By Stephan Sveshnikov
The first step is to notice. I was halfway through my third semester of college when I realized I’d been walking on nothing but concrete for months. The next day I got off the sidewalk and made my way on dirt and grass wherever I could. Within a week, my shoes came off.
I wanted to feel everything – dry leaves, puddles, the carpet in the library. Since freshman year I had struggled to keep in touch with things that were vitally important to me – family, nature, fantasy novels – and this felt like a moment of triumph: if I learned how to notice things, really notice things, maybe I’d never again find myself leaving something behind because I couldn’t hold on hard enough.
That summer found me in Southern France, preparing to walk a section of the Camino Santiago. Barefoot. I would use my feet to sense place, like two antennae. I was a new kind of animal, neither human nor insect – all sensing, unstoppable.
Miradoux – Lectoure
I start in an ancient church. The stone floor is cold and worm-eaten under my feet. I wonder if it’s ever seen the sun. The cold slows my heart. I feel the weight of time: centuries of feet pushing against my own through the rough stone.
But now it is empty as an Egyptian tomb: it feels like a relic. The stories here are dead – my feet can’t read them, only feel the space they’ve left.
Outside, If the church is a tomb, I think, at least people still care about is inside. Which was me, a minute ago. Maybe the path I’m about to walk is a sort of resurrection – a journey from inside to outside – from death to life.
Heartened, I shoulder my pack and follow signs for the trail.
This first part of the way has been modified since medieval times to accommodate cars. Cars have big feet and don’t mind the asphalt, but mine are small and the road is full of sharp and pointy rocks, so I walk on edge-of-the-road grass. It seems to me that the most uncomfortable and uninteresting things to walk on are all built by humans.
The path leaves the road and winds past stone farmhouses and wheat fields in various stages of maturity. I notice an old ruin – perhaps a castle – jutting like a broken tooth from the top of a ridge, and take a detour, stopping under a plum tree to eat some green plums. They taste like plums, but younger, as if God had been halfway through making them when he got distracted, and never came back to finish.
I feel that way. Long grass tickles my ankles.
At the Castle
I find a toe hold in the crumbling outer wall and clamber up a ways. Standing on a rock and flexing my toes gives me the two inches I need to see through the only window. Lukewarm air breathes out.
I don’t try to climb into the inner courtyard – the ground is covered with brambles. And outside, ant-guards remind my feet that they’re trespassing. Do I wish I had shoes? Yes, but maybe I don’t need to go everywhere.
On the Way Again
A honeysuckle vine drapes itself over a fence. The grass here is gloriously fluffy, gladdening my bitten feet; it’s like walking on tiny clouds. Squish squish. The flowers smell like church, and as the thought comes to me, church bells begin to ring in the distance.
Not sure what this one is called. It’s full of cement, which is like asphalt but made for shoes instead of cars, so it’s easier on my feet.
There are flowers everywhere – roses and window boxes of petunias line the streets. It takes me fifteen minutes to walk a block, trying to come up with a name for the scent of each flower. Also the smell of 200 fresh baguettes being unloaded from a bakery van.
Into the Church
The village church rings out again as I enter. Inside it feels more alive than the tomb-church from before. The side chapels are crowded with seats, and I imagine it full to the bursting on Sundays. The ceiling is painted sky-blue, with stars.
On my Way Out of Town
I pause at a fading pink rose. It smells old. It reminds me of my great-grandmother when she was in a nursing home. She had a gray sweater embroidered with pink roses –
One place you have to wear shoes is at a funeral.
Out of Town
Purple flowers that aren’t lavender but still make me think of my mother flow down a hill into a green pond. The color discrepancy doesn’t bother me. Fronds, also green, stick out of the flowers, singly or in islands, green boats in a purple sea. Nature has a nice sense of symmetry – this was once an ancient ocean. Now the ground is rippled and cracked, dusty dry to the touch.
On the Trail
Cattails mark the spot of an otherwise hidden stream. The ground here feels slightly humid. I walk on freshly mown grass (prickly!) and the stream reappears with a gurgle each time I’ve forgotten it was there.
Just a side note: poppies in wheat fields might be the prettiest thing
Past a Bridge
Stopping to eat is both premeditated and careless: that is, I’ve decided to stop when it feels right. It feels right on the bank of a tree-covered pond.
I rest my feet and eat a pastry. There’s a special sort of magic about French pastries: they raise a man up to the height of a king and beggar him in the same instant, scrabbling for crumbs in the bottom of a pie tin.
After lunch I pass a slug and feel some kinship with the animal for the first time.
Not too Far Away
In some pebbly grass I find a 1-euro coin. It almost feels silly to pick it up, out here where it and I are the only signs that this might not be the 13th century.
Only a Minute Later
I spy a snake tail sticking out of some long grass but keep moving. It hisses like something being dragged. My feet stop cold. Satisfied, it scribbles away, deflating grumpily as it goes. I, too, go.
At the Pumpkin Farm
Warm grass feels like tiny greenhouses for my feet. I stop to talk to a farmer planting pumpkins.
“Are you going to be on time?” he asks.
“I dunno…any time.”
The question bothers me long after I’ve said adieu.
Some kinds of mud don’t look the way they feel, but moist forest mud feels exactly the way it looks. Catching glimpses of Lectoure, I pass through a bamboo grove and come out with a pilgrim’s staff. When the ground turns rocky soon after and I’m forced to slow to a crawl, I use it as a third foot.
It’s strange to come upon the cemetery before I make it to the town. I rest my feet, bruised from the final stretch, and think. Here in this plot of land are the stories of the city I’m about to enter – unreadable.
, that playful literary critic of the 20th century, he was right! – so many texts fill this world, most of them inaccessible. My feet read a story that I never would have known otherwise. How many ways to read are there?
Listening to a gypsy band that night, I relive my journey, bare feet tapping on the floor. Instruments have feet too – tubas bounce, violins glide, flutes prance.
Here the bass walks steadily forward while above me a gypsy melody on the guitar traces the outlines of hills. They have their own way of telling the story of a journey: their own castles, their own snakes, their own poppies and wheat fields. So many ways to describe beauty. The first step is to notice.
Stephan Sveshnikov is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.