What had I gotten myself into?
75 kilometers in for the day and I was nowhere near done, now pushing my bike up a hill through the heat. And it all seemed like such a romantic idea back in the planning stages. I was tired and hot and frankly questioning some personal choices that had led to this. I was on a mission, a pilgrimage of sorts, to reach the other side of France and the Atlantic. But when I got across the country and to the top of this hill, was any of this going to be worth it?
Since probably the dawn of human history, humans have been drawn in by the idea of pilgrimage. According to Wikipedia, a trusted source, a pilgrimage is a journey of some moral or spiritual significance typically ending at a some sort of holy place. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus have been in on the pilgrimage gig for the past umpteen thousand years. Usually there’s a great deal of pain and sacrifice involved in getting to these places. It’s never as simple as taking a nice air conditioned bus.
So why do people embark on these journeys of voluntary privation? Some do it as a penance. Some to earn a place in the after life. Others do it because there’s actually no other means of transport to get from where they are to where they want to be.
Us modern secularist types don’t really have anything that is the equivalent, so we make things up. I had decided to bike across France from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic as a kind of secular pilgrimage. It would help me learn French better, I would see the sights more intimately, I would get in shape, and I would make up for all that cheese-soaked partying I had been doing. But mostly, I wanted to feel like I had earned some badge of honor; that warm feeling in the gut that comes from having achieved something.
In the middle of that impossible hill in the exact center of my journey, all these reasons seemed dumb. It seemed like I, and real pilgrims, just liked to go looking for trouble. This may be unwise. But maybe the payoff in the end makes it all worth the pain? Or maybe we should have just stayed our asses at home and worshiped at the perfectly nice church right down the block? I tried to find an answer for myself within the evidence of my experience; and also, of course, on Wikipedia.
On the way towards answering this question for myself, I became intimate with another pilgrim, one way tougher than I and long dead. In 1662 Pierre-Paul Riquet, at the tender young age of 63 and after a prosperous and no doubt evil life as a royal tax collector, set out on a personal quest to build a canal that would connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. This was a dream held as far back as the Romans that had been looked into and abandoned several times over as wildly impractical. Key obstacles were the route and source of the waters – the rivers of western France flooded too violently to be used for either; and the money – the project was estimated to cost more than the Louis XIV government was spending in one entire year at that time (and those guys were ballers).
Riquet said “fuck it, I’m going for it” (but he said it in French). He would go on to solve these and other impossible problems to create the largest civil engineering project in Europe up to that time, but at great personal cost. He spent up his whole ill begotten fortune, including his daughters’ dowries (no doubt they were reduced to whoredom). He lost his health as well. In fact, he died a few months before the damn thing was finished (now that, Alanis Morrissette, is true irony). In the end, a nearly two thousand year old Gaulist ambition would come to fruition through his efforts. Riquet made it possible for frenchmen to sail from one side of their country to other and never have to deal with those nasty Spanish pirates.
For 100 years the results of Riquet’s pilgrimage ushered in new riches and trade to southern France (and it also took that long for the Riquet family to clear its debts from it and start to turn a profit), but then about 50 years after that the canal was made completely obsolete by the invention of the railroads. Now it is a World Heritage UNESCO site, a playground for gentleman sailors and the world’s most expensive bike trail. Was it all worth it, Riquet?
We’d find out. I had decided to bike it because it would take me to the sea with the least amount of map reading required, and the canal route promised to be flat and shady. Sold and sold.
The canal was indeed shady, but what I didn’t understand very well from the French guidebooks was that the bike trail was for the first half not much more than a narrow dirt mountain bike path that climbed steadily if gently upwards towards the high point in the middle, where water flowed back out to the sea from both sides.
Getting past the middle was for me the beginning of a one day religious experience, one of those less sexy, faith-questioning ones. After a few days of rain and pushing my bike through mud, I had finally reached Toulouse, the middle. The bike path turned dirty, industrial and littered on the way into the city. Toulouse itself was a gray place with little charm. I stayed at a hotel that night as a “treat”, a cheap place by the train station with a dirty bathroom, strange itinerant looking single men, and a room with no windows and a low slanted ceiling. In the morning I decided I was going to book it out of there and put in a long day to get past the sprawl and back into the old world charm. I decided to head to Moissac, about 70k away; it would be my longest day to date.
The day started out bad. I was biking out of the industrial butt crack of Toulouse and there was no sign of the charming French countryside I had paid all this cash to see up close and personal. I got lost as per usual; then I self-injured. I had scraped an area about the size of a silver dollar raw on my right shin and it had just started to crust over and heal. While turning back around on a dirty half trail by some abandoned train tracks, I fell and the serrated bike pedal dragged against it, reopening it. I howled in agony, hopping around on one leg like a cartoon character. I was alone and bleeding from a shallow cut and in pain and hopping around in these silly tight shorts, and I hadn’t even gotten out of the city yet. It would have been really funny, if it had been happening to someone else.
The only sane response at that point was Katy Perry. I turned my iPod speakers up full blast in the handlebar bag and got back to it. The dirty road out of town was at least nicely paved. Bits of green were poking in from around the light industrial zones, trees and shrubs, and the landscape was slowly bleeding back into the beautiful French countryside. Kilometer after kilometer I left the warehouses behind and began to see horses, farmland, rabbits! I reached Moissac in good time, whose core was an ancient abbey from the 14th century nestled in a square oozing with that good ole old world charm. Yes! It was all starting to maybe possibly feel worth it again.
But the day was not done. I would be tried again, and I was to meet a whole different set of pilgrims that day, Original Gangster style pilgrims. Moissac turned out to be a stop on the Way of St. James, or as it’s called in France, the the Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella (say it with a funny accent). Parts of the pilgrimage path run along the Canal. I had seen people walking with plastic walking sticks, large back packs and enormous calves, mostly to too old to be gap year backpackers. I had wondered who they were and what they were doing. My old home town of Montpellier was on the path as well but I didn’t know much about it except that every so often the path was marked by scallop shells embedded in the cobblestones.
The Way of Saint James is a thousand year old pilgrimage undertaken by Christians to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain, where legend (Wikipedia) has it the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried. It was quite popular in the middle ages but then wars, famine, plagues and political unrest whittled the pilgrimage down. By 1980 less than a few hundred were doing it every year. Then it got popular with the hippies and a there was a big boom, and now low hundreds of thousands do it a year.
There are five pathways through France, and traditionally you start at your house doorstep and walk to one of the starting points, then continue walking the whole way. As you walk, churches and pilgrimage hostels give you simple but heartfelt hospitality. Did I mention you have to walk this thing?
Nuns and The Little Star
I didn’t know anything about this as I rolled into Moissac, which is apparently a major pilgrim refueling station. Like I said, I was just there for the old world charm.
To reward myself for having escaped the ugly and reached the pretty I decided to treat myself with another night inside, this time at a nice hostel. I called one of the hostels listed in my guidebook, run by nuns.
It was a tough phone conversation, as I understood very little of what the nun said. An older traveler was sitting next to me in the square and took pity on me, in English. I told her I was going up to the nuns’ hostel, and she said there was a staircase to get there, and did I want to go check it out first to see if I really wanted to do it while she watched my bike? Nah, I said. I’ll be fine on a little staircase.
When I rounded the corner I saw two large flights of steps that would be impossible for me to do without taking everything off my bike and making two trips. How can an outdoor street only be accessible by steps? There had to be a road. So I circled around and sure enough found a a steep road leading up to the street I needed to get to. Great, I thought, relieved. This is what travel has taught me, to be resourceful; there is always another way. That’s why I am on this trip, to learn things like that. Now I just had to go across that street, cross the circle, and follow the signs to the hostel.
Well, after I got up the hill and across the circle, there were signs for the hostel all right. But the signs pointed straight up another hill that was just as steep and twice as long as the one I had just done. Great. 70k in and my gas tank was running near empty. The guidebook said this hostel had a great view of the river though, and you always have to work for that. Good things take work. That’s why I was on this trip, to learn things like that. See, it was totally worth it! I huffed it up the hill at a slow pace, certain I was having a life affirming experience of great value.
When I got to the outer gates of the nunnery, I went through it only to look straight up a winding road at yet another hill. Now you have to be freaking kidding me, I thought. This one was the kind of hill that you know is really steep and long because the path curved around and you couldn’t even see the summit. Some French tourists were just coming down it and they laughed at me. “You are going up there on that? Impossible. Bon Courage!”
I weighed the probable pain of biking up this hill against my laziness and cheapness. If I went back down I would have to stay in a hotel, or bike another 2 kilometers out to the campsite. The easiest thing seemed to be to try to get up it. I could even walk it, no one would be around to judge me. Also, I needed to pee now and this would be the fastest route to a bathroom.
I started up the hill, and was walking it just a few meters in. Around every turn there was hill. Just more and more hill. Would you like some hill to go with your never ending hill? I was now having difficulty even walking the bike. I would count out twenty steps and then have to stop for a rest. Finally there was a sign for the the hostel. Just a little bit further, it’s worth the pain! the sign said. I’d be the judge of that.
Finally I could see the top. There was this statue:
And below it that, a set of shallow steps leading up to a final ascending steep staircase.
What could I do? I dropped my bike, dropped my shorts and peed on the convent steps. God would forgive me. If He didn’t, fuck Him for putting this convent on an enormous mountain anyway.
I had not signed up for this. I was not on this trip to learn about physical humiliation and desperation. I had already learned about those things in high school. This had suddenly become not worth it. But because I needed a place to sleep that night, I pushed my bike up step by step until I couldn’t anymore. Then I took everything off the bike and carried the bags up to the hostel driveway, which just looked like a little house and not like a convent at all. Whatever. I skipped by the viewpoint to the left. I wasn’t here for that, I was here for the indoor plumbing and bed sheets. I went back down a bit and then carried my bike up to the gravel driveway as well. Then I just stood there in the dirt, vision swimming.
A lady came out to talk to me. She looked me up and down like I might be a serial killer. I said I was the young lady who had called about a bed. She said she hadn’t gotten any call this afternoon. I insisted that I had called. She said would you like to speak English? I said yes, thank you Jesus.
We covered the details quickly in English. It turned out this was a different hostel, for Compostella pilgrims. I had missed the entrance of the convent hostel, which was back down the hill. This was a different place, called The Little Star. I don’t know what look must have been on my face right then, but the host said it was no problem, I could stay there tonight anyway, let me get you some water.
Grumpy, I sat down with the rest of the crew for dinner. A retired woman and a young lanky teenaged boy were my companions. They were doing this Compostella thing. They explained to me what it was. The retired woman had walked with her pack over 1000 kilometers! Only 400 to go. A sixty year old woman walking 20 kilometers a day while I had a set of luxurious wheels. Perhaps time to quit my bitching.
I was treated to an absolutely enormous French meal in five courses and a ridiculous amount of wine. I tried to follow the lively conversation with 3 different French regional accents going on. My dinner companions educated me on the details of the pilgrimage, its origins, routes, rules. Then the retiree showed me her pilgrim’s passport; a small notebook with over fifty different scallop shaped stamps from all the pilgrim hostels she had stayed at. At the end when you get to the church in Spain, you get the final stamp and a certificate of completion.
I asked her why she was doing this. Just curious, not hostile. Did she wish to worship? No, she laughed. She was not religious at all. She was doing it just for the doing of it. Hmm.
My host had also done the Compostella. She recounted hilarious stories of arriving places much like me: washed up, late, exhausted, desperate for housing, hungry; sometimes being greeted like a leper, sometimes getting a king’s welcome in the most unlikely of places. It was what inspired her to open her own pilgrim hostel. She got back, saw this house with its view, and bought it in one day. It just felt right. My host believed that there were no accidents. We get brought to where we are supposed to be, and I had been brought to the right place that night.
The next day two wonderful things happened. When I woke up, the host had cooked me an egg! In France, breakfast is a sad, tiny affair. That morning I had my first egg for breakfast in 3 months. I nearly cried. Then, as I packed up my bike to go, I decided to check out that viewpoint after all. And it was beautiful.
Back on the road, two thirds of the way there, I still had my doubts about whether or not this whole pilgrimage thing was worth it either in practice or in theory. What if people do these sorts of things just for the arbitrary sense of direction it provides? Riquet knew he wanted to get to the Atlantic, and the way of St. James folks know they have to get to Northern Spain. I had a bike path, even if it wasn’t always paved. When you know you are definitely going to end up somewhere, it makes it a lot easier to move forward. Real life is not so simple. In our ordinary lives we are more like Christopher Columbus – we set out for distant shores with no idea how long we’ll be sailing before we next see land. A pilgrimage then seemed like cheating, an oversimplified way to get some Achievement Points out of the complex Xbox game of life.
While pedaling I exchanged the Katy Pery for Echkart Tolle. He had a lot to say on the topic of achievement. Echkart, a deep cat, shat thoroughly all over the idea of achievement. His view is that achievement is a barrier to happiness. In his view achievement is ultimately meaningless because nothing you do can ever improve upon or take away from the hotness that is each of us simply due to the miracle of our improbable existences. Achievement is just something the mind goes after to reinforce its notion of itself as separate and special, possibly able to escape death even, through hyper-vigilance. Achievement makes you cut-off and clingy, and those two states are the roots of any type of unhappiness.
I could see his point. I was hell bent on reaching the Atlantic. But every time I thought of how to do it and had to strategize how to finish before my visa ran out, I felt stressed and sick. It was taking me a lot longer than I had wanted it to take. I needed to get there and get there now. And where was my pay off, my life affirming realizations? All I had where scabs on my legs. What a situation!
Echkart also talked a lot about situations, mainly the difference between your life and your life situation. Because of our pesky egos again, our deep habitual patterns of trying to protect our sense of a boundaried, important self, we often mistake our life situation for our actual life. Your life situation is the content of your day. Your bank account balance, your job, your weight, your relationships, your aches and pains, your degrees, your place in the social hierarchy, your illnesses, your challenges, your privileges; your achievements. We mistake these things in our situation for the fabric of our life, but they are not our life. Our life is underneath all that stuff. Our life is our animus and our joy in it, that spark of being here now and aware that is the basic substance of our consciousness. It cannot be augmented or detracted from. It doesn’t benefit from our achievements, and it isn’t tarnished by our failures (there’s also no entry on it in Wikipedia). Our life is always there, steady, underneath the flowers and garbage of our life situation. But most of the time we can’t feel it because we are too busy listening to the voices in our heads constantly cajoling us to go lay a claim on something.
I could see his point again. There was a part of me I could feel if I was quiet enough and remained unimpressed by anything, including myself. That part just wanted to breathe and look around. When I got lost in the pedaling, that’s when it was easiest to feel that part.
Getting lost like that also made it easier to see France. France lives up to a lot of its stereotypes, but behind that it is a beautiful country in the same way that India and America are beautiful countries. It has woods and streams, valleys, farmland, rivers. It also has dirty industrial zones, urban sprawl, nuclear power plants. It bled by me as a I pedaled at an easy pace, neglecting to challenge myself at all unless I absolutely had to and singing loudly along to the Glee soundtrack.
Farm land bleeds into village, which bleeds into light industry and then into forest, suburban town, beach. The boulevards widen, the needs of 18th century farmers giving way to the needs of holiday motorists getting to the water. Pine trees smell good even though they are being cut down. Pine wood fences come out of ground littered with faint traces of limestone and now sand. You can start to feel the water in the air.
On the other side of this pine hill is a dune, and on the other side of that, my ocean.
Then I see the scallop shells.
I get to the dune. The lady tells me it’s not wise to trek down to the beach on the other side in this heat, that I should bike to the other beach instead. I compromise and go to the top of the dune and then back down it, using the staircase.
Then I go to the other beach. It’s only a beach in a loose sense of that word. It’s really just a concrete slab. But there are some stone steps leading straight down into the water. And the water is beautiful.
I taste the ocean, as I had vowed to do when I did so on the Mediterranean side. Sure enough, it’s similarly salty. Then I get on the train to complete a trip backwards to Bordeaux, passing towns in minutes that it had cost me days to bike to.
So was it worth it?
I was beginning to see this as a useless question. It’s like asking is it worth it to get up in the morning. The day brings what it’s gonna bring. If it was a bad day, do you wish you had stayed in bed? If it was a good day, do you wish you had gotten up earlier? That’s Monday morning quarterbacking your own life, judging your life based on whether or not you think you gained from things you had no idea were going to happen and that you largely could not control.
But the quality, sacredness and value of our lives has nothing at all to do with whether or not we made a profit in the daily day-trading of good and bad fortune. The value of our lives is intrinsic, infinite and unchanged by any circumstance. So therefore every day of our lives is equally and always worth it, whether or not we are on some pilgrimage, or partying with strippers in Vegas, or logging another day at Initech. A pilgrimage hopefully just helps you realize that.
Yeah, but . . . was the bike trip worth it for me, in that normal, prosaic every day sense of the word?
Well, I over trained and overspent. I ate well, except for when I lived on cookies. I learned new skills I will probably never use again. I got injuries that will heal at various rates. I got enormous calf muscles. I felt stress and despair. I felt peace and pure freedom. I spoke a lot of French with a lot of people. I peed in a lot of strange places.
I woke up everyday and (almost) every day I biked. And as biked, I felt the life inside me just like I felt the road beneath me; riding steadily along, underneath the wheels of my life situation.
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