A Dream—The Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne

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I awoke in the cold mountain hut the same way I went to bed—alone. It was the second day of my hike through the Parc National des Pyrénées in October 2012. The day before, I had slowly ascended the Gaube Valley towards the Pic de Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. But as I had drawn closer, the weather had worsened. From my map I could tell that I was close to the base of the mountain, but I hadn't actually seen it yet due to the thick gray mist. As I stirred some nuts into my oatmeal, I glanced outside to see the clouds retreat for an instant, revealing a dramatic wall of granite right before my eyes. The rush of perspective overwhelmed me with awe, and then the valley was veiled again with clouds just as quickly as it had been uncovered.

Nevertheless, I set off and hiked for the entire morning without seeing more than fifty feet through the fog. It was a grueling path, working up to the highest point I would reach in my entire trip. The air became thinner: I made a push, paused, and restarted without any proof of progress from my surroundings. Then, suddenly, the sun burst over the ridge-line to my left, immediately banishing the mist. Everything around me glistened with dew, and directly in front of me—close—the spire of Vignemale shone brilliantly.

 

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I think that moment of rapture, when both the light and the jagged mountains pierced through the clouds, was when I first sensed I would return to the Pyrenees. It was a slow realization that I wasn't anywhere near done here. In the months following my trip, the sense turned into an idea: to traverse the entire range from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. In the months following my return to America, the idea turned into a dream. Then over time the dream intensified and crystallized into a plan—the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne.

The Pyrenean Haute Route, as it's called in English (or even more commonly just the HRP), is just one of several ways to hike across the Pyrenees. The GR 10 runs all the way across on the French side. It has a twin on the Spanish side, the GR 11. Both of these trails are well-developed and well-traveled, often providing a mountain refuge for the hiker each night. The HRP, on the other hand, is more of an idea than an actual trail. It attempts the follow the highest walkable path all the way across the Pyrenees, frequently crossing the border while linking together bits of the GR 10 and GR 11 with local trails, livestock paths, and bushwhacking. Over the course of 45 days the HRP thru-hiker travels almost 500 miles with 140,000 feet of elevation change. Quite the ambition.

Yet even though I've had this dream for so long, it's often proven difficult to communicate—most of all to a close friend whose wedding I'm missing, to parents concerned for my safety and unclear future, and to a woman I love dearly but from whom I'm voluntarily prolonging separation. When I tell people I'm going on a 45-day hike alone in the mountains, the nearly unanimous response is, “You're crazy.” The rest say, “Be careful.”

Part of what draws me is the challenge. I’m guessing the HRP will be the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, and that's very appealing. It will also be a test of my wilderness skills—most of all, navigation. There will certainly be a mental challenge as well, which I've heard can often be the most taxing part of a thru-hike. I crave the feeling of success and accomplishment that can only come from pushing oneself to the absolute limit and overcoming.

A few people expressed interest in doing the hike with me, but an essential part of my dream has always been solitude. This of course amplifies the challenge and raises the stakes, but I feel that solitude has inherent value, especially when interacting with the natural world. Being alone enables deeper introspection and reflection—maybe even making them necessities. Of course it'd be nice to experience some self-discovery or revelation along the way, but you can never expect these things. 

I think it'll be good for my health. I'm not in peak physical condition at the moment, and that's not a great feeling. I’ve known the vitality that comes from having a fit mind and body and I wouldn't mind returning to that level of fitness. Also, as a sort of experiment, I'm abstaining from caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for the duration of the hike. It's not that I consume any of these in excess, but they are easy things to cut out and I'm curious to see if it will have any effect on me. Finally, and possibly most importantly, I want to look tan and lean for all those pool parties I'll attend when I get back to the U.S. in August. 

So here I am, about to start this hike. I’m about to begin what I’ve dreamt of for more than two years. After spending so much time gathering information, reflecting, and planning, the moment has finally arrived. Just like any other major event, it doesn’t seem real now that it’s here. Whether it feels real or not, tomorrow morning I'm going to walk down to the beach in Hendaye, touch the water, and turn to walk east. Wish me luck. 

 

An Update

I owe all of my readers (and my mother) an apology. Fortunately, I’ve been extremely busy over the past two months: travelling all over, seeing the world, and just generally transitioning. Unfortunately, it’s left me little time to process, write, and share. I’ve been on the move so much someone recently asked me if I was “perennially homeless.” It’s not far from the truth. Here’s a little life update on what I’ve been up to, what I’m doing now, and what’s to come.

The first of my trips was over Easter weekend. The other English assistants and I went to Chamonix, France as a last hoorah together. The town itself is bustling with tourists, but that’s for a good reason—the surrounding mountains are magnificent.  

 

Mont Blanc

 

Shortly after, during my school’s spring break, I spent two weeks in the Rhône Valley and Southern France. I couch surfed, saw heaps of Roman ruins, met up with a friend from college, and reunited with the host family from my high school trip in 2009.

 

The Calanques, featuring Derek Franklin

 

When I returned I had only a week left at my school. I said farewell to my students, colleagues, and roommates. Some friends in Chambéry have been kind enough to allow me to keep all of my things in their basement during this nomadic period of mine.

 

Saying goodbye to some of my favorite students

 

Next was my month-long voyage. The first stop was Paris, where I spent five days doing obscure things that I had never been at liberty to do. All of my prior trips were with first-time visitors eager to see the main attractions, so I ended up repeating the same things. This time I saw Paris on my own terms.

 

Place des Vosges

 

Ireland was my second destination, where I spent about nine days touring the island. I greatly enjoyed the lively cities, the lush countryside, and the welcoming people. I will no doubt return someday.

 

The Cliffs of Moher

 

I took a ferry across the Irish Sea to Scotland, where I spent more than two weeks exploring both the Lowlands and the Highlands. I had originally planned to descend to England, but I found Scotland so agreeable that I simply decided to spend the rest of my time and money there. I visited distilleries, heard a lot of bagpipes, and shared quality time with two dear friends from back home.

 

The largest scotch whisky collection in the world

 

I intend to post about all of these in greater detail, but it may still be a while. That is because I am currently preparing for a challenge I’ve had in my sights for over two years. On June 19th I’m going to start the Haute Randonnée Pyrenéenne, a 45-day hike across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. At this very moment I’m squatting in a friend’s living room in Chambéry for a week, digesting my travels and preparing for the coming expedition.

For the next month and a half I’ll essentially be off the grid, but I hope to prepare some pieces in advance that will automatically post while I’m gone—stay tuned. If all goes according to plan, which is not a guarantee, then I’ll finish with my hike in early August and return directly to the US.

My post-European future is less definite. I plan to apply to creative non-fiction MFA programs this fall (which would start in the fall of 2016), and I’ll search for a job in Missouri when I return. I’m sorry again for my silence, but I hope you’re now up to speed!

 

Here's some random Marseille street art for you

An Exceedingly Humble Guide [Part Three]: Lyon


Lyon is an unequivocally terrible city. It is, simply put, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. You, dear reader, will have lived an enviable life if only you can boast that you never entered its miserable confines. Still, Lyon’s matchless unpleasantness deserves a review of sorts. This guide will outline exactly why it is an awful city and specifically what you should avoid if you are ever forced to visit.


 

Once the prestigious capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon is now the decrepit center of the French Rhône-Alpes region. The metropolitan area is the second largest in the country, home to some two million pitiable inhabitants. The layout of Lyon is determined by the surrounding hills and rivers. The confluence of the Rhône and Saône creates a peninsula called the Presqu’île. To the north of this peninsula is the neighborhood of La Croix-Rousse. On the left bank of the Rhône several neighborhoods are grouped together as the “Rive Gauche.” On the right bank of the Saône are Vieux Lyon—or “Old Lyon”—and the neighborhood of the Fourvière, which overlooks the entire metropolis. Travel between these areas is a continuous ordeal thanks to the sorry state of Lyon’s infrastructure: there’s only 1 international airport, 3 train stations, 4 metro lines, 5 tram lines, 123 bus lines, and 340 bicycle-hire service stations.

 

The office of tourism in Lyon has developed a clever little stylized slogan: “Only Lyon.” They would have you think that Lyon is filled with manifold attractions, but don’t be fooled dear reader—it is but a cheap trick. Lyon would be a terrible place to take people who are visiting you from America. There is nothing worth seeing, but there is indeed plenty to avoid.


Photo credit: Anne Donnelly

Definitely don't bring friends to Lyon or they'll look like this

Stay away from the Fourvière hill. There’s no point in looking out over the vast urban panorama. The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière has an unoriginal exterior and the décor inside is terribly bland. The ancient Roman theatre and odeon are uninteresting and they certainly don’t offer a fascinating view into the lives and cultures of ancient peoples.

 

No views to be found here...

The exterior of the basilica

The interior of the basilica 

The (restored) steps of the Roman theatre 

Don’t even think about visiting the Presqu’île. The Opéra Nouvel hosts no events worthy of note. There is no pleasure to be derived from strolling along the banks of the rivers and taking in the city views. The whole neighborhood seems haphazard: the Place Bellecour, Place Carnot, Place des Jacobins, Place des Terreaux, and all of the expansive avenues connecting them seem as if they were organized by a blind person.

 

The Saône

At Place Bellecour looking up to the Fourvière

Statue of Louis XIV in the center of Place Bellecour

Rue de la République 

The Hôtel de Ville in the Place des Terreaux 


Keep away from La Croix-Rousse, dear reader, if you know what is good for you. Just walking down the streets, one can sense the oppressively bohemian and lively atmosphere. The Roman amphitheater located there is just like every other Roman amphitheater. It is a neighborhood completely bereft of history and culture (apart from it being the capital of the European silk industry for several centuries).


Graffiti in La Croix-Rousse 

Kevin from Up


Don’t waste your time with Parc de la Tête d’Or; it is one of the oldest, largest, and dullest urban green spaces in France. It has nothing to offer in any season: the gardens are lifeless in the spring, you shouldn’t bother boating on the lake in the summer, the foliage lacks any color in autumn, and it’s a miserable place to spend Christmas Day biking around with the woman you love.


Cherry blossom


Steer clear of Vieux Lyon at all costs. For some reason UNESCO has declared it a world heritage site—probably as some sort of joke. The Cathédrale Saint-Jean is just a modest little chapel of no cultural significance. The narrow pedestrian streets and Renaissance architecture throughout the neighborhood leave much to be desired. Vieux Lyon is known for its traboules (covered passageways originally used for silk transportation in wet weather), but what’s so special about a few tunnels?


Cathédrale Saint-Jean

Traboule marking


In addition to all of these places to avoid, it should be noted that Lyon offers an embarrassingly meager selection of museums. The tourist unfortunate enough to travel to Lyon can see it all in a short afternoon: the Gallo-Roman Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Confluence Museum (of science and anthropology), the African Museum, the Hôtel-Dieu (medical museum), the Center for the History of the Resistance and Deportation, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Gadagne Museum (history of Lyon), the Museum of Automated Puppets, the Lumière Museum (the birthplace of cinematography), the Miniature and Cinema Museum, the Silk Weavers’ House (museum of the Lyonnais silk industry), the Printing Museum, and the Laundry Museum.


Roman mosaic 

Roman keys

 

Regarding Lyonnais culture, there’s not much to be said. While Lyon might be lauded as the gastronomic capital of France (and sometimes the world), anyone with a sense of taste will disagree. There is a dearth of regional ingredients, excellent markets, and international restaurants. The traditional Lyonnais eatery, the inhospitable bouchon, serves minuscule dishes of a quality barely rivaling Kentucky Fried Chicken. Any culinary culture that Lyon once had has been thoroughly stamped out by the infamous chef Paul Bocuse (whose only praise comes from fringe organizations, such as the Culinary Institute of America who named him Chef of the Century). Worst of all, dear reader, you’re forced to wash this so-called food down with the obscure and tasteless wines of Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhône—too insignificant to warrant further review.

 

quenelle, just try it


Lyon is widely known for its annual lights show, the Fête des Lumières—although it’s difficult to understand why. The Fête des Lumières is one of the top three biggest festive gatherings in the world in terms of attendance (after Rio Carnival and Munich Oktoberfest). Three to four million people come to see the hackneyed train wreck each year. It is a truly pedestrian event in both senses of the word: every road closes to traffic and swells with spectators. The entire city of Lyon is lit up by dozens of unimaginative installations, ranging from run-of-the-mill psychedelic animations projected on the cathedral to giant, bromidic puppet shows. You will see more originality, dear reader, by driving around your neighborhood in Christmastime. 


Cathédrale Saint-Jean 

Giant puppets and interpretive dance 

The Hôtel de Ville

The festival is actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary


Sure, Lyon may have ranked as the second best city in France by the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, but anyone who visits can observe otherwise. As you can discern from this guide, dear reader, there is nothing to see or do in Lyon. Its only redeeming features are six Starbucks locations and transportation to other destinations. It is utterly devoid of vitality, diversity, and culture. You will lose a fragment of your soul for every second you spend in such a miserable place, just ask any of two million people who reluctantly call Lyon home.