Sittin’ on top of the world

December 10, 2012

For the past month and a half I’ve been house-sitting at the eco-lodge where I finished my GR10 hike last summer. The owners needed a refuge guardian and someone to feed their pets, so once again, I find myself up in the heights looking out over a world I never could have imagined. Right now it’s covered in snow. I’m astounded at the size of the world, the magnitude of change, the wide beauty of it all.

The path I take to walk the dogs leads out of the village of Planés and into the shadowed peaks where the Conflent meets the Cerdan plateau. From certain places you see the opening of the Tet Valley below, where my quasi-permanent writer’s cottage patiently waits. On clear days you can see the blue halo of the Mediterranean Sea.

This is why I’m here, why against all reason I’ve decided to make this part of France my home. This place where mountains and sea commune has gripped me and I’ve learned that the peaks of mountains and the tides of the sea aren’t all that opposing. What’s the difference between height and depth really? They both give views into the unknown, into a blue horizon of other.

I remember a day in my twenties. I sat on a beach in Florida stoned out of my mind. I’m not usually given to such substances—even in my youth I tended to prefer staying in control of my mind. Perhaps that’s why I remember that day so vividly, because my mind opened up despite myself. I just remember sitting on that beach, looking out over the ocean and thinking: The world is immense. I am small. I want to go there.

This morning I took Tossa and Zemec (my canine charges) up the powdered white path for their daily walk. The only buzz I can claim is from two cups of coffee, but the moment was similar to that day sitting in the powdery sands on a Florida beach. The snow over the fields had been blown into sand-like dunes. From the white abyss I looked out over the edge of the world and felt its strength, the movement of the ocean, the erosion of land, the clashing of continents forming mountains. It felt like the coming and going of life.

Following are some images from my time up here. The lyrics of a Dave Mathews Band song come to mind.

Would you not like to be, sittin’ on the top of the world with your legs hangin’ free? Would you not like to be okay, okay, okay?

blog white horse

avery and tossa at 2200 meters

DSC04756

Chapelle du Belloch en haut

Chapelle du Belloch

ice cyrstals

blog snow peaks

blog black horse

blog snowdune

La Fin

September 5, 2012

To get out of Carança, I climbed the Col Mitja at 2367 meters. I took it steady and strong to arrive at the top for spectacular views of the Cerdagne and the snow covered Carlit mountain range. It was cold up there, so I put on warm clothes again and stayed for a while, breathing in the scenery.

I recently spent a weekend back up that way, and from where I stayed in Les Angles, I could see the beautifully perfect Col Mitja, like a hammock between great mountains. To think I’d been up there, carried myself up there, like a tiny ant in a wide world, well that was something. This place runs in my veins now, mountains I’d never dreamed of before are an uncontested part of me. I don’t know how to express the renaissance that happened for me out there, how this small town Florida native found home in the Pyrenees.

After the Col Mitja I made my descent to the Refuge de L’Orri, a stone shepherd’s hut still in use. There I met Jean Marc and his herding companion Astuce. Jean Marc spends his summers watching over high ranging cattle and his winters working in vineyards closer to sea level. He made a coffee for me and we sat in front of his dirt-floored summer abode taking in his priceless view of wild mountains. Another man of little words, he shared his journal with me to fill the conversation. It was a beautiful story of life alone as a shepherd through the season. I knew it was a privilege to have this time with him, that he didn’t invite everyone into his world. I thanked him graciously and continued on toward the village of Planès.

I don’t know how it happened, but a good bit of my sadness from the start of this trip was replaced by gratefulness. I felt grateful, ever so damn grateful to be out there with such vitality. When I reached the village of Planès I saw a sign for an eco-lodge that offered tent spaces. There didn’t seem to be any other good place to tent camp so I walked through the quiet village and found myself standing in front of a beautifully restored stone mountain house. It was modern, but authentic, tasteful. There was an air about the place that clicked with me. When I met the owners, Arif and Marta, having coffee on their back porch, I knew I would stay the night and dine with them. I felt I was supposed to be there.

While setting up my tent, I talked some with Arif, who asked where I was from. I told him I was originally from Florida and he immediately dropped the French and said, “I thought I recognized some of your gear brands, I’m from Chicago.” I couldn’t believe it! Up here lost in the Eastern Pyrenees where I’ve never met another touring American, I find an American living and thriving. After living in my tent alone for weeks, this was the perfect transition back to the civilized world.

It being early in the season, I thought I was the only guest, until I came down for dinner and saw another recently arrived hiker sitting outside. He greeted me with a big smile and a friendly bonjour.  So I sat down and we started talking ever so naturally. Arif walked by and I asked if the house had any cold beers. My new hiker friend André enthusiastically chimed in on the request and the next thing I knew we were sharing two cold locally brewed beers in what must be the most charming lodge in all of France.

The French may be the most stylish people when it comes to personal attire, but Americans are the experts on home design and comfort. We know how to strike a balance between modernity, respect for original architecture and comfort and convenience. Arif, who is a trained architect, and Marta, with her Spanish origins, have combined these elegantly at their inn where hikers and nature lovers from around the world meet for respite and communion.

That night André, Arif, Marta and I shared a 100% locally produced, organic gourmet meal in our common language of French. After nearly two years in France it was surprisingly the first time I’d ever really managed a whole night by myself in this second language. I felt connected, I felt alive. I shared bits of my story and told them how I’d once owned an organic restaurant in the Florida Everglades. We swapped tales about making a life and livelihood in wilderness areas. We laughed a lot, we shared a lot, we savored the moment.

The next morning André accompanied me to the next village where we would part paths. On the way over I told him about some of my sorrow, why I was out there hiking the trail alone. It seemed right for some reason, to start talking about it. In the village of Cabanasse we swapped email addresses, shook hands and wished each other luck. As I walked off toward le Lac des Bouillouses for what would be my last leg on the GR 10, I felt a little bit more whole. I’d crossed mountains, really big mountains, to find a moment of solace among friends, new friends. It was the start of a new beginning.

I found this collage with Allison Kraus and Yo-Yo Ma on Youtube. It’s a Thanksgiving greeting and though it’s not yet the American Thanksgiving season, I feel like it expresses the gratefulness deep in my heart now, after my trek across my French department on the GR 10 hiking trail.

More on the GR 10

September 1, 2012

On the other side of Canigou I found Marialles, a beautiful mountain refuge with a dramatic situation beneath the sacred mount. There I met a wise refuge guardian who asked me how my hike was going. I simply said it was good to be outside and he said “yes, I know”, with no need to say more. We sat comfortably together in silence for a good while. People who live close to the world, the living and breathing world, have a humility and wonder about them. I felt myself longing for this kind of dignified life.

So when later in my hike I crested the col de Mantet at 1761 meters, and saw below the tiny isolated village of Mantet at 1550 meters, surrounded by lush spring pastures and imposing snow specked mountains, I was drawn into the magic. I slept by a rambling mountain river that night and couldn’t help but imagine a life there. Early the next morning I walked into the village in search of its spring. I passed a couple crossing the river, headed out with fishing poles and waders. We acknowledged each other with a nod giving no voice to the tranquility. In the village I stopped in front of a small artist’s studio where a large picture frame was hanging outside with the words, “Dans quel cadre voulez-vous vivre?” It means, Within what kind of frame do you want to live? Tears came—this time not for anything I’d lost, but for what I’d gained—certitude about the kind of life I would live from then on.

 

The climb out of Mantet took me over the Col del Pal at 2294 meters. I have to admit I was not calling this high mountain pass my pal as I hauled my heavy pack up it (unless pal means something like mother fucker in Catalan). When, exhausted and nauseous, I reached the refuge du Ras de la Caranca at 1831 meters, my hip was really talking to me. So I decided I would stay two nights in this verdant wonderland. I set up my tent once again by a rambling river and put on all my warm layers. It was cold up there in June, with patches of snow on the surrounding peaks as high as Canigiou, and frost on the ground both mornings. The rustic refuge here provided me with hot water that I used to make a warming nettle soup.

I’d walked through so much by this point, through grief, fear and hope, through forests, pastures and rugged mountainsides. Everything in me was raw, exposed to the cold. But I didn’t cower to it; I bathed in the numbing cold river and communed with the ground in my sleep. I dreamed terrifying dreams on that ground and stayed there, long enough to face them.

 

The only thing I had to read was the April 2012 issue of my favorite literary magazine, The Sun published in Chapel Hill, NC . In my journal I copied down a quote I found in it:

Underlying our glitzy modern consumer culture there is a deep spiritual undernourishment and malaise that manifests all kinds of symptoms: nervous disorders, loneliness, alienation, purposelessness…So blanking out, running away, burying our heads in the sand or videotape will take us nowhere in the long run. If we really want to solve our problems—and the world’s problems, for they stem from the same roots—we must open up and accept the reality of suffering with full awareness…Then, strange as it may seem, we reap vast rewards. For suffering has its positive side. From it we derive the experience of depth: of the fullness of our humanity.                                             —John Snelling

To be continued…

After my heavy climb up to Cortalets, I slept alone with a strong wind whipping at the sides of my tent. I dreamed strangely that night and then woke to a crystal blue sky with the jagged Peak Canigou towering in front of me. I realized just how high I’d climbed and felt privileged to be there, breathing in crisp mountain air, being that much closer to the sun, facing Canigou up close still with patches of spring snow. I felt the healing process begin that morning. It was as if the mountains were responding to me, blowing away the mist, revealing the beauty and immensity beneath.

My first night on my own, far from a village or staffed refuge, was at a place called Bonne-Aigue, which means good water. But the spring was dried up, so there wasn’t any good water there for me. No matter, this camp will forever remain special to me because it marked my first stray from the guidebook and the reassurance a staffed refuge represents for a novice mountaineer.

Charlie asked me about fear and I have to admit I had a lot of it, most of the time. Despite appearances, I really don’t know anything about backpacking, or mountains. Nearly all of my outdoor expeditions have been in a sea kayak. Since moving to this region, I’ve done lots of day hiking and I’ve read a lot about extended backpacking, but this was my first attempt. And of course, I was alone.

Bonne-Aigue was only two hours away from Cortalets. But I didn’t want to go further. I wanted to stay there to acclimate before making my way around the rugged edge of Canigou. Staying put for the day was pretty nerve-racking. You don’t have the meditative action of putting one foot in front of the other; you’re simply left with your thoughts and fears. I watched clouds form over the afternoon peak, then saw them clear for a mysterious glimpse of the imposing summit, before Canigou summoned the clouds back again. But nothing in way of bad weather happened that day.

 

I think I sat in one spot the whole time, half paralyzed from fear of an unknown world and half mesmerized by a magnificent world opening up before me. The mountainous view across from Canigou was like nothing I’d ever seen before—a solid mountain mass, but arid and crumbling at the same time. It looked as if it were melting, crying down like a water color with too much water. And then there were the distant snow-capped peaks of the range I would eventually walk to. I thought, this is earth at time’s beginning, this is earth now and this is earth as it will be in the future. That view was like a bridge across time and space.

The next morning I woke to a beautiful moon over Canigou. I packed my tent in the silence of dawn and started walking well before 7 a.m. Within minutes a family of izards leapt from the trail to make way for me. Just after, a little head peeked up from the treacherous cliff side below and watched me with the same wonder and curiosity I had for him.

 

The forecast called for rain later in the day, so I didn’t dally around. But while I walked briskly along the edge of the sacred Mount Canigou, I took everything in,  and reveled at the wonder of life, of sorrow and joy. I’m certain my inexperience added to the intensity of it all. I had to stay tuned all the time, checking in with map and compass, paying attention to the wind and clouds, looking always ahead and behind. My mind was wild with questions and uneasiness as I learned the ways of mountains.

That day I navigated through my interior while discovering an expansive exterior. It was a meeting of myself, in this world, at this time. Courage and vulnerability were the themes; I met two sides of me up there.

to be continued…

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.

March 11, 2012

I don’t have much time to write, but I simply can’t let ice and winter wind have the last word. Especially when spring is so beautiful here in French Catalonia. This Florida native is loving these new spring developments.

Rosemary bushes are in full bloom.

Bees are loving the rosemary blossoms. I look forward to this year’s honey batch.

Almond blossoms are in full swing with cherry blossoms just behind them.

Tender violets are now popping up along footpaths.

Beaucoup de violets!

And now this commercial announcement:

The reason I have little time for my personal blog is my job as ‘company scribe’ at an eco-luxury hotel here in the French Pyrenees. In case you missed my emailed link, have a look at the new website I’ve been busy writing all winter. If you want to stay updated, subscribe to the newsletter and you’ll get my latest eNews each month. I’ll be posting on the blog there regularly as well.

Parts of the website and blog are still a little rough and I’ll be reworking and adding to it all summer. So check back often and don’t hesitate to share your ideas and thoughts from a browser perspective. Please share and forward and spread the word if you can.

And I hope to see you here very soon…on the Spanish frontier in the South of France where spring comes early and Floridians rejoice.

Yesterday Can Rigall officially closed for the winter season. We had to ford the river on our last trip down the mountain because a solid week of rain flooded the bridge. I’m drinking hot chocolate under gray skies now in our apartment in Sorede. It’s hard to believe Alain and I spent the last Sunday in October biking and sailing under a shining southern French soleil.

We rode from our apartment to the coast, climbed the hills behind the seaside village of Collioure and followed the wine route through picturesque vineyards down to the village center. We bought a bottle of local rose wine at the Sunday outdoor market and finished  the afternoon toasting with a friend on his sailboat. We spent this ridiculously perfect day dressed in our Ben’s Bikes gear graciously sent to us from Athen’s Georgia. Hope you enjoyed the tour and looking forward to biking with you some more!

A bientot!

Up and over the mountain…

September 13, 2011

Just in from an overnight trip to the top of Le Canigou. After a long day’s walk from Batere we slept in our tent on the high plateau of Les Cortalets with the jagged peak towering over us. We rose at 4 am to be at the top for the sunrise. Following are some photos from our crappy little point and shoot. Or read my Can Rigall post to hear more.

Until next time!

Learning Trust

July 26, 2011

She said she usually cried at least once each day not because she was sad, but because the world was so beautiful and life was so short.  —Brian Andreas

 

I’ve been trying to remember a time in this life when I didn’t feel so bewildered. But there isn’t one. I can only come up with small moments, little pauses when none of it mattered, none of the angst, none of the questions, none of the beliefs, nothing. The time in between these moments has mostly been spent wondering how to get back there.

Last month, I contentedly found myself there. A moment of grace when I felt that everything was okay, and even if it wasn’t, that was okay too.

The day after driving my mother to the Barcelona airport following a three-week visit with her, Alain and I joined our hiking club for a trip high in the Pyrenees in the Ariege Department. It took a huge amount of effort to make it happen. In the midst of the scramble I wondered if I wasn’t forcing things too much, cramming so much into this little life that I was missing it altogether.

Instead, the trip restored my faith, in what I don’t know. I do know I didn’t feel like I was missing anything, anything at all. I was alive, in the moment, and nothing else mattered.

I’m sharing this trip here because while out there, so far away from all of you, I felt your energy. And I felt your presence tangibly… through the back-pack my Dad bought for my mother (which she never used, so I confiscated), through the Androsian camp towel Rick gave me years ago, through the gray ankle socks Sarah sent me…

Everything is connected. I think the peace found in moments like these comes from that simple acknowledgment. And so I connect us even more, via WordPress! Enjoy the photos:

The lakes of Rabassoles as seen from Pic Tarbessou.

Upside down mountain pose! In Charlie's recycled material Patagonia fleece, merci mon ami.

 

In my dream, the angel shrugged and said, If we fail this time, it will be a failure of imagination and then she placed the world gently in the palm of my hand. –Brian Andreas

 

Robin, our English neighbor in his 70's leads the way. His secret to staying fit? Date a younger woman.

 

Yep, that's snow. And that's me in the water. Do I still have the right to call myself a Floridian?

 

That's Patty's sports bra and Margarida's swim shorts. Yes Florida ladies, you went swimming in this icy mountain lake. Alain's in his underwear, nobody outfitted him for the trip 😉

 

They came to sit and dangle their feet off the edge of the world and after awhile they forgot everything but the good and true things they would do someday. –Brian Andreas

 

Rebecca, I bet you never thought your sun hat would end up on a mountain in the Pyrenees when you decided to put it in your yard sale in Everglades City!

 

We started the day at a lake at the same altitude on the other side of that peak in the background. We climbed the peak and descended to this lake where we were still only halfway down the mountain.

All my fellow North Carolina and Georgia medicinal plant enthusiasts came flooding to memory when our final descent took us through a blooming Valerian forest.

All my fellow North Carolina and Georgia medicinal plant enthusiasts came flooding to memory when our final descent took us through a blooming Valerian forest. Jennifer, Karen, Patricia, Susanna, Rachel...and of course Dad!

 

By the way, your wishes and support to see me writing more were not wasted. I’ve been writing for the Can Rigall blog and have recently been taken off toilet duty and moved to communications duty. To learn the details of my Ariege trip and to see what else we’ve been up to, visit the lodge blog at http://basecamppyrenees.com/

 

If you hold on to the handle, she said, it’s easier to maintain the illusion of control. But it’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you. –Brian Andreas

 

Any of you wishing to see my labors move from cleaning toilets to clacking on a keyboard can help that along by sharing my recent assignments from Gomad Nomad.

Tweet them, Facebook them, email them, share and share some more. Whether or not you believe in non-polluting travel or European paradise destinations is beside the point. Just get them out there! Two links are below.

http://gomadnomad.com/2011/05/20/dreaming-of-warm-temps-and-tranquility-on-tenerife/

http://gomadnomad.com/2011/04/04/going-jet-freealternatives-to-flying/