Chapter 14: Half a Mile from the County Fair
Dining in the rain, wandering an Ozian ribbon of road, honey pots, fuzzy stomached bears, and knocking on the door of a peppermint cottage.
I don’t know if it is the mango I’ve eaten on the park bench that morning or the food at the Sunday lunch, but within an hour of setting out, I am sick-sick.
My legs feel like cement. Within two hours of saying goodbye to my friends from the brunch, I’m running a temperature. Things are becoming feverishly surreal. I am as tired after this short late afternoon walk as I was coming into Toulouse the previous Friday. By the time I arrive at the hostel, I can barely get through the chit-chat of the sign-in.
The hostel holds twenty people, but it is early enough in the season that there are only the two of us. The other pilgrim remembers me from a stop in Castres. He wants to talk. We’d had a brief conversation there, he says. I nod. I’ll nod at anything. I am too sick to contribute. Later, he will try to write postcards at a small desk across the dorm area while I race past him to vomit in a toilet down the hall. I spend the night on the tile floor.
In the morning, the worst seems to have passed, and that’s enough to keep moving. If I explained my health situation to the hostel overseer, I could stay another day, but I would have to reschedule everything downstream, a logistic headache to be sure, but it’s more than that.
I have the pilgrim fever to keep going, a zombie anxiety to stay on the river, a disorder that takes root in every pilgrim — and sends many home early. The pilgrim literally can’t stop. Your knee can be the size of a cantaloupe, and you won’t take a day off. Boot problems pale against pilgrim fever.
My progress that morning is a step-by-step slog. It isn’t helped by the elements. It begins to pour five minutes after leaving the hostel. But I’ve stepped over the no turning back threshold and signed myself out, and it forces me to grind on with grim inertia, focused on getting to my next stop for the evening.
Late morning, I pass through a village where I buy bread, cheese, and sliced meat in plastic from a gas station convenience store. I’m not remotely hungry, but it’s one of the only villages on my day’s route, and when food is available on stretches like this, you get it while you can. But when I step out of the rain under a bus shelter to eat, I can only bring myself to stare at it before tucking it away again.
By early afternoon, I’m deep into farmland and countryside, and I find some appetite. At this point, though, the bus shelter starts to look like white tablecloth dining.
A Maslow’s observation: out in the elements, there is nowhere to eat without getting drenched. I have the uncanny, never-noticed-it-before realization of how scarce roof-over-your-head shelter can be. There isn’t that much shelter in nature when I think about it. For the first time in my life, it bothers me that animals limp and trot about in the rain with matted fur, utterly exposed to the elements, never even being able to complain or make a feel-sorry-for-me face so other animals might help them out. As unpleasant as we are as a species, we get to do that. It’s all grim suck-it-up in the Animal Kingdom. I’m starting to understand the appeal of caves. As long as you stay sort of near the door.
All of this should give a general idea of where my head is at.
Eventually, I surrender the hunt for shelter, and I sit on my backpack on a thin path running through the middle of a vast field. I am wearing my full body armor REI mountaineering lunar-ready rain suit. It has a heavy-lidded visor that is effective at keeping the rain out. Hunched over like Gollum, I protect my bread and cheese as best I can and feed myself in a stationary huddle.
Farmland rolls off in every direction. I’m in the middle of nowhere, but I enjoy the absurdity of sitting alone in a mega landscape having lunch in some arbitrary spot like in a painting. Someone might see me and think exactly that! That man is sitting alone in a mega landscape having lunch in an arbitrary spot like in a painting!
Rain is spattering and popping on my rain hood like percussion. While chewing, I bend thick clusters of tall, wet straw under my feet and scrape trenches into the rough mud with my heel. For entertainment, I guide my raincoat runoff into my civil engineering collection pools. I’m abstractedly fascinated by the thick straw I’m crushing under my boots, chew, chew, chew. If it wasn’t for me with my sandwich, crumpled over the straw like an ice fisherman, nobody in the entire life of that stalky, nondescript, white-yellow grass would have ever even noticed it. But me. Spatter, pop, rain gear.
Until I showed up, my straw cluster would have entered and left the entire universe with only a single moment of excitement towards the end when a vast tractor rode over its head like at the beginning of Star Wars. But now, the straw is communing with The Mystery of me as I hover over it, disrupting its entire neighborhood with my heel. I am now The Mystery. That is a lot of responsibility.
So, this is what I think about when I don’t have reading material while I eat. It started as a child with cereal boxes. The reading part, not the Mystery part.
Ok, I must be doing better. You wouldn’t think this kind of stuff if you had a fever. Is that true? Or is it the other way around? Hmmm.
I’m a long way from Toulouse now, and the landscape grows increasingly rolling and pastoral.
By late afternoon there is a silver light in the air and a fresh, country smell that makes me stop on a small rise of hill and take it in, if only out of dutiful respect for nature. There are intermittent lily pad ponds off the path, and I have to stand on the verge to allow cars to pass. When I check my guidebook, it shows me closing on my next hostel destination, the last private home on my French pilgrim network.
I hopscotch rock-to-rock around guttering mud, jump and stretch and Twister precariously over trenches of water. Eventually, I change out of my rain gear and into a light jacket when it gets warmer.
Something has turned in my health, my spirits, and the weather. Half-aloud, I sing all the words that I can remember of And It Stoned Me. Van Morrison’s description of walking outdoors in the summer rain with a fishing pole has always something Bigger in it than the song itself, a glimmer of something peaceful, the turquoise jewel of a chance, joyful moment.
I decide that if there was a heaven, and I was entrusted to pick a mood for how it might feel, like if the General Manager asked me to queue up a background vibe that residents could tolerate for Eternity, it would be the low-key heaven in And It Stoned Me. Particularly if it was a heaven where you walked great distances in the rain and communed with tall grass in a mega landscape.
Half a mile from the county fair and the rain came pouring down...
The approach countdown starts for my hostel. 6km, 4km, 2km, 500m...
Occasional handmade wooden signs direct pilgrims, two simple painted sticks nailed together, the horizontal-ish one with an arrow tip for direction, the lettering hand-painted. They remind me of the that-a-way markers you might see on a Disney water park ride, its long tourist queue decorated with whistling, fuzzy stomach bears and buzzing bees and pots of honey, but here, like so much of the craftsmanship in France, the artistry is simple, clever, and charming.
Well, he lived all alone in his own little home with a great big gallon jar…
(Eternity is just getting started.)
One final wooden sign, and I come upon a mowed strip of field, maybe twelve feet across, the width of a single tractor pass, almost arbitrarily cut through the waist-high grass. The strip was very recently mowed, and the smell of cut grass is pleasantly, almost nostalgically intense. This rolling path welcome mat winds like an Ozian ribbon up and over a rise.
A farmhouse appears. Hansel and Gretel’s cottage could not have been more captivating or curious. I will not be surprised if the chimney has been fashioned from peppermint sticks.
My mowed lane winds me another hundred yards, humorously snaking this way and that, which is now patently unnecessary, before finally curving in towards the home. The tractor driver must have split his sides bouncing along with this mischief. I guess that the driver must have been the one that made the that-a-way Disney signs.
I knock quietly at the back door of the farmhouse. The hostess emerges holding a massive cat and greets me warmly.
They have been expecting me she says. I will be their only guest tonight. She tells me — with a twinkle — her husband got out the tractor to clear a way for me.
I love these people already.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.