Our house was on the modern Way of Saint James, also known as the GR 65 "grande randonnée" hiking trail that meanders south through France to the Pyrenees before changing name and number and heading across northern Spain to Santiago. A few years ago, I would have spent our week there imagining weary medieval pilgrims on horseback, or leading mules, or simply on foot, staggering down that same path centuries ago. Now I'm less naive, I know there's no particular reason that they would have come down this country road rather than another. They would, however, have likely stopped up the hill from us in the town of Lectoure, in the region known as Gascony, on their way to distant Galicia. One route, one Way -- or rather several official chemins, from Paris, Vézelay, or Le Puy -- is a modern invention, for pilgrims who plan their vacations with guidebooks, fixed dates, hostel reservations and starting points at railway stations and airports. In the distant once-upon-a-time, a pilgrim's route started quite simply at his front door.
At the house in Lectoure, our front door in Paris felt far away, and I hadn't even walked to get there. We'd sped down the A-20 motorway for a week in my current favorite place on Earth, the Gers, and I'd slept much of the way in the passenger seat.
My friends and family tease us now when we admit we're heading again to the same département that draws us back year after year. The Gers, encore? Surely we must have exhausted all the possibilities, seen all the sights, haunted all the limited tourist attractions time and again. It's true in part, since I can no longer remember exactly how many times we've visited, and feel I know the place intimately for someone who has never actually lived there. Half of each stay is spent going back to places we've already been numerous times, like the solemnly luminous Abbey of Flaran, or the round knot of stone houses that forms the bastide village of Forcés, in a sort of a personal pilgrimage. It grounds me, I guess, to know that these things are still here and that little has changed since my last visit. When I'm standing on one of the crest of any of the rolling hills of the Gers, I suspect that the landscape has endured only superficial changes in the last few centuries, and that despite the paved roads and telephone poles, modernity has used light brush strokes here. That leads me to hope that it'll be the same after I'm gone, and that even if the world threatens to crumble around me, this corner of civilization will remain. That's why I don't bother the read the daily headlines when I'm in the Gers.
But back to the Way of Saint James. My husband has dreamed of hiking to Santiago de Compostela ever since he was an adolescent and randomly read Les étoiles de Compostelle by Henri Vincenot once summer vacation. Before that, he grew up going to Spain each summer vacation, taking detours with his parents to visit churches hidden in mountain valleys. He also spent hours as a boy inking Michelin maps onto tracing paper. Before we had kids, he used to pore over obscure guidebooks, and we'd spend a good part of our vacations in Spain, Germany and France trying to locate the vestiges of Romanesque buildings in nondescript villages or isolated cow pastures. His veneer of Catholicism is thin -- he goes to mass once a year, and only because I, the Anglican, drag him -- but he's still a pilgrim born.
On this trip to the Gers, we'd rented a house that is nestled in gentle valley on the northern side of Lectoure. The stone building sits right against a narrow country road where almost as many pilgrims pass as cars, and the garden opens up down the hillside to a small hidden stream. The main building is a 13th-century water mill built by monks, now restored by a youngish retired couple who in addition to renting the adjoining house, run a bed and breakfast. I found it difficult to imagine that the valley once possessed enough hydraulic power or religious fervor to justify such a structure, but the local historical record and the Gothic-arched doorways seem to prove it. Now there's a pool, and lawn chairs, and a riot of wildflowers, tall grass and nettles. The steeple of Lectoure's cathedral is half-visible above the trees.
At this time of year, the bed and breakfast's clients are mostly pilgrims wearily arriving on foot with heavy backpacks. The Way of Saint James, once reserved for the eccentric and the devout, has gone mainstream in the last decade. It's hard to find accommodations in the high season and, I'd imagine, even harder to find deluxe accommodations such as these. We were invited by our hosts to drop by for drinks one evening, and when we arrived, the table was elegantly set for their three pilgrim guests, the first of whom descended to join us. With her white hair swept up stylishly to show off two artfully modern earrings and a silky printed shawl draped over her shoulders, she hardly looked like a backpacker.
"My husband and I aren't particularly religious," she explained to us in French. "We're walking with my sister, who's doing this out of true belief," she added with a slight smile. We questioned her about their progress, when they'd left and how far they'd come. They'd started in Le Puy, but were walking to Santiago in week-long chunks taken year-by-year, and this year were on their second leg. More and more people hike the Way in this fashion, fitting segments into their relatively short vacations. Others make the going easier by hiring a service to carry their baggage. My husband and I agree that when we do our pilgrimage, we'll do it start to finish in one go, carrying everything we need on our backs.
"We dream of doing it some day," we said with sighs, "But now, it just isn't possible." And we smiled over the heads of the children, pointing out the obvious.
A day or two later, my husband went for a run along the GR 65. On the road he passed a family of six, he told me in amazement, with kids that looked to be nine, seven, five, and two years old respectively. The older kids had small day packs with pilgrim's scallop shells attached to the back; the youngest was being carried in a backpack by his father. Mom carried the biggest pack of all, filled, I supposed, with snacks, countless changes of clothes, band-aids, face wipes, favorite loveys, and all the other indispensable gear for life with kids.
I watched them walk past our house later. I was changing Mademoiselle on a wide windowsill that overlooked the road from the second floor bedroom. They looked happy, purposeful, undeterred by the steep slope leading up to Lectoure, and no one was prodding, haranguing or bribing anyone. First the dad came by, talking with an older child and carrying the baby, and then the mom came along a few minutes later, leading each of the other children by the hand. I wanted to run outside and ask them how they did it, but I was busy wrestling a diaper onto an acrobatic six month old. Maybe the family was only out for a week's walk, or even just a long weekend. Maybe they had no intention to continue on to Santiago right now, or ever. But still: four kids! I wondered if the parents fretted about what the kids would eat, about whether a restaurant at each stop could be talked into serving ungarnished pasta, and how they responded to the inevitable pleas of "Carry me!"
Clearly, we were wimps. My husband and I admitted it jokingly to each other later. It began to eat at me, though, as the week went on and I started to get depressed at the thought of returning to Paris. "If Only" is a refrain I chant to myself each time I'm in the Gers, often when I'm staring longingly at the house with the blue shutters in central Lectoure that I pretend is destined to be mine someday. "If Only we lived in Toulouse, we could buy a second place here, we'd spend all our weekends." "If Only we could move out of Paris and both find decent jobs." "If Only I weren't stuck in a job I dislike." "If Only we lived in a bigger place... I had my driver's license... I knew exactly what I was doing with my life..." I do eventually manage to kick myself, good and hard, out of such useless and self-centered thinking, but not without feeling bitter and stupid.
In the Gers, the Pyrenees are still far away, a curtain of white peaks that, they say, are only visible on the horizon in the clear weather than precedes or follows a storm. I worry that if I were on foot heading toward them, I couldn't stare at them too long for risk of being too discouraged. After the Pyrenees, there's all of Spain to cross, including endless, sweltering Castilla, but that would still be too abstract to deter me. I know, though, that the Way takes a path that most people can cross without too much effort; a well-traveled pass was chosen in Medieval times just for that reason. And by the time most pilgrims get there, they've been walking for so long that advancing unconsciously footstep by footstep is easy... or so I've heard. So, what if the impassible mountains of "If Only" I throw up were no more difficult to cross than the Pyrenees on the trail to Santiago?
I'm not sure that I really want to move to the Gers. I'm not sure changing my job would make my life all that much more rewarding. I do know that I want a bigger apartment, eventually. I'd like to think I'll find the moment someday to pack my backpack and head to Santiago with my husband. Maybe our kids will come, too. I doubt the youngest will be as young as two. Perhaps twelve? Maybe I'll pack earrings and a shawl.
On our last day in the Gers, we went on a 16 kilometer hike on a stretch of the GR 65 around La Romieu. La Romieu is a small village with an imposing church, la collégiale de la Romieu, which stands on a hill from which it has beckoned to pilgrims along the Way forever, or close enough. Yet we managed to hike around it for four hours mostly without seeing it at all. We were always on the wrong side of a hill or forest, it seemed, and I therefore had no idea how far I had to walk to get back to our car. I carried Mademoiselle in the wrap, and my husband either chased after, pulled along, or carried le Petit. We walked for most of the afternoon, and my husband seemed to mock my tired legs when he informed me that that was still only half to two thirds of a day's voyage on the Way.
"We could do it, if we had better training," I protested.
"There's no training for Compostelle, you just do it."
"Well, we'd just do it, then."
Le Petit invented a new French word: peleriner, or "to pilgrim," when we asked where we were going and we explained that we were just walking like the other pelerins on the trail. He walked with a great deal of enthusiasm and effort, I'll have to admit, and he rode only half of the way on my husband's shoulders. I, however, was tired and thirsty -- we'd brought too little water -- and the only thing that kept me going at the end was the thought of a cool glass of fresh juice from the shop at the garden orchard where we'd parked. Then we rounded a corner, and La Romieu's steeple appeared in a break in the trees.
"Look, Mommy!" exclaimed le Petit, grabbing my arm. "Look! It's the Abbey of Flaran!"
"No, it's La Romieu," I corrected, but he would have nothing of it. Earlier that week we'd taken him to Flaran, and apparently my efforts to explain my love of the place had borne fruit. He was so excited. So he got it, even when I didn't: where you are on the path is sometimes less important than where you decide you want to be.
Le Petit loved the house in Lectoure as much as we did. He spent much of each day in the garden, and every time someone on foot passed, he ran up to the gate and called out a cheerful, "Bonjour, pelerin!" But there was no question for him of not coming back home, and he was concerned to hear us muttering our "If Only" complaints. He didn't want to miss any more school.