The Pace of a 83-Year-Old Man

Today I walk the pace of an 83-year-old man. I’ve watched him 50 yards ahead of me for the past hour or so. When he goes up a hill in the distance, I can see that I’m not catching up. Later when I am on a rise looking down, I see him below me.

32-DAY-TWENTY-EIGHT Navarrenx to Aroue (4)

He  stays the same size. If he were getting smaller, I would know he’s pulling away. If he were getting larger that would indicate that I was walking faster than him.

32-DAY-TWENTY-EIGHT Navarrenx to Aroue (12)

This man and I have met up three or four times over the past 10 days to exchange greetings and some pleasantries. We follow the ancient pilgrimage route of the Via Podensis from Le Puy, France, towards the west and Santiago, Spain. Via Podensis is just one of hundreds of paths that form a spider’s web throughout Europe, Scandinavia and the Middle East that connects the three most popular pilgrim destinations of the Middle Ages: Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago. Today people like the man ahead of me continue to follow these ancient routes.

14-DAY TEN Conques to Livinhac le-Haut (6)

Le Trois: Stacey, Joseph and Michel

Earlier this morning, the 83-year-old man recognized me and my two traveling companions.
“Ah, Le Trois — the three are still together,” he said in French and smiled approvingly. We all know each others’ countries of origin — me, USA; Michel, France; Joseph, Belgium; and the 83-year-old man, Switzerland.  This man from Geneva is an intriguing loner, so we haven’t wanted to get too close too fast. He has ducked out of every conversation so far without leaving his name behind. Indeed, in one meeting when asked where he planned to sleep for the night, he answered before disappearing,  “A kilometer away from nowhere.” In other words, off the beaten path of the popular pilgrim sleeping spots.

photo of Jean-Francois, the 83-year-old man

Jean-Francois, the 83-year-old man

But today we finally exchange names. Jean-Francois is fit and trim, dressed in ultra-modern, lightweight backpacking attire and equipment. He carries a smile along with a tall wooden hiking pole intricately carved with the names and corresponding years of each Camino he’s walked. Jerusalem in 2014. Lourdes in 2015. Arles and other pilgrimages routes across Europe dated with the carver’s flourish. The 83-year-old man has walked over 60,000 kilometers in the past decade or so.

And so now, I am still not catching up. Interestingly,  Jean-Francois typically appears at a crossroads or a church. The next time I see him, he’s standing at a crossroad to warn us not to go in the wrong direction. He comes along side of me and we walk for awhile together. He does not speak much English, and I do not speak much French, but we talk in simple words and communicate well. I tell him that I, too walked Lourdes in 2015 and Arles in 2008.

When he looks down at my hiking boots matching the rhythm of his and says, “Vous marchez bien!” or “You walk well, ” I feel like I have been honored with the best compliment. For today I am proud to walk the pace of an 83-year-old man.

Stacey “Vagabonding Lulu” Wittig is a spiritual travel writer based near Flagstaff and Sedona, Arizona. This article first appeared in Pinewood News in May 2016. She wrote from the road that month while traveling Les Chemin de St Jacques – Via Podiensis – in France.

Une table sur la route: Saugues, France

Joseph.Jacob.crop.800Correspondance de la voie le 30 avril 2016. Le Puy du Velay (Via Podiensis) à Santiago. Réimprimé à partir de Pinewood News.

Aujourd’hui, j’ai vu une belle jeune femme italienne de rire à la météo avec des flocons de neige qui s’accrochent à la sombre des cils. Les flocons sont grandes et diminue lentement jusqu’à ce que le vent intermittent enfonça rapidement dans nos visages. C’est le dernier jour du mois d’avril près Le Puy, en France, et je ne m’attendais pas à ce que la neige.

Chaque fois que j’ai amené gants légers à la France ou l’Espagne à marcher un des anciens chemins de pèlerinage connu meilleur au US comme le Camino de Santiago, je n’ai pas besoin d’eux, alors j’ai laissé derrière eux. Aujourd’hui, j’aurais aimé avoir une paire. Je me disaient que je ne pouvais vraiment pas obtenir des gelures en 20F-degré météo, mais elle n’est toujours pas aider mon engourdissement des doigts.

08-DAY FOUR Le Sauvage to Aumont-Aubrac (10)800

 

Aujourd’hui, j’ai également vu des centaines de jaune jonquilles décorant un tapis d’herbe à travers laquelle un petit cours d’eau méandrique coulait. Je n’avais jamais vu des jonquilles, appelé jonquils ici en France, à l’état sauvage avant et le contraste entre le jaune et le vert m’a arrêté dans mes pistes. C’était avant que la neige a commencé à tomber sur les Chemins de St Jacques.

08-DAY FOUR Le Sauvage to Aumont-Aubrac (12)800

 

Plus tard, après la chute de neige est tombée pendant un certain temps, j’ai vu quatre hommes dans la forêt, parler et rire debout à côté d’une porte dans notre voie. Il semble un bon endroit pour arrêter et parler aux pèlerins qui étaient en situation de rattrapage avec nous par derrière, ce qui avec un autre champ de jonquils en vue, cette fois avec leurs visages gai rejetée vers un lit de neige. De toute évidence, cette place a inspiré d’autres avant nous, parce qu’à travers une autrement wordless griffonné signe de rendement à proximité étaient les mots, “I love lyfe.”

07-DAY THREE Sauges to Le Sauvage.bw (8)800

 

“Mi vous aimeriez une banane?” Pierre offerts à chacun des trois autres hommes et moi. C’était un gros bouquet de très awefully long les bananes — trop pour un homme d’être transportant dans son sac à dos. “S’il vous plaît, avoir une banane “, il a offert de nouveau après chacun d’entre nous a poliment refusé.

“Eh bien, si nous pouvons vous aider, ” Joseph, le belge ont ri. Chaque pèlerin a pris une et à l’unisson pelés leurs bananes et pris une bouchée.
“J’ai de prendre une photo de ce “, J’ai dit de prendre ma caméra. Ils ont tous hammed it up pour moi et j’ai pensé, ” quelle belle et salubre Camino m’être fait ici de la famille en France. Si je devais prendre cette photo en Espagne, les gars serait levée leurs bières, pas leurs bananes.”

07-DAY THREE Sauges to Le Sauvage (17)800

 

Plus tard au déjeuner, Joseph m’a montré un en bois, shell sculpté à la main de la taille d’un petit escargot. La coquille, le symbole de St James, qui s’est tenue une histoire spéciale pour Joseph. “Hier, c’était chaud et je voulais quelque chose à boire, et j’ai vu un signe que suit ‘Nene.” Après la marche du signe, j’ai vu un homme dont les vêtements étaient tellement sale. Il avait besoin d’une coupe de cheveux. Normalement je ne donnerais pas arrêter et parler à un tel homme. Mais je voulais quelque chose à boire. ”

” Il s’est assis à une table sur la route. Sur la même table qu’il avait une bouteille de vin rouge, verre à moitié saoul, pain, fromage, il a également recueilli des pièces de machine, vieux bidons d’huile, de bidons d’essence et Rusty outils. La table était sombre et sale et derrière elle, il s’assit dans un fauteuil roulant.”

“Mais le gars a été tellement heureux que dans quelques instants, nous échangions au sujet de nos familles et de vie. J’ai passé 20 minutes avec l’homme. Il m’a dit qu’il avait un travail pour installer le câble électrique élevé partout dans le monde. Mais ensuite, il a eu un accident et ont chuté.

Il revint ici, chez ses parents dans ce petit village. Il m’a dit que c’est son bon plaisir et sa vie pour rester et inviter les pèlerins pour quelque chose à boire et parler avec eux durant leur pèlerinage.”
“Il m’a donné ce shell “, a déclaré Joseph le doigté avec amour. Je lui ai demandé : ” Combien voulez-vous?” “Non, c’est un cadeau”, l’homme dit. Il a été mon premier inhabituelles passe sur le camino.”

“Quand j’ai finalement s’éloigna, à moins de 200 verges de quitter sa place j’avais les larmes aux yeux. “Joseph, ne vous comprenez maintenant pourquoi vous marchez Compostelle?” J’ai entendu. Ce gars m’a ouvert les yeux. Je me demandais pourquoi j’étais sur cette voie. Elle (la raison) pour l’échange avec d’autres EST. Je ne suis pas seule marche le Camino pour moi, mais également pour la communauté que je trouve ici. Je fais partie de ce que fait cette le bonheur de l’homme et il est partie de la mienne.”

08-DAY FOUR Le Sauvage to Aumont-Aubrac (18)800

 

A Table on the Road: Saugues, France

Joseph.Jacob.crop.800Correspondence from the Way on April 30, 2016. Le Puy du Velay (Via Podiensis) to Santiago. Reprinted from Pinewood News.

Today I saw a beautiful young Italian woman laughing at the weather with snowflakes clinging to her dark eyelashes. The flakes were large and falling slowly until the intermittent wind drove them fast into our faces. It’s the last day of April near Le Puy, France, and I didn’t expect snow.

Everytime I’ve brought lightweight gloves to France or Spain to walk one of the ancient pilgrimage routes known best in the US as the Camino de Santiago, I haven’t needed them, so I left them behind. Today I would have loved to have a pair. I kept  telling myself that I really couldn’t get frostbite in 20F-degree weather, but it still didn’t help my numbing fingers.

08-DAY FOUR Le Sauvage to Aumont-Aubrac (10)800

Today I also saw hundreds of yellow daffodils decorating a carpet of grass through which a small, meandering stream flowed. I’d never seen daffodils, called jonquils here in France, in the wild before and the contrast  between the yellow and the green stopped me in my tracks. That was before the snow started on Les Chemins de St Jacques.

08-DAY FOUR Le Sauvage to Aumont-Aubrac (12)800

Later, after the falling snow subsided for awhile, I saw four men in the forest standing, talking and laughing next to a gate in our pathway. It seemed a good spot to stop and talk to the pilgrims who were catching up with us from behind, what with another field of jonquils within sight, this time with their cheery faces turned down towards a bed of snow. Evidently this place had inspired others before us, because scrawled across an otherwise wordless yield sign nearby were the words, “I love mi lyfe.”

07-DAY THREE Sauges to Le Sauvage.bw (8)800

“Would you like a banana?” Pierre offered to each of the other three men and me. It was an awefully big bunch of very long bananas — too much for one man to be carrying in his backpack. “Please, have a banana,” he offered again after each of us had politely declined.

“Well, if we can help you out,” Joseph, the Belgian laughed. Each pilgrim took one and in unison peeled their bananas and took a bite.
“I have to take a picture of this,” I said taking my camera out. They all hammed it up for me and I thought, “What a beautiful and healthful Camino family I have found here in France. If I were taking this photo in Spain, the guys would be lifting their beers, not their bananas.”

07-DAY THREE Sauges to Le Sauvage (17)800

Later at lunch, Joseph showed me a wooden, hand-carved shell the size of a small snail. The scallop shell, the symbol of St James, held a special story for Joseph. “Yesterday, it was hot and I wanted something to drink, and I saw a sign that read ‘NENE.’ After walking to the sign, I saw a man whose clothes were so dirty. He needed a haircut. Normally I would not stop and speak to such a man. But I wanted something to drink.”

“He sat at a table on the road. On the same table that he had a red wine bottle, glass half drunk, bread, cheese, he also collected machine parts, old oil cans, petrol cans and rusty tools. The table was dark and dirty and behind it, he sat in a wheelchair.”

“But the guy was so happy that in a few moments we were exchanging about our families and lives. I spent 20 minutes with the man. He told me that he had a job to install high electric cable all over the world. But then he had an accident and fell.

So he came back here, to his parents’ house in this small village. He told me that it is his pleasure and his life to stay and invite pilgrims for something to drink and talk to them during their pilgrimage.”
“He gave me this shell,” Joseph said fingering it lovingly. I asked him, ‘How much do you want?’ ‘No, it is a gift,’ the man said. It was my first unordinary happening on the Camino.”

“When I finally walked away, within 200 yards of leaving his place I had tears in my eyes. ‘Joseph, do you now understand why you are walking Compostela?’ I heard. This guy opened my eyes. I was wondering why I was on this way. It (the reason) is for exchanging with others. I’m not only walking the Camino for myself but for the community that I find here. I am part of what is making this man’s happiness and he is part of mine.”

08-DAY FOUR Le Sauvage to Aumont-Aubrac (18)800

Lourdes Pilgrimage: Lourdes to Santiago Camino

I arrived in Lourdes, France, trusting that there would be “room at the inn.” The albergue that catered to people walking Les Chemins de St Jacques (The Way of St James) had not returned any of my email requests for a bed. The week before, the Lourdes Tourist Office assured me that the proprietor was out of town and would respond once he returned. So I walked by faith, trusting that even if no beds were available at Accueil Jacquaire “La Ruche” when I showed up, that there would be space somewhere in the mountain town of 15,000 for a pilgrim to lay her head. Hey, even Baby Jesus found a manger to sleep in as his family journeyed to Bethlehem.20150430_204311

Lourdes is known as a center for prayer and healing for the Catholic Church. Six million people travel to the town in the picturesque Gave de Pau River Valley every year in hopes of healing for themselves, friends or family members. In 1858, teenager Bernadette Soubirous saw the Virgin Mary in a muddy grotto not far from the river. The Virgin appeared to the peasant girl eighteen times, and during one of the appearances, the Virgin told Bernadette to drink the water. But there was no source of water in the grotto. Bernadette felt compelled to dig in the mud with her hands, and soon she unearthed a spring. Bernadette drank from the spring and prayed. Later, others were miraculously healed after drinking the water. Today that small spring is the water source for the bath houses where believers are submerged in the healing waters and for the fountains from which devotees drink thousands of gallons of water.

Because the town is now one of the world’s most important pilgrimage sites, I thought it would be a perfect place to start my +500-mile walk from France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The classic route, called Camino Frances, begins in St Jean Pied de Port, France, at the eastern foot of the Pyrénées Mountains near the border of France and Spain and continues across northern Spain to Santiago. Lourdes is only 93 walking miles southeast of St Jean Pied de Port, and I could walk forest trails and farm roads that meander along the foothills of the Pyrénées. (Lourdes to SJPP is 93 miles/149 km.)

Since foot traffic on Camino Frances has increased so much in the ten years since I did my first pilgrimage, I desired to start on a road less traveled. The route from Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port seemed to fit the bill. Fewer people and more rustic accommodations might better mimic my first Camino experience.

However, because the Lourdes Camino route is typically traveled by regional hikers, the only guidebooks that I could find were in French. Even on-line, route-following instructions were in French. Google Translate and other free translation services didn’t seem to get the detailed, cryptic instructions right. “Cut a road and continue straight. After a closed, follow the path paved route and continue the length to the edge of the Louts.” Hmmm… Yet I had printed the cryptic instructions and bound them with pages of maps from the French guidebook, La Voie des Piemonts un Chemin de Serenite by François Lepère and Yvette Terrien.

I reviewed my loose leaf notebook on the Air France flight from Paris to Tarbes-Lourdes airport, still hopeful that I would find a place to sleep that night. Since the Lourdes Tourist Office boasted more hotel rooms than any other city in France, besides Paris, I figured my chances were on par with Baby Jesus – the Lord would provide. I sent up a silent prayer, “Let this go smoothly, Lord.”

I shared a cab with two other visitors, and David, the friendly driver knew the way to Accueil Jacquaire “La Ruche”. I tapped lightly on the door, and when no one answered, I pushed it open. “Bon jour,” I called out. A young American woman came down the stairs.
“Hi, I’m Rachel. We’re making dinner upstairs. Do you want to stay for dinner?” Rachel offered.
“Oh, yes!” I answered. “Is there a bed for me?”
“We have plenty, put your backpack in here,” she said showing me to a room with two bunk beds. “You may choose the top or the bottom.”
“After dinner will there be time to go to the candlelight procession?” I asked. It was the desire of my heart to start my pilgrimage to Spain with the prayer vigil and processional that happens every night at 9:30. 20150430_212803Hundreds of people from all over the world come together for prayer, many wheeling their loved ones in wheelchairs or gurneys. I had seen it all on YouTube and wanted to experience it for myself.
“Yes, there will be plenty of time,” Rachel said. “We’ll all go down together, we 20150430_180127have several other pilgrims here tonight. Jean Luis and G.G. have the candles here. She pointed to a basket of tall candles with Lourdes-appropriate wind shades.

Accueil Jacquaire “La Ruche”

Stacey gets her shell from Hospitalero Jean Luis Doux, who cuts a yellow cord to tie it to her pack.

“Are you just starting your Camino?” When I nodded yes, my new friend responded, “Well, we’ll have to get you your shell tomorrow before you leave.” The scallop shell is a symbol of St. James and is worn my pilgrims to denote that they are on a pilgrimage to Santiago, where the bones of St. James rest.

It was my second lesson of my Lourdes to Santiago Camino: do not worry. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7. So if that was my second lesson, what was the first lesson of this Camino? Well, that’s another story…

Stacey Wittig is a travel writer who is currently working on her second book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port. Order her first book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Leon to Santiago on Amazon.

Accueil Jacquaire “La Ruche” : 21 rue Pau, Lourdes | Tel: 05 62 97 98 21| jl.doux@club-internet.fr

Taxi David – VIP Excursions: Tel: 06 81 89 09 88

Camino Brings Together Uncommon Friendships

Author Stacey Wittig with Zuzana atop Alto del Perdón in SpainZuzana and I are the odd couple – she 27 years old and a beauty, me at 60 feeling like an old woman for maybe the first time I my life. We met while walking Les Chemins de St Jacques – the Camino de Santiago – near Lourdes, France. She calls me her guardian angel but to me, she is my caregiver. She gladly lets me use her phone recharger and patiently assists me when I can’t get it to work. As she makes dinner for the two of us, I sit and talk about Camino etiquette while she chops fresh vegetables.

“What is that word?” the native of Slovakia asks.
“It’s French for something like ‘how to behave’,” I offer.

I instruct her on blister care and she teaches me how to say blister in Spanish: ambule. Zuzana has been working in Spain for the past several years as an architect. Her command of the Spanish language is impeccable, but how would I know, I’m a bumbling student of the language?

Zuzana is a vegetarian and nutrition nut; I’m having withdrawals from Lay’s Potato Chips. She’s getting me hooked on Chia seeds, “Breakfast of Champions” for Aztec warriors, or so claims the label. According to the package, Aztec ancients could run for fourteen hours on one meal of Chia seeds.20150506_144423

When she asks me if I found her hiking pole tip, I pull it out of my pocket. You see, she walks the pilgrimage route very much ahead of me. And I find the things that she drops: a hiking pole tip and a pair of socks pinned together with a clothes pin.

I actually met Zuzana’s socks before I met her – or anyone else – on this remote pilgrimage route. There are few pilgrims walking from Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port, which is why Zuzana would make dinner for just the two of us – there were no others in most of the albergues where we stay. I found her socks on the first day out of Lourdes. They were lying in a rain puddle in front of a big sign describing the abundant nature of the surrounding area. I could tell that the socks had been recently dropped, so I picked them up. I toted them until the next day when long-legged Soren, with whom I was trying to keep up, begged me for the third time to get rid of some weight from my 30-pound pack.

“Stacey, darling! You’ve carried all that long enough. It’s time you got rid of something! I don’t mean to lecture, or pontificate, but REALLY!” exclaimed Soren pontificating.
“Oh, no. Go ahead — I need to hear it,” I interrupted. It was my second day of walking and both the temperature and humidity were high. The sweat was pouring down my red face. I left the socks and a baseball hat at a bus stop in a small country village. It wasn’t much to leave behind, but it was a beginning. Eventually I would mail fourteen copies of my Camino book forward to Burgos, Spain. I carried the books so I could donate them, one at a time to albergues along the way. But since my book was a spiritual and walking guide for the last weeks of the walk, I really didn’t want to leave them until I got closer to the endpoint.

I met Zuzana the following day, and when she mentioned that she had lost her socks, I shot a “look” to Soren. Later Soren, who planned to cross the Pyrénées at Somport, turned west and bid us goodbye. Zuzanna and I continued our walk north-ish along the foothills of the Pyrénées. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Solo travel opens up possibilities for uncommon friendships. I would never guess that a young girl in the prime of her life would ever want to be friends with me, a sixty-year-old woman. Yet the Camino brings together people who have something special to share with each other.20150511_112900

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Stacey Wittig is a travel writer who is currently working on her second book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port. Order her first book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Leon to Santiago on Amazon.

Ionut Preda: Inspiration on Camino de Santiago

Ionut Preda dripped a blood red drop of hot wax onto my pilgrim credential and then quickly pressed a metal sealer into the congealing liquid. His seal left the impression of two bare footprints on the passport-like credential that I carried with me during this 500-mile trek across northern Spain. This flimsy piece of folded paper proved that I was a pilgrim and allowed me overnight access to albergues or pilgrim accommodations. It was stamped and dated by albergue hosts to ensure that I didn’t sojourn too long in one town and overstay my pilgrim status. The credential was also proof that I had actually been to these places along the route so I could earn a Compostela from the Catholic Church at the endpoint, Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of the bones of St. James the Greater.Credential

“I love looking at my credential,” Robert from Holland had explained earlier. “I can tell you a story an hour long about each one of these stamps. It is such a good way to remember my journey.” And so pilgrims like Robert and me collected stamps or sellos from restaurants, churches and wayside attractions like the one we were at now. Sometimes you had to pay an entrance fee to get the imprint from a rubber stamp, like at the cathedral in Leon. Other times you needed to be a paying customer to receive a stamp as at the bar at Orison.

Yet at this humble wayside attraction, merely two banquet tables set end-to-end at the edge of the roadside, the extravagant wax stamp (the only I saw during my 36-day trek) was offered by donativo or freewill offering. From the table where Ionut Preda performed the stamping ritual hung several newspaper clippings.

“Yo quiero caminar” professed one newspaper headline over a full-color photo of a tired pilgrim in front of the Santiago Cathedral. “I want to walk.” Ionut Preda20150602_104309_400 standing behind the table pointed to the photo and said, “That’s me.”

I bent down to look closely at the newspaper clippings. “But this man has only one leg,” I said.

Ionut Preda stepped out from behind the table and raised his right leg, revealing a clunky prosthesis. “I walked Camino de Santiago with this,” he said. I suddenly felt ashamed that I had been feeling sorry for myself because my feet were sore. I soon learned that Ionut Preda was a very special man, a Paralympic athlete that worked with kids in his gymnasium that was located here, on the edge of the Camino de Santiago between Palas de Rei and Melide, Spain.

The athlete who lost his right foot after an accident with a mechanical crane at age eight has overcome his loss to win more than 100 national and international medals.

“My road was not easy,” the native of Timisoara, Romania said in Spanish on his20150602_104318_600 website. “…Over the years, I came to have a relationship with God, and every time the idea of helping child amputees who need prostheses, motivate them to do sport, to integrate into society, show that you can lead a normal life it grows within me.”

“Traveling, God gave me the opportunity to meet a great woman who today is my wife and Mr. Emanuel rewarded us with our son. They fill me with motivation and desire to leave a legacy, ‘If I can, you can too’.”

Ionut Preda and Stacey Wittig

Paralympic athlete Ionut Preda and author Stacey Wittig

On the second table, Ionut Preda sold athletic shirts sporting his logo and slogan “Mas de Camino” or “More than a Road.” My companions and I bought the brightly colored shirts and continued on our way no longer tired, but refreshed from having met the inspiring athlete.

Now when I look at my credential and see the imprint of two perfect bare feet, I think of the man with one foot who inspires children to be all they can be. Like Robert, I can look at that one stamp and tell a story that will last for an hour…or years.

Ionut Preda, Paralympic Athlete

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