wake up just before 7 and am dressed and in the farmhouse kitchen by 7:15. The two French couples are already there, almost finished breakfast and ready to go. I have a short walk today, less than 10 kilometres to a fairly large town. I say goodbye to my hosts, strap on the backpack – it is like an old friend by now. It is fairly heavy to lift but once it is on my back and cinched down, the weight disappears.

I have a couple of kilometres to walk to get me back on the chemin. It’s a left out of the farmhouse and another left 10 minutes away. Can’t see the Pyrenees today though. Too much haze . That takes me into Pimbo, which is on the edge of a high escarpment, wonderful view to the south.

Funny name for a quiet little town, but it has been here for a very long time. It was here before Charlemagne took his troops south to consolidate the southern borders of his kingdom and to try to stem the relentless northward push of the Muslims. The myth about Charlemagne making this pilgrimage is just that – a myth. The bones that were found and declared to be those of St. James the Elder had not yet been found, so there was no pilgrimage destination and no pilgrimage, at least not a Christian one.

Here in Pimbo I encounter Francois at the church. I would prefer to walk alone, but he clearly wants to walk with me. I do not know what is going on, but I walk with him. Over the next hour he tells me a little bit about himself. He is from a village in the Ardennes, from which he has already walked 1,600 kilometres with just under 1,000 left to go. Then he intends to walk home, although he doesn’t know if he will be able to make it. He has a hernia which is giving him some grief and he finds his pack too heavy and the belt aggravates the hernia.

As we walk he talks about the plants on the side of the road. We pass what appears to be a huge young orchard but he says that the trees, only about three or four feet high inside the protective sleeves are oaks, so this is a tree nursery, not an orchard. Then he tells me about some of the small wildflowers that we see. I ask him if he is a biologist. He looks at me, laughs and says no, but his older son loved plants and knew all about them. Then he says, sadly; “But he is no more.” I repeat this as a question, although I already know a bit of the story.

We stand together at the side of the road at an intersection with traffic going by on the busier road and it all comes out. His wife of many years developed cancer. By the time it was diagnosed it was inoperable and had spread throughout her body, including into her spine. She was in agony and the medical profession did what they could but nothing worked. The elder son in desperation shot his mother as a mercy killing, then himself. Francois had already lost a younger son in a car accident, so he is quite alone. I listen as hard as I have ever listened in my life. He needs someone to hear his story and to help him understand. I can listen – that is all I can do. He needs to talk through it until makes some kind of sense for him. So I guess this is why he wanted to walk with me today.

He tells me that he no longer believes in the benevolent God of his youth. It is not clear whether he still believes at all or just does not understand what has happened in his life. He decided to walk to Santiago but so far he has not had any breakthrough. In Le Puy he had a long talk with the bishop. He tells me that many people on the chemin have been very kind to him, but like me, all they can do is listen. He talks about a Sufi mystic of some centuries ago who said that you could not find God in the heavens or in the churches, that God is found only within the self. It seems to resonate with him and it sounds a lot like my theory of the human spirit.

My left ring finger continues to give me a little grief. The last section goes partially numb and pale or bluish at the slightest excuse. When I mentioned it to Andre at the gite in Aire-sur-l’Adour he immediately said; “That’s Raynaud’s Syndrome.” When I got Internet access today and looked it up, it certainly fits. That would also explain why the infection on the side of the finger has taken so long to heal. Everything is good now, the finger isn’t in any danger of falling off or, worse, rotting in place, but I have to continue to be aware of it.

I am sitting at a table outside La Vieille Auberge, a little restaurant/hotel in Arzacq. It’s 1 and the communal gite doesn’t open until 2. They have 77 beds … and they have WiFi, if I sit very close to the gite’s welcome centre. It is overcast, just warm enough to sit without a fleece. I have an eye out if any pilgrims whom I recognise come along. So far none that I know.

And then who walks up but Remi, the young guy who sang the Occitan lullaby a week or so ago in Espalais? I saw him yesterday in the churchyard at Miramont but don’t know where he went after that. I find it fascinating how individuals keep popping up in the most unexpected places. Francois and Remi are both staying here in the communal gite tonight.

I recall that a couple of days ago at Monciel I noted that the women – at least two of them – were stunning and I thought that it might be a trend. Today at the gite here, the Centre d’Accueil, the woman staffing the front desk is stunning. Karine is young, lean, tall, blond and has an engaging smile that makes me weak in the knees. She is chewing gum, which takes the edge off just a bit. She is also engaged. So it’s more than a trend and I am going to work out a hypothesis to support my thoughts. It might take a lot of research.

I am in a small room, the Salle Angleterre, with six beds, very close together, but it is indoors and the toilet is just down the hall. I have taken the bed closest to the door. And Francois is in the bed next to mine.

I ask Karine about helping me book rooms ahead of me. She tells me that she can book one, for more than that I need to go to the Office de Tourisme. So she books me for the 21st and I go the Office de Tourisme – turns out it’s part of my research – where the quite lovely young woman (who is married) wants to practice her English and gets me a bed for the 22nd through the 25th. So I am good for seven days out. That takes me as far as St. Jean Pied-de-Port, where I will have to get a guidebook for the Spanish portion. It is very reassuring to have accommodation booked in advance when there is so little of it.

When I was in Aire a couple of days ago, Andre, the host and a 9 times veteran of the chemin, had what sounded to me like really good advice for the pilgrims going beyond Saint Jean Pied-de-Port over or through the Pyrenees towards Pamplona.

His first bit of advice is to go over the high route only if the weather is good and your pack is light. He points out, correctly, that the ancient pilgrims walked the easiest route, not the most photogenic one, so the valley route is more closely aligned with the ancient route.

Secondly, if you really want to see the far vistas, pack a light bag, climb about 8 kilometres up the path, take your photos, come back down and next day walk the valley route.

Thirdly, don’t stay in Roncevalles. It is like a herd of animals leaving there every morning, hundreds of people together. He suggests taking the valley route, staying in Valcarlos overnight, then walking through Roncevalles and staying in, I think, Espalion the next night. In the morning it puts you hours ahead of the Roncevalles crowd.

At dinner, seated at one long table for 30, I sit with a woman, Christine, who tells me that she is from Normandy, near Caen. I tell he that I am familiar with Caen because during the Normandy invasion in 1944, my regiment came ashore near there (I wasn’t there, I was just 7 years old and my military days were years in the future). She gets quite excited and says; “The Canadians came ashore at Bernieres-sur-Mer. I know this because that is where I live and every year there is a ceremony honouring the Canadians.”

I am going to have an early – even earlier – night tonight because I expect a long day tomorrow.

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