This week’s Postcard from the Camino is a quiet and subdued stage of the pilgrimage, at a point in southwestern France that you would not want to visit. If there is one section of the Way of Saint James that I would never wish to walk again, four days in my life I would not want to repeat; if there is one physical and mental challenge that I could happily have never experienced, the Landes is it. The Landes is the vast featureless flatlands south of Bordeaux on the way to the Pyrenees. If you were going to make a reality TV program called “Extreme Catholic Pilgrimage” this would be your best location.
The morning began with my blood sugar level at zero after no supper and no breakfast, sleeping in a ditch, packing up a wet tent in the morning rain, and fighting mosquitoes by the side of a stream flowing with muddy undrinkable flood water. I was wearing the wet clothes that I had slept in from the day before. I tried singing but gave up after one verse. I just wanted a coffee and croissant, or anything else.
I climbed up a muddy embankment by a bridge, onto the tarmac road, and headed into the Landes. After a shin-cracking march through miles of wet forest, I made it to the town hall in Moustey at 11:55 a.m., knowing they’d close at midday. This was the famous village with the 1000-kilometer stamp. A thousand kilometers to Compostela, and a special stamp to go in my pilgrim passport.
Dripping wet, I stood in front of a lady in a beige cardigan in the entrance to the town hall. I explained that I had come for the special 1000km stamp in my pilgrim passport. She looked completely blank. There was no such stamp. She could stamp it with the town hall stamp if I liked. She opened a drawer. I closed my pilgrim passport and shook my head.
“I didn’t spend the night soaking wet and attacked by mosquitoes just for any old town hall stamp,” I said.
“Je suis desolee monsieur,” she said. “Ne’st pas derange.”
It didn’t help that she was telling me not to be deranged. I sighed. At least I had the photo to show I was at the 1000km stone, even if there was no special pilgrim stamp. And then, as I made my way out, dripping over the town hall tiles, she suddenly said, “Maybe the grocery shop will have a stamp. It is opposite the church.”
I made my way to the grocery store and explained about the 1000-kilometer stamp that I had been told to expect here. Yes, that stamp had been issued by this very shop until just a year ago. But they had lost it! They had a new stamp. She put it in my pilgrim passport but it did not have the “1000 km” in the middle.
“You could just write that in the middle,” she said, helpfully. She had a red pen. I wrote it in the middle of the stamp. This was the most depressing morning of my entire life.
“There’s a restaurant next door,” she said. “Show them your pilgrim passport and tell them you have walked from England.”
It was still raining. I looked across the road at the 1000-kilometer stone outside the church. The restaurant was immediately opposite on the corner of the entrance to the village. It was early for lunch but there would be nothing on the road for many more kilometers. I went in and took a window seat opposite the 1000-kilometer stone. I put my passport open on the table in front of me.
“Ah, you have the stamp,” said the waiter. “We always have pilgrims coming to see the 1000-kilometer stone.”
“I walked from Worcester, in the west of England,” I said. I showed him the Worcester cathedral stamp, the London stamp of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. The Dieppe stamp of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.
“We can offer a pilgrim menu for fifteen euros,” he said. “A good lamb stew for a day like this, with a half bottle of Bordeaux and a dessert or coffee.”
As he went to get the wine, I looked at the Moustey stamp with the “1000 km” written in red ballpoint pen, I said aloud, “Do the red, say the black.” (In the liturgical books of the Church, where there are instructions printed in red—making the sign of the cross, standing, kneeling—you do them, and whatever is printed in black is to be said aloud.) “Do the red! Do the 1000-kilometers. Say Moustey to Compostelle.”
I had a very good lunch. I resolved to do the last thousand kilometers of the pilgrimage as a prayer for unity in the Catholic Church and an offering of penance for my part in its divisions. After lunch, I walked on towards Labouheyre. Today was a wet, nothing sort of day. Wet nothing days are part of pilgrimage. Wet nothing days are part of everyday Catholic life. Wet nothing days are the kind of days experienced by many of the faithful every day of their lives. We trudge onward, in wet socks, as the rain continues, and we give thanks to God. That is pilgrimage.
Images: Header photo of the author in the Landes and all other photos the same day.
Note: Due to the loss of internet for much of the weekend, research for today’s intended episode of Postcards from the Camino was not possible. That episode will appear next week and will be about Santiago Matamoros: Saint James as a military figure in Spain’s Catholic iconography of the Camino.
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).