19 May Arzacq to Arthez de-Bearn

When I checked the weather last evening, today’s forecast was not promising. Overcast in the morning, showers in the afternoon, storms in the evening … then continuing on with wet and stormy weather for the next several days. I went to bed at 9 and I was the last of five in our room to go to bed. Francois sleeps in the bed next to mine and he is a snorer, but a quiet one. Remi, the shy kid from Espalais, is here as well and in the same room.

They are all up earlier than me and I am still on the road before 8 AM. I am full of piss and vinegar and ready to tackle the 30 kilometres ahead of me. I do, however, have a backup plan. The folks who run the gite in Arthez where I will be staying have offered to pick me up at the 20-kilometre mark in Pomps (you pronounce the ‘s’) and transport me to their place. What I do depends on the weather. If it is good I will walk all the way. If it is as forecast, I may call for the ride.

Francois packs and unpacks his backpack several times. First time he forgets to put in his sandals. Second time he forgets to get out his medications. It must take him an hour. While he is sorting out his pack, I organise mine, go have breakfast, come back, get my boots on and leave. He is still repacking. I wish him; “Bon chemin.”

It is misty and raining lightly as I leave Arzacq, so both I and my pack have our rain jackets on. After an hour, the rain stops so off comes my jacket, but it’s still threatening so the pack cover stays on.

The countryside is gentle rolling, then seriously rolling hills. And the chemin, of course, goes over very hill rather than around, so I get several of those long arduous climbs today. The chemin is either on small country roads or on good packed surface so that isn’t a problem. By now I have a good operating procedure for hills, either up or down. Shorter steps, slower pace, stop whenever I feel like a breather. It works. I don’t get really short of breathe and it doesn’t seem to take much longer to get to my destination.

At one point I am at the crest of a hill when I hear what I think at first is cowbells. Then I realise that it is the bell of a church on a distant crest, which chimes ten times. I wonder how many hundred years that church has chimed out the hours for the people around here. Certainly, long before the watch was invented.

Later I hear a cuckoo whose mainspring has been severely overwound. He counts to ten and for a split second I think he is echoing the church, but then he continues. I quit counting at 37. He is overdue for an overhaul.

I have what amounts to a tense moment that could have been a pretty serious problem. I have stopped for a breather at a point on the road where there is a millstone on its side as a table, some stone benches and a little watering point. I take off my backpack, lay aside my poles and sit down for a few minutes. When I get up I put on my pack and there is water running down my left leg. Where is this coming from?

What has happened is that the mouthpiece of my water bladder has come adrift and is nowhere to be found. This is a potentially serious problem. I am depending on the water in that bladder to get me through each day. Without the mouthpiece it will be essentially useless. Finally I spot the mouthpiece lying half-hidden in the grass. I pick it up and push it firmly onto the hose. It is a reminder of how important small things are.

I remember a story my mother used to tell when I was young:

‘For want of a nail a shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe a horse was lost,
For want of a horse a rider was lost,
For want of a rider a battle was lost,
For want of a battle a kingdom was lost,
All for the want of a nail.’

It makes more sense now.

For a while today I walk with Remi. He has a large picture fastened on the back of his pack. This is new. I ask him about it, he tells me it’s his grandparents. Since it is dated 17 May 2012, only a couple of days ago, I assume that it is a recent picture, but it’s not. That is the date it was printed. I ask if if he was close to his grandparents. He tells me that they were very close and he tells me that his grandfather is now dead, his grandmother very ill.

They wanted to walk the chemin to Santiago but were too ill and old to do it, so he is walking it for them and with them. So I think that explains why a young man in his early 20s is walking here. He is probably 40 years younger than the average pilgrim.

Before I get to Pomps, all my piss and practically all my vinegar has drained away. For 20 kilometres there is no place to get a coffee or anything to eat. There are several small villages but they have not yet caught on to the idea of marketing to the pilgrim trade. Given the numbers I would think it would be a good seasonal market.

The last hour into Pomps seems to take forever and I am dragging, so when I arrive I make the phone call and sit in front of the closed library under threatening skies until my ride arrives. It’s Laurent, who picks up my pack and places it in his vehicle, then takes me on a hair-raising ride up and down and around these windy roads until we arrive at his place. I am the only guest today. Someone else has been injured and has cancelled.

The gite is their former one-bedroom home. They have built a larger one next to this to house them and their four children. It is clean, well-equipped – I can make myself coffee with hot milk. They have WiFi, so I can communicate easily, and I have an excellent double bed in which I sleep for two hours in the late afternoon. Murielle takes all my clothes away, washes and dries them and brings them back neatly folded.

I expect that I will be eating in the house with the family but that is not what happens. Laurent shows up with a long baguette, a plate of home-made pate, which he has made (it is really good) and a bottle of red wine. This is the appetiser. We have a little drink together, then he goes off and returns with the main course, a local sausage on a huge bed of home fries. Fruit yogurt for dessert. All of this I eat in solitary splendour. They figure that with their four young children plus a couple of others and her sister, it will be pandemonium in the house, so I get to eat here.

He also bring all the makings for breakfast, and promises to show up tomorrow morning between 8:30 and 9:15 to take me back to Pomps, so I can walk back here. He can’t believe that I don’t want to just continue on from here. The chemin is right beside his place. It is quite clear that he thinks I am nuts … and perhaps I am but tomorrow I go back to where I got picked up today and I continue to walk the chemin.

It is just coming up to 9 PM, so I am going to go to bed in the big double bed with a comforter and a light switch and see what happens next.

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