Thursday, August 30, 2012

Day 3: The Beast of Gevauden

Dscn8646bAugust 14: Before I continue, I’d like to apologize for not using accents and other strange marks in anything I write that’s French. I don’t really want to be bothered with figuring those out. There’s already enough typos and grammar issues—a few missing accents aren’t going to matter much. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. =)

So, I woke up from a rather comfortable night’s sleep, but when I tried to leave my meadow, I discovered I’d been barbwired in! I guess those cattle corralers put the fallen fence back up as they were outrunning the cows and keeping them in line. I hadn’t noticed the fence was back up until I tried to leave. It didn’t pose much of an issue, though—it was low enough that I could (carefully!) step right over it.

An hour into my hike, I went to take another photo when my camera did something it had never done before: It ran out of space. Barely 48 hours into my hike, and I had filled up my camera with photos! Unlike most people, however, who’d panic and have to decide which photos to keep and which ones to get rid of, I could keep them all. I set my pack down under a tree, sat down next to it, pulled out my little laptop computer, booted it up, plugged in my camera, and copied all of the photos off the camera. Bam! Just like that, I had an entirely clean memory card to keep me going. I’m sure I looked strange slouched over my laptop in the middle of nowhere, but it didn’t matter to me. It got the job done.

Now you’re probably thinking, “WTF? You’re carrying a LAPTOP?!” Yes, I decided that for this trip, I would carry a laptop. There are several reasons for this. One, the French keyboards are absolutely impossible for me to type on. You would not be reading these blogs without this laptop. Two, I didn’t think there would be a whole lot of Internet cafes or time to make updates to AQ if something goes wrong. I figured I could find wi-fi connections a lot easier than I could find Internet cafes. (This has definitely proven to be true so far!) Three, I could stay in various lodging every night if I wanted to. There was electricity everywhere! I could power it up on a daily basis without any trouble—not something that I would have been able to do on my other long-distance treks. And fourth, since I was walking through multiple towns on a daily basis, I didn’t have to carry a week or more of food on my back at the time. This hike give me my lightest pack weight ever—so I felt it was okay to be a little indulgent by adding the weight of a small, lightweight laptop to my pack. It was the smallest, lightest laptop I could find (for obvious reasons), and the cheapest (just in case it does get destroyed—laptops aren’t really designed for backpacking!).

So there you go, I’m carrying a laptop, and when the memory card in my camera ran out of space, the laptop was a handy little thing to have around. =)

Further up the trail, I caught up with two girls riding horses along the trail. They didn’t speak any English and I don’t really know how far they were planning to go, but I’d see them quite often over the next several days. Mules, and now horses. The difference being, of course, the girls could actually ride the horses while the travelers with the mules could only have the mules carry their stuff—but not them.

I tried talking to a number of hikers, but none of them know English. I managed to learn how to say, “Do you speak English?” in French, so at least when I don’t understand a word they say, they know why. =) Invariably, they’ll tell me that they know “a little” English, but as it turns out, they know about as much English as I know French which isn’t enough to even have a simple conversation. So I’ve largely kept to myself, not even asking if people know English anymore. It’s a lonely little trail, despite all of the people you can find hiking it. =)

Dscn8645bIf someone does know English, it’s probably because they’re Germans or Belgium or from some other part of Europe except France. I’ve had more conversations with Germans than I have French people!

I stopped for lunch in Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole (and isn’t that a mouthful!). I tried to order pizza, but the waiter waved that idea off. As I understood things, they weren’t serving pizza at the time. Or maybe that day. Or maybe they never did serve pizza but put it on their menus just to get our attention. =) Afterwards, I ordered ice cream, because I felt like I deserved it.

Later in the day, I was thinking about stamps. Pilgrims carry a credential—kind of a passport of sorts for hikers along this trail. At many locations along the trail, primarily lodging, they’ll stamp your credential as proof you were there. It becomes a record of your travels and, at the end, in Santiago, the powers-that-be will examine it to make sure you really did hike as far as you said you did. I’ve been told they look very carefully at these stamps, and guidebooks warn you should try to get at least once each day, and in the last 100 kilometers, preferably two per day. So far, I had two stamps in my credential—both from Le Puy-en-Velay. Both from before I actually started hiking! I was now on Day 3 and had no new stamps to my name, and since I was camping outdoors, I wasn’t getting any stamps from my lodging.

So I stopped at Le Gevauden Les Estrets Gite late in the afternoon and asked for a stamp. So I didn’t just want to stamp and run, though—which doesn’t seem in the spirit of things anyhow—I ordered a Coke for two euros, which he served to me in a relatively warm can. *sigh* I also made use of the facilities, which had real flush toilets and even included toilet paper! And bam—just like that, I had a third stamp in my credential.

The gite is named after the “Beast of Gevauden,” which my guidebooks describes as being renowned in the area as being responsible for some 50 missing people between 1765 and 1768. A lynx killed near Saint-Flour in 1787 is thought to be the culprit.

I have a couple of problems with this theory based on that short description. First, why would the lynx have stopped killing people between his last victim in 1768 and the being killed himself in 1787? For 19 years, he stopped killing people? Maybe my guidebook has a typo or something, but that sounds a little fishy to me to blame an animal 19 years after the last mysterious disappearance.

And second, if it were an animal killing all these people, what happened to all the bodies? Surely some of those 50 missing bodies would have been discovered at some point, but it sounds like they never were. Animals might try to hide their kills, but I gotta think at least a few of the bodies would have eventually turned up and they’d look at it and go, “Yep, look at those bite marks. Definitely a lynx!” (Or not, but my point is… what happened to the bodies?!)

Dscn8678bSo I developed my own theory, based purely on the short description provided in my guidebook, suspected typos, and my imagination. I think a serial killer ran loose in the countryside, killing 50-or-so people and hiding, burning, or otherwise making sure the bodies were never found. And in those days, people probably didn’t consider “serial killers” at a legitimate threat. So they had a sudden rash of disappearances, and the most logical explanation that they could think of at the time was, “An animal must have done it. It was…. THE BEAST OF GEVAUDEN!” Which almost sounds kind of plausible, and to folks in the 1700s, might sound even more plausible than a serial killer.

When you walk all day, you have time to think about this sort of stuff. =)

Near the end of the day, I passed through the small town of Aumont-Aubrac and used their Internet connection for the 15 minutes until the tourist office closed for the day. I didn’t know it then, but it turns out all of the tourist offices along the trail have stamps for the asking, and now that’s where I’m getting most of my stamps for my credential. But I wouldn’t figure that out for well over a week!

I bought a sandwich and soda from a small convenience store for dinner, even noticing that they had the same bottle of denatured alcohol I now carried in my pack. How ‘bout that. Found denatured alcohol, on the trail, on two consecutive days without even looking for it.

Outside, while eating my stash, I met a German who was bicycling around the world and said he’d already done over 15,000 kilometers or some such enormous number that’s impossible to comprehend. He’d been biking for the last 15 months, traveling through the center of Australia through their summer months. Through the US—and not in a straight line, but going from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon up to Glacier National Park, and eventually leaving from New York.

“I’ve hiked 90 kilometers,” I told him. It sounded pretty lame.

On my way out of town, I passed by an outfitters that I didn’t even know was on the trail. (Why do my guidebooks not include information like this? HELLO????!) I poked my head in long enough to buy a small pack towel—just in case it might come in handy at some of the hostels or even in camp along the way. I meant to bring one from the United States but I had forgotten it. Now I had one, and didn’t even have to go out of my way looking for it!

I set up camp just outside of town, in the trees, near a busy highway. Not the best place to set up camp, but at least I was well hidden and the traffic died down once darkness came along.

Still no new contributors to sponsor me in the WTA Hike-a-Thon since my last post. You’re running out of time! Remember, anyone who contributes at least $10 will get a postcard from me from on the Camino! =) (Anyone who’s already contributed—you should have already received your postcards if I had your address. There were a couple of people I couldn’t find addresses for, though. If you’re one of them, contact me!)

This little “roadside stand” appears to be selling trinkets to
passing pilgrims. Nobody was there—it’s an honor system, I guess,
and nothing was written in English. I signed the logbook on the
table anyhow, though. =)

The trail has billboards for pilgrims everywhere! Most of them
are for gites (essentially French hostels), including
location, phone numbers, and amenities.

A couple of horseback riders on the trail.

Only 1,475 kilometers to Santiago! =) Or as the French like to say,
to Saint Jacques de Compostelle. (As Steve Martin would say, the
French have a different word for everything!)


My ice cream for the afternoon. On a completely trivial subject, Amanda and Mom,
I sent your postcards from that yellow box in the background, just above
the spoon in my ice cream, before I sat down to eat. I watched the postwoman
drive up and pick it up while I was eating my ice cream. =)

I have absolutely no idea what this thing is all about. *shrug*

One of the larger roadside crosses.

I take a snack break late in the afternoon.

The German who’s ridden a bicycle around the world (right) and another fellow
who is currently only hiking a section of the Camino but told me that a couple
of years before, he hiked from Belgium (or something—I forgot to write it down)
to Santiago, which is a pretty respectable distance.

It was a wonderful place to camp—except for the nearby highway.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Day 2: French Quirks

Dscn8448bAugust 13: I woke up with the sun, as I usually do when I camp outdoors, and ate an unappetizing breakfast of cheese, M&Ms, and granola bars for breakfast. I generally prefer granola cereal for breakfast on the trail—something that will take my stomach a few hours to munch on while I’m starting the day. I never did find any cereal at all in Le Puy. I’m sure it’s there, but I never found the shop that carried it, so I was forced into eating my snack lunch for breakfast.

The first small town I hit in the morning, just a kilometer or two from where I camped, was a cute little place called St. Privat-d’Allier built onto the top of a precarious ridge. It’s kind of astounding to me that they can build these places in some of the locations that they do. The town had a small shop that was open, so I dropped my pack and checked it out. The pickings were slim—if these were to be what shops usually carried, my diet would need some serious adjusting. Ultimately, I settled on an orange drink (for immediate consumption) and some sort of bread with fruit in it (for later).

Compared to the dearth of hikers leaving Le Puy, I caught a cornucopia of hikers leaving St. Privat-d’Allier. (That’s what you call a group of a hikers—cornucopia. Really. Don’t look it up on Google. Trust me!) I mostly just waved and said “Bonjour!” and they saved back and “Bonjour”ed me back. Like we were really communicating or something. It was awesome. =)

About three kilometers later, I arrived at a tiny chapel dedicated to Saint James (go, James!), “perched on top of rocky belvedere, the only surviving remains, apart from the tower, of a 13th-century castle complex.” It was very picturesque, so I stood around taking pictures. I was getting a serious case of photo frenzy. Everything seemed so different, so French, and there was so much stuff to see! Every few kilometers, bam! There was something else new and exciting! Inside the chapel, I set my pack down and tried to read through the logbook on a table, but everyone wrote in French and I didn’t have a clue what they wrote. Prayers? Hopes? Dreams? Notes to fellow hikers? I really had absolutely no idea. Wanting to leave my mark, I wrote, “I was here.” I signed it with my name, Ryan, and my residence: Seattle, WA, USA. Then I stamped my Green Tortuga stamp onto it because, by golly, people are going to notice me!

Dscn8454bI picked up my pack and went to clip the hose of my Platypus to my shoulder strap when the clip cracked.

“Son of a…..” I paused, thinking it probably wasn’t a good idea to cuss in a chapel. “Rock. Son of a rock!” Yeah, that would fool God.

I put the clip in my trash bag and threaded the hose through my shoulder strap instead.

The hike continued…. The next four kilometers, I found myself plunging down a hillside at a rapid rate. Very steep and it required very careful footing. I called it “A.T. steep,” and that’s saying something. It finally dumped me out into yet another amazingly scenic and attractive town named Monistrol-d’Allior nestled down in a valley with a sweeping river going past. The bridge over the river into town was designed by none other than Mr. Eiffel himself, of Eiffel Tower fame. I have to say, however, this was not some of his best work. Functional, yes, but dramatic or scenic, definitely missed the mark.

In town, I found a party of hikers who brought two mules along to haul their gear. They seemed a little annoyed at their mules, and I’m not sure why, but I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons for it. I was just excited to actually see mules being used on the trail. It’s not often I see people using mules to haul their gear.

The town also had a shop, and I poked my head in, but found nothing of interest and left without buying anything.

I also stopped at the post office to get some postage, but alas, they were closed. On a Monday. Strangely enough, they were actually open on Sundays. I thought I was starting to get the whole French store hours figured out, and they throw this curveball at me. *shaking head*

On my way out of town, a man wearing priestly robes, neat and trim, stopped and asked me something of which I understood not a word.

“English?” I asked.

Dscn8462b“Ah yes, English. Did you happen to see a group with… what do you call them? Big… animals….” His hands gestured wildly.

“Mules?” I asked.

“Yes! That’s it! Have you seen any groups with mules?”

“Well, yes, I told him, they were down by the post office when I left.”

He thanked me and chased after the folks with the mules.

The climb out of Monistrol-d’Allier was as long and steep coming out as it was going in, and I stopped part way up to take a rest and eat some of my fruit-filled bread when a couple of hikers started to pass me but stopped to chat. They spoke a little English, little being the operative word, and seemed astounded when I told them that I was planning to hike all the way to Santiago. A lot of people on this trail hike to Santiago, either in sections or in one fell swoop. I wondered if they even knew what trail they were on.

They asked where I was from and I answered in the French I learned the day before for “United States”—and they understood me! I’m sure I butchered the pronunciation, but I guess I got close enough that they still managed to understand me. “United States!?” they exclaimed. I nodded yes.

“Where in the United States?”



I said it again, emphasizing the last syllable like the guy in the hostel told me the day before. “See-ah-TALL!”

Dscn8474b“Seattle!” they nodded agreeably. “Near Canada, right?”

“Yes, that’s the one.”

It’s kind of exhausting talking like this, but the woman asked if my hand was injured because of the little glovelet I wore to keep the backs of my hands from getting a sunburn—a tactic I used on the PCT and liked. I tried to explain its purpose, but I’m not sure if she understood my explanation for its purpose.

On the climb out, I saw my first snake. I think it was a snake, at least. It certainly looked snake-like, but it was unlike any other snake I’d ever seen. Slow-moving, and it looked a little slimy. I tried to get photos, but they all turned out blurry. Another hiker caught up while I was trying to get photos and I wanted to ask what it was, but I knew it was useless.

Then the trail went into Saugues, a town surrounded with large, impressive wood carvings. This town was one of the larger ones boasting of about 2,000 people. The post office here was closed too, but it was only closed for lunch and would open again in a half hour. In the meantime, I followed a sign off trail to a Carrefour which was like a REAL grocery store! With lots of aisles! They even had cereal! I bought lots of food, including cereal, and headed back to the post office, except when I tried the door, it was still locked.

Hmm… That was odd…. Then I heard a buzzer sound and tried the door again. Popped right open! I guess you need to get buzzed into the local post office, which was such a foreign concept to me. Why? Were they afraid that a customer would go postal and had to keep the bulk of them out while working with a small handful at a time? The woman at the counter didn’t know any English at all, but being in a post office, I pointed to pictures of stamps all of the place and said “United States” in French a couple of times and she got the message. I asked for ten—which, really, was my limit anyhow since that was the maximum number of fingers I had available to display numbers. =) She pointed at the numbers of the register, 8.90 euros. Yep, that sounded about right. I gave her the money and she gave me ten Olympic-themed stamps. Of course, the Olympics. They’d have to have Olympic stamps. (Keep in mind, when this happened, the Summer Olympics were still going.)

While I was in town, I figured I’d do one last chore and headed to a W.C. I know W.C. is short for Water Closet (i.e. bathroom), but I was a little surprised to learn that the acronym apparently works in French too. *shrug*

Dscn8489bThis bathroom puzzled me as much as everything else in France has been doing. Fortunately, the outside had directions in English to tell me that users only had 15 minutes before the doors automatically unlocked and that the bathroom would be automatically sanitized. That didn’t sound good, so I definitely figured I should try rushing things along….

When I got inside, however, it was perplexing. It looked like a toilet—but without a seat. What were people supposed to do? Hover? And I couldn’t find any toilet paper anywhere in the place. Bah! I don’t need no stinking toilet paper! I had my own! (When you plan to camp in the woods at night, it never hurts to carry your own.) But surely they don’t expect locals to go carrying around toilet paper every time they want to do their thing?

I heard someone trying to get in, but of course, they couldn’t since the door was locked. But now I was really worried about getting done in 15 minutes. As soon as that door unlocked, I knew they were going to come in, ready or not! Faster! Faster!

After all that was taken care of, the place had a little hand-washing station. I knew this because I they diagramed the process with pictures that translate into any language. =) Except when I put my hands in it, no water came out. I was starting to grow frustrated at France. Finally, I just applied Purell that I also carried in my pack.

There was just one thing left…. how to flush the toilet? I never did find any button or lever that would suggest a toilet flush, and finally I popped open the door and that did the trick. FLUSH! Good riddance. =) I think I would have been better off in the backcountry. At least I know how everything works out there.

Outside were two women, an older woman and a younger one who was supporting her.

“Bonjour!” I said.

“Bonjour!” they replied.

“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” I said in English.

They looked at me, clearly not understanding a word I said, and went in.

Fools…. *shaking head*

I started following the trail back out of town, until I passed a store and I could see hardware through the window. A hardware store, perhaps? Perhaps something with denatured alcohol?

Dscn8504bI poked my head in and by golly, it was definitely a hardware store! Whether it had denatured alcohol or not was an entirely different question, however. And it’s not one the clerk minding the store could answer because she didn’t speak a word of English. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for—all the labels were in French—but I hoped I’d recognize it when I saw it.

I was looking over the shelves when a couple of other customers came in and the clerk talked to them, and they came up and asked me, “You speak English?”

“Well, yes I do!”

Then they proceeded to help me find denatured alcohol. They didn’t know what denatured alcohol was, so I explained what it was for, and they found a white bottle that had a label of stoves on the front. I looked at the back, which was all in French, but I saw words that looked suspiciously close to denatured and alcohol, so I figured it wasn’t white gas that would explode if I tried to use it in a soda can stove.

Late in the day, I cameled up with water in Le Falzet at a water source that my guidebook didn’t seem to know about. Water can’t be readily found in every town, but a lot of them have water faucets somewhere near the church or city hall where you can help yourself to all the potable water you want. You know it’s potable because it even says “Eau potable.” (Eau is French for water, and sounds like a short o—which is more of a sound than a word, if you want my opinion. Go around saying, “Ooo! Ooo!” They’ll think you’re crazy, even though all you’re saying is, “Water! Water!”)

Then I started looking for a good place to camp. I hiked through Villeret-d’Apcher, then finally found a nice meadow a little out of town. It wasn’t a perfect location—anyone walking or driving by on the dirt road alongside of it would easily be able to see me, but at least it was out of the way of anyone walking or driving by. Most of the fields were closed off with barbwire, and this meadow was no exception but the barbwire fence had fallen down at some point so I just stepped over it. Technically, I have absolutely no idea if my camping in these kinds of places is illegal or not, but I figured I’m not doing any harm and even if it were illegal, nothing much would ever come of it.

I just laid out my groundsheet and was laying on the ground, resting, when I heard a stampede. Dozens of cows, charging down the road, and I saw two younger guys sprint into the meadow where I was. Holy cow! My nice little meadow was about to be overrun with cattle! I started throwing things back into my pack in a haphazard manner—neatly organized did not count at the moment—then I saw the cows continue down the road and stay out of my meadow. Oh… whew…. false alarm. The two youths ran ahead of the cattle, jumped the barbwire fence, and ran ahead of the stampede, keeping them all in line. That had to be exhausting work….

It also occurred to me, it’s a good thing I camped in the meadow and not directly on the road which I had been thinking about. Sure, I’d have been screwed if the cows had my meadow as a destination, but camped along the road, I’d have been in trouble regardless of where the cows were headed. I made a mental note to make sure to camp far enough off the trail that cattle (hopefully) won’t be a problem for me.

I laid back on my groundsheet and pulled my stuff out of the pack again, writing postcards in the setting sunlight. Which is when I first noticed that I needed to lick the stamps for the postcards. Sheesh! That was so last century. Now I have to start licking my stamps again?

It’s a rough life I live out here, but I’ll tell you what’s easy. Click that “Sponsor Me” link near the upper-right corner of this page and donate a little towards the Washington Trails Association by sponsoring me for their annual Hike-a-Thon. (Speaking of which, I’ve also learned that “thon” means “tuna” in French, but this is not a Hike-a-Fish event! I don’t much like tuna, and I learned very quick that a “thon sandwich” was not a good choice for me!)

Burros! Burros on the trail!

It wiggles! It moves! It has no legs! But I’ll be darned if I can
tell you what kind of snake this is…. It almost looks like an overgrown
slug. (It moves much too fast to be a slug, though!)

The bluffs around Monistrol-d’Allier were
quite impressive!

Looking back on Monistrol-d’Allier when climbing back up out
of the valley.

I took the opportunity of this particularly reflective
glass door to get a self-portrait. And look, WTA—I’m
wearing your Hike-a-Thon (not Fish) shirt! =)

Yeah, they look friendly now, but just wait until your camped
on nice, fluffy grass like this and you think a whole herd of
them is about to evict you! =)

A statue along the trail. I’m not sure why,
but I think this fellow is gay. At least as gay as
a statue can be. =)

These wooden carvings are actually quite
intricate and incredibly large. The rocks piled up on
it are the highest part of the carving where people can
reasonably reach.

By golly, I may not be able to read French signs, but I recognize
a hardware store when I see one!

It even looks like it’s meant for cooking! But the important
thing is to make sure it’s not white gas—which is also a
liquid fuel, but one that would explode if I tried to use it
on a soda can stove. =)

More wooden carvings on the way out of town. That
little door at the bottom really does open, and
there was a small garden gnome in it. =)

Another wooden carving on the way out of Saugues…

And another….

My home for the night. Sorry, but I did not get a photo of the cows
I thought were invading. There’s a dirt road just below that fence,
though, and you could see them quite clearly as they approached the
entrance to the meadow (at the left end of the fence).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

And the Hiking Begins….

Dscn8284bAugust 12: Late in the night, my neighbors trickled into their beds and promptly went to sleep. The next morning, when I was ready to get up and get going, they were still all fast asleep so I left them that way. I sneaked downstairs and took a shower—presumably my last one for quite some time—and grabbed breakfast which consisted of cereal and bread. Bread, if you didn’t know it, is a staple of the French diet. They can’t have a meal without bread. They have entire shops dedicated to break—not unlike Starbucks in Seattle with one on every block. Maybe even two on some blocks. People walk around with bread in their packs, in their hands. It’s always a hard bread that I find difficult to chew. I think they might even play a form of baseball using their bread as a bat.
The other folks eating breakfast were all French, although one of them spoke a little bit of English. Mostly, I just felt left out of the conversation, which was fine by me. *shrug*
I headed back to my room and my bed to pack up all of my worldly possessions and finally my neighbors had woken from their slumber. Two of them were German who also spoke no French, but they did speak English so I could talk to them. The third person was French, but he also knew English. A room full of English-speaking people! That couldn’t have been coincidence…. I suspect the girl who checked me in assigned English-speaking people to that room.
One of the Germans said something in French and asked me if I understood it. “Not a word,” I told him.
“Wow,” he commented, “you really are in trouble.”
Uh, thanks…. “So what did it mean?”
“Let me ask you further down the trail and see if you’ve figured it out.”
That was less than helpful. =) The two Germans left for breakfast and I continued chatting with the French fellow who taught me a few words in French, such as how to say “United States” when people asked where I was from. (I have no idea how to write United States in French—I wrote it down phonetically so I could correctly say the words later, but the French guy told me it’s not unlike saying United States in Spanish (Estadios Unidos) and dropping the last syllable of each word (esta uni). He also taught me “Good luck!” so I could wish people “Good luck!” when I saw them on the trail. In five minutes, I single-handedly doubled my French vocabulary. =)
Dscn8287bThen I went in search of an Internet café which I saw the day before to let Amanda and my mom know that I had made it to Le Puy okay and would be starting my hike soon. Except that the Internet café was closed on Sundays. Curses! Foiled! I ended up walking to the tourist office and I noticed they had a computer available free to use, but they asked people limit themselves to using it for only 10 minutes at a time. That was plenty for me!
Until I sat down and tried to type. I know foreign keyboards can be a challenge—I’ve typed on many a Latin American keyboard and fumbled my way through it—but the French keyboard confounded them all! These people actually switched around the letters of the keyboard! And it type a number, I had to use the SHIFT key! The symbols I never use—no shift key required. But oh, for people who want to type a number, they make you work at it. Dates, times—I found myself chasing that SHIFT key all over the place. I barely managed to type two sentences before my ten minutes were up.
I wandered back to the cathedral and figured I’d sit in on mass. I was out here for cultural experiences, and I’d never been to a mass before, and I knew one was about to start. So I marched in and took a seat. I didn’t really think I’d enjoy the experience, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted a new experience. So off to mass I went. =)
It started off with a procession of folks, including one person swinging incense around all over the place. A little while later, all of the kids were sent to the back of the cathedral. Why segregate the children? This was the Catholic church we’re talking about here! Fortunately, though, it all seemed to turn out well when the kids came back out later in the progress carrying candles towards the front and left them there. I have to admit, they were pretty adorable. One kid waved to everyone he passed, marching to the front like he was the grand marshal of a parade. Another boy waved to his parents, obviously proud of his part in the proceedings. Then the kids left their candles up front and they all scattered back to their parents.
There was a lot of talk—none of which I understood since it was all in French, but honestly, I didn’t understand most of the English-language preaching going on in the states. So it wasn’t really a whole lot different, and I found myself nodding off and itching for something more entertaining like I did in church as a kid. In fact, the kids seemed pretty itchy for something more exciting stuff to happen as well.
They had everyone stand up, sit down, stand up again, sit down again, stand up again, blah, blah, blah…. Then everyone stood up and started kissing. WHAT THE HELL?! I looked around in panic. Why was everyone kissing? I didn’t want to kiss anyone. I didn’t want anyone kissing me? Oh, those French…. I should have guessed…. Had I known I was supposed to kiss all my neighbors, I would have squeezed myself next to the cutest girls I could find. The guy next to me must have sensed my discomfort (or found me repulsive), because he stuck out his hand for a handshake. Thank GOD! Praise the Lord! A handshake will do just fine! I can do that. =) I shook his hand, and that of an older lady behind me.
Dscn8296bWhen they passed around baskets to collect money, I threw in all of the change in my pocket. 1.10 euros. Less weight for me to carry. =)
Then they started with the whole communion thing where everyone marched up to the front to be fed stale bread. I didn’t really want to participate—I just wanted to watch the proceedings, not to participate in them. Anyhow, I already shook the hands of two strangers nearby! Wasn’t that enough already? I guess not….
Near the end of the service, the kids came back up and retrieved their candles and ran up with them to the front of the church, but I couldn’t see very well what they did with them after that. When the service was finally over, I officially started my hike a little after 12:00, local time. =)
I didn’t get more than five minutes down the trail before I took my first detour. I had seen the impressive, volcanic summit the day before I wanted to hike to the type. Since then, I learned it was called Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, and it cost 3 euros to enter. So I detoured, paid the price, and climbed the steep hillside path. It didn’t take anywhere near as long as I thought it would and the views from the top were spectacular. The summit was crowed with a 10th century chapel dedicated to St. Micheal—it really amazes me how old some of these places are. In the tenth century they were building this chapel! The first person knows to hike from Le Puy to Santiago did so over a thousand years ago! This kind of history basically doesn’t exist in the United States. The New World hadn’t even been discovered when these places were built. They were already hundreds of years old when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
I couldn’t read any of the information signs since they were all in French and everything I learned was from a partially-English brochure I got at the entrance.
I returned to the trail, but I didn’t go for another five minutes before I detoured off trail again to go back to the tourist office and pick up a sandwich at a small shop. Except that they were closed. Curses! Everything was closed for lunch. It was going to take some time to get used to “French time.”
The rest of the day, I took no more details and stayed on path, each step taking me closer to Santiago. The trail climbed steeply over roads out of Le Puy, eventually heading off onto dirt roads with almost no traffic at all. I only traveled 22 kilometers that first day, but managed to go through several towns so small that you’d miss them if you blinked including: St. Christophe-sur-Dolaison, Tallode, Liac (where I had to scare off two mean dogs by shouting them down in English and waving my trekking pole at them), Lic, Ramourouscle, Montbonnet, and Le Chier.
That’s a lot of little towns for such a short distance. =) Most of them had absolutely no facilities, and probably wouldn’t show up on any quality map.
Le Chier did have a water faucet in town, however, and I filled up with water there and camped in a meadow near some trees outside of town. I only passed two Camino hikers the whole day, but I figured most of them left Le Puy much earlier in the day than I did. Three times I ran into herds of cattle on the roads, and I stood aside as the traffic jam passed.
The hike itself, so far, was largely uneventful.
Don't forget--if you haven't already--sponsor me in the WTA's Hike-a-Thon! =)

I take my first steps along the Camino. You can
see the cathedral behind me in the distance.
But, of course, a side-trip to Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe was in order!
The view from the top was pretty good—you can see the statue
covered in scaffolding which where were I first spotted this
summit from!
Inside the cathedral, after mass was over.
This is the first official marking I saw for the Camino. I think the
guy in the corner is supposed to be St. James, and the yellow
sign with an arrow shows that Santiago is over 1,500 km away. =)
The trail is generally blazed with white and red horizontal
stripes. If there’s a turn in the trail, another white line
under it is included indicating the direction. In this case,
it says, “Turn right here!”
If you try to take a wrong turn, you’ll see a red and white
stripe set in the form of an X. It means, “You’re going the
wrong way! Turn back right now!” (I deliberately went the
wrong way to get this photo.) The yellow X, I assume,
means the same thing but for a different trail that is overlapping
the Camino.
This is a pilgrimage trail, so I guess it’s no surprise
that you’ll find crosses like this ALL OVER the friggin’ trail. =)
The “tail” end of a herd of cattle, apparently also
walking to Santiago. =) Any wildlife larger than me gets the
Home, sweet, home for the night. =)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

To the Camino!

Dscn8243bAugust 11: I didn’t plan to start hiking the trail today, but it was a big day for me. It was the day I’d go to the trailhead in Le Puy-en-Velay, or as most people refer to it, Le Puy. (Kind of pronounced like “Lu Pwee!”)

Amanda left early in the morning to catch a flight home. I slept in an hour later before I had to navigate the Paris subway system to Gar de Lyon, the train station. Technically, I could have walked to the train station, and the thought did cross my mind, but it would have taken close to an hour to do so and I’d have had to wake up even earlier. The subway required me to change lines at two different stops, including a stop at the Bastille. But admittedly, I didn’t have time to sightsee and check out the Bastille—except what could be seen from the subway line which isn’t much. One moment of panic gripped me when I wanted to get off the subway but the door didn’t open. Why didn’t it open. I pointed the door urgently and a fellow traveler turned up the knob on the door and it opened. Hmm…. Why didn’t I think of that? A doorknob. Oh, I know, because every subway system in the world I’ve EVER ridden on has doors that open automatically at every stop!

Fortunately, though, I got off at my stop before the subway continued on, found my way to the subway I wanted to change to, and the rest of the subway ride went without a hitch.

At the train station, I tried to buy tickets from a self-service vending machine, and annoyingly, it wouldn’t let me buy a 2nd class ticket because it was “full.” Bah! So I paid for a 1st class ticket to Lyon, but at least I managed to score a 2nd class ticket the rest of the way to Le Puy.

At the appointed time, I boarded the train. First class folks, like myself, had assigned seats that were quite large and cozy. Not worth the extra 60 euros, I’ll say that much, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose. It seemed odd, but I was actually a little jealous of the 2nd class folks.

Dscn8248bThe train took out of the station like a rocket and never stopped. I was a little amazed at how fast this train was. At times, it paralleled a highway and we passed cars going in our direction like they were standing still. I don’t know how fast this train could travel, but I’m pretty certain I’ve never traveled so fast on land before in my life. The scenery went by at an astounding speed, and they built a double set of tracks so trains could go in both directions without getting in each other’s way and built it so it never crossed a road—the train, quite literally, never stopped once until we reached Lyon two hours later.

I had ten minutes to switch trains, and I hoped if the train station was as big or sprawling as the one in Paris that it would be enough time. Turns out, my train to Le Puy was immediately next to the one I got of off. I was off the train for all of about ten seconds before I boarded the train to Le Puy and found a seat.

This second train was a lot slower, but the terrain we travelled through was considerably more rugged and mountainous with a lot more sharp curves along the way. It also stopped at many stops along the way and I was riding the train to the end of the line this time. Very scenic, but I found myself gazing at the scenery thinking, “Gosh, I hope the trail doesn’t hit the top of every single one of those mountains….” It would be very exhausting if it did.

In Saint-Etienne, the train stopped and a guy got on asking if I was going to Le Puy. “Oui,” I told him, and he said something I didn’t understand and waved his hands around. Everyone else on the train started getting off, and I asked if anyone knew English and what was going on. One of them said that everyone had to get to a car further up the train—these near the end were being taken off.

Dscn8252bI quickly packed everything I had sprawled out everywhere. I had taken off my shoes for the 2 1/2 hour train ride, had a water bottle at my side, a book in my hand, trekking pole overhead. My stuff was everywhere, so I threw it all together and pushed into a car further up the train—a crowded car with all the seats already taken. Seriously? Standing room only? And they didn’t have room for me in second class on the first train?

A woman at a nearby seat had had her stuff spread out on it and she started to clear it and I ended up with a seat. Thank goodness. Most people who had luggage sat on their luggage—my backpack wasn’t hard-sided and sitting on it wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable.

I was too tired to read anymore, so I mostly just sat and watched each station go by. I noticed that the next station was seemingly called “Prochain”—the reader board would scroll the words “Prochain arret!” and I knew ‘arret’ meant stop. (Amanda and I figured that out earlier.” But I got a little suspicious when the station after that was also called “Prochain,” and even more suspicious when the next one was also called “Prochain.” When finally, it occurred to me that that wasn’t the name of the station at all—it actually meant “Next stop!” See, I’m learning French even while riding the train. It also announced the next stop on the intercom, so I even learned how to pronounce the words correctly.

The train finally arrived in Le Puy with Swiss punctuality at 2:23 PM. I picked up a rough map of Le Puy at the train station, but it wasn’t very detailed. I walked in more-or-less the direction of the cathedral and my start of El Camino de Santiago, but it was a sort of aimless wandering where my first order of business was to find lodging. Eventually I wandered next to a sign that pointed to a hostel and followed it to another sign which led to another sign and finally to the promised hostel.

Dscn8254bThe woman manning the counter didn’t speak a lick of English, but I managed to get myself checked into the hostel and she gave me a small piece of a paper which I knew was a clue of some sort. She also indicated that there would be breakfast available in the morning, but when she told me the hours, I didn’t understand her. She wrote it down on a scrap of paper—another clue that I had trouble figuring out. 7h 30…. Then it clicked: 7:30. That was a relatively easy code to crack. Clearly, the French don’t even write times like we do. She walked me to the entrance, pointing to a building on the other side of the parking area, waving up the building, and I figured that’s where my room must be—somewhere above the ground floor.

I went in and up a flight of stairs, and I noticed small numbers by each of the closed doors. My little piece of paper had a number 5 on it, all by itself. A room number? I found room #5, and there was a keypad on it. Locked. Hmm…. The piece of paper also had a code of some sort on it C5678Y—maybe that was the code to get into the room. I tried it, turned the knob, and was in.

It’s amazing how satisfying it was to figure this out. The room had five beds in it, two of which already had stuff on them but the owners were nowhere to be seen. I claimed a bed myself, then went back outside to explore Le Puy.

I headed to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but aimed east of it to way away from the trail. Although there wasn’t any logical reason for it, I wanted my first steps on the Camino to be at the very beginning—not intersecting it further into town. I ended up walking in through an east entrance into the giant cathedral—quite the show! This—this was the start of my hike. Tourists were walking all over the place, and many of them bought candles to light and pray and do whatever it is they do. I followed an exit sign down a staircase which took me out to the west side of the building through an arch and a view of the town framed in it. The view was stunning, and it seemed like a good as place as any to start a hike. I walked back into the cathedral and headed to their gift shop where they had all sorts of materials for pilgrims—I was a pilgrim now, on a pilgrimage to Santiago. I purchased a creanciale, my passport of sorts in which they stamp every time I stay in a hostel along the trail. They pre-stamped it with the stamp for their cathedral—my first stamp of the trail.

I also bought a book with a description of all of the hostels along the route and another book that had maps of the trail and, more importantly, an elevation profile of the trail. And finally, I bought a patch of a scallop shell—the symbol of pilgrims on the Camino.

Dscn8258bWalking up to the cathedral, I noticed a volcano summit with an enormous statue on top—absolutely beautiful except that the statue was covered in scaffolding. Obviously, it was being refurbished, but I wanted to get a closer look and walked up to it where I learned I could hike to the top for 3 euros. I paid the price and climbed the steep trail to the top. I couldn’t go in where the statue was—it was boarded off—but the views from the top were spectacular! I also noticed another impressive volcanic summit nearby with what looked like a castle at the top, and a third volcanic summit further in the distance with a tower at the top. I saw people walking up the castle-top mountain, so I knew it could be climbed, and I put that on my to-do list. The tower further off I decided to pass on. It wasn’t as impressive and it was much further away from the trail.

I took my photos, descended, then headed to a pilgrim’s gathering near the cathedral. My guidebook explained that people who’ve hiked the Camino would be there to ask questions or get advice. I didn’t really have any questions or advice, but I figured it might be a good way to meet a few of my fellow travelers, so I attended anyhow.

Turns out, one of the people who showed up was the woman sitting next to me on the train to Le Puy. She didn’t look like a hiker and I assumed she lived in Le Puy or was just visiting it for some reason. So we formally introduced ourselves. I have no idea how to properly spell her name, but it sounded like Katreen.

The passed around a bottle of some sort of alcoholic beverage—and anyone who knows me knows I’m not a big fan of alcohol. So I sniffed it a little when nobody was watching and it didn’t smell like alcohol, so I figured I’d go ahead and try it. Which I did. I have no idea what it was, but it didn’t kill me. =) It didn’t even taste bad, but I still liked water better and drank that the rest of the evening.

None of the other hikers I met were planning to go all of the way to Santiago—they were all planning to section hike the trail. Katreen would do only three days on it. Most of the others planned for at least a week, and one person had a maximum of three weeks and he’d stop wherever he was after his time was up to pick up and continue again next year. I didn’t really have any in depth conversations with any of them them, though—most didn’t speak English and those that did didn’t speak it well.

At any case, I got another stamp in my creanciale for showing up. =)

As I was writing in my journal, Katreen walked back in and waved me to follow her. So I did—a woman who worked there was going to give a tour of the place and she knew English so I could follow along. In the floor under us, they were doing some renovations and discovered paintings under the false ceilings that nobody knew about and dated from hundreds of years earlier. The renovations stopped and the restoration began. They were only discovered about three months before so one room they had finished restorations—the other room was still exactly as they found them. It was all very cool and fascinating.

After the tour ended, I wandered off on my own to a shop where I purchased a sandwich for dinner and bumped into Katreen for the third time completely by accident. We talked for a couple of more minutes and wished each other luck on the trail. Then I headed back to my room at the hostel. Another bed was taken during my absence, but the room was empty. I still had no idea who my roommates were.

In other news, no new contributions for the Hike-a-Thon since my last report, but it’s still not to late to sponsor me now! Don’t make me post more photos of my feet! I just finished a 20+ mile hike today through 100 degree weather. They aren’t looking pretty!

The view through the arch of the cathedral and my
first view of El Camino de Santiago

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Le Puy—and the starting point of my hike.

I’m sure the statue would look more impressive it
it weren’t covered in scaffolding….

This old volcanic hill intrigued me when I spotted it.
Look at all the people going up the right side! I can DO THIS TOO!

These are some of the recently discovered paintings hundreds of years old
that have already been restored.

My abode for the night….

It’s interesting walking around foreign countries. Even though
this sign had no French on it, I still had absolutely no idea
what it meant. Spiders, to the left? Everyone else to the right?