¡Buen Camino!

Dear Friends,
It has taken three tries and nine years, but as of July 2012, I have finally walked the entire Way of Compostela from my former home in Leuven/Louvain, Belgium, to Santiago de Composela!
My first pilgrimage experience from the French frontier with Spain to Santiago itself took place in 2003. You can read the details of this first walk along the famous Camino across Spain in my book, To The Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Compostela, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2008). (You can order it from the publisher, from Amazon.com, or from your local bookseller).
In the summer and early fall of 2007, I walked from Belgium most of the way across France, with the hope of at least making it to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port near the Spanish border, where I began the first pilgrimage. I didn't quite make it. A bad case of plantar fasciitis took me down in the Bordeaux village of Sainte-Ferme. I continued on to Santiago by train and bus, but the "defeat of my feet" and those last 175 miles or so that were left undone, gnawed at me over the ensuing five years. Happily, I was finally able to wrap up this grand pilgrimage with a third walk from Sainte-Ferme to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port this past summer (2012). It was a joy to have completed all 2,370 kilometers between Leuven and Santiago.
My adventures and misadventures, my thoughts and prayers of both the 2007 and 2012 pilgrimages have been shared in this blog. I will leave the blog and its archives open for some time to come; if you want to read bits and pieces of it, feel free, but remember that the beginning is at the bottom and the end is at the top.
My contact e-mail remains the same: kacodd@gmail.com; I am always happy to receive mail!
As the pilgrims in Spain greet one another, so I greet you, my reader: "Buen Camino!"
And as the people of France greet their pilgrims along the "Chemin", I also wish to you: "Courage!"

Grace and peace to you all!

Monday, July 30, 2007

La Villeneuve-au-Chene

It is morning, and the sun is shining brilliant and crystalline! What a wonder after a day and night of wind and rain!
Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 11), in which Jesus teaches his friends not only what to say in prayer ("Our Father...") but also the attitude of confidence before a father who loves his children, seems as clear out here as the morning sunshine after a dark and miserable day. With a clarity I’ve seldom felt before, I feel looked after.
So in just awhile, I put my boots back on for another walk, the half I didn’t finish yesterday.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

La Villeneuve-au-Chene

Spent last night in Amance. Had the Gîte d’Etape to myself, only eight euros! No store or restaurant for food, only take-out pizza, so had pizza for dinner and breakfast! I had hoped to do twenty-eight kilometers today and arrive in Courtenot this afternoon, where I will stay with the Solvays, friends of the American College, and meet up with Fr. Vincent Chavez for a free day. But the rain and wind were fierce so had to stop here, where I was welcomed at a warm, dry, and cozy B&B. I guess it will rain all summer! My meditation for today: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Finally! Internet access!

Dear Friends,
This evening is the first time since I've been on the road that I've been able to have more than a bit of time connected to the internet and can write something a bit more substantial than what I can do using my mobile phone's text messaging to get reports from the road posted to this blog (with the great assistance of ever-faithful John Steffen, doing the hard work of transcribing what is on that little mobile screen to the blog).
I am presenly in the town of Brienne-le-Chateau and the guest of the local parish priest, Père Norbert, a very young priest (ordained just seven years) and doing a great job here and in his more than fifty surrounding villages. I accompanied him this afternoon to a bi-weekly Mass at the local nursing home and was invited to give the final blessing in English; the old ladies were delighted!
Today was one of the tough days on the road, not because of rain or too many kilometers, but just one of those days when nothing feels right: the backpack is out of balance and hanging too low, the back beneath it itches from mosquito bites, not enough to eat for breakfast so energy is low, etc. Discouragement takes hold. I think every pilgrim has these days; nothing tells you they are coming, and they go away just as quickly as they come. Often they are a harbinger of something very good just ahead. But while you are in them, they are a pain. Mass with the oldsters took the edge out of this particular one, as did finally getting to see the past three weeks of emails waiting for me: so much encouragement from so many friends and family and folks from just about everywhere on the globe. Thanks so much to all of you!
This pilgrimage experience is very different from the much shorter one I did four years ago; it is less intense ("Gotta get there!") and more diffuse, because the whole thing is so stretched out. Certainly, I am much more alone now. I have to depend on my own emotional resources much more if I am to keep going. Maintaining good mental attitude is really the name of this game since the temptation to discouragement is always lurking in the background and sneaks up on me when I let my guard down. I find myself saying, "I can't do this!" even though I AM doing it! The refrain of the Spanish hymn is the key to staying afloat emotionally: "Un dia a la vez!" One day at a time.
The popular image in America of French people being slightly snobbish finds no grounds out here. They are being terrific with me in each village and town I pass through. Their kindness to this stranger passing by loaded down with pack and sweating like an old pig and only able to squeeze out a few broken words in their language has been gracious and generous beyond my wildest imaginings. They know well what a pilgrim is, and they care for their pilgrims with delight and joy. They seem to sense that helping us is a blessing upon them, as indeed, I trust and hope, it is.
So what do I think about all those hours on the trail? Surprisingly little. I live in a very limited present out there that extends up to the next crown of that hill and over to that field on the left and the other on the right. Mostly, I just walk. Sometimes I talk to myself. For awhile each morning, I try to pray for those who have asked me to do so and those I care about and their needs; but the explicit, word-driven prayer rather quickly settles into non-words, then steps, then fields, then the roadside crucifix which I pass by with a nod to Jesus, then the next village with its church steeple and its bells drawing me in at the Angelus. Sometimes an old hymn plays in the back of my brain for hours, just hanging there, repeating itself over and over again. That is prayer too.
So, my friends, I'll keep going as I am able and will keep praying as I go. Say (or walk) a prayer for me when you think of it.
I don't know when I'll have internet access again, so it will be back to the brief daily text message reports for a while.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


This ville is not where I expected to end up today, but the not-so-small matter of food changed my plans. I didn’t begin the day with enough, then discovered that the first two towns I came to had no bar/café, nor does Lentilles, where I was headed. So I detoured slightly to Chavanges, which does have food. The empty parish house serves as the pilgrim refuge, a very old half-timber place; not fancy but good enough.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Saint-Remy-en-Bouzemont-Saint-Genest-et-Isson. Today is the feastday of St. James, so there surely are grand celebrations going on in Compostela. I’m a long way off yet, but with who knows how many others, I’m slowly walking my way in his direction. This village has the longest name in all of France and a big village heart; though less than 1000 folks live here, it has a beautiful refuge for us pilgrims! Today was a twenty-kilometer day—about right … and the sun shone the whole trek!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Rain accompanied me the whole day yesterday, but the predicted lightning never showed. I arrived here soaked to my toes after twenty-seven kilometers. Staying with Polish sisters who make room for pilgrims. Today I rest and dry out.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Bypassed Chalons (twelve kilometers) in favor of taking full advantage of a great day for walking and covered twenty-six kilometers. Staying in farm gîte; got last room in town!

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I covered twenty kilometers today, leaving the vineyard country for fields of grain and beets. Had hoped to make it to Chalons, a big city, but the last ten kilometers were too much for a hot afternoon. Am staying with the local pastor, eighty-plus years and still working!

Friday, July 20, 2007

A very special blessing

Verzy. Heart of Champagne country, after a three-hour walk (twelve-plus kilometers). Got a late start due to farewell breakfast with the Foleys and a bad thunderstorm. Tomorrow will be long, I expect. My day in Reims with the Foleys was grand!

Today an extra report from Caroline and Gene Foley, who met Fr. Kevin yesterday in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dames de Reims, having arrived late the night before. Kevin had walked for a couple of hours that morning on his way from Vitry-la-Reims, where he had spent the night with a very friendly curé (who even drove him into Reims the night before, so he would know the way the next day!).
We all had a second breakfast together and then got Kevin checked into the Maison Saint Sixte, a former seminary run by the Diocese of Reims that is now used as a foyer d’etudiants. We agreed to meet again an hour later, so Kevin could take a shower, do the usual laundry, etc., before we would head off together.
First to visit was the St. Remi Basilique, a beautiful old church with a long history (it was here that Bishop Remi baptized King Clovis in 496 A.D.). We spent so much time there that we were hungry again, but the brasserie across the street served the most cheesy croque monsieurs we have ever seen!
After that we headed for the Cathedral, where there turned out to be an official Accueil for pilgrims. Kevin was greeted with a warm embrace, had to tell all about his walk, write something in the Livre d’Or de Pelerins, received his pilgrim’s stamp, and, most importantly, got some useful info on possible lodgings further along the chemin/camino. Leafing through the golden book, we were amazed by the number of pilgrims who do the “whole” camino, starting at home in Holland, Germany, or Belgium—an average of one or two a day had passed by since April. A brief visit to the cathedral, especially to see the beautiful Chagall windows again, and then it was time for some relaxation. So we went to the Piper Heidsieck champagne caves; of course, the visit included some sampling!
We felt we couldn’t leave Reims without visiting St. Jacques, the oldest parish church; sadly though, it was all locked up. However, Gene even managed to get someone to open the otherwise closed St. Jacques church, for a brief visit and another stamp in the pilgrim’s passport! We then had dinner together on top of a Holiday Inn hotel, with a beautiful view of the cathedral.
Friday morning we were all up early and again had croissants and coffee together in a brasserie close to the Hotel de Ville. By then it was raining pretty hard, so we all sat together in our car alongside the canal waiting for the rain to stop before bidding Kevin “adieu.” It never did stop, so he bravely put on his rain jacket and covered up his backpack, and we watched him tramp off along the canal, in the rain... Buen Camino!
It was another short walking day, like yesterday—but he arrived, “wet but sound,” at Verzy at 1:20 pm. “Three hours of walking in the rain is enough!” All in all, Kevin has walked already more than 300 kilometers. He looks great, the leg is not giving any major trouble (a small miracle!), and his French is getting better by the day. But most of all, he’s overwhelmed by the kindness of the many people he’s meeting in the small villages, the young couples, the overworked parish priests, the grandmas and grandpas, who take him in, treat him as an honored guest, and won’t hear of any remuneration. It is a very special blessing.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Notre Dame de Reims

Reims. Arrived at the front porch of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims at 10:30 am! The Foleys were there to meet me with hugs and big smiles. I’m staying at the Reims seminary, now a student house for lack of seminarians.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I’m enjoying the hospitality of the parish priest here in this village just ten kilometers from the heart of Reims. I’ll arrive in that famous city for pilgrims tomorrow morning. I can hardly believe that I’ve come this far!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Due to the high cost of blogging using my mobile phone, I will post fewer blogs in the future, doing so when I have access to the internet.

Unreserved kindness and generosity

Signy l’Abbaye. I have a few days to catch up on due to phone problems once I crossed far enough in France to lose my Belgian system. I am back in contact with a new phone number: +33 674 70 42 61.
I woke up on Friday morning still very “burned” from the previous day’s tramp through the mud of the Ardennes, so I decided to take the day off and use it to write in my journal, catch up on laundry, and just give my body and spirit a chance to take a breath and recover a bit from the beating they had been taking the previous four days. It turned out to be a very good decision for two reasons. I got to see the Bastille Day fireworks over Rocroi that night and the next morning; and yesterday I was really ready to go again.
My goal for the day was Rimogne, but once again I misjudged the distance involved (this time in my favour) and arrived there after only three hours on the road … all of them pleasant and easy. It was a sunny and fresh morning, which made the walking a pleasure. At Rimogne I decided to keep going a couple more hours to the village of Remilly-las-Pothees and was assured by the barmaid who served me a sandwich that I would find lodging there.
So, off I went about noon, just as the day was getting seriously warmer. The first hour or so was fine, and I was greatly enjoying the vistas of the rolling hills covered in wheat or clover for the dairy cows all around. But the last two kilometers up to Remilly turned into a very steep climb up, up, up. My body was slowing down, and various parts were starting to earnestly complain. I finally arrived in the small village quite hot, dry, and exhausted. I was assured by an old couple sitting under an umbrella in front of their ancient house that there was indeed a gîte in the town where I could spend the night. I came upon some young people, one of whom took me to the man in charge of the gîte. He answered the door and told us both that there was no room in the inn… and that the next place was just two or three kilometers down the road. Catastrophe! I didn’t know what to do … I just didn’t know how I could walk two or three more hilly kilometers.
I stewed for a while before going back to the gîte man to ask which place on the map would have lodging. I also asked about staying in the local sixteenth-century church. He showed me the town with no guarantees and told me the lady with the church key lived down the street. Meanwhile his wife brought me a slice of freshly baked rhubarb pie, which I wolfed down; then I headed out to find the church lady. I didn’t find her, but I did find Jean in front of his house painting his garage door. When I approached him, he smiled warmly and immediately took my cause as his own, even inviting me to take a shower and rest in his and his wife’s beautiful home while he sought permission from the mayor for me to spend the night in the village hall. He and his wife, Anne, treated me like an honoured guest, even welcoming me to their dinner table (well, actually the garden table), where we enjoyed a light supper, some fine wine, and warm though laboured conversation until well after 11:00 pm. Jean walked me to the hall, where I laid out my pad and sleeping bag on the tile floor for a decent though far-from-elegant night’s sleep. So my “catastrophe,” as so often happens out here, turned into a grace. It was a pure joy to come to know Jean and Anne, and I continue to be amazed by their unhesitating and unreserved kindness and generosity towards me. Thank God for such good people as these!
Before supper, Jean wrangled the church key from the lady next door (it took some convincing on his part), and the three of us walked over to look inside this sixteenth-century treasure. Sadly, the interior is in very bad repair and terribly neglected. Mass is no longer said there except for an occasional funeral or wedding. The old stained glass is falling to pieces, the statues are lined up to one side, dusty and removed from their once proud niches, the plaster and stones are deteriorating. An age has passed.
This morning I woke from my first night’s sleep on a floor a bit stiff but not really too much more than usual. The sky was mostly blue, and the first rays of sunlight were already warming the earth as I walked out of Remilly, though not before leaving in Jean and Anne’s door a brief note of thanks written on a coffee filter robbed from the village hall’s kitchen. And off I went for today’s relatively short hike (fifteen kilometers) to Signy.
It began with another serious climb out of Remilly, but the road was fine, mostly a paved single-lane path through the same rolling hills that had become so familiar … and that are so beautiful to behold under the morning sun. About two or three kilometers before Signy the GR route ran into some deep woods; pretty soon I was ankle deep in mud on a road that had been overrun by 4x4 vehicles leaving deep tracks and the same gloppy mud that I have come to hate. The heavy underbrush on either side of the road limited my options for going around the worst of the mud. At one point I misstepped, lost my balance, and thought I was finally going down into the mire; just in time my Nordic walking pole caught my weight and I avoided disaster … but my poor boots, which I had just cleaned and waxed, were once again covered from top to bottom with this awful stuff.
I arrived in Signy at 11:15 and headed for the church, open but empty. Mass here was celebrated last evening. Nobody in the presbytery either, so I got a room at one of the town’s hotels for 38 € for the night, then went and ordered a proper Sunday dinner at a restaurant. Now as the afternoon grows hot I am watching the Tour de France on television and comparing it to my own Tour de France. I am happy with my slower version. In a while I’ll say Mass in my room … no other options today … and eventually get a good night sleep in a real bed and be ready to head out again tomorrow for another leg of the Tour.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Rest & recuperation

I took the day off here in Rocroi and got a good rest and recuperation. I feel much better tonight than I did this morning … and the clouds finally broke! The locals are now celebrating Bastille Day with lots of sirens, fire crackers, and a marching band, but I’m going to bed.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Rocroi, France. Please, if you will, take note of today’s dateline: FRANCE! I made it across the frontier to this lovely little village surrounded by great battle fortifications in the shape of a five-pointed star. My accomplishment today, however, did not come without plenty of toil and travail; this was a tough and dirty day.
Morning broke with heavy clouds and mist covering us from one end of the sky to the other… not a promising beginning for one just yesterday drenched by similar clouds. I got out the door and out of Oignies around 8:30 am; Herman was away about twenty minutes before that, now travelling with backpack, having given up his fancy sled-like rig the previous day. I started out happily enough… no rain after all… and followed the signs and my gps for about two or three kilometers, until, to my horror, I suddenly realized I had just retraced OUT of town my very steps INTO town the day before! I had to choose whether to walk back to Oignies and start over or replot from where I stood. With the help of the gps, I planned a new route that would connect me to the GR trail further on, so off I went, none too cheery since I knew I had just added five or six kilometers to the day’s work, and at least an hour of walking to my program of reaching Rocroi across the border.
What I encountered along the way was a mix of wet grass up to my knees, so much moisture in the air that my glasses fogged up whenever I stopped for a breather, hills up and hills down, and roads, trails, and paths that were presently so loaded with the remains of yesterday, roads that were far more viscous than solid: mud, mud, gooey, sucking, slippery mud! The poet e.e. cummings wrote a poem called ‘in just- spring’ in which he describes the world as ‘mud-luscious,’ but this is now ‘in just JULY’ … the middle of SUMMER, and such mud as I contended with all day is hardly luscious, and it seemed to never end. For hours I picked my way through, over, around, and sometimes just deep into the stuff … it was slow going, very tough work, which has left me exceedingly tired at the end of this day. I want no more of it tomorrow; maybe I’ll take a day off and just hang out here in Rocroi, if for no other reason than to give my clothes and long-suffering boots a chance to dry out (nothing dries in this wetness!).
For all that, still and all, here I am in France … and I walked here … that’s something to be grateful for, considering my ill-starred beginning 12 days ago. And I have no blisters or tendonitis or any of the other usual pilgrim afflictions (amazing really!), and though I am a complete dunce at communicating in French, people are being very kind to me (pilgrims seem to be a somewhat beloved breed around here). So grace abounds, even in the mud of the earth.

Au revoir, Belgique!

Oignies-en-Thierache. My five-and-a-half-hour walk today carried me to the very cusp of the French frontier, but not quite. Crossing into la belle France will come early tomorrow. Belgium, true to its reputation, fairly drenched me late into today’s hike, almost as if it wanted to treat me to its famous rain showers one last time before I leave her damp soil. The kind lady who hosted Herman and me in her chambre d’hôte provided us a fine breakfast … Not so petit as petit déjeuners go. She told us she knows the priest in Oignies, our destination for today, and even tried to call him for me so that I would have a place to lodge tonight (Herman planned to camp out).
I set off down the highway to Treignes, just a couple of kilometers away, and picked up the GR 654 there. It led me through some fields of hay and grass and the usual gang of mildly interested but altogether mute cows, then through increasingly heavy Ardennes forest, deep green, damp, beautifully quiet. I passed through a couple more of these villages with seemingly so little in them except grey stone houses, barns, and more cows on the outskirts. I was then led by the increasingly rough and undeveloped trail alongside a small creek rambling through a valley with steep rises on either side. Occasionally the path disappeared altogether as the creek overran it, and I had to jump, crawl, and carefully pick my way to the next GR mark. It was so damp down there that, even before the rain, I was already soaked with dew and sweat.
After a while, I connected myself to my iPod (the first time I’ve used it while walking thus far… I have just been too occupied with my own thoughts) and listened to some hymns by a fellow named Fernando Ortega and then the Anonymous Four. Before long, in the utter loneliness and quiet of the forest, I was singing along out loud; there was no one around, so no need to feel embarrassed, and it was great fun. After a while, the rain began to fall very lightly, but with each leaf above my head acting as a sort of mini-drum, the sound was too resonant to pass up, so I put away the iPod to enjoy this pure music from nature herself. Little of the rain was getting through the blanket of leaves above my head, but enough to indicate that I should pause, drop my pack, and pull out my Gore-tex rain jacket. Shortly thereafter, it began to pour, and in the last three kilometers or so I was drenched and tired.
By the time I got to Oignies, I must have looked like a drowned rat. With hopes of finding lodging quickly, I asked an old fellow at work in his garage where the abbé lived, and he informed me that he is presently away on vacation. Oh great! Just then Herman, also very wet, arrived on the scene; so we went to the post office to ask about a place to hang our wet hats and rest our weary bodies. The lady at the window had no good news for us: there were a couple of very expensive gîtes at the other end of town, but the local gas station might have a place, so we trundled down there but found the place closed up tighter than a drum. Back up the hill to the center, Herman saying that he was going to go another seven kilometers to the next village but have a coffee first. We spotted a restaurant and took a look: all cloth table coverings and fancy decorations, not the kind of place likely to be amenable to soaked pilgrims just out of a day tramping through the woods. However, there was a sign on the door that said the place was also a three-star hotel. I looked at the price list posted near the door: 50€ for one, 67€ for two. Herman found that too much and again planned to go on further. I wasn’t going any further (my knee was beginning to ache… enough is enough for one wet day), so I went in to ask for a room, sopping wet. The lady took me next door and led me upstairs to a small but clean and modest double room. The price listed was 45€ for one and only 54€ for two, so I dropped my bag and rushed outside in hopes of catching Herman before he left town. He was right at the corner, still getting rained on, so I hollered for him to come back, and he agreed to share the room. The warm shower and change into dry clothes, not to mention a soft bed to nap on, make this place worth every eurocent it is taking out of my coin purse. Even more so now that a heavy rain has begun to fall again OUTSIDE! Tomorrow I will cross into France after only nine kilometers and then continue on to the medieval city of Rocroi. Au revoir, Belgique! May at least a little sun shine in the morning.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


After spending last night in Hastière and its fine little refuge for pilgrims, the host, Marcellinus from Togo, Africa, informed Herman of Antwerp and me that there is a direct bicycle route to our destination for today, Doische. I chose the route Marcellinus indicated rather than the zigzaggy GR 654, and indeed it was much more direct and really a pleasant route to walk, most of it through lush green vegetation. I met very few people along the way: a few bicyclists whooshing by on their beautiful machines.
I arrived in Doische after just three-and-a-half hours of walking, so I decided to buy a few things from a small grocery store, then head on down the route another eight or ten kilometers to this little village of Mazee. It took two attempts to find lodging, but I was welcomed happily to a little chambre d’hôte, Le Point du Jour, which overlooks the valley that most of the rest of the village occupies with its old stone homes and the smell of burning fire wood in the air (does that mean it is going to get cold here tonight?). My friend Herman made the same decision as I, so he arrived at the door shortly after me. We don’t walk together but quite often have been ending up at the same places in the afternoon, so we share tales of the day and plans for the morrow.
I have been skirting the French border all day, sometimes just a few meters from it. (A horn of French territory juts up into Belgium; I’m walking along its western side.) Tomorrow I may definitively enter France or perhaps stop just short of it, if the day gets too long. I have gotten to know a side of Belgium I never really knew so much about; Wallonia is beautiful in its great rurality, and certainly I have enjoyed these days the sing-songy ‘Bonjour, Monsieur!’ that is the ever-cheery greeting I receive as I pass by.
Heavy clouds still hang about, but no rain fell on me today. I am grateful for that and for so very much else. Now to figure out what to eat for dinner in a place with one bar and no restaurants!

Monday, July 9, 2007


The wonderful lady of the house who welcomed me to her chambre d'hôte in Dinant served up a great breakfast—better than any hotel, and not just “family style,” but really as if I were for that day part of the family. The matter of paying her the forty euros seemed strained, in fact, almost as if it was an unnecessary and unpleasant thing that had to be done as non-offensively as possible.
I got out the door at about 8:45 am and continued my march south, passing again through Dinant, now a sleepy little river village in comparison to Sunday’s bustling tourist site. My intention for the day was to follow the Meuse River—for what I wrongly figured to be about eight kimometers, then pick up the GR 654 (Europe’s extended walking route) and finally climb out of the river valley (which is mercifully level) and finish off the day in the very small village of Soulne. What I thought would be an eight-kilometer prelude to the eleven-kilometer walk out of the valley turned into a fifteen-kilometer walk, including some pretty jungle-like stretches along the river bank; I even had to get down on my knees in the mud to crawl under a huge tree that had fallen across the path, and this with thirty pounds (twelve kilos) on my back!
Anyway, I marched on and came upon the village of Hastière after about three-and-a-half hours of moving at a pretty good clip for me. I found a little family restaurant and sat down for what they call petite restauration. I ordered a Ciney beer and an omelet. In the meantime, I sized up my situation and realized just how badly I had goofed up on my distances. What was worse, the next village was at least another five or six kilometers along the river and, according to my guidebook, has no lodging, and the next one, Soulne, my original goal for the day, had only one gite d’etape but no stores or restaurants, and it was another eleven kilometers beyond that.
So it seemed that the wisest thing to do was to call Hastiere home for the night and conquer the hill and dale to Soulne (and maybe beyond) tomorrow. The kind folks at my restaurant, when I inquired about a gite or chambre d'hôte, asked if I was a pilgrim to Compostelle and then told me that the church rectory across the street now serves as an auberge for pilgrims. My waiter, a young teen, even led me right to the door! What kindness is shown us pilgrims! So for ten euros I had my own room with a beautiful view of the Meuse River, not to mention a warm shower and a comfy bed.
Haustière is home to a beautiful eleventh-century Romanesque church, once part of a great Benedictine abbey, ruined during the French Revolution. The church, to which this house is the rectory, is really very special and has a millennium of history caring for pilgrims like me: evidently this place has long been on the road to Compostelle. Those earlier pilgrims left some nice graffiti on the walls of the ancient crypt of the church. I left just a note in the guest book saying how proud I am to be among their company in this place.
The trouble knee did very well today... I hardly felt it through the morning, so maybe the walking is actually helping it. I can tell that my leg muscles are hardening up nicely as the days go by. Gregory the Great still feels plenty great, but I am getting used to him riding atop me, like an old horse. We’ve now traveled together about ninety kilometers, or sixty miles, if I am adding right. I’m probably about two or three days from crossing into France. The weather was great this morning, but it is raining now. Who knows what tomorrow will bring—almost all good, if things continue as they have been. I'll miss the Meuse: this wonderful river with its deep green shoulders and great, grey granite cliffs has been a fine companion these past days.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


After a pleasant evening with Père Bernard at his rectory in Yvoir, I had a very short walk this morning into the touristic village of Dinant, only eight kilometers. I arrived at the church of the Abbey of Leffe just as mass was beginning. The priest was front and center leading the penitential rite when I came through the door. He looked at me but didn’t miss a beat. The liturgy was very beautifully done, and it was a joy to be seated, sweaty and probably smelly, in the last row. At the end of mass everyone knew what I was up to and greeted me warmly, and one monk retrieved the abbey seal to stamp my pilgrim passport/credential. He told me that they receive about two pilgrims a day, which is way more than I would have expected. Two other times today I was recognized as a pilgrim, my cockleshell hanging from my pack being the giveaway. I am amazed and touched in retrospect by how they and almost everyone else then treat me, not as a dumb tourist who can’t even speak French but as a sort of hero: they smile kindly, go out of there way to make things easy for me, and say a final word like “Courage!” to me as they wave me on. I need that courage and encouragement because there are so many moments when I myself think I’m nuts for attempting this and for worrying about all the things that might go wrong even if they don’t. The temptation to catch the next train back to Leuven is strong, especially in places like this where the train station is only a couple of blocks away. I would be home in an hour! Tomorrow I follow the Meuse River another day and then it’s back to the GR trail that will take me out of this lovely valley and towards the French border. I imagine I will encounter for the first time lots of steep grades that will put my weak knee to the test in a new way. Also there are few towns of any size, so the going could get tougher finding lodging, and I am without my beautiful but too heavy tent! Well, as I write this it is raining again; the sunshine was nice while it lasted, but all things wet and damp is the norm I’ve gotten used to.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


This Saturday was blessed with fine walking weather, cool and mostly sunny, little wind, and no rain. I left the Auberge de Jeunesse at about 9:00 am for a relatively short hike to the riverside village of Riviere, where I hoped to find the local priest and asked for a place to stay … but I was told he is sick and would not be back. With my fellow pilgrim from Antwerp, Herman, we moved on to the next town, Godinne, where things seemed more promising. As we entered the village, we came upon a 91-year-old priest walking along, so we asked him where we might spend the night. He told us we should walk across town to the large Jesuit College there. We trundled to the massive buildings and looked for someone to help us. An old Jesuit well into his 80s came upon us and went to look for the superior but didn’t find him, so he led us to a grassy field to wait an hour or so until the superior returned. We rested in the grass, ate a snack, and then were surprised when the old Jesuit returned to tell us that our request for a place to spend the night had been turned down. Oh well. We left. Then Herman went his own way. I began searching the town for the parish church, finding it only after thirty minutes of wandering about. An old lady was in the sacristy. I did my best to explain my predicament in my altogether broken French, but she got the idea and told me that the parish priest wouldn’t be around until mass time at 5:30, two hours later. I left feeling terrible frustration, as it seemed I might be spending the night on a park bench. So I went off with my pack and sticks looking for any kind of lodging. Nothing … so back to the church. I sat in its cool interior and read the Sunday readings, which consoled me … Jesus telling his seventy-two to hit the road without packs or sandals. At 5:25 Père Bernard, a young priest, arrived and greeted me like a brother, even welcoming me to concelebrate the mass with him. He is taking care of me tonight. God bless him! So another pilgrim day under my belt. Tomorrow I will have a short walk to Dinant. I’ll follow the riverside path rather than the official route, which is all up and down and a lot further as it zigzags across the countryside. The Meuse River is beautiful, so I’ll keep following it.


My day began on a glum and grim note: not much sleep due to a pesky mosquito buzzing me every time I began to nod off … until I was no longer able to nod off. He won … I never managed to swat him as the hours dragged on. Dawn came with rain and wind battering the old, worn rectory of Father Paul, and I felt no inclination to spend the coming day fighting yet more of this dreadful weather. When I went downstairs to the kitchen to join Paul for his breakfast, his animated spirit did much to make the gloom lift. At one point he declared, “Every day is a great day for me. I have never been unhappy even one day in my life. That is my charism, I suppose.” I was ready to begin my own happy day when Paul offered to drive to the edge of Perwez, not something I would usually accept, since part of the pilgrim spirit for many is the importance of walking every step of the way. But his pilgrim hospitality trumped my pilgrim purity, so I agreed, and off we went together. When I thanked him for all his kindness, he just laughed his great laugh and declared, “It’s the normal thing to do, nothing more.”
Today’s walk to Namur was not so easy; powerful winds buffeted me almost the entire day, and I was mostly confined to highways instead of roads and trails like yesterday. But the most challenging thing was just the distance involved, somewhere around twenty-eight kilometres, a six-and-a-half hour hike. My fragile knee held up, but it is quite sore tonight. A good night sleep is good medicine, though.
It seemed as though Namur would never appear as I walked the last few kilometres. But once I hit its northern limit, it took another forty-five minutes to cross through its busy commercial centre and find my way to the town’s youth hostel. My roommate for the evening is also a pilgrim, Herman from Antwerp. He is sixty-three and pulling his stuff behind him on a special little wagon made just for the purpose. We had dinner here together. He is the first pilgrim I have met so far. I am feeling a lot of temptation to quit, but I remember this from last time and another, wiser pilgrim’s advice: “Don’t quit until you’ve been on the road for at least five days. The first week is always the hardest.”
I ran into a very funny old lady as I passed by a dairy barn this morning. She came bounding out of a shed to see who was making all the racket (my walking poles are very noisy on pavement and cement), and then with great interest probed into what I was up to, then called her grizzled husband over to see this curiosity. They had never heard of Compostelle but seemed delighted that somebody was doing something so nutty. That’s all for today. If my knee still aches in the morning, I may take a day off here in Namur, because the next segment involves lots of fairly steep climbing and descending. Well anyway, I’m happy I made it this far.

Friday, July 6, 2007


Finally, this morning, after three days of frustration and further and better preparations I got myself back on the road, though not without a fair amount of worry about how my old meniscus-troubled knee would hold up. My friends Gene and Caroline drove out to the Hamme-Mille campground where I had left off on Sunday afternoon. They also conveyed my backpack, big Greg, to the parish house where I would be spending the night, making my walk much lighter on my dicey knee. I was using my little GPS today to navigate along and, after a bit of confusion at the beginning, figured out how to use it to get myself heading south. My knee was feeling pretty good … a little bit of ache from time to time but nothing disastrous. I walked through some beautiful Belgian countryside, which was mostly fields of grain or vegetables with more than occasional dairy farms dotting the landscape. It was all rather beautiful, even under constantly dark and heavy skies. I was rained upon from time to time but didn’t melt, as my pa always assured us when he expected something done outside on days like this. I crossed over twenty kilometres of muddy roads and paths to the little crossroad village of Thorembais-Saint-Trond, where the pastor, Paul Hanson, welcomed me for the night. He is quite a priest! Having spent over twenty years as a missionary in Haiti, he runs his small parish like his former mission, with a grand vegetable garden out back (he was husking fresh peas when I arrived), raises his own sheep and slaughters them, and breeds racing pigeons for fun. It has been great fun visiting with him and his friends this evening. All in all, I am feeling much more optimistic about things than earlier in the week. Tomorrow I head for Namur with full pack and the hope that all goes as well as it did today, though I have just discovered that the waypoints I loaded into my GPS to guide me have disappeared. AAARGH! Somehow I’ll have to find my way. Santiago, guide me! May my knee hold together for another day.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Reculer pour mieux sauter!

As the days leading up to my departure draw severely down, my nervousness about the whole enterprise rises. With just three days to go, I am so behind in my preparations, I haven't even come close to finishing the job of packing up my office and apartment and putting my mountain of "stuff" up in the attic, and I have another day of hosting over one hundred of the American College's alumni. But much more daunting for me is the sheer size of this proposed adventure and my presumption and hubris in thinking this is something I might actually do. It now seems impossible and a hundred tiny voices within me are saying, "You ARE nuts! Don't do it!" "Stop while you still can! There are a million things that could go wrong and probably will go wrong! Etc." "Shut up, already!" I answer back. I know I'm an idgit for thinking I could do this, but I have no other option now. I have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go for the next four months. And beyond the noise of these aggravating voices is the memory of those days when it seemed with clarity and attractive power to be the absolutely right thing to do. I treasure that memory of surety even as I shake with self-doubt. In the midst of morning Mass yesterday, I had a moment of renewed clarity; it came to me that all that i am responsible for now is to begin. Just begin. Let the rest rest. Yes. I'll just begin and go from there. I was consoled and brought back down to earth.

So on Sunday, I will begin.

Friday and Saturday, I must finish clearing eight years of life here out of the College and pack up Gregory the Great. Saturday afternoon, I'll go get my Leuven Pilgrim stamp for my Credencial at the Sint-Jacob Parish office. Sunday morning I'll pray Laudes here in our chapel with whomever wants to join me, then walk a kilometer to the Sint-Lambertus Chapel in Heverlee for Mass in this lovely 12th century church...then make my final farewells and be on my way.

Many of our American College alumni and friends are going to be pledging a certain amount of money, whatever they want, for each mile I walk. The funds collected will go the College to continue work on our beautiful old chapel or to support a scholarship endowment fund for our seminarians. If you'd like me to carry a special intention to Big Jim, I'm happy to do that for you too. Visit the American College website for more information: AC Pilgrim.