Fourteen days into my sojourn on a Camino de Santiago route starting from Le Puy (close to Lyon) in France, already stunned by language barriers and surprise blisters and a rainstorm, I decided to scare myself even more. I turned off the customary Camino route to take a six-day walking detour to the cliff-side city of Rocamadour. Essentially, I completed a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.
Situated in a canyon on a tributary of the Dordogne river, in the midst of the region of France with prehistoric cave paintings every few miles, the tiny town of Rocamadour boasts a chateau, a Black Madonna, a sanctuary built into a cliff, many local legends and relics, famous goat cheese, and a huge crowd of international tourists. It is said to be the resting place of St. Amadour. According to legend, he was also St. Zacchaeus, the tax collector who climbed into a Sycamore tree to see Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. They say in Rocamadour that after his conversion, he came to France with his wife, St. Veronica. At the end of his life, he became a hermit, renaming himself Amadour—lover—and coming to the canyon of Rocamadour to dwell in a cave.
“That sounds beautiful, Rebecca,” you might have told me, “but couldn’t you save that for another trip? I mean, you’re already hiking a zillion miles in a foreign place on a path with many other beautiful towns, all on your own. That’s already hard. You could just skip this place.”
I agree. It was crazy to go there, if you look at it practically. But I had far more important reasons to go there than just sightseeing or school.
In the December before my trip, I told my Grandmother, another lover of travel and stories and grappling with doubt and trust, about my plan to walk the Camino from Le Puy. She walked into the other room and brought out a guidebook for Rocamadour. “I went here,” she said, rattling off the history of the place. “Go here,” she said, as if in her sentimental stupor she had forgotten the other nine hundred miles of my journey. But I told her I would go.
Three weeks later, I stood in the hospital room as Grammie Lu, the traveler, laughed excitedly about her last journey—into ashes. She had a heart attack, and she sat on a hospital bed for three days, waiting for her children to come and say farewell. Her nine children, their spouses, and most of her eighteen grandchildren huddled around her, sobbing and staring, walking in and out, pacing the halls, mindlessly buying food from the cafeteria. On January 6th, the traditional date for Three Kings’ Day (also called the Epiphany), she faded out and went to join her stars. She died on what I think should be a favorite day for a pilgrim, because it celebrates one of the most significant pilgrimages in all Christian lore—the journey of three powerful and rich and wise men to a homely stable to visit the miraculous birth of a baby. When she died, the pilgrimage felt more than ever like something more than a school trip or vacation. It became a quest to fill the void that she left in all of us.
I was talking to my friend Jane the other day about our shared love of the Epiphany. She says she likes the three kings because they did not just cross territorial boundaries to see a tiny baby—they crossed faith boundaries. Pilgrimage is the ultimate experience of being an outsider, of crossing cultural and linguistic and territorial and often religious boundaries, and searching still for a feeling of attachment and home.
I came to Rocamadour, paradoxically, to find a home, doubting every moment and every turn in the trail. There is nothing like the pull of family and friends—the pull of a birth, the black vortex of a death—that draws people into a quest. The Cid, however brutal and violent and filled with the hatred of his time for moors, ultimately sought an end to his exile and a home with his family. The Three Kings gave up all their riches simply in order to see a newborn child. Perceval sought to rectify his actions in living up to his knightly legacy and understanding his family’s story by searching for the Holy Grail. Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century pilgrim and mystic, mainly meditated on scenes involving the relationship between Jesus and his mother as a way of finding ultimate spiritual comfort. John McFarlane, a British environmental writer who sought to map out in a book the remaining wild places in the British isles, dedicated a significant portion of his writing to commemorating not only his experience on various islands and heaths, but also his relationship with a deceased nature lover and colleague. His book not only maps out physical locations, but also outlines the relationships and stories that make those places meaningful to him. The core lesson of pilgrimage, of all journeys with any sort of meaning, is that we are meant to do more than walk this earth. We are meant to find in it love, meaning, an antidote to doubt and loneliness, and a deeper relationship with all creation.
The whole week on the Rocamadour detour, for me, was one of wrestling between the extremes of doubt and trust. I could write you a book of testimony advocating both. On the first night after walking off the normal Camino route, I arrived in Lacapelle-Marival, a sizable town that had once been a site of tremendous power and wealth—as shown through its castle—that now only has two restaurants. I was greeted by a true ghost town as I myself walked through the ghosts of my past. I walked with my three new hostel companions for an hour until we found an open pizza place on the outside of town. I ate the “pizza mexicaine,” with green peppers and beef, and yearned for true Mexican food. “Well, this isn’t very magical,” I said to my Grandmother, wherever she was. “This is just eerie.” Then I looked up, past the city limits, to see an understated but elegant pink sunset. I chatted with Agnes and Denis, a recently retired couple from Paris, and Marie, a woman working on a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of biology.
The sleepy town of Lacapelle-Marival boasts a chateau!
I realized also that evening that the pilgrim hostels I thought would be available on my walk out of Rocamadour, as they were everywhere else, were well beyond my budget. I had almost no French skills, no companion, and no guide for this section. The women at the tourist office spoke no English and knew of nothing beyond their town. I had every right to feel deserted.
Everything about the walk to Rocamadour reminded me of my grandmother. Perhaps I willed it out of sheer desire to find her. Perhaps I saw her there because I was walking to a place she loved. Regardless, it was what I needed. When I left the Camino route to start on the variant to Rocamadour, I was escorted to the turn by an eighty-six-year-old woman—the exact age my grandmother would have been. In the mornings, walking through misty pastures of sheep enclosed in old stone walls, I saw into the photographs of the same scenes she hung in her house.
On the walk to the next town, the owner of the donation-only pilgrim hostel where I was headed had hung little signs on the Camino beckoning us to his place. One read, “the joy of the search surpasses the pleasure of the conquest.” I imagined Grammie Lu meditating, collecting the peace that had met her in those final days, led her through the ultimate transition. I thought of my own search, looking for that same peace. When I arrived at the hostel, I was greeted by opera music and violin concertos. I imagined my grandmother in a seat at a concert hall, binoculars aimed at the silk-clad and cashmere-voiced soloist with singular attention.
The next day, on the final short walk to Rocamadour, I left excited and humming, walking alone, waving to the cows and horses and sheep that stared at me on the side of the path. I did not expect the descent. That’s the only way I can describe it—a descent. As I went farther into the canyon outside Rocamadour, the route started to feel longer. I walked alone, shrouded by trees from the sky, past old abandoned mills and caves where early pilgrims might have slept. “Your grandmother is dead.” That is what the canyon told me.
I climbed out of the desolation and into the bustling park at the foot of the Rocamadour canyon. A crowd of motorcyclists revved their engines. Hordes of children ran from picnic tables to lawns. I climbed the stairs up into Rocamadour, staring at tourists from everywhere in Europe who in turn stared into leatherware and pottery and soap shops. My grandmother would have gone into every one of those shops, but I just sat down to eat. Some British tourists sat nearby as I took out my pear and Rocamadour cheese and salami and chocolate–treats, to celebrate my Grammie Lu day. I wanted to speak to them, to finally speak a language fluently, but I could not bring myself to speak. I had been silent and terrified for too many hours.
It was hours before I could check into my hostel. I wandered around the town, toting my backpack like the vagabond I was, images of abandoned windmills and the shaded canyon seared into my head. I collapsed onto the bed in my rare single room at the hostel and turned straight to the WiFi connection, breaking the three days of no contact from home that I thought I would find empowering. I shook as I recounted the story over the phone, and listened as it sounded more and more abstract. “Nobody will get it,” I told myself. “You’re just alone in Europe, and scared, and freaking yourself out, and nobody will ever understand this.” I looked out the tiny skylight window.
Denis, from the night before, rapped lightly on the door. “Would you like to have dinner with me and my wife?” He asked. “We are preparing dinner here in the kitchen.” I was not invisible. We settled into a slow evening, Denis and Agnes and I, I with little French, they with a bit more English, and inaugurated a friendship that lasted past our destinatuon point of Santiago de Compostela and continues in email inboxes. Staring out the skylights at hot air balloons crossing the canyon, cooking spaghetti on an old match-lit gas stove, I came home for the night.
I woke up late the next day and put on the one light dress I had snuck into my pack. I sat through a French mass in the sanctuary that seemed vaguely to be about Mary and yearned to play the violin I heard in the back. I ate an omelette slowly, trying to write something meaningful at the table, and ended up just writing about loneliness. I tried to shop like Grammie Lu would have. I tried to people watch like Grammie Lu, find something interesting to observe in the crowds. But everybody around me just sat there, smoking and eating, lost in their own conversations. I tried to find my grandmother, but all I saw was an empty plate and two tired legs.
So I walked out of the town, just a little bit. I walked up a footpath, intending to see the view from the castle at the top, but stopped a hundred feet up to walk into the ruins of an old stone house, impelled to sit. From it, you could look across the canyon at two caves high in the rock. I started to breathe, then started to write. I wrote about Amadour, the man who loved the world by sitting in a cave and cooking meager meals alone. I wrote about my grandmother, the woman who loved and loved and loved and then left the world, left nine children and their children. I wrote about her absence from me now, and her absence in her life–from bad events, from fully comprehending the struggles of a scary marriage and nine children. I wrote about idealism, how sometimes it wrecks your legs and leaves you defenseless in a canyon after days of smiling at sheep pastures in the hopes that the smiles will wipe out your isolation and anxiety. I wrote about how love sometimes makes you reckless. I wrote out my anger. I wrote fragments. I wrote entire paragraphs. I wrote words into circles. I drew stars. I wrote about the disillusionment of love. I wrote about being bereft. I wrote about a grandfather I never met, an angry one, who wrote poetry in secret late at night as my mother watched under a table.
I decided in the ruins of that house to remain an idealist and a lover, despite the shade that drowns us, that seems so all-encompassing and enclosing, in the canyons of our lives.
I stepped out of the still-intact doorway, breathing more deeply now, and walked slowly to the sanctuary with the Black Madonna. I sat down in front of the wall of flickering candles set against the actual wall of the cliff, lit as a prayer to a mother, and thought about my own grandmother. In the main sanctuary, an organ played one of her favorite Bach pieces–Sleepers Awake. I had awakened, left the canyon and, for a moment, found her.
The ornate but tiny chapel of the Black Madonna (Vierge Noire). The Black Madonna is the tiny figurine at the top of the altarpiece.
MacFarlane, Robert. The Wild Places. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Kempe, Margery. “The Book of Margery Kempe.” The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Lynn Staley. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
The Poem of the Cid. Ed. Ian Michael. Trans. Hamilton, Rita and Janet Perry. London: Penguin, 1975. Print.
de Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail.” The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Trans. David Staines. Bloomingdale: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.