1000 Miles, 1000 Handstands – Lessons in Surrendering
3rd August 2019
1000 miles (1680km)
Reality was not 1000 miles, far from it.
In the first three days, I covered around 152km, including 8,632m elevation change. In total, it was 186km with an elevation change of 10,687m. I did 115 handstands to go with the equivalent of 115 miles. I only found that I did the same number of miles and handstands once I had stopped.
Nothing like a cracked rib, a strained foot, knees that suddenly act 50 years my senior and failing at any goal I set myself within a matter of less than 3 weeks to tell me that possibly, just maybe, something might be, you know… slightly off. But let me start from the beginning.
About two weeks ago, I set out to tempt fate, to push my limits, and most of all to clear my head after coming to Germany from a contract at a French circus school. Head spinning, heart uncertain, body already a little battered and bruised, I set myself a challenge:
– Walk 1000 miles in a month (that’s about 34 miles or nearly 54 km per day for about 30 or 31 days)
– Do 1000 handstands in the same month (because I am not sure that I even remember who I am without the handstands, and because I didn’t want to lose them)
Now, a swollen foot, battered knees, a bruised ego and a weak 115 miles (in my defense, there was a lot of elevation and a heavier than usual pack on my back) and 115 handstands later, here, poor fool I stand once more, no wiser than I was before.
I am stubborn, defiant, reluctant to just “go with the flow” at the best of times, so it probably comes as no surprise that sometimes, the flow will simply knock me off my feet when there’s no other way to make me stop and listen.
Day 0 – 21,07.2019 T -1 day
Lyon to Le Puy en Velay on a train
Right now, there is more that I don’t know than that I do. In a few weeks, I will make a choice that will change my life either way and I simply don’t know the answer.
But what I do know is that for one month, I will simply put one foot in front of the other until I either arrive or can no longer do so. Then I will handstand. Like my friend said, I’ve got a lot to walk off and I’m curious about whether I can do 1000 miles and 1000 handstands in one month.
The last time I did a Camino, someone told me that it doesn’t give you any answers, it just makes you feel more at ease with not knowing them.
Let’s see what awaits between Le Puy and Finisterre. As Dean Karnazes once so aptly put it – and I might be paraphrasing here, but I’m sure this was the gist of it: Keep going. Either it’ll get better or you black out by the side of the road.
Tomorrow at sun-up I’ll be walking. Now all that’s left to do is to have faith and surrender to the process.
In the afternoon, I arrived in Le Puy, calmer than I had felt in the last few weeks, yet reluctant to tell others about my plans. I couldn’t believe it myself, so the incredulous stares and exclamations of “No way!” didn’t really help my confidence and in the end, I simply shrugged it off and said I didn’t know how far I’d go. Two other pilgrims, Dominik and Addi from Austria and Switzerland, helped me to find cheap accommodation in the beautiful historical town of Le Puy. We spent the afternoon doing basic partner acrobatics and a long stretching session before my long walk. I was in my own head most of the time, glad that I didn’t have to meet a handstand – or other – target for the last time in a while.
Day 1 – 22.07.2019 Le Puy to 1.2km before La Clauze
ca 46 km with ca 2877m elevation change (1590m up, 1287m down)
As was to be expected, my diary entries got a lot shorter once I’d started walking. I was running late in the morning, trying to adapt to a new sleeping rhythm that had me up for sunrise. Luckily, I wasn’t ready much before quarter to six, as I found myself locked in despite the host’s assurance that I could leave as early as I pleased in the morning. At six o’clock, one of the French hosting volunteers finally came downstairs to prepare breakfast – and open the locked door to let me start my walk.
Finding the way was easy, the temperature agreeable, the pack-weight a little over my limit, including a small one-person tent pitched with a hiking pole, a book I had hoped to finish on the train and some unnecessary clothes. It didn’t matter, it was only the first day and I would shed weight, of this I was sure.
With a hilly first stage, my right knee started giving me trouble around kilometre 20 – frustratingly, unnecessarily slowing my descents and not something that had ever happened to me before. Here I was, stubborn, strong, invincible, I had earned the nickname “rocket” without even trying on my first Camino back in 2017, and here I was hurting before I’d even reached the 15 mile mark! Headstrong as ever, I ignored the slight nagging pain and cracked on. I didn’t come here to joke around. Some discomfort was to be expected, desired even.
When I reached a town stop between 5 and 6pm, I raided a local supermarket and stuffed myself with bread, cheese, sausages, peanut butter, pickles and fruit while resting my sore, tired legs in a small park next to a road. The supermarket employee had even allowed me to use the staff bathroom and I left some voice messages to friends following my endeavour. Long distance hikes have a funny way to make you cherish the simple things in life right from the get-go: food, human connection, rest, shelter.
After dinner, battered, sore and slightly overheated (temperatures rose to around 40°C during the heatwave France was experiencing), I was determined to crank out a few more miles before finding a place to sleep. I owed it to everyone I wished to inspire, most of all myself. Unfortunately, I soon ran out of water and was grateful for a small stretch of forest after long exposed passages traversing field after dry field. Tired, I began singing to cheer myself up, a powerful spiritual song I learned a long time ago, growing up as the daughter of shamanically inclined parents:
I circle around, I circle around
the boundaries of the earth
wearing my long, winged feathers as I fly,
wearing my long, winged feathers as I fly…
Almost immediately, my voice cracked and I began to cry. A dumb thing to do when you’re out of water, exhausted and dehydrated. I stopped singing and trudged on, every step aching by now although I knew I had stayed way under my target distance of between 52 and 54km.
Around 8pm, I turned a corner and saw a couple sitting on a makeshift bench, sharing some kind of dinner, clothes drying in the sun on a line next to them. I was unsure whether they were the inhabitants of what had looked like an abandoned house from further away, or hikers like me, until I saw their packs leaning against a trough, hiking poles sticking out at the top. Relieved, I asked them if there was a water source nearby and they confirmed, pointing me to a faucet right behind me, providing an abundance of fresh drinking water! I could have cried again, filling up my hydration bladder and small, spare bottles, emptying them, filling them up again. Philippe and Cécile were welcoming and intended to wildcamp there. Spotting a small stream sheltered by bushes nearby, I asked them if they’d mind if I did the same. After some 14 hours on my feet, I set up camp, stripped down to my birthday suit, immediately dropped my right shoe into the water and let the cool water soothe my aching body. I couldn’t have wished for a better spot. And simply because I could, I did 35 handstands on a path next to the river, 34 for the daily target and one for good luck, for the days when I’d be too tired to do them.
Day 2 – 23.07.2019 La Clauze to Les Quatres Chemins
ca 52km with ca 2211m elevation change (1153m up, 1058m down)
Cowboy camping, I had woken a few times during the night, a million stars looking down at me from the firmament. Despite the high temperatures during the day, I was cold. I draped a legging around my ears and eyes and, too sleepy to pitch my tent, laid it over me like a misshapen insulating blanket.
I woke at dawn and packed up, wishing Philippe and Cécile a good morning and a pleasant hike.
I was in pain from the start, trying and failing to walk as fast as I had wanted to. At 9.20am I hadn’t even reached 15km. My right knee was playing up badly, giving me a hard time through the hills. In my head, I was constantly bargaining with my body – it demanded rest and I was trying to give it the next best thing: more breakfast, a lighter pack-load, distraction. To distract myself, I tried recording some thoughts on my dictaphone, which reported and overflow after 6 minutes of recording.
When I finally reached St. Albans where I had decided to stop for lunch and possibly a beer, I was ready to quit. I started crying over not being able to find a public restroom. I cried some more over everything being closed at noon. I was hurting so much that I knew I couldn’t carry on after lunch. I sent desperate voice messages to my friends, moaning and moping. I checked my emails on my phone only to find a bunch of deadlines, life admin and unpleasant paperwork waiting for me, needing to be dealt with even before the end of my hike. In short: I wasn’t even 100km in and I was miserable.
Staying in town for lunch, I inquired at a local post office about the cost of sending some stuff back home to lighten my load. It turned out to be more expensive than it would have been to leave the items in question behind and buy new ones when needed.
After a decent lunch and a good two hours of self-pity and -loathing, I decided that I couldn’t possibly stay in the disappointing town of St. Albans. And so I simply started walking again, the pain soothed by a beer and a little rest, and magically, it worked.
I walked until I found a small shack with a dry toilet, music blaring out of the speakers, a few tables and garden chairs under a marquee. The song playing was David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, making me dance and crack a wide grin remembering a lover who had sent it to me a little while ago, the beginning of another wonderful adventure. I decided to leave a note and all my unnecessary, heavy items behind. Maybe they would come in handy for someone else. And then I walked some more.
At some point I walked with another Austrian, my knee still hurting, grateful for the distraction of some chit-chat. He told me about his parents’ divorce, his reasons for walking, his need to get away, hike, lose some weight in the process.
He stopped somewhere in a small village and I kept walking. I kept walking until clouds began moving in quickly, soon playing a game of chase with me. It was only a matter of time until fat rain drops would start pelting down, but I kept walking towards the blue skies, always one step ahead of them. Passing another settlement, I saw a couple standing in the doorway of an old barn, the woman playing the ukulele, singing. They told me they were a group of nine, their friends not far, and they would stay in the barn to avoid the rain.
Tempting as it was to stay, it wasn’t what I had come to do, and so, after a bit of small talk, I decided that if I was still able to walk, I would walk. And walk I did, another 8km perhaps, or 10, or 12. The clouds never got me. No rain fell to soften the hard, dry, burned ground.
Everything around me fenced off, I struggled to find a wildcamping spot and was happy to pitch my tent in the garden of a gîte – a French type of lodging for hikers – offering a shower, electricity and a sheltered camping spot for the night for the reasonable price of 5 euros.
I washed myself and my clothes and did 35 handstands in the kitchen before pitching my tent and going to sleep. I was limping all over and the aching in my right knee had expanded to my right hip and my left foot and ankle. It took some time, once more, to fall asleep.
Day 3 – 24.07.2019 Les Quatre Chemins to St Côme d’Olt
53.6 km with ca 3544m elevation change (1416m up, 2128m down)
When I look at my notes over the last three days, I find them gradually getting shorter. I am dropping the articles first, there is no more “the” or “a” – unnecessary, a waste of energy better put to hiking, recovering, handstanding. On day 3, besides a quick note of the distance covered and the handstands done, it simply reads: Pain. Left knee, ankle. Elodie. Transcended pain. Fatigue.
I started early that day, walking, or rather hobbling, away from camp all packed up and ready around 5.20am. The early time gave me little advantage as I was covering barely any ground and other hikers soon started overtaking me. My left foot and knee were hurting badly, reducing my speed to some 3km an hour. I took frequent breaks, aching, sore, demotivated. On one of them, a girl I had seen set up a plain tarp-shelter in the garden of the gîte the night before caught me up. We exchanged some pleasantries and began walking together, chatting the miles away. The pain came and went, sometimes a sharp sting on the outside of my right knee or somewhere deep in my left ankle made me draw an audible breath, but overall, I was moving forward – she was pulling me along, I was slowing her down, but the conversation flowed and we clicked in a way that doesn’t happen all too often, whether on or off trail. Soon we had told each other about our lives, believes, hobbies, when a quick step across a road made me stumble, a wave of pain and the feeling of something tearing in my left ankle bringing me to a sudden halt.
Elodie gave me Arnica and Tiger Balm, never leaving my side. I carried on walking, saying I would stop at the next town where she had decided to take a break. Instead, I had a coffee and a beer and decided that I had suffered enough for a day. Elodie agreed, assuming that I would stop walking. Instead, I had simply decided to stop suffering like I had after lunch the day before. And so we carried on walking together, my body growing more and more used to the pain, knowing that I would carry on either way.
When she decided to take a break and bathe in a small cascade, time had come for me to say goodbye. Again, she thought that I would do the sensible thing of stopping in the next town and that we would meet again within the hour. I knew that I had to keep walking as long as I was able to walk. It’s what I had come to do and if it broke me, so be it, but if I simply stopped trying because I was tempted to stop, because it was more pleasant to stop, I wouldn’t be satisfied.
And so, I stocked up on food in the next town and carried on. I sang, and I walked, and I walked and I sang about surrendering and pain and I simply stopped caring that every step hurt.
There was the faint idea that I might be doing actual, permanent damage to a body I loved and used on a daily basis. Whenever it popped up, I knew immediately that it was just another path not to go down. Just like the waymarks told me what route not to take, the same crossed out signs appeared in my mind, indicating the places I shouldn’t go in my head f I wished to carry on.
Once the pain had become irrelevant, it was replaced by a deep sense of fatigue, an exhaustion that was more mental than physical, another wall.
I was convinced at some point that I couldn’t make it to the next village, the next camping spot, but I carried on walking until St. Côme d’Olt, arriving at nearly 9pm and paying for the first gîte that would have me for the night. I didn’t feel welcome in the shared dormitory, I barely made it up the stairs and called it a night after 24 handstands. I hated being inside, hated being injured, hated the company of people whose approach was so different to mine and who clearly weren’t thrilled to have a smelly hiking zombie in their dorm. For the first time since starting, there was no sense of accomplishment, no relief in having found a place for the night. I knew I couldn’t carry on. Even pointing my feet in a handstand was painful, my legs hurting badly despite bearing no weight upside down. I didn’t know whether I’d walk the next day at all but I seriously doubted it.
Day 4 – 25.07.2019 St Côme D’olt
Frustrated and grumpy. Involuntary rest day where I barely make it to the bins. Drag myself to the local supermarket later in the day and back. Some 17 year old at the campsite hits on me.
I walk from the unwelcoming gîte to a cheaper campsite. I can barely walk at all, leaning on my walking stick to move forwards. The walk from my tent to the bins half way across the campsite is excruciating. People look at me with pity. I hate it. When I arrive at the supermarket, it is closed for lunch. It’s further than a kilometre from the campsite. I decide to wait an hour, doing 20 handstands and plenty of pike presses while slowly dehydrating in the midday-heat. I didn’t bring water for a simple shopping trip.
When I return to the campsite, I cool my legs in the river running through it. I skip stones with two young boys, one of whom, a 17 year old, invites me to eat marshmallows grilled over a campfire later. I politely decline and he seeks me out later, finding me reading a borrowed book and trying to talk, asking if I have a boyfriend, what music I listen to, if I like watching Netflix. My reality is so far removed from his at this point that it makes me smile. His clumsy efforts are endearing and I applaud his courage. 27 is no age to hook up with someone 10 years my junior. I teach kids, but I don’t date them. Nonetheless, I appreciate the distraction from my gloomy headspace. It is flattering, more so than the unsatisfied voice in my head, telling me I’m never enough, telling me that I failed less than a week in.
Day 5 – 26.07.2019 St. Côme d’Olt to about 4km behind Estaing
ca 24km with 755m elevation change (365m up, 390m down)
1 handstandI am still more hobbling than walking. I wake up late, at half past 7, a lie-in after the days of starting at 5am. My knees hurt, my ankle, my foot, my hips. I can’t carry on. After a while, I decide to treat myself to breakfast in the beautiful old town of St. Côme d’Olt. There are uglier places to be stuck and I begin to realise this, sitting on the terrace of a small café with a coffee. I take out my notepad and begin writing, old people sometimes watching me out of the 3 lines of windows of the building opposite.
The sting to my ego is still evident in my writing, and at the same time I am upset with myself for letting it get to me. I am upset about my cockiness, to think I could do this in the first place with so little preparation, and its flipside, the self-doubt:
I look at everyone else, wanting so bad to be them, comparing myself endlessly as if somehow my fitness, the languages I speak, my big unwavering smile, my optimism, wit, intelligence, circus skills, personal skills, the knack for writing and storytelling, the deep love for words, a gift for working with kids, improvising, finding solutions, being kind and tenacious and probably many more things, still simply weren’t enough. As if my enoughness was somehow rooted in physically or mentally outdoing everyone else. As if my right to tell my story depended on the next big venture I successfully completed.
If only I could let go of who I think I should be and simply give myself the space to become who I am meant to be.
Sometimes people sit down at the table next to me, strike up a conversation and I surprise myself by being open, honest and friendly while not hiding my frustration and hurt either. I invite them in, somehow, and they are kind, and I want to stay and marry a Frenchman and have children like the ones I taught at circus school over the last six months; children with long, dark hair, hazel brown eyes, and a husband with strong arms and capable, scarred hands, a little van that sounds like an aging man with a mild cough from all the cigarettes devoured throughout his lifetime, a van like that to take me to the market in the morning, on winding French backroads, oh, and when – not even if – it breaks down, it doesn’t matter much because my husband will come and we will fix it soon enough and nobody is pressed for time anyway.
Another coffee, perhaps? Later, maybe. French radio music blaring out of the window of a white builder’s car and the morning is warm already. It’s 9 perhaps, I’m up since half past 7, a lie-in after all of those early mornings… and my knees hurt, my foot, my hip, stopping me so I can write and think and wonder and muse, so I can sit and think about a man I knew, or rather who he becomes when I think about my perfect French beau while I throw long, haunted glances at the younger men delivering bread to the patisserie, their brown eyes and lean arms wide awake, ready, full of energy. Ants crawling on my table, I am careful not to squash them when turning the page on my old school notebook, the slowness of real pen and paper a blessing and a curse at the same time – I think so much faster than my hand can move the pen to form the letters that I could sit for hours just to capture all the words, and who knows, I might, occasionally wiping a tear from my cheek when my longing for love gets overwhelming, when my own words evoke too strong a sense of grief, of loss in my heart.
From time to time I will set down the pen, interrupted by French small talk, another coffee, a silent moment of musing and observing the elderly come and go in the village, looking out of their windows, drinking coffee, greeting their acquaintances, and for once I am happy to blend in somewhat, to speak their language when I need to, to understand their day-to-day chit-chat. Cars roll by, their windows down and motors left running while their owners stop to chat, buy bread – there is no sense of urgency, calming the one inside me. Things that usually bother me become less of an annoyance, like the motor of that abandoned car left turning needlessly for a long, unnecessary 10 minutes, the screeching of the steamer on the coffee machine as the café employee steams milk without ever having learned how to, nobody drinks lattes or cappuccinos here in France and Flat Whites are completely unknown.
And I don’t want to take medicine, or walk excessively, or do anything but go with the flow even though it hurts even more to listen to this incessant, deep-rooted yearning, this pull on my heart that has been there as long as I can think back. Allowing it to pass through me in waves, like the ebbs and flows of pain of a female cycle, hurts more, sometimes, than all my self-imposed regimes together, be it walking until my feet are swollen, running until I can’t feel my legs anymore, doing handstands and training for hours on end.
Once I have written enough and my lesson in calmness and surrendering to the moment comes to a close, I limp back to the campsite. I pack up my tent and carry on walking. It is early afternoon by now. I begin slowly, finding my feet again, taking a quick break to eat a tin of tuna and do a handstand, an impressed biker driving by shows me his naked ass in return, shouting encouragement, an exchange of appreciation.
I manage some 24km until the evening, until the pain moves from being a dull constant to an unpredictable force. One moment I am almost fine, almost smoothly sailing at over 3km an hour for the first time in days – the next I cannot flex my right leg, pain shooting up it in hot waves.
I pitch my tent as soon as I find a remotely suitable spot. The surface is thorny, slanted. I slide down inside my tent all night, but it keeps out the rain that doesn’t stop until morning.
Day 6 – 27.07.2019 4km behind Estaing to Golinhac
ca 10km with 1300m elevation change (819m up, 481m down) then hitchhiked to Rodez, took train to Figeac
The rain is still falling when I wake up. I don’t know what time it is and I don’t care. I am too hurt to continue, seriously concerned now about doing lasting damage to myself. I don’t want to lose the progress I made in my handstand training and running over this. I don’t want to lose all this time to a serious and unnecessary injury.
Eventually I pack up my tent and carry on walking as I cannot stay at my secluded wildcamping spot. I will have to somehow make it to a town to get out of here. It takes me until noon to limp to Golinhac, which is smaller than expected. One restaurant and a few hostels, no cars seem to pass through it. While I eat a steak with ample fries for lunch, I wonder how I will carry on from here. The waiter informs me that I have missed the only bus going in my direction a few hours prior. There will be another one tomorrow. I have no interest in staying at an expensive shelter only to take a bus the next day and try my luck at hitchhiking. While there are not many cars, their drivers are helpful and it doesn’t take long to get a ride out.
I make it to the train station of Rodez and decide to take a train to Figeac, another town on the camino, where an old acquaintance is showcasing his amazing puppetry at a local theatre festival. It is Saturday. His show is on Sunday night. I have plenty of time to relax and explore the town. Pain shoots up my legs still, but I can sit down anywhere, anytime, for as long as I like.
Day 7 and 8 – 28.-29.07.2019 – Figeac
I am no longer counting kilometres or handstands, but do a handful of both.
I enjoy watching On était une fois, its creator as surprised to see me as I am to be there. We stop to chat for a moment after the show, I am happy to have understood so much more than when I first watched it over a year ago. My French has improved and I get all the small jokes, the nuances that escaped me not long ago. I am in love with this country, its language, its people, and yet, I have made my choice. I am returning, for the time being, to Germany, taking the night train home on Monday night.
If it wasn’t for the fear of doing permanent damage to my body as well as a lack of time and funds to wait it out, I’d maybe still be out there soldiering on through the pain, singing songs about surrender.
Instead, I sit in the sun by a picturesque bridge in Figeac, smelling of ample amounts of red tiger balm and clothes that have shared my shower for the last week, trying to justify my decisions to myself and an imaginary audience, clutching at straws for the story I so desperately want to write, stepping into my father’s footsteps as an author despite the differences that have separated us for some two decades, wondering if perhaps the story, just like the answers to my muddled questions and the fulfillment that seems farther away the faster I run and the more I busy myself, is already there inside me, waiting for me to slow down and listen, not because I physically can’t walk faster than 2.5km an hour anymore, but because I understand truly that no matter the circumstances, all I can do is make a choice, give it my all and to surrender to the journey.
This time, it’s not to Finisterre. It’s not at a break-neck walking pace that would do a thru-hiker proud. It’s with a heavy foot and perhaps a lighter heart and mind to my parents’ who have always supported no matter what folly I thought would make my heart sing, beat faster, on the spur of any given moment. It’s to a home country I have to make my peace with before I can hit that tempting road again.
Many years ago, the one thing I wanted to master in life wasn’t handstands, running, or even walking far. It was just to love, as simple and as complicated as that. And when failing at those goals I set myself, it’s what I remember. All I want to do is give it my all, love, inspire, share, do my best every day and sometimes, just like everyone, I get caught up in the process. I stumble, fall, break, heal, and am humbled to simply be alive.
1000 miles and 1000 handstands in a month? I might try that again one day. Let’s hope I’ll be smarter about it that time around.
Until then, there will always be more stories, more handstands, and more lessons learned.
But for now, I’m taking the night train home.