Home

Home is where the tea collection is.

In case you haven’t noticed, I live in Kansas City now. On short notice, without pomp or ceremony, I moved to the West Coast of Missouri to start a new job. I’m now a teaching assistant at Horizon Academy, a private school for students with learning disabilities. The last two weeks have been a bustling mess of packing, traveling, working, apartment hunting, painting, cleaning, and unpacking. Now that I’m settled into my new address and my new position, I finally have some time to think. This city isn’t mine. Then again, no place has been entirely mine for the last half decade; I’ve bounced from one semi-home to the next in constant flux.

Two months ago I returned from France to St. Louis, a wonderful city that I can no longer legitimately call home. While my parents are still there, many of the friends I grew up with have scattered. The ones who remain no longer enjoy the freedoms of being a student; frequent, spontaneous hangouts are a thing of the past. St. Louis is to me a city of woven memories.

This summer, my only home was my 55-liter backpack. I explored Ireland and Scotland, never staying in one place for more than a few days. As I hiked across the Pyrenees, I dreamt beneath the stars every evening in a bivouac sack. Names, distance, and time all lost meaning as I slept on a new patch of ground each night. My backpack was a kind of home for adventure, but it offered no permanence.

Before becoming a nomad, I had just begun to call Chambéry home. I’d arrived in the Alps on a September morning, disoriented by the mountains and encumbered by luggage. By April I’d grown up a little and grown into the language, culture, and people of France. My first year of adulthood was in Chambéry, sweet but temporary.

Before France, Kirksville Missouri was my makeshift home. Every year as a student I lived in a new building, every break I went back to St. Louis, and every summer I worked elsewhere. In many ways I grew to love the small town atmosphere of Kirksville, but as a student it was impossible to become a true local.

I studied abroad in Angers, France—the most brilliant and ephemeral home of them all. The three months were a whirlwind of novelty: new cultures, new places, new people, and new worldviews. I was separated from everything I’d ever known, liberated but adrift.

Throughout my summers at Camp Eagle, Texas became a kind of home for me, too. It’s there that I developed some of my most meaningful and lasting friendships; it’s there that I fell in love with the outdoors while backpacking and kayaking in the blazing summer heat. The people and the landscape of southwest Texas will draw me back for years to come.

In the last five years I’ve had many homes, and no homes. Each place I’ve lived has offered something special, but never something whole. I’m continually homeful, and homeless. This move to Kansas City is yet another passing stage; if all goes according to plan, next year I’ll move yet again to start graduate school.

I’m finalizing the layout of my new room. I’m memorizing my new zip code. I’m getting to know my new students and coworkers. I’m growing accustomed to being surrounded by Royals fans. I’ve found a few radio stations that will suffice. Each day I can better navigate what I’ve realized must be the most haphazard and knotted streets in America. I have a purpose here, and I’m close to people I love. With each passing day, I feel a little more homeful and a little less homeless.

 

A Dream, Realized

The Pic d'Anie, day 9

 

I did it. After forty-five days and five hundred miles, I successfully completed my traverse of the Pyrenees via the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne. There were tears and blood and an incredible amount of sweat. There was an unceasing chain of awe-inspiring landscapes. I savored plenty of solitude. Equally, I met people along the way whose company I cherished. At times it seemed like nature offered little gifts, and other times nature seemed indifferent and overwhelming. Some obstacles gave me serious pause. Some moments filled me with the rush of victory. At one point I even believed I had failed and my dream had slipped from my grasp.

I pushed my body, applied my skills, and quieted my mind. I made some great judgment calls and some enormous errors. I learned through experience. I smiled to myself, entertained myself, and talked to myself. I got tan, grew some facial hair, and lost some weight. (I think I've already regained the weight).

How can I even write about such an immense experience? How can I process, organize, and articulate in a way that does it all justice? I don't think it's possible in a single post, but I feel compelled to write something to help people understand this milestone in my life. I'll just need to trust that the details will come through in my conversations with people and in my future writing. So for the moment I'll summarize the experience, what I learned, and how it's influenced the way I imagine my future. I'll let photos do the rest of the talking.

The route that I followed consisted of five sections. The first section crossed through the Basque country from Hendaye to Lescun over the course of nine days. My departure on June 19th was, of course, anticlimactic. I set off alone on a rainy morning, but it wouldn’t be until almost a month later that it rained on me again (the weather was bizarre in the Pyrenees this summer, but it worked in my favor). During the first leg I transitioned into life on trail: conditioning my body, adjusting to my no-cook diet, and establishing my daily rhythm and rituals. I savored the green and bucolic landscape each day. The Pyrenees are pastoral in the truest sense of the word—there are grazing animals everywhere. I enjoyed getting a sense of the Basque culture and passing through picturesque villages as I crisscrossed the French-Spanish border. I was filled with peace and contentment each afternoon as I stopped for the day and set up camp; it felt as if I’d been hiking all my life. 

On day six, however, the trip took a turn for the worse. During the ascent of the Pic d’Orhy, the first summit over 2000 meters, my right knee started hurting. Then it hurt more. Then it became excruciatingly painful. Each step caused extreme, audible suffering. With each step my pace slowed. With each step I could tangibly feel my dream slipping further and further away. It began to sink in—I’d severely damaged myself, only a week in, and my trip was almost certainly over. 

For the next two days I limped onward to Lescun, where I took a few rest days. The situation didn’t improve much; if normal stairs proved to be an obstacle, how could I hike through the mountains? I had great doubts, but verbalized them to no one except my mother—I asked her to look into whether or not my plane ticket could be refunded and rescheduled. The more I thought about it, however, the more resolute I became. I reminded myself of how long I’d wanted this, how far I’d come, and how difficult it would be to return and try again later if I gave up. I decided that if I failed, it would be because of my body and not my mind. I would not make the choice to stop walking—I would stop only when I was physically unable to continue. I was prepared to hobble all the way to the Mediterranean.

 

The beach at Hendaye

A horse blocking my path on day one

Endless ferns

Pillbox from the Spanish Civil War

A mushroom that grew overnight 

Crossing the Camino de Santiago

A cromlech

The Pic d'Orhy

Scrambling on a ridge before the Pic d'Orhy

From the summit of Orhy, snow in sight

"pastoral zone, free-roaming herds/flocks"

Desolate limestone plateau and the west face of Pic d'Anie

 

The second section from Lescun to Gavarnie entailed seven days in the French Pyrenees National Park. The first few days went better than I had expected. I became absolutely in tune with my body. In the general sense, I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, and relieved myself when I so desired. But for the first time I truly listened to my body. I learned to distinguish the nuances of soreness, ache, and pain. I figured out precisely when I could continue and when I needed to rest, dip my bandana in a stream, and cool my knee.

Little by little, I became accustomed to walking with an injured leg. As long as I didn’t weight my knee while it was bent, I could handle most terrain. Rocky trails, boulders, and snowfield still proved to be difficult, but I was inspired by my surroundings. The views during this part were absolutely stunning. Every day was beautiful, and in retrospect I consider the second section to be the most consistently impressive of the entire trip. In fact, I was so motivated that I didn’t take variants that would have made the section easier and safer. On top of that, I wanted to complete the section one day faster than the guide book prescribed so I could have a rest day afterwards and not fall behind. The end result was that I successfully tackled some of the most challenging terrain of the entire HRP while shaving off a day in the process. I was only able to accomplish this via virtually interminable days—I limped for thirteen hours three days in a row.

Towards the end of the section I was reminded of what inspired me to do the HRP in the first place. There was one day where I hiked the exact route that I did in 2012. It was as if I’d gone back in time, back to the person I used to be. As I climbed towards the inspiring north face of Vignemale, I couldn’t help but feel as if each of the last three years was a decade. When I descended into Gavarnie I was filled with pride: in a week I’d gone from thinking my trip was over to overcoming some of the hardest days the HRP had to throw at me. I had proven much to myself, but I also knew it was time to get serious about letting my knee heal.

 

Cirque de Lescun

Pic du Midi d'Ossau, from west

Pic du Midi d'Ossau, from south

The Passage d'Orteig

The Refuge d'Arrémoulit

The Lacs d'Arrémoulit

Traversing snowfields 

Balaïtous, first peak above 3000 meters

Vignemale, from the west

Vignemale, the southwest face up close

The north face of the Vignemale massif at sunset 

Vignemale, from the east

The Cirque de Gavarnie

 

The third section stayed primarily in Spain during the nine days between Gavarnie and Salardú. During this time the HRP passed some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees, and the landscapes were enchanting. The normal HRP route includes four extremely difficult days in a row over snow and boulder fields and high passes. I decided to take a three-day variant following the GR 11 (the Spanish route) during this part for a variety of reasons, chiefly for the sake of my knee. 

For me, this was the most social stage of the entire hike. As my knee improved, I was able to hike with other people again. I reunited with hikers that I’d previously met, and I spent the majority of the section walking with others. I enjoyed the company, the conversations, and the cooperation. People went from meeting each other to feeling like old friends within a matter of days. Chatting made the time fly on trail. I was even gifted with a few hot cups of herbal tea. All of this prompted me to reflect on myself and my relationships back home. I wondered often about what type of person I truly am at my core, and what that means for the people around me. Bit by bit my knee healed, as I crossed the halfway point of my trip.

 

The mist receding

Vignemale, in the distance from the east 

Pico Posets, second highest in the Pyrenees

A birthday party for John 

Estany de Rius

Brushing teeth at sunrise 

Estany de Tort de Rius

Estany de Mar

From the summit of Montardo d'Aran, looking west towards Aneto (the highest peak in the Pyrenees)

From Montardo d'Aran, looking southeast towards the Parque Nacional de Aiguestortes

The Estany des Monges

Over halfway across the Pyrenees 

 

The fourth section crossed some of the most remote areas of the Spanish and Andorran Pyrenees in the ten days from Salardú to Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre. The area was so remote, in fact, that there was essentially no place to restock on food for the entire duration of the section, so on day one I crawled out of town with an absurdly heavy pack.

The rain finally caught up with me as well. Every afternoon, like clockwork, clouds darkened the sky, and most nights they let loose. It wasn’t a tremendous hindrance, however, because the rain usually began after I’d stopped hiking for the day. This region contained many unstaffed shelters along the trail, so I often had protection from the rain if I really needed it. While the clouds did provide some welcome shade during the day, they didn’t create ideal lighting for photographs. As I approached Hospitalet I could sense the beginning of the end. I began to look back on the trip, think about how I’d changed, and try to grasp what it all meant going forward.

Sunrise to the east of Salardú

Andorra

Not a road within miles 

 

The fifth and final stage of the HRP consisted of ten days between Hospitalet and Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was afraid that it might be less interesting after having completed the rest of the traverse. The last section, however, still had much in store for me—including the highest point of my entire trip, an incredible two-day ridge walk, and one crazy thunderstorm. Any concerns that it would be too easy were further invalidated by the fact that I compressed the ten days of hiking into just eight. Over the course of those eight days, I appreciated the most diverse scenery of the entire hike: desolate alpine peaks, grassy high plateaus, and the dry Mediterranean bramble. 

As I neared the finish, I became increasingly elated by the probability of my success. Only a few obstacles stood in my way; I only needed to avoid stupid mistakes. With greater frequency I passed hikers going west to east on the trail—just starting. The beginning of my trip seemed both unfathomably distant and undoubtedly proximal. It felt, simultaneously, as if I’d started my journey years ago and as if I’d started it the day before. Either way, I certainly felt changed by it. 

Due to poor weather on the Pic de Canigou, I didn’t see the ocean until the penultimate day. I had prepared myself to be impatient towards the end, yet I found that I was simply excited. I was saturated with a constant happiness. I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face as I drew closer to the Mediterranean, as Banyuls came into sight, and as I descended for the last time. I prepared myself for anticlimax as I entered the calm streets of Banyuls. I saw the beach, packed with sun-soaked crowds. I slowly walked up to the water, crouched down, and let it lap against my dirty hands. Puzzled beachgoers observed a single, oddly clothed man with a giant backpack, completely unaware of the gravity of what he had just accomplished. 

 

The Pic Carlit, notice the trail 

The summit of Pic Carlit 

Pic du Canigou in the distance at sunrise 

Ascending towards Canigou in the mist 

The Brèche Durier underneath Canigou 

The summit of Canigou 

A break in the clouds 

Arles-sur-Tech, approaching the Mediterranean

An abundance of wild blackberries

Canigou from the east 

Banyuls on the right

Finished.

Celebrating in Banyuls 

 

So what now? I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. I still don’t know if I’m an introvert or extrovert or both. I still don’t know whether or not, at the deepest, most hidden level of my being, I’m a bad person. I still don’t know exactly to what extent I should regulate my interactions with technology. I still don’t know if or when or where I want to establish my roots. I still don’t know whether I should give money to panhandlers. I still don’t know why women do what they do. I still don’t know why Donald Trump is number one in the GOP presidential primaries right now. 

I do know that I’m well rested in body and mind. I know that when your greatest stress is physical, you’re living a pleasant life. I know that, after a month and a half of eating out of an old peanut butter jar and sleeping in a plastic bag on the ground (albeit an expensive plastic bag), I want to live a more minimalistic life. I know that I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned to hiking in the U.S. I know that I want to get involved with more serious mountaineering. I know that completing the Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail) is now a long-term goal of mine. I know that the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne has been the biggest dream that I’ve conceived of, planned, and achieved in my entire life. I know that that I’m enormously grateful for my experience in the Pyrenees, and I know that someday I’ll be back again. 

 

Before and after


See my video of the HRP here.

What I'm Bringing

image.jpg

 

If you're interested in the logistics of my thru-hike of the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne, this is the post for you! My (annotated) packing list and some general comments are below. I have a total weight for my pack, but unfortunately I didn't have a scale accurate enough to weigh each item. I've decided not to use brand names as I don't want it to turn into a gear obsession list. If you have any questions about my general approach or about specifics, send me a message (however you won't get a response for quite some time, as I'm currently hiking and this is a timed post).

Things Worn/Used [Not included in the base pack weight]

-Full grain leather waterproof boots

-Wool hiking socks

-Softshell hiking shorts

-Synthetic boxer briefs

-Synthetic button-up t-shirt 

-Altimeter/barometer/compass watch

-Trekking poles

-Waterproof map case

Things Carried

-55 liter internal frame backpack

-Pack cover

-Ultralight 20 liter day pack

-Waterproof bivy bag [I am not bringing a tent]

-Tarp and cord [I can set up a shelter with this and my trekking poles if weather gets really bad, but it will otherwise serve as a ground sheet]

-Stakes [So my bivy doesn't blow away]

-Closed-cell foam sleeping pad

-Down sleeping bag and waterproof compression sack [Bag rated for 0 C/32 F]

-Sleeping bag liner [To add warmth when it's cold, function as an ultralight bag when it's hot, and keep my bag cleaner]

-Inflatable pillow [Okay this is a bit of a vice, but it weighs almost nothing and it’s worth the extra comfort and convenience to me. Most hikers use a sack of their clothes as a pillow]

-Instep crampons [There will probably be snow in some parts of the mountains, and the security is worth hauling them all the way across]

-Snow attachment for trekking poles

-Waterproof hardshell jacket

-Waterproof hardshell pants

-Down vest

-Synthetic fleece

-Light synthetic gloves

-Synthetic fleece cap

-Synthetic/wool base layer upper

-Synthetic base layer lower

-One extra pair of underwear

-Two extra pairs of hiking socks

-Bandanna

-Sunglasses

-Synthetic hat [To add some extra sun protection]

-Flip-flops [As camp shoes]

-Small microfiber towel

-All purpose biodegradable soap

-Toothbrush [Sawed-off] 

-Toothpaste 

-Floss [Also useful for repairs]

-Tongue scraper [I know it’s weird but for me a fresh mouth is a real morale booster, and it weighs almost nothing. Especially when it's also cut in half]

-Small nail clippers 

-Tweezers

-Foot powder [Not for feet]

-Sunscreen

-Chapstick

-Drugs [Antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, a few strong pain killers in case something goes very, very wrong]

-Bandages

-Blister pads

-EpiPen [Most people don't know, but I'm actually allergic to beef now]

-Biodegradable toilet paper

-Hand sanitizer

-Water purification droplets

-3 liter hydration system 

-3 liter dromedary [Primarily as a second container to hold water while it’s purifying. I won't be lugging around six liters of water everywhere]

-Titanium spork 

-Empty peanut butter jar [I’m going no-cook. That means no stove and no hot food. This peanut butter jar will be where I soak my dinners to life in cold water]

-Various spices [How I'll keep my sanity] 

-Stainless steal multitool [On the heavy side, but I'm still willing to take the weight for a sturdy companion. I also keep it in the waist belt pocket of my pack, so the weight goes directly to my hips]

-Paracord

-Duct tape [Rolled around a plastic straw to save space]

-Repair kit [Nylon patches, thread and needle, safety pin]

-Lighter

-Stormproof matches [Backup]

-Aluminum space blanket

-Maps [Number will vary according to where I am on the trail]

-Compass

-Pen

-Headlamp

-Cheap, light cellphone [For calling emergency services if needed]

-Electronic tablet in waterproof case [See comments below]

-External battery

-Universal USB charger

-Wallet [Well, a ziplock bag that contains things that wallets do]

-Extra ziplock bags

-Earplugs [For cowbells and snorers]

The total base weight of my pack is just at 12 kilograms, or about 26 pounds (the final weight will fluctuate drastically based on how much food and water I'm carrying at any moment). That's heavier than I wanted, but much of that comes with the territory of solo hiking: I can't split gear with other people. In a group of three, for example, there would be one first aid kit, one repair kit, one tent, etc. Well I still need all of those things but there's only me to carry them.

In other ways I want to be conservative with my gear selection, because the consequences of an accident are amplified when hiking alone. I have an EpiPen, extra matches, and a space blanket even though I am almost certain I will never touch them, because they could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. 

As I'm a little early in the hiking season, I want to be on the safe side with protection from the elements. The weather in the Pyrenees is notoriously unpredictable and temperamental. Maybe I could make it without a down vest and a sleeping bag liner, but I don't want to push my luck—especially because I'm not bringing a stove and can't easily warm myself if needed.

On that note, I decided after careful consideration to make it a no-cook hike. Even among hikers it's often considered an odd choice, but eventually I became convinced of its merits. I save a fair amount of weight by not bringing a stove or fuel. I don't have to hassle with cooking when I'm tired and hungry. What’s most appealing to me, however, is the time saved—depending on how many meals I would normally cook a day, up to two hours including cleanup. It means I can get going quickly in the morning and get to bed quickly at night. Plus, I can probably get a hot meal every once in a while when I go through a village to resupply. 

The question of technology was for me one of the most difficult when considering what to bring on my hike. Would bringing an iPad inhibit my ability to connect with my environment and live in the moment? Would it over complicate the trip? Is it cheating?

It quickly became clear that it was a going to save me weight. The iPad alone weighs less than the HRP guidebook, which I downloaded instead of bringing a hard copy. It's also functioning as a journal, reading material, a camera, and a video recorder. I could theoretically use it for GPS as well, but I don't think I'll have the need and it drains the battery.

It is certainly practical to have some contact, at least intermittently, with the outside world. I'm not certain how often I'll be able to find internet access, but I estimate about once a week. I can find weather forecasts and prepare accordingly. I can update my itinerary with the people I've entrusted it to, which is important because I'm solo hiking. In case of an emergency I would be able to contact family and change plans. 

I could also check my email, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram at every chance I get. I could theoretically download a ton of movies and entertain myself every night. I could play video games alone in the woods until my heart was content. But instead I intend to abstain from social media, games, surfing the web, etc. I feel like those could indeed become a distraction, and I relish the opportunity to let go of them and have some mental peace for a time. 

But I think this touches on a deeper philosophical issue: the relationship between humankind and nature. Firstly, this is a false opposition: humans are nature, but we separate ourselves from the rest of nature. That didn't start with the iPad. If I wanted to have a “pure connection” or “true encounter” with nature I would ditch my boots, all of my gear, my food, and instead dance around naked in the mountains foraging for plants. Then I would die, because our ability as humans to manipulate and insulate ourselves from the wild is the only reason we've survived and thrived. Ultimately, wise usage of gizmos on my hike will require personal responsibility and self-discipline—qualities that everyone in the 21st century needs to cultivate in relationships with technology in order to live healthy and fulfilled lives. 

What's in my pack will no doubt change as the hike goes on. I suspect that, no matter what, it will gradually become lighter. Some things will work well, some things won't. Some things I'll really need, some things I won't. If there's an interest, maybe I'll post an analysis of my equipment afterwards! 

 

A Dream—The Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne

image.jpg

 

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.

 

image.jpg

 

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 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.

An Exceedingly Humble Guide [Part Two]: Grenoble

 

Grenoble has much in common with Annecy: they are both cities, they are both located in France, and they both contain people. Grenoble is a truly majestic city, nestled beneath the Vercors, Belledonne, and Chartreuse mountains. It is so nestled that the amalgam of concrete buildings stretches all the way up to the slopes of its geographic confines. If you, dear reader, ever have the chance to visit, you too might feel nestled—suffocated in a beautiful way.

 


If you are working as an English teaching assistant in Savoy, Grenoble will probably be the nearest real city. With the resources to sustain and entertain 600,000 people, you will frequent it in an attempt to satisfy your cosmopolitan inclinations. It is to this metropolis that you will voyage in search of important government offices, a movie theatre showing Interstellar in English, and a Mexican restaurant that you will have convinced yourself is the best in all of France (your desperation for margaritas having clouded your judgment).



Grenoble has the air of an old capital. Evidence of the city’s former political clout remains: expansive boulevards, elegant apartments, and—most notably—an immense prison-fort looming over the entire city from atop its hill. This last item, the Bastille (a note to the debutant: not the infamous Bastille of the French Revolution), has become a considerable attraction. Instead of serving as a bastion of punishment, it is now a citadel of tourism—a citadel whose import is readily apparent in the volume of Asian visitors it attracts. If someone from the Orient is on vacation in Europe, it means they have travelled a great distance and their destination is a worthy one. Millions, if not billions, of Asians visit the Bastille every year. They summit the fortress by way of the téléphérique: a system reminiscent of a ski lift, but with magical glass space globes. This is, of course, a destination that you do not want to spoil by physical exertion: from the Bastille you can see the glorious mountains, the winding river, the expansive city, the marvelous high-rises, and an enchanting haze of pollution that renders the whole landscape mysterious and ethereal—if a little obscured. 



But dear reader, someone as cultured as you will not be contented so easily with the main attraction. Grenoble has so much more to offer: rapid public transportation, modern shopping centers, a myriad of ethnic food, and an abundance of bars and dance clubs in which you can completely redefine your previous notions of personal space. The Museum of Grenoble is like a miniature Louvre. The iron-lined balconies and mansard roofs near the Place Hubert Dubedout are reminiscent of Haussmann apartments in Paris. Notre-Dame de Grenoble is just like Notre Dame de Paris, in that they have the words Notre-Dame in their name. Why would you go anywhere else (for example Paris), if you could go to Grenoble? 


A Haussmann apartment building in Paris

As you probably know, dear reader, a city is so much more than its attractions. Grenoble is a rich tapestry woven of beautiful and diverse neighborhoods. Take, for example, Arlequin. It was here in 2010 that, after a robbery suspect was killed in a shoot-out with the police, massive riots erupted throughout the housing projects. In the following days gunmen fired upon police, SWAT teams sieged apartment complexes, and protestors burned dozens of cars. Such culture! On your visit to Grenoble, it is likely that a friend of a friend will invite you over for a raclette party at his hippy commune located in a condemned house in the middle of Arlequin. You will probably attend this event with your friend (a local) after you (not a local) assure her that the neighborhood is probably just fine. It is not, you will emphasize, one of the most dangerous in all of France. As if the universe seeks to prove your point, you will certainly not find a knife just lying on the ground as you approach the commune, and your perception of Grenoble will certainly not be thus undermined.

 

The knife that was not found

 

Overall Grenoble is splendidly existent, magnificently populated, and lavishly urban. You, dear reader, will almost certainly visit at some point. It might be that you don’t have many choices for real cities, but there’s no need for other choices when you have a metropolitan paradise like Grenoble.

 

Three Weeks in Limbo

The outskirts of Chambéry

 

I am in France! For the last three weeks I’ve been occupied with getting acclimated to my new city and preparing for my work as an English teaching assistant. I had forgotten how much I love this country and language. I had forgotten that everyone looks beautiful, I had forgotten that everyone smokes, and I had forgotten that every single toilet is different.

Unfortunately, I had also forgotten about the bureaucracy. France has a cultivated and rich tradition of administrative entanglement. The paperwork is simultaneously nightmarish and impressive. Over the past few weeks I’ve had to accomplish a series of tasks: find a temporary place to stay, get a cell phone, find a permanent place to stay, open a bank account, register with my school, get a bus pass, and finalize my working visa with the French government (to name a few). To complete these tasks I’ve had to furnish a multitude of proofs, circumnavigate catch-22s, schedule and reschedule meetings, message and call, message again and call again, seek the help of others, exaggerate my helplessness, and smile.  

 

 

Finding housing has proven to be the greatest challenge. Teaching assistants are required to organize their own housing, and there are many different options. There was a possibility that I could live at my school (they have housing for students as well), but I didn’t receive a response from the school before I departed—so I arrived in Chambéry relatively unprepared. The first night I stayed in the cheapest hotel that I could find (still expensive), just to give me a little bit of flexibility. The next day a girl named Perrine accepted my Couchsurfing request, so I hauled all of my luggage over to her place—I’ll describe my experience there later on. I only planned to stay for the weekend, but once I told Perrine and her roommates about my situation they welcomed me to stay until I found a permanent place.

 

My hosts' chicken

 

Once I set up camp in their living room, I started wholeheartedly searching for an apartment. I continued searching for two weeks. As it turns out, there is a shortage of real estate in Chambéry. Even the most undesirable of accommodations will fetch at least three hundred euros a month. Something approximating nice will cost around five hundred. I wanted to share an apartment or house with French people. It’s cheaper, I could practice my French, and I could make some easy friends. For two weeks I scoured close to a dozen different sources: websites, agencies, university postings, and friends of friends. After incessant calls and messages, I received dismally few responses. Again and again, promising opportunities fell through. I became discouraged.


Taking a photo while biking

 

This period of instability would have been even more distressing if it weren’t for my hosts. Perrine lives in a colocation with four other young people: Amel, Antonin, Jean, and Léo (colocation doesn’t have a great English translation, so I’ve chosen to use the French word—or its abbreviation—throughout: it is a name for a living situation with multiple roommates, flat mates, or housemates. It commonly connotes conviviality and community). In one of the most vulnerable periods in my life, I have experienced profound hospitality. From the moment I arrived they not only put a roof over my head, but they invited me in on their meals, conversations, and plans. Antonin and Léo took me hiking (although we got rained out). Amel introduced me to all of her friends and brought me to her English class. Jean included me in all of his game nights and movie nights. Perrine took me climbing. In particular, Amel was immensely helpful in assisting me with my paperwork and housing search, and she was a constant source of encouragement. I also just returned from a three-day backpacking trip with Antonin and Léo through the Chartreuse mountain range—although I’ll save that for another post.

 

 

The coloc quickly became more than just the place where I slept—it is now where my closest friends in Chambéry live. Although installing myself in this city has been a slow process in other regards, I am tremendously fortunate to have established the roots of friendship so rapidly. I have no doubt that they will remain close for the duration of my stay in Chambéry—and long after.

 

 

Eventually my housing search started to yield results. I secured a visit to an apartment about ten minutes from the center of the city. It is a coloc with two other guys: one Asian student and a French man who I suspect is around thirty or thirty-five. I met them both, along with the landlord, during my visit. I saw the room being offered and the amenities of the apartment. My impression: it seemed to have neither spectacular advantages nor significant drawbacks. It was attractive because it existed and because it was available—which is more than I could say about any other option I had pursued. I told the landlord that I was interested and that I would decide within the next couple of days. In the meantime, I was still waiting for responses and seeking other leads.

Several days later, there were no new options. After three weeks in limbo, with my job about to start, I decided that it was time to make a decision and get settled. Exactly one week ago I accepted the offer, signed the papers, and moved in. The relief that comes from transitioning out of virtual homelessness in a foreign country is difficult to qualify; for the first time in the better part of a month, I was able to unpack my suitcases. I could organize my belongings. I had privacy. I felt secure.

 

 

Over the past week I’ve made this apartment my home. It is quite nice! So are my new flat mates, Xiao and Cédric. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the coloc had Wi-Fi: I was told it didn’t. There haven’t been any nasty surprises yet, and the bathroom is pretty normal (you never know in France). As I explore the neighborhood, I’m also realizing how practical the location is. The bus stop is right in front of my door, there are multiple grocery stores nearby, my favorite restaurant is only a couple minutes away, and the old coloc is right up the hill.

 

A party at the coloc

 

I am getting established with my job. A couple of weeks ago, all of the foreign language assistants in the area of Grenoble (about two-hundred and forty) congregated for two days of training. We met our colleagues, we were guided through the impending administrative obligations, and we attended workshops on pedagogical strategies for assistants.

 

So-called training

 

Last week I started at Lycée Louis Armand as the English teaching assistant for the entire school (there is also one Spanish assistant and one Italian assistant). The English faculty has been welcoming, and the students have been surprisingly agreeable. Although French classrooms are known for being a bit more rowdy, my students have been engaged and interested—for now, at least, I’m novel. I am enjoying my work, and I feel confident in my ability to do it well.

After three weeks of uncertainty, I am finding equilibrium. I have a home, I have friends, and I am fulfilling the purpose for which I am here. It is no longer the beginning.