I figure we all meet at least one angel on the Camino. It’s not necessarily dramatic. The angel might be the pharmacist-pilgrim who turns up with painkillers two minutes after you’ve hurt your leg, or a local who gives you water when you desperately need it.
The Camino angels I remember best were a group of retired French siblings who rescued me one day on the Chemin du Puy.
The day started off badly. I was in a terrible mood that morning, as I got ready to leave a rural gîte d’étape (hostel for walkers). Part of it was because my walking companion of the last week and a half was about to go home to Belgium, leaving me alone. And then I was planning to stay at a tiny gîte with only seven beds that night. It was in Uzan, which I thought was basically in the middle of nowhere. And despite several phone calls, I couldn’t get through to the owners to confirm my reservation.
I was at my most neurotic that day. What, I worried, would happen if I ended up in this tiny town and the gîte was closed or full?
And then my friend seemed to take forever to get ready. I wondered if I’d even make it to the gîte before dark, and checked my flashlight just in case. It had burned out, leaving me even more paranoid, since I was now convinced I wouldn’t make it to Uzan before dark.
It was one of those mornings when you walk and walk and walk, but hardly seem to make any progress.
And then there was the rain, which started up soon after we got underway. It was the first serious rain I’d experienced so far, more than a month into my pilgrimage. And so, for the first time, I realized that my rain jacket wasn’t completely waterproof. So I was wet and frozen by the time we reached Arzacq-Arraziguet around lunchtime, only 8.5 kilometres beyond the farm where we’d spent the night. I still had about 16 kilometres to go.
With some help from my French-speaking friend, I found a headlamp in Arzacq, solving one of my problems. But, as we made our way to the gîte where she would spend the night before going home, my cold and miserable brain came up with new, increasingly irrational, scenarios. Even if I found a place to spend the night, things could get worse. What if it rained the rest of the way to Santiago? It was already the beginning of October. With my imperfect jacket, I would probably freeze to death.
There was no one around at the Arzacq gîte, so my friend and I settled down in the kitchen. I changed out of my wet clothes, and felt a little better. We went out to find a public phone and tried calling the Uzan gîte yet again. Still no response.
When we returned to the gîte kitchen to eat lunch, I suddenly realized I’d dug through my entire backpack in search of dry clothes and hadn’t seen my new headlamp.
I took everything out of my pack again. No headlamp. I looked in all the pockets, though I knew I hadn’t put it in them. It wasn’t there. I looked all around on the chair and the floor. Still no headlamp.
By this time, I was in a panic. And then finally, somehow, I thought to look at the inside of the top of my pack. The headlamp had got stuck there. I picked it up, tried out its lights—they still worked!—and put it down on top of my jacket.
A few minutes later, I grabbed the jacket, knocking the headlamp to the floor. I tried turning it on again. Nothing happened.
It wasn’t the end of the world, but in my current state, it felt like it. Although my friend was still there, she wasn’t going to continue with me, so I felt utterly alone with my problems.
That was when my angels came in: a group of four retired French siblings—three men and a woman—who had stayed at the same gîte as we had the night before. They were each taking a turn driving, while the other three walked. One of them looked the perfect French gentleman but spoke English with a British accent, and even used words like “chap.”
They noticed I was close to tears, and asked what was wrong. I told them about the headlamp. One of the brothers figured out how to open it up, and got the batteries back in properly so it worked again.
Then my friend explained about my problem getting hold of the gîte in Uzan. Immediately, the sister offered to drive me to Uzan to make sure all was well.
They must have gathered I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea (I didn’t like the thought of paying a lightning-fast visit to the place I’d then walk for hours to reach). So the same man who’d fixed my headlamp looked in the phonebook, found the number of someone with the same last name as the gîte-owners, and called them up. The person on the other end of the phone said there was no problem—the gîte was open, and even if it was full, his uncle and aunt, who owned it, would find me another place to stay.
And just like that, everything was all right again. Better than all right, even—not only, or even not primarily because I had a working light and a definite place to stay, but because of the way these four strangers had helped me.
I didn’t get their address. I never even learned their names, or got a picture of them. I hope they’re doing well. I hope they’re happy. Two years later, I still think about them sometimes, and their unhesitating kindness to a stranger.