25 Nov Stage 6, Part 3: Rest and Reflection in La Verna
26 August few minutes before 15:00, I approach the gate on the path into the lower reaches of Santuario Della Verna, after walking through one of the most incredible forests I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. Niels waits for me on the other side.
“If you come close enough the gates will open automatically,” he says. In my disbelief I still take him seriously. Only when I get close enough do I see the lock. We laugh. At least there is a way around the locked gate.
Inside the monastery I have to stop to fix my camera bag. Niels tells me his ankle is in a bad way and he wants to continue until reaching the hotel. We have somehow gone off the map again. Niels pulls out his phone. According to GPS we can simply carry on along the road. It’s not going to be a big detour, but this is the most irritated I’ve seen him thus far.
We arrive at Da Giovanna, La Verna, our base for the next two days. I’m very grateful that this means another chance to rest and recover. Our backpacks are in reception. We book in, go to our room, and do our usual post-hike ablutions and washing.
I meet Niels on the hotel patio in the shade of a lovely tree. To some extent, this time of rest resembles the kind of moment when you stop banging your head against the wall. Our drinks arrive. We sit in reflection of the day’s walk.
On the Topic of Walking a Camino
Niels and I didn’t start off sharing the same views on how to walk the Way of St Francis.
“I know you believe in walking twenty minutes and resting ten, but that’s bullshit,” he says. “It doesn’t work if you’re hiking on a Camino. You realise if you do that you cut your speed by 1/3rd.”
“You’re cutting the walking time by 1/3rd but not the distance you cover,” I reply. “That’s how I climb passes in the Drakensberg. When I didn’t do it that way, it took us twice as long to climb a pass.”
“If you walk 3 km per hour* and you rest that way, you’re cutting your speed to 2 km/h. A 16 km walk becomes an eight hour journey, instead of taking a bit more than five hours.”
Under our current circumstances, I’m willing to concede. My hiking strategy does, however, work for acclimatising to rapidly increasing altitude.
I pose the question of paying the monastery a visit. He declines, saying that his ankle has to recover.
“How’s the ankle?” I ask.
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
Does this mean trouble? Will he be able to complete the trek? I have a moment of anxiety thinking that there is a possibility that we either might have to call off our hike, or I might have to walk the trail without him there to help me find my way.
“Don’t worry about it,” he brushes it off. “I’ll be fine.” He explains to me that starting up is agony. Once it warms up, the going is a lot easier. Going downhill is worse than uphill.
I contemplate the day’s walk. I had glimpses of a growing sense of awareness, even while being tested by the poggios earlier today. The altered state experience in the woods around the Sanctuary has also lifted my being. A very important realisation dawns on me.
“It is no longer about simply getting to the destination,” I say. “It’s all about the journey. I need to completely accept the path, unconditionally. That includes everything it offers and everything it throws at me.”
“That is true, even when it comes to pain,” says Niels. “You must love it to the point where you wish it never ends.”
We sit in quiet contemplation, finishing the refills of our drinks. He has a few emails to see to, and I complete a Facebook posting on the St Francis Quest page. That evening I have the best pepper steak I’ve ever had.
On our day off we sleep late and take it extremely easy. We wander through La Verna. He buys a huge bunch of grapes. I take a few pictures. Sitting on the patio we see a few people passing through from the monastery. Some look like pilgrims. Nuns in their grey habits pass in the road in front of us. Apart from these people, and the few inhabitants, we see no one.
* Conversion from metric measurements:
3 km per hour = ~1.9 mph
2 kmh = ~1.2 mph
16 km = ~10 miles