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