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Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Pyrenées: Hiking Pyrenees: Travel Routes: Hiking Travel Walking

Listening for Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers

Col d'Aran Approach
Approaching the top of Col d’Aran.

(Please click on the images to see them enlarged)

First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake

Second part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink

Third part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 3: Village In the Mist


(It has been ages since I posted in the blog, and many of my readers may no longer be checking up on it anymore. Forgive me for that. Those of you who still stop by, thank you! This post took me a long time to write, and in the meantime some big events happened in my life, including finding someone who has changed my life, quitting my former job, and moving south to Kobe. Still trying to regain my feet and start walking again!)

Mountains were the reason I had journeyed halfway around the world to these steep, verdant slopes of the Pyrenees. To spend the month walking. And so it was time to leave Lescun, no matter how much I had fallen in love with the place. Truth was that with the mountains looming right there outside my B & B window, apprehension reared its ugly head, and I wondered if I would be all right, both in how well my out-of-shape body could handle the rigors of the climbs, and, even more, in how I’d be able to keep myself stocked well enough with food that low blood sugar from my diabetes wouldn’t put me into mortal danger. There were some lonely stretches I would be walking through where immediate access to food wasn’t possible for several days, and they scared the hell out of me. It was different when I was younger and healthy, but diabetes changed all that.

I woke at dawn and hefted my pack stuffed to the extension collar with boxes and food cans and packages of mostly fresh food, like sausages, bread, cheese, and vegetables. I just might have brought more than I actually needed, and when the owner of the B & B saw my pack, he sniggered, asking me if I was planning on hiking to the Arctic. Certainly the pack weighed a ton, and all that preparation to go “ultralight” had seemingly come to naught; the pack was much heavier than what all those walkers of the Pyrenees I had seen online were carrying. I grunted as I lifted the pack from where it stood against the frame of the front door.

I left a note for Stewart, and stepped out onto the road. Morning sunlight cast a golden glitter across the fields and dew-covered walls and rooftops, and rose into the East with a silent shout that filled my heart with song. I whistled as I strode past the still doorways and windows, finally on my way. Finally walking!

Ah, that feeling of skirting empty fields alight with the singing of birds and the small, far off bleating of sheep! No one else was on the road, so I had the silence to myself, and I could hear my shoes scuffing the gravel underfoot, and the creak of the pack under all that weight. Off in the distance rose the shining white teeth of the high ridges, white and concrete grey in the sun. My breath puffed in white billows in front of my face, and I could feel that morning sun burn against my cheek, my forearm, and legs. It was the time of day when insects, still held in suspended animation from the night chill, slowly stirred, and awoke to the sun. I walked past their spherical eyes, reflected in their vision, and feeling the swing of my arms and legs leading me up the road, toward the trailhead.

D'Aspe Valley Foothills
Across the d’Aspe valley higher into the foothills.

After all the people at the refuge last night, this time alone left a feeling of suddenly being cast adrift. The sound of my feet scuffling the asphalt tapped against the silence as if I was walking inside a bell, and only my movement promised me that the stillness was real. When I reached the first steep proper hiking trail, my breaths and heartbeats thundered about my ears, and I broke into a sweat. The sun crept into the spaces between the branches, and slowly the day opened, with swaths of sunlight. The morning chill lifted, and soon dragonflies were skimming the meadows and crows were beating the blue air.

The overladen pack demanded heavy gulps of air and I was out of breath before I had even climbed to the ridge of the first foothill. A clinging humidity settled into the air, without a breath of wind. And as the sun rose, so did the heat. Not the soft-edged, wet heat of the mountains in Japan, but the sharp, prickly exhalation of the Pyrenean sun, burning on the nape of my neck, drawing out my colors, etching at my thoughts, sucking away the vapors and subterranean streams. I found myself gulping down the contents of one of my two 1-liter water bottles, and before I knew it, it was almost dry. I halted at the crown of a forested hill, elated at reaching a first milestone, but worried about having enough to drink.

Selfie rest stop on first foothill ridge.
Taking a rest atop the first summit between Lescun and Borce.

The trail descended into a green valley of grass and cows, stone farm houses scattered along a slow river flowing through. It followed an arbor of old beech trees, and led past an enclosed farmyard, pigs snorting and grunting. Occasionally, other long-distance hikers passed me as I paused to photograph the fields and stone walls. Everything seemed half asleep, and I felt as if I was milling about during an unannounced siesta. Across the valley the trail continued up a steep-sided mountain, rising into the blue sky, grass waving in the breezes and sunlight.

I stopped under a lone sapling, setting down in the straw, to have my lunch of saucisson, farmer’s bread, soft cheese (which had melted in the paper wrapping), and two plums. Sweat poured down my brow as I swigged from my remaining water bottle, which I had to conserve for the rest of the day. Down in the valley tiny figures of lone walkers inched across the fields, horses flicked their tails, and occasional crows beat their way from hilltop to hilltop. Few of the locals seemed about. Perhaps they were resting.

Lescun to Borce Forest Path
Lescun to Borce Forest Path
GR10 Marker
GR10 marker on the crest between Lescun and Borce
Borce Fields of Heather
Fields of heather crossing over to Borce.

Finished with lunch, I trudged up the hillside, feeling the weight of the pack with all the extra food I had brought. By the time I reached the top, I was again badly out of breath, and feeling just how out of shape I was. The trail wended through a high valley purple with heather, and a dark, rocky peak in the distance. Grasshoppers popped in different directions at the kicking of my legs, and zithered in the heat. The red and white painted trail blazers for the GR10 long-distance trail appeared at irregular intervals on tree trunks and embedded rocks, leading me across the mountain-top and down the back side, where the afternoon sun blazed against the hillsides and the air baked in the heat.

I’d run out of water, and my mouth grew dry with thirst. During the descent four young French walkers passed me, and when I inquired about water sources, one of the women offered me a drink from her water bottle. “Be careful of the streams here. There are lots of cows above in the mountain fields. You never know about the water.”

First View of Borce
First view of Borce after a scorching and thirsty traverse of the foothills.

That one swig helped me make it down about halfway to the town, Borce, sitting at the bottom of a steep-sided gorge, just below where I was walking, and where I was planning to stay for the night. But the thirst returned and after a while I couldn’t take it anymore. At a splashing mountain creek choked with moss-covered boulders, taking the chance that the moss and brush and leaves in the stream would filter out the baddies in the water, I filled my bottle with the cold water, and hoped for the best. I took a long draught, and felt so good at the clear taste, that I took off my shirt and bathed my head and torso in the rushing stream. Two walkers with a labrador passed me as I shook my wet head, and the labrador joined me in the water. I laughed as the hikers whistled to the dog and continued down the trail.

Borce seemed like a footstep along the valley floor. Amidst the looming green ridges east and west, a cluster of 18th century buildings huddled along the Gave d’Aspe River, with a narrow main street running through the center of the village, and houses with stone façades lining the street side. Most of the façades were painted a dun white, so that even in the shade, the streets glowed with an inviting brightness. The streets were too narrow for cars to easily pass through, so a hush hung over the village, broken by the sound of people conversing and laughing. Ahead I heard the clinking of glass and metal, and I came upon guests dining and drinking under an awning, outside a small restaurant. I put my pack down and wandered inside into the dark interior to inquire about a camping spot and the price of dinner.

The man at the bar counter looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a scraggly ponytail of dark brown hair tied back from his thinning pate, and a kind but bored look in his eyes. He gave me a wan smile as I came up to the counter, and nodded half-heartedly when I asked if he could speak English.

“Would there be a place to camp near the village?” I asked.

He nodded again and shook his thumb behind him. “It’s out back behind the church. It’s a little difficult to find, so I’ll show you as soon as I can get away from this cash register. Why don’t you sit and wait here and have something to drink?”

I took a seat at one of the oaken tables and asked for a beer. I spied the guests outside munching on french fries, so I ordered a basket of that, too.

As I waited, I gazed around the restaurant, and glanced outside at the families under the awning. The guests represented a mixed lot, vacationing families out for a drive in the countryside, dusty walkers stopping for the night in one of the refuges or gîtes d’etapes, and villagers, stopping by for an evening quaff. Most of them were French, but I could hear a few speaking Spanish, and one couple deep in a German discussion.

I discovered that a small grocery store occupied the back part of the restaurant, with basic offerings of fresh bread, milk, eggs, canned soups, vegetables, and various cooking items and basic household paraphernalia. There was even a makeshift post office, with sheets of stamps held in folders on a shelf.

The store proprietor finally lifted the bar entrance counter and announced he was ready to take me to the campsite. A woman in spectacles took his place and smiled at me as I headed out of the bar door.

The proprietor led me behind the building and up some stairs, through an old church courtyard. The path passed behind an old stone dormitory, and along a tree-lined path into a grove that overlooked the village. He showed me a clearing with a chestnut tree in the middle where I could pitch my tent. Grass, nettle, dandelions, and clover carpeted the entire open area. Beyond the fence at the bottom of the field, lay an enclosed field with two donkeys and several sheep. Beyond that stood a row of modern wood houses, where several families sat out on the verandas eating dinner.

Borce Church Yard Camp
Camping on the first night in the rear churchyard in Borce.

“How much for the night?” I asked. The proprietor shook his head. “It’s free. The church likes to support G10 walkers!” He smiled and left me to my business.

In spite of all the grass, finding a level site without rocks underfoot took some time. The best place ended up being right at the foot of the chestnut tree, with barely enough room to extend and tauten the guylines. By the time I finished setting up camp darkness had fallen, and I was too tired to fire up the stove and cook dinner, in spite of all the food in my pack. I closed up the tent and sauntered back to the restaurant to order a dinner of two baguettes with ham and cheese, and a big, cold glass of beer.

I sat out under the awnings in the terrace, with my chair facing the street, watching evening strollers and village folk. At the table next to mine sat two Danish women who were also doing the GR10. We spoke for a while, but they seemed more interested in one another’s company, so after I downed the last of my beer, I stood to wander through the night streets of the village, taking photographs.

The street lights burned with the yellow cast of sulphur lamps, giving the houses and alleyways a dreamlike light that made the village seem half imagined. A few windows hung open and I could hear the sound of laughter and conversation from within. I stopped by the church door where a grizzled man in a baseball cap sat smoking a cigarette. The door was locked, so I couldn’t venture inside.

Night View of Borce Village
Night view of Borce village.

Back at camp I sat in the entrance to my tent and watched the moon rise over the hills behind the village. In the darkness in the field below the donkeys shifted restlessly, and one of the sheep bleated once. It took a long while for me to fall asleep.

I woke at dawn and quickly gathered my things and packed up. Dew clung to the grass and my shoes and socks got soaked as I kicked through the field headed for the edge of the village and the trace of the trail. I passed one elderly woman leaning out of her apartment window, watering her geraniums.

“Bon jour!” she called out. “Where are you headed?”

“The GR10. Up into the mountains.”

“A good day for it. Please take care!”

“Thanks!”

Chemin de la Matûre
The Chemin de la Matûre trail cut into the side of the cliffs.

The trail started under a bridge at the far side of the village, and followed some stairs down to the main road that crossed the Pyrenees from France into Spain. It led across the road into Etsaut, the next village over. From there the trail followed the asphalt road toward the cliff-hugging Chemin de la Mâture, an access way hewn out of the stone walls of the Aspe gorge, originally built for transporting timber over the mountains for use in the French navy.

The cliff path started a half hour after Etsaut, first meandering through open woods, then the trail growing narrower as the rock face grew steeper, finally carved out of the sheer rock, with a rounded, tunnel-like wall on the left, and an open side to the right, dropping off into thin air above the gorge floor 200 meters below.

Again the heavy pack… Hefting it up the cliff trail at first followed the gradual walk along the paved road until this point, as the trail inclined gently along the cliff face. It began to grow steeper when the wooded verge dropped away, and the trail had to wind along the vagaries of the rock. The sun also pulled past the shadow of the cliffs and shone into the gorge, at first warming up the chill from the night, but as the morning wore on, grew stronger and stronger, until… at around ten o’clock, it had begun blazing across the length of the trail.

I hadn’t counted on the heat. While I was used to walking in the stifling summer heat of the mountains in Japan, where it was a damp, shirt-drenching kind of humidity; here the heat lacked the moisture, and seared the skin like an oven. Even with my aluminized umbrella, the heat sucked me dry of water, and I soon found myself guzzling from the two 2-liter bottles just to keep up with my need to drink. The thirst and the weight of the pack soon had me stopping for breath every hundred meters, and by noon I was beat. All the morning walkers passed me as I sat in the shade of a bush, trying to regain my strength. When I stood, I grew dizzy, and became disoriented. I thought perhaps it was low blood sugar, and tried to fix it with nuts and dried fruit, but the dizziness remained. At one trail sign I read what I thought was a warning for a trail closure ahead and that an alternate route had been put in, so I took that path, keen to get on my way up to the alpine regions. The dizziness continued, and I sat down on a log, flush with heat, and bleary-eyed, while I contemplated what route to take. Little did I know that I had read the sign wrong, and that I had taken the wrong route up a different mountain.

A family noticed my pale face and asked if I was all right. The mother offered me a swig of water and handed me a slice of carrot cake, telling me it had been specially made for her grandfather. I accepted a slice, but couldn’t eat it. It made me more nauseous. “Never mind!” the mother laughed with a big smile. “The bananas are still too young anyway.”

Shade On Col d'Aran
Arriving at the top of Col d’Aran, grateful for the shade.

They sat with me for a while as I rested. The husband suggested that maybe it was heat exhaustion, so they offered several swigs of their lemonade. I admit it did make me feel a little better. I decided to sit a little longer as the family told me it was time they moved on. The mother asked if I was okay to be on my own. When I nodded and smiled, she nodded back. “Okay. Well, you take care then. Don’t push it. We’ll stop for lunch at the top, and wait a little till we see you, all right?”

I nodded and smiled again, thanking her and the rest of the family. The son and daughter both smiled, too.

“Here is some more cake,” offered the mother. “Just in case. Even if you can’t eat it now.”

And they were off, headed up the trail.

The forest seemed to close about me after the sounds of the family had faded. The seething of the trees in the slight breeze. and the noticeable absence of birdsong, brought home the vulnerability of being alone and weak on a mountainside. I finally stood and hefted the heavy pack, ready to push on. I looked up the trail and winced when I saw the switchbacks continuing way up into the shadows of the tree trunks.

I took the slope slowly, placing one foot in front of the other, making sure to watch how I felt. The dizziness faded, but I still felt weak and disoriented. The switchbacks zig-zagged up the steep slope for what seemed like forever, and I kept wondering when the tree line would appear and the alpine path begin. But the trees never ended and the sun kept at my back, and later moved to my left, where it decidedly should’t have been. It should have been over my right shoulder, as I headed northeast. This was headed west.

The day turned blazing hot as the trail climbed, and I saw dozens of walkers hiding from the sun beneath bushes and trees. Luckily I’d brought more water this time… four liters’ worth… so I avoided yesterday’s dehydration. Still, it wasn’t enough to counter the heat. When the path leveled off and opened up onto a ridgeline meadow, I felt both the joy of having reached the top of a mountain, and the let down of facing the sun full-on. The path meandered along the rocky ups and downs, until I came to a wind-bent grove of oak trees. Other people had chosen this area, too, taking spots in the shade of the trees. Bands of walkers passed through, most of them too hot to make conversation, and pushing doggedly on.

I found a shaded clearing beside some boulders, and put my pack down. The dizziness had gone and and for a while it was joy seeing my pack lying there in the grass and the lift of the mountains on the other side of the valley from which I had climbed. From behind me came a lilting voice, calling.

“Bonjour! We meet again! It seems you are feeling better and have made it up the mountains.”

It was the mother of the family that had helped me earlier. She was waving from another shaded spot a little further up the trail. The family was getting ready to head off, but they came over to check up on me.

“Do you have enough water?”, the mother asked. “It’s really hot, isn’t it?” She offered a 2 liter pet bottle of water. The father smiled shyly, nodding.

I nodded back. “Thank you so much, but I’m okay. I think it’s the heat. It sucks you dry!”

The son and daughter laughed. The whole family laughed together. “We French love walking in the heat!”, said the son.

“Be careful,” chided the mother. “We’re headed off now, but you take it easy, okay?”

I nodded and thanked them. They picked up their packs and started down the trail. I watched them pick their way along the rocks underfoot and disappear beyond a small rise.

I sat back against my pack and closed my eyes. A breeze was blowing, and the tall grass and wild flowers whispered as they shook. I pulled out the sandwich I had bought at the bar in Borce and munched on it while gazing at the windswept forest.

White petals fluttered on the breeze under one bigger tree, drifting down to a puddle in a mud patch. Then the petals, in unison, lifted and spun together to the further side of the puddle and landed there, neatly along the edge of the water. Looking closer I realized they were butterflies, small, coin-sized, pinkish-white Adonis Blue butterflies, gathering around the water to drink. They spun and lifted and dropped with the wind, dancing.

Adonis Blue Butterfly Trekking Pole
Male Adonis Blue butterfly (Polyommatus bellargus) on trekking pole.

I finished the sandwich and stood up to continue down the mountain. By now, consulting the map, it was clear that I had climbed the mountain northwest of where I had intended to go, Mt. Aran. The trail made a loop back to where I had started in the morning, so I decided to return to Borce.

The early afternoon heat grew to its most intense, and soon I was feeling weak and dizzy again. I slowly made it down the trail, taking care to drink my water regularly, and stop to eat small bites of the bread and sausage. But the pack was still too heavy, and the air so dry it whipped away any vestige of moisture on my skin. In the early afternoon the last leg of the trail stretched out along a quiet country road looking out over pastures along the Aspe River. I overtook a very slowly limping, very overweight woman who had turned bright red in the sunshine, and stared doggedly at the road surface, determined to keep going.

I called out a hello and she cheerfully greeted me back.

“It’s hot, isn’t it?”, she observed. “Maybe not the best day for a walk.”

“Are you all right?”, I asked. “You seem to be having trouble walking.”

“Oh, I’m fine. Just need to catch up to my husband and son.”

They were no where to be seen. “Are they up ahead?”, I asked.

“I dunno. Haven’t see them since lunch time. They’re much fitter than I am.”

“Do you have enough water?”

“Yes, I’m good. Just need a bit more exercise.”

I didn’t want to bother her too much, so I was about to march on ahead, when she continued talking.

“My husband is a good man. He takes care of the family and works hard. He also loves mountain climbing and comes up here to the Pyrenees as often as he can. He doesn’t look at all like me. He’s in great shape!” She said this with a shake of her head and a voice of defeat, followed by a self-effacing laugh. Her hand gestured toward her body. “I’m an old blimp. Can barely walk!”

We walked together silently for a time. The road led gently down the hill. The sun baked the asphalt and heat waves slow-danced in the haze. Grasshoppers zithered in the dry grass.

“I think I will take a break and sit in the shade of this tree. The tree was but a sapling, barely casting a shadow on the ground. I watched her red-facedly hunch down onto the stone at the base of the tree and offer me a great big smile.

“Thanks for taking the time to walk with me. You head on down the trail and enjoy the rest of the walk.”

I waved goodbye and continued walking. She waved at me when I turned around a hundred meters on. Then I was alone again in the heat and silence.

Day Hiking Col d'Aran
Families day hiking Col d’Aran.

___________

I arrived back in Borce in the mid-afternoon, at the hottest time of the day. The dizziness and nausea had returned bad enough that setting up camp took twice as long as usual. I I didn’t feel up to cooking, and the interior of the tent was an oven, so I sauntered down to the bar, where I ordered two baguettes with cheese and ham, some celery soup, and a bottle of white beer. I sat eating and, using the bar’s dicey WiFi connection, writing on Facebook about the mistaken trail and my physical condition. Within ten minutes I got a private message from one of my online ultralight hiking group friends, Thierry, who was French and asked if I was all right.

“What happened?”, he asked. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine. Got quite sick on the trail and couldn’t push hard enough.”

“Where are you?”

“In a village named Borce, on the GR10.”

There was a brief pause. “You won’t believe this, but I’m quite near you, in the town of Oloron-Saint-Marie. Why don’t I come pick you up tomorrow morning?”

“Oh, that isn’t necessary! I’ll be fine.”

“It’s really no problem. Rest up and you can start again the following day. You can eat some real French home-cooking, too! How’s that sound?”

“Sounds great! What a surprise!”

“We ultralighters have to stick together, right?”

After he hung up I weighed my options, whether to buck up and stay on the trail, or take Thierry up on his offer. The idea of a bath and some company sounded great, and would be a welcome change to share talk with a fellow backpacker.

I returned to my tent and sat in the doorway, listening to the night. Animals moved in the darkness, and crickets chirped in the undergrowth. For a while I could hear some French pop music emanating from a window in one of the houses in the village, then it was hushed.
_______________

“Miguel?”

A grizzled man with a scraggly beard and wire-rimmed glasses stood stood in the doorway of the restaurant, the morning sunshine alight around him. I stood to greet him and we shook hands.

“Thierry.”

Thierry In Borce
Thierry In Borce

He was older than I had imagined, more my age, and a little overweight. I thought he would be athletically super fit and forthrightly confident. Instead a shy man with a hesitant smile and thoughtful gaze greeted me.

We sat at one of the rickety tables and ordered French-style big cup coffee. “Did you eat breakfast?” Thierry asked. When I replied I hadn’t, Thierry ordered a ham baguette for himself. I ordered the tomato and cheese baguette.

“Is it okay that we speak in French? Sorry my English is not so good,” Thierry apologized. “I should have studied harder in school!” We laughed.

“I was so surprised when I realized you were hiking the GR-10. And passing right near where I live!”

“Imagine my surprise when you said you live in Oloron!”

“Are you hiking the entire trail?”

“No, though I wish I was. I’m just doing the western third, to Gavarnie.”

“That’s a nice stretch! I’ve not walked up in the peaks. I’m more a lowland, long-distance walker. I especially like the Camino de Santiago.”

“You’ve done the Camino?” My eyes lit up.

He smiled. “A number of times. It’s one of my main reasons for living in Oloron.”

“I dream of walking the Camino.”

“It’s a special trail. You should definitely try it.”

“And I take it you do it UL (ultralight style backpacking)?”

We both nodded enthusiastically. “Of course!”, we said in unison.

Thierry indicated my backpack. “I’ve always wanted to see one of the new Gossamer Gear Mariposas. Nice-looking pack! May I take a look at it?”

“Of course.”

He picked the pack up and grimaced. “What in the world do you have in here?! It weighs a ton!”

I laughed. “Not at all UL, is it? Now I’ve lost the respect of my peers!” We laughed together. “I was worried about food,” I explained. “Most of the weight is food.”

He examined the pack and nooded quietly to himself. After putting it back down on the floor, he pursed his lips and declared, “I’m going to have to get one, too.”

We finished our sandwiches and coffee, then headed out to the edge of the village where his car was parked. The sun was already bright and strong, and the sky blue and free of clouds. We drove along the Aspe Valley road, moving smoothly along the rises and curves, with few other cars to slow things down. Thierry asked about my travels and talked a little about his own long walk across Romania the year before. He’d done some serious walking.

Then he asked about the year before, 2011, and the disasters in Japan. It was an unexpected question, and purely innocent, just curiosity and concern, but it stopped me short, and words caught in my throat. I sat very still for a long while, then tried to brush it all away with a light summary. “Oh, what a year it was. I’ll never forget it.”

Thierry glanced over at me from his driving. “I hope no one you know was hurt.”

How could I explain to him the weight and grief that still very much lodged in my chest, and how enormous the sense of loss and horror stood towering over me, and everyone I knew who had been through it? How could I describe the devastation up north, or encounters I had had with those who had lost everything, or the absurdity of upturned houses and cars thrown atop apartment buildings or fishing boats suspended in treetops? Or the utter emptiness of coming upon a ruined house and in what was once a little girl’s bedroom, finding, out in the rain and snow, a floor still neatly laid out in a circle with photographs of the little girl and her friends, that she must have been looking at when the tsunami hit? Or the terror of standing in your home as the earth rocked the concrete walls and dust drifted down from the corners while a woman screamed next door? Or months of daily big, following earthquakes that had me so tense everyday that I slept with my clothes on and kept emergency supplies right next to my bed? I couldn’t get it across, of course. Not really. Not with any sense of authenticity or recognition. And so I sat there in the car, devoid of words, and suddenly realizing how the weight of last year still very much haunted me, and all the holding inside of all the emotions and fear and loss, and not having had anyone to express or share any of this avalanche of loss with, not even my family back in the States, had taken over every fiber of who I am. The car drove through the pretty French countryside, white clouds drifted overhead, the median lines slid under the car, and a man I had only just met had quietly asked me how the disasters had been.

I broke down sobbing. And sobbing. And sobbing. I couldn’t stop. It flooded out. Everything I had kept inside during the worst of it, everything I had wanted to let out to my faraway family, all the grief at what I had seen around me, the vast devastation, the surging of the second tsunami in the dark below, the terror during the second biggest earthquake, a major earthquake in itself, bigger than what had destroyed Kobe in 1995, and the shaking of my 75 year old volunteer friend as we sat though it, clinging to each other, the wailing mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and friends at lost loved ones, the silence in the rain amidst the ruins, and back home, the distancing and indifference and suicide attempt of my partner, who railed against me when we both most needed one another. It all came out. And Thierry could do nothing, but sit there, silently driving, and perhaps getting a true view of the enormous toll the disasters actually had, instead of the abstract, sterile screen clips that had portrayed everything as a kind of miniature moving diorama.

Thierry looked over and apologized. I shook my head. “It was terrible. It’s not something you should keep inside.”
_____________

Center of Oloron Sainte-Marie
The centre of Oloron Sainte Marie, at the confluence of the Gave d’Aspe and the Gave d’Ossau

Thierry’s apartment sat on a curving side street that he described as the “poorer part of town where the Roma live”. It reminded me of the stone façade apartment buildings of my hometown Hannover in Germany. The main door opened into a narrow stairwell and a courtyard out back, where we took some stairs to the second floor. Thierry’s apartment was small, but inviting and comfortable, with a sofa on one side of the living room, a large bookshelf, and a round dining table and chairs looking out into a courtyard filled with trees and potted plants. Thierry cleared a space next to the sofa and indicated that I put my pack down there.

“Would you like to take a shower?”

After the hot, sweaty hiking in the mountains, the word “shower” felt like ice cream on the tongue. Suddenly I felt grimy and unkempt, and the smell of my clothes overpowering. As if reading my mind, Thierry swept his arm behind him, indicating the bathroom. “If you like, please wash your clothes, too. Please don’t feel self-conscious, I’ve been dusty and unwashed, too, in my travels.”

I took out my shorts and extra t-shirt from my pack, then went into the bathroom to change and take that lovely shower.
_____________

Passing through Oloron a few days before, on my way from Toulouse to Lescun, had only given me a glimpse of the town, as I had boarded the highway bus at the station and the bus skirted the edge of the city. This time Thierry took me on a walking tour of his beloved town, as we followed an imaginary circuit through each of the town’s sections, each with its own historical and social characteristics. Thierry was a history buff, and was passionate about long-distance walking primarily for the chances it brings for him to interact on a personal level with the landscapes in which the events and facts he had read about took place. He even explained that, unlike most other ultralight hikers, he climbed mountains only because they happened to stand along the path of his historical walking tours. He’d much rather stay lowland and flat, than diverge from civilization.

Interior of Oloron Cathedral
Interior of Oloron Cathedral.

Once he started talking about the background of the town, he was on a roll, and for about 5 hours I listened to a steady stream of French that normally I would have barely kept up with, but for some reason I understood nearly everything he said, and he managed to impart a goodly understanding of the town.

Thierry was a surveyor and cartographer, and historical cartography was his passion. He worked for the city doing boring urban maps, but longed to work for a museum and spend his time mapping the past. He’d spent a lot of time studying the history of the Oloron area, and all the areas that had something to do with the Camino de Santiago.

We walked from his apartment in the Notre Dame district, the old artisan district, where a lot of the Roma (the Gypsies) now lived, and therefore made it, by association with the Roma, the poor side of town. This had at one time been the commercial center of the town and had housed the artisans, and brought money in trade with surrounding towns, including right across the border with Spain. It was the newest part of the town.

Oloron Sainte-Marie was divided by the three rivers that flowed through the town, two of which started in the Pyrenees, the Ossou and the Aspe, which formed the tributaries for the bigger Garonne River.

We walked from one district to the next, second into the Saint-Marie district, also known as the episcopal district and the oldest part of town, and later into the Saint-Croix district, the viscounty, where the nobles at one time lived. Along the way we walked up the town’s central hill to visit the town’s first cathedral at the top, Cathedral Saint-Marie, a beautiful Romanesque building that still retained some of its original interior façade painting. Thierry explained that many cathedrals and churches, if they could afford it, decorated the interiors with bright colors and elaborate imaging that had been lost over the years due to decay, so that today people had the impression that cathedrals are dark and drab. The Cathedral Saint-Marie was unusual in that the paint had remained largely intact and a visitor could get a feel for the rich blue and gold imagery that had brightened up the nave. Thierry and I wandered from one section of the cathedral to another, taking photographs of the walls and columns.

Following that we made our way down the hill south to the Church of Saint Croix, a plainer Romanesque church that had fewer, smaller windows and was much darker inside. Stepping inside, Gregorian chants playing over speakers, haunted the dim air and reverberated throughout the structure, moving within my chest and stilling the earlier grief. Both Thierry and I didn’t say much, and even desisted from taking photographs. I mentioned to him about atheist friends pooh-poohing the effect that cathedrals had on people, and how churches of all kinds should be eliminated. Thierry, an atheist himself, snorted, said, “But this is France!”, as if that answered everything.

From the Church of Saint Croix, we once again climbed a hill, up to the highest point of the town. At the top we skirted an old equestrian circle surrounded by plane trees, and leaves scattered in the wind that blew across the open space. Clouds had rolled in and rain pattered on the dusty ground, stirring up the smell of autumn and wet afternoons.

Fork In Oloron
In hills above the town of Oloron Sainte-Marie.

Thierry led me through streets of row houses where families sat on the steps outside their front doors and laughed, conversed, and watched the world go by. I waved at two mothers who smiled at me from a curb while their children played on the cobblestone street. Old walled gardens and timber-framed houses stood slanted along the street-sides and lanes, and pots brightened with geraniums and roses hung from balconies and eves.

We happened to pass a the open door of a small, history museum, the Maison de Patrimoine, which Thierry had never seen before. On a whim, we entered and found a creaky medieval house filled with historical exhibits from Roman times to the present. They had models of Roman baths and medieval butter churns and photos from the French concentration camps for Spanish refugees escaping across the Pyrenees from Fascist Spain. Until then I had had no idea that concentration camps existed in Europe before the Nazis, and that they were as bad as what the Germans had done. Thierry walked me through the history displayed, talking about a shameful aspect of French history that few people admitted to.

Oloron Gypsy Families
Gypsy (Roma) families hanging out in front of their apartments.

I was getting hypoglycemic from all the walking, and pretty sleepy after a long day, so Thierry stopped at a small restaurant where I ordered a sandwich and Orangina, and we took a break. We headed back to his apartment after that.

His girlfriend Corinne soon returned after we got home, and we sat in the living area, eating carrot cole slaw, fresh baguettes, white cheese, rotisserie chicken, red wine, and peaches. Corinne, too, loved long walks along the Camino de Santiago, and was taking a month off in September to walk alone. Both Thierry and Corrine had been divorced and had grown children, and they were starting life anew together. I loved watching them together, the easy way they interacted and seemed to accept each other. It struck me, going through my own divorce, how so much we took for granted and so seriously when we were younger, either held more preciousness, or else no longer mattered now.

It was difficult communicating when my French wasn’t good enough to get to detailed in the conversation, or their English only rudimentary so they couldn’t express what they wanted to share with me, but the interaction was rich enough for all of us to get a good idea about who we were and what we had experienced. Thierry was excited about showing me photos of his long walk through Romania the year before, so we sat at his computer poring through the photos, squinting at GPS waypointed maps, and talked about his ultralight equipment. The trip through Romania intrigued me, because Thierry simply followed the lay of the land and walked north, through some pretty dry and remote country. I had never thought about or been exposed to images of Romania, so it came as a surprise that it was a big, flat, dusty plain, much like the American desert West. That he had taken off across that, alone, without even assurance that he could find water, gave me new insight into a man I’d only known online. Here was a real, modern-day adventurer with an old spirit.

Thierry At The Bar
Thierry ordering a sip for himself and an Orangina for the hypoglycaemic me.

__________________

Dawn crept through the wooden lattice window shade after a long night fighting the slowly collapsing air mattress that Thierry and Corinne had set out for me on their study floor. It was 4:30 and only an hour left before Thierry would drive me to the nearby city of Pau, where I would catch the train to Lourdes, and from there take the bus to Gavarnie in the Park National de Pyrenees. I’d be skipping over a long stretch of the GR10 trail and do the last leg of my original hiking plan. I felt a mix of shame and relief, surer this time of my ability to handle the rigors of the walk. The apartment was still dark when I tiptoed into the living room and got my pack ready.

Thierry and Corinne soon blearily stumbled into the living room, and we sat at the dining table to drink coffee and eat rolls with jam and honey laced white cheese. We spoke of heading off on a new trail, and of meeting again. Then Thierry and I were off, throwing my pack into the back of the car and zooming along the deserted streets as the sun threw golden bars of light across the fields and roads. Mist still hung over the groves, and the road stretched straight ahead, like the hope I first had in imagining this journey.

Thierry and I said our good-byes at the train station gate in the offhand, slightly embarrassed way men tend to do, but with a genuine affection of a newfound friendship. I could see the envy in Thierry’s eyes as I hefted my pack and waved back. He pulled a hand out of his pocket and waved back.

“Thank you,” I called out. He smiled and called back, “Bon chance!” He turned on his heel and was off to work.

Sunlight bathed the platform so that the ground and sky seemed insubstantial. Time seemed to vanish and it was no one but me and silent doves winging through the shining mist. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. When I opened my eyes the train had pulled in and waited like some breathing beast, champing at the bit and snorting. There was nothing for it, but to jump on and let the beast take me away, riding on a great, mountain swathed whim.

Leaving Lescun
Leaving the valley overlooking Lescun.
Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Pyrenées: Hiking Travel Walking

Listening for Pyrene’s Echo 3: Village In the Mist

(Please click on the images to see them enlarged)

First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake

Second part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink

Fourth part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers


The tour bus zoomed up to the grassy verge of the mountain road and deposited me and a young woman with a huge pack sprouting camping paraphernalia that flailed about her as she swung on the pack. I grabbed my pack from the storage bay at the side of the bus and watched as the door hissed closed, a heavy sigh issued from the engine, and then the bus heaved off, heading for Spain on the other side of the Pyrenees just up the road. A quiet filled the wake of its absence, very quickly filled with the zithering of grasshoppers in the grass on the verge of the road.

Oloron Train
Train heading from Toulouse to Oloron.
Village of Lescun overlooking the road climbing up from the Aspe Valley.
Village of Lescun overlooking the road climbing up from the Aspe Valley.

A single road sign stood beside a smaller road that led up into the hills. The sign said, “Pont de Lescun”, with an arrow pointing the way. The young woman spoke up in French, “Hey! Help me with this pack!” Not even a by-your-leave, just an outright command. I thought of just walking ahead and leaving her to her own devices, but since this was the first person I had come across in the Pyrenees I thought it was bad luck to start off with sour feelings.

“What do you need?” I said in as wry a manner as I could muster.

“Tie the pup tent to the top of the pack.” The Quechua folding tent in the form of a disk, that was so popular among European travelers, hung from the back of her pack like a dead spider. I obliged, hoisting it on top and securing the cords to some lashing points.

“There you go.”

No reply. She took off without looking at me and started huffing up the road.

I followed, a little surprised that I had to start walking toward the little village of Lescun, that many had described as the most beautiful village in all of the Pyrenees, so late in the day. The road was steep and the air quite humid and hot. Within a few minutes I was breathing hard and sweating.

I could see the young woman up ahead, plodding along. When a car approached from below and passed me, it stopped for her and the driver asked if she wanted a lift. She accepted and threw her pack inside. She never considered me walking further down, and the car took off without further ado. I continued climbing in the late afternoon quiet, looking out across the river valley below at every switchback in the road, and the road climbed higher and higher into the mountains.

Lescun Abiding Tree
Lone tree overlooking the Aspe Valley.

I must have been walking for about an hour when another car appeared from below and stopped for me (this never happens in Japan). I bent over to look in the window and came face to face with a beautiful blonde woman and two children, a boy, about 9 or 10, and an infant girl. The woman gave me a huge smile, and in a thoroughly relaxed and cheerful way, asked, “You headed up to Lescun? (she pronounced it “LesCewn”, so, completely different from the “Lehkun” that I had thought it was) Need a ride?” Her accent was thoroughly British, with not a hint of French in it.

“I’d love that,” I replied.

She smiled, leaned over to unlatch and throw open the door, and raked aside some toys from the seat. “Hop in! Sorry about the mess.”

I opened the hatch in the rear, tossed in my pack, and then took the front passenger seat. I waved hello to the kids.

“Out for a walk?” the woman asked.

We started cheerfully talking about ourselves, me about my trip and where I was from, and she about herself, her family, and the annual summer vacation in Lescun and surrounding areas. Her energy was infectious and reminded me of the friends my parents had as I was growing up. Her name was Anuika, and she was here with her biologist husband who was researching mountain frogs that spawned in mountain water holes at this time of year. Her father-in-law was here, too, and the whole family was having a reunion. She loved Lescun and looked forward to coming every year.

She asked if I had a place to stay, and when I said I didn’t she recommended the gîte d’etápes (B & B) where her father-in-law was staying at.

The car droned up the mountainside, until soon we were driving in cloud. Occasionally the clouds parted, to reveal green rounded valleys far below, and brilliant breaks of sun-limned blue sky above. Lescun popped into view almost like an afterthought, one moment nothing but the road and thick clouds, the next, a tiny, rock-walled village center, with a gurgling stone fountain, a circle of crooked stone houses, and bands of sweaty, hardy-looking, but exhausted walkers in heavy, muddied boots, sunglasses, and sun-copper skin. Narrow, bumpy roads branched out up and down the village slope, just barely wide enough for one car.

“Here it is!”, announced Anuika. “The center of the village. To the left there is the town general store and post office. Up ahead to the left is the refuge, Maison de la Montagne, where you can have dinner. I’d go there first and reserve a spot. Down the road behind is the village restaurant, and around the corner the village church. The gîte d’etápe I told you about is off to the right, at the edge of the village. Just look for “Etápe de Belvedere”.

I stepped out of the car and said good-bye. Anuika gunned the engine and started to drive off before I frantically waved after the car. She stopped some way up ahead and asked what I needed. “My pack,” I said, laughing.

She rolled her eyes. “Oops! Thought you were just being very enthusiastic with your good-bye!”

Lescun Water Fountains
The center of Lescun where all the stores, restaurants, post office, and other village concerns are concentrated. This was the first part of the village that I saw.

I opened the hatch and pulled out my pack. I waved as the car took off toward the other edge of town. When it disappeared behind the stone wall lining the road, the closeness and tininess of the village, perched on a valley hillside, with clouds hanging huge and low right above the rooftops, and dark mountain walls rising unseen into the mists, suddenly seemed to close around me, and the copper, windswept visages of the walkers who were setting down their heavy packs, stomping the mud out of their boots, or bending to drink from the fountain, seemed like heroes descending out of legend. I put my own pack down, to join them, and for the first time on this trip, felt like I was among my own, ready to head into the clouds.

I reserved a spot for dinner at the refuge, then headed up the road to look for the gîte d’etápe “Belvedere” that Anuika had recommended to me. The road wound through the western section of the village, twisting and turning at the corners of lopsided farm houses, bowing under stone arches, sidestepping the watering trough, and skirting around along long, rose-festooned rubble stone walls. Sheep dogs slept in the courtyards, and old men wearing the traditional Pyrenean berets, black vests, and indigo farm pants, stood beside gate posts puffing on pipes, while watching the world walk by. The further I walked the more enamored I became with this place. Flowers everywhere. A distinct silence and, though cars passed by occasionally, a lack automotive sounds that called attention to the flurry of the wind or of birds calling in the distance.

Lescun Walker's Refuge
The refuge where I ate two dinners during my stay in Lescun.

I was walking along a wire fence, looking out across a billowing field of grass in which a simple old stone church stood, when I recognized the gîte d’étape. It was a small house with a terrace and a well-manicured garden in front. Behind rose the half-obscured base of the mountains rising into the clouds. At the gate a small plaque said, “Etape du Belvedere”.

I hardly dared to believe that they might have a space free, and that I’d be able to stay at such a wonderful place at the height of tourist season. Releasing the iron latch, I stepped into the garden and called up to the family sitting under a big parasol on an elevated terrace, eating an early dinner. A Great Dane came bounding out and welcomed me with a big wet muzzle and paws on my chest, almost knocking me over. Laughter spilled down from the terrace, calling to the Great Dane to leave me alone. A woman wearing a straw sun hat and back rimmed glasses stood at the railing, smiling.

The Gîte d'Etape
The Gîte d’Etape Where I Stayed

“May I help you?”

It being still early in the trip speaking French, my own words got stuck in my mouth, or else there were no words at all. “I look for a room for sleep?” I ventured.

“Ah, yes! A room? For how many nights?”

“One or two. I’m not sure.”

“OK. I have one room. The other, bigger one is already taken. Would you like to see it?” She sounded like I might not like it, but I nodded. “Yes, please.”

She called the dog to her side and asked one of the other family members to hold him as she brought me inside. She led the way up a narrow flight of wooden stairs, passed what she called “private chambers” and the internet desk, and up to the third floor, where she opened a heavy wooden door to a small bedroom with a mansard window overlooking the church in the field I had passed earlier. A big double bed took up most of the space, along with a small desk with a chair, a tiny sink, and a closet for my clothes.

“Is this all right?” the woman asked.

I couldn’t have been happier. One look at the ancient stone village laid out beyond the rooftops, the misty mountains beyond, the geraniums growing on the window sill, and listening to the creaky wooden floor, and I had been transported to the core of my mountain dreams. I gave a sigh of relief. My first night in this village would be quiet and without worries, I had a meal waiting, and the trip was starting off well. I smiled at the woman, “It’s wonderful.”

“Well, then, why don’t you settle in? We can talk about payment in the morning. I’ll bring up a blanket later. It gets cold here at night.”

And so she left me to my evening and unpacking. Not that there was very much. My camping equipment and clothes. That’s it. I sat by the window for a while, just gazing outside at the clouds drifting past and swallows whirling about in the evening air. The days of traveling from Japan finally caught up with me and, with about four hours until dinner was ready at the refuge, I lay down, set my alarm, and fell asleep to the sound of nothing but the occasional twitter of a bird. It was one of the quietest places I’d ever visited.

Lescun Church
A small medieval church stands as the central focus of the village. The ringing bell measure the daily portions of the day, and in the evenings it houses the town’s entertainment.

Dusk had long since settled once I woke. Mist had moved in and the church stood barely visible as a shadow in the gathering gloom. A few minutes after my alarm went off the church bells broke the silence and sent sharp peals of ringing through the air. The mist dampened the sound and it seemed to come from quite far off. The evening chill had crept into the room, so I changed from my shorts into long pants and a light jacket. I took some insulin and then headed off to the refuge for dinner. A crowd stood waiting and conversing outside the door as the cook prepared the evening meal. Most of the people were walkers, all dressed in nylon pants, fleece jackets, and big hiking boots. Listening in on the conversations, I heard mostly French, some Spanish (Spain being right across the border nearby), a little German and English. The conversations were hushed, maybe partly because of the great silence poised just out of arms reach at the edge of the village, or how close everything around leaned, making it impossible to speak without feeling someone was eavesdropping. I stood in one corner of the garden, gazing up at the darkening crags above, imagining what it was like up there, imagining the clouds muffling the sounds from the village below, and a cold damp sifting by the nose with the tang of iron. I imagined the tufts of grasses huddled under boulders, collecting dew, and the isolated, furtive rustling of shrews testing the coming night for anything out of the ordinary.

Street Lamps and Church at Dusk
Night falls on the village of Lescun.

A bell clanged and everyone’s attention turned toward the front door of the refuge. The wiry armed refuge proprietor, deeply tanned from time climbing the mountains, stood in the warm glow of the doorway, a big smile on his face. “Dinner’s ready!” he called out. “Everyone come take your places!”

The crowd filed inside, into a big common room with a low ceiling, wooden beams, long wooden tables, and framed, faded photographs of past climbers and mountain scenery. Big bowls of freshly tossed salad, celery soup, mashed potatoes, steaming ravioli, and whole loaf of slow-cooked corned beef stood covering the tables. Groups divided themselves among the tables, with booming laughter and delight at the dinner fare. I was seated with an elderly Australian couple, a beautiful French woman in her 40’s, and two Dutch women who were hiking for the first time. All of them were walking the GR10 from west to east, except the French woman who was hiking solo to the east. The mutual activities and love of the mountains, and just the relaxed way that hikers tend to see and do things, had us babbling with one another within minutes. After introductions, we spent the rest of the night regaling one another with our adventures and our walking plans and route information. I could say that people traveling and sitting around a meal telling stories is the most human of activities, and perhaps something that we all miss in our daily lives.

While refilling one another’s wine glasses and piling cuts of corned beef and mashed potatoes on each other’s plates, I listened to the Australian couple tell of their hikes around Mont Blanc and in Britain, to the French woman voicing worry about the waterless and chained cliff crossing she was facing tomorrow, to the Dutch couple telling how the walk from the west till this point had proved too much at first and they had taken a break before coming back to continue the walk now. But the best part was hearing the hilarious accounts of getting lost and encountering funny walkers along the way. With our heads full of wine and the glow of the incandescent lights shining in our tipsy eyes, we laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks and it seemed the night would never end. But it did, of course, when the proprietor announced that the kitchen was closing, and that it would soon be time for lights out for the refuge guests.

Most of the crowd was staying at the refuge, so I said goodnight to everyone and stepped out into the night. The village stood quiet under the great darkness, halos of lanterns glowing on house walls and under buttresses spanning the narrow alleys. I unsteadily made my way toward the gîte d’etápe, still fuzzy with wine, softly humming to myself as I walked. A cow lowed off in the distance, and the village church stood like a silent sentinel, its deeper shadow sharp against the misty shadows of the surrounding fields. No one was awake at the d’etápe when I creaked the door open, so I carefully stumbled up the steep wooden stairs, and tiptoed into my room. The window was open in my room, with the night chill spilling in. I lay down and gazed out at the dim rooftop outside, and soon dozed off into a deep sleep.

Lescun Misty Church
The Lescun church glowing in the evening mist.

Nothing quite wakes you up like a church bell ringing right outside your open window at dawn. And so it was that the clanging shocked me from dreams to wide-eyed wakefulness. I didn’t know where I was at first, until I saw a swift dart past the window and associated childhood memories of swifts flying around a church steeple and rooftops brought back images of Germany, and “Europe” was plastered across my thoughts. Morning mist wafted in through the open window, and deep silence infiltrated the room like a silent prayer. I held myself still, letting it wash over me until I felt still myself, my eyes taking in the ribbed wooden ceiling, the soundless gyration of passing swifts, the unmoving rooftops, the distant, dark, gaseous walls of the high mountains. And for the first time in a long time, after the onslaught of fear and worry following the Great Tohoku Earthquake last year, the words stilled in my head and I felt myself putting aside the iPhone and Kindle, and just waiting, not for anything in particular, and no move to act on plans, just waiting and sitting still. I fell asleep again, unconscious of time, the heaviness of fatigue that had seeped deep into my muscles and bones releasing, my breath pooling in my veins, the clench of anticipation relaxing, and long, slow inhalations drawing in the world… this ringing old world that seemed to have everything right, that took its time to remember itself for its own sake.

I woke again at 7:00, and groggily made my way down to the ground floor, where the gîte’s one other guest, an elderly man with thinning, white hair, sat at the big dining table, eating breakfast. He greeted me with a warm smile while buttering a slice of baguette. The woman who owned the place and I’d met the day before, bustled at the kitchen counter, preparing some juice and paté. She indicated a seat for me across from the other boarder and set a wooden bread board in front of me.

Lescun Gîte Window
Window of the ground floor of the gîte, looking out into the garden.

“Did you sleep well?” she asked.

I managed an awkward, yes, but couldn’t follow up with more information. Sensing my discomfort the other boarder spoke up, “Do you speak English?” he asked with a distinct British accent.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“My name is Stewart Freeman. I’m also a guest here.”

“Miguel Arboleda. Nice to meet you. I take by your accent that you’re British?”

“Yes, I’m here with my son, who is researching mountain frogs here in the Pyrenees. Doing a bit of my own research, too.”

“Mr. Freeman? You must be the father-in-law of Anuika, who actually recommended this gîte to me yesterday, when she gave me a lift on the road coming up to the village.”

“Why yes, that would be my son’s wife.”

“It was really nice of her to pick me up. Saved walking all the way up from the valley.”

“It’s definitely a bit of a slog. So, what brings you to Lescun? Not exactly the hub of the tourist trail.” His smile was friendly, with a twinkle in his eye.

“It’s the starting point of my three-week walk of the ridge going south, following the GR10. Quite a few people told me Lescun was one of the most beautiful villages in the Pyrenees, and so far I really have to heartily agree.”

“Oh, Lescun is a special place. We’ve been coming here every year for the past 20 years. Magical little place.”

“Frog research?”

“Partly. But mostly for a family vacation with the kids. My son sort of half grew up here.”

“He’s a lucky man. The idea of doing wildlife research is a long-held dream of mine. I almost chose to study wildlife biology when I was still at university. Became an architect instead, mainly to work with green design. Are you a wildlife biologist, too?”

He looked at me with more interest this time, biting into his baguette. “Yes, I did research in Africa. Only recently retired. I’ve got a condition and a bad leg, so can’t get out much into the field anymore, but it’s nice to accompany my son into the mountains here to help him record frog mating songs. Keeps me on top of things.” He chuckled.

We got to talking about the kinds of wildlife common to this area. When I proved my familiarity with insect characteristics and species, the discussion got more passionate, and soon we were talking about mountain butterfly gliding, grasshopper leg rubbing, praying mantis wind movement, and differences in dragonfly wing patterns. It was rare for me to meet someone who could talk about insects at this level, and he was far more versed, directly, from the field, than I was, plus he had done research in the field in AFRICA! For someone whose dream it was to work like the rangers in the television show Dactari, or whose heroes were Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, this was like a dream come true.

After breakfast offered to take me out for a stroll on the local hill paths, and show me a path up to the ridge overlooking the village that made for a good half-round of the village. His leg gave him trouble, so we couldn’t walk far, but we managed to get out past the village boundary and along a path that led to a overlook sitting on a steep slope below which the village lay, like a tiny hamlet in an old fairytale. The grass and wild strawberries glinted with dew in the morning chill, and mist huddled in the valley below. Still sluggish from the cold, we peered at grasshoppers and butterflies and hoverflies, remarking on their coloring and special attributes. I felt like a child again, sharing something that I love with another person who knew exactly how I felt.

Lescun Wildflowers
Wildflowers on the verge of the trail.
Lescun Grasshopper
Grasshopper poised to jump.
Lescun Ferns
Ferns at the side of the trail.

Mr. Freeman began to feel the chill in his hip, so we decided to head back to the village. He had some “algebraic calculations” to work out, so he headed back to his room, while I headed into the village center to get my provisions for the first part of my walk tomorrow.


Preparations done, and my room scattered with my gear and food on the bed and window sill, I filled a lightweight daysack with snacks, water bottle, rain jacket, and camera, and set off for the trail Mr. had pointed out to me. I walked up past the point he and I had walked to, and past it, up, up along the steep slope, up to the ridgeline woods, far above the valley. Beech dominated the woods here, with many of them blackened from a recent forest fire. Heather covered much of the open grassy areas, with whizzing doilies of tiny white bees circling the flowers. Clouds moved lazily below, through the rounded valleys, and breaking along the ragged peaks, often in slow-motion snapshots of nebulous passion. I paused under wind-carved trees to let the reaity of the place sink in, often accompanied by the far-off keen of a hawk riding the wind on the higher ridges, or the lone buzz of a bee dipping among the clovers. I followed the path up, concentrating on the weave of rocks and foliage underfoot, the way my weight balanced above an outcropping, the rough dryness of lichen under my palm, the trickle of sweat and the burn of my breath from my exertion… all here, immediate, and yet far, far away in another land not my own. It was a disconnected feeling, one of entering a travel book one has read, and coming against the hardness of a land landing.

Lescun Path Out of the Village
The path leading out of the edge of the village, heading up into the hills above.
Lescun Bluff Tree
Looking back along the path leading up from Lescun.
Lescun Path Up
Path leading up from Lescun behind.
Aspe Valley Hikers
Two day hikers strolling on a path above the Aspe Valley.

The trail wound around the spine of the ridge, taking me up where the wind blew constantly, and the undergrowth lived in a world of endless shaking, and the light varied between passages of clouds and swaths of sunlight. In the wooded patches, shafts of sunlight beamed down through the canopy and burned through the shadows of the forest floor. I climbed through this gloom and finally reached the open crown of the ridge, where I stood for a long while, unencumbered, breathing alone, and happy, and knee-high grass whipped about all around me. More than reaching the summit of some peak, this is what walking was for me, an infusion with a place with no name, just a pair of eyes, of ear, of legs, and of lungs. I didn’t want to walk to capture anything, but rather to be captured myself, and included. The wind expressed everything I wanted to say.

Lescun Beech Forest
Lescun Beech Forest
Lescun Me Walking
Climbing up onto the upper ridge with the Aspe Valley below.
Lescun Aspe Silhouette
View of the Aspe Valley through the silhouettes of the forest above.
Lescun Light In The Woods
A stray patch of sunlight on the forest floor.
Lescun Burned Tree
Gnarled oak tree that was burned during a recent lightning fire.
Lescun Verge of the Woods
Emerging from the ridgetop forest onto the the crown of the bluff.
Lescun Heather
Big tossuck of heather, buzzing with hundreds of tiny white bees.
Lescun Dew On Funnelweb
Dew collected on a funnelweb spider’s lair.
Lescun Thistles and Mountains
Thistles waving in the wind overlooking the Lescun Cirque.
Lescun Peaks Above
View of the higher peaks beyond Lescun.
Lescun Village and Cirque
View of the whole village of Lescun and Lescun Cirque.
Lescun End of Ridge Walk
Coming down off the ridge to the edge of the village.
Lescun Entering Village
Taking the path into the village from the south.

Back down in the narrow alleyways of the village, I passed the refuge where I had had dinner the night before. I reserved another spot for tonight, then headed on back to the gîte. Along the way I passed a hand-drawn sign announcing a free movie showing “Cinéma Sous les Etoiles” (Movie Under the Stars) right next to the old medieval church, and I resolved to go see it after dinner. I returned to the gîte, packed my backpack for the start of the walk tomorrow, and lay down to write people back home and wait for dinner. The evening fell upon the village again, and I listened for the pealing of the church bell as the hours passed. The gabled roof outside my window gradated from brick red, to orange, to purple, before turning black in the night. Stars winked on above, and the sky again dwarfed the village, the silence and closeness of the stars humbling the name of the town, so that in looking up, I dropped my eyes in wonder. Lescun was a place that was daily reminded of its place in the universe, and happily so. It didn’t aspire to replace the stars.

Lescun Me
Grinning from the joy of walking in sublime landscape.

I sat at the same table at the refuge as the night before. This time only two others joined me… the other tables were all occupied by two big groups of Spaniards, all loudly engrossed in their own conversations. The two at my table, Michel and Lise were from Quebec, Canada, and were the only non-native people at the tables. They turned out to be a lot of fun, a couple who both loved photography, but had never hiked before, just up here to take strolls in the hills. We hit it off immediately and ended up getting drunk and howling with laughter at one another’s jokes. Dinner was rotisserie spring chicken with lentil soup and rolled-cabbage. We were all stuffed by the time we were ready to go. They also were planning to see the free movie this evening, so we agreed to meet at the church later when it started.

Lescun Cinema Sign
Sign pointing to the free outdoor movie showing later in the evening.
Lescun Church Rose
Roses outside the entrance to the church.
Lescun Church Nave
Interior of Lescun Church. The intimate size and asymmetrical layout give it a friendly and warm atmosphere.

I drunkenly shuffled back across the village, and in the dark walked beyond the village boundary up to the point Mr. Stewart had taken me earlier in the morning, and sat on the outcropping, gazing at the village lights below and feeling the chill breeze muscle up from the dark of the valley. No one was there, so I sang quietly to myself, “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor: “Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again.”

Lescun Street Lamps
The narrow streets of Lescun lit up by street lamps.

Though we’d separated 6 years before, thoughts of my former wife welled up. She’d have loved this place. I would have loved to have shown it to her. I didn’t know how my present partner would take this place. I couldn’t understand her; did such places move her? Did she fall in love with wild peaks, a vast bowl of stars, and untethered wind? Could she fathom why such places draw me? What did it mean that I always end up on such walks alone, and she never offered to join me?

The joy dropped out of the reverie, and I sat upon that lone outcropping, up there in dark, beyond the village bounds, weeping. Joy and sorrow mixed like a fine wine. And the dark drop beneath my dangling feet swirled with regrets and hopes.


Back in the village I strolled to the churchyard and found a free folding chair amidst the gathering crowd. Parents and children; grizzled hikers and women in sun dresses; teenagers stalking the edges of the space, conscious of one another, but uneasy; elderly people deep into a book; and my two friends, Michel and Lise, lazily joking among themselves until I sat across from them, when we continued our earlier banter and laughter.

The movie was supposed to start at 8:00, but as time went on and the crowd got restless, it never got started. The projectionist stuck his head out of the church window and announced that there were problems with the projector and they were working on it. I slouched back and tilted my head back to search the stars. A satellite raked across the star-peppered velvet and plunged into the horizon. Roving shooting stars, traveling with the Perseid pack, darted through the field of unmoving stars, and lost themselves in the darkness. Back here on earth, the periphery of my vision was lit up by candles flickering inside paper bags placed on top of walls, at the base of trees, on window sills, and along the periphery of houses, yellow stars dancing in the evening breezes. For a while I conversed with the beautiful woman sitting next to me, but my French was not good enough, and her English only basic, so we lapsed back into silence. Michel reached out to touch my shoulder, telling me they were retiring for the night. Soon only about half the audience was left.

The movie never made it to the screen, and the projectionist announced that the problem couldn’t get worked out, and apologized for making everyone wait. In typical French style people laughed and shrugged their shoulders, everyone taking it in a stride and joking about it. One by one the last of the moviegoers filed out. I strolled back along the alleyway, back to the gîte. Time to go to sleep anyway. I had an early start.

Leaving Lescun BW
Heading east from Lescun on the start of the GR10 walk.
Categories
Hiking Hiking In Japan: Group Japan: Living Journal Walking

We Are The Leaves In The Wind

Trailside Kamikochi woods

I was late. The train would arrive in ten minutes. It would take about 12 minutes to get from putting on my shoes by the front door to hustling through the neighborhood streets to the train station, crossing the bridge, and getting down to the platform. So I would miss the train. I cursed while fumbling with my shoelaces, and, sweating profusely in the chilly air, I hefted my backpack and charged out the door. I guess waking up at 3:30 in the morning after 2 hours of sleep wasn’t helping my mood either.

Everything went wrong from there. I did catch the next train, but it got stuck halfway to my destination when someone decided to mosey across a train crossing and hold up the entire train line. When I did finally arrive at my final station, and half run through the downtown business district, I stopped to buy a Starbucks latté, glad, at least for something to make the morning nicer. The bus station from where I was supposed to take the long-distance bus west to Kamikochi wasn’t where I thought it would be, so I ended up circling the buildings, frantically looking for the bus terminal. with only 10 minutes to spare before it took off. Still unable to find it, I called my friend Satomi, who was also going the following day, about where the bus terminal might be. She tried to explain, but it made no sense to me, because the location of the bus station wasn’t obvious. While we talked, I set the extra duffel bag I was carrying down on a planter, and promptly knocked the latté to the ground, spilling its contents all over the sidewalk. No, not a good morning at all!

Mae-Hotaka
Mt. Mae-Hotaka

It did finally get sorted out. I found the bus terminal, got on the bus, and relaxed, as the bus headed into a perfectly blue Friday morning, straight for the Japan Alps.

After spending a month traveling and walking in the Pyrenees in August, coming back to Tokyo had brought me right back to the crowded trains, endless concrete, and overly preoccupied lifestyle that characterizes this city. The transition from a month of mostly silence amidst the mountains, with only intermittent conversations with various fellow travelers along the way, sent a wave of melancholy through me, enough that, paradoxically, I despaired of getting myself outside. Japan, after so long away in an environment much closer to my own family culture, seemed like a land of endlessly working souls who knew no rest and spoke an alien language. Even the food seemed monotonous, tasting always of soy sauce or miso paste. So it was about time that I joined a group of like-minded people who also loved walking in the mountains and sharing conversation, food, and knowledge in that cheery, gung-ho way that mountain walkers have.

Trail to Tokusawa
Trail to Tokusawa, along the Azusa River
Maple leaves along the Azusa River
Maple leaves along the Azusa River

The Facebook group, “Hiking In Japan”, started by Osaka mountain enthusiast Wes Lang, had been steadily growing ever since people got wind of a group of walkers in Japan who loved mountains. I’d been steadily following the posts and occasionally actively posting myself; my feeling was that somehow a group of people in Japan with both a serious interest in hiking, yet also a sense of fun and silliness, had somehow touched the right combination. One evening, while reading yet another post by some members who seemed as if they would enjoy meeting one another, I suggested that we actually try to get people together and meet somewhere in the mountains… the very place that we all loved most.

So it was that the Kamikochi Camping Event got started. Wes set up the event invitation page and many of the members started suggesting places to meet, dates, and what to do. Since members lived all over Japan, the first thing was to choose a place central to people living in Tokyo and Osaka, which meant somewhere in the North or Central Alps. At about the same time one member, Tomomi, and I, hit upon meeting in Kamikochi. I remembered the huge open camping ground at Tokusawa-en that I had visited twice before, and how easy it was to walk there, and Tomomi thought about the accessibility of Kamikochi, being about equal in distance from both Tokyo and Osaka. Most people seemed happy with that, so Tokusawa in Kamikochi it became.

It was a beautiful morning on the bus, with not a cloud in the sky, but I only saw it in between bouts of deep naps. Normally I can’t sleep on buses, but I was so tired, that as soon as I sat down I was out. Every now and then I’d wake and peer around, catching glimpses of the last vestiges of Tokyo petering away, droning through the still-green hills of Oku-Chichibu, a view of the snow-dusted peaks of the Houou Sanzan range and taller Kai-Koma Peak, whizzing through the dry woods east of Kofu, making a wide detour around the wide base and sharp peaks of Yatsugatake, sailing above the edge of a deep slate blue Lake Suwa, and a momentary spying of the Central Alps off in the distance. I slept right through the last portion of the journey, only waking when the bright yellow wash of Kamikochi’s larch forests engulfed the windows of the bus in the last spurt up to Kamikochi Bus Terminal.

Home of the Permanent Kamikochi Painter
Live-in Kamikochi painter’s home in Konashidaira Campground
Azusa Riverside Fir
Azusa Riverside fir tree

Outside, the parking lot was so choked with tour buses I couldn’t see the terminal itself. The spaces between the buses bustled with throngs of leaf peepers, and a low din of hundreds of voices hovered in the chilly air. Going by the view of the Hotaka range above the bus tops, I maneuvered my way out of the parking lot to a quiet bench among the trees, where I pulled out a sack of lunch and sat on the bench munching a rice ball. The air was cold enough to prompt me to pull out my microfleece midlayer and windshirt. I sent a message to the event group on Facebook, warning everyone to dress warmly.

Because I was carrying a duffel bag stuffed with several tents and extra stoves and pots, I didn’t want to linger too long walking, so I set off at a brisk pace, by-passing the hordes of walkers. It was a flat, easy trail along the banks of the still wild and untouched Azusa River. But though I moved fast, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to gaze at Mae-Hotaka peak looming above the trail, or the scarlet leaves of the Nikko maples. A few times I whipped out my camera and got down on my knees to photograph the autumn colors in the underbrush, or just stood there, feeling the cold breeze. The numbers of walkers gradually trickled down to a few slow walkers who would most likely stay at the mountain lodges.

Kamikochi Trailside Maple Leaves
Kamikochi trailside maple leaves
Kappabashi
Kappa Bridge
Kamikochi Wild Berries
Kamikochi wild berries

The waning sun had already dropped into the crook of the mountains to the west by the time I reached Tokusawa-en campground and lodge. Deep shadows crept across the expanse of grass, and to my surprise, most of the camping spots had already been claimed by earlier arriving walkers and their ubiquitous dome tents. I registered at the lodge, then quickly set up my pyramid tent and one of the extra group tents in one larger area so as to have some claim on tent space the following day. Night time fell fast and in the waning light I made a simple dinner of couscous in a bag with corned beef mashed inside, egg drop soup, my special olive oil and garlic sauce, chopped carrots, and instant cappuccino. It was cold enough for my fingers to be stiff while I prepared the dinner, but once I sipped the soup and chowed down on the couscous-meat entree, and then savored the steaming coffee, my whole body warmed up. I sat for a long time quietly sipping and watching the stars wink on above. The muffled noises of the campground died down, and soon I felt quite alone, with only the dimmed light of the lodge to remind me that people were still about. I finally crawled into my sleeping bag when the coffee was done.

First view Tokuzawa Campground
First view Tokuzawa Campground
View of Mt. Chogatake from Tokusawa Campground
View of Mt. Chogatake from Tokuzawa Campground

My summer sleeping bag was barely warm enough to help me make it through the freezing hours. I kept waking up shivering, even with my puffy down jacket on. I would roll over, tuck in the edges of the sleeping bag a bit tighter, adjust my fleece cap and down hood, and try to get back to sleep. One time I woke up with a start and bumped my head on the shelter walls, sending a cascade of frost drifting down over me. I reached up and ran my finger through the white crystals. Like grippy, powdery snow.

Morning sunlight was sifting through the translucent white walls of my shelter when I woke. I’d actually made it through a cold night using mostly summer gear! I’d been wondering how cold I could go; now I knew. Definitely not comfortable, but I didn’t die, either. Feeling groggy, but elated, I struggled out of my sleeping bag and zipped open the door. The whole world had been powdered in frost, and everything was limned in a white crust of sugar. High above the trees the first fiery rays of the sun caught the fingertips of the mountains, while down here a chilly shade cast across the field of grass, and when I stood to go get water for breakfast, the grass crunched beneath my shoes.

Shelter frost
Shelter at dawn
Frosted glass
Frosted tent stake

I spent the morning exploring the minute corners of the leaves and branches around the campsite, photographing ice crystals and seeking to get the traces of light beginning to spill into the valley. Other campers had already finished breakfast and started to pack up their tents by the time I surfaced and took note of how the whole campground had lit up as the sun cleared the mountains to the east. Whole trees of yellow and red glowed with in the warmth of the morning, and people began to spread out on the grass to close their eyes and bathe in the sunlight, or sit and murmur over their cups of steaming coffee.

Frosted rounded grass
Frosted leaves
Frosted red leaf
Frosted hairy leaf

Around that time, as I sat on a bench, one of the Hiking In Japan members sauntered up to me, a Chinese man wearing loose jeans and a big grey backpack, and introduced himself as “Fred”, or Gameboy, as he was known in the group. We sat talking for almost an hour, not quite able to get ourselves to move in the early morning warmth. He explained that he had arrived at dawn and had walked in the darkness here to Tokusawa. He was heading up to Hotaka Hut much higher up in the mountains and would stay there overnight. I was worried about his jeans, since he had told me earlier that he had only walked a few of the hills around Hong Kong, but never really a bigger mountain, though he said he’d been to Kamikochi before. I couldn’t really say much, except to take care and hope that he made it to Hotaka all right. It was a long walk.

HIJ Rie's Arrival
Rie’s arrival

Soon after he left, Rie, another member, happened by and asked me if I was Miguel from Hiking In Japan. She was cheerful and easy to talk to, and once she had her dome tent set up (in a nice sunny spot, unlike my shelter), we went to the hut to have some curry at the restaurant there. She was delighted when she discovered they also sold beer in vending machines, so we each got one, and over a merry conversation about each others jobs (teaching), we whiled away more time as the afternoon slowly passed on by.

HIJ Preparing Dinner
Preparing dinner
HIJ Isao making coxinhas
Isao making coxinhas.

Just as we returned to our tent sites, Wes, the leader of Hiking in Japan, called my name from across the campground, and there he was striding toward me with that characteristic mop of wispy brown hair, and trailing behind him, fairly tuckered out from carrying a huge cooler bag along with a full backpack, was Grace, the tireless Brazilian hiker who seemed to be hiking every other day. Seeing Wes was a bit of a strange thing: I felt immediately as if I already knew him quite well, though this was our first time to meet in person. We’d been in touch through our blogs and through Facebook, for quite a few years and upon meeting we gave one another a big embrace. Grace was shy, though we’d talked to one another a few times as friends, we still didn’t know each other well. Wes and Grace had stayed overnight at the car park outside the national park and had walked in since early in the morning, via Lake Tashiro. They both looked pretty tired, since it had been freezing the night before and neither had gotten much sleep. Rie announced that she was going to go for a short hike, probably towards the Panarama Walk on the way to the famous Karasawa valley, where most of the hikers who passed the campsite were headed up to.

HIJ First tents set up

Hungry, Wes asked me if I would join him for something to eat at the restaurant. I’d already eaten, but I was looking forward to talking with Wes, so headed in with him and bought a can of coffee while he ordered some soba. We sat chatting about people we know and hikes we had done over the summer and also about our respective diseases, his asthma and my diabetes. There was something reassuring in opening up about something that gave us both extra worries to think about when hiking, and sometimes scary experiences. Not many people really understand what it is like.

Kettle In Tokusawa Lodge
Kettle in Tokusawa Lodge

Back outside, Sonia and Isao, a couple from Brazil, arrived with their selection of Mountain Hardwear gear, including a very nice 2-person tent that I had never seen before. They had a peaceful air about them, and though I had never met them before I immediately felt comfortable talking with them. While they set up their tent, yet another member came wandering into the camp… this time Tomomi, the Japanese woman who had suggested Kamikochi as a place to gather, and who had walked over the hard route in the Hotakas since early this morning. She looked totally worn out, but immediately announced, “I’m just going to leave my pack here and go down to Kamikochi Bus Terminal to pick up the food I brought.” (she had offered to hold a cooking class for everyone). Wes and I stared at her in disbelief, since it is a two-hour walk one way, four hours there and back. “Don’t worry about the food, Tomomi,” we told her. “You did a hard walk today. Get some rest.” I think she must have been relieved, because she collapsed to the ground and sat there resting for a while before getting up to put up her big two-person tent. Wes and I assisted her when the fly didn’t go on right. I showed her and some of the others how to tie guyline knots while Wes realized that the fly had gone on backwards, an easy mistake to make with the design, because it wasn’t obvious which side was which.

HIJ Tomomi preparing Jagariko mashed potatoes
Tomomi preparing Jagariko mashed potatoes

At about that time a big whoop came across the campground and there was Jana, a tall American who along with Wes gave a lively presence to the gathering. It was Jana who had the most active presence of mind in taking photos of the whole event and who started a lot of the topics in the group conversations. She dropped her pack and made a point of going from person to person to greet them and get their names.

HIJ Evening Tokusawa

Dinner preparation had already started, with Grace pulling out item after item after item from her cooler bag and backpack. The rest of us looked on in disbelief at the sheer amount of food she had brought. She alone had containers of different kinds of salad, wheels of cheese, finger food made with palm hearts, bread, a bottle of wine, paté, avocado dip, ham and slices of cold cuts, smoked salmon, tuna salad, and olives. Tomomi, together with Rie, started making her miniature pizza’s under that open canopy, while Isao and Sonia pulled out their burner with big pot and deep fried coxinhas, a Brazilian dumpling. Jana started on her caesar salad.

HIJ Sunset Tokusawa

Kevin and his young daughter Mona arrived just as it began to get dark. Kevin was an old friend whom I had met before and we’d been touch for years through our blogs and emails. He lives on a farm in rural Nagano, grows his own vegetables and rice, and runs an adventure company (One Life Japan) that takes people on bicycling and walking tours around his area. He was carrying a huge sack along with a baby carrier. It was my first time to see Mona in real life, though I’d seen many of her photos on Kevin’s Facebook page. Her charm and playfulness immediately had everyone vying for her attention.

Satomi, my friend, arrived after sunset. I just barely made her out in the dim light, slowly walking up the path. She’d taken the long way around via Lake Tashiro and had taken her time. Her right leg gave her a lot of pain, and so she couldn’t move fast along the trail, but she’d wanted to see something of the area and make the most out her time in Kamikochi.

HIJ Tokusawa Dinner Gathering
HIJ Tokusawa Dinner Gathering

Everyone joined in on making the meal and helping with cooking. Satomi started her tabouli. With the sun now gone, a chill crept through the campsite and people pulled on their warm layers and rubbed their hands to try to stay warm. We gathered in a circle around a sheet spread out on the grass and with our headlights shining onto the food, talked long into the night, Jana asking everyone to describe an object that they always brought out hiking, Wes telling tall tales from his ventures hiking around Japan, Kevin inserting hilarious jokes that had everyone laughing quite loudly. My only regret, for myself, was not making more effort to get the conversation balanced by speaking in Japanese. More people probably would have opened up if we hadn’t focused so much on English.

HIJ Satomi feeling cold
Satomi feeling cold

In the midst of this a voice suddenly spoke up out of the darkness outside the circle, “Excuse me, is this the Hiking In Japan group?” It was Grigory the Russian I had exchanged emails with days before. He had told me he would be climbing from Kita-Hotaka from early this morning, but hadn’t been sure if he’d make it all the way down to Tokusawa today. That he had was quite astounding. He’d traversed the dreaded Daikiretto (a section of the trail that dropped off vertically in a precipice and that you had to cross using your hands to hold on) and Yari peak, all in one day. A great distance of lots of ups and down over very rough terrain. We invited him into the circle and he sat down with a big smile on his face, happy to get a banquet to feast upon. We named him the “Russian Superman”. He hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag, so we improvised by opening up one of my group tents, Kevin lent him a summer sleeping bag, and he rented a ¥500 blanket from the hut. He didn’t even have a ground mat, and though it was freezing out, he reported that he’d slept like a baby the following morning. Only a Russian!

8 o’clock was lights out in the camp, and we were making quite a bit of noise, so it was finally time to wind down the party and get in our tents. Grace hadn’t been able to carry a tent and sleeping bag in addition to all her food, so she’d opted to stay at the hut. She seemed a little regretful when she walked off to the hut. But at least she was the only one in the group guaranteed to stay warm! She had a wood stove in her room!

I zipped up the door of my pyramid and got ready for the night. I’d also rented one of the wool blankets from the hut to beef up my sleeping arrangements, but this evening was warmer than the night before, so I never really needed the blanket. No frost formed in the night. I’d drifted off to sleep, when I became aware of a big roaring sound from the mountains sides, and a strong loughing of my shelter walls. I woke and realized that a big wind had picked up and the whole mountainside was booming with billions of dried leaves rasping under the arm of the wind. I listened a while and became concerned that it might strengthen and blow all our stored food away or snatch up one of the badly staked tents. So I got up and battened down the stores of food under the open tarp, and then went around to each tent to announce to the person inside that I was checking on the stakes. All of the tents needed securing, some quite a lot. When everything was tight and free from flapping, I returned to my shelter and sat by the entrance, looking at the Milky Way sprayed across the sky straight above. Wes lay quietly in his bivy sack a little off from my shelter. I wasn’t sure if he was awake, so I tried to keep my movements quiet. I pulled out my camera and tried to take some time lapse images of the stars, but I hadn’t figured out how to do that with this camera yet, so none of the images were clear.

HIJ Rie's tent on a frosty morning
Rie’s tent on a frosty morning

When I returned to my sleeping bag, I barely put my head down on the inflatable pillow before I was deeply asleep.

The shelter walls were bright with morning when I awoke. I could hear the metal clang of pots outside so I zipped open the door and saw Grace sitting there preparing breakfast for everyone. Others were still asleep, though Wes stirred in his bivy sack and looked around. Grace looked up with a shy but joyous smile that gave away just how much she enjoyed being out here and being with other hikers. Again, she had food galore, this time making grilled ham and cheese sandwiches using a sandwich grilling tool. Others came awake as the campsite awoke, and soon Rie, Satomi, and Sonia were busy helping prepare the breakfast. Wes, continued to lie in his bivy right next to the kitchen area, staying warm and regaling everyone with stories of encountering bears and hitchhiking way off course with a carload of cute girls. Tomomi was the last to wake, probably still exhausted from the walk the day before.

HIJ Wes avoiding breakfast chores
Wes avoiding breakfast chores

We took our time eating breakfast and telling stories, and as the sun broke over the ridge and bathed the campsite in a warm autumn light that lit up all the yellow and red leaves, we fanned out across the ground and lost ourselves in taking photos for a while. Jana got us to gather and pose for a series of group shots, and we all felt like a family, making silly jokes, lingering by the tents, laughing a lot. But buses were waiting and the need to travel the long distances we had all come, plus the hordes of other walkers all heading in the same direction, meant that we eventually had to take down the tents, pack up, and start home. Reluctantly we said good-bye to the campsite, and, carrying whatever leftover food there was and the extra tents and other gear, we sauntered back along the path towards Kamikochi Bus Terminal.

Some of the member wanted to take the slightly longer way around to Myojin Lake, while others needed to get back in time for the buses. I walked with Satomi, Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, to head straight back, while the others turned off to head to Myojin Lake. I felt a sadness at the parting of the fellowship. It wasn’t often that I met with and spent an unforgettable time with likeminded friends. Still, I had a chance to talk with Isao and Sonia, who I discovered had walked the Camino de Santiago. It had changed both their lives and seemed to figure in much of how they saw their way of life now. I wanted to talk more about their adventures with them. Tomomi I discovered was a nautical engineer, actually fixing parts on ships herself, and traveling abroad as a consultant for ship parts. In Japan, a woman doing such work is extremely unusual, but, as she put it, “I believe that if you want to do something, just do it. Being a woman is no excuse.”

HIJ Last view of Tokusawa Campground
Last view of Tokusawa Campground

So, I had met some amazing people and found a group that I could relate to and feel comfortable with. It was hard to say goodbye. And two days just wasn’t quite enough, especially since we hadn’t done any real hiking together. It would be great to get these people together for a walk of several days and together share the hardships and joys of being out there, on the peaks, in the wind and rain, laughing, crying, cursing, consoling, helping one another. Perhaps another time soon.

The Fellowship
(photo courtesy of Jana McGivern)

Satomi and I said good-bye to Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, and boarded our bus for Tokyo. The cold had settled in again, and the afternoon sun burned a fiery orange on the distant peaks. Neither of us had much to say at first, perhaps because we both felt the lingering sadness of having something special end, but also from that slow-burning fatigue following a walk through the autumn woods. My last view of Kamikochi was over the glittering waters of the dam, all signs of the trees and autumn colors lost in the shadows.

HIJ Lake Tashiro in the evening light
Lake Tashiro in the evening light
HIJ Big traffic jam back toward Tokyo
Big traffic jam back toward Tokyo

Neither Satomi nor I anticipated the monster traffic jam going back to Tokyo. But that is something better left out of the story.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

The Lost Peak of ’76

Kiso Couple Clouds

Jump back to 1976, Japan, the summer when I was 16, and picture the gangly teenager with shoulder-length hair, who loved wearing bell bottoms jeans, lace up lumberjack boots, and a broad-brimmed black felt hat adorned with a Navajo bead band and bright blue, jay feather. And picture this youth ambling along shouldering a huge yellow Mt. Whitney external frame backpack, complete with giant synthetic fill sleeping bag strapped to the bottom and a guitar slung across one shoulder. Beside him trudged his best friend, dressed more conservatively in straight leg jeans and sneakers, but none the less burdened by a big external frame pack, too… orange, hip-belt too low, sleeping bag strapped on haphazardly with cotton cord. Two typical backpackers of the 1970’s.

Kiso Komagatake Feet Me

Here we were just outside Kiso-Fukushima station, walking the road under a sweltering summer sun, seeking the way up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, the highest peak in the Central Alps. We’d both camped quite a lot, but had never been so high in the mountains, and knew nothing about what to expect or whether or not we were even prepared for such a venture. All we knew was that the pictures in the Japanese guidebooks looked adventuresome with their green crags and impressive, sweeping abysses and patches of summer snow.

Kiso Komagatake Kamiigusa
Kiso Komagatake First Range

The problem was that neither of us could read Japanese well and therefore we had little information to go on. For one, we had landed at the wrong train station and though we could see the peaks from where we had started, they were still too far way from where we needed to be. We spent the better part of the afternoon seeking a path up the mountains, wandering through little farming villages, eliciting shocked exclamations from the locals, many of whom had never seen foreigner before, especially not one wearing a big black hat and toting a guitar. Odd indeed.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Cloud Puff

Eventually we found our way back to the train station and realized our error and took the next train to Komagome, which was the proper starting point for climbing Kiso-Komagatake. Unfortunately it was getting late by then, so we looked up the local youth hostel and booked a night there. A number of mountain climbing groups were also holed up there for the night, and at dinner we sat with all of them, chatting. Two high school mountain climbing clubs, one university climbing club, and even a troop of acolyte Buddhist monks, with shaved heads and loose blue robes and who would be climbing the mountain as a kind of spiritual training, all sat together at a long table, eating dinner. It was obvious that we were the odd men out; our clothes certainly gave us away.

Kiso Komagatake Col

Photos of the mountains we hoped to climb hung all along the walls and the scenes of the crags and windswept slopes soon had us doubting our own plans, making us think we had taken on more than we could handle. The way the club people spoke, with all the talk of wind and rain and cold nights, struck fear in our unprepared hearts.

Kiso Red Leaves

Discussing our options, we decided that attempting the summit of Kiso-Komagatake was perhaps foolhardy, so we decided to camp along river down here in the valley and try the peaks another time, when we were ready.

Kiso Komagatake Couple Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Asian Peak

Now jump ahead 35 years. High school graduation, moving to the States, university, grad school, work, many mountains and long bicycle journeys later, I was back. I’d recently recovered from a month long bout of sickness and wasn’t sure I was strong enough to even climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain slope, so after taking the gondola up to 2,600 meters, I stood there in front of the gondola station gazing up at the peaks that I had dreamed of at 16, and felt a mix of trepidation and joy. There they were, the green, wild rocks that the guidebooks had tempted me with, the same light grey stone, the same lush vegetation, the same deep blue sky. But alive and real this time. As if no time had passed at all since I was still a boy. I watched clouds rise, sail, and fan across the sky, moving as fast as the swifts that darted across them. The gondola had carried boatloads of tourists up, but a hush had befallen all of them, so that even the noisy ones tended to speak in awed tones. One university girl in high heels, obviously seeing such magnificence for the first time, couldn’t stop exclaiming how beautiful and overwhelming it was. She snatched the camera from one of the boys and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! It’s not real, is it?” She attempted a few shots, but soon gave up. “I can’t take a picture of it,” she said. She tossed the camera back to the boy and stood gazing up with her hands on her hips, a stern grimace on her face, as if the mountains had somehow outsmarted her and she had quite figured out if she should forgive them or not.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Rocks

I started climbing and immediately it was obvious that both the altitude and the exertion were going to take their toll on me. I took it really slow, stopping every hundred meters to regain my breath and clear my woozy head. People passed me every time I stopped, and at first it bothered me that I was so weak, when in the past I would have strode up such a slope, breezing by everyone, but the simple feel of the wind and the familiar act of putting one foot in front of the other on the rough randomness of a trail soon took my mind off such silly concerns, and all that mattered was losing myself in the landscape. This was a trial run after all, to see what I was capable of after so long being housebound. After the shaking up of my confidence in the aftermath of the Tohoku quake, nothing was whole anymore, it seemed. I jumped at every shiver of the earth. Elevators made my heart race. Big, thick-kneed buildings inevitably brought out a moment of hesitation before entering. And as if there were strings attached, my body followed suit, seemingly welling up with hormonal and systemic aftershocks, with inexplicable rashes, internal aches, stomach fluxes, and wild blood sugar swings that had nothing to do with what I was eating. In the middle of the summer, just before I was supposed to head out for a month-length traverse of the Japan Alps, something imploded inside, sending my brain into a tailspin every time I tried to stand up, robbing my toes of sensation, retracting my breathing so that I felt as if I was suffocating as I slept, and punching out lumps and blood spots in my eyes… The doctors had no idea what it was, just vaguely guessing that perhaps it was “a virus”. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” they said. But I knew better. My body was typing out Braille messages, with the warnings, “You are NOT exempt from the consequences.”

Kiso Sweep Down
Kiso Nakadake Sign

The aftershocks lessened after a month of lying in bed. And I emerged feeling much the same as I did coming out of the big March quake: shaky, but oddly windblown, with an aimless, compass-less sense of selflessness.

I stopped often along the first climb, trying to regain my breath. But I made progress, slowly gaining each step of the rock masses, ascending higher and higher, until the gondola station had shrunk to a tiny blip in the circle of mountains. My nose touched the underbelly of the clouds as they ripped and shredded amidst the crags, passed in front of the sun, cast galloping shadows upon the slopes. Tiny, multicolored beads of people crawled infinitesimally along the scratches of trail, all aiming for the top.

Kiso Morning Peak
Kiso Komagatake Kiso Grass

Lungs burning, it almost seemed to be happening to someone else when I gained the ridge and came face-to-face with the sweeping panorama of the col. A troupe of macaques scribbled down through a grove of white birches, plaintive ululations echoing throughout the valley, at once playful like children, but something also immensely lonely, as if they were lost and couldn’t find their way home. The wind buffeted me, giving me a shake, letting me go, then racing away laughing. I laughed, too, giddy with joy. Here I was, I really was, above tree line, alive, looking down at the whole world, up where I feel connected to grace. Because it was still raw and new, the photographs I tried to take fell flat each time. I was trying to look in too many directions at the same time. So I stashed the camera away for later when the wind felt more like it was blowing through me, rather than against me.

Kiso Komagatake Gorilla 1

It’s always funny how the place that you end up standing in seems to have no relationship to the imaginary collage you had pored over for days on the map. The peaks and valleys came out in relief right where you expected them to, but there is a presence they all exude that immediately tells you that they are alive, in spite of the seeming indifference and silence. They come across as being bigger or smaller, darker or brighter than at first imagined. And when you step out on them, to trust your feet to their care, you realize that rocks are harder, the branches sharper, the drops far steeper, and the wind so big that that sense of mastery that a map can trick you into quickly gets whisked into fantasy.

Kiso Precipice

Thick clouds had crowned the ridges, and so it was hard to see beyond the first hundred meters ahead. Visible was a flat saddle between two shadowy peaks lost in the shrouds of mist. The lines of people who had climbed up to this point broke off in different directions, most of them heading for the mountain hut neaby where they could sit down to take a breather and get a nice hot lunch of curry rice or egg-chicken rice bowl. Those wearing proper climbing gear or carrying the extra loads of camping equipment, and a few less mindful, or knowledgeable, of their safety, set off for the peaks. A few tourists in high heels and loafers stood at the edge of the cliffs, taking photographs of one another and laughing loudly. In the thinner air and huge, racing clouds, their voices were swept away.

Kiso Komagatake Rock Mound BW

The thin air made it hard for me to breathe and without stopping to rest and consult my map, I followed the crowd and veered off toward the charismatic spearhead of a peak off to my left that was Hokendake, but that I thought at the time was the peak I was aiming for, Kiso-Komagatake. Immediately the trail left the flat saddle behind and shot up into the air, in no time turning into a hand over hand scramble up a steep, tortured stone path, complete with chains and ladders. I thought it vaguely strange that the map hadn’t said anything about this, until a small group descending slowly from above stopped to talk with me and told me I was on the wrong peak. Embarrassed, I sat down on a narrow ledge and consulted my map, and sure enough, there I was heading south instead of north, right along the ferrata path that crossed the dizzying razorback col between Hokendake and Senjiyojiki. I sighed with relief and turned about, making my way gingerly back to the saddle ridge and crossed north, in my intended direction. I met the group again further down the descent and we took photographs and exchanged email addresses.

Kiso Komagatake Hutte Wide

The walk north was completely different, more of a level ridge stroll, with gradual rises and, as the clouds began to clear, views of the valleys and the distant ranges like the South Alps, Mt. Ontake, and the winding path toward the northern half of this range. My breath still came with big gulps of air and I had to stop frequently, but a spring came into my step and I almost bounced along, heady with the joy of walking on an alpine ridge again. My camera came whipping out at every new rock formation or flower or cloud, one wonder following another, though the sense of immersion still eluded me… the weakness of my body continued to stay in the foreground, punctuated by all the stops and dizzy need to get my heart to slow down. People kept passing me by and I nodded to them, trying my best to smile.

Kiso Komagatake Campground Above

When I reached the top of Nakadake, a minor peak providing a sheltered place among boulders to take a break and view the way back down, I lowered my pack and surveyed the path ahead. I had intended to walk all the way to the top of Kiso-Komagatake and then backtrack to the campsite directly below, but knew that, in this condition, there was no way I’d be able to enjoy the walk, so I decided to just concentrate on making it down to the campsite and call it quits for the day. Arriving at the campsite in the early afternoon would allow me to grab a good camping spot among the rocks that littered the campsite, before all the other campers had returned from their climb to the top of Kiso-Komagatake.

Kiso Komagatake Clouds Rising
Kiso Dawn Cirrus
Kiso Komagatake Morning Cloudsea
Kiso Komagatake Three Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Thunderheads BW
Kiso Komagatake Wild Clouds BW

Getting down to the campsite took a lot less time than I anticipated, and before I knew it I was picking my way among the campsite rocks, looking for a level and dry site. Already a lot of campers had set up their tents, and the bright orange and red bubbles of their canopies stood out like limpets amidst the dry grass and stones. I found a spot at the bottom of the campground, right at the edge where a rope warned people off pitching in the protected swale below. Beyond that the mountain dropped away to an unseen precipice, and beyond that was nothing but open air, wild clouds, and hazy, distant peaks.

Kiso Komagatake Shrine Roof BW

The ground was hard as rock and getting the stakes in for the simple, open tarp I was using proved quite a challenge. Two of the stakes bent at the head and immediately became useless, while the other stakes required several tentative probes to push past the hidden rocks beneath to get a proper purchase of the ground. Even then the pitch of the tarp, though tight, kept a few wrinkles and off-center veerings that would later in the night prove to make it hard to sleep in the wind. Nonetheless, the campsite made a comfortable little space where I could relax, all my belongings set out on the groundsheet under the tarp, and the sleeping quilt laid out beside the tarp, snug in its bivy. A neat sanctuary. I lay down on the quilt and closed my eyes for a while, feeling the waning rays of the sun warm my face and hands.

Kiso Komagatake Campsite
Kiso Komagatake Campsite Me

Other campers steadily arrived and set up camp, until there were few places left. Latecomers had to make do with rocky sites or their tents pushed up against bushes or along the verges of the campsite where water pooled during rains. One couple traveling with a third person produced two tents that they proceeded to pitch around an old tree stump, and all three went about setting everything out with much laughter and photograph taking. Another couple had arrived earlier than I had and now sat lounging in inflatable seats, gazing at the sky while sipping coffee. Still another group, two fathers and five children around 12 years old, hollered and shrieked from the center of the campsite as if they were lounging about the privacy of their homes, but strangely the noise was comforting and familiar, and the delighted discoveries the children were making at being inside a tent or watching a stove burst into flame reached across the hush of the mountain and made me smile.

Kiso Cupo Coffee
Kiso Komagatake Me Coffee

The sun dropped below the edge of the peaks, drawing for a while, a brilliant orange heat from the waiting rocks and boulders, and in its fire the moon slipped unannounced, still pale with daylight, but impatient, seemingly, to take the stage and give an equally brilliant performance across this stark landscape. For a full ten minutes the two stared in defiance at one another, until the sun backed down and sank beneath the horizon. The sky blushed indigo, and the crags darkened until their outlines raked a crenulated midnight out of the base of the skyline. Clouds swam like dim, silent whales through the dark, overhead ocean, rising, cresting, diving into the abyss.

Kiso Komagatake Mist BW
Kiso Komagatake Moonrise Rocks BW

I made dinner as all these celestial events played above me, a simple bag of curry rice with a side of cream of asparagus soup and a cup of instant cafe latte. The fuel tab stove took quite a time to heat up the water, so I waited with my arms wrapped around my knees, shivering a little in the chilling air, and looking up, looking around, looking down at the ever-so-slightly crackling stove. Goups of people huddled over their stoves here and there in the field of stones, their headlights light-sabering through the darkness, and the subdued hiss of their cannister stoves issuing soft threats like snakes. People were telling stories and laughing and sitting together pointing up at the sky, and as I watched it hit me that this was a scene our kind have played over and over again for most of our time on earth, and that it was as human and indicative of who we are as anything that we have ever done.

Kiso Komagatake Bowl Silhouette
Kiso Komagatake Night Wacthmen

To the northeast an enormous anvilhead thundercloud rose up and flashed with lightning. Here and there the flash echoed itself, in lesser thunderclouds, all silent, all distant, all safe from where we sat. One flash sent out a spiderweb of lightning so bright all the tents exhibited their colors for a moment, and the faces of the tribe lit up like spectators at a fireworks event.

Kiso Komagatake Night Spinnshelter

As I ate, one of the men from a neighboring campsite made his way over and asked if that was a tarp I was sleeping under. He’d seen them in the magazines, but had never seen one in person, and hadn’t expected to see one way up here at 2,600 meters. We talked. His nickname was Chilli and he was here with his wife Junka and their close friend, Yuri, the couple and the third person I had noticed earlier. We got to talking about ultralight backpacking and how to use gear to do double duty and get your pack weight down. He’d already started learning about it, even mentioning some of the relevent stores in Tokyo where UL enthusiasts could buy a lot of the specialized gear and exchange ideas. It was still quite a new movement here.

Kiso Komagatake Chili Tent Stars
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Junka
Kiso Komagatake Shadow Puppets

Chilli invited me over to their tent to talk and get out of the cold. We sat hunched up in the small space, sleeping bags draped over our legs, and getting to know one another and telling jokes and stories of past mountain adventures and mishaps. I loved their cheer and the enthusiastic embrace of being outdoors, in spite of the inconveniences and hardships that sometimes characterized getting out here. As I listened to them I was once again reminded about what I take to mean loving life and feeling alive. It had nothing to do with sitting at home watching endless TV reruns or spending the weekend going shopping at the mall.

Kiso Komagatake Star Door

When people began yawning, it was time to head back out to my tarp and dive into my quilt. I put on my down jacket, pulled on a layer of windpants over my regular pants, placed my water sack near the head of the quilt, slipped into the quilt, and lay back to go to watch the stars. Already they had spilled across the northern sky opposite the moon and I could see the outline of the mountains where the stars were blocked out. The moon cast a hard blue light across the field of tents, bright enough to read a book under. The white tarp canopy glowed in this blue light, and when I swiveled my head I could see all around, the openness of the tarp keeping me in touch with accumulating stars, the sailing moon, and the silent tents one by one winking out as the inhabitants switched off their lights and went to sleep. I pulled out my camera and took some time lapse photographs of the heavens and tents, finally feeling immersed in the mountains and in the moment, feeling that wonderful sense of being tiny and insignificant with big eyes for the sky and the wind.

Kiso Komagatake Apex Stars

I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of wandering aimless trails. My sleep pulled me down into the earth, further and further from the thin film of my tarp and into the well of my deepest shores. I felt safe, enough to dream. Then the wind hit. I shot awake. A hard, series of punches that snapped at my tarp and set off the telltale crackle that I had been warned about concerning spinnaker cloth shelters. Since I hadn’t been able to get a drum-tight pitch the tarp shook incessantly, whipping all about my ears, and snapping me awake with every gust of wind. I tried a number of solutions… adding more stakes to the side, tightening the guylines, trussing the trekking poles-cum-tent-poles up a little higher, but to no avail. Finally, at about 1 in morning I gave up and I sat out on a rock, gazing at the sea of clouds to the east.

At about that time one of the men in the tent next to mine set off on a snoring campaign from hell, so loud and distinct that I couldn’t believe no one else didn’t wake up. But the campsite remained still, most likely individuals here and there lying awake in the dark, waiting for morning.

Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Door
Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Dawn

I did manage to finally get back into my quilt, stuff ear plugs in my ears, and get about two hours of sleep. The sun had already poked under my tarp by the time I woke.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Me Smile BW
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Tents

And what a morning! A storm-tossed blue ocean of clouds below us, a fan of sun beams illuminating the heavens, and a chipper accentor calling from up the slope, telling us to make breakfast and start the day.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Tent
Kiso Komagatake Wide Cloudsea

While chatting with the three friends from the night before, I heated up some muesli with egg soup and chai, and packed up. The shortness of breath of the day before seemed to have disappeared, and though I had hardly slept and felt sleepy, I felt as bright as the sun. I left my full pack by the mountain hut, took my windbreaker, some snacks, and my camera, and headed up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, about a half hour scramble. The wind blew so strong that when my feet balanced on sharp rocks or I swung around on a switchback it sometimes knocked me off balance.

Kiso Jizo
Kiso Little Shrine
Kiso Komagatake Torii BW

I reached the summit of Kiso-Komagatake 35 years after I had started out. When I saw the weathered wooden sign, creaking in the wind, I let out a whoop of pure joy and found myself watching that boy of 16 run the last 10 meters up the slope to reach out and touch the sign. And I heard myself shout out, “You finally did it, Miguel! You finally made it here! I knew you’d make it here one day! Good job!”

Kiso Komagatake Me
Kiso Komagatake Top Me

It wasn’t the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed, and certainly not the hardest. But there was something about dredging up that past and placing it in front of me again, tying up old loose ends, that felt more satisfying than a lot of other summits I’d reached. Maybe I won’t fulfill all the dreams I’ve ever had, but it sure does feel good to put my arm around that shy 16-year old, and slowly head back down the mountain, this time together.

Kiso Sun Shrine 2 BW
Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

Cold Dry Wind

Okutama Mukashimichi Mountains and Gorges
Mountains and gorges of Okutama.

The wind blows off Okutama reservoir, whistling through the bare lattices of the roadside trellis and bites at my cheeks. It is cold enough to bring tears to my eyes and I swing off my pack to pull out the fingerless bunting gloves from the back pocket. Sunlight, falling from high in the mid-day sky, glances off the metallic blue of the reservoir water and seems to lose strength with the meeting, so that although the afternoon is bathed in a gold luster, I can feel the wintry chill seep through my three layers of clothes. I rummage in my pack again for an extra layer, a windshirt, to cut the wind and stave off, for a while, the final dip into the end of the year, the sinking into deep winter.

Two more days and the new year begins.

Okutama Mukashimichi Rest Stop
The Okutama Mukashimichi Trail leading down toward the flatter section of the trail.

I meant to take the bus further out along the reservoir, to where the mountains jut up higher into the wilds of the western sky, but buses run later and more slowly with the holidays, and something about the past year, with its disappointments and unspoken hesitations, urges me to get off early and stay low. I stand at the edge of the curb, watching the bus, now tiny along the arm of land reaching out into the reservoir, trundling away to the end of the finger of land, round the tip, and disappear. It isn’t so much a scramble I am after, but more of a confirmation that I still have that restless call to wander the hills and woods whipping about within my soul. So it is a slow stroll I start out upon, nothing too strenuous or untamed.

Okutama Mukashimichi Susuki Head
Autumn susuki grass seeds.

I had begun to doubt my own capacity to step out into the open and simply love whatever weathers and encounters I would find, just as they are. The details are unimportant, but for 48 years I had never failed to mark myself, or more accurately, “be aware of” myself, within the urgency and immediacy of a living world, a boundless feeling and way of seeing that makes it impossible to remain content with asphalt streets, parking lots, cars, and horizons choked with nothing but humankind.

Okutama Mukashimichi Garden Bodhisatva
Bodhisatva statue in the midst of an overgrown garden filled with old figurines and flower pots.

Then two years ago the courage to get out there seemed to go still. I often stood by my window gazing out at the rain, and felt far away. I packed up my backpack in an empty gesture, wrote up gear lists and route itineraries, even went out and bought the ingredients for meals to be cooked over a tiny alcohol stove, only to heft my pack, reach the front door of my apartment, and stop there, staring at my shoes. I just couldn’t get myself to go.

Last November I turned 50. I had long ago promised myself that, for my birthday, I would go on a journey to a childhood dream, to Patagonia. I sat scrolling through Facebook posts instead, not really feeling anything.

Okutama Mukashimichi Lake Hillock
Tree-covered hillock overlooking the Okutama Lake Dam.

I start up the trail, camera in hand, and just let the cant of the hill talk to me with its crunch of gravel and dash of old leaves. It always takes a while for my sight to focus enough that photographic images present themselves. Sometimes it comes effortlessly; I raise my eyes and patterns or juxtapositions, forebodings or delights jump out at me, fixing themselves into position and all I have to do is raise the lens and see. At other times it is like a sheet of water washes over the glass and the patina of relevance remains cold and hard as a shell.

Okutama Mukashimichi Okutama Dam
View of Okutama Lake from Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves. There is always something going on or self-revealing in the eye of the old world. Perhaps places rely upon the kernel budding in silences, with the heart beating at the center of rootedness. Perhaps adaptation begins when you recognize why you can longer stay the way you were.

Okutama Mukashimichi Wind Leaves
Leaves blowing in the wind along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail

I reach the pass with the wind heaving in the brittle forest. Branches rattle against lichen-splotched statues that have long ago returned to the forest. I listen for the call of a watchful jay or the busy, skirling twittering of siskins in the brush, and they are ghosts, swept along my peripheral vision like smoke. I kneel amidst the fallen leaves and smell the sweet burning of the past summer, half praying, half asking for forgiveness. When I stand, the world tilts for a spell, as if to drain ill words and muddy expectations.

Okutama Mukashimichi Forested Ridges
Forested ridges lit up by the last rays of the sun.
Okutama Mukashimichi Quiet Road
Quiet back country road along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Feathery Seeds
Feathery seeds ready to be blown to new seeing grounds.
Okutama Mukashimichi Old Well
Abandoned old covered well.

All afternoon the trail and road wind through the forests and hills and ravines in a ritual of touch and go, stepping in to lean over a trickling brook, then swinging back out to bow to the curtains of beech and maple that stand rapt in the attention of the late afternoon sunlight. The path both hides from and reaches up to the open sky, and without another person, not once, to bring the path to life, I feel as if I am slipping from memory, the further along I ramble, the deeper into the great sleep of the forest I become enveloped. The sun dips into the horizon and the world closes in with a slow, bated breath.

Okutama Mukashimichi Sunset
Sunset over the hills along the Okutama Mukashimichi.

Okutama is not far from the city and this walk along an old logging road only takes a headlong push through the tunnel of trees to reach the end at the train station, but as the darkness descends the hills rising all about switch masks and with the grip of the cold to accentuate the loom of the trees and the holes in the visibility of the ravines that yawn to one side of the trail, seem to rise in stature until I am but this tiny creature stepping past hidden, watchful eyes. Okutama now seems like a forbidding kingdom, one whose borders I’ve inadvertently passed into and there is no turning back.

Okutama Mukashimichi Bridge
Bridge over a ravine along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Car Tunnel
Approaching a car tunnel along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

But as all tunnels go, you pass through and eventually reach the other side. Okutama is riddled with tunnels. They burrow through the folds of the landscape like threading holes in an old jacket. Somehow the trail holds together and I weave through the darkest groves with just enough light to find my way to the verges of human settlement. We always leave guideposts for unwary wanderers, perhaps to remind us that without our walls and doors and fences there really isn’t much out there to hold our tendency to drift in check. If we wait long enough eventually the trees start growing in upon our stead. The wild really has little inclination for sitting still.

Okutama Mukashimichi Foundation Beech
Beech tree growing out of an abandoned house’s foundation.
Okutama Mukashimichi Stone Lantern
Abandoned stone garden lantern
Okutama Mukashimichi Shrine Chochin
Paper lanterns hanging outside a small shrine at Okutama Station.

I step back onto the main road closer to the end of the year and just five minutes before the last bus would pass. The wind has abated, but clouds hang on the tendrils of my breath, bowing their heads for dawn. I still have time to ride back to the trains, to bright lights and the straightness of chairs and doorways, and already imagine the hot bath that will melt the final cast of the mountains.

Okutama Mukashimichi Me
Me, taking a break along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail
Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking

Wind and Snow

Yatsugatake Windblown Hill

Her words still ring in my ears as I step off the ropeway onto the freezing, windswept plateau of the Pilatus terminal at the northern end of the Yatsugatake range. “I LOVE YOU, Miguel!” It is a confirmation of all I had been looking for and waiting for over the last few months, a statement that stills my stormy heart and promises to wait for me when I descend back to the world of trains and schedules and meetings and sullen students. We have overcome the woes of distance and newly immersed intimacy, at last announcing that we are truly together.

I lower my pack and survey the trails. Skiers up from the ropeway wait in line for head of the trail, to fly down the artificially-made snow to the snowless plain below. Though the thermometer reads -15ºC and it is early January, hardly any snow covers these alpine heights. The snowpack is so hard that walking in my running shoes is as easy as jogging along a beach. I remove my mittens from my pack, but leave the overboots inside and the snowshoes lashed to the front. I glance up at the balding white pate of the hill overlooking the plateau. A sharp, icy blue wind sweeps down from heights and fingers my collar. I laugh. Those old feisty fingers, ready to strip me bare and rush away with my shelter and food!

Yatsugatake Underbrush
Yatsugatake Looking Back

A voice calls out from behind me, naming me. “Miguel? Miguel from BPL?”

I shoot my head around, completely not expecting that. Two Japanese walkers, donned in ultra-lightweight gear stand there grinning. I have no idea who they are.

“You don’t know us, but we know you from the Backpacking Light site. Miguel, right?”

I nod in confusion. “How do you know me?”

“You’re famous in Japan! Everyone who does ultralight hiking in Japan knows you.”

“Really?” I pause. “Really???”

We introduce ourselves (sorry, guys, I didn’t catch your names and though I’ve looked I can’t find it on the Japanese UL sites. If you’re there please contact me!…ごめんなさい。ピラタスで話した時ちゃんと名前を聞き取らなかったのです。もしこのサイトに訪ねたらぜひ名前をもう一度教えてください!かんべん、かんべん!) and talk about Mr. Terasawa and Mr. Tsuchiya, two people all three of us know who have done a lot to introduce ultralight concepts to Japan. They laugh and point at my pack, a specialized harness with waterproof drysack, instead of a traditional backpack: “Is that the BPL Arctic Pack?”

I nod.

One of them shakes his head and approaches with his camera. “May I take a picture of it? I’ve never seen one in person before.”

I laugh in turn. “We UL enthusiasts really are crazy about lightweight gear, aren’t we!” I spy his own pack and laugh again. “Just as I thought. How did you sleep last night? Tent or tarp? Or bivy?”

“We used a tarp coupled with a bivy. It went down to about -20 last night and I was worried that our lightweight gear wouldn’t be enough, but I was surprised that by using my clothing system with the layered bedding system I was actually very warm.” He eyes my pack again, “What about you? How are you camping?”

I shake my head in embarrassment, “I’m not camping. I’m staying at a mountain hut.”

Both their eyes pop. “You’re kidding!”

“I know, I know. Now my reputation in Japan is shot.”

“No, not that bad. At least you’re wearing running shoes!” They point at my light hikers. “No one but an ultralighter would do that on a winter mountain!” They laugh and nod to each other.

We shake hands, take a group shot, and promise to contact one another and get a whole band of UL people together in Tokyo some time, perhaps to go for a camp out here or in Okutama, west Tokyo. They head north towards Futago Ike (Twin Ponds) and I watch their silhouettes climb the through the rock garden and disappear at the crest.

The sun is already lowering toward the west and day walkers and skiers have begun to thin out. I have about three hours until sundown.

Yatsugatake Winter BPL Fans
Yatsugatake Track
Yatsugatake Krummholz

Only a few hundred meters out of earshot of the ropeway the forest settles into a deep hush. My shoes creak through the dry snow and my breath sounds loud amidst the snow laden fronds of the larches that line the path. Footprints from walkers who had passed all day break through the snow along the trail and tell stories of where they were going or how they were feeling. One set of snowshoe tracks breaks away from the main trail and wanders for a bit amidst the dark trunks of the larch forest before being forced back to the main trail by the thickness of the brush. Crisscrossing the human tracks I can make out hare tracks, ermine tracks, Japanese marten tracks, and another one that I can’t identify. Nothing seems to be happening as I plow through the landscape, but the tracks tell a different story. Life goes on all around and beings live out their family stories.

The light begins to fail and the shadows clench me in the gathering cold. With the light going so flees my daytime euphoria and the concerns about reaching the hut take over. My thoughts return to Y. and all the trials we’ve been through over the last few months. While it is true that she had told me that our relationship was sound, she had said the same thing only three weeks earlier, before her bout of silence. Just the fact that she cannot join me on this walk, like on almost every endeavor we talked to doing together, ensures that doubts begin to creep in again. I stop in a clearing and watch the fiery orange alpenglow touch the last brow of peak to the east, while standing down here in this blue forgetfulness. I feel small and vulnerable, totally alien to this snowy world. And Y., far away, doing holiday part-time work and not getting enough sleep, and feeling cold and frustrated as the wind blows through the station where she works, and losing confidence in her ability to keep a relationship going… Why was I not there, beside her, keeping her warm? Why all this distance? Why the vagaries of chance, that we would fall in love, only to encounter a minefield of responsibilities and lingering effects of past relationships?

I long to call her, hear her voice, counterbalance the silence and cold of these woods, but there is no reception. And I begin to wonder what that, “I love you” meant. It sounds like an echo, a sublime way of saying good bye.

The trail takes me up a ridge and drops into a bowl of rocks where it seems the shortened trees gather for a motionless conference. When I enter the space I almost feel like an intruder and a vague anxiety stirs somewhere in the center. I don my snowshoes when the trail begins to get icy so as to get the traction of the snowshoe crampons. Halfway down the descent the straps of the old snowshoes snap and render them useless. The light continues to fall and I scramble through the rises and falls, trying to keep from taking a spill on every descent and rise. It is not a long way, thank goodness, and I finally make it to the access road that heads up to the hut. I abandon the trail and huff it through the gloom until the familiar pointed roof comes into view above the treetops.

Yatsugatake Shadows
Mugikusa Heat

The owner of the hut, a soft-voiced man in his forties, stokes the stove for me and offers me a cup of hot barley tea. I gratefully accept and cup it in my palms. He hangs my gear on the rack over the stove and puts my broken snowshoes into the corner. He pulls up a stool and sits across the table from me, sipping his own cup of tea.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks.

“No, I’ve been here many times, even in winter, but this is my first time to stay.”

“It’s a good place. Quiet and friendly. That’s why I stayed,” he said. “You just missed the crowds, though. Yesterday there were more than fifty people here and it was full of music and laughter. I think there will only be eight of you tonight, though.”

I sip my tea, pensive. Then after I while I say, “The mountains are so beautiful, but without people you really can’t live here, can you?”

He shakes his head. “We have to work together to survive here. The high mountains can be really hard if you’re not careful.”

“Like relationships,” I murmur. He raises his eyebrows, confused. I shake my head. “I’ve recently gotten involved with someone and it is rocky and often so easy to lose our way. Here I am with someone and supposed to feel like I belong and full of hope for the future, but instead I feel lonely most of the time. When I try harder to reach out, she draws away, unwilling to set the path together. The harder I try to get closer the further away she seems to draw. I don’t know what to do.”

He nods and smiles, not knowing what to say.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Shouldn’t be talking about things like that. We’ve never even met before.”

He leans forward and points at my cup. “Another cup of tea?” He gets up and bustles about in the kitchen. He returns with big kettle and sets it down on the table. “Don’t think,” he says. “Have another cup of tea.” He pours more tea into my cup and smiles. “The fire is warm, no?” He nods and smiles again.

Comet Over Mugikusa

I wake from a deep sleep to the sound of laughter outside in the subzero night. Foggy-brained, I sit up and remember that three of the lodgers had decided to get up at four in the morning to look for a comet that only comes up on January 3rd. I pull back the curtain, but the window pane is covered in a thick layer of ice. I can make put a blurry wisp of light waving in the blackness of the window. Laughter again. And the sound of a door rolling shut.

I lie in the darkness of the room for a long time, debating whether to face the freeze of the room or stay here under the blankets, warm. I reason that life is about getting up and getting out there, but that it is also about lying a bit longer under the covers and getting some proper sleep. But then I figure that comets don’t come about very often and I really should get up and see one. So I haul the blanket off me and throw on my down jacket and march out of my room, down the dark hallway, and down to the warm glow of the stove room. I pull on my running shoes and, making the same racket with the door as the person earlier, I step out into the night.

First the cold. Hard and bitter and right down from the stars. I have forgotten my gloves so I stick my hands deep into my down jacket pockets. The air, when I look up, seems gelid, like a still lake, and beyond it shine the stars. Thousands of them. All spilt across the velvet dress, so distant and impersonal that the cold seems perfectly suited to their needs. Below them, on the dark hillside, stands an almost insignificant little group of people, pointing their pinprick of a flashlight up at the heavens and remarking on the constellations. I shuffle through the snow and climb up to their lookout. Their flashlight swings down to identify me then back up at the stars. I see shadowy arms reach up and point. Voices murmur at close hand, punctuated by bursts of quiet laughter.

They never find the comet. We stand looking up until the cold finally penetrates our defenses and we all decide to head back to the stove room to warm up. We position ourselves around the fire, putting our hands out to flames to receive the benediction of heat. The hut owner brings out a tray of coffee and biscuits and we sit around for hours, until dawn, discussing Japanese youth, the effects of the recession, how to make a firebrand, even the way to read a star map. At one point, not having an answer to a question, one of the hut helpers takes out her cell phone and connects it to a specialized antenna, where she consults the internet. I ask if I might use the antenna to check for any messages I have gotten. They say sure.

I connect my cell phone and let the feelers scan the invisible voiceways for word from Y. Nothing. The receptacle remains empty. Feeling like the man on the moon, I write a short message and send it out to her, casting it into the dawn darkness, “I love you.” Letting it resound like an echo where no sound reverberates.

“I love you,” the message says. The words that draws together the strings of the universe and can make a measured difference in the strength of even the tiniest beating heart, if only it is heard.

Mugikusa Clan
Yatsugatake Snowshoeing

The comet group stays awake until breakfast is ready and, still bleary-eyed, but full of laughter, we sit over our bowls of miso soup and diced cabbage and omelette and continue our lively discussion on all topics from the four corners of the world. We get onto the topic of children, since one of the women there has only just recently started getting outdoors and the other members wonder how she manages to take care of her children while she’s out here. “Well, they’re older now and can more or less take care of themselves,” she says. “But, I figure it’s time my husband stay home sometimes and give me the chance to do some of the things I love doing. I’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains. I don’t want to get old and feel I haven’t done anything I wanted to do.” She beams. “Who would have thought I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning in the mountains to go outside to look for comets!”

I ask about children and if she thinks that when they are young it is impossible to do all these things together. She thinks a moment and shakes her head. “In fact, I think their lives are richer for the experiences and the chance to learn what the world is about. Learning how to mentally deal with climbing a mountain or riding a bicycle long-distance or even put up a tent and survive a storm all helps make you stronger and more confident. My family did a lot of that when the kids were younger and I think the kids grew up with an appreciation for what their abilities are. Not all of them like being outdoors, but none of them is afraid of being out there.”

The dishes are quickly cleared off the table and with a whisk of a towel the crumbs are wiped away and the company disperses. Five minutes after the room was filled with the banter of people whose eyes were bright with stars, the room returns to being empty. I stumble upstairs to the bedroom to pack and get ready for the walk out of the mountains.

Yatsugatake Snowfield Trees
Yatsugatake Windswept Sasa

While jogging along the trail in the late morning sun, the heat reflecting off the snow, my cell phone suddenly vibrates in my shoulder strap pocket. I stop and pull it out. I press the open button and check the message. One. From Y.

“If you have time, meet me at Kofu station around 1:50. Can’t wait to see you. I love you.”

Winter Yatsugatake Hare Tracks and Table
Categories
Hiking Japan: Living

Thunder and Lightning

i am on the train writing from my cell phone. an hour ago i took off in the night from my apartment in the country to the train station, to head into tokyo before heading out for a five-day walk in the mountains west of tokyo early tomorrow morning.

for three weeks now thunderstorms with incredible lightning displays accompanied by the heaviest torrential rains on record and, when not raining, the highest temperatures on record, have been hammering the islands. even as i write the train rides through a lashing rain that obscures the lights of the city outside, but lights up every now and then with flashes of daylight. thunder pounds against the roof of the train.

it’s almost a dream, sailing blithely through the night land while the gods stamp about among the rooftops, hurling spears and roaring in anger. around me in the train car passengers doze and glance up sleepily when a lightning bolt stabs the roof of an apartment hi-rise. the world could be sinking into the sea for all they see. in the seats across from me a baby snoozes in the arms of her mother while the mother watches tv (the olympics most likely) on her cell phone. nothing is really there.

the rains and lightning may hold me back from climbing this week; i’ll have to keep an eye on the sky. but at least i’ve broken out of this two-week shell and will feel whatever may come against my skin. there is nothing like the rake of the immediate world.

Categories
Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Walking

TMB Journey- Part 3

Bonhomie Evening Peak

All summer the miasma of diabetes had wrung havoc from my legs, rendering me at times incapable of taking a step without excruciating stabs of pain shooting through my thighs. So as the Tour of Mont Blanc trip loomed before me I worried that there was no possible way I was going to be able to complete the journey. The first steps up the foothills to the southwest of the Mont Blanc Massif filled me with apprehension, for the further I ventured away from connections with towns and up into the wilder region of the mountains the greater the risk of getting stuck up there. I had to grip my shoulder straps tightly and set my heart for the distance, telling myself I could do this and that I wasn’t going to let diabetes defeat my love of mountain walking.

Peter Doppelgänger
Tetes Nord de Fours
Going Back to Old Ways

All throughout the foothills surrounding the Mont Blanc range, especially in France and Switzerland, young families have returned to the villages to bring new life back to the old chalets and byways.

Aiguilles de la Pennaz
My Nearing Bonhomme

I moved much slower than I would normally have walked in days past, but, in spite of being out of breath and falling behind everyone along the way, the hills and slopes rolled by and by mid-afternoon I found myself gazing at the vista of the alpine crags.

Big Climb Near Bonhomme

The mountains grew bigger and bigger, almost frighteningly so, with a mass and ominousness that I had never experienced with the high mountains in Japan. At once both a sense of dread mixed with unutterable joy nagged at the back of my mind. It was all still too new to get lost in; even my photos felt tentative, as if trying out a grander horizon.

Last Climb First Day
Alpine Violets
End of Winter

As the late afternoon sun began to approach the line of peaks to the west and I still hadn’t reached the refuge where I hoped to stay for the night and no one else was in sight, I began to lose heart that I would make it. Clouds were gathering and it looked like rain. Breathing heavily I topped one rise and came upon this memorial to winter. Out of breath I plopped down on an outcropping and laughed like a man drunk.

Bonhomme Sheep

The Refuge de Bonhomme sat above a tumbling valley resplendent with emerald green grass on every rounded slope. Upon setting my pack down and scanning the panorama below, I witnessed the famed alpine sheep seething across a distant peak. For the first time I could picture the landscape the Heidi so adored.

Bonhomme Walkers 1
Bonhomme Ibex 1

All my life I had dreamed of glimpsing Ibex. They represented an almost deity-like symbol of the remote and legendary world of the Alps, a place where only intrepid mountaineers and hardy shepherds could venture. So when I finished my dinner and glimpsed a lone Ibex tossing his horns along a dark ridge, I grabbed my camera and stalked outside as fast as caution allowed. The Frenchman, Sebastien, who had befriend me over a beer, laughed and cried out, “What’s the hurry? They’re so tame you’re guarantied to see one! I just wonder about that bright red windshirt you’re wearing, though!”

Bonhomme Ibex 2
Bonhomme Walkers 2
Bonhomme Figure
Bonhomme Ibex 3
Bonhomme Meal 1

The refuge was so different from what you get in Japan. People sat around meeting one another and welcoming people they didn’t know. Two refuge staff members brought out guitars and sat on the kitchen counter singing songs to candle light. Outside night fell, turning the world blue while a powerful wind howled across the rooftop.

Bonhomme Distant Peak

I fell asleep to the pattering of rain against the bedroom window and the rise and fall of Sebastien’s breathing. The stout wooden walls felt solid in the mountain air and the bed a safe haven. I slept so deeply that I cannot remember that night.

Grass Chapieux
Descent Chapieux
Chapieux Puff

One thing I discovered as I walked was that you were never far away from at least a hamlet. To my surprise the Alps in Japan were much wilder and required that one be a lot more self-sufficient. I was able to buy fresh Tambe cheese and still-warm baguette at a local bakery near the bus stop here in Chapieux.

Chapieux Bus Stop
Villes des Glaciers
Villes des Glaciers Rest Stop

My first glimpse of an alpine glacier came here in Villes des Glaciers. At one time the glacier must have held an otherworldly spell over the village below, but today so much of it had melted away that mostly only orange hued rock remained. Throughout the walk I saw clearly that all the glaciers had melted away to but a fraction of their former grandeur. It was humbling to such powerful forces of nature burned away to nothing.

Aiguilles des Glaciers
Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Walking

TMB Journey- Part 2

Aig du Midi

Trying to keep up with developing the photographs for the blog really takes up a lot of time, especially the 800 or so images I took during my European trip last summer. I’m about a third of the way through the collection and hopefully can now get the images up to go along with more frequent posts. But I really have to find another way to work with the images, featuring fewer of them in the blog posts and more of them in a gallery. For now I’ll post what I have…

Dark rain clouds had followed me from central Switzerland and by the time I reached Martigny at the western edge of the country both the apprehension of nearing the might of the Alps and the prospect of crossing over into another country had manifest itself in the heaviness of the rain and the dimness of the daylight. There was a train I had to transfer to but in the rush to run down the stairs to the other platform I had accidently thrown away, along with my lunch garbage, my month-long Swiss Railpass. I realized my mistake moments before the train I had just disembarked from took off and, thinking that I had left the pass on the train, I ran back and jumped on the train, only to be trapped on board as the doors closed behind me. There was no pass on board and I panicked over someone possibly having stolen it. When the conductor came strolling down the aisle he laughed when he saw me, admonishing me for not having gotten off the train to make my transfer. He was sympathetic with the loss of my pass though, and offered to write me for free a ticket to my Chamonix destination. He then wrote up a new schedule for train transfers, but saying that I would arrive quite late in Chamonix. Resigned, I sat on the train till the last station and then rode it back to Martigny. The rain had redoubled, roaring outside the train window and filling the landscape with a depressing gloom. I felt really far away from home.

Luck would have it that back at the Martigny platform I discovered my rail pass inside the trash bin where I had thrown my lunch bag away. Relieved I crossed to the other platform again and found the cogwheel train that would climb up to Chamonix. Other walkers already filled half the seats, sitting with their packs balanced on their knees. I found a place between a gang of young teenagers from Britain. When the train lurched to a start they proceeded to smoke cigarettes and bombard the compartment with shockingly lewd stories and much-too-knowledgeable recounts of experiments with strong drugs. They were the noisiest people on the train and made it hard to concentrate on the passing scenery outside.

As the train gained altitude the cold set in. Even the train conductors wore winter jackets and stood on the platforms along the way swinging their arms to stay warm.

Chamonix huddled in a deep grayness, shot through with a wall of torrential rain. The rain was so strong it hushed everyone as they emerged from the station. The streets were deserted except for a few stragglers heading for the tourist information center in the center of the town. I followed these lone individuals and managed to get into the tourist center just before it closed. All the hotels were booked and those that had a room or two available were far too expensive for me. One place, however, a backpacker’s lodge called “Ski Station” took in travellers who had little money and who didn’t mind sharing rooms. THe tourist center agent got me a room there and then gave me directions to the nearest bank machine.

Here is where everything went wrong. I tried to use my American Express card, only to find that the bank didn’t take Amex. I had just enough money for one day of food and not enough for paying for lodging. Concerned I wandered around town seeking every ATM I could find and each one refused my American Express card. I ever stepped into a hotel and asked if they might change money there, but they, too, told me that they didn’t take American Express. After about the eighth bank machine I began to panic. With my need to take insulin and then necessity to eat afterwards I couldn’t afford not to have money. When nothing worked I walked up the steep hill in the back of the town to the backpacker’s lodge and presented myself to the caretaker, an elderly woman with an angelic smile and quiet demeanor. I explained my circumstances and, without pausing, she said, “No need to worry. You look tired and wet and are obviously a traveller. Put your pack down, choose a bed, and get yourself dried off. I’ll lend you a little money so you can eat.” Then she looked directly into my eyes, “Just promise me you’ll try to pay me back as soon as you can, okay?”

I was astounded! Hospitality still existed! What travellers dream of. I thanked her so profusely that she laughed and said, “Now you’re making me regret what I said! Go get dried off!”

I changed into dry clothes and then headed down into town to get something to eat. I found a small Italian restaurant in a tiny side street and ordered a cheap pizza with a beer. The effect of the fear of not having money still coursed through me and eating the pizza was like floating through a dream. All around me sat families and couples who laughed and reveled in tabletops of food and the sound of clinking glass and utensils rang in the yellow light of the lamps. I ate my fill, paid up, and strolled back to the lodge. The lights in my room were out already and I undressed in silence, pulled the rough wool blanket over me, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Ski Station Chamonix 2

The backpacker’s lodge, Ski Station, where I found kindness and selfless hospitality.

Aig du Midi

First view of the Alps on that bright, sunny, following morning. They were so high I had trouble believing they were real.

Day Walk Chamonix

The form and flora of the hills surrounding Chamonix town reminded me so much of the Japan Alps that it was like deja vue. Only the fauna, like ants and butterflies gave away the difference, and of course the sheer height of the peaks above.

Les Houches Start TMB

The start of the Tour de Mont Blanc began as a quiet climb through early morning mists above Les Houches, southwest of Chamonix.

Stepping Onto the Trail Above Les Houches
Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Shizuoka Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Pouring Rain

Takazasu Hill

I stood at the entrance to the train station staring out at the weather. The town dropped down into the grey swirl of low clouds and seemed to hold tight against the wash of cold rain. Streams ran along the street and what few people had left the warmth of their homes hunched their jackets against the chill, trotting along the sidewalks to reach the station and get out of the wetness. The freezing wind howled at the opening to the station and buffeted me, urging me back inside. None of the mountains in the distance allowed themselves to be seen and I was sorely tempted to just turn around and head right back into the heated compartment of the train. The prospect of even one night holed up in a drafty tarptent, alone in the dark of the night time winter woods while the rain pounded away all around me just wasn’t my idea of a good time. I kept remembering waking up in the puffy comfort of my bed before dawn and lying there shaking my head at the strange things that I do for kicks. Who in their right mind wakes up during the hours of the dead to go walking on some windblown ridge?

My pack was light, the lightest I’ve ever gotten it for a several-day winter hike with camping, lighter even than the pack I used in the summer Alps last year. I worried that maybe it was too light, that I might spend the night shivering while snow came drifting down to laugh at me. But I’d checked and re-checked everything to make sure I had gotten it right and, in my head at least, I knew that I should be fine. But as these things always go, it’s one thing to theorize about something, quite another to actually get out there and raise your glass to the elements and make a toast. Weather has an upsetting habit of not respecting theories. Or toasts, for that matter.

Takazasu Tree

I spied the blond-haired adventurer deep in consultation with the local tourist information center lady. I knew he was an adventurer because he wore nothing but running shoes, a pair of navy blue training pants, a navy blue wind shirt and on his back a tiny backpack. Only adventurers challenge such winter weather with nothing by a thin film of nylon. He leaned over the tourist information center counter for an inordinately long time, so long I began to wonder if he was able to speak Japanese. The lady behind the counter seemed a bit piqued as she attempted to make head or tails of what he was saying. When they both looked stumped I stepped up and asked if they needed any help.

“Yes, that would really save me!” exclaimed the adventurer in a heavy French accent. “Hi my name is Eric!”

“Miguel.”

“I’m from Canada and this is my third day here. Three times I’ve tried to climb Mt. Fuji, but no luck.”

“Climb Mt. Fuji?” I stared at his outfit, from head to toe. “In winter?”

“Yes. It rained the first two days and I had to turn back. Yesterday I made it to 3,130 meters, but the snow got up to my chest and I couldn’t go any further. A Norwegian guy ahead of me was able to continue on. I only have a week left in Japan and I’m determined to climb Mt. Fuji before I leave.”

Unidentified Sitting Moth

“Not to doubt your determination, Eric, but are you sure you are prepared for Mt. Fuji? It’s a very dangerous mountain in winter if you don’t know what you are doing or have the right equipment. Every year people die on it in the winter. It’s extremely cold up there, plus some people have to worry about altitude sickness at that elevation.”

Eric hugged his chest and shivered in the wind as raindrops dripped off his chin. “It’s really okay! I’m from Quebec, I’m used to the cold!”

Concerned, I indicated his clothes. “Are you climbing in those clothes?”

“Yes! I work for UPS! You like the pants?” He laughed. “I need to buy some boots before I try Fuji again. You know where I can buy some cheap boots?”

We spoke a while about prospects for a sports shop in this area. I used to live near here and knew of nothing that might get him better geared up. Eric’s shivering got worse, so I showed him into the heated waiting room inside the station. I always wonder what to do in a situation when I meet someone about to head into a dangerous situation, but who doesn’t really understand what they are getting themselves into. I don’t want to push my worries on them, but also don’t want them to do something they will regret. While we spoke a local elderly man came up to us and asked me where we were going. I pointed out into the rain, at where the West Tanzawa range was supposed to be looming. Eric hit his chest with a big smile, “Mt. Fuji!”

The man glanced out in the direction of the mountains where I was planning to go and shook his head. “All those mountains look the same after a while. Pretty boring, don’t you think?” He turned to Eric and grinned. “Fuji! Really! I used to take care of one of the mountain huts at the ninth station. Mt. Fuji, eh? In winter! You have to be careful!”

Eric hit his chest again. “Don’t worry! I’m fine! I’m from Quebec!”

“What did he say?” asked the old man.

Fuji Bright

I missed my bus while talking to the two Fuji aficionados. While they attempted to communicate with one another about Fuji conditions I went to check on the weather again. A lightness had made its way into the grey billows of the clouds and it looked as if at least the rain might let up a little. Eric had decided to head back 400 kilometers west to Osaka for the night and would attempt Mt. Fuji again the next day if the weather improved. Since he was taking the bus over the pass where I hoped to start my walk I decided to join him and talk a bit more. It was good to have company before heading out into the cold. At the very least I hoped to spark at least a bit of curiosity in Eric over my own adventure. Nothing doing; Fuji was imprinted in his Quebecois mind.

Eric had never in his life climbed a mountain before. “You said you’ve been to Montreal, yes?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What is the highest land form you saw there?”

“Er, Mount Royal?”

“That’s right! No mountains! I never even saw a mountain before I came to Japan!” He laughed contentedly to himself, as if that was sufficient explanation for his attempting Mt. Fuji.

“We Quebecois are really tough! Much tougher than those slouches from Montreal! When we were fighting against the British it was the Montrealers who surrendered, but not us! We stuck it out to the end!” He grinned at me and snorted. “So you see, that’s why I came to Japan, the land of the samurai!” He folded his arms and laughed effortlessly.

From Takazasu

We parted at the junction between Lake Yamanaka and Kagosaka Pass. The rain had stopped and already signs of the sun had broken through the clouds. The west foothills of the Tanzawa range rose to the east, heading up into the still watery grey clouds.

“You’re a good luck charm, Eric,” I told him. “I wish you good luck on Mt. Fuji. Please do be careful and don’t take the mountain lightly.”

He waved from the bus, still smiling. “Don’t worry about me. I’m…”

“I know. You’re from Quebec!”

“That’s right! Don’t forget it!”

The bus pulled away and I was alone again with the weather. I started walking. With each step the clouds opened a bit more and by the early afternoon I had taken off my rain jacket and was sweating in spring sunshine. Lake Yamanaka dropped away behind me and the sky stepped back to welcome me into the folds of the ridges.

The One Nishi Tanzawa