I remember that first day on the Chemin very clearly. 17 October. Blue skies. Warm and sunny. The hills and valleys of the Auvergne. Wooded slopes and the golden leaves of autumn. Peaceful, deserted villages basking in the noonday sun. Romanesque churches with rounded stone vaulting. I kept bumping into pilgrims all day. Some shared their lunch with me as we picnicked on the grass in front of the Chapelle Saint-Roch (see photo).
By late afternoon I'd reached the village of Saint-Privat-d'Allier. It's stunningly situated on a volcanic cliff above a gorge of the Allier river. A Christian family took me in free for the night. "While you are here treat this house as your home," they said.
At twilight I climbed up to the 14th century church and went inside. The silence was profound. You could hear absolutely nothing at all. Except for the slight whirring in my head of my own automatic, pointless thoughts. And with an effort of will even these were stilled. As the darkness closed in, shapes lost their solidity, and my sense of time and place became blurred. My mind emptied itself.
Later at dinner my hosts, Jean-Marc and Marie, told me how they had met on the Camino, fallen in love, married, and then decided to open their house to pilgrims. Another pilgrim arrived. Food kept appearing. The wine flowed. Their young son chased an enormous dog round and round the room. The conversation was animated and far-ranging. I couldn't understand the half of it. I realised how rusty my French had become.
Then a strange thing happened. I don't know if it was the effect of the wine after 2 nights' lack of sleep, or whether I was touched by the kindness of strangers, or whether I was charged by the many emotions I'd felt on this, my 1st day of pilgrimage. But tears welled up inside me and I wept like a child. Jean-Marc patted me on the arm reassuringly, a wise and benign expression on his face. "Don't worry. It's quite normal," he said. "We experience this time and time again. It's necessary..."
That night I rolled out my sleeping bag in their attic-dormitory and slept long and deeply for the first time since leaving home.