I have been doing long walks, pilgrimages mostly, for a decade now. I started the Via Francigena in June 2017. This final stage of my four stage walk is from Lucca to Rome in May 2022, the last 400 km of my 2000 km journey.
Regardless how many times I have done this, there is a break-in phase I call rookie days. This one is no different.
Traveling solo means working without a net. If you screw up, you screw up. Losing a credit card, leaving something behind when you stop, forgetting something when you leave a hostel/hotel. It’s yours. You own it. It’s scary but addictive. It’s part of what makes these adventures tingle with hyper-awareness. Check every decision at least twice. Tap the pockets to make sure you have wallet, passport, money, phone. Never not know where the phone is.
There’s getting used to the pack. It changes your center of gravity. Stepping off a curb can be perilous. It’s heavy in the first week, solved partly by getting used to it and partly by throwing crap out.
Even after months of training, walking long distances every day with a pack takes a week of building tolerance and muscles. Using walking poles requires a tune up but it can take a lot of weight off the legs and hips over the day.
This isn’t negative, in fact it’s part of what I enjoy. I am alive. Working without a net. Dancing on the edge. Not really, but it’s scarier than trying to decide which netflix series to binge watch.
Here’s a detail that illustrates. It’s the Easter long weekend. In Italy, it’s the big one. Everyone is on the move; places are closed. My much fantasized feast of fabulous Italian meals is delayed, it’s pizza joints staffed by kids who drew the short straw and had to work the Easter shift. Easter Monday was so bad that dinner consisted of a bag of chips and a coke zero from a sports bar. But, a bad Italian pizza gets more stars than most I’ve had in Vancouver.
Rookie days pass, I find my rhythm, what the sports folks describe as being in the zone. The new word is flow. I prefer synchronicity. Everything seems to come together. The pack fits now and everything unnecessary has been jettisoned. The poles are working. My third eye is working again, searching for route markers even when I’m not conscious of doing so and it finds them. I hydrate like crazy, eat well most days and think happy thoughts. Sleep is coming more easily. I’m slowing down, relaxing; irritations are not so abundant. I’m noticing the fragile elusive beauty of nature, sights, sounds, feel. I see the promise that morning offers – a day of surprises. Guaranteed.
Tuscany has been described by too many who are better at words than me. I won’t try. It is perfect for the pace of walking. A deer in the woods, a few cats patrolling their territory. A small hotelier, having been through covid hell, wraps my towels in a ribbon, leaves a bottle of water by the bed. I’m back to appreciating the small kindnesses, the Tender Mercies, we receive every day.
Walking anywhere. Priceless.
Walking in Tuscany. There is no measure of its value.
The walks are amongst the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. Undulating hills and valleys in full spring finery, so many shades and hues of green emerging from winter. Topping every hill brings a new vista, a feast for my eyes.
I’ve managed to hit spring flowering season. My favorites – Irises – show off in more delightful variations of purple, white, yellow and blue than I have witnessed, perfect contrast to the green-spring palette. Grape vines are starting to sprout buds, the eternal promise of a bountiful harvest of grapes in the autumn. Olive trees abound, gnarly survivors showing their tenacity and age by their mis-shapened trunks. Winter wheat is more abundant than I expected.
It is a busy season for agriculture, I am reminded again that my epic journey is walking through someone’s farm where school buses pass me, farmers return my wave, and the local retirees take their coffee at the same place I take mine on my rest stops. It helps pop my grandiosity balloon. It slows me down.
As I follow the VF path, my stops usually take me to places of significance. Many such as Lucca, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, Siena, and San Quirico d’Orcia owe their existence to the VF as important stops along the route. The VF became a source of commercial and artistic cross fertilization – pilgrims and others carried more than their packs with them and shared more than their food over dinner meals.
Much to my consternation, most of these places are hilltop fortresses, necessitating a climb to end the day. They are fortresses for a reason. The 13th, 14th and 15th centuries were troubled and violent times.
Moderation, delayed gratification, understanding my limits and enjoying the present activity are not habits that come naturally to me, they are goals. These walks are part of reinforcing those goals and imprinting those behaviors.
For a full week, I’m dodging rain. Every evening, the weather forecast has been gloomy; rain, lots of rain, for the next day. In the early morning I check again; there’s a glimmer of hope, rain won’t start till late morning. I dash out fast ahead of the rain. It’s not the rain I avoid, I can handle that; it’s the mud. Much of the VF is dirt paths, farmer’s roadways. When it rains, walking becomes a hard messy pigs-wallow slog.
Every day for five days running, it’s a dawn dash out the door and a forced march to the next destination – always with an eye on the clouds. Please God or Zeus, hold off till I’m done my daily walk; in return, I make rash promises, bargaining with the gods of rain. Whatever. It works. Five days running, I beat the deluge.
Unfortunately, the rest of the day is cold and rainy, I’m holed up in cold drafty hotel rooms, with no heat; I’m given an extra blanket for comfort if not survival. Yet even that brings an adventure. I arrive just before rain in Viterbo, call the hotel and Paulo (I never knew his real name) comes and gets me settled. I always ask for a restaurant recommendation, serendipitously, he owns a place a few blocks away. I clean up and wander over. Paulo is the chef, the Chef!!!; he greets me like an old friend. I leave everything up to him and have the best lunch and dinner of the journey. For an afternoon, I felt at home, amongst friends – precious comfort for a man on the road.
The VF follows the Via Cassia, a Roman road built in the 2nd century BCE. Parts of that road still exist. Imagine, I walked on a road built thousands of years ago, sharing a path with Roman legionnaires, pilgrims, foreign invaders and probably a few Popes and other celebrities.
One should ponder the existential implications of this, and there’s nothing like a long walk to facilitate such musings.
Fast/slow. Permanence/change. Forever/now.
This morning, May 13, 2022, I arrived. The thrill of seeing St. Peter’s Basilica, from a vantage point known as the “mountain of Joy” the first vantage point for pilgrims who saw the end of their journey in sight – that was a sweet spot forever moment. An hour later, I am in St. Peter’s Square.
Two days later, I walk back to the Basilica and pick up my testimonium. I am officially DONE!
I’m not sure what to feel so I tuck it away and go off to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Rome, my reward after so many years.