Today’s walk will be a short one, about 15 km to St. Chely d’Aubrac. The reason behind the wide disparity in the distances day to day is because the villages here in the Auvergne are not as evenly distributed as those on the camino in Spain. We are still on the high plateau, but we will leave it today. There is a descent later today of about 600 metres (2,000 feet) from the plateau. It will be interesting to see what effect that has on the weather and on the season. It is Easter Sunday today, so almost everything is closed. As soon as possible I need to get Internet access to book my flight from Paris to Ottawa. It is cool and looks like rain but it doesn’t actually rain, which makes it very good weather for walking. My fleece is off after about 15 minutes. There are many, many walkers on the path today. Most of them are carrying day packs or no packs, so they are probably just out for a day’s stroll … cross-country. The path today is a first – it is actually cross-country, no between fields but over them. Much of it is green fields, with gates, and a worn dirt path across the field. I never saw this in Spain or here before today.
I do not think that I have mentioned the wayfinding. In Spain it was the ubiquitous yellow arrow that led us across Spain. Here it is a small distinctive marking, a white rectangle above and a red one below. This is the marking of a Grande Randonee, or GR, a designated walking path inFrance. There are 180,000 kilometers of GRs in France, maintained by 5,000 volunteers. Every day as I walk, I thank these anonymous volunteers for the work they do. There are two differences between the marking in Spainand in France. In Spain the yellow arrows mark one unique path and they are one-way, towards Santiago. In France GRs are all marked with the white and red, and they are two-way and sometimes cross each other. At one point in a village today I am ready to head off on a marked route when Francine points out that this is GR 6, not GR 65, the one we want. It is easy to tell the difference, but you have to look and be able to see.
Francine chooses to walk with me today. I am being carefully looked after by my little “family”. She confides that she is non-religious and does not know why she is here. She tells that she is from a small city, Besançon, about 220,000 inhabitants, in eastern France near the Swiss border. She is 46, recently separated from her partner of 12 years. He is a generation older than her, five grown children and long separated from his wife. He has recently retired and feels terribly guilty about abandoning his family – I do not know how long ago this happened or whether Francine was involved in the separation, but from what little I know of her it seems unlikely. In any event, he assuages his guilt by spending what little money he has on his wife and children. She seems to be the victim of another person’s poor choices and now she is paying the price. As well, her mother died six months ago. Her mother had left the family home when Francine was 10 and she did not see her again until she was 30. They reconciled before her mother died.
The melancholy seems deep inside her. We spend a lot of time talking and I tell her that she is a loving and lovable person, which is absolutely true. I am very happy that I am here at this point and time in her life, when she really needs someone to tell her that she is a good person. I also tell her that I find her beautiful, which I do. She is not pretty in the conventional sense and has probably never been told that she was pretty. I tell her that pretty is pleasant but passes with time, while beauty is deep within and lasts forever. I see her as beautiful. When she smiles, her eyes smile too. A lovely lady and I am very glad that we are together today. Perhaps our time together today is why I needed to be here on this journey. It certainly feels right for me.
Eventually we start to descend down a long shallow dry waterbed, lots of loose rock, slow walking and potentially treacherous, but not dangerous if you walk slowly and pay attention where you place each foot. Part way down we come to a clearing where we stop for a rest. I take off my pack and put my head down on the grass between the rocks, covering my face with my hat. Francine does the same, a few feet from me, except that she takes off her boots and socks as well. Francine comments that this is paradise. There are a few spring flowers in the clearing, purple and yellow, tiny. As I doze, I hear people walking past us. One group includes a woman who talks from the time she is within earshot until she disappears around a corner far below. It seems that she is not happy with the silence all around us. But she is soon gone.
After perhaps half an hour we get up, put our gear back on and continue down the trail. Soon we arrive in St. Chely, where Sophie, who was walking ahead of us, has found all of us a place to stay. I was concerned all day since we had not been able to confirm anything in the morning … and there are a lot of people out here. When we enter the village, Francine suggests that I stay with our packs at the first open bar – yes! – and have a beer while she goes to find Sophie. The weather has turned superb and it is late spring here in this deep valley. Two days ago it was almost winter. I am on my second beer, feeling very relaxed when Francine returns with a big golden retriever – the house dog.
We have a wonderful room at the very top of a 15th century tower. The very long circular stone staircase is worn with 600 years of people walking up and down this staircase. This is the Tour des Chapelains, built to house the many priests who served this entire area, 51 of them. Now it is a welcoming place run with wonderful panache by Jean-Claude Brunier, who serves all his guests an aperitif at 6:45 and tells us the history of the building. Afterwards we go out together for dinner. As usual here, the food is excellent.
This is my last night with the group and I am feeling very loving towards them all. I will miss them but I feel right about my decision to leave. The lesson is that you can’t always achieve the dream but if you don’t achieve it, it doesn’t need to be failure. Failure is the unwillingness to try to achieve the dream … because you might fail. At least I know that I tried and, in trying, I have made a real difference in the lives of the people with whom I have travelled. Feels like success to me.