By Vanjie Bratt, Becketwood Member
Last year, I took an amazing journey—a French pilgrimage that ended at the famous labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral. We four pilgrims and two guides started in Paris and walked 50 miles to Chartres over three days.
My friend Nancy and I decided that we would train and do the walk together. My husband John had just died after a long illness, and I knew the experience would be good physical and emotional therapy for me.
After making the decision to go to France, I began preparing for the walk by getting the equipment I would need during the three days on the walking path. We had to carry everything we needed with us. That meant a backpack, good walking shoes, and clothes that I could wash at the end of the day and dry overnight. I wanted to keep my backpack as light as possible because I would be carrying a lot of water and those wonderful energy bars I had discovered—the Larabars. They were made from fruits, nuts and spices, and they kept me going during those three days.
In order to get in shape for the pilgrimage, many days I tried to walk five and a half miles, from the Ford Bridge down to the Lake Street Bridge and back. Often Nancy joined me. I started walking seriously at the end of June and continued until we left for France on September 3. We four pilgrims spent three days in Paris and then joined our two guides. Now the real journey was to begin.
Starting out from Paris as we entered the woods, our path was filled with rolling stones. Not a good start, I thought to myself. Walking on rolling stones was not easy. Then we had to climb. I got out my walking poles to help and wondered what I had gotten myself into, now that I was almost 78. Although the terrain was very challenging, I was determined to keep going. After all the effort I had put into preparing for the walk, I was not about to give up.
Toward the end of the first day, my left leg really cramped. It was very painful but I just kept walking. I remembered my son-in-law saying, “If you are in pain, just walk it out.” Not until we stopped at a small hotel for the night did I realize that we had actually walked 20 miles. The next day’s walk was going to be a little easier, only 17 miles, and then the third day; we would go only 14 miles.
I had trained well. Although I was very intent on walking, putting one foot in front of the other, I was able to absorb the beauty around me. The weather was perfect, the woods peaceful. Sometimes we walked on the narrow roads. That was challenging, with very little edge to step onto when cars whizzed by. But the countryside was stunning and brought back childhood memories of growing up on a farm where I would bring lunch out to my father in the fields, breathing in the freshly cut hay.
On the second day, we found ourselves walking through private property on the grounds of a chateau. We later learned that the President of France stayed there during the summer. Somehow, we had gotten on the wrong path. Now, we were walking along the side of a huge stone wall. We had no idea where we were. Even our guides admitted that we were lost. Because we had taken the wrong path, we used up a lot of time and energy, going in the wrong direction, through grasses and nettles that pricked my legs and stung a bit; all of it part of a pilgrimage.
Before too long, we came to a large steel gate but it was locked. One of our pilgrims, Lynette, climbed up on the gate and shouted. “HELP!” A woman heard her and came over to tell Lynette that we would need to wait for the caretaker to open the gate. Finally, a red pickup truck drove up behind us. The driver saw us, got out of the truck, looking not exactly happy to see us. Here were six women with backpacks on property where we were not supposed to be. Our guide MJ, who speaks French, tried to explain that we didn’t know how we had gotten in here, but we really wanted to get out. He did open the gate for us, but I didn’t see him smile.
On the third day, the spires of the Cathedral appeared in the distance. I got a surge of energy, anxious to see my friend Nancy, who was waiting for us in Chartres, because she couldn’t walk the final day. We had trained together all summer and had been looking forward to arriving in Chartres together. Although I was disappointed that she couldn’t complete the walk, I was relieved to see how well she accepted her situation.
It was exciting to be in the Chartres Cathedral, at last. On the second evening in Chartres, we achieved our goal: After closing hours, the six of us walked the beautifully inlaid limestone labyrinth on the floor of the Cathedral, surrounded by over one hundred votive candles—a profound conclusion to our pilgrimage.
As I look back at those pilgrimage days, I realize that the journey itself was the real reason I had come to France. After my husband’s long struggle, I needed to do something different, go somewhere and let go of the sadness I had felt for so long. The challenge of the training, the companionship of inspiring women, and the 50-mile walk were amazingly healing for my body, mind, and spirit.