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

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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!

Just a little clarification

October 19, 2011

Yes, it’s true, Alain and I have moved incessantly since selling the cafe in the everglades. But I may have exaggerated our status a bit in my last post. We haven’t picked up sticks and taken off altogether (again). We’ve just upgraded to a bigger place that happens to be in another village just down the road. We plan to stay put in this region for a while, so those of you worried about my stability can breath easy.

However, I should be clear that though committed to settling in for a good while, our lifestyle in general is still one of fluidity. We’re leery of material possessions and struggle daily to lighten the load. In that sense, I feel very much on a hunter gatherer path.

A few comments from family and friends about my last post made me realize it looked like we’d moved to another region entirely. Part of that came from my words, but I think most of it came from my pictures. The beach scenes looked so utterly different from the mountain scenes posted just prior. But listen when I say this. We live where the Pyrenees touch the Mediterranean, truly. We live on the edge of high mountains and blue sea at the same time. We haven’t changed regions at all, just spending more time at the beach these days because the weather’s been so incredibly warm.

As some of you may have read earlier, I’m working in marketing and public relations at Can Rigall, the grandiose eco-lodge on the mountain above our previous abode in Arles-sur-Tech. I’m currently immersed in re-writing the text for a new website. The biggest challenge for the site, and all marketing efforts, is describing the unique geography of where we’re located. Many worlds collide here, stacked one on top of the other. I’m struggling to put into words the very same concept that confused a few of you. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to use this space to work out the needed words. For your benefit and mine.

The Pyrenees-Orientales department of France is where we are, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region that skirts the Mediterranean coast as it turns down toward Spain. We are the southern-most point in France, just a few kilometers from the Spanish border. We can easily hike or bike to Spain in a day. We often go there for groceries and cheaper gas, the way one might drive to a neighboring town for Costco in the United States.

The cultural region on our side of the border is called French Catalonia, or northern Catalonia. It shares the same language and culture with Southern Catalonia in Spain, its capital being Barcelona.

Down there they speak mainly Catalan, Spanish coming in second. Here, on the French side the main language is French, with Catalan coming in second. In Arles sur Tech (the village we just moved from) we often heard street conversations in Catalan from our open apartment windows. And an elderly woman in the building across the street spoke only Catalan, with a few French and Spanish words here and there.

So you can see, we’re in a multidimensional area influenced by three different cultures. It only seems natural that the landscape too would express such diversity. That it does. The frigid altitudes of Pic du Canigou seemingly rise straight out of the blue-green sea. For that very juxtaposition, mount Canigou was believed to be the highest peak of the Pyrenees for a very long time. Its height exaggerated by the low altitude of the Roussillon plain spreading out at its base.

We have two rooftop terraces in our bi-level apartment in our new village of Sorede. From the terrace on my bedroom side I wake and lay down to a view of the sacred Canigou. From the kitchen-side terrace where we dine outside, the waters of the Mediterranean are seen on the horizon. We live, visibly, between mountains and sea. Anyone with poetic ideas for explaining that to potential guests, I’m accepting any and all suggestions!

Mild climate palm trees and oleander grow in Arles sur Tech, a village encased by steep and rocky mountains. Can Rigall is a little higher on the ridge on the left. The snow-capped Canigou presides over from the right. Sea gulls regularly nest in the abbey’s belltower in the center of the village. Mountains and sea, for real.

The sun is pouring down here where the eastern Pyrenees meet sand. And it’s October!  We’ve been eating dinner outside on our new grand patio every night. Yes, I said new. The nomad in me stirred and we’ve moved yet again. New address: Sorede, France at the entrance to La Valee Heureuse. Happy valley it is. Olive groves and grape vines, mountains crumbling to the sea, big full moon rising over water.

Since selling the cafe in 2007 we’ve moved nine times. So it’s official, I’m a hunter and gatherer. Following that tune I’ve spent these past few weeks harvesting and savoring. First with an edible plant cooking class at Can Rigall and later with those as-promised fallen almonds.

Following are some pics of the edibles to be had around here. But first, let’s welcome Mom who’s here for a year. We picked her up at the Barecelona airport on October 4th and went directly to the beach! Look for guest posts from her very soon.

I think I'm gonna like it here.

Borage and begonias, among other edibles used in our cooking class with Leila.

Kitchen activity at Can Rigall. Soon our new website will promote all our events like this recent workshop "Cooking Plants with Passion".

Almond groves in late afternoon light.

Fresh almonds!

The extent of my hunting skills.

Limes and figs are coming to an end. The vins primeurs will be celebrated real soon. Olive harvest coming in November. And then, it may just be time to move again! Catch me if you can 🙂

1. The Mediterranean is a sea, not an ocean. And it’s spelled with two r’s, and it doesn’t have tides.

2. It’s perfectly fine to sell already burnt fire wood. It’s called charbon de bois.

3. The oddly cold kitchen cabinet does not conceal a hole in the wall where expensive heat escapes, but is mandatory ventilation. It works good as a root cellar in my opinion, maybe even a refrigerator, the olive oil I had in there solidified!

4. The three-hour and six-hour options on the washing machine are not for REALLY dirty clothes. They’re delay buttons so the machine will start at night, when the electricity demand is lower and thus cheaper. (Great feature)

5. You read the menu right, the price of the bone, no meat attached, will cost you the same as the steak and fries. It’s called an Os a Moelle, or the recycled steak plate maybe?