The essential task is to feel the thrill of completing your pilgrimage. If we remember that the word thrill originally referred to the vibrations the arrow made when it hits the target, then the pleasure is compounded. There is joy in having arrived, moment by moment. – Phil Cousineau
Dressed from head to toe in Gore Tex rain gear, we began the final full day on pilgrimage with a descent into the Trient Valley. I wasn’t looking forward to hiking in the rain, but I had dragged my gear all the way across the ocean and along with me throughout every step of the journey. I figured there was no point in lugging gear around that I wasn’t planning to use. Besides, I’d seen a description of the day’s hike, both the distance and elevation loss and gain, and figured I could handle it.
A welcome cool mist fell as we made our descent into the valley. Although downhill hiking can be less physically taxing than is climbing, wet weather caused roots and rocks on the trail to become slippery. Having no desire to fall and break anything on the last leg of my trip, I paid careful attention to each step I placed.
But I was doing okay.
We walked through the small village of Trient and found the trail which would lead us up and over Col de Balme, and return us to France. I was relieved, thinking this would be my last uphill climb. As we began our ascent, steady rain began to fall.
There is an art to layering one’s clothing when hiking, and I’m never quite sure I get it right. I knew that I would get soaked without rain gear, yet I would get hot and sweaty while climbing if I wore too many layers. Our meteorologist friend and fellow hiker informed us that, given wind and weather conditions at higher elevations, we should be prepared for wind chill temperatures hovering around the twenty degree mark. I managed my layers as best as I knew how, stopping several times to add or remove clothing items as needed.
And I was still doing okay.
Our progress up the hill was interrupted by remnants of logging activity which had taken place along the trail. Several times we had to crawl under and through downed pine trees on our hands and knees, guaranteeing we would be a muddy mess by the end of the hike. I felt a little like a character in a movie slinking my way through a laser-wire security system; except I was twisting my way through tree branches on the side of a steep slope with a day pack attached to my back.
The trail wasn’t pleasant, and I wasn’t having fun, but I was still hanging in there.
We reached the col and I thought, “Well. That wasn’t so bad. I made it. The hard part is over.” The remainder of the hike would literally be all downhill from that point. The rain tapered off, and we even caught glimpses of the sun peeking through clouds, so we decided to break for lunch. We enjoyed a pleasant picnic in an alpine meadow during a reprieve from the rain. The break in weather didn’t last long, however, so we packed up to resume our final leg of the hike.
We hiked through cloud and fog and mist and, though we wandered within one of the most spectacular mountain ranges on the planet, we were able to see very little. I couldn’t imagine how anyone hiking with me could, in any way, shape, or form consider what we were doing fun. I began walking faster, just wanting to get to the end of the hike. One of my fellow hikers commented about the strength of my stride, and I thought, “You have no idea. This is me in my horse-just-wants-to-get-back-to the-barn mode.”
As we turned a corner on the trail and found ourselves hiking into strong wind, our leaders decided to change the course of our hike. Rather than descending on an exposed ridge we would take another variant, one which would require hiking up and over another col.
And I lost it.
Right there, on the Tour du Mont-Blanc, in front of my fellow hikers, God, and the mountain goats, I yelled at the beloved Swede. I wanted to know how much further we had to hike, how much higher I had to climb; and I wanted to know right then. I yelled at the man who purchased this trip for me, provided me all the gear I needed, and who patiently helped me prepare.
My theology tells me I have an enemy of my soul who is bent on keeping me from the longing of my heart, communion with the One who made me. That day, on the Tour du Mont-Blanc, the monster in the maze got the better of me.
I was angry. I was angry because even after all my training, planning, and preparation; even despite the stunning beauty I’d witnessed, the spectacular meals I’d enjoyed, and the delightful company with whom I’d shared this experience, I still hadn’t been able to dig down deep and embrace this hiking thing.
There was nothing about that day’s hike which I enjoyed. And I found myself getting angry at my fellow hikers because they were enjoying it. And I was angry at myself for being angry.
The trail variant led us across the French border, out of the fog and to a gondola platform where we were able to hitch a ride to meet the rest of our group in the town of Argentiere. After both a shower and a nap, I apologized to my fellow hikers for exposing them to my ugly. I asked the Swede for his forgiveness, which he graciously gave.
On the final day of our trip, we were given the option of participating in a half-day hike which climbed a ladder trail in the Chamonix Valley. I passed. The Swede and I had actually done that section of trail during one of our pre-trip prep hikes, except we had descended the ladders. I agreed to stay behind and drive one of the equipment vans. I had arrived at my destination. I had hiked the Tour du Mont-Blanc to the limit of my abilities.
And the Swede, the dear man I had yelled at in the mountains, graciously rewarded me with the gift of a massage.
Because grace has nothing to do with getting what I deserve. And grace is the scarlet cord, that clew in the labyrinth which I cling to for dear life.
For the LORD is a sun and a shield, the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. LORD Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you. Psalm 84:11, 12 (ESV)
Next, the final chapter: Bringing Back the Boon
Source cited: Phil Cousineau. The Art of Pilgrimage: A Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (p. 203). Kindle Edition.
Joining Laura @ The Wellspring in her weekly Playdates Series: