Walking the Walk

Walking the walk

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Have you ever had a long held wish come true ? It's a fantastic feeling, I can tell you, especially having just realised a dream I had pretty well given up on, after nearly seven years of major health problems.

We'd been coming to this part of France for fifteen years before we took the plunge and moved here ten years ago. One of the biggest draws for us both was the mountain beside which we now live. Yes, we have our very own mountain! However, I must confess it's a sentiment we share with most of the locals. Compared to the Rockies and the Alps, Le Grand Colombier is a morning's warm up for a real mountaineer, but as the highest summit of the Jura meridional, it's already higher than the highest British peak, Scotland's Ben Nevis...

Anyway, I've always liked to walk the hills, to photograph them, and paint them. My husband Martyn doesn't mind looking at them from a safe distance, but when it comes to walking, he's always considered that hills get in the way. Too many ups, and not enough downs. Give him a nice leisurely stroll any day (well, perhaps not every day), but definitely on the level.

We have similar approaches to gardening. I love getting my hands dirty, and he enjoys watching me do it, especially if he can sip a good glass of red wine at the same time. Anyway, one day a few years back, when he was busy elsewhere, I was in my kitchen garden wrestling with a particularly stubborn raspberry cane, when I heard and felt a sickening crunching sound in my neck.

I knew what it was, another disc had crushed, and I knew I was in for a good eighteen months of limited mobility before it would (hopefully) heal. Knowing it will probably improve in time doesn't always make it easier to bear the pain and weakness when you are going through it. To make matters worse, the local communes had just finished a concerted campaign of building speed humps in every village, and the locals, including my husband, hated having to slow down for them. Every jolt and jar went straight to my neck and would continue to do so for the next couple of years.

Not long before my accident, we'd booked a holiday, the first one in ages. We’d decided to explore the Jura mountains to north of our own range. They were indeed beautiful, the peaks and ridges were higher than ours, and the valleys deeper, and I enjoyed them, from afar. On the second day of our break, we decided to walk the trail following a famous series of waterfalls. The experience was far from enjoyable. Every step took enormous teeth gritting effort. By the time I finally struggled back to the car I was exhausted and my heart was in my boots. That's it, I thought. The end of my walking days.

The trouble is that, when you stop being active, everything else has a tendency to seize up too. It's a bit like taking a car off the road, but I shall spare you the details. Suffice it to say that seven years later, after a not very successful hip replacement, and two heart attacks, I found myself standing on the short, boulder strewn turf of a windy ridge to the north of the Grand Colombier.

The Col de la Biche is one of my favourite places. To the east there is a magnificent view across the river Rhône towards the Alps and Mont Blanc. The few trees on the tops are stunted, wind whipped things. In the relative shelter of the narrow valley below, the woods are dense but still slightly dwarfed, due to the sparse soil at this height. I set off along a faint trail that led down hill, out of the wind. Ahead of me, at the far end of the valley, the two ridges joined in a rocky crest that rose up and then dropped down in a sort of curtsey before the Grand Colombier just to the south.

As I walked, the weather began to close in. I'd set my eyes on the ridge but found it drifting in and out of sight. Still, having got this far, I wasn't going to stop for a bit of drizzle. I plodded on. As is often the case with mountain pastures, the smooth green sward was deceptive. The general criss and cross of cattle trails was further undermined by rodent's burrows and dotted with mole hills. It made for rough going, I had to watch where I put my feet but still my eyes kept returning to my destination. Slowly and surely I was getting there.

Finally, the valley was at an end and a steep grassy slope rose up ahead of me. By this time my poor old body was beginning to complain. Especially my hip. But I was so close to my destination, I couldn't turn back. So, I hauled myself up the hill until I found myself joining a narrow stony path that snaked along the edge of the ridge. The very edge. To my right was a vertiginous drop. I crept a little closer to take a few photographs, then retreated to the relative safety of the path before continuing onward.

At last, with some trepidation, I arrived. Perhaps it wasn't the very highest point, but it was high enough for me. Below me lay the site of an ancient Benedictine monastery, that had been sacked during the French revolution. It was just possible to make out the heaps of stones that had once been the monks cells. The harshness of their lives there is hard to imagine. At this altitude they'd have been totally cut off for five months of the year. Beyond, and way below the site of the Chartreuse d'Arvière was Valromey, the mid-mountain plateau where we live. It was almost impossible to make anything out as the intermittent mist began to gather itself into rain bearing clouds, so finally, I turned back.

Retracing your steps is never so enjoyable. My hip grumbled, my neck wasn't entirely happy either, but my heart was warmed by a tremendous sense of achievement. We'd driven up and over the Col de la Biche many times, and many times I'd looked longingly at the trail that leads off from the road towards Colombier. Now I'd actually done it. I'd walked the walk.

Today, when I look up from the valley, I see the ridge above me, there, just above the raw scar of a rock fall on the forest clad side of the mountain. I have walked there. It's not something I would do every day but, despite my weakness, despite my pain, I have walked the walk.

More than anything this has taught me the importance of not giving up, of daring to hope, of persevering. Not just for the big dreams but for the small ones too. The power to walk that 'great' walk came from learning to be faithful in walking the 'small' walk of my daily life. The daily small walks got longer and gradually I got stronger. Even so, most days the pain still accompanied me every step of the way.

Despite the pain, these constant reminders of our frailty, when a great step of faith is demanded of us, we can do it because we have experienced the faithfulness of God in the small things of our faith walk. It's not because we are strong either, and I am far from strong, but because His strength is made perfect in our weakness.

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