In the Footsteps of St. Francis

Letter from Rome

I only believed myself close to death once on my Holy Year pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. I had been walking in the sun for seven hours along the ancient footpaths and cart tracks between Gubbio—where the saint tamed the wolf that had been terrorizing the townsfolk—and Valfabbrica, the only village of any size before Assisi itself. I was —lost. There was no one to ask the way; I hadn't seen a soul since breakfast. Whoever had been paid to put up the wayside signs that mark the Sentiero Francescano—the Footpath of St. Francis—had clearly had enough of struggling across the steeply undulating landscape with his paint pots and finger-posts and had abandoned the task when the going had got tough. If he had been as hot and tired as I was, I thought, I could almost forgive him. My backpack felt so heavy that I dare not take it off for fear of not being able to pick it up again, and I had ran out of water some four hours earlier. The slow-moving River Chiasco offered no relief—in high summer, it runs brown and undrinkable through uncrossably wide slabs of mud.

When I got halfway up the stony track that climbs the western side of the gorge, I realized that I just wasn't going to make it to the top. I slackened the straps on my rucksack, lay down across the shadeless road, and fell asleep. Everybody has to die somewhere, I remember thinking, and a remote corner of...

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