The Accidental Pilgrim: David Downie on Extreme Questing

Arrow and cockle shell Burgundy©Alison Harris

Arrow and Cockle Shell. Copyright Alison Harris

By Elatia Harris

Their 50th birthdays in sight, the acclaimed travel writer David Downie, and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris, decided that trekking from Paris, where they live, to Spain, would be just the thing. The Way of St. James, for a millennium one of the world's most celebrated pilgrimage routes, was right at their back door. Neither Alison nor David is religious, so the classical pilgrimage experience was not what they were seeking. What were they seeking? Renewal, changed perspectives. Perhaps to test themselves, over 72 days and 1100 km of — at times — very rough terrain. And thereby hangs a tale. Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. James, will launch this week. Permission to post, here, the superb photos from the book was granted by Alison Harris.

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ELATIA HARRIS: There has been a lot in the news lately on pilgrimage, however one understands the phenomenon — a recent New York Times article, for instance. People who do it talk about needing to lose their routine and find themselves. Most set out alone, meeting others en route. You and Alison started together.

DAVID DOWNIE: Our choice to walk together happened organically. I had planned to do this on my own. Alison came along to keep me out of trouble. If you ask her, she’s likely to say it was her idea about 25 years ago, when she suggested we do something similar.

EH: Readers cannot but wonder how they would hold up, in these circumstances. I pictured a leisurely outdoorsy spell, kind of a French countryside movie. Cows, chateaux…oh, perhaps mildly strenuous stints. I was so wrong. This was a test of all your combined resources. It would be for any couple. 72 days of togetherness and real physical hardship. And you had already spent years collaborating on your books.

Cow ©Alison Harris
Cow. Copyright Alison Harris

DD: Like some old couples, we have merged in mind and spirit—if such a thing exists—while remaining very different people, and very pig-headedly independent. So, while we were together on the pilgrimage, we were often apart both in our mental spheres and physically. Alison stopped constantly, ran ahead, took detours, disappeared, got lost—often, though not always, in pursuit of a photograph. She probably walked twice as many miles as I did. By the end of the pilgrimage, my regard for her had only deepened. I can’t speak for her, of course.

EH: I know from all your books that you take a profoundly physical approach to travel and to the experiences it yields. You don’t drive or travel by train – you walk, whether in the city or in the mountains, whether in foul weather or fair. A long time ago, I spent many weeks in Burgundy, but I never saw it like you did. The darkness of the trees, the huge size of the rocks, the freezing fog, the most ungracious castles. Alison nails it in her photos.

DD: Parts of Burgundy are paragons of gloom. But I like gloom. So do most Frenchmen and women, it seems. We were there in April. And it rained, sleeted, and almost snowed much of the time.

Branches against grey ©Alison Harris
Branches Against Grey. Copyright Alison Harris

EH: The ancient peoples of Gaul liked it too – they chose this part of Burgundy as their homeland. Why?

DD: Probably for the abundant water and wood: they used the water for everyday needs, but also in their metallurgy. They were great smiths, makers of swords, shields, chariots, and farm implements. They used the wood for fuel, and to protect their cities. Gallic strongholds had these unusual, “indestructible” (that’s Julius Caesar writing) fortifications made of wood, soil, stones, and iron rods. Caesar called the fortification a “murus gallicus”—the Gallic wall. Remember, the Gauls, who were Celtic peoples originally from what’s now the Steppes of Russia, swept in some time around 500-300 BC. Presumably they wiped out the older civilization, about which almost nothing is known. The Gallic Celts not only loved gloom: they revered it. Don’t forget, they measured time in terms of night, not day, and they worshipped the god of night, Dis. Darkness was good, it was powerful, it was magical! In the case of the Celts who were in what’s now the Morvan, the goddess Bibractis—the beaver goddess that gave her name to Bibracte, the Lost City of Gaul—was all about water, wood, and drippy darkness: what else would you expect from a beaver?

Gallic wall and cloud ©Alison Harris
Gallic Wall and Cloud. Copyright Alison Harris

Southern Burgundy and the wine country are different. They’re much sunnier, and drier—that’s why the grapevines thrive. The limestone is often golden hued, and the feel is very different. We now spend a great deal of time in Burgundy. In fact, like Caesar, I returned there to write my book — I just couldn’t write it in Paris. Caesar was up on Mont Beuvray at Bibracte dictating The Conquest of Gaul; 2,000-odd years late I was holed up in an old farmhouse close to Cluny, way down south.

EH: One of the exigencies of the Way of St. James was the distance you had to cover in any given day. You were on the pilgrimage for months, but that didn't mean you got to dither, sleep in, or take a pass when bad weather came. It must have made choosing what to stop and do an interesting process.

DD: Put it this way — our relationship with time and place evolved. When we first set out I had this infernal talking pedometer, and I was often checking it to see how far we’d gone. I was concerned about getting to a B&B before nightfall, or finding food or water or coffee. I’m a coffee addict, that is one thing I haven’t managed to kick, and I got terrible headaches and was dizzy when I couldn’t get enough of a dose.

So, at first I was reaching back and metaphorically lashing us from behind, while galloping along. But Alison was never in a rush—she operates on Walk-About Time. After a few weeks I lost the pedometer—thank god—and then I lost my sense of time, except for following the light and darkness and the moaning of my stomach. It was one of the many wonderful transformations along the road. The purpose of our trek was many-fold. It wasn’t a religious pilgrimage, as you know. It was about rediscovery, discovery, regeneration, it was about history and linkages between past and present, between my life in France and my ties to America—and more. Once the obsessive time element disappeared the experience changed radically.

000011 middle right©Alison Harris©Alison Harris Cathedral forest spring©Alison Harris
Cross with Rocks (L) and Forest Cathedral and Spring (R). Copyright Alison Harris

EH: I’ve read a little about how to get into the pilgrimage mindset. Did you find any of the truisms particularly true?

DD: You really do need to walk for several weeks before anything much happens, other than sore feet or aching knees. The hardcore pilgrims have a saying that I quote in the book. In essence the first week is all about your body, the second week is about your mind, the third is when the spirit starts to free itself up. Now, as a skeptic, I can say that this little ditty irritated me no end at first. But in my case the ditty came true. In the third week something unexpected did happen. If for no other reason than this I would do a walk of this kind again, to resynchronize myself with the paradoxical timelessness of natural time. I actually feel, now, that time has no beginning and no end, that our ideas of time are mostly guesswork and a muddle.

EH: Time and again, I was struck with how hard it was to get water — plain potable water. I am surprised there were no venal townswomen to sell you some from their faucets at almost every occasion.

DD: The water problem got serious in a bunch of places. Much of Burgundy—and other parts of rural France—are abandoned when the vacationers aren’t around. Villagers see people coming and flee: who is the guy with dark glasses, a burglar? It was funny at first.

EH: There’s that school of thought that says some discomfort can result in spiritual thoughts or experiences. Oh, not exactly mortifications of the flesh. They say that dehydration prompts an altered mental state.

Candle burning at shrine©Alison Harris
Candle Burning at Shrine. Copyright Alison Harris

DD: Yes, I had several moments of deep, trance-like reflectiveness. We are electro-chemical units, I think, and as such are affected by humidity, light conditions, wear, tear, emotions stirred by all sorts of things. What’s amazing is how one sensation of pain (or intense pleasure) can drive out other sensations. The Italians have a great expression for this: Chiodo scaccia chiodo. It means “one nail drives out another.” Luckily we didn’t get too beaten up. I did wreck my knees and back, and had to do physiotherapy before continuing, and Alison’s back went out once too. The only physiotherapist in the area was Muslim, and 90 percent of his clients, he said, were Christian pilgrims on the Way of Saint James. We assured him we weren’t really the genuine article, and he smiled widely.

EH: Reading Paris to the Pyrenees, I was kind of astonished the way Mitterand fits right into the last 2000 years of French history. You could even read the book for the spectacle of how the French regard their own history.

DD: As to our enigmatic former prez Francois Mitterrand, he remains a hero to many on the left. I was one of the “Generation Mitterrand” who swallowed his spiel and argued with centrist-rightist friends for years, defending him. Live and learn. But you go out into the countryside—especially Burgundy which was Mitterrand’s fief, and the birthplace of his wife, Danielle, a bona fide resistance fighter—and you find signs of Mitterrand everywhere. Postcards, names of streets, graffiti, posters, buildings named after him. Mitterrand came to symbolize the heroic resistance, and therefore the ancient Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix. Anyone who thinks the French—many of them, at least—are not obsessed with their past, with their heroes, and with the ancient Gauls, need only visit some of the places we visited in Burgundy, heartland of Gaul.

Landscape formal garden and vineyard Burgundy ©Alison Harris Merovingian-era stone caskets Conques©Alison Harris

Landscape, Formal Garden and Vineyard, Burgundy (L) and Merovingian Era Stone Caskets (R). Copyright Alison Harris

Stone wall burgundy ©Alison Harris
Stone Wall, Burgundy. Copyright Alison Harris

EH: What a haul of vivid characters in Paris to the Pyrenees. I can understand that when you are, yourself, on a quest, you meet others who are, too. It's more of a surprise is to find that even the innkeepers are questing! You met a few frank pilgrims – cockle shells and all. I am wondering — what did it feel like to know these were one-time encounters? That life would almost certainly not throw you together again? Did you want to deepen the acquaintance you made with anyone?

DD: Years ago I spent 6 weeks driving around Finland, then spent time in Leningrad, before it became St. Petersburg again, with a friend, a Finnish movie director. We had a screenplay I’d written with his input. It was a very intense time. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with open arms and bottles: wine, beer, and vodka. Killer quantities of alcohol — in fact I almost died of blood poisoning. In each locale my friend knew someone well, or knew him vaguely. I, as a total unknown, became a kind of itinerant confessor. The intensity of the conversations and encounters I had on that trip, nearly 30 years ago, was extreme. What I learned then and have reconfirmed many times since is, people crave confession and its reverse: interrogating someone. The link is anonymity and the assurance that the confessor/interrogation subject will either never be known, will not reveal himself, will not return, or will not reveal your secrets to the world. If he does, it won’t really matter, because you’ll be an unknown quantity in a far-flung place and no one listening will care.

EH: Was the Way of St. James like Russia in that way?

DD: The same phenomena were at work on the pilgrimage. We hobbled in to hundreds of places, strangers in a strange land in many senses. People were curious, wanted to know about us, and many also wanted to tell us their life stories. We had many very deep conversations. In the book I recount several, including the one at the B&B near Bibracte, the Lost City of the Gauls. This time it wasn’t the innkeepers, who were often those most likely to confess or interrogate us because, as you say, many are questers themselves, or are trying to reinvent themselves in a rural setting. So, there were three fellow overnight guests. Within minutes we had connected. By the time the evening was over, it really felt like we were very old friends, and we somehow knew we’d never meet again. It was beautiful, sad, tragic, wonderful, liberating. I won’t pretend this happened many times, but when it did, it was a life-altering experience. I am perfectly resigned to the fact that I’ll never see any of these people again.

Three pigs Burgundy©Alison Harris

Three Pigs, Burgundy. Copyright Alison Harris

Sign and cockleshell with medallion©Alison Harris
Sign and Cockle Shell, with Medallion. Copyright Alison Harris

EH: The canon of Saint Lazare Cathedral in Autun was a character out of Flaubert.

DD: He was utterly uninterested in religion as far as I could tell. I loved that encounter — though we came out worse for wear, as anyone who reads the book will discover. The canon was an egomaniac and he clearly wanted to confess to us, to tell us his story. He was very old. What I’ve found is that narcissists and egomaniacs live very long lives.

EH: You met one pilgrim at Mercurey who would not have been out of place on the Way of St. James 500 years ago.

DD: The nutty pilgrim of Mercurey was typical of the hundreds, the thousands we encountered the further south we went. Le Puy en Velay—the other big jumping off point for pilgrimages on the routes we took—was a-swarm with pilgrims draped with scallop shells, dressed in pilgrim garb, with staffs and floppy hats. Many pilgrims—questers, seekers—are clearly very needy, and some need to participate in a costume drama.

We also encountered plenty of totally normal people who were out there for a million reasons of their own. In the end I felt comfortable being alone, even when we were walking in a mob. But I don’t think the mobs are conducive to enlightenment or spirituality or anything much other than perplexity and irritation. Some people love to take a “crowd bath” as the Italians and French put it. That’s not my thing. Next time I’m going to hike as far away as possible from the madding madmen and the visionaries!

EH: You'd do it again?

DD: I’d do it again, although I’d walk northeast, away from the sun. I was blinded most of the time. That was a mortification!

EH: So, when is the next trek?

DD: Soon!

Our boots ©Alison Harris
Our Boots. Copyright Alison Harris

BOOK TOUR for Paris to the Pyrenees — you are cordially invited!


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