Witness of Change: 8 Weeks of Discovery on The St. James's Way

Witness of Change: 8 Weeks of Discovery on The St. James's Way

by Stephanie Lemerond


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There is something about long-distance trails that implies introspection, contemplation, meditation, and most of all, the completion of a journey. It becomes even more pilgrimage oriented when a mother and a daughter, separated by an ocean, make the commitment for eight consecutive years to walk together toward their ultimate destination-the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Meandering throughout one thousand miles of French and Spanish trails, their journey explores the culture and history of this ancient pilgrimage route.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504902403
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 05/04/2015
Pages: 214
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.45(d)

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Witness of Change

A Step in Marge of Modern Society

By Stephanie Lemerond


Copyright © 2015 Stephanie Lemerond
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5049-0240-3


From Le Puy-en-Velay to Estaing 97 miles in 5.5 days

"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps."

-Proverbs 16:9

This is it! I can't believe it! I am all in one piece, nothing stood in the way; I did not even break a leg. Owning horses and being involved in hunter and jumper activities, it has been on my mind to be extra careful these last few weeks. As with horses, you never know what could happen. Anyway, today is Wednesday and I am flying out tomorrow from Green Bay to Detroit and then straight to Paris. Upon reaching France, my uncle, my mother and I are scheduled to leave for the center of France Saturday morning early. I will land in Paris on Friday morning—France is seven hours ahead of Wisconsin—and have a day to recover and adjust to the jet lag. It will be perfect.

My mother calls me, as expected, to finalize last minute details but to my disbelief, the tone of her voice is not jolly as I pictured it to be, but muffled with uncertainty and heartache.

"Alain had a heart attack this morning," she ventures, "he is at the hospital. He is safe now but he is staying at the hospital for more testing."

I am shocked. My heart is racing. I don't know what to think or say. She voices her thoughts of cancelling the whole trip and we hang up. This is undeniably unexpected. Who could have suspected such a tragedy?

We both go on with our mornings, thinking, and I call her back with the fruit of my reflection. Risking to be labeled as insensitive, I have decided that nonetheless I will travel to Paris, leaving tomorrow. My airplane ticket is bought and I am not going to let it go to waste.

"Mom, I don't think that Alain is going to be able to walk on the trail for some time," I spill out. "And with that in mind, I think we should go and do this together, you and me. I know he will understand." And without a definite answer, I hang up and prepare for my trip.

I catch my flight the next day and arrive in Paris the next morning as planned. My mother and I drive to the hospital to visit with my uncle. He still is in intensive care but out of danger, and we are able to talk to him. After a while, not without apprehension, we expose to him our idea to go on with the pilgrimage and hit the trails without him. His face, torn between disappointment and understanding, is heartbreaking. Sensing the room filling with regrets and disillusionment, we awkwardly conclude to call him every day to report of our advancement. This poignant scene remains imprinted in our mind as we are driving silently back, wondering if we are making the right choice.

Back at the house, we work on final details, emptying and repacking our backpacksafewtimes,comparingandadjustingtheplacementofeachitem.Our bags are weighed, including water and food. We have all the gear recommended to be successful: Hiking clothes, change for the evening, sleepwear, rest shoes, toiletries, sleeping silky sheet called sac à viande in French, and of course all kinds of pharmacy and first aid items. Ready to be a snail for a week!

Saturday morning, we get up at 5:30 a.m. and leave shortly after, bright and early. We have a six hour drive, from Paris to Aumont-Aubrac, the half point of our hike, where we have decided to park the car. We follow the highway to the south and drive with the rain for a good hour, stopping a couple of times for croissants and tea. Caught in our deep conversation over Alain and this regrettable situation, we almost run out of gas as we near Clermont Ferrant, with only two mile range left in the tank.

The Viaduc de Garabit, a majestic and colossal one-way railroad bridge, built by the Eiffel Group, pulls us out of our depressing mode and such man-made beauty cheers us up.

Arriving in Aumont-Aubrac on time for lunch, we look for a traditional restaurant, wanting to immerse ourselves right away in the local culture. The restaurant Prouhèze en Gévaudan offers just that.

After lunch, a scheduled taxi takes us to Le Puy-en-Velay, our starting point. After an hour and a half driving through the countryside, and listening to our taxi driver promoting the attractiveness of his region, we arrive in Le Puy at our hotel midafternoon. We embark on a visit of this mystic town, the commencement of the pilgrimage in the medieval times for many pilgrims.

Starting our tour with the ascension of the mount Corneille to see Notre Dame de France, we are warming up our calves for tomorrow. Sitting on top of a 2,500ft high hill of volcanic rock, the statue of Notre Dame de France, the Virgin Mary, looms over the town. Constructed in iron and painted pink, the statue was made from melted down Russian cannons that were given to the town by Napoleon III after they were captured by the French during the Crimean War. Climbing many steps, we reach the statue's feet to witness one of the most spectacular sights in the region.

"My feet are burning", I complain while descending the many climbed steps. "I bet I have a blister about to erupt", I continue. "Darn! Right before we leave tomorrow!" my mom adds.

A touristy shop at the bottom of the steps features pilgrimage paraphernalia where we buy our bourdon, the traditional walking stick, used by the medieval pilgrims; equipped with a metal tip, it served as a defensive tool against wild and aggressive animals, but also helped in muddy and slippery terrain. To keep track of time as if leaving the civilized world, we decide to carve a mark for each day we hike.

Walking through the old town, we stop at a small shop, turned into a pilgrim welcome venue. It is a place to meet other pilgrims, ready to start their adventure the next day as well. A kir, a glass of white wine with a dash of red currant liquor, is graciously offered to us while we discuss and get to know each other.

Today is Saturday and we fear that only a few stores will be opened tomorrow Sunday. So at 8:00 p.m., we enter a local supermarket, 8 à 8, and find some provisions for our lunch tomorrow: Ham, cheese, fruits, chocolate for quick energy, cookies and bread.

Our dinner, at the Kanter Brau Restaurant, made of fresh oysters, petit salé and lentils from the Puy, known for its famous lentils, end a full day. Closing our eyes after 10:00 p.m., we fall asleep setting mental scenes of what tomorrow might look like.

* * *

"Good morning!", says my mom in a singing voice. The excitement is at its peak along with a little apprehension. We get up at 6:00 a.m. and after a quick shower, and a light breakfast, we head for the cathedral for the weekly 7:00 a.m. Sunday mass dedicated to the pilgrims, eager to start their new adventure.

A great mass perched on a volcanic hillock, Notre Dame, complex, impressive and unusual monument, dominates le Puy-en-Velay. From the old lower town, a steeply inclined street leads us up to a monumental staircase which, in its distinctive, unique manner, reaches by a flight of sixty steps the facade, striped in white sandstone and black volcanic rock.

About twenty pilgrims are attending mass, waiting to be blessed before they start their journey. After mass, the benediction is granted to all present in front of the statue of St James and the Dame du Puy where we are invited to grab a handwritten prayer to carry along on our journey; my prayer is a word of encouragement from a seasoned pilgrim who is now on his way to Jerusalem. Before being sent on our way, we receive a medal of the black virgin from the priest to protect us on our voyage. In the sacristy, our credentials are stamped by a nun, a proof of our departing the city. The credential, also referred to as a passport, is an official document that we need to carry throughout the pilgrimage to show the route we choose to walk to Santiago. Many places on the way, sleeping facilities, churches, and even restaurants will have personalized stamps that we will look forward to have on our credential with the date of passage, always impatient to discover the stamp they left on our roadmap; the design of the stamp is unique to each place who delivers it, some being very creative and representative of the trail while others are boring and insignificant.

Back at the hotel, we grab our backpacks and head to the beginning of the trail, Place du Plot. It is already 9:00 a.m., and we have a lot of miles to cover today.

Right away we learn that this undertaking is not going to be a promenade. The little road used to exit Le Puy climbing non-stop is a killer. The weather is beautiful, sunny and warm, but hot for this first climbing day: we discover blisters shortly after our departure. Our soft skin, not accustomed to this treatment, is wondering what crazy project we signed up for.

We take a break in Saint Christophe for a menthe à l'eau—a refreshing glass of mint-diluted in cool water—in a bar and resume our climb to Montbonnet to reach 4,265 feet, a 2,132 foot climb from Le Puy. A couple of miles before Montbonnet, we find an opened field and decide to take a break for lunch early afternoon.

The terrain keeps on climbing and shortly after lunch, the rain starts. We are in the forest, surrounded by mountainous terrain and the steady rain turns into a storm, with lightning, hail, and thunder echoing in the mountains, bouncing from one hill to the other. The downpour is so sudden that the rain is gushing down the rocky trails. The trails are transformed into muddy torrents making it hard to walk and see where to put our feet. Our rain gear is keeping us dry but is cumbersome. With our hoods snuggled tight over our heads, we can barely hear each other. Walking one behind the other, our legs spread out to walk on the raised edges of the trail; we can't see one another.

"Do you know if we are on the right path," shouts my mom to overcome the noise of my hood rubbing back and forth on my ears, between two thunder rolls.

"I'm not sure; I have not seen a mark for a while," I shout back. The red and white marks, two inch long stripes painted on tree trunks, rocks, fences, electrical poles, road signs, walls or anything that is available, guide hikers and pilgrims on their journey. But beware; if you happen to see a red and white cross, you missed your turn. You must turn around and start looking for the right path.

Heads bent down, looking at our feet, stepping here or there, avoiding slippery rocks and uneven ground; did we miss a sign, a turn?

"Hang on; I think I see something white on that tree over there!" I shout. Getting closer, I clearly recognize the waited for, priceless and little, reassuring sign. "We are on the right trail," I confirm.

"How long before the next village," she asks.

"I'm not sure exactly, but based on the time, we should reach one soon," I hope. My mother, uneasy about storms in general, is forced to push forward hoping that the next village is near.

A few hours earlier, our backpacks had felt so incredibly heavy on this first day, dealing with the heat and the interminable hills, but now, caught in this tormented weather, our mind focused on the potential danger, we find extra energy and forgetting our load, feel as light as can be.

We finally arrive in St Privat d'Allier, a lovely little village in the mountains around four in the afternoon and are yet unsure of the next step to take. It is still early, but the weather is very disruptive. To our surprise, we run into a group of pilgrims, who also started this morning from Le Puy en Velay which we met last night at the welcoming get-together. They are having a drink in a little café, trying to dry off a bit, waiting for us and starting to wonder where we were, considering the weather conditions we are facing.

Even though the rain continues to pour, the thunder has stopped. Feeling much safer in the company of our new friends, Luc and Jean-Philippe from Bordeaux and Robin and Hilary from Vancouver, we bravely walk another hour and a half and arrive in Monistrol-d'Allier, our planned stop for the night. We have a reservation in a hotel, l'hôtel des Gorges, while the others are staying at the gîte; so we split upon arrival and walk our own ways.

The hotel, closing the very next day for the season, is very rustic but dry. You can hear the flick-flock sound coming from our shoes filled with water, as we walk in the lobby. After a long hot shower, we stuff our shoes with newspaper, a hiker's trick we had read about to soak up the moisture, and hope for dry shoes the next morning.

"Allo Alain", says my mom as her brother picks up the phone in Paris from his hospital bed. "What a day!" she says; "wet and tired, we were happy to arrive at the hotel. With the storm roaring above our heads all afternoon, we almost stopped early, if it was not for a group of fellow hikers who babysat us for the last four and a half miles." As her voice fades away, I dose off on my bed waiting for dinner.

In the dining room, a few pilgrims, tired-looking, are already seated for dinner, recovering as well from their first harsh wet day. A couple from Switzerland, a man alone wearing shorts, a T-Shirt and flip flops, and us, quickly engage in a lively conversation reminiscing the events of the day. With red and hot cheeks –colored by the fresh air and the red wine, we leave the dining-room, head back upstairs and sink deeply into our beds, looking back at this first day, replaying each and every details.

* * *

We casually wake up at seven and depart soon after for a new episode. As we leave Monistrol, we also leave the Velay region to enter the Gevaudan. The terrain, hilly and challenging, is asleep in a lush countryside. We make our way towards Saugues, where we are able to stock up with food for lunch at a charcuterie. In fact, we have walked all morning without seeing a place to buy anything to eat. This rises a red flag that we need to keep track of where and when we can stock up for each day.

A statue on the heights of Saugues welcomes the visitors and reminds us of a scary legend. Back in the 18th century, two regions, Aubrac and the Margeride, were infested with wolves. One of them, issued from the nearby forests, is acting up in the vicinity of Saugues. In July 1764, a child disappears. Picking his victims among humans, rather than among the flocks, the wolf creates a real panic wave among farmers. He is described with a strange tawny fur, possibly covered with scales, as tall as a donkey, with shorter legs in front, and endowed with enormous claws. During three years, the Bête du Gévaudan would have—according to the legend—massacred about one hundred women and children. It isn't until June 1767 that Jean Chastel kills the beast, in the north west of Saugues and puts an end to the massacres.

We leave Saugues and make a stop a couple of miles further in a pine forest to enjoy a well-deserved lunch and a mid-day rest. Even though we can't help thinking about the killing beast of the legend living in the nearby forest, the scenery is peaceful with sunrays filtering through the trees, lighting up a secret square where tree trunks entangled on the ground, make a perfect seating.

The afternoon is a little long and when we finally have our next stop called Le Sauvage in sight, we are thrilled as much as exhausted after this twenty mile hiking day. The last two miles, endless, progress on a sinuous trail inching towards Le Sauvage, just a pencil sketch away in the distance. A massive farm house with interconnected outbuildings sieges on a vast clearing suffused with evening pale light, and surrounded by a dense and dark forest.

Upon arrival, we visit the farm store that sells a few farm made products and buy bread, ham and cheese to contribute to the shared dinner with the same group of friends we met last night. Combining all of our supplies, we dine of a wild mushroom omelet, picked during the day, ham and cheese and pasta. A few glasses of wine and lots of laughter seal the beginning of a week long friendship on trail GR65.

The group is expanding and now encompasses: Luc and Jean-Philippe, the Bordelais friends, Hilary and Robin, the married Canadian couple, Philippe, the loner we met last night at the hotel, and my mother and I, labeled as the mother-daughter tandem.

The site is memorable as described in books and we pass a fantastic evening cooking and eating in great company, by the fireplace. We spend our first night in a mixed dormitory with the group –a new experience that undeniably implies pros and cons. For us newcomers, mixed feelings float in our mind; the convivial sense of community, being part of a personable group, sharing jokes and stories, laughing conflicts with adjusting to practical necessities like changing, organizing and washing personal female clothing, sharing bathrooms and such. A step into a new world we have yet to discover.

* * *

As you can easily imagine, the beauty of sleeping all together in a dormitory, is that when the first pilgrim decides to get up and get moving, the whole dorm is forced to follow. So, against our will, we all get up at 6:30 a.m. in the morning, and have a hearty countryside breakfast made of toasted country bread, cheese and tea. Departing at dawn, our breath hanging in the chilly air reminds us of the coming season, when nights are cold, but days are still warm. We carefully follow the signage to avoid getting lost.

After changing department, from Haute Loire to Lozère, we hike in a group formation, changing partners every so often, to arrive later on at St Alban-sur-Limagnole, where we take over the whole terrace of a café, adjacent to a roman church, distinguished by its bell wall so typical to the region, with three embrasures each occupied by bells.


Excerpted from Witness of Change by Stephanie Lemerond. Copyright © 2015 Stephanie Lemerond. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note, ix,
Prologue, xi,
Introduction, xv,
1 Year One: From Le Puy-en-Velay to Estaing, 1,
2 Year Two: From Estaing to Cahors, 23,
3 Year Three: From Cahors to Nogaro, 46,
4 Year Four: From Nogaro to Roncevaux, 67,
5 Year Five: From Roncevaux to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, 86,
6 Year Six: From Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Sahagun, 109,
7 Year Seven: From Sahagun to Alto do Poio, 127,
8 Year Eight: From Alto do Poio to Santiago de Compostella, 154,
Epilogue, 183,
Glossary, 187,
Bibliography, 191,

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