At Home in a Hiking Club

February 15, 2011

High up in the Mediterranean scrublands.

Spending time in nature has generally been something I do alone or with one other person. I’ve avoided outdoor clubs and camping get-togethers for the most part. Growing up at the end of a lonely dirt road must have helped develop this solitary tendency. Maintaining extremely social jobs in adulthood certainly exacerbated this need for the quiet sanctuary of wilderness experienced alone.

But several years ago I took an Outward Bound trip with a group of people in the Everglades. We paddled to and slept on wild beaches I knew well from my solo and partnered trips. But never before had I experienced these places within a social group.

It was a profound experience that I hope one day to write about in depth. Since then I’ve weakened my stance on the need for solitary expeditions. Which is how I ended up in a hiking club over here in the Pyrenees. Admittedly, I still prefer to hike alone, in silence. But the cultural isolation that comes with living in a foreign country has made these group hikes just as important to my psyche. There’s no doubt in my mind that we need human contact as much as we need a connection with nature. I don’t think I truly believed that before now.

A wondrous group hike through the garrigue on a humid day.

So here I am, a card carrying member of the club Les Sentiers de Pyrène led by Jacques, my French naturalist guide. We meet up early Sunday mornings in town and then carpool to the designated trail head of the day. I’m usually groggy (having finally given up coffee for good) and unable to understand anything anyone is saying to me in French. I awkwardly kiss people I’ve just met and just as awkwardly kiss those I already know. The hello kisses are a custom I just can’t get accustomed to.

Next thing I know Alain puts my backpack into someone’s car and I wonder if I should get in the car too, but people are standing around discussing details that I can’t follow. So like a child playing at mamma’s feet I daydream and wait to be tugged along when the time is right. The first hike we did landed us in the back seat of Michel’s automatic transmission sedan, instantly the first topic of conversation.

Jacques (left) Michel (right)

Automatic cars are pretty much nonexistent in France and they have to be special ordered if you want one. Michel told how he took a trip to the United States way back before I was even born and ever since then has “rolled” in an automatic car. The hiker riding shot gun asked some technical questions about gas mileage and maintenance, while Michel proudly detailed all the virtues of rolling in an automatic. Michel spoke slowly and clearly and though I couldn’t understand everything, I understood a lot. I felt safe in his big American style car where people spoke at my speed. Michel had a warm and likable charisma, like a character from a Marcel Pagnol play.

As we drove north on the interstate Michel talked about the region. He told us we were traveling through wine country, where there are more than just a few good places to taste and discover, he noted with a jovial laugh. Once we exited the interstate Michel pointed to a wine-maker’s manor and announced it to be one of the best. At each round about along the route he pointed out another good vineyard and eventually declared it a shame that we didn’t have time to stop and “profit” from the region’s good fruits. Unlike the stereotypically self-righteous French character, Michel was not showing off his region. He was, himself, relishing in it’s richness. Michel really wanted to stop and taste the wines for his own pleasure. I was endeared to the fullest.

We met up with the others at the trail head where I once again lost sense of all conversation. I stood around kicking the ground until the chattering group began to move forward. Finally we were off into the garrigue (Mediterranean brush). We started at a slow pace climbing up arid hills that looked a lot like New Mexico. We stopped every now and then to learn the name of a plant or for a particular view of the snow-capped Le Canigou off in the distance. We’d already hiked quite a bit when Jacques pulled us off the trail and pointed to a cliff of brush and rocks. Alain told me were were going to climb to the top that way. And then off Jaques went trampling through thick vegetation, no trail in sight.

Now this is a real hiking club, I thought to myself. We’d been hacking our way up this mountainside a while before I figured out Jacques’ short cut wasn’t panning out. Still not really understanding all the French, I caught enough words to gather that we should have already picked up the trail again. The brush got thicker and the slope steeper with places that called on my yogini flexibility and strength to maneuver through. I followed Michel who was having a hard time with the terrain. Though slow going, he patiently persevered without complaint. I saw his leading leg tremble as he used it to pull his body up the rocks. His back pack got stuck under a tree limb at one point and he had to put even more weight on the shaky leg kneeling down low enough to clear the entanglement.

The short cut...

We continued on and I began to feel a little claustrophobic with no peak in site and still no trail. My ankles and back were talking to me and I figured Michel was enduring even more. When we finally made it onto the sought after trail, everyone was visibly happy to be out of the woods. Michel sighed and commented on how that sort of short cut wasn’t cut out for someone of his 68 years. But he dusted off his knees in good spirits and climbed the rest of the way like a teenager.

We climbed from down there?

At the top we each found a boulder to sit on and broke bread. Exhausted, I dug into the home-made hummus and boiled eggs Alain and I packed for trail food. Michel sat near by and wished us bon apetit as he dug into a dish of lentils and brown rice. He asked if the hummus was faites maison and then clucked at the fact that we were eating boiled eggs too (because we’d told him we’d eaten a hearty omelet for breakfast). We talked about cooking and recipes as we ate our lunches under a thick mist that had blown in from the high mountains.

An invigorating wind blows in a thick fog and Alain loves the vibe up here.

A bottle of wine circulated amongst the group and then we shared a galette du rois in honor of the day. Someone passed me a warm cup of herbal tea when they noticed I’d begun to shiver in the cold. Michel kindly asked, “Would you like some advice?” I said sure and he told me to add spirulina to my diet, that ever since he’d begun taking the blue green algae his toes and fingers stay warm all winter long. And that was the end of his advice, no drawn out tale or never-ending plea to follow his prescription. What an easy going demeanor, I noted to my growing list of endearing qualities in this Michel.

Jacques leads us over the other side after lunch...on the trail.

We continued on after lunch and I grew weary and cold under a misty rain. We climbed up and down boulders and eventually began our final descent into the famous gorge we’d signed on to see that day. The down hill was slippery and challenging with joints aching in the cold humidity. We all sensed that we were nearing the end, or at least hoped for it, when we made a turn and saw that it lead upward. “Ah, une petite colinette!” Michel sang out, whistling to the top. A coline is a hill in French, so he’d called it a little hill-ette, the ever optimistic Michel.

When our muddy boots hit pavement we stomped in puddles to clean them off. Then we followed the road as it meandered beside the river a good ways beneath us. The river became lower and the cliffs alongside us higher as we walked along. We then rounded a steep-cliffed turn to see clear blue pools down in the gorge. I was admiring a fat trout floating in the middle of the river’s pools when Michel arrived at my shoulder exclaiming “Mmmmm, ca serait une tres bonne truite amandine… avec un excellent verre de vin blanc, encore mieux!” In my lingo: Mmmmm, now there’s a really good almond encrusted trout… with an excellent glass of white wine, even better. I genuinely grinned following the group deeper into the gorge.

The road turned out to be longer than I’d expected, and my joints were really crying out in the mist as they pounded on pavement. The further we walked the quieter we got, out of exhaustion as well as awe. The gorge fell lower and lower and the road became skinnier and skinnier. I felt slight effects of vertigo as we walked along this narrow shelf in the belly of this deep and magnificent gorge in the south of France.

Just a tad bit of vertigo; don't know why.

Yep, that's the road on the right. A car even squeezed by us.

Endlessly deep.

I thought I was the first to see the cars parked in the distance, but when I arrived Michel already had his trunk open and was cutting up the last galette du rois to share with the tired and hungry group. Driving home my eyes drooped as Michel talked more about the vineyards and the Cathar castle fortresses rising out of the rocks high above them. I was revived again at the interstate toll booth where the automated machine spit out coins for change with Michel crying out, “Jackpot!”.

We said good bye where we’d left our car in the early morning. With the sun already in bed for the night, I was looking forward to the same thing. It was clear Michel was fighting his own exhaustion, and as he drove off I felt so blessed to have spent the day with him. Alain said, “Il est un vrai bon vivant.” He’s a true lover of life.

A splendid view from Pech d'Auroux.

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One Response to “At Home in a Hiking Club”

  1. lustintotravel said

    You must have noted that Michel is my age, but he needs to learn how to give proper advice!

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