The first week is for the body

I read in the book, Paris to the Pyrenees, that it is said the first week of a long walk is for the body, the second, the mind and rest for the spirit. Well I have spent the first week of my walk sacrificing my body to the mountains of Saone-et-Loire, Loire and Rhône regions of France in an effort to get to the start of the Via Podiensis.

What I thought would be rolling hills, turned out to be high grade hiking trails but not nearly so well maintained. I’ve scaled a 1,000m mountain, St Rigaud, and counted more passes than I care to list. I’ve walked too many kilometres each day (35kms one day) and at the wrong times (leaving in the afternoon and arriving at 7pm or on one occasion 9pm). I’ve not drunk enough water. I’ve stubbornly followed Grande Randonnée (GR) waymarkers that clearly weren’t mine to follow. I have been hopelessly lost, wailing to the creatures of the forest in despair.

So what have I learned from all this?

Don’t begin in the middle

I mistakenly thought that I knew what the deal was with this walking thing. I’d finished the 800 km Via Tolosana in 2015, how different could the this be? I had some recommended itineraries, and decided to compact the first 3 days of walking into 2 – meaning very long days of walking. Maybe this would have worked in the middle of my trip when I was over jet lag, and my body was accustomed to the road, but not in the first days.

You rarely remember the first parts of a long walk, the aching muscles, the blisters, the results of acclimatising to daily long walks with a backpack. Instead you remember he exhilaration and sense of accomplishment of getting so far and not quitting then the feeling that you could walk on forever.

It is important to start from where you’re at with the terrain that presents itself – for me on the GR765, (between Cluny and Le Puy-en-Velay) this should’ve seen me do no more than 15km days for at least the first three days and get up to 20kms gradually.

Always begin at the beginning, as a novice and be gentle with yourself and relax expectations.

Being lost is frustrating, but mostly because at some point you were wrong.

It is deeply humbling to realise that the reason you are lost is because you weren’t paying attention, didn’t see the signs, or didn’t check your map – maybe all three. Even more frustrating is when there are multiple routes indicated by the same signs, and you’re following blindly for many kilometres and assuming they are pointing you in the right direction, but they’re not. If something feels like the wrong way, check! The route straight up for a kilometre out of a town that is not described in your guide book, is probably the wrong one. And girls on horses shouldn’t be trusted! They might not know the way you need to go. Putting your trust in signs is important, but keeping a healthy skepticism is vital. The route between Cluny and Le Puy-en-Velay has multiple GR routes crossing. Pay attention always.

From lost moments come unexpected surprises

After getting hopelessly lost in the forest on one day, I reasoned that I should just keep walking as eventually I’d find a main road from which to get my bearings. The unhelpful voice in my head continued, “What if you’ve walked all this way in the opposite direction to where you need to go and have wasted all this time?” (We were now talking hours of the wrong route). This was a possibility but when I did finally reach a main road, I found to my great surprise, that I’d cut off several small towns and was further along the day’s journey than expected. How amazing. It was confirmation that no effort is wasted.

Via Podiensis: The first week is for the body

These lessons all came at a toll on my body. A nasty blister on my left foot; two un-trimmed toenails digging into their neighbour toes; stretched ligaments on the side and back of my right knee; and a swollen right leg. But maybe they are just symptoms of the combination of the physical terrain and one’s state of mind. Once the body has been sacrificed, as the saying goes, maybe I’m now set to lose my mind!

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