I’m in St-Jean-Pied-de-Porte at last. This town is the official beginning to most people’s pilgrimage to Santiago. It’s crowded. I’m really not used to seeing this many people. I found a launderette and now I’m getting a beer while I wait for the clothes to turn. The last two days have been deeply moving, reconnecting with nature. Today in particular. Off into the dark, trusting ancient wisdom that the dawn will actually break as it always has. Immediately up a mountain, before the heat makes it too hard. I’m carrying everything I need but I have to husband my thirst, understand my hunger, stop when I must. I know a lot more about how my body works already. The hill was hard, but the light had only just hit me as I triumphed the summit. I timed it well. But I had to be rude and leave before the breakfast they’d prepared. I’m learning.
There are vultures here in Basque country. Loads of them. Eagles too, piercing the air with their shrieks. Kites. I was above some of them, and some of them were above me. Seven vultures, turning and turning in a widening gyre over my head. They must have seen me staggering over the hill and it got their hopes up. They weren’t wrong. Once again I drank too much water at the start of the day and now I might run out.
I passed a cleared area, weirdly with a mailbox, containing nothing but sun bleached sheep carcasses. I have no idea who would post them letters.
That was about half eleven when I was just noticing I’d had more than half my water, and my crown of vultures was closing in on me. Seeing exposed ribcages was enough to push my pace up again, and it did until I couldn’t find the bloody route.
From time to time the path gets lost. The markers get moved or eradicated or destroyed. Particularly on private land, where someone is thinking “Bloody foreign bloody pilgrims coming over here with their foreign diseases and their foreign ways, worrying our livestock and most of them don’t even speak Basque. AND they’re all mumbo jumbo with some bollocks religious claptrap. Show me a God you can feed to a cow. That’s what I say. Bloody foreign pilgrim bastards.” Because that’s exactly what they say. Have you been here? Well then.
So I was on what might have been private land, and there’s probably an ancient right of passage law, but the markers had all been blitzed. Trees chopped down or burnt, stones dug out… No way of telling the recommended route. All four routes roughly West. I could have just used Google Maps and been the puck in a game of car hockey. Round here Google maps walks you on main roads. I decided not to.
Instead I stood exhausted and with dwindling water contemplating four potential routes around the side of a big mountain, vultures expectantly wheeling overhead. Two paths to my right and uphill. Two to my left and downhill. No fucking clue. I wanted to go downhill because it had been up a lot. No X on any of them, which can be a useful way of initiating some sort of process of elimination. Just gorse and fern and four tiny tracks and someone’s had all the signs. I didn’t know what to do. But I’ve been in nature every day now for a week. And I’m a bit of a hippy as you might have gleaned. I decided to follow the butterflies. They were blowing past my legs. I’d had to stop a few times so as not to step on them. They were blowing through the clear patch directly ahead of me and into the shelter of one of the four beginning paths. Marie, my early saviour, had a butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder. Butterflies are lucky on this trip, I’ve decided.
Three butterflies in a row went down second from the left, so I followed, resigned to being lost now, uncaring, relieved that at least they went downhill. Five minutes later there was a route marker on a stone. Hooray! I was shocked. Butterflies showed me the right way.
I can see now how superstitions and stories develop and grow. Butterflies are my guidance on this route. That is both a beautiful truth and complete rubbish. And maybe that’s ok. “Follow the butterflies, pilgrim.” So long as the butterflies don’t tell you to burn everybody who goes down the “wrong” path. Suivez les papillons!