I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail / Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail BOB DYLAN Shelter From the Storm
I nearly entitled today's post Midi-Pyrenean Melancholia or Getting Glum in Gascony, but I rejected these you'll be glad to hear. The trouble with blogging is that it encourages far too much alliteration. Not to mention overuse of the exclamation mark! Ouch! Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I was climbing the hill out of Auch ...
It was Thursday 2 October and I was feeling pretty much OK. The road I was following cut through a rather tedious stretch of forest - so, as was my habit during any less interesting bits of the walk, I started singing snatches of songs to myself. I suppose they should have been stirring pilgrim hymns such as He Who Would Valiant Be or Onward Christian Soldiers, but instead it was my usual medley of 'Children's Family Favourites': Puff the Magic Dragon, Nellie the Elephant, Little White Bull, You're a Pink Toothbrush, Windmill in Old Amsterdam. Remember those? If you do, you're probably as old as I am - so we'll quickly move on.
I encountered no other walkers that morning - which is probably just as well given this ragged cacophony - though a lone cyclist did zoom up behind me (without ringing his bell, natch) and nearly fell off his bike. I marched thus through the woods for an hour or two and was on the point of entering a more cultivated landscape of field and spinney when the clouds - which had been racing up behind me borne on a north-easterly wind - opened. I dived for cover under the trees. Too lazy to put on my waterproofs, I sat the storm out - and remained surprisingly dry considering the velocity of the rain. Thunder clapped and lightning danced on the southern horizon. Three quarters of an hour later the skies cleared and I continued on my way. I suddenly felt very tired and the soles of my feet had started hurting again. During the next heavy rain shower (which this time came from the south-west - the weather systems are complex this side of the Pyrenees) I did put on my waterproof jacket and overtrousers, and carried on walking. And after what seemed a very long time I arrived at the village of Barran, where I almost collapsed on to a bench in an arcade next to the inevitable market hall:
I'd walked 15 km from Auch - but Montesquiou, my day's destination, was another 15 km away. I realised I could walk no further that afternoon. My plantar fasciitis, which had intermittently plagued me for the last week or two, was so bad that each step I took was like treading on a thousand upturned needles. This was pain with no gain; agony without the ecstasy. Because of the pain I also felt fatigued, and completely lacking in energy, stamina and motivation.
I looked about me. There was little sign of life. I searched my rucksack for some lunch - it was just 1 o'clock - and emptied out one quarter of a stale baguette, a wizened lump of chorizo sausuage, a squashed tomato and a pungently over-ripe piece of Roquefort I'd bought days ago and had forgotten was there. I opened my rucksack wider and took a cautious sniff. God dammit, the whole interior reeked of mouldy cheese. Was it the Roquefort or was it the socks I'd forgotten to wash the previous night? I was just pondering this question when 2 mangy, half-starved village dogs appeared and drooled beseechingly over my forlorn bounty of food. When they understood I wasn't going to feed them - I was in a mean mood - one of them promptly pissed on my leg.
Apart from the bedraggled pony I'd passed on my way into Barran (change the 2nd 'a' to an 'e' and you'll get an even more accurate picture) the place was as dead as ... well, as dead as a one-street, one-horse, two-dog village in one of the most depopulated areas of the entire French paysage. Everything was shut. The bar-restaurant listed in my out-of-date guide book had long been boarded up. Everyone was presumably either out for lunch, in for lunch or had prematurely died.
Finally at 2 pm the mairie opened. They told me they hadn't got the key to the pilgrim gîte, it was with Mme Cocco - and she lived at the other end of the street. I limped back the way I'd come and rapped on her door. After a few minutes I knocked again. An eternity later the door eventually opened and an overpowering stench of cheap furniture polish wafted from within. "Ah, a pilgrim!" she exclaimed, then took me to the gîte, which was near the church on the 1st floor of the former presbytery. It was small; it was basic; but it was dry and clean, and the radiator worked. When she'd gone I tried to make myself at home. I felt cold and tired, so I unrolled my sleeping bag on a mattress and crawled right into it.
Before it got dark I made a quick tour of the village - which didn't take long - and took this photo of the church. The sombre atmosphere of the picture probably reflects my mood at the time. The church spire is helicoidal (meaning twisted or spiral-shaped) which apparently is quite unusual, and people come from all over the world to see it. There's even a European society dedicated to protecting and preserving such helicoidal spires, and organizing trips to visit them.
Later I fished out a microwaveable packet of salmon and pasta from my rucksack and popped it in the microwave (even the simplest gîte kitchens normally had microwaves). I didn't fancy using the rusty, electric 2 ring cooker which was very slow to get going. I think it had warmed up just one too many pilgrim cans of cassoulet and had almost given up the ghost. That night I slept fitfully on a lumpy mattress. Despite being in my sleeping bag I woke the next morning with bed bug bites on my arms and ankles. How did that happen, then? But it had stopped raining and the weather forecast was good. Another day had dawned on the pilgrimage trail ...