I shared my third breakfast with a pilgrim, and yet we hadn’t shared names. I knew he was a retired engineer and that he came from Brittany, that he had a son – a bus driver, who’d spent three years sailing the Atlantic with his family and living in exotic places, and a daughter – an engineer like him. I knew his walking plans, I heard stories of his experiences… But I didn’t know his name. Perhaps it was because we didn’t walk together; we always expected the current conversation to be our last, and we needed to travel light – without the “burden” of attachment that sharing names can create. With names comes greater connection, a feeling of responsibility towards the other, a reluctance to say goodbye… And today he would move on and I would take a rest day, creating a separation we were unlikely to bridge, especially since he would soon branch off onto a different trail.
Over breakfast I lamented to my fellow pilgrim that I hadn’t been able to buy a replacement for the walking pole I had carelessly left behind somewhere. I was anxious about this because our next section involved a long, steep climb into the Appenine mountains and required me to carry a heavier pack, with food for two days; there was also a likelihood of mud after recent rain and I had been experiencing an intermittent pain in my right knee. The pilgrim/engineer asked, “Do you have a knife to cut a branch and fashion a pole for yourself?” (He indicated a pouch attached to his belt which clearly housed the perfect tool.) “No,” I responded, “I have a knife for spreading butter and jam, and I have a pair of nail clippers – so I won’t be fashioning anything. I will have to find my solution.” He shrugged, in that French way that says, “Well, good luck with that clever plan!” We said our light, unburdensome goodbyes and parted.
The next day, when I began the mountain climb, I consciously took a deep breath to summon my personal resources and focus my strength. I felt vulnerable and unsupported without my walking pole. From the start, I was on the alert for a stick that might serve my purpose. A few that I found snapped with the slightest pressure; but I remained hopeful. And, sure enough, just ten minutes into the climb, the Universe acknowledged my need and provided me with my solution: there, lying right beside the track was the perfect stick! It was strong but light; it had a well-angled sawn-off end (ideal for finding purchase between loose stones) and it had a natural bend for my hand, at just the right height for me. In my excitement, I took off my pack and celebrated my find. I photographed my stick, from various angles to show its merits. (See how comfortably my thumb fits here? See how well-shaped and well-sized my stick is? See how it complements my pack?)
…as the (almost anonymous) hero of a favourite tale of generosity, he is intricately and lovingly woven into the tapestry of my life story.
As I climbed, I wondered about the provenance of my good fortune, my stick. Perhaps it was abandoned by someone making the final descent of their viaggio – but s/he would still have needed it for ten steep minutes more… Perhaps someone was climbing with two sticks and decided s/he only needed one… Perhaps someone had upgraded to a superior stick at that point…
It wasn’t until the end of my day, when I was sharing this story, that the “truth” finally struck me: my stick was a gift from my pilgrim breakfast companion! He had taken my problem with him, empathised and helped. What a precious gift! On his part, it involved thought, time and effort, with no chance of acknowledgement, reward or reciprocation. He would never know that I found it; he would never know my gratitude… Of course, I can’t confirm this theory – and perhaps this is exactly how legends are born: a simple story of dubious veracity is perpetuated, simply because it is too heart-warming to doubt, too uplifting not to share.
And my legendary hero has a name (which I also cannot confirm): Löic. This is the name of a Breton guest who stayed – now two days ahead of me – in the Pilgrim House at Piediluco. There were very few of us walking the trail at that time and the odds are slim that any others were of Breton origin; so, I’m sure Löic was my dear pilgrim breakfast companion. Ironic that we resisted the attachment that occurs with exchanging names, and yet, as the (almost anonymous) hero of a favourite tale of generosity, he is intricately and lovingly woven into the tapestry of my life story.