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On the Road Again

My name, Deborah Streeter, means literally “bumble bee on the boulevard.” 

Deborah is the Hebrew word for bumble bee.

The people who first called themselves Streeters, in ancient Kent, England, lived on streets.  Our family story is to joke that we're not street walkers or street cleaners, but merchants.  When the Romans came in with their great invention, roads, we said, “Goodbye path in the woods, we’re moving our store to the street!”   Street-ers.

Belden Lane in his great book Backpacking with the Saints, about hiking as a spiritual discipline, and how taking along the writings of different religious authors can deepen a wilderness hike, tells of realizing, after a lifetime of hiking, that his own name, Belden Lane, describes well his own spiritual quest:  Belden is Old English for “beautiful hill,”  and he likes nothing better than hiking a trail and a track and  - yes –a Lane.  “My very identity calls me out to the edge,” he writes.

So this Street-er likes to walk also, and is very fond of different kinds of routes.  And like a bee, I am happiest travelling far and wide, making pollinating connections.

This past September I walked six straight days, 10-15 miles a day, in the Brionnais region of France, southern Burgundy.  Here are a few memories from my walk.

Margaret and DeborahI walked with my old friend, Margaret, with whom I am have walked once a month or so for over 20 years.  We hike near her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or mine in Big Sur.  We’ve done the “Power Walk” part of the Big Sur Marathon a few times, 21 miles up the coast on the closed Coast Highway with many other walkers and runners.

Once we did a five-day backpacking trip with a couple of other women in the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon.  We had won the trip at a church auction and we were all proud, women in our 50s and 60s, that we could do the strenuous backcountry hike.  But our leader was a little bossy about the correct way to hike and cook and put up our tent, so one day, to annoy him, Margaret and I started speaking only (bad) French.  It was very satisfying, and we also realized that we both knew enough French to amuse ourselves for a day.  Hence was born our dream to hike someday, without the annoying leader, in France.

I found a company, Highpoint Holidays, that offered countryside “independent walks.”  They give you a detailed guide booklet (“follow the track through the woods for 500 meters and take the grassy path to the left by the tree with a giant growth.”) and a good map and set you out hiking from tiny town to tiny town, between 17 and 25 kilometers a day.  Each night you stay at a different little chateau or farm or villa, where the charming hosts feed you a four or five course fancy French dinner, make you breakfast the next day, pack you a lunch, and you’re back on the route.  (Amazing, $150 a day for three meals, lovey private rooms, the detailed map – and your hosts then carry your stuff to the next place!)

The countryside is rolling green hills, mostly farms and woods, fields with large white Charollais beef cattle or hay and corn.  We walked a lot along hedgerows, very neat and well maintained tractor roads.  Each day we stopped at several lovely 12th century Romanesque churches in the tiny villages we traversed and then went looking for our evening lodging, an old Georgian guest house or working farm or restored barn on the outskirts of town.  The churches were my passion and the reason for choosing this region.  Margaret patiently learned about chevets and crypts and tympanums and St. Martin and St. Hillaire and Abbot Hugh of Cluny.  She was more interested in the cows and very neat garden and comparing the neat woodpiles to hers at home.  As we walked we discussed husbands, our kids and their partners, travel, church history.  We hardly thought at all about work or politics for a week.  We saw no other walkers. 

One day it rained all day, but we had been warned and were prepared.  Our map and guide got a little soggy, and we got lost at one point, but that led to a delightful chat with a postman and a bored French woman in a tiny town.  We found a church for lunchtime shelter and ate our chevre and jambon sandwich and yummy fresh tomatoes in the back pew, leaving a note and a donation for the gift of a dry hour.  Our destination that afternoon was La Violetterie, a family home where 80-year-old Madeline welcomed us with a blazing fire and tea and cookies.  “I have been thinking about you in the rain all day,” she fretted as she hung our wet things over radiators and prepared our yummy dinner of Charollais veal in prune sauce and tomatoes from her garden stuffed with caviar and a creamy cheese. 

I could tell tales all day of our very different hosts and other guests and delicious meals and cool old restored houses.  But it is the route that I recall with the most fondness, the smells of hay and pond and sunflowers, the carefully trimmed elderberry-lined hedgerows, the steep old steps that led us from a little bridge over the stream up to the ridgetop ancient town and church.  Who built those steps, what stories of ten centuries could they tell? 

And the quiet.  The route kept us off most roads and instead meandered through woods and beside fields.  Some of the farms were abandoned, but most seemed well maintained.  In the US there would be creeping developments of McMansions at the edge of town, but the French have stricter laws on maintaining farms, our hosts said, and the prized grass fed beef gets a very good price at the market auction house we passed in the little town of St. Christophe en Brionnais. 

After a day or so I was able to remember that I was just walking, I had no schedule or appointments, just follow the various twists and turns. Margaret was good at reminding us, since our hosts weren’t ready to receive us til 4PM, that we could stop and lie in the hay for a while, or sit on an ancient stone wall and look across the vast green valley.

Actually I guess I wasn’t a Street-er on this trip, but reverted back to the little paths and tracks of my ancestors.  It was a shock to come into the huge (1500 residents) town of Charlieu with actual stores.  We quickly found our way back to the hedgerows.   

Our last night was back at the same chateau where we started the loop, but our hosts Olivier and Pascal seemed to know that we did not need another boisterous boozy opening meal as they had served us six days earlier.  Over a much simpler repas we discussed village politics (Pascal is mayor of tiny Varennes Sous Dun.)  The other guest, Vijay, an Indian engineer living in Frankfort, who regularly stays with Olivier and Pascal when he visits the local Bosch plant, compared village economies of France and India.  It was a gentle way to reenter the world of highways and cities. 

But in my dreams I go back to the fields and the churches.

Copyright © 2016 Deborah Streeter

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