From the ridiculous to the sublime

Leaving Sutri behind in the sunshine.

Day 19: Sutri to Formello — 30 km (18 miles)

At 10:30 today I made a choice that I immediately knew was a mistake. I said “no” to the simple question: shall I put my rain gear on? Within 10 minutes I was completely drenched, including inside my boots, which will take days to dry. The only good thing? Tomorrow is the last day I’ll need them.

This rainy cloudy day began in the sunshine. I was down at Hotel Sutrium’s breakfast room by 7:00 and helped myself to a breakfast of sweet bread, yogurt, juice and coffee, then I was out the door at 7:30, ready for another 30 km (18 mile) day.

The distance is a little longer than I’d rather walk, but after Viterbo there were 90 km left to go, which the guidebook split into days of 25, 25, 25 and 15 km. That meant four days for 90 km, which I was confident I could do in three days of 30. That’s eight hours per day of walking, but I’m in the groove and not really worried about the exertion.

Storm clouds gather.

The first part of the morning was spent on the trail to Monterosi, which was no real problem. As I arrived into town I was delighted to see Aura and Maribeth, two Dutch pilgrims I hadn’t seen since Sarzana, just getting ready to leave. As we said goodbye they asked which direction I was going and when I pointed up they hill they said, “Oh, you’re going on the road.”

I hadn’t really thought about that since I was just planning to follow the guidebook’s directions and make the distances as direct and short as possible. But before long, as predicted, there I was on the road.

By road I mean the Via Cassia, the same road followed in various forms by the Via Francigena for hundreds of kilometers from Northern Italy. I came to discover, though, that the Via Cassia this close to Rome is a four lane, access controlled freeway. Walking on the road would mean walking in the feeder/distributor lane next to the freeway, in tractor paths alongside the freeway, on old stretches of the former Via Cassia beside the freeway, and in some cases right next to the oncoming traffic on the freeway.

If it sounds perilous, believe me it was. But perilous became ridiculous when, walking alongside the freeway it started to rain. Cats and dogs rain. Buckets. Torrents.

And there I was, as the first raindrops fell, beside the highway having decided the rain wouldn’t last and — I would not put on my rain gear.

Any veteran long distance walker will tell you the biggest problem of rain is getting the insides of your boots wet. Wet boots mean wet feet. Wet feet mean blisters. And wet boots may stay wet for days if there’s not a good way to dry them out.

As the rain let up and I walked along the road to Campagnana di Roma I heard the fateful “squish, squish” of my feet inside my boots.

Well, I did have my sandals along. When I made it to Campagnana at about 1:00 I found a pizzeria near a cafe, settled down to a lunch of hot tea and pizza, took off my boots and socks, and let my feet sit in the breeze on the cold pavers of the piazza so they could dry. After lunch I put on my warmest wool socks and my sandals (deduct style points) and strapped my dripping boots onto the back of my pack.

Madonna della Sorba tower peeks through the trees.

Santuario Madonna della Sorba


And then everything about my day changed. The road between Campagnana and Formello was gentle and quiet, leading via the sanctuary of Madonna Della Sorba to the charming town of Formello where I’m spending the night. With the rain gone, my feet dry in my sandals and the road quiet and calm, my mind started to make a shift.

I started to enjoy the day. Then I went deeper. I started to enjoy the walk. Then my mind started to open up. I thought about this beautiful month I’ve had, and I gave thanks. I thought about Theresa, my beloved back home, and gave thanks. I thought about my kids and my old and new churches, about my friends and about many issues. And I felt a warmth coming over me, a sense of well being, of gratitude and joy.

The afternoon’s itinerary through the sanctuary takes the pilgrim into a deep, green valley surrounded by a deeper green valley contained inside a deep and green nature preserve. The sanctuary itself is a church that remembers a simple and unusual miracle from hundreds of years ago that goes like this:

A young swineherd with a mangled hand was out watching his pigs one day when he noticed one pig stray from the group, walk into the woods, and return an hour later. It did this each day until finally the boy decided to follow it to see what it was doing. He found it on its hind feet, standing up against the trunk of a sorba tree (hence the sanctuary’s name), worshiping at a small icon of the Virgin. The boy ran to the village to tell the people what he had seen. No one believed him, but when he put his mangled hand into his pocket, he pulled it out and discovered it was completely healed. The startled and suddenly convinced villagers built a shrine around the tree, and the icon worshiped by the pig hangs behind the altar of the church that remembers the miracle.

The long, quiet (and dry) walk to Formello.

So a day that started in a ridiculous manner ended up being one of the most precious. It turned from a mistake into a meditation. A little miracle of centuries ago and a quiet walk reminded me of the miracles in my own life. I had dipped myself into this quiet vale with its hidden shrine and when I came out I was restored.

In the apse, the original icon that spawned the miracle.

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