My last day on the Chemin du Puy had a bit of everything: Beautiful trails. Transportation snafus. Kind and helpful people. A couple of tears shed on the side of the road. Ice cream, to make up for those tears. A big dose of adventure.
It was my 14th day of walking. I was ending my Chemin in Cahors, which is roughly 250km from where I started in Le Puy en Velay.
I needed to end in Cahors because I had a reserved train ticket, one that would take me to my writer’s retreat a little further down in the south of France. So I’d needed to make it to Cahors by a specific date, but because of a decision to arrive in Conques when the rest of my friends did (still one of the best decisions of my Chemin), I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk all the way to Cahors.
This meant that I needed to come up with a Plan B. The day before, when I’d arrived in Cajarc, my very first stop was the tourism office. I propped my walking stick against the wall, leaned over the counter, and explained to the women working there that I needed to arrive in Cahors the next day, and wondered if there were any alternate routes that I might be able to take.
Maps were pulled out, discussions had, and finally we came up with a plan: I would take a bus to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie (voted the most beautiful village in France, although I’m pretty sure that this was at least the 3rd village that seemed to have this distinction), from Saint-Cirq I would walk on an alternate route, the GR36, to Cahors. The woman pointed her finger along a wavy line on the map. “See,” she said, “It is only 22km. Easy.”
This seemed like a fabulous solution, and I was full of confidence and a renewed sense of adventure when I woke up in the morning. It was early and while everyone else slept, I quietly gathered my things, loaded them into my pack, and headed out into a still dark morning. I was catching an early bus, the 6:30 which would get me to Saint-Cirq before 7am. Once there, I reasoned that I could have a coffee and a little breakfast, and then enjoy my last day of walking.
Oh, the best laid plans.
First of all, the bus schedule had been changed the day before. The tourism office didn’t know this or have the most updated version of the bus schedule, so I missed the bus I’d intended to catch by only a couple minutes, and had to wait nearly 30 minutes for the next one.
Then, when I got on the bus, the driver spoke quickly and sternly, first making me stow my pack in the luggage compartments under the bus (which I thought was a bit unnecessary, given that my pack is on the small side, but who knows, maybe he wanted to keep his bus clean). Then, he rattled off something in French and I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. Something about Saint-Cirq and when I should exit the bus.
Eventually I realized (only when he waved at me to get off the bus) that this bus for some reason didn’t actually go all the way to Saint-Cirq, and so I’d had to get off at a stop about a 4km walk away from the village.
No problem, I thought to myself. I’m a pilgrim after all, and I can certainly walk.
When I did arrive in Saint-Cirq, it was after 8am and while the village was beautiful, it was also a gray day and the place was deserted. Maybe it was too early, but I still can’t figure out why there were no people. I circled through the village, walking up and down, exploring the church and some ruins and snapping photos and I only saw one woman, who was outside watering the flowers in front of her house. This was a very touristy place but nothing was open, and finally I went inside a nice looking auberge (guest house) and asked if I would be able to get a cup of coffee.
If you’re new to this blog, let me briefly tell you how important coffee is to my walks. Coffee is… necessary. Usually getting my first cup isn’t too much of a problem on the Camino, though there have been a few mornings in the past that I’d had to wait several hours for that initial coffee. But the Chemin du Puy excels at the coffee conundrum; because nearly ever gîte offers breakfast, I always had a hot cup of coffee (or two, or three) before I started walking.
So coffee was never a problem on the Chemin until that very last morning. I’d stayed in the municipal gîte in Cajarc and no breakfast was offered. So after waiting 30 minutes for a bus, then walking an unexpected 4km to Saint-Cirq, I was not amused to see that there were no cafés open.
But luckily, the woman at the auberge must have seen the desperation in my eyes, because she told me that if I could wait a few minutes, she’d bring out some coffee.
A white ceramic pitcher of hot milk and a mug full of espresso, along with a half of sleeve of cookies pulled from my pack (no other breakfast available), and I was finally ready to get going.
The first couple of kilometers of the walk were great. I was walking on a canal towpath next to the River Lot that was carved directly into a cliff-face. It made a sort of half tunnel that snaked along the river and the walk was pleasant and quiet and the scenery dramatic.
I arrived in the next village, Bouziès, found a public bathroom in a park and then saw a sign for the GR36 route that I’d be following.
Cahors, it read. 34.2km.
Wait one minute. 34.2km? How could that be right? I pulled out the map that I’d gotten in the tourism office and studied it a little more closely. Somehow we’d made a mistake, or we’d added the wrong numbers or we’d followed a line for a road rather than a hiking trail. In any case, Saint-Cirq to Cahors was not a mere 22km.
I added the numbers in my head. I’d already walked 4km to get to Saint-Cirq, and then another 4km to Bouziès. If I could actually walk all the way to Cahors, it would make for a 42km day.
Now, readers of this blog know that I’ve done 40+km days before. I’ve done several, so I know it’s not out of my comfort zone. But the day that was unfurling before me was a bit out of my comfort zone. It was already 9:30 and I still had 34km to go. This wasn’t ideal, but it was a distance that still seemed do-able. No, the biggest problem was that I had no idea what the route was going to be like. I didn’t know if it would be flat, or hilly, or steep or rocky or if it would ascend or if it would descend. I had no idea.
I passed slowly through the town, mulling over what I wanted to do. I saw an open boulangerie and bought half of a baguette and a croissant and then I kept walking. And I started walking fast.
I decided that I would going to try to do it. I walked as fast as I could and then I started climbing a hill, and after awhile it felt like a small mountain. I huffed and puffed and finally made it to the top and then I began the descent and sometimes I was walking on small rocks and I had to be careful. I wasn’t moving as fast as I wanted. I felt more tired that I wanted to feel.
I walked and walked and I ascended a second very large hill and my legs and calves screamed at me and I walked slower, daring to only rest for 10 minutes at the top to eat some cheese and bread and dried apricots.
Eventually, I stopped walking and consulted the bus schedule I’d gotten the day before. Something in me knew that I didn’t want to walk all the way to Cahors. I wasn’t making good time, I felt stressed about not knowing what was ahead of me on the route. I hadn’t passed another pilgrim, I didn’t even know if I could make it to Cahors before dark. I suspected I could, but I just didn’t know, and that made me feel very unsettled.
So, finally, I decided to just take a bus. I looked at the bus schedule, I looked at my map, and I walked onto another GR route to get to the town of Vers, where I had about 90 minutes to wait for the 2:37 bus that would take me to Cahors.
I arrived in Vers, I confirmed the bus stop with some people in a hotel restaurant, and then I made my way to a bench outside of the church where I would wait for my bus. I took off my socks and shoes and filled my water bottle at a nearby fountain and I thought to myself, “This is the end of this year’s Camino. Not what I expected, but overall, not a bad walk.”
This would have been a decent ending, if only I had gotten on that bus.
The hour for my bus came and went, and every time I heard a vehicle I’d anxiously look and wait and hope it would be my bus but it never was. Five minutes passed. 10 minutes passed. Finally a bus turned onto my road and it was moving fast as it approached but I waved it down and the brakes screeched to a stop. I went over and the door opened and a woman looked down at me curiously. “Is this the bus to Cahors?” I asked.
“No, no,” she said. “That bus stops at the other side of the bridge. Down there.” She pointed.
My heart dropped and I thanked her and then without thinking I took off down the street, running to the bridge, fearful that I’d already missed my bus.
I stood at the side of a busy road and waited and I could feel in my gut that something was wrong. I didn’t know exactly where to stand. It was already 15 minutes past when the bus was supposed to arrive.
And then, coming down the road, having just passed the church where I’d been waiting for the past 90 minutes, came a bus. It was moving fast and turning onto the road where I was standing and I realized that the spot by the church had been right all along, the bus had just been late.
I waved my arms, I’d started waving as soon as I realized that this was my bus and the driver was looking straight at me. I waved wildly, I started jumping up and down but the bus turned and roared down the road and headed off to Cahors, leaving me in its dust.
The next bus wasn’t for another 4 hours, not until after 7pm.
I tried to hold it all in but I couldn’t help myself. Tears gathered in my eyes and a couple rolled down my cheeks and I was hot and tired and I felt like I was somewhere far off of the Chemin, in a small and empty village and the only way out- other than my own two feet- had just rolled out and left me behind.
I didn’t know what to do and in that moment, I just wanted to be done with the Chemin. I wished I were at La Muse, in my cozy room at the writer’s retreat, not having to worry about speaking French or going off route or having to eat broken cookies for breakfast or waving wildly at buses or any of it. I was done.
I brushed the tears off of my cheeks and tried to hold back the lump in my throat. Sometimes a Camino ends in a blaze of glory, arms lifted in victory… and sometimes it ends on the side of a road in a sleepy village that’s not even on the actual route, the tail lights of your ride out of town fading from sight as they leave you behind.
But, you know, sometimes that’s the just the way. I went back to the hotel’s restaurant and asked the staff if they could help me call a taxi. At first everyone was confused about what I was doing. They told me that they didn’t know if a taxi would drive out here. That the taxi would have to come from Cahors, that it would be expensive. They doubled checked the bus schedule, and it was confirmed that there wouldn’t be another one until that evening.
The manager asked all of her staff if anyone was going back to Cahors that afternoon. “It’s too bad,” she told me. “Someone just left for Cahors, but you missed him.” The staff ran around the hotel, seeing if they could find me a ride, but they came up empty. (Still, this was such a bright spot in the day, how willing they were to find a solution for me).
In the end, the manager called a taxi for me, and within 20 minutes I was picked up and whisked away to Cahors. The ride was at least 30 euros more than the bus would have been, but I suspect that the driver didn’t charge me as much as she could have. We chatted in French, I think I was so relieved to be in a moving vehicle that I didn’t worry about what I was saying or whether what I said made any sense.
And then, when I arrived in Cahors, I had a pretty special Chemin evening. My gîte, Le Papillon Vert (green butterfly), was a quirky place in a slim apartment building that spanned at least four floors. The first floor was a large entryway cluttered with bags and shoes and socks and a table covered in papers and books and half empty glasses of flavored water that Eden (our hospitalero) provided for pilgrims. Eden was a former pilgrim himself: in either his 30’s or early 40’s, with long dark hair and small glasses and a quiet and gentle manner. There was another group of women who’d just arrived to the gîte and we all spoke together and Eden told us where we’d sleep and when dinner would be served. As he stamped my credential and took my money for the night, he asked where I was from.
“Des Etats-Unis,” I said.
“Non,” he replied, shaking his head.
I wasn’t sure what to say to this, but he went on to tell me that he couldn’t believe I was an American. He complimented my French and my accent and thought that I must be European. It was a great compliment to me, that after two weeks of muscling my way through French conversation that I might have improved. In fact, I knew that my French was better than when I’d started. I could understand conversations more easily, and I wasn’t quite as timid when speaking. Eden even asked me to translate a bit throughout the night for a German pilgrim, a woman in her 20’s who I was sharing a room with.
It was a good evening. It was the kind of evening that redeems a pretty challenging day. Before dinner I wandered through the city; the sky had cleared to a perfect shade of blue, there were bustling markets and narrow roads and quiet corners.
And then dinner was one of the best meals of the trip: a salad with chunks of blood-red tomato and cucumber and thick slices of brie, a vegetable puréed soup, two different homemade tartes, boiled potatoes, a local wine, bread, and surely something wonderful for dessert that I’ve since forgotten.
And the conversation was good. There were 8 women at the table: a group of 4, a group of 2, the German girl, and me. The other women were French but they were friendly and jolly and make an effort to try to translate or speak slowly and there was so much laughter and happiness. As we were finishing our last bites of food and lingering over wine, Eden told us a few of his favorite pilgrim “lessons”, stories like parables, examples of Chemin magic, of long-lost friends and finding what you need.
Finding what you need, yes. I’d found what I needed in that gîte: community and laughter and the spirit of the Chemin. My pilgrimage hadn’t ended on the side of a dusty road with tears in my eyes. After all of these years, how could I have thought that my Chemin ended when the walking did? No, a Camino or a Chemin is about more than the walking, it’s always been about more than the walking.
It’s the journey, the villages I pass through and the cities I explore, the people by my side, the voices joining together in laughter, in song. This was the blaze of glory. This was what it was all about, all of it together, all of these pieces. It’s the walking, but more than that, it’s the spirit of everyone who is walking and everyone who has walked for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Will I walk again? Surely. There are so many paths to discover, there are more routes to Santiago, there may even be some footsteps to retrace. I will certainly walk again, and the only question that remains is- ‘where to next?’.
Have you walked a Camino/Chemin, returned home and wondered ‘what comes next?’ If so, check out my e-book, ‘After the Camino’!