I hadn’t had time to write since we departed from Thann. Now, Sara and I were sitting in a dark Hemingwayesque bar in Besancon, a city we’d never heard of, drinking Grimbergen, a beer we’d never heard of. How we had ended up here was a bit of a mystery to the both of us. It involved Tarot cards, a lesbian backpacker couple, and the Flow of the highway. At the end of day 6, we’d been poring over the maps in our guidebooks, adding up kilometres and calculating when and whether we’d even get to Compostela. At the time, we’d managed 14-17km a day, at which rate it would have taken us roughly 100 days. If we didn’t stop to rest or look at anything.
“It’s doable,” Sara said, turning to me with a pained expression.
“But super stressful,” I added.
“It’s good we bought wine today,” Sara said.
“Yeah, let’s start on the wine.”
We sat on our beds in the Gite, passing the bottle back and forth.
“So, are we quitting the Chemin de Saint Jacques?” Sara asked.
“Looks like it.” We both felt the same. Every day out there was bearable, walkable, possible. We could do it. At the same time, the prospect of spending the next 100 days in companionable suffering was unacceptable. We were neither Christian, nor did we need to atone for any sins we had committed (I would possibly have been considered a very sinful person in numerous circles, but had no intention of feeling bad about it). We were here to travel, collect experiences and grow, and while the trail posed some sort of challenge, it had cut us off from the rest of the country’s population as we were dumbly following the shell signs someone else had scattered across the landscape.
“This feels like quitting my BA all over again,” Sara said.
But why should we follow a path that was already there? Sure, it was a little romantic to know it had existed since the Middle Ages and that generations of pilgrims had come through here. But we were not them. For all the security the tail had provided, the knowledge of where we would sleep that night, it had also caged us. And maybe we didn’t want security. Maybe we were ready to forge out own path, one that no one but us had travelled this way.
“Okay, but where do we go?” Sara asked.
“I don’t know. Can we maybe have a small moment of panic?” I asked.
“We can have a small moment of panic,” Sara said. We clutched each other and screamed, probably startling the teenagers in the other room.
“I feel better now,” I said. We picked up Sara’s Tarot deck to consult, drawing the Page of Cups for both of us, the Fool for Sara and the Page of Wands for me.
“Very helpful,” we noted, feeling that the Fool was a little redundant to draw now, and the Page of Wands just told me to be bold, which I was anyway. Be more bold, it screamed. I flicked open the notebook in which I had collected resources for this journey.
“How do you feel about working on a farm?” I asked Sara.
We had only a slight idea how WOOFing worked, but an hour later we had registered and picked out a couple of farms that appealed to us. They were all in the South of France.
“OK, so what’s our plan for tomorrow?” That morning we had bought another guide book, a missing link in our connection, to get us from Thann to Dijon or Cluny. We now owned five different guide books for the Chemin De Saint Jacques, the newest addition entirely written in French.
“What is the next stop on the trail?” I asked.
“Belfort. No. Bellemagny.” We would just keep going, working our way down South until we had a definite plan. Another hour and both of us had made Couch surfing profiles and texted a couple hosting in Belfort. We were crazy. Life was crazy. It felt right to abandon the trail, just like we had abandoned stability back home, given up secure career prospects and instead dashed for the world.
March 25, Day 7
We set out to Bellemagny on Saturday, our packs the heaviest they had ever been, stuffed with the books, food and full waterbags. We would cover as much ground as we could, and as always, the first hour dragged on the longest, the steep streets of Thann climbing ever higher into the forest, leading us through the rich outer suburb. The forest was beautiful: tall oak and pine trees, the ground covered in white flowers. Because the trees didn’t carry leaves yet, the sun followed us continuously. I could hike longer stretches without breaks as long as we were in the forest. My pack seemed to weigh half as much here. I focused on the smells, the sounds, the wind. All night long I had dreamt of trees, of their rugged trunks and emerald foliage and the light falling through the canopy. I had dreamt of the Hambacher Forst and the occupation, tree houses and fellow activists and me joining them. I had run into Fool, who told me everything I ever wanted to hear from him. All day I felt his presence at the back of my mind, as if he were inhabiting the very trees of every forest we came through with a piece of his personality. Not before long, we were in civilisation again. This time, we stopped for lunch. The sun had reached its highest point and we sat down in the middle of a field road looking out onto ploughed earth. We took off our shoes, got out the gas stove and cooked one of the instant meals we’d packed. Without it, the forest that followed would have wrecked us. It was still pretty in places, thick with undergrowth, criss crossed by clear brooks. In most places, yellow signs stuck out of the ground. Naked wood was stacked by the side of the path and the deep gashes trucks had cut into the mud made it a hassle to walk on. Large areas of this forest spooked us with their uncannily straight rows and lines of trees. All artificial, planted for the sole purpose of getting felled again. We got lost. Our guide book was ten years old and the destruction of this forest new. Everything looked the same. The sun was setting. We didn’t want to camp here, not just because of the workers taking down the trees and fear of getting fined for wild camping, but also because the forest had something malicious about it. It was hurting. It seemed that if we stayed, it would hurt us, too.
“There’s a covenant in Bellemagny,” Sara said. Could we make it? I eyed the sun.
“Dude, at one point I can just keep going forever,” Sara said. And we did. We found our way back out, and we kept going. I didn’t even notice the landscape anymore. 19km. We made it before dark.
“A covenant,” I giggled when we reached the door of the soon-to-be-our lodgings in a small courtyard behind the church. A black, bespectacled nun opened and gazed at us critically.
“We are pilgrims on the Chemin De Saint Jacques. Do you have a room for two for tonight?” Sara asked in broken French. All of the nuns spoke German. They did indeed have a room. For 24€ each, we could have two beds, a sink and a toilet. I was annoyed by the price but reasoned that if we were quitting the Camino anyway, we might as well take this experience with us. After dropping off our packs in the small room, we were ushered down to the dining hall. There were two other people: a young man with a chafed elbow, spooning soup into his mouth, and an elderly woman who greeted us and happily prattled on in French after we’d told her that we didn’t speak the language. We would have loved to know who they were, buy they left shortly after. A nun brought us soup, pasta, salad and a plate of pork.
“It would be really rude not to eat the pork,” Sara said. We hadn’t expected them to bring us a three course meal, we’d have been happy with the soup alone. Or a bed. We ate two slices of the pork. It felt like committing a sin to me. Funny that. At a covenant. I left the yoghurt untouched.
March 26, Day 8
The young man, as we found out the next day, had been a fellow pilgrim, but he wasn’t at breakfast, he had already left.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we met him on the trail?” Sara asked. Two hours later we had caught up to him. Compared to ours, his pack was slim, probably the 10% of body weight people kept lecturing us about. Still, we were fast. We walked alongside each other for a few minutes, experiencing the awkward pains of not speaking each other’s languages, but here is what we pieced together: His name was Louis, he would hike all the way to Compostela, and his parents would come by in a car to have lunch with him. We went ahead as he stayed behind to wait for them. We were incredibly fast. It was 22km today, a number we’d never done before, but we had places to be and people to see: a couchsurfer from Belfort had offered to host us that night. Underestimating our own speed, we’d told her to expect us around seven. Without all the dawdling, we could have been there at five. The last bit we hiked across a mountain crest, getting smack dab into the middle of a mountain biking competition. Of course, the trail went across the same route. At the end of the crest, old stone structured emerged from the mountain. A fort. Belfort. Some people were rock climbing the face of the castle. I thought of Cups and whether he was somewhere rock climbing just this minute. I had the strong urge to tell him about this mundane detail of my life that had made me think of him. I held back.
Belfort was larger than any of the towns we’d been in so far, but still by all means a town rather than a city. Our host Sarah was a human resources manager in her late twenties who lived in the city centre with her cat Lilou. She was currently unemployed, having just gotten out of a job in refugee aid and dreaming of working as a foot masseur. Her flat was large and bright.
“Why would anyone let us into their home?” Sara had asked. This was our first time couch surfing and we hadn’t known what to expect but a space on the floor to put our sleeping bags.
“‘Cause they’re kind?” I had replied. Sarah was more than just kind. It was her first time hosting, too. She cooked for us, drank wine with us, gave us chocolate and extensive discussions about travel and life plans not working out the way you thought they would.
“I think it’s getting easier now to make your own way,” she said. “People are becoming more accepting of that.”
She let us sleep in her bed while she took the couch in the living room. We lay there, flummoxed.
“It’s couch surfing not give them your bed and sleep on the couch surfing,” I whispered.
“It’s crazy,” Sara said. “I can’t deal with this much kindness.” We were warm, we were comfortable.
“It’s the universe looking out for us,” I told Sara. “Do you feel that? It’s the universe working through different people.”
Sarah had told us not to worry. It would all come back to her some way. I felt reminded of a TED talk I’d seen about sacred economics by Charles Eisenstein who said we needed to let go of money based economics and work towards a gift based economy, one that was made of a strong sense of community and watching out for each other.
“Man. Now I really want to have an apartment again and host a dozen people,” Sara said.
March 27, Day 9
On Monday, we were supposed to stay with Ioannis and Cecilia, a couple living 3km from the centre of Belfort. We’d planned to arrive at lunch time, so we hung out in the city centre for a but and climbed up to the lion statue made by Bartholdi that was the city’s landmark. I tried calling the farm that was closest to us, just a few km from Dijon. We sat looking out on the city, listening to the tooting of my phone. “Hello?” A man picked up. I explained the situation to him, said that we could be there in a few days, but he wouldn’t host WWOOFers until the week after. He was fasting and didn’t want to work or cook or be with people. We would call back if we wanted to come later on.
“So that was the safest option,” Sara said. This was what the universe was telling us: we were not supposed to play it safe. Be bold. Be bold.
We walked the 3km to Cecilia and Ioannis’ place in the midday heat. They were on their way to work when we arrived at the house, a beautiful beige two storey building, large, with a garden and trees decorated with fairy lights. After 5 minutes of talking to us, they offered us their kitchen, guest room, garden, and laundry machine.
“These people are crazy,” we noted, holding the key to their front door. We sat in the garden chairs next to the garden gnome Gerard and soaked in the sun. It was good not to walk. This was the good life. This was heaven.
“We should plan our future a little,” I said, flipping open the notebook again and having a look at the names of the farms I had written down. There were seven of them, a magic number.
“How do we pick one?”
“I have an idea,” I said. “Why don’t we draw a card for each of them and then pick the one that sounds the most promising?” We sat down at the garden table, shuffled the deck, knocked on it and pressed our hands to the stack of cards, chanting ‘Where to go? Where to go?’ in our heads. Seven cards lay before us. We read the meaning of each of them, but the one we would pick was obvious: The Wheel of Fortune. Destiny, turning point, movement. You can’t predict surprises, you can only be aware when one of them is circling around.
“You are caught in a cyclone that may deposit you anywhere,” I read aloud. It was the farm furthest from us, 800km away, in the Pyrenees. The description said it was owned by a collective of 8 friends from all over the world, that they had been travellers and owned goats and bees.
“It makes sense it’s this one,” Sara said. It was not the safe option. It was the furthest, it didn’t have a phone number, and we would never get there by hiking.
“So, how do you feel about hitchhiking?’ I asked Sara.