Day Four: Saint-Maurice to Martigny – 16.5 km (10.3 miles)
I wake up, put on my fluffy white bathrobe and stroll in my flip-flops to the sunny swimming pool. I sit in the comfortable lounge chair and immediately at my right hand appears a Starbucks grande iced green tea lemonade unsweetened. To my left appears a bowl of oatmeal with dried cranberries, brown sugar and 2% milk. After breakfast I freely disobey my mother’s command about not swimming within an hour of eating and I jump into the glimmering swimming pool. I have on the ideal swim trunks — that give the sensation of skinny-dipping but are perfectly modest. As I swim I note that my form is pure. I glide effortlessly through the waters in near Olympic caliber speed. When I’m done with my 20-minute swim I step out of the pool and everyone at the pool stands to applaud the excellence of my stroke. I humbly bow. As I return to my lounge chair a newspaper is placed in my hand. I read that Congress has bestowed universal healthcare on all. North Korea has given up its missile program. Peace has been declared in Syria and Afghanistan. Everyone in every country has a good job, good home and plenty of food to eat. Theresa soon joins me. She laughs lightheartedly, enchanted by my humor and wit. She tells me how good a husband I am and when she leans back I can catch the glimmer of the large diamond on her ring finger as it sparkles in the sunlight. Soon the boys appear, with their wives and kids. My boys are brilliant, of course, their wives are smart and strong and their kids are all perfectly behaved and Harvard-bound. What a vacation this has been, I think to myself as I close my eyes for a mid-morning nap.
I come back to my senses as I stumble on a stone protruding invisibly from the gravel path. Rather than a Zen-like mindfulness I have caught myself once again somnambulating through a semi-Freudian daytime reverie.
Not that I don’t think about spiritual things while I walk. After reading a Richard Rohr meditation this morning and contemplating it in between daydreams I know what my fall sermon series will be called. He proposed meditating today on the theme, “I am love,” which caught me up in contemplation before I could be launched into my typical morning Grumpy Sandy mode.
What started this whole line of thinking was the path itself. I turned right, followed both the arrows and the GPS and came to a 100m stretch of trail that was simply a narrow foot track on the grass. As much as I want to think I’m walking a popular path, there are not even enough pilgrims like me even to keep grass off the path. Soon I was thinking about the “Road Less Traveled” and the “Sound of a Different Drummer” and I got to daydreaming about what an “ideal” vacation would be on the Road More Commonly Traveled. Soon I was in full on daydream land.
But why fantasize of faraway places when this was one of my best days so far?
The morning began with a pastry from the most lovely Swiss French bakery ever. Then it was time for my real breakfast back at my hotel. OK, I did make a mess when I cracked a delicious egg only to discover it was completely uncooked. But after that it was onto the trail, which alternated between bike paths and wooded nature trails under a light cloud cover all day long. Whenever I was thirsty or hungry a new Swiss village would appear — Evionnaz then La Balmaz then Miéville then Vernayaz — all spaced at perfect intervals so that the water bladder could stay untouched all day long while I enjoyed pain au chocolat and cappuccinos and vegetarians pizzas whenever I fancied. The only distraction was the few drops of rain that would fall every hour or so, breaking my daydreamtemplation by making me wonder if I should don my rain jacket.
No matter how much I might consider myself a Euro-phile, at my lunch stop Pizzeria I had a moment of truth that identified me once and for all as an American. I asked for water with a glass of ice. The waitress looked quizzically at me and brought over a glass with two half-melted cubes in it. So I asked for beaucoup ice, which caused her to bring me over two additional cubes, which must have seemed to her like icebergs. Why would someone want ice in their water, after all? But she soon won the day when she brought me a perfectly lovely green salad in a freshly made, crispy crêpe bowl. Touché, Mademoiselle. Touché.
I crossed the covered bridge into Martigny at 14:00, and could immediately tell this is a special town, with its historic edifices interspersed with tasteful, modernist buildings. Here in the Alps there are more mountaineers than pilgrims, and their outdoor gear is many notches above pilgrimwear. The Place Central has a bustling collection of restaurants, pubs and cafes, and my inexpensive-for-Switzerland hotel has been beautifully modernized and is flawless. Although the Romanian hotel clerk did chuckle at my heavily accented French which seemed silly to her, as she explained in heavily accented English.
Hiker’s notes: Even though it is Sunday there always was someplace open for coffee or lunch along the trail. The signage is quite good and I could probably have done without GPS. The location of the official trail makes good sense, so no need to second guess the trailmeisters. I’ve decided to stay a second night here and walk with a light pack to Orsieres tomorrow before returning here by train, all based on how the guidebook describes tomorrow’s walk:
“The valley up from Martigny Croix through Bovernier and up to Sembrancher is very narrow, with steep-sided cliffs on either side of the river Dranse, the road and the railway line in the valley bottom and, apart from the route described below, on narrow footpaths, there is no other option, either for bad weather, poor visibility, for those unused to this type of walking or for those who aren’t very agile. You do not actually need a very good head for heights (this author has an extremely bad one), but you do need to be very careful if it is wet or windy, all the more so if you are alone. Do not, however, under any circumstances, consider walking on the road –this is only two lanes wide, is full of very fast-moving, heavy traffic, and there is rarely any hard shoulder or pavement to protect you. This is the worst section of the whole Via Francigena, all the way from Canterbury to Rome, and if you feel unable to tackle it for whatever reason you will have to resign yourself, reluctantly, to taking the train (frequent service) for the 10km stretch from Martigny Croix to Sembrancher (after which you will not have any more problems).” – Alison Raju