[Note: This posting is dedicated to all the supportive and generous people that I met at the Sunriver Art Faire in Oregon this past weekend. Thank you for your kindness! This post is a little longer than usual, but I hope that you enjoy a few moments of escape.]
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This is a brief story about six friends on a walking tour along the Lot and Aveyron Rivers in south-central France. We never actually used this grand-sounding, national French motto, but in thinking back it does describe important aspects of our walk. We were not formal enough to have a motto, we just wanted to have fun and enjoy the French countryside in the spring.
Our emphasis was probably on liberty. There was a tremendous sense of freedom. The hillsides were verdant green and wildflowers were at their peak. It had been a dry spring so this was as lush as it would get this year.
The trail stretched out ahead and our only obligation was to reach the village where we would stay each night. We had planned our route using guide books published by the local departments and by digitizing our route over Google Earth.
- Our packs and our spirits were light. But the warm May sun and the long hills taught us to pace ourselves and take time to savor this quiet country. Small farms filled the narrow valleys but the hills were densely wooded.
On the rich bottomland soils along the rivers we dodged irrigation sprinklers that were encouraging emerging crops. And we passed greenhouses filled with flowers and strawberries. The scent of the heavy warm air pouring out of the strawberry greenhouses was intoxicating. Our senses were being filled and stimulated. There were new smells, sounds, tastes, and beautiful scenes.
We passed through ancient stone villages fortified against invasion, huddled strategically around their cathedral on hilltops and ridges. The imagination was given full license to fill in the daily lives of those villagers. It was not an easy life nor safe. There was not so much fraternity, equality, and liberty for them.
The woods were welcome shelter from the mid-day sun but they also meant tougher terrain. The heat didn’t quiet the cicada. The trees were small and closely spaced as if they had been harvested many times and then re-sprouted. The humorous call of the cuckoo echoed over the hills. We had heard artificial cuckoos so often that it was hard to believe that these were real.
In many places the trail was lined with low stone walls built for miles through the woods. We were passing through private property, but these paths preceded the current owners. Some of the trails derived from Roman roads. The trails are part of the spectacular national trail system called sentiers de grand randonnée which is abbreviated as GR. Each trail is numbered. There are guidebooks and the trails are marked and signed.
We were following GR36 which sometimes shared the route of the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. For centuries these trails have provided important experiences of a lifetime for pilgrims. At times the summer pilgrims formed a roving festival of devotion on the way to the tomb of St. James as they walked for hundreds of miles across France and Spain.
Our goals were more mundane, but still left us with experiences of a lifetime.
On our first day, as the reality of a long hill in the full sun set in on us, we had nearly all exhausted our water supplies. We straggled into the shade of a large tree at the crest of the hill. We were drenched with sweat, fatigued, hot, and thirsty. Beyond the tree there was a very well-tended garden and an old stone house. It was the only house we had seen for miles. The sound of our voices brought out the occupants. We didn’t know what to expect as perhaps we would be viewed as nuisances or worse. We soon became friends with two very kind and generous people. They gave us all of the water we could drink and carry, despite the fact their water had to be brought from the closest village. They also gave us a big bag of greens from the garden for our lunch. Our interlude with them was filled with laughter and humanity. We regret not writing down their names and contact information, because they offered to let us come back and stay there and study French with them.
Several miles later at the top of another hot climb we found a shady patch of grass surrounded by old broken stone walls. We all collapsed and sprawled on the grass and against trees. We each had carried lunch items that we now spread out for our first grand lunch. That morning we had purchased a fresh baguette, local cheeses and meat slices. We made massive sandwiches and topped them off with fresh greens. Our new friends had taken care of us. We added yogurt, fruit, cookies and a wonderful bottle of local red wine. The day was full and good.
All of our experiences with the rural French people that we met were like this. They worked hard and enjoyed life. They were willing to teach us how to savor life simply and we were ready to learn.
Walking village-to-village on the French trail system is a great experience. The ages of our group ranged from the upper 50’s to 70-somethings. We found the trails challenging but the rewards were indisputable. We remembered how to laugh and marveled at the kindness of country people. I will tell more stories from this adventure in other postings. In the meantime, happy trails!