Since I started walking nearly four months ago I have woken up in almost a hundred different places. Can you believe that? Probably not, even I can’t and I’m the one who lived it! But I bet you can believe that I wake up every morning, groggy and confused and ask myself “Where am I?” The answers I’ve received so far have included a graveyard, a château, a school infirmary, a mattress on the floor of a hospital, a parish house that looked more like a frat house, a stranger’s couch, a private room in a Franciscan monastery, a caravan, a tent on a roof used to dry peppers, a fish farm and a lavish hotel suite.
Wait. First, I need to make sure I look like I plan on bringing sexy back today.
All set. Now we can go, following the signs for the trail which can be found on trees, rocks, and even on the ground.
This is my favorite time to walk—when the world is still cool and hazy and the sun has not yet commenced its daily efforts to melt the skin right off my face.
10 kilometers later my caffeine addiction needs to be addressed and luckily for anyone I might cross paths with on this day, I usually reach a village with a café right around the same time. Sometimes I get to work on my fresh pastry withdrawal at the same time.
Walking alone is great. It gives me time to think about big, important things like my own mortality and what I’d like to have for lunch. Better than walking alone? Walking with someone who will dance for me on command, like my cousin Anya and my friend Stefano.
Horses, baby goats, baby ducks, donkeys, sheep, lhamas, stray cats– if it’s at least a moderately cute animal, I’ve tried to rub its face. You know that immigration form you fill out when you’re entering the U.S. where you’re asked whether you’ve handled livestock while you were abroad? Does cuddling with donkeys count as handling? Also, does a domesticated deer count as a farm animal? Finally, can anyone give me some advice about surviving a year under quarantine?
You might even bump into pilgrims whose rain gear matches your shirt!
FORAGE FOR FRUIT ON SOMEONE’S PRIVATE PROPERTY.
Stealing is another common term for this kind of fruit picking.
HAIL A TAXI?
Just kidding, I’m still walking.
Sometimes lunch is an elaborate feast with a cheese plate and cured meats and even fizzy cocktails that will take the sting out of your feet.
Other times it’s a picnic in the fields.
Or a loaf of bread eaten with your hands on the side of the road. True story.
Sometimes it is followed by a nap.
YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!
Yeah, you will. It’s walking. Walking is the thing that happens next.
Before I can take my boots off I have to go see a nun about a stamp. On the Via Francigena, like on the Camino de Santiago a pilgrim receives a passport, a paper document that gets stamped wherever you stop for the night. The pilgrim’s credential serves two purposes. First, since pilgrims often get to stay in special places not made available to other travelers, a passport is their ticket in. Secondly, the passport is proof that a pilgrim has made the entire journey. This will be important in Rome.
Depending on the person looking over their passport at the Vatican , a pilgrim could be questioned about missing stamps and asked questions like “Why don’t you have a stamp from the 23rd of June?” And then the pilgrim might say something like “Because I fell asleep with my face in a bowl of warm spaghetti and the waiter left me that way until morning.”
Along the Italian segment of the Via Francigena, pilgrim’s hostels are much more common than in either France or Switzerland. These houses are usually run by former pilgrims and include a dormitory, showers and a kitchen. Some even stock groceries for pilgrims to use as they like.
Starting with myself and then moving on to everything I wore. One of the greatest motivators for getting to an accommodation early is having enough time for your clothes to dry in the sun. Otherwise you end up wearing cold, wet hiking pants at dawn or carrying soggy (and heavy) clothes in your backpack. You might even meet a nice, innovative German couple who will fashion a clothing line out of shoelaces and walking poles for you, like I did.
DINNER AND SOCIALIZING
I love improvising a meal with other pilgrims whenever there’s a kitchen available or going out together when it’s not. This is the time to really get to know each other via enthusiastic and exhaustive descriptions of your injuries as well as by sharing your blister prevention action plan.
Once talk of the physical hardships of the pilgrimage is over, the dinner table conversation usually gets very personal. WIthin an hour of learning someone’s name, I might learn about the most painful moment of their life, their divorce, their loss, their shame and they will learn about mine. Intimacy and trust come more easily here than in our respective homes. And what’s more, these confessions are not simply the result of the anonymity that comes with travel; many of the pilgrims I’ve met have become like family to me.
Despite being exhausted down to the last eyelash, falling asleep is not easy. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”
I know quite a few people for whom the idea of walking up in a hundred places in the course of as many days is a nightmare. I know just as many who would give up a year of their life rather than spend that year getting up at dawn and putting on a pair of hiking boots, but I wake up each morning barely able to contain my excitement and my bewilderment. My reality is a generous helping of my wildest dreams and I can’t wait to start living it each morning.