Friday, September 30, 2022

I’m Safe… and Home


I’m sitting in an armchair. 

Last night I slept in a bed. My own bed.


Lisieux was a wonderful little place to visit. I prayed my way through the town, and of course, sampled pastries from all of the little boulangeries and patiserries. (Brioche Feuilletée from Maison Berthelot was the creme de la creme for me)

My last day there, I checked out of the place I was staying, put on my pack, and headed off.

Except, something inside me was different.

All this time, I’ve had a goal to my walking and wandering. At first, it was to recreate Saint Kevin’s original walk from Ireland to Rome. Back in August, when I realized I’d need another three to four months to complete that, I had calculated things out and figured I could make it to Paris by my mid-October return flight date. 

But Paris wasn’t a goal in any way for me.

Lisieux was. As I walked, when people asked me what my route would be through France, I told them all I knew: I would land at Cherbourg in Normandy, walk the coast along the D-Day beaches, and make my way to Lisieux. 

Now, walking down the cobblestone streets of Lisieux, something in me wavered. Even more than not having a goal in sight, for a long time I had been feeling like I had learned what I needed to learn and seen what I had needed to see. I was ready to come home. 

So instead of hitting the trail again, I went to one of my favorite places in Lisieux, the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Therese. One of my friends told me that this is where the whole town, including the Carmelite Sisters and Saint Therese’s own sister, sheltered during World War II. I didn’t know that at the time, but I did love one little corner of the crypt—where Saint Therese’s parents are buried. 

Their names are Louis and Zelie. 

I had loved all the places where Therese had lived and walked, but kneeling there by the tomb of her parents, I wondered if in many ways, they are the greater saints. To create such a family that a Saint Therese is one of your daughters, you must have something very very right. You must be an extraordinary couple.

And so I prayed there for a while. When I finally stood up to leave, I didn’t pull out my trail map. I looked at the train schedule.

Within twenty minutes I was on a fast train to Paris, slicing through what would have taken me three weeks of walking in about two hours.

I had decided to change my flight, and come home.

Paris is Paris, and I had never been, so I spent two nights there. It was charming. I really loved the Chapel of Saint Chapelle, with all its riot of stained glass. I’ve spent many days in the Sistine Chapel, and I felt like I had now found its sister chapel and couldn’t seem to pull myself away.

About an hour into the flight back, I looked down, and we were passing over Dublin. It had taken us sixty minutes to cover what had taken me over nine weeks to walk. But I was glad I had walked it—and wouldn’t have it any other way.

I had told my mom of my change of plans, but not my dad. My brother Brian picked me up and everything worked perfectly so that we completely surprised dad. It was great.

The next day, I did the same thing to my nieces and nephews. I love a good surprise.

These days I’m helping my dad do a renovation of the back of our house, where a tree fell and did some damage last year.

Phew! I’m finished! I can’t believe it!

My pilgrimage did not turn out to be what I had expected.

First of all, I didn’t make it even half the distance I had hoped. Along the way, I saw others who were regularly walking 20-30 miles a day. But they were also suffering from blisters and ailments of all kinds.

I was doing 10-20 miles a day, and some days less. My method was to stop whenever my body needed a break, or whenever there was something to see or someone to talk with. I took many detours. I usually spent about an hour each day in prayer in some chapel or another.

But more than that, the distance and completing the pilgrimage weren’t why I had started walking in the first place. I had set out to yes, finish writing my book, but also to work on the book of my life. Perhaps what was the one thread running through the whole eight-hundred-plus miles I walked: the time I spent reflecting on life. Just as my walking was the perfect inspiration for me to finish my book on Saint Kevin, so too it was just what I needed to get a little clarity and understand myself a little better.

I didn’t have any earth-shattering realizations, or decide on any big changes of direction for my life. But some things inside me were allowed to settle. Other things I was finally able to let go of. And I am certain—completely certain—that I am a better person for having gone on this walk. 

Perhaps, after having seen my little stretch of Ireland, Wales, England and France, what I’m most glad of is a renewed love for my family and friends, and gratitude for them.

I’m also grateful that this body of mine stuck with it and held together. My knees still work, as do the ankles.

I weighed myself and was surprised to see that I’m eleven pounds heavier than when I started. It’s muscle, of course ;)

What have I learned from my time as a pilgrim?

- Carry only as much as you need, no more, or you’ll be running yourself into the ground.

- Never be afraid to ask for help; most everyone will give you water, or directions, and probably even feed you and put you up for a night.

- There is no such thing as hurry, only missing out on everything you can only see and experience when taking life at a gentle, walking speed.

- There is always enough for your needs out there; and maybe even enough for your wants; but your wants might just be fear trying to incarnate itself in your life. Working to fulfill your needs, and trusting that everything else will be ok is the better way.

- Wild boars can be chased away by screaming (oh yeah, I didn’t mention that two of the nights in France, I must have set my hammock up right in the path of some wild boars. They came at odd hours of the night, and my shouting and screaming got them to stay away)

- The earth is abundant and generous: I think there was something for me to forage for and eat every single day of my journey.

- The world needs more benches, and we need to use them more often. Great things happen in the calm and quiet of sitting on a good bench. (heck, I even sat on some pretty crummy benches, and still enjoyed it.)

- Traveling isn’t good as a way of life, but it is good for the soul. For one, it opens your mind to new ways of seeing life and all sorts of different things. It can knock you out of your complacency in ways you’d never have thought.

- Travel doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. I ended up spending about $10 a day in Ireland, Wales, and England, and then about $15 a day once I was in France, the land of many bakeries.

I am grateful to all the people who made my journey possible and enjoyable, especially those who watched my little golden retriever, Felicity. Thank you Madeline and Mom and Dad!

Thanks too to all those who took me in along the way: Father Robert in Northern Ireland, Sammy Horner at Kevin’s Cell, Lisa and Stefan in Bangor, Elyssa and Tom in Pen-Y-Cae, The Bloor Family in Llanthony, Patricia and Pete in Monmouth, June and Richard in the Blackmore Vale, Greg and family in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, Hye and Phil in Cruchy, and Christine and Marion in Luc-Sur-Mer.

I am grateful to all the other good souls I talked with, or shared a meal with, or who helped me along the way.

So that’s it for now. I thought the cobblestones (my blog is “a view from the cobblestones”) I’d be ending at would be the ones on the road leading up to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but they were actually the ones outside the little apartment in Lisieux.

I thought I’d be able to say, “I accomplished what I set out to do,” but actually I can say now that “I accomplished what my soul needed me to.” 

And that’s so much better.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Splurging in Lisieux

Ok, I admit it. I splurged. 

For the first time in about sixty days, I broke down and paid for a place to stay.

That place is a little apartment overlooking the town square in Lisieux, France. 

Yesterday I hiked about sixteen miles, from near Beaumont-en-Auge to Lisieux. 

Lisieux is special to me because of a certain famous citizen here, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus.

“Not a very manly saint, Kevin!” you might say.

To which I would reply, “Actually she’s probably one of the coolest saints out there.”

Ever since I read her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Saint Therese found a special place in my heart. I’ve been rereading it these days, and it’s one of those rare books that gets better the more times you read it. In it, she tells the simple story of her life, from when she was a little girl to around the time she passed away at the age of twenty-four.

 One of the things that really struck me this time was how good of a writer she is. Her descriptions paint vivid pictures that you can almost see yourself.

What’s more is Therese’s philosophy of life. She called it “the little way of trust and love.”

Having walked all the way here from Ireland (minus the ferry crossings), I can say that trust becomes very very important. With each passing day, I was forced to trust more and more. Like I’ve said before, I soon realized that I couldn’t carry enough food for four or five days, the weight would kill me. So I had to trust that when I needed food, there would be food. I had to trust that God and people would take care of me.

And they did. It meant that I had to embrace being a pilgrim, one who lives completely on trust.

The magical thing was that, in a way, by trusting like that, some truly marvelous people came into my life, and marvelous things happened, more marvelous than money or planning could have bought. So many good people have put me up or fed me—those I reached out to, and those who found me along the trail. I’ve seen such beauty, be it the sun rising over the ocean as I set out in the morning, or the tunnel-like trail winding along before me. Cows and horses and hawks are my companions, and owls all the night long. Wildflowers whisper hello as I walk by, and the fruit trees toss some of their bounty over fences just when I need a little pick-me-up. Trusting has actually been the best thing for my soul.

All that to say that me and Saint Therese are besties. Back when I was planning this pilgrimage, I saw that it made sense to pass through Lisieux, and that made me glad. All along the way, when people would ask me what my route would be once I made it to France, I would say, “I’m heading towards Lisieux and then we’ll see.”

So I’m treating my time here like a retreat. I’m taking two days—which might turn into more—to rest and visit the places where Therese lived, and to do some reflecting of my own.

I was going to find some trees last night and hang up my hammock, until I walked into the town square here. Lisieux is not a big city, but it is a city nonetheless, and I realized it might be hard to find some secluded trees. And my feet were done with walking. A quick look on Airbnb showed me that there was nothing for miles around… except a little apartment on the town square going for a song. 

It’s been really nice to have a little place of my own that is not a forest. I’ve been taking extra showers just to feel what a shower feels like. Ahhhhhh.

Today I went to the convent where Therese was a nun, and then to her childhood home. It turns out she had a dog named “Tom”, something I never knew. 

After coming off my heavy research into Saint Kevin, Therese is so different. She died in 1897, so before cars became widespread. But she did take trains around. 

Her home used to be in the suburbs of Lisieux, but now it’s in the city. 

The town itself is ancient, and has a really neat old Cathedral, but it’s different from, say, Assisi, which seems almost frozen in time in the 1200’s. Lisieux has kept growing and evolving, and feels very much like a European city. 

Not that I’m complaining. Yesterday I was down to a tiny bit of salami, some powdered milk, and a bit of granola. 

Here in Lisieux, there are amazing bakeries and pastry shops and grocery stores and… you name it, they have it. 

It is good to be here. So good.

Please let me know if you have anything you’d like me to pray for while I’m here.

And good night!

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

2 months of walking


I’ve been hiking for two full months now. Phew!

During that time I’ve passed through four countries (Ireland, Wales, England, and France), walked over 600 miles or about 1000 kilometers, and managed to get only one blister. I’ve camped out in the wild 52 nights. I like camping in the wild.

Though last night I was blessed to stay at the house of a very kind woman in Luc-Sur-Mer, and have my first shower in two weeks. Hurray for warm showers!

My regular bathing situation during this time has been my daily dip in the Atlantic Ocean. What inspires me is seeing people in their sixties and seventies every day who calmly walk down to the water and jump in. “If they can do it, then I can too!” I think.

It has been fascinating walking along the beach. There seem to always be people hunting for something or other. Yesterday it was mussels. Today it was clams. 

There are families building sand castles, or digging holes to China. There are old people and young, groups of students, and other hikers like myself as well. 

Today I met a German woman who is riding from Cologne to the Canary Islands. She taught me how to play a great game called Country, City, River. I encouraged her to jump in the ocean.

The woman who put me up last night is leaving in October for New Zealand to bike around the islands for three months.

It’s become very clear to me that I underestimated how much time I would need to get to Rome. If I continue walking at the same pace, averaging about ten miles a day, I will only make it to Paris by the time of my return ticket to the US in October.

I suppose I could extend my stay in Europe, and try to make it all the way to Rome. I could also hitchhike or take a train across parts of France and Italy and make it to Rome on time that way.

But I knew setting out that my plans were going to be flexible. I mean, my feet are really in charge, and they don’t follow any clock or calendar. I’ve found that they do best with frequent breaks and a good massage at the end of each day.

I’ve also found each day so fascinating, from the slowly-changing terrain to the interesting people that I meet. Looking back on my route, I see many places where I could have cut some distance off. I could have just taken a ferry from Ireland straight to France. I could have skipped Normandy altogether as well. 

But I really wanted to see England. It’s been an important part of my life through so many of my favorite authors: Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, James Herriot, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Bill Bryson, Lloyd Alexander, Brian Jacques, PG Wodehouse, Ruth Burrows, Shakespeare and many others. England is also in some way the Alma Mater of my own country. So much of what we love and live comes from what the British gave us. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and I’m so glad I walked through it.

I also wanted to visit Normandy. Growing up, there was a bluff in my town with a beautiful view that we used to call “Normandy”. I wanted to see the real thing. I also really wanted to see the Dday beaches. Though I haven’t finished passing through Normand yet, I have not been disappointed. I really loved the wilder parts on the Cotentin peninsula. But the seaside towns have their own charm as well, especially for me the town of Luc-Sur-Mer where I spent the night yesterday. They have a park called “Parc de la Baleine” Baleine means whale. Apparently, in the 1800’s, a whale beached itself on the town beach and died. The townsfolk took the skeleton and put it in their park, where it remains to this day. It was pretty shocking to see, it almost felt like walking into an outdoor natural history museum. 

The food in France has not disappointed either. This morning, my host found some croissants that were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. They were crunchy and chewy and… I felt like somebody had given me fire for the first time—I want to learn how to make them!!!

So I’m content, even if I don’t make it to Rome this time. I’m leaning towards heading home like I had planned in mid-October, just from Paris instead of Rome. Then perhaps I can fly back to Paris some day and finish my pilgrimage. 

Anyhow, I still have a month left. And I’m looking forward to all that it holds. There have been surprises every day; I’m sure they will continue. That’s what pilgrimages are made of.