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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
See my video of the HRP here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.