“Not all those who wander are lost” is a line from the poem All that is gold does not glitter, written by J. R. R. Tolkien and it has inspired many a tattoo.
Except for me, I was wondering why I was wandering and it was because I was lost. I was lost in France but not like the song, I was lost in France and not in love, I was one ticked off lad with a stupidly over packed backpack and seriously ticked off, fed, angry, lonely, tired, sore and I wanted to give up and go home.
I started my two month long spiritual pilgrimage in Arles, southern France. I stood with my back to the the ancient Roman Amphitheatre and set off on day one, belly full to the brim with my big breakfast and tickling with butterflies at the prospect of my adventure. I was following the St Jacques de Chemin trail to Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain about 1,500 km’s.
My guidebook said “a solitary but rewarding route” what it meant to say was “totally devoid of other pilgrims or hikers or people and you will get really hacked off at some point”. My guidebook said “well signposted” what it meant to say was “you will occasionally see some red and white stripes painted onto a tree or a lamppost or the pavement, mostly they will help but sometimes not”. The path I was following is a long distance path called the GR 653, GR is short for Grande Randonnée which means great excursion, there are lots of GR routes in France and they all have a postfix number.
Once I walked away from Arles, crossed the bridge and turned right onto the footpath my world changed. The next time I was to speak to anyone was about 8 hours later in the next small town. In the morning I would say “au revoir” and later in the day I would say “bonjour”. I realised for the first time in my life I was alone, really alone. In the towns or villages I passed through, no one wanted to speak to me, I was a stranger passing through, a person of no consequence.
These red and white stripes marking the footpath may be not easy to spot. Painted on the edge of a pavement, weather and cars may have rubbed the paint off. Painted on a tree the new spring leaves may obscure it. Painted on a lamppost, well you just might not notice it. And apparently I didn’t. Day two - lost. Day three - lost again. Day four - bloody lost again. Getting a little lost may be a mildly diverting excitement, carrying a backpack the size of a Smart car in 35ºc and getting utterly ridiculously lost is the polar opposite.
Every single day I would stop, put my backpack down, at first I would hide it but I soon realised no one wanted a sweaty 18 kilo backpack. I would then retrace my steps or hunt around looking for the “well signposted footpath”. I was on a deeply spiritual journey, to read my Bible, pray and find a place of peace in my heart while contemplating God and the world. I could be found found kicking things, throwing sticks, swearing and cursing my useless [expletives deleted] guidebook and the lazy [expletives deleted] who didn’t paint a big [expletives deleted] red and white strip in a place I could see it.
The one other pilgrim I met, Ulricht from Stuttgart, turned up at the hostel bruised and bloodied. He, like me, had stumbled and fought through an escarpment crisscrossed in goat tracks, which look infuriatingly like footpaths. This hell was liberally covered in thorn bushes and stinging plants, and scratchy scrub and the flies attacked in squadrons and they bit you. And hidden holes and ditches and did I mention the flies?
We were in a Monastery but not in a place of peace. We shared our first aid kits, blister treatment for me, biting sting cream for him [because of biting flies in case I never mentioned them] oh, and a special spray for bedbugs, these blighters also bite.
My worst ever “lost day” saw me walk 37 km’s, the last six of which were on a big dual carriageway, and end up at the wrong town, nowhere near my intended destination. It is a crushing experience to take a bus back to your start point and begin the next day on the correct footpath out of town. That’s the correct one, not the wrong one as indicated so authoritatively to me by the two local idiot gendarmes.
It was being lost which nearly killed me and it was being lost which changed my life.