This is the French word for ‘fuck’ that I learned on my second day from my French buddies, and I used it frequently while walking through the heat of France in an uphill battle to wonder why the putain I had decided to do this trek. Why the putain St. Jacques had decided to do this trek several times. Why anyone would do this trek several times.
Let’s start at the beginning.
After finding out how long it would take me to walk from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago de Compostela, it made more sense as to why I was getting the surprised and appreciative looks from anyone who asked me where I was going. Even with this revelation, I took a moment to think about how long it would take me. I then wondered why I was even contemplating this because I have six months to finish this trek, and if it took me three months, so be it.
That was before I had my first day of walking twenty-four kilometers (sixteen miles). With twenty pounds on my back. 80% uphill.
It started out rather well. Michel, a guy from Holland I met at the hostel, and I walked up to the church together to see what a Catholic blessing is all about. We’d promised to meet with Xavier, Henry, and Jesus (I am calling him this because it became a joke and now I officially cannot remember his proper name. Desole, Jesus. I’m fucking tired.) around 7:30am after the church service. Apparently, Michel and I forgot what a Catholic church service is like.
If you’re curious, it is long, there is a lot of singing, a lot of standing, a lot of kneeling, and a lot of them telling us we’re all sinners. Plus, if you’re in France, everything is said in French, so you won’t understand it. Unless you know French. Then you do.
Luckily, Michel did know French. And English.
The church itself was beautiful. Stain glassed windows, fancy candles everywhere…even a Bose sound system! Michel translated some of the speeches that went on until we were finally able to get our special cards with a stamp that proved we’d started the Camino de Santiago at Le Puy en Velay. There was a lot of blessings for many different people. The younger priest would step in every so often to talk about how the trek would be for us. He mentioned several times that the path would be difficult for us, more than we anticipated at times. We were supposed to let it go. Accept and let it go.
I really, really, really didn’t think of how much of a truth this was.
By the time we left the church, it was 8am. No Xavier, Henry, nor Jesus. We were too late. So, Michel and I went off alone, me hoping to run into the group once more at the next stop. Which was twenty-four kilometers away.
The trail itself is marked by a white line with a red line underneath throughout the trail. If we were curious if there was a fork in the road, the white and red lines would make an ‘x’ mark so we would walk in the other direction.
And, my gods, did we walk. It was rather easy at first, despite the hills being alive with the sounds of a thousand screams of the previous pilgrims’ feet. My athlete’s asthma cleared within the first mile, and we walked until 12pm, finding a cute shop to eat at.
Michel asked me to play my ukulele, so I opened up a random page and played Moon River, which gathered applause from the nearby travelers.
I felt happy.
We spoke about hobbies and what Holland was like as we walked. Spoke about our past and what got us to where we were now. Michel even started asking me about video games and got me to tell him the entire plot line to the Dragon Age series, which I surely thought he would find boring, but he kept asking questions.
By the time we made it to 2pm, my feet were pounding from the extra weight, and I began to question my capabilities of ever actually finishing 952.6 miles of this, a constant walk that had rocks in the path going slowly uphill and downhill. It wasn’t a question of me quitting, but more of whether I’d be taking a day off simply to give myself a rest every week. I had to remind myself repeatedly that not only was this not a race, but that I had extra time to do this journey. I could take all the time I needed, when I needed it. It was important to remember that I had this extra time, that this wasn’t a death sentence. I already knew I would struggle with twenty-nine kilometers, so why push?
We made friends along the way, talking to those we started our journey with at Le Puy.
One man had started in Amsterdam, walking all the way to Le Puy, then will continue on walking to a certain point in France he wanted to try out as his last trek he’d walked along another. He is in his sixties. Probably older.
This trek is fucking insane.
I had to take a break, finally, to give my feet a rest, and by the time we got back on the trail, I was renewed with energy that I’d thought had left me. And it did leave me, right as we climbed uphill on a rocky mountain for an hour, then went downhill for another thirty minutes to make sure our bodies got the idea that we are nothing but a bit of flesh.
Did I mention that St. Jacques did this trek a bunch of times in sandals, and that’s why other people decided to follow in his ridiculous footsteps?
Finally, at 6pm, we got to the ending town of our journey…and ran into Xavier and Henry! They were late to the meeting spot, then waited fifteen minutes and assumed we’d gone on ahead. Xavier told me they’d arrived at 2:30pm, to which I replied with a hearty “Fuck you!” We spoke quickly to make plans for dinner and wine. By the time I took my shower and did my laundry for the day (which, btw, was in a sink. This will be my life for the next three months.), the shops had closed. They had anticipated this as a problem, so the guys had purchased enough sausage, cheese, wine, and even baguettes for our small party. Two of the guys immediately gave me a portion of their pre-made sandwiches, another promptly filled my glass with wine…it was as if I were already best friends with everyone. Lots of teasing and talks ensued, particularly about Henry’s and Xavier’s jobs as a shrink. It was fascinating. It felt like home.
Michel later told me that what we’d encountered was one of the most French experiences to have, called La Politesse. La Politesse means “united, smooth, shiny, is a set of social behaviors between individuals to express their gratitude of others and be treated as a person with feelings.”
And that was how the night was.
We sat, chatted, drank wine, we bought more wine, which we drank, then ordered another while eating more cheese. Henry taught me some stress relieving techniques, and we talked about reflexology and Reiki. They were curious about how much French I’d like to learn along the trek. Henry assured me I was better at French that I thought I was. We all promised to see each other at the bakery the next day for breakfast.
The next morning, Michel told me that he would be staying in Saint Privat d’Allier for another day. His knee had started acting up while walking yesterday, and he wasn’t sure whether he could finish his own three week trek if it continued to spasm. He said this through a gruff voice that meant he also had a sore throat.
I was sad to hear the news as we’d started off together, and I had been excited to have someone who needed to walk the same pace as myself. I also realized that we each had our own path on the trail, and maybe this was for the better. I couldn’t rely on someone my entire trek to translate. He’d already done so much for me, especially in making sure I was brought into the conversations going on around me.
We hugged, and I gave him one of my cards so he could follow me along my journey.
I met with the group, which had grown to add Sergi-Roberto and Gerard, in the lobby, and we made our way to the bakery for cafe (I was made fun of for ordering tea), and eat our breakfast. I bought a peach, which was 3 euro (close to $3–ouch), and two cheese/ham/mushroom pastry-type things, which I ate only part of the first one so I could have a snack and lunch later. I had found that I wasn’t quite as hungry as I anticipated throughout the day. When I did eat, I made sure to get most of the food groups, but I was full quicker.
We started our trek uphill, because why the putain wouldn’t it?
I struggled in the beginning, as my athlete’s asthma always clutches at the beginning of any strenuous activity. Henry, who had already taken it upon himself to be my entertainer for the day, said, “Here is the first advice I will give you. When one is walking uphill, small steps. Always small. If it is still too tough, smaller still. Never stop your rhythm. Small steps.”
Several times he had to remind me. I was so used to taking a normal stride, lifting my legs larger distances, the thought process being that it would all be over sooner that way.
“Small steps,” Henry reminded me again, Xavier nodding his head in agreement. They are both frequent hikers. They were rarely out of breath. “Remember, we are climbing a mountain. The air is thinner as we go up. Smaller steps mean easier breathing. You will need ever breath you can take.”
I started to fall behind. They were much more experienced, as I said, and the hills were getting to me. I could keep up when the trails were flat, but not when there was a long stretch of mountain that were made for goats. I’d get frustrated at my lack of ability to do as they were, making small steps, but much quicker. I knew I could do this, I just knew it.
“Small steps, Mallory,” Henry said, face serious. He was always smiling, Henry. Walking and singing at the same time.
“I keep forgetting,” I complained, changing my stride once more. I hated it. Every smaller step meant not keeping up.
My friends and family will be disappointed to know that I didn’t take many pictures. This isn’t necessarily because I forgot. It is because I didn’t have half as much time to look at the scenery while on dirt paths, which were ridden with rocks upon rocks, all different sizes, making concentration on not breaking my ankles very important for me. When I did manage to look up, I was always surprised at how the hills and fields went on forever, and how the towns were typically little pockets, standing out like a sore thumb. I kept wondering what it was like to live in a home with only one other house close by, the next larger town miles away.
I saw a house later on, set in a nook on a mountain, very difficult to get to. However, the view from it was gorgeous, overlooking the large river and town. It could see everything. Trading convenience for that view…
Finally, I hit my stride as my asthma went away and the shade from the forest kept away the beating down sun. I was shocked to run into Henry and Jesus within a half hour. They cheered my progress as I took a swig of water, smiling.
“What is in there?” Jesus asked.
“Vodka,” I replied.
We kept walking until we reached the next town, where we made a stop to get a refreshing drink and get off of our feet.
It was a bad move on my part.
We stayed a little longer than I thought we would, and it was also around 11am. The sun was starting to get into the I WILL DESTROY YOUR SKIN position, and our break had reset my asthma. I figured it would peter out, but the heat kept on pressing along with the constant uphill hell, worse than the earlier morning. I had to keep stopping in small batches of shade to drink water and get my breathing back to normal.
I quickly fell behind once more. By that time, Jesus was being so kind about staying beside me, urging me to remember how far we’d already come. He’d been the one to teach me ‘putain’. He would walk ahead for a bit, but would always take a few steps back to check on my progress, maybe even wait.
My frustration began to show.
I knew I wasn’t as fit as everyone else within the group, but I just couldn’t get around the constant uphill struggle. I was on day two. My mind frequently fell to, “I have three more months of this. Will this get easier, or will I forever be struggling, wishing I could do something I just can’t?” We were only supposed to walk nineteen kilometers, yet this felt twice as worse than the day before.
“I’m going to kill someone,” I told Jesus. He stayed patient, gods bless him for eternity. I told him to go on ahead after stopping for the third time on our next mountain, that I needed to wait to catch my breath. I was so angry at my asthma, furious. I kept thinking how much easier it would be if I’d never had it. The heat kept baring down, making it worse.
I sat down when got to a curving point in the road that climbed up even higher. I couldn’t see if that was the end of the steep hill or not. I asked myself what I wanted out of my second day on this trek. I really wanted to finish it.
I started to climb again, but I never caught up with the group. I continued to stop in the shade, to keep my breathing even. I drank my water frequently. I kept thinking, “Small steps, Mallory. Small steps.”
I was running out of water, but the closest house didn’t have a spout for good water that I could see. I couldn’t tell if it were a public house straight away (all spouts are free if they’re outside of the house, but not to knock on the door and disturb), so I passed it by, continuing on to the next section of the trek.
This turned out to be the worst fucking mistake of my fucking life. I will forever regret my stupidity, my plain old shyness at wanting to ask the household if I could fill my water bottle.
But, that is the thing about the Compostela. You have an ebb and flow between being treated as if you were something close to a saint yourself, and then are humbled at the realization that you are only human.
The next mountain was brutal. It was almost 12pm, and I knew there was no way I’d catch up with the group at this point. Every hundred feet or so, I’d take a small swig of water to clear the thick saliva in my mouth, and to hydrate from the sweat soaking into my wick shirt. When it finally turned 12pm, my water was gone, I was halfway up a mountain, and I had no clue how far it was until the next village, which I promised I would bang down the door of anyone, all shame set aside.
I sat down in a spot of grass, thinking about what the putain I’d done to myself. I had not only not taken a chance on getting water on a hot day, but now I could be possibly stranded until someone else passed by, who could have no water to share themselves. I took out my lunch and could only eat a few bites before putting it back. Eating in the heat never feels good. I focused on how I needed it to keep it down.
What would I do? Stay here where it could take a long while before anyone passes? There were surly smarter folk who took one look at the hot weather and passed on mountain climbing for the day.
I looked at the next patch of shadow on the path. My whole body said to keep moving.
Small steps, Mallory.
Within ten minutes, I came across a family, who was just getting done with their own lunch. Keeping to my promise, I asked if they had extra water to spare. They happily obliged. I tried to take only enough to take small sips to the next water spout, not wanting to diminish their own water supply. The wind was picking up, sweeping a cool breeze in the heat.
“About how far is the next town?” I asked.
“About eight kilometers,” the father replied, and I was silent for a spell.
“I was hoping to get water before then,” I replied quietly. He poured more water in my bottle.
“There is a spot about a kilometer away,” he said.
“A kilometer I can do,” I said. “Merci.”
The moment I saw the spout…all I can describe it as is the moment when you are young and you understand that Christmas means presents galore, so your whole body shakes in excitement. I cried out in joy. I did all but run to it. I drank and drank and drank. I dunked my head under it. If the spout could have asked me, I would have said yes to marriage at that point.
I sat longer, eating more of the lunch I hadn’t been able to finish before. And, let me tell you, it is amazing what fresh water can do for your entire spirit. I had about seven kilometers to go, but I felt I could take on the world. I had water. I had cooled down, officially. I was a new woman, one who was willing to marry a spout.
The rest of the walk was a bit anticlimactic from there. I filled up my water twice. I stopped a few more times, as my feet were pounding. I kept walking, always looking for the white and red lines that indicated I was on the right path. I saw a sign that said I was 5.5km away from the town I was intending to get to.
I can do this, I thought to myself. I do a 5k all the damn time. This was child’s play.
I was exhausted, despite now being properly hydrated, and my feet weren’t going to accept breaks if I was going to walk for another mile. The closer I got, the more I invigorated myself with the knowledge I would be there soon.
Small steps, I kept thinking, dodging rocks. Small steps.
I also kept thinking of lyrics from the Spice Girls. It kept my mind off of the blood pumping in my feet. I couldn’t believe how well their song Stop helped.
When I saw the town, I knew I had to set another small goal of getting to the bench in the actual town, a promise that would get me through the steep downhill street the trail led me on because apparently St. Jacques felt he had to prove something to the world when getting to his favorite church in Spain. I kept my promise, but then I knew I couldn’t sit too long for fear of never getting back up. My feet were done for the day. I was walking in a slow, firm pace.
I passed four hotels along the way. It was very difficult, but they wanted at least 40 euro, and I was stubborn enough to see if there was a more official hostel made for us pilgrims.
At the fourth place, I saw two gentlemen with packs, drinking a beer. I was through being shy.
“Do you know where a cheaper hotel is?”
“You need something more than a hotel, you need a place to sleep and some food. Do you see that sign? Follow it. It will bring you to where you need to go.”
Feet pulsating, I took small steps in that directions.
When I got there, the door was shut, no one around. I shuffled my feet to the bathroom to wash my swollen fingers, get cold water on my next. I looked in the mirror and looked away.
By the time I was done, the manager was back. I meekly took a seat. he took one look at me and gave me the different options I had for the night, all much cheaper than anything else I’d seen in town. I chose to have breakfast in the morning. I shuffled my way behind him to get to my room.
I gave myself five minutes to collapse on my bed. Then, I had to get to work again. I had to take a shower, which I desperately wanted, but knew would hurt every part of my body during. I also knew that if I didn’t wash my clothes from that day, I wouldn’t have anything fresh to wear the day after. I rubbed my feet, used a relaxing technique Henry had taught me about for sore muscles, then shuffled my way to the bathroom.
I kept whimpering under the water. It felt so good. I wanted it to last forever. But I had to hang up my clothes to dry.
I situated my space more properly, then lay in my bed, intending to allow my hair to dry in my towel. I thought about how the shaved parts of my hair would grow in the three month span I’d be doing this. I fell asleep for an hour.
I woke up and did more stretching in my legs and feet. I swear my feet would have cooed in happiness as I massaged them some more.
I thought about how far I’d be able to get the next day. I hadn’t met up with Xavier, Henry, Gerard, Sergi-Roberto, or Jesus. I had had this burning hope while walking down to the town that I’d see them, sitting around and drinking beer, then looking up to see that I’d made it. It had been 3pm at that time, and I’d been able to make my way to our next destination. They’d be so happy, knowing what an accomplishment it would have been for me.
I then would have smiled at Henry and said, “Small steps.”
But they had gone on a bit further. Xavier had mentioned that since this portion of the trek was shorter than yesterday’s, and the day after was a bit further, they wanted to play catch up by moving a few kilometers more. Start in the morning with a more reasonable trek before them.
I hadn’t been able to thank them for anything. I’d only known them for forty-eight hours, yet I felt as if we had already been friends for years. They’d been so kind from our very first meeting.
We hadn’t swapped any sort of contact information beyond Henry writing down my name in his phone as a joke since I would “someday become a famous writer.”
Hey, guys. If you’re reading this: I made it. I’ll remember you forever. And I hope we randomly meet each of you again one day. If you ever make it to the states, don’t hesitate to contact me. Have a safe rest of the trek out there.
And, Jesus? I saw that you’d waited for me on that hill. You were just at the end of the road when I finally got myself up. I wanted you to know that I was thankful for you being there. Je suis desole et je vous remercie.