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The French Way, Chemin St. Jacques, France

If I would have asked Ol if he would like to take a few months and walk from Jackson, Mississippi to Key West, Florida he would have probably tried to have me committed. But that is essentially what we are doing hiking the Camino de Santiago, with mountains and hills between.

I have found it’s all in the way I ask.

So a few months ago when I asked Ol if he would like to go to Europe instead of Asia, I received an enthusiastic “yes!”.

How about we travel slowly and visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, visit wineries, and historic sites in France, Spain and Portugal? Think of the cheese. Ol was sitting on the edge of his seat.

How about we hike one of the World’s most important trails where we can eat and drink as much as we want? We won’t need a tent, we can stay at hotels and historic monasteries and convents.

He was all in. He of course knew about the Camino de Santiago, but didn’t really know a lot. I told him how beautiful the French trail was and he was hooked.

By the time this posts we will be less than a week away from the Spanish border and crossing the great Pyrenees which loom before us like clouds in the distance . We will have completed the Chemin de St. Jacques from LePuy-en-Velay to St. John Pied de Port. We will have walked almost 500 miles across mountains, hills, trails and roads.

We will have walked through fields growing hay, barley, corn, sunflowers and lavender. We will have walked through orchards of kiwi, apple, pears, prunes, figs, peaches and vineyards of grapes covering hillsides as far as the eye can see. Chestnuts, walnuts and acorns have crunched under our feet as have the new falling leaves.

Plants and trees from home abound everywhere, the Butterfly bush that I cultivated in my garden covers hillsides here. Herbs such as mint, tarragon and thyme line the roadsides. The scents have been mesmerizing from lilies and lavender to smells we can’t quite put our finger on, delicious just the same.

We have walked next to rivers, lakes, and streams. We have walked in the heat of an Indian summer and the cool crisp air of an Autumn morning. We have come across a family of wild boar and pheasants in the field.

I really need to check my Norwegian heritage, because it seems that all of my favorite things are French: the food, the flowers, the wine, the fine linens, the beautiful architecture and furnishings.

Everyday the path takes us through Medieval villages and towns and ancient churches where we light candles for family and friends. We often sleep in buildings that were built 1,000 years ago, some luxurious and some simple. Daily we witness a simple but beautiful way of life that has carried on through the ages.

The French cherish their heritage, you see it in the preserved buildings and the cuisine. In the French communities we pass through the church bells still awaken the town at 7 a.m. not with seven rings, but with so many that Ol says that it sounds like it is 30 o’clock.

We have been surprised to be walking along fields only a few feet from hunters yielding guns. The piercing rifle shots and sound of the hounds barking, make us walk surprisingly fast. Would we dare walk next to fields in the delta, or through National forests at home wearing black during hunting season? I think not. However, in France it seems charming.

We have discovered the secret to why the French are thin, because they only have a simple meal of bread, juice and coffee at 7:30 a.m. and a sensible lunch at 12 noon and a nice dinner at 7:00 p.m. If we miss the mealtime we are out of luck. We starve until the next service. There is no snacking. But, we noticed the same rules do not apply to coffee, wine, cigarettes, and beer. These are available at all hours.

Unlike the French we keep checking to see if our pants are any looser, as we fill our plates from the heaping baskets of Nutella filled croissants in the morning. I think the only reason we have lost any weight is that we are usually in between towns at lunch and we keep giving our apples to the horses and donkeys along the way.

We have loved the people we have met along the trail and enjoy mixing the gites with nice hotels. The community dinners have allowed us to meet people we otherwise wouldn’t, and the hotels give us much needed privacy and the comforts of home.

We were thrilled to receive a Fed-ex care package with Reese’s and my old boots and socks from our daughter Liv. I can’t remember the last time I have had a foot blister, it seemed the old Roman rocky roads and my new boots weren’t in agreement. So I am confident my old boots that have logged more than a 1,000 miles will get me through to the end.

Ol has continually surprised me. He is the one pushing for additional mileage and he has been the one lifting my spirits when needed. I was so tired after one 20 plus mile day, it was really hot and on the steep climb into the village for the night, a blister between my toes ruptured. My knee was aching and I just wanted to cry (ok, I did cry, a little) Ol carried both our bags and found us lodging and a cold beer (you have know idea how good French beer is until you have hiked over 20 miles in 85 degree weather).

Our only accident was when Ol fell on the trail. He thought he was being bitten by red ants or stung by bees. I thought he had totally lost it. He had a few dirt and leaves on him, but that was it. He jumped up and was brushing at his knees and thighs. Nothing was there.

I grabbed my water bottle and splashed it on him. We wetted his handkerchief and started rubbing his skin. Another poison ivy attack? I didn’t see any around. Ol was getting large welts on his legs and was obviously in pain. Was this karma? He has given me poison ivy so many times (I am highly allergic) maybe this is truly God’s way.

Come to find out Ol who was still suffering in the evening, fell into Stinging Nettles. A plant from my childhood, but completely unknown to Ol. Being a total selfish pilgrim, I was thankful that this would not impact my nightly massage.

For us this has truly not been about a destination, but a journey both spiritually and physically. What has been so beautiful, is the people we have met from all over the world, that are walking for different reasons. Some walk with the same group of friends every year and it will take years to complete, some section hike it a week or ten days at a time. Some like us are fortunate enough to walk it all at once. We seem to meet new people each day and are continually surprised to meet up with old friends after not seeing them for days.

I’ve been most amazed at the number of people who have hiked the Chemin over ten times, from all the different starting points around Europe. We met one gentleman, who has walked the Camino every year for ten years. He is 84 years old and has walked every year since the loss of his wife of 56 years. This is his first French portion and because of the difficulty is a little behind schedule. He uses the baggage service and ships his luggage along the way. He may only walk 5 km a day, but he has his day pack and feels blessed to be walking among such beauty with like minded strangers.

Like us he feels like a kid again, dipping his toes in the streams, taking naps under trees while barefoot in the cool grass and looking at the shapes of clouds pass by.

Again, just a reminder how blessed we are to have this time together and the enjoyment of the sun on our face, the breeze in our hair and walking a beautiful path that has been forged by so many before us. Buen Chemin!

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