Into the wilderness: the Landes

Day 49 of Walking Out of the World

(Previous post: A day of crossing Bordeaux.)

“To the many pilgrims who came by boat to Bordeaux and started their overland trek from there, the Landes may have seemed like the hostile heath of the old stories: a four day wilderness with no cities nor even any significant towns; a rigorous four-day introduction to the realities of travel on foot, impelled to move on daily by the pressure of other pilgrims following them down the road. But to Sutton it was merely an interlude, a transition between Bordeaux and the mountains that he knew lay ahead.”

Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim, Chapter 19 ‘The Road through the Landes.’

When I set out from the pilgrim refuge in Gradignan at 5 o’clock in the morning, to make the most of the day’s walk, I breakfasted at the communal table alone – being the only pilgrim in the refuge – and this was a fitting start to a day of lonely walking in a flat featureless wilderness. With nothing to focus on except the tarmac road and the endless horizon, I held in my visual memory the friendly dining space where I had eaten my breakfast alone before heading out into the dawn. It had been an empty yet warm space, filled with the presence of pilgrims who had passed through on their way to the Landes.

If there is one section of the Way of Saint James that I would never want to walk again in my life. If there is one period of four days in my life I would never want to repeat. If there is one physical and mental challenge that I could happily have never experienced. The Landes is it.

The Jesus Prayer kept me focused for the first two hours. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The rhythm took over, the words were no longer words but heart beats and footsteps, and the 100-knot prayer rope revolved around my fingers, until the “Our Father” after the one hundredth knot seemed to be happening more quickly than I expected. And then the objections began. The demons. You know you are praying well. When they arrive, they have come for a reason. The disruptors. The breakers. They come for a reason. They are allowed. They are sent for this. Yes, they are allowed, so do not object. You wanted to enjoy your prayer. You wanted to relax into it, to regard it as a coffee morning, a pleasant way to pass the time… Well bad luck: they have arrived to make it unpleasant.

There is no point in making a fuss about demons, or dramatising them, much less turning the battle into a faux heroic spiritual warfare. If you keep a sense of humour, don’t regard yourself as Saint Anthony of the Desert, remain purposeful and avoid any spiritual mediaevalism, the demons will go away. Humility will defeat them. “What are you bothering with me for? I am weak. You could defeat me easily, except the One who sustains me will not let you!” That kind of thing works well.

And then I allowed myself to veer off the straight and narrow road. It was an error straight out of Bunyan’s protestant Pilgrim’s Progress. Instead of doing what I knew to be right, following the straight road across the Landes, I listened to the voices in my head. A mad idea. A pointless vanity. There was no reason in it. There was no faith in it.

Just the 1000 kilometre stone. The 1000 kilometre tampon in my credencial. The temptation to veer off the straight road and head for Moustey overwhelmed me. I had to do it. I must get that stamp.

In Rouen at the breakfast with the Amis de Saint-Jacques de Normandie, one of the fraternity had brought his credencials to pass around the table in that café next to Rouen cathedral. Pierre had come down this same route: the Via Turonensis, then to Blaye and across the Médoc, through Bordeaux and into the Landes. “And then, when you get to the Landes,” he said, “the road is so terribly featureless and the demons will get into your head!” All the other pilgrims around the table looked at Pierre, awaiting his solution. “If you divert to the east you can find the village of Moustey with the 1000 kilometre stone! 1000 kilometres exactly to Compostela. And in the town hall, the mairie, they will put this wonderful tampon in your credencial: look! Moustey. 1000km to Compostela.”

It was indeed a beautiful tampon, unlike any to be obtained from any mairie in France. “But why would I make a diversion when I am already walking more than two thousand kilometres from Worcester to Compostela?” I asked. “Just for a stamp in my pilgrim passport! It would be madness!”

Pierre looked at me and, taking back his credencial, he looked at the Moustey stamp with its neat 1000 kilometre figure printed in the middle, and he stroked it with his finger. “When you get to the Landes you will soon see that you must leave the road and go to Moustey.”

The sky was darkening. The rain would be arriving soon. I could press on into the Landes on this straight road pointing like an arrow at the horizon to the south. Or I could veer off to the east and find a more interesting landscape with trees and streams and little villages, and Moustey!

I would find Moustey. Nobody I asked knew where the road to Moustey could be found. Farm workers, van drivers, the lady in the boulangerie of a village I passed through, as the rain started again. None of them knew the road to Moustey. After an hour walking east in a downpour that soaked me to the skin, I spent the last part of the afternoon in a cemetery. It offered the only shelter in the landscape. La famille Dupuch had kindly built a small shelter and I stayed in it for nearly two hours, keeping dry and wondering how it was possible that I had become lost in the middle of nowhere, in search of a fantasy: the 1000 kilometre stamp in my pilgrim passport.

I continued east and entered a forest as dusk fell. I pitched my tent beside a small stream and within minutes I was besieged by mosquitoes, hundreds of them. I had no food. The water had run out but I dare not unzip the tent and go to the stream. I lay down in the damp tent and slept in my clothes, not wishing to get my sleeping bag wet. It was the most miserable night of the pilgrimage so far. But tomorrow I would get the 1000 kilometre stamp from Moustey. If I could find Moustey.

Walking Out of the World

The pilgrimage continues. Daily episodes – which were established and intended to continue in that pattern – have not been possible lately because I have some difficulty with my glasses! During the current confinement I cannot get to the opticians and my glasses are entirely unsuitable now.
Please do continue to follow the pilgrimage. Compostela in this Holy Year 2021 is the destination
But the timing is uncertain. Like all pilgrimages, expect the unexpected!