Via Tolosana Day 11: Go your own way! Any other way is straying.

Lunas to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare – over 30 kilometres!

Many years ago, when I lived in Sydney, my wonderful friend, Emily, visited her grandfather for a number of months and I got to spend time with her too. As I didn’t have many friends in Sydney at the time, it was a great time of hanging around, seeing Sydney and going dancing. We have one of those relationships where no matter how long it has been since we last met or spoke, we always just pick up where we left off, often diving in to deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of life, or love or whatever. She has inspired me with her travels all through Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the US/Canada.  She has always been a kindred spirit who would share her latest book discovery with me.  One book she shared in around 2006, was Gitta Mallasz’s Talking with Angels.  This book was the first account I had ever read about channelled souls and it resonated with me at a deep level, opening my eyes to the layers of consciousness that might exist beyond what we see as ‘real’ life.  Ever since I read that book, the prophetic words, “Go your own way! Any other way is straying.” have never been far from my mind, and I have re-called them often, and shared them with many people.  It is a curious characteristic of the Camino, that the concepts you have always known, are made absolutely concrete for you while you are walking.  Re-reading this passage from the book now, I realise the whole page reflects the lesson I was about to learn in a very real and deep way on this day.

The bed was so comfortable that I even had vivid dreams last night of cool boys from high school. Up again at 5am for yet another huge walk. There had been a spectacular thunderstorm overnight which began when we were eating dinner out under the shed roof upstairs next to our wet washing.

Jacques and I again set out together after a small breakfast. We arrived about an hour later at La Bousquet d’Orb after walking along a level road which roughly followed the river, past the smallest tractor I’ve ever seen and horses who were accompanied by a backdrop of pink. Pink sky in the morning … shepherd’s warning again?

Horse in a paddock with pink sky sunrise

Pink sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning

River d'Orb

River d’Orb

We crossed the river d’Orb and started an upwards ascent past L’église de Saint-Martin where the bells struck seven on cue. We saw more signs to chambre d’hotes options in the little settlement of La Seguinerie.

L'église de Saint-Martin

L’église de Saint-Martin

Continuing onward through little streets at the edge of town, it was still threatening to rain and I was quite a lot more than discouraged when a red (warning) marker said that it was 29 kms to our destination today.

Red and white cement marker 29kms to St Gervais sur Mare

Only 29kms to go!

That would mean we would walk over 34 kilometres. I was psyching myself up for this when we were led by all manner of helpful community signs and balisages, through tiny streets bedecked with little shrines to pilgrims. This community display was happily cheering bonne route to all who passed.  The only thing missing were gnomes.

Pilgrim sign

Sweet pilgrim with his undies around his ankles?

European Union Coquille and violas

Les chemins de Compostelle


Pot plants and painted rocks with coquille shell

Pilgrim shrine

Path disappears around the corner

The Chemin St Jacques disappears

We would find out just 10 minutes later that this little bon courage (take heart) from the locals was for a very particular reason. The path was so steep, so covered with ferns, blackberries and rocks, rocks and more rocks that it was almost unbelievable, and extremely tiring to climb.

Rocky path and GR653 sign

Rocky road


Rocky path and mossy dry stone wall

Really rocky road

I was continuing in a dejected mood, made worse by march flies – one drew blood! They were sticky and insisted on going in my direction. Go away!

I knew it wouldn’t be like this all day, but it seemed endless. I rested several times for water, because it was impossible and because I was in a foul mood. About a third of the way up, Jacques II caught us. We more or less stayed together for the rest of the day. Completing the picture we were walking through fog, so it made it feel like we had already climbed high on the mountain. Le Bousquet d’Orb was at around 430m altitude but we were to climb to 932m at our highest today, and back down. 

Together we reached a large rock we had to scale, making it more like rock-climbing than walking and of course my heavy pack was particularly difficult with this incline. Standing on the rock, looking back over the thick forest of trees, we could see the Southern end of town that we’d just walked through.

Distant view of Le Bousquet d'Orb, forest in foreground

Looking back to Le Bousquet d’Orb

Signs continued to confirm we were on the right track.  Today yellow and blue ones. All the stars on blue background made it feel like a European Union exercise. At the top of the hardest path in the world, only made partially better because it started in a Fairy Glen and made me feel like I was in a Lord of the Rings set, we joined a larger forest track and the landscape changed completely.

Dirt track and forest at the top of the hardest path in the world

At the top of the hardest path in the world

At the first the smells were thick in the air like a rainforest. A Nutri-Metics honey and almond scrub smell was the one I could identify, though what it was doing in deep France, I don’t know. I noticed that when you go from a flat path to an uphill one, you physically change gears. Jacques said, yes, like a cadence. It reminded me of Emma Ayres book, Cadence in which she refers to the pedalling rate of a bicycle. This concept was previously unfamiliar to me apart from in the musical sense, and it made it real to me when I observed the change in my body’s rhythm.

Pile of rocks

Rock sculpture

Patterns made by pine needles

Washed out pine needles

Small pinecones and pine needles washed into ridges by the previous night’s rain provided a source for the fresh pine smells. It continued to be overcast. The forest tracks continued all day, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending. They were wide, mostly comfortable, although there were a few rocky patches. Lovely pink-flowered bushes adorned our way, and the views kept getting more and more majestic. With them, the height of the trees grew too and it felt like a Highland Cathedral, and reminded me of my favourite bagpipe song. The sky cleared to a certain extent and we walked part-time in sun, but it was a gentle morning sun.

Distant view of mountains, sky with pine trees in foreground

Highland Cathedral

Being a forest trail, there was ample provision of picnic tables. Jacques II had gone ahead, so Jacques I and I stopped and sat at one for a snack of our lunch baguette and I had the last of some yoghurt. It was still, although the pine needles rustled. It was a hard morning for me. While I was willing to walk with the two Jacques, I still felt restricted. I also realised I was experiencing boredom. Is that possible? This was the first time in 11 days I had thought that. It is hard to imagine that this kind of activity could be boring, but I was grateful that it came to my attention. While we had stopped on the park bench, not half an hour after I’d realised I might be bored, a beautiful, tall, slim woman named Sonia appeared out of nowhere and happened across our little picnic. She was a messenger. She was an angel.

Pine cones and trees on the Way of St James

Pine cones on the Chemin St Jacques

Sonia was between jobs, but unlike me, she had a new one to go back to. She told me that she had walked at the end of a difficult job too, the year before, so she understood the position I was in and the courage it took to undertake such a journey at such a time.  I appreciated her kindness and understanding. I said to her, that she would not stay with me long as I could feel I was way slower in the short time we chatted and walked (uphill)! She said she felt energised to walk this time, and was doing over 30kms each day.  She didn’t like to think of it as fast, and certainly wasn’t trying to get there quicker for its own sake, just that this was her most comfortable pace. She said it was very important to go your own way and at your own pace. This is your journey.  While we chatted we covered much common ground about the spiritual and emotional reasons for walking. This brought out a stark contrast with the conversations I’d been having with my current companions. After our conversation in English, she had a conversation with Jacques I in German, then ahead with Jacques II in French. Then she was gone as quickly as she arrived.

It wasn’t until later, as I fell behind and started revelling and maybe rebelling in being alone, that the truth sunk in. I really did need to rest, and I needed to go on at my own pace, by myself.  Jacques I kindly waited for me at one point, but I tearfully said to him that I wanted to walk alone. This seemed like a brave admission to make for someone who had hoped so much for someone to share the journey with. Be careful what you ask for. I’d had my reminder, so I continued walking alone for most of the rest of the day to get my head straight.

Pine trees with bracken tutus

Pine trees with tutus

Phallic pine sculpture

Pine sculpture

Walking boot with forest leaves on the path

Leaves on the forest floor

Road turns to the left, pine trees on embankment

Pine embankment

Trees featured today.  Pine trees with tutus on. Phallic pine carvings and giants with moss-covered bases.  At one point where the track took a wide bend, with views out over the valleys beyond, I wanted to lie in the grass and watch the clouds, but I felt I couldn’t because people would worry about me.

Distant view of mountains

More views

As it turned out, I did catch the two Jacques having a break at yet another picnic table. I said I would have lunch, the rest of my lunch baguette, and they said they’d stop there too. Another walker passed going the other way, towards St Gilles – there are many ways to take! Two extra walkers today, more than we’d seen on any other day. Descending into Mecle later we saw yet another. After a break, we were back into it again, On the Road Again.

Jacques II teased me mercilessly without even being able to speak English. At first, it was the little wooden platform structures at the edge of the track that he told me were for hunting pilgrims. And then it was a giant car skid mark on a gravel turn out. He told me to pay attention, and I caught his drift and said UFOs and aliens? Right! He was funny, and I think trying to cheer me up.  I am reminded of something that came up in conversation in Lodeve, he recalled Napoleon’s words, “‘Impossible’ n’est pas français” (‘impossible’ is not a French word). And it left me feeling a little disappointed that due to the language barrier, I couldn’t communicate with him, as he was clearly a very witty and well-read man.

A bush of fine yellow flowers

Yellow flowers

Back down in altitude, the track turned into an open one and we could see a good way ahead. An alternative gite, Les gives de Servies, beckoned to me after Col du Liourel but I persevered to the Col du Layrac, another 5.8kms by the Dodo. We were at an altitude of 765m. Beautiful pink grasses and yellow flowers met us.

Distant mountains with a glimpse of the road, two crosses in the foreground

Not quite Calvary

A little further along the track met a road Hit the Road Jacques! Jacques II was really interested in the marker between departments, and I was thinking the track went straight across, because I didn’t see a sign to the right, and I didn’t have a detailed map, and so we all just went across. We’d all fallen asleep. We climbed an exposed track and were descending into what was like heather, along a track bejewelled with stunning green beetles, when I got the feeling we weren’t going the right way. No confirmation signs usually means a wrong turn. We consulted the three maps we had between us and confirmed our wrong turn.

Green beetle

Green beetle

Distant mountains and dry grass in the foreground

Dry grass and mountains

Re-tracing our steps we turned left and followed the road for a hundred metres, Jacques II walking through the verge which was native mint, leaving a cloud of perfume behind him. We turned left into a track which then descended through a forest, the track smaller, marked by the disassembled, prickly, fuzzy coatings of chestnuts. Jacques told me that this department of Aveyron was previously poor and the soil not ideal for cropping, so people lived off chestnuts. There were certainly plenty of them, more than 27 – that hoary old chestnut.  I momentarily thought, wow, he knows so much stuff about this area for not being from here. But thinking back now, I bet it was his guide-book!

GR653 Via Tolosana in chestnut grove

Chestnut grove

Pilgrim PR - signs advertising gites

Pilgrim Marketing

Signs advertising gites

Pilgrim Marketing

There were still march flies and I’d trained myself to react quickly now to shoo them away. Ignore them at your peril. At the final descent to Mecle, the number of signs vying for our custom was quite comical. Pilgrim marketing. The track was very hard, and my knees were not managing. Carrying a heavy pack for 20 kms is one thing, carrying it for over 30 kms is a completely different matter! Thankfully no feet problems today. It has been happy days for feet, just tired and achy muscles, which I suppose is to be expected. At Mecle we met another pilgrim, already at his gite, Les Amoureaux du Chemin, soaking up the afternoon sun on the verandah. I was jealous! Not of the sunbathing, but of the sitting still, already at his destination. It was now really hot in the sun.

Sign at gite written in French

Sign at gite

Tiled picture of the town of Merle

Tiles of Mecle

Balisage GR653 and Compostelle and grapevines

Balisages and grape vines

The little town was cute, there were pilgrim signs, a beautiful tiled representation of the village and amazing old buildings. Sometimes the situation of the GR sign overtakes the sign as I found with a grapevine with a GR mark and compostelle. A big frog sitting stood sentinel, guarding the house behind it, watching as we left. It didn’t look much more alive than the dead frog I’d seen between Lunas and Le Bousquet d’Orb that morning. More stone walls.

Frog sculpture on stone wall in front of door

Sentinel frog

After a drink from the ‘fresh’ fountain in town, we left for another uphill, dry track towards St Gervais sur Mare. Jacques II forgot his walking sticks, so Jacques I and I went on slowly without him while he retrieved them. The previous sightings of other pilgrims had only been an entrée into the banquet of humans we were to see in this supposedly 3km stretch before St Gervais (it seemed like 6kms in the heat of the afternoon). First a sporty couple in lycra looking for a ruined castle walked towards us (and away from the castle). Then we came across more tourists climbing to the ruined castle. In the end it was only about 15, but today was beaucoup de gens (many people) day! We see no-one for days, and then this. This many people out walking was somewhat overwhelming. Why today? Maybe I was just in the mood to be overwhelmed!

Le Clocher de Neyran

Le Clocher de Neyran

I was over it by the time we took yet another wrong turn and ended up with the beaucoup tourists at the ruined castle, I’d probably walked 34 kms. No excuses are required for bad behaviour under these circumstances. I was, yet again, absolutely exhausted. “It’s OK, the path (steep, rocky, slippery way through bushes) meets up with the other” Jacques says bush bashing again. It was hot – 3.30pm and the sun was broiling us in our skins. And once again, after I retraced my steps back to the junction of the path and took my own, safe way down, he is right, our path’s meet, and another really steep path carries us downwards and we pass more tourists.

Ruins at Le Clocher de Neyran

Ruins at Le Clocher de Neyran

To top it off, whoever thought that laying a large river stone path (end on end) for the last 100 metres of a downhill track was a good idea. It certainly was contributing to my bad day!

Path made with river stones

Riverstone path

Across La Mare via an ancient bridge, I could barely walk another step and was again getting teary and tired. I sauntered into town, personifying probably 10 Cliff Youngs and I followed the two Jacques, at a distance, to the Office of Tourisme, which I ended up finding for them.

Our gite was a bargain 13 Euro a night, but it was back through the town nearly to the bridge where we’d come from. I think much to Jacques I’s surprise and my own, I asked the young man at the desk whether I could stay an extra night. This is not usually allowed, as pilgrims are meant to move on each day, however in extreme circumstances, the rules can be bent. The sweet university student holding the fort wasn’t sure of how to handle this, but after assurances by Jacques II that no, I couldn’t walk tomorrow, it was all settled and I paid for two nights. Jacques I paid for two nights too. Sonia came in, but I was so out of it, that I was grumpy, even with her, my angel. Quite a case of shooting the messenger. The Jacques went shopping, and I followed them like a ghost. I couldn’t think of anything, least of all shopping. I just wanted to lie down. I walked back to the gite behind them like a turtle. Jacques had said earlier that I looked miserable, and I wasn’t going to disagree with him. When we got to the gite, we found out there was only one key, and Sonia had it. We waited for a long time before Jacques I went back to the office to get it. He still didn’t have it when he returned, and two more women had turned up. Now he was getting toey too! When the women walked toward the door, Jacques I pulled a swift manoeuvre most likely learnt on the Camino Frances. It will be an abiding image, and one of the reasons I am not keen on walking the Camino Frances. He went and put his back right next to the door to somehow indicate that he was first in line. This gite, it is true, did only have 15 places. It was doubtful we’d reach half capacity, but it is important to get what you want. I, on the other hand had no time, or energy for such nonsense.  In the end someone carried my pack in for me.  It seems I wasn’t the only one behaving badly. As it turned out, us 6 walkers were spread across 3 rooms. It is better to be safe than sorry.

When we were alone, Jacques was suggesting walking options for me to get my money to pay him back, and it dawned on me, that he wasn’t actually concerned for my welfare, he just wanted his money back. As I realised this was going to be a big issue for him, I suggested I take a loan from Jacques II, as he’d originally offered, and was happy for me to pay him back when I got back to Paris. Later that night we did the switch. I insisted on paying Jacques I for his bed, so that he could walk on, and I’d see about a refund the next day. I hoped my money would come through on Monday, but if not, I still had enough with extra Jacques II had offered, to keep walking. I decided I would post some stuff back to Paris to lighten my load, and this thought filled me with relief.

After showering I went to buy my own groceries to make my own dinner. Welcome to going it alone. When I returned there was a sadness between the two Jacques and I. My dinner took a long time to cook, and I went outside to sit with Jacques II. Dinner conversation is harder without Jacques I to interpret. Sonia was sitting not far away at the other picnic table, and I apologised for not being in a good frame of mind when I saw her at the Office de Tourisme. I explained to her a little of the situation and thanked her for her wise words in the morning. When Jacques I came out, he didn’t appear to have any dinner. Sonia and I continued talking about Airbnb and compared our experiences of Bouchaud monastery. She said they made bio rice, but that no-one in France bought it. A German woman buys everything they have for her and supplies the German whole food market. Sonia also said that some of the monks have disabilities which is something I didn’t notice.

I was emotional and miserable. I think my body was nearly in shutdown, and despite being excited and energised by the prospect of going on alone, saying goodbye to a person who had been like a safety blanket was proving to be extremely difficult. I now understand that someone can care very much for you, but also completely stifle you without realising and not have your best interests at heart. I just cried and cried.  When I spoke to other people, I cried, when Jacques tried to talk to me I cried, and when I went to sleep I cried.  It was strange that I knew I had made the right decision for me, but that I couldn’t stop crying. This emotion was coming from a much deeper place. I recognised this from my childhood.  When I re-read the words surrounding ‘Talking with Angels’ quote it made a lot more sense …

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