Chapter 12: Lost & Found
I hold a pity party, nobody comes, and then I get hopelessly lost.
Three weeks before, when I headed out with Melanie and the kids, I had this great, unknown adventure ahead of me. I had an Oz.
But now, there’s no Oz. There’s me, and there’s walking. I know exactly what the next seven weeks hold. Everything is flipped. The adventure is all behind me now, and it will be ages before I see them again. I’m swan diving into a quarry pond of Alone.
The four of us walk a half-mile towards the first trail marker. We step over the tracks of a municipal train depot. In the overcast light, Toulouse is morning-after, hook-up-ugly and urban and dirty. Sunday morning trash cans are overflowing. Somebody’s sweater is abandoned in the street. If the depot doesn’t smell of urine, then it should. It’s probably not even safe for the three of them to walk through here to get back to the hotel.
We find the avenue that leads back to the Camino, and then, more quickly than I hoped, I spot the balisage trail markings. There it is again, my Camino, where I left it.
The children’s energy has focused on each other the last few minutes, some small competition or frustration emerging between them. That they are not paying 100% attention to me hurts my feelings. I want them to ask me what’s wrong so that I can say, “Nothing.”
I say good-bye quickly, too quickly, maybe deliberately too quickly. I’m giving 75% hugs. There’s no way to get this right, and it is too painful to drag out. I only need to get going and away. I’ll pick an arbitrary fight with Melanie if I don’t.
A shopkeeper is opening his store up on my right and messing with the awning. There’s overly aggressive morning traffic wrangling on my left. A vast palette of grays opens up in front of me – big, lay it on thick, Van Gogh brush strokes, but with zero color. The three of them are still waving and looking towards me the last few turnarounds. I’m aware some part of me wants to be the last to turnaround. Maybe I’ll keep turning around until I’ve proven they were the first to say goodbye.
Paint stroke, paint stroke, paint stroke.
When I was a child, we used to call this “having a pity party.” I’m having a pity party, and nobody’s going to come.
I follow the red and white trail markers of the French grande randonnée route system along a river. National hiking trails are marked out with colored red-white coordinates, including the Chemin de Saint Jacques. Each stripe of markers is the width of the black paint that athletes wear under their eyes.
They’re parallel if you’re supposed to keep straight on, one angle down if you’re to head right, the opposite for left. There’s one in a big X for “you absolutely don’t want to go this way.” There’s one that takes a museum docent to figure out. They pop up like heartbeats. You barely notice them, until you notice you don’t.
The pilgrimage support communities put shells up here, but they are as much to greet travelers as to navigate them anywhere. Pilgrims rely completely on the GR system in France. My path markers on this gloomy morning are taking me towards the south rather than the west, which is odd, because the route is well-marked, so it isn’t like I’ve lost my way.
Generally, if you’re not circumnavigating something geographical, or right-angling your way around somebody’s farmland, everything directs you reliably west. I’m clearly following the markings, white over red, white over red, but I’m not headed where I feel I should be. I keep looking for a ford over the river that will start moving me towards the west, but it doesn’t come, and with it there’s a slowly rising anxiety.
Did I somehow pick up an intersecting trail and veer off on a new one? At very rare intervals these national paths cross each other, but there’s no red-white signal for “you’re crossing another route, pay super close attention so you don’t take the wrong one.”
I really don’t have the focus to spend a lot of energy on navigation right now. I want the path arrows to line up dutifully. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t out there. Sometimes you have to backtrack and circle every tree in the forest to find the next way marker. In Spain they spray paint arrows on every wall. I know it will be effortless there. But navigation in France is another matter entirely, and, please, God, today I just want things to work themselves out. This is almost cruel. Divine spite.
After a half hour of heading south, I come across a regional map in a municipal park by some tennis courts, and I know for certain that something is really wrong. The map shows the GR trail, and I am not headed the right direction. There’s no way. These are signs for a different route, and it’s definitely not the one for the Camino. I’ve taken the wrong branch at a balisage intersection. For all I know, I’m headed to the Mediterranean.
I’m due at a hostel where I’ve called ahead and booked my next stop. I have to make that destination by nightfall, or I’ll be stuck for a place to stay, and then all the reserved stops past it will domino apart as well. The welcome desks at the hostels are not open indefinitely, and, if you’re too late, you’re not getting in because the volunteers aren’t even there to let you.
I take a clear-my-head break. I’m no less lost, but at least I’ve stopped making it worse for a minute. A light rain starts to fall, and that also isn’t helping my mood. Neither do the tennis courts. For some reason, the suburban setting of parks and football fields and talkative women with tennis rackets walking by reminds me of how lost I am and far from home.
For three weeks I haven’t passed through a lot of suburbia. One time I walked by a golf course, and it felt practically interplanetary. I stopped and stared at it. I didn’t even know French people play golf. But by the tennis courts it’s suburbia in full force. There’s a great saying that the way you know you’re on an adventure is when you want to go home. Yeah? Well, welcome to the Calypso Islands.
I polish off a small plastic Ziplock bag of dried mango Melanie packed for me, depleting the last evidence of her personal touch. I head out again, still stubbornly towards the south, hoping to find somebody who can help orient me. I need directions more than I need to Hail Mary a backtrack to Toulouse and have to redo this entire stretch a second time.
Up ahead, of me I spot an elderly couple walking their dog on the asphalt path. They are probably in their mid-seventies. I approach the couple from behind, excuse myself, and ask them for help. They turn around, and stare at me like a ghost. For a moment, they don’t say anything. They just stare. And then it dawns on me.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.