I had a interesting experience on the Via Podiensis the other day – one that I don’t care to repeat. But, in the interests of fair and open journalism I have decided to share it with you all, my dear readers. During my initial planning for this walk months ago, and based on recommendations I had received months ago, I had decided at this point to leave the GR65 for a day and take a variant route to the town of St. Palais. I had my route all planned in advance, based on the maps shown in my guide book. But, at breakfast that morning the owner of the gite where I had spent the night pointed out that there was now a new “shortcut” that had been created by the local Amis de la Chemin de St. Jacques (Friends of the Camino) that would save me 2km. That part sounded pretty good, so I decided to take a chance and follow the new shortcut.
I was assured that the turnoff to the shortcut would be well marked and impossible to miss. There was to be a large yellow sign pointing out the way. Well, that part was correct. I found the sign right where it was expected to be, made the turn, and started down the road that was to save me 2km. (You can tell where this is going, can’t you?) Well, in a kilometer or two I saw yellow arrows painted on trees, similar to those used in Spain for Camino directions, pointing down a road through the woods to the left. So, down the road I went.
This road turned out to be the muddiest trail of my entire Camino due to many tractors that had recently been up and down the road, chewing up the dirt and turning it into a veritable quagmire. The consistency of this mud was similar to wet concrete. There was no way to keep from getting my boots totally mucked up. After a kilometer or so of this mess the road sort of evaporated in a newly harvested field with no obvious way forward. I guess I could have turned around and gone back, but I still thought I was on the new “shortcut” trail and couldn’t bring myself to face that muddy road again.
So, onward I trudged through the field hoping the trail would soon reappear and in no time at all found myself hopelessly lost with no clear way forward. I was only sure that I didn’t know where I was or which way to go. I saw a fence line in the distance that I thought (hoped) might have a road next to it and headed that way. Long story short, I ended up crossing three fields, fought through tangled underbrush and thick blackberry briar thickets, had to ford a creek (boots got totally wet there), and dealt with at least three nicely installed barbed wire fences. The fences and my backpack just didn’t get along and, at one point, I ended up on my back in the muddy wet field with my backpack caught in the barbed wire. I might add that there was blood involved in this fiasco – thankfully, not much.
At moments like this you really start to question why you are doing this and what you will do next. The only thing I was sure of was that I had to do something and couldn’t just give up and stop. That just wasn’t an option. I was lost in the woods and there was no one else around to help out. It was up to me to figure out a way to extract myself from the current situation. To put it simply, it was not a pleasant situation for me. Anyway, after battling the fences, fields, mud, woods, and briars I finally made it to the aforementioned fence line and, lo and behold, there was a farm road there. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to die in the forest alone, except for the wild animals. But, which way to go.
I consulted my Miam Miam Dodo guidebook and picked the direction I thought would be best and might hopefully lead to a more prominent road and some sort of civilization. But, to my surprise, after walking a while, I saw one of the white and red GR65 trail markers! I was somehow back on the GR65! That was a hopeful sign, but I still didn’t know in which direction I was going. Was I on the road toward St. Palais or back toward my gite from last night?
Well, after 15 minutes or so, I saw a sign beside the road, which was another hopeful development. But, upon reaching it I discovered that it was the original yellow sign announcing the “shortcut!” I was right back where I started after my “lost in the forest” adventure and it was an hour and a half later!
So much for this “shortcut.” I’m thankful it wasn’t any worse than it was. But, it was an hour and a half of misery. It did add some color to my adventure and, given that I survived relatively unscathed and now knew where I was and, given that it was really the first time on the whole trek that I was truly lost, it wasn’t all that bad. At a minimum it gave me an interesting war story to tell. Later in the day I spoke with another pair of pilgrims who also got lost following this shortcut. So, I guess the moral of the story is, don’t trust a last minute shortcut recommendation unless you have sufficient time to check it out for yourself.
I don’t know what it is about St. Palais and getting lost, but it seems to be a fairly common occurrence. I have read several reports of other pilgrims getting lost while taking this variant. This is mostly because the route is unmarked and you have to rely on your map reading skills which, in the actual moment, may fail you no matter how good you think they are. In fact, Later in the day I made a second wrong turn and, while it wasn’t as momentous as the first one, it did cost me another 2-3km before I finally actually arrived in St. Palais. Before it was over my hoped for 16km day probably ended up taking something more like 25 km! Ouch!
However, one beautiful thing happened as I trudged into town. After my earlier mistakes I wasn’t especially confident and still felt a bit lost. So, I stopped in a store to ask for directions and a sweet lady – a customer – said she knew where my gite was located, loaded me into her car, and personally drove me the final few blocks! Who says the French aren’t wonderful, giving people. This lady was a true Camino angel! Bless her!
So, after all this, what did I think of St. Palais. Well, I was totally underwhelmed. It’s a nice enough town, I suppose, and has a lovely church, but not worth a special detour to visit, in my humble opinion. One other nice thing was that I was the only pilgrim in the gite 12 bed dormitory. No one snoring!