At breakfast this morning I discover that a 69-year-old pilgrim, a man from Marseilles, has died in the gite overnight. It is not announced and most people are unaware. I am told that he had been extremely stressed for the past few days and I wonder if it was the stress that brought on the cardiac crisis or whether his stress was the result of not feeling “right” and not being able to account for it. I will never know anything more about him except the time and place of his death. Memento mori.
I also discover that perhaps only half of the people who arrive here continue on the chemin. Apparently the 10-day walk from Le Puy to Conques is extremely popular, and Conques is certainly a destination by itself. That makes me feel quite confident about accommodation for the next few days. I am about to be disabused of this confidence.
I pay 5 Euros for a picnic lunch and off I go. It is sunny and quite warm although the weather forecast is for rain. I have packed my fleece, my long-johns and my rain gear, so I am wearing my expected gear; pants, shirt, undershirt, hat, etc. The exit from Conques is steeply downward to the Roman bridge over the river Dourdou, then a savage climb for the next kilometre. We climb 267 meters in a dense woods on a narrow switchback trail over a kilometre. That’s a 27% grade and, to give you an idea of the height, it is the equivalent of climbing stairs for about 90 stories. This is something I am not planning on doing every day! I take a lot of oxygen breaks on the way and I finally reach the top. This is the section that is described in one of the sites I found on the Internet as ” … bit of an uphill hike leaving Conques … ” A bit of British understatement!
It occurs to me that if I had continued last year, this section would have really frightened me, because of the evident risk of incurring a cardiac crisis, like the one that carried off the pilgrim in Conques last night. I am really happy that I went home and got reassurance from the medical community that there that is nothing wrong with my pulmonary-coronary system. What IS wrong with me I can manage.
I come out into a highland pastoral scene, cattle in the fields and extraordinary vistas. The trail is wide, crushed stone and feels like a reward for making it to the top of the gorge. It clouds over in the next hour and the wind comes up, but the rain holds off.
I catch up to a pilgrim talking to a local woman on an open section of the trail. She has a plant in a wheelbarrow, but is in no hurry to plant it. I stop to chat. When she, Sylvie, discovers that I am Canadian, I get a sharp lecture on the evils of the seal hunt and the whale hunt. I explain to her that we do not have a commercial whale hunt and the only people in Canada who hunt whales are the Inuit of the Far North, who hunt them only for food. I am not sure that she is convinced, but we part as friends.
The man with whom she is speaking is the 82-year-old pilgrim that other pilgrims have told me about. He is carrying a full backpack and a wooden staff … and I cannot keep up with his pace. He does, however, stop every few minutes so we speak for a few minutes, then separate. He tells me that he has been walking on the chemin since he was 62, for the last 20 years. Other pilgrims who have spoken with him have been told, by him, that one of the reasons he walks here is because his home life is less than stellar. I want to announce right here, right now, that my home life IS stellar and that is NOT why I am here (If any of you were wondering).
The trail goes up and down a lot of relatively small ravines, so over the course of the day, I probably double the height of the first high climb out of Conques. Every hilltop is a personal victory.
I can tell you here that I have had a few psychological crises over the past few day, usually at some point on one of these long steep climbs. They run along the lines of; “Guy, what on earth are you doing here? You are sucking for air, your heart rate is out of sight, your legs hurt, this mud sucks (and it DOES suck), you wonder when the knees are going to fail and your fingers are going numb because you are holding the poles so tightly. And you don’t even know why you are here. Why don’t you quit?” And I don’t have an answer. Then I eventually get to the top and in a few (few varies directly with the height of the climb) minutes all is well.
The wind comes up to a gale. Happily it is warm and dry, but it is sufficiently gusty that it blows me around. I have to be very careful to keep my footing. Today for over 5 hours of walking over trails and on country roads I do not hear or see a car until I am almost in Descazeville. The absence of noise is quite precious to me. I can hear birds, the wind,, water running (sometimes I am in it) and my own footsteps, sometimes squishy in the mud. But my boots are excellent and my feet are dry and comfortable.
Eventually (after 6 hours for 20 km – which should give you an idea of the difficulty of this section) I descend into Descazeville, a town on the other end of the attractive scale from Conques. It is industrial, not ancient, but when almost every small town in France is losing its children to the cities, Descazeville is thriving. It is not pretty but it’s working. I arrive at the Gite Volets Bleus (Blue Shutters) to be greeted warmly by Jean, a young man who has been expecting me. Daniel gave him very clear instructions about looking after me, apparently. I have a lower bunk in a small room with three bunks, so it is quite cosy.
There is a real concerted effort to manage bed-bugs. Here the backpacks stay outside in a secure enclosed space and the traveller brings in only what is needed. Likewise, boots and poles remain outside under overhead cover.
After getting myself settled in (laundry and shower) I ask Jean if he will call ahed for me to get a bed for tomorrow night. He does … and I learn about the 1st of May weekend in France. It is a major, major exercise to get a bed or a room anywhere. I had not anticipated this problem. After several failed attempts he gets me a bed in a gite about 8 kms from here in Chaunac, with breakfast but no dinner. I will need to pick up dinner en route tomorrow. He is also trying to find me a place in Figeac for the next night. I am confident that I won’t have to spend the night on a park bench somewhere. I could, of course, be quite wrong about this. I shall see.
Jean has just told me that he has a confirmed place for me in Figeac for the night after tomorrow. I tell him … and I mean it … that he is a gentleman. It is actually about 5 km outside of Figeac, in La Cassagnole, which is in the wrong direction but I don’t care. I will likely take a taxi from Figeac to get there.
Here is a little oasis in a mostly industrial town. I dry my clothes on a line in a big garden – the wind has them dry in 15 minutes. I discover when I am undressing from my walking clothes to my in-the-village clothes that I thought that I had inadvertently stolen someone else’s sock, since I have three heavy socks in my bag, where there should have been two. The mystery is made clear when I take off my socks prior to washing them. On my left foot I have the correct combination, light sock under, heavy sock over. On my right foot, however, there is no heavy sock to take off because I had never put it on. I have walked all day in a very light under-sock on one foot – with no ill effects (apparently).
I have noticed that the ring finger on my left hand is a little numb and a little bruised again. I have discovered why. When I descend, I have the poles in front of me and I use that finger on each hand to control the top of the pole. I am trying to use the other fingers to take the pressure off this one or I will have the honour of naming the latest medical phenomenon, the “chemin de St. Jacques amputation”. I am hoping to avoid this. But it really is weird.
Dinner with, mostly in one group, 15 French, one Swiss and one Korean is interesting and fun. The Swiss woman is German-Swiss and speaks little French (so we speak German), the Korean comes in late, bows and sits at the very end of the table and the 15 French and I carry on an animated conversation, of which I understand anywhere from 5 to 50 percent depending on who is speaking and the topic. One of the things that I have noticed is that as I tire, my level of comprehension steadily diminishes until it extinguishes in a last little puff of light. They are all properly amazed by my age … as am I. It is a wonderful meal and I really enjoy myself. One of the Frenchmen has walked the camino and thumbs through my book, exclaiming at the photos. Of course he recognises most of the places. When the wine runs out we go to bed. Good move.