The Thing Is

July 19, 2012

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you hold life like a face

between your palms, a plain face

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you, again.

                                                 -Ellen Bass        

_____________________________________________________________

And this is how I faced the mountains, with an unwavering love in the face of grief. I’d planned to spend five weeks hiking the GR10 trans-Pyrenees trail this summer, to wrap my head around some things and expand my back-country skills. I wanted to go alone and I wanted to get as far across the French Pyrenees as I could—starting at the Mediterranean with the distant Atlantic as my bearing.

But some devastating personal stories forced me to rethink the scope of my trip. Certainly not the most significant, but maybe the most limiting, was a chronic hip injury that stopped me in my tracks while training for the high peaks.

The other side of the saga is something I hope to write about some day, to share and explore out loud, but for now I’m happy to stay in the physical. All of it together whittled my five weeks down to three, the first week comprised of a series of day trips using my home in the Mediterranean foothills as my base.

Once I found a good balance for what my hip could handle, I set out for two consecutive weeks alone. I followed the trail starting at Banyuls-sur-Mer on the sea and climbed high up into the snow-draped Pyrenees. I walked across the entire French department (region) where I live. When I look at the Pyrenees from a distance now, I stretch my arms out wide and still cannot fit the length of my trek between my palms. This makes my heart smile, this helps me feel connected, worthy somehow.

I’ve been back for several weeks, with intentions to begin this entry every day. But I haven’t wanted to trivialize the experience in a blog. Friends and family keep asking about the trip, many curious about the logistics, the scenery and how it came together. So, I figured I should try starting with that. My outdoor expert and most valued pen pal and friend, Charlie, recently wrote me asking:

Was it hard to follow the route? Were you ever scared, other than the weather? (I’d written him about lightning scares) How heavy was your pack? What did you bring to eat? Did you see a lot of other hikers? What wildlife did you see? Any snakes? (he knows my big three… snakes, lightning and humans)

Was it hard to follow the route?

I hiked what many guidebooks would call backwards, starting at the Mediterranean. I guess most thru-hikers start on the Atlantic and finish on my side of the range. So my day one, was day 50 in my guidebook. This made the guide pretty useless, one of the reasons I chose to go backwards I guess, more of a challenge. Ha, as if that were necessary!

But I can report that I did not get lost during the first week on any of the segments where I returned home each night. This is not to say I didn’t have moments of panic because the red and white blazes disappeared for hours. My map and compass became close friends during those hours. But for the most part I made it to each night’s final destination without any great detours. These day-trip portions got me all the way to Cortalets at 2150 meters just below the towering Pic du Canigou.

I began my hike in early June. The Alberes are the foothills of the Pyrenees that make their way to the sea from Mount Canigou. Mediterranean flowers were in full bloom for me. Maritime lavender scented the way.

My point and shoot camera doesn’t have a good scenic option, so I captured details instead. It’s where I was at the time anyway, unable to look beyond the stuff just in front of me.

The red and white blazes that took me there…here on a cork oak tree.

The arid Alberes were fascinating to cross and it felt exhilarating knowing I got myself there. My legs, my feet, my heart, my head.

The GR10 parallels the Spanish border on much of this portion. Those mountains in the distance are Spain.

This is near the Pic de Sailfort at 981 meters. It’s quite a climb from sea level. The spring greenery was touching, the sea view amazing.

Spain in the distance…something invigorating about borders, walking on the edge of things.

I started one day on a cold, rainy and windy morning with a heavy heart. This salamander met me there.

Broom shrubs filled a field with brilliant yellow and intoxicating aromas. I wondered if I had stumbled into heaven.

Pretty purple thistle…

Lunch break at an old stone farm ruin. The loneliness there was palpable.

The GR10 crosses through villages and is connected by isolated mountain refuges. I became anxious the closer I got to these human centers. Here a friendly pig understood.

A beech seed coming to life, growing out of it’s own broken limbs.

The size of life.

Alain said once to me, how wise a tree must be, rooted, unable to move or talk, just witness…for an entire lifetime.

The change from arid brush, to high mountain meadow to shaded forest (all in a day’s walk) was encouraging, loving, beautiful.

Green is the color of  heart.

On the way to the Roc de France at 1450 meters.

Wisdom and solace.

After crossing the Alberes in hip-healthy, day-long segments, I set out on my two-week expedition from the village of Prades on the other side of Mount Canigou. Getting back up to Cortalets (where my day trips left off) took me up 1800 meters on a trail that was not the GR10. I decided to take it slow and break it up into two days. Good thing, because the first day I got lost, very lost, and had to back-track down to start over. I planned never to hike more than 5-hours a day, to keep my hip in good order. The first day out was 10 hours. Ouch.

Day two would be the bulk of the elevation gain. Because my hip was already sore, and because I’d gotten lost the day before, I chose to follow the forest service road up to Cortalets. It was slow going. In my journal I wrote,

“It was hard, with my pack so heavy and my heart so full of this, this darkness.”

The air got much cooler the higher I got. A thick mist clouded the steep drop-off and I was glad not to be in the deep woods. I didn’t stop until I got to the very top, not for food or drink. I paused only once to let the sadness weep. With my lungs already stretched from the exertion, I feared their capacity to handle the extra need for full-body crying. Weeping in that mist on that isolated path made my claustrophobic fears of suffocation real, made those fears physical.

The GR10 crossed the forest service road toward the end of the climb, so I left it for the familiar red and white blazes that would guide the rest of my way. The mist grew thicker, the air colder and a deep silence surrounded me. In my journal I wrote,

“I took the path that led through a conifer forest. The fog was so dense I couldn’t see very far at all. It didn’t rain, but the air was pregnant with moisture. It felt as I walked that I was piercing an invisible water laden blanket and that there must have been a water trace of my shape behind me. Big drops of water clung to pine needles. It was like walking through my sorrow. All the yellow flowers on the ground glistened with dew-tears. A spider web hung heavy with water droplets, yet still blew in the gentle wind, holding together without a break. I wonder if I can be like that delicate and intricate, complex spider web—strong and flexible.”

To be continued…

Sneak preview:

The fog lifts.

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3 Responses to “The Thing Is”

  1. Extremely fascinating. Words capture feelings. Pictures punctuate. Alive. More than a hike!

    • When I expressed some concern about you doing it alone, Alain expressed how much he admired you for it. Not everyone can understand what you actually did. (Me included.) Thank you for giving us a peek.

  2. Charlie said

    You could no more lose your words than a leopard could lose her spots. Too bad there are so many snakes in the grass.

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