The day dawns overcast and it has evidently rained all night. And it still rains. After breakfast, I say goodbye to my three companions of yesterday and I head out, dressed in full regalia, rain pants, jacket and rain-cover on my pack. I decide to walk the road today, not the GR 65, because the road goes directly from here to Figeac while the GR meanders back and forth, perhaps adding 50 percent to the distance. After about 15 minutes, off comes the fleece and after an hour, off come the rain pants and jacket.
Over the next several hours, the rain gear is donned and doffed perhaps four times as the weather changes from sunny to overcast to wet and back to sunny. The road is all country, the sounds of cows lowing, birds singing, the water running and, often, the pitter patter of raindrops on my trusty Tilley hat.
At one point I stop in a sheltered spot, take off my rain gear and before I can get going, have to put it on again. At this shelter a fellow pilgrim has a different guide book, which cautions about the possibility of flooding on the GR, which is another really good reason to take the road. After a month of rain, that possibility is likely very high. The brooks and rivers here are full but not mostly overflowing.
There are quite a few people like me who have chosen the road as a better option here. It is mostly flat, winding, not busy except in a few sections. After almost 5 hours and something like 21 kilometres I am on the outskirts of Figeac. For the last hour I have watched an enormous storm front move from left to right across in front of me on the far side of Figeac. The problem is that it is slowly getting closer as I approach Figeac and it looks and sounds big. It has been my plan to walk into Figeac, then get a ride to Cassagnole, but this storm alters my plans. I hail a car and the young driver takes me into Figeac and deposits me at the train station, where we both believe that I can get a taxi. He leaves me there and drives away.
After four phone calls and no takers, it appears that we are both wrong. The taxi companies are very localized and are not interested in this fare. I go back outside and sit on a bench for about 20 minutes, contemplating what to do next. There is little traffic and no taxis in sight. A decrepit van pulls up and two guys get out. I approach them and ask if they can tell me how to get to the chemin de St. Jacques. I tell them where I am heading because I figure that I will be walking the last five kilometres after all. They have a little discussion and determine that they know where I am going. My mistake has been that I think that Cassagnole is a village and it is actually just a single point. That is why the taxies aren’t interested. They do not know where it is.
But these guys do and the driver is quite prepared to take me there. It’s on his way … and he does not want payment for the ride. Germain turns out to be an organic chicken farmer (ferme bio) and is a very interesting guy. He does not hold out much hope for the future of the human race. he sees more and more pollution and the business money talks … and the politicians listen. Sound familiar?
The road to Cassagnole goes all over the place. It is only about 5 kms out of Figeqc but it might as well be on the moon. The storm clouds have gotten darker and more menacing as we drive and by the time we pull up in front of the gite St. Jacques (what else?) the heavy rain has started. I ask him if he will take payment, not for the ride but for the organic farm. But he won’t and after I unload my pack and poles from the back of his little van, he drives off with a “bon chemin” and a big smile. A gracious man.
I am first here and there is no host in sight. It is a two-storey gite, 5 single beds and a bunk on the first floor, some more singles and bunks in the loft. Since I am first here, I get to choose my location and I select the bed nearest to the toilets and shower, planning ahead for tonight. The night traffic won’t bother me and it will be a short walk to the toilets, which I will undoubtedly need to make some time tonight. I change into my “village” clothes and have my afternoon nap under a blanket. Since I can turn my hearing aids off (thank you, Julia Robillard!) the quiet talking in the gite does not bother me. I figure that I have earned this nap today.
As people slowly drift in, the weather worsens. Over the next hour three separate thunderstorms roll through, each with its load of hail. I am very happy that I am not out in this. Four of the people who come in are the same women who walked the road just ahead or just behind me for a few hours. One of them, a short woman, had me concerned a few times because she walked as part of a group of three down the centre of the road. Since this road is shared by people driving big black Mercedes at speed, I was concerned for her safety. But here she is.
There is lots of chatter, mostly in French with a smattering of German. There are quite a few Swiss on this section of the chemin. I speak at length with a Belgian guy, Corneel, quite young, Flemish from the northern part of Belgium. To my relief, his English is better than my French, and we have an extended conversation in English about the bilingual nature of our two countries and the way the politicians manage to botch it. It sounds as if theirs are worse than ours.
Later he assists me as I try to add time to my cell phone. The problem is to understand the recorded voice giving instructions on the phone – in mechanical French. I think we sort it out.
At dinner I sit with Corneel, Stefan from Munich, Frans from Holland and Johanna, who is Swiss. There is no single common language, so the animated conversation drifts from language to language depending on topic and speaker. If the speaker can’t find a word in a language someone else offers a substitute. We range in age from Johanna who is barely 20, to Frans and me.
Frans, perhaps 60, left his home near Eindhoven on 5 March and is halfway to Santiago. I am amazed at how many people on this route have started from home and intend to walk all the way. He tells me a story about the early part of his journey.
He was in a small town about 5:30 in the evening and had not found any place to stay. He was sitting on a park bench when an older woman walked up and asked him if he needed a bed for the night. He said that he did. She told him to wait there, she had a hair appointment and she would be back in half an hour, which she was. She collected him in her car and off they went. He asked if there would be a problem with her husband. She assured him that there would not. When they arrived at her place, they went in and met her elderly husband. It turns out that she had walked the chemin years before and had recognised his scallop shell as the mark of a pilgrim. She looked for other pilgrims that she could help – and this was one of the ways she could do it.
Jésus, the genial host here, in his 60s, white beard and a pony tail just like Hollis Morgan’s, arranges accommodation for me in Rocamadour. He also volunteers to drive me back to Figeac in the morning because he figures that I won’t make it from here. It is just too far and too difficult. I accept his offer with alacrity and go to bed to the sound of quiet sleeping noises in the dortoir.