Last Sunday was the last day of a prolonged, unseasonable heat wave in this part of France. The mercury may not have called it the hottest day, but when combined with humidity levels I seldom see in Phoenix even during monsoon season, it sure seemed like the hottest.
I started the day early in Auvillar. Babar and Mark convinced the host that 7 am was too late to start breakfast with the forecast weather. The host, being a pilgrim herself, agreed. She told us she’d have everything ready by 6 am.
Not only was breakfast ready for us at 6 am, but the host herself was present to toast our bread and pour our coffee for us. Usually when a host says they’ll have breakfast ready at 6 am, it means they’ll leave everything out before going to bed. In addition to the three of us, two older women from the French Basque country also took their breakfast at 6 am to get an early start in the heat.
As the trail has descended into lower altitudes, the livestock have largely given way to crops. More of the land is cleared for agriculture. That means fewer trees. That means less shade. There was nothing too technically challenging about Sunday’s walk except the relentless sun.
Mark wouldn’t finish the day with us. He had to be in Lectoure on Monday to meet with folks in the tourist office to figure out his route to Lourdes. He wisely decided to cut the walk from Auvillar to Lectoure into two smaller stages rather than stay in Lectoure two nights. I haven’t seen him since a morning coffee break. I wish him well.
After arriving in Lectoure, I dropped my bag off at the gîte, a former cathedral rectory. Since it was still too early to receive pilgrims, I had a beer with Babar at a nearby bar until it was time to check in.
Babar and I arrived at the gîte at the same time as the Basque women. Since we were the first four to arrive, and since the better room had four beds, we all got that room. Normally I would have a mild preference for a single-sex dorm, just for reasons of modesty, but having these two ladies in the room turned out to be a good thing.
The biggest surprise of the day came at the dinner table. The gîte was run by volunteers and owned, as far as I could tell, by the cathedral parish. The hosts were not shy about talking about things that are Christian or Catholic. At one point, one of the hosts started talking about the difference between those taking a walk and those making a pilgrimage.
Babar spoke up. He said he started this journey as a walk. However, the journey had been transformed into something else by seeing the faith of people like me — I’m sure he would have mentioned Mark too if he were there with us — who slip into every church to pray — a bit of an exaggeration, but not an unfair one.
Now, I’ve had this pilgrimage on my mind for close to 15 years. I have spiritual and religious and, yes, even secular reasons for wanting to do it. But my greatest motivation has been an inexplicable feeling that God has been calling me.
And this may sound profoundly ignorant or unforgivably egotistical — or both — but until that moment, it had never occurred to me that I may not be the reason I was called to do this. Perhaps I’m here not for my own sake, but because someone else needs me to be here? Maybe even someone who didn’t take the time to express himself like Babar?
Mind, officially blown.
If nothing else, it was a reminder that I may never know what pulled me toward this pilgrimage, and that I should be comfortable with that. And finally, I think I am.
Anyway, none of that changed the heat and moisture in the air, and with all that pent-up energy, something was about to give. After a couple nights of sharing rooms with princesses masquerading as men, the two Basque women were just fine with leaving the windows open — and, in the interest of allowing a cross-breeze, the door too.
When we all turned in around 9 pm, it was a sauna in the gîte. Around 9:40 — I looked at my watch — I felt a gentle breeze coming from outside. Then around 10:40 — I checked my watch again — the skies opened up. Wind, rain — and nobody batted an eye. The room cooled off quickly, and I had the best night’s sleep in nearly a week.
Approximate distance walked Sunday: 20.6 miles.
In spite of the much cooler temperatures, Monday didn’t start well. I got an early start, but I initially I never really found the trail, even though it passed directly in front of my gîte. After ruling out a few paths, I randomly picked the wrong one. I can’t be the only one who’s made the same mistake, because after about ten minutes, I saw a sign directing lost pilgrims how to proceed. I felt like it was written expressly for me.
The sign was all I needed. About ten minutes later, I was on the right path. Ironically, my wrong turn was probably a shortcut.
While I was grateful to have the heat behind me, I had to pull out my rain gear for the first time in over two weeks. The rain created the thick kind of mud that sticks to your hiking shoes and makes your feet feel several pounds heavier. The day became a long slog.
Eventually I did reach Condom, which in French contains two nasal vowels and doesn’t sound nearly as funny. The rain let up for long enough for me to wash some clothes and hang them out to dry.
The cathedral in Condom is supposed to be one of the most spectacular on the trail. And the cathedral itself didn’t disappoint. What did disappoint was the unexplained cancelation of the 6 pm Mass. I wasn’t the only pilgrim to show up to an empty cathedral.
Approximate distance walked Monday: 20.2 miles.