Chapter 10: Napoleon on a White Horse
Popeye Spinach, forgotten painkillers, Barack Obama, kayaking from Tahiti with coconut leaves, Charlie Brown's parents, a friend that sighs in falsetto, and a footnote confession 
By car it takes four hours to reach Toulouse from our home in Rognes. It’s a distance of almost 250 miles. At the steady rate I am headed west, Toulouse is the last legitimate destination for a rendezvous with the family. After that, it’s too far for Melanie and the children to reach me for a weekend.
I’ve passed on scheduling visits earlier because I want to get some momentum in the pilgrimage before meeting up with them. I want to feel officially on the road without the push and pull and start and stop of family, no family, then family again.
So long ago, we’d pulled out a map and settled on Toulouse. We decided that Melanie would pick up the kids early from school on a Friday afternoon and drive out directly to meet me. I would take my first rest day that Saturday with all of us together and then continue the walk on Sunday morning while they headed back to Rognes.
The stretch of Camino headed into Toulouse from the east runs along the Canal du Midi. The canal winds out from Toulouse all the way to the Mediterranean. Another canal runs from Toulouse to the Atlantic. They are bona fide marvels of Renaissance engineering. Leonardo DaVinci was brought to France to consult on how to build it. After the rolling hills of the first three weeks of the pilgrimage, the level canal path is easy-going.
The path is deserted that morning. Ducks scatter and waddle away from me, fluffing themselves and plopping into the water, surprised by the early morning human. Fog surrounds the canal, and the morning sunlight makes the scenery into an image from a French tourism calendar.
With no camera to catch the moment, I stop and instruct myself to remember what I am seeing, and I do still remember that moment, perhaps not its photographic particulars, but the memory soup of colors and atmosphere, the sense of horizon, and dew, and quiet farmland, the shroud of grey-blue fog, all of it. It’s all still there. Very beautiful, even now.
To the north, the highway snakes in and out of view. The low rumble of tires and diesel engines fades in and out all morning. Later in the day, my family will drive in on that highway. The children are probably still in their classes right now or maybe out on the school playground in a recess. Melanie is at the house or out having coffee with friends. She’s made a lot of friends this year. I don’t even know all of the names she brings up.
I imagine the children being driven along, looking out the car windows for me, excited about who will spot me first and yell out, “Dad! It’s Dad!” Or they’re reading. Or sleeping. Every conjured image of them is a pleasure.
We have a tentative plan that they will pick me up somewhere before Toulouse, depending on how far I’ve walked. We’ll drive into Toulouse together, and then, at the end of the visit, they will redeposit me on the exact spot where they found me, and I will continue from there.
If there’s a Ten Commandments of the Camino de Santiago, the first is that you walk the entire way, no cheating, and you carry your own pack. There must be an unbroken, traceable line of footsteps from launch point to the cathedral doors and then on to the sea at Finisterre. You don’t take rides. You do it on your own. There may not even be any other Camino commandments.
I’m making great time. Most days I cover between 25 and 35 kilometers, which is roughly 15 to 20 miles. Depending on terrain I walk between 2.5 to 3 miles an hour. This morning’s carpenter flat canal pins the needle above that, and at some point, around the 18-mile mark I notice it is still really early in the day. I decide to walk straight into Toulouse. This will knock off a second day of walking in one. Which means the family and rest day in Toulouse won’t set me back because my huge ‘make it up in advance’ day. I am ‘walking it forward.’
This day’s stretch will now be somewhere between thirty-five and forty miles. The very first week a French Camino friend told me that one of Napoleon’s armies was mobilized to walk 50km a day, and they took their enemies by surprise because of it.
To motivate French people, let’s assume Napoleon told his foot soldiers their enemies were English. This would explain the rate they travelled to Paris, or maybe it was from Paris, or somewhere. Doesn’t matter. The enemies might have been German. I’m pretty sure they aren’t crazy about the Germans either.
My point is they won. And from that conversation on, 50km became my benchmark for a Major Camino Day. On the approach to Toulouse I am push towards 60km. I will catch Napoleon himself by surprise!
I have a handful of painkillers left over from dental work the year before, and I take (at least) one of them around 30km. Man, it is like I’ve eaten a can(s) of Popeye Spinach. I am flying towards Toulouse. No aches, no pain, no fatigue. Cruise control.
Think Gene Kelly in the rain with a backpack and a walking stick for an umbrella. I have never felt so light. This must be what steroid people feel like, except that I still have normal-sized ears and testicles.
People gradually appear along the canal that morning - nobody in France seems to have a full-time job – and I skirt around them like a peppy Citroen.
Between the 2500mg painkillers and the prospect of seeing my family, I have become a passing machine. As I go around them, up and over embankments, and wherever else they block me, I wave outside my imaginary car window like I’m in an Italian film. Bonjour! Buen Camino! Arrivederci! Barack Obama!
At around forty kilometers, I get to the outskirt suburbs of the city and start to rejoin urban civilization.
I stand out. I’m unshaven and have a homeless guy’s leathery tan. I have a bizarre seashell tied to my sun-bleached army hat. I’m not dirty exactly, but I’m not clean either. Let’s call it “dusty.”
Let’s say I’m Grizzly Adams come down from the mountain. I’m walking into the big city like somebody who has emerged from the Saharan desert. I imagine lone adventurers who paddle across the Pacific in handmade boats and pull up into some resort beach swim area.
Kids are playing in the surf, and their moms are tanning, and nobody even notices this guy who kayaked all the way from Tahiti using coconut leaves. These kinds of thoughts make me laugh to myself. I enjoy the simplicity of my own company. There’s a great deal of that on the Camino.
In a small restaurant by the canal, I run into a heavy-set Swiss pilgrim I’d met a week before. We have lunch together and a beer. My friend speaks French with a singsong German accent and, every now and then, sighs dramatically in falsetto. That sounds off-putting, and I try not to smile. She’s extremely likable, just, well, a tad peculiar. There’s a lot of that on the Camino, too.
She had been struggling when I’d first met her, and when I’d left her behind. That day she was limping at about three-quarters the speed of a group I was walking with. The group slowed for a mile or so, but then wished her well and “dropped her” as we bikers like to say.
She fell back on the road behind us, curve by curve, until she was no more. Now she has shown up again in Toulouse ahead of me, which is, dammit, impossible.
She admits – great falsetto sigh – that she started getting bus rides to keep her on schedule, which explains how she caught up so miraculously.
I tell her with humblebrag pride where I set out that morning and explain I’m going all the way into Toulouse to meet up with my family. They are driving in from north of Marseille. We exchange email addresses and hug goodbye. I fix my backpack on again and head out.
It is now high afternoon, hot and sunny. I walk past the familiar vignettes of city life: bicyclists, roller skaters, soccer games in the park, picnickers, retirement home residents on benches feeding birds. The feeling of being a pilgrim is a sense of general dislocation from regular life, a paddle-free river drift through the familiar that has now been set to the side.
There is a Disneyland Huck Finn quality to it, and it’s not unpleasant this having nothing and nobody knows me feeling. Feeling good is good enough for me. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” My backpack and I are on the edge of an entire generation’s aspirational motto.
At fifty kilometers the painkillers wear off.
I’ve walked steadily for ten hours. In the heart of Toulouse, I realize that the hotel Melanie reserved isn’t in the centre ville, where I’ve kind of assumed, but further out on its western edge, at least an additional 3-4K push.
The kilometer numbers are adding up now, and not in a way I’m in control of. I stop for a moment on a bridge overpass and collect my thoughts and strength.
I am having difficulty understanding pedestrian instructions and which avenues to follow for how long. There’s no straight-line path to getting there and the rapid-fire directions in French are a challenge. I can’t even understand navigations directions in English. I get like one word and then it’s Charlie Brown’s parents. I feel I’m being guided through an ice crystal.
My feet are seriously blistered. I notice every step at this point. I’ve told people during the walk that I’ve ‘felt every step,’ but this is the first time in my life I do feel every step. My legs are numb in a worrying way. There’s some nerve-related pain spreading on my left hip.
Napoleon rode upon a white horse. He didn’t have a clue what it meant to push 60K into Paris, and I do…
 I broke the Commandment in Montpellier and I lied about it in the cathedral office in Santiago de Compostela. The man at the cathedral office asked me pointedly if I walked the entire way with no rides or other assistance. I’m assuming he asks everybody this before surrendering the official stamp and the certificate of completion, but he definitely asked me.
He looked me right in the eye and I felt all of time slow down. I felt like a first-time NFL kickoff returner. I affirmed to the man with the stack of certificates on his desk that I had.
‘Si,’ I said with a liar’s vigor.
Okay, so obviously there’s a second commandment around honesty related to the first, but it’s way, way down in the list of importance. On the Camino in Spain people are taking taxis from town to town for Christ’s sake! Rented porters are carrying their crap every day and they’re still weeping on both knees in the Cathedral Square and hugging total strangers and crying out, “I did it. I did it! I can’t believe I did it!”
For the record, since only God and I know the truth here, the guy I was walking with in Montpellier when I broke the Commandment had a swollen knee and was struggling. He wasn’t even a pilgrim. He was a guy from Geneva out for a long walk. He was exhausted and needed to take a bus into the city center and I rode with him. 2-3km tops. This was 2-3km out of 1600km! I walked twice the distance of the Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port people you saw in the Martin Sheen movie. 1000 miles! Those people started on the lower left-hand corner of France! Which is fine, but they’re in France for like 22 minutes. I practically came from Italy! 6 weeks I walked before I even joined them.
And I’m sorry but this tiny cheat that I didn’t even want to commit was between God and me, not the volunteer at the desk with the certificates and the purple stamp. Half the point of the entire New Testament is that this kind of thing is okay, and it’s not all about the rules and the Old Testament God of Rigid Expectations. Why are we even having this conversation?
And just for the record I got incredibly lost the following morning in the pouring rain because the outbound Camino trail led over a small river and the bridge was swept away. I had to completely backtrack through the city to get on course again. That was easily an additional 2-3km and included scrambling up a ridiculously steep hill of brambles with my backpack in the pouring rain first thing in the morning.
So yes, I walked the entire way. God has already punished me for this directly. You’re not in the loop on everything. Please hand me the paper with my name in Latin.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.