08 Nov Stage 3, Part 2: A Murderous Defeat on the Road to Stia
After a Poor start to Stage 3 on The Way of St Francis, we continue our quest on in the heat of the day. Following the settlement of Castel Castagnaio, we attack Poggio Roseto. At least this poggio is not as severe as Pian della Fossa, but progress takes its toll.
The Heat Builds.
Temperatures soar into the 30ᵒs C (90ᵒs F). Mercifully, much of the hiking is through shady forests. Still, sweat covers me as if I’ve just stepped out of a shower.
Niels is a few minutes ahead of me when I hear dogs barking angrily in the distance. This is our first of many encounters with dogs. They put up a vicious front as I pass them. While I’m thankful that they’re behind a secure fence, it saddens me that they are in cages. However, there is one dog on the loose, seemingly intent on having me for an afternoon snack.
In sight of the tiny settlement of Doccia, there is a fountain. The dog pursues me until I join Niels there. Then it simply leaves us alone. I ask why this is the case. Niels explains that it’s a hunting dog. It’s so aggressive because we’re moving through its territory. The dog won’t do anything now because we’re sitting at a sacred fountain. We refill our bottles and move on.
In Doccia we are yet again confronted by confusion. What we see is not quite what we read in the book. The map and instructions are simple but incomplete. To our surprise, we find a woman who speaks English. We ask her for directions. She tells us that we have at least eight km to go. Her directions are confusing. Feeling very exhausted, this is bad news for me.
Niels consults GPS yet again. A new problem arises. His phone battery is close to flat. We better get it right this time, or else… We decide not to follow the woman’s recommendation and simply see where the path leads. The gravel road broadens. Possibly as an answer to a prayer, it appears we made the right decision.
The time is now around three PM. The heat and the tough going has completely sapped my energy. About an hour later, Niels’ concern turns to alarm when I tell him how I feel. He offers to take my backpack. I refuse. Although he decides to speed ahead at this point at his own pace, he waits for me at a number of places for me to catch up.
I rest for a while on a bench next to the road. Why am I doing this? The possibility that I can die on this path crosses my mind. Yet in spite of feeling like this, I am grateful to be alone; just me and the road. I pray to God to just help me to keep going.
The Gratitude Chant
A strange thing happens to me. The Italian phrases “Grazie mille” (thanks thousands) and “Grazie tante” (thanks very much) start echoing in my mind with every step I take. What could this mean? A very strong realisation dawns on me: In spite of all the pain and exhaustion, I am deeply grateful for this experience. I change the phrases into a prayer-chant: Lord Almighty, how I thank You – each syllable measured on a footstep taken. It’s as if I go into a kind of trance. I’m completely aware of my surroundings, and that I’m walking, be it very slowly. Yet, the pain fades. At least I’m making progress.
I catch up with Niels at the edge Stia. I have no idea what time it is, only that it’s late in the afternoon. Fattoria la Foresta – the inn where we are to stay – is “not very far”. As we cross the Arno river within the town, the pain in my feet and the feeling of total exhaustion return with a vengeance.
It feels like an eternity before we get to the inn. I have to haul myself up the stairs by the railings. In the room, I release the burden of the backpack and collapse onto the bed like a corpse.
Niels is already talking to the innkeeper about transport for me to our next destination. The disappointment is overwhelming. Never in all my days of hiking have I experienced such an exhausting day. I am forced to admit the painful truth: I have been defeated by the path.