From July 13 to September 3, 2014, I hiked along the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne, a hiking route that follows the crest of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. I camped in my tent on 42 nights, and on 10 nights stayed at gîtes (hostels).
Certains des fleurs que nous avons vu au cours de notre Tour du Mont Blanc. Mon classification des espèces peuvent être fausses. Corrections sont les bienvenues!
Un matin de Juin, Monsieur Forêt et moi, nous sommes sortis de la porte de sa maison. Une semaine plus tard nous sommes retournés à la porte, après avoir fait une randonnée du Tour du Mont-Blanc. J’ai appris à aimer le pain, des saucissons et du fromage!
In May and June 2014, I walked from Fort William to the Cape Wrath lighthouse through the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. Photos now, stories later.
Sometime early this year I came across a couple of quotes, probably at the bottom of somebody’s email: “Nothing ever happens until you leave home.” “The difference between a dream and a goal is a date.” Those two notions stewed in my head until I picked a date and left home and went to Scotland, a place I last visited in 1973.
I was seventeen then, the lucky recipient of a high school graduation gift from my parents – a six week trip to Europe with the American Institute for Foreign Study. We spent three weeks at the University of Aberdeen, taking classes, going on field trips, and eating fish and chips sprinkled with salt and vinegar and wrapped in newspaper by knuckled old hands contorted with arthritis. There were about 200 kids from schools all over the US, which made it a cross-cultural trip in more than one way, this being my first exposure to soft-drawled girls from the Deep South, including one named Letitia who taught me one or two lessons, but not the kind I was hoping for.
One afternoon Jim Conroy, our robust and ruddy-faced field trip leader, took a bunch of us kids on a field trip by bus somewhere up the coast to gawk at puffins and kittewakes, and at some point on the long ride back to Aberdeen he realized that he hadn’t done a head count and yes, had left one or two of us behind, and the bus driver, who was probably thinking about getting home to a good Scottish dinner of neeps and tatties and maybe some blood puddin’, had to turn that bus around and drive back up across miles and miles of rolling brown and olive drab heather moor, and we picked up our missing people and Jim Conroy reached into the pockets of his tweed britches and pulled out a giant fistful of good hard British currency, pounds and pounds in both weight and value, and shoved it into that bus driver’s hands without once looking to see how much of his own money he was giving away to make amends.
But when I returned this year, my friend Becs, raised in the Highlands, warned me that you mustn’t offer money to a Scot who has done you a favor, no matter how big, because that would be seen as an insult, the notion being that the favor was just to be expected, and you would do the same for them, wouldn’t you? Well, I said, thanks for the advice, Becs, and went off on another one of my ridiculous longish hikes through the rumpled and boggy Highlands, and about one week into that hike I did someone a pretty big favor when I was greeted by name by an utter stranger and drafted to help with what turned into a helicopter rescue of a hypothermic, overweight and underprepared English (aka foreign) accountant who’d taken a bath in a storm-swollen Scottish burn, and just about ruined my knees and got hypothermia myself in the process, and sure enough nobody tried to give me any money for my trouble, which I nearly had more of when at the end of the hike I had to cross an honest-to-God bombing range to get to the Cape Wrath lighthouse that looks out at the Arctic Circle.
It wasn’t until after I took a bus and a boat and a bus back to Tom and Becs’s place that I realized I had left my raincoat somewhere behind. A raincoat, you might have heard, is not an optional article of clothing in the British Isles, and after lots of head scratching I figured I’d left it at the Smoo Cave Hotel, where I’d eaten fish and chips and drunk beer brewed in the Orkney Islands to celebrate my survival crossing the bombing range. And those folks at the Smoo Cave Hotel put my jacket on the bus with a driver who delivered it to me on a street corner in Dingwall, where, forgetting Becs’s advice but remembering Jim Conroy’s act 41 years earlier, I tried to tip the driver. He would have none of it, but he didn’t seem insulted either. Maybe he wasn’t Scottish.
We left the British Isles, back in ‘73, and flew to Venice, where we boarded a large, leaky cruise ship staffed by young Greek sailors who were soon enjoying a cross-cultural experience with the one hundred or so American girls on board, which prompted Letitia’s boyfriend back home, a Tennessee gentleman of some means, to haul himself to Europe to stake out his territory.
At the farthest reach of that trip, we visited Israel. I remember reaching down and out the bus window to buy my first-ever fresh fig from a little Palestinian boy. A group of 20 or 30 of us, including some crafty New York City girls, went on a walking tour through one of those narrow, crooked 1000-year old streets crowded with shops and food vendors, and our guide, ruddy-faced and robust, who told us his name was Moses, which could have really been his name but was more likely a tag he laughed about later over a beer with his friends, he appointed me the sweep, and I was to come get him if we lost any of our group in the confusion of it all.
And sure enough, a couple of those crafty girls from New York disappeared into a deep and dark shop with hand-made textiles and ceramics and brass trinkets and every other manner of artifact designed to catch the eye. I cautiously poked my head inside that cavern and saw the two girls trapped in a sort of military engagement, so I ducked back out and shouldered through the crowd of criss-crossing locals with their arms full of produce and found Moses and told him we had a little problem, so he strode back to that store, parting the sea of humanity with me following in his wake, and I watched him negotiate with the storeowner for the release of our captives. The merchant claimed, of course, that the girls had been shoplifting, and maybe they had been and maybe they hadn’t, and maybe the merchant was crafty too, I’ll never know, and Moses didn’t know, or maybe he did, but at any rate he reached into his robe, and he pulled out a pile of shekels to satisfy that merchant. Later, at a shop in safer territory, Moses invited me to pick out anything I wanted as a thank you for my tour of duty, and I settled on a little hammered copper plate, which still collects my pocket change each day when I return home from the utterly safe streets of Enterprise.
After getting my raincoat back, I flew not to Venice but to Chamonix, France, a tony little mountain town that sits 12,382 feet below Mont Blanc. You can ride a crazy cable car up to a restaurant that sits on a giant spike of black rock called the Aiguille du Midi, and from there climb to the summit 3,000 feet above. Some people, including a French trail runner I met who thought I was from Great Britain, may snub the mere hills of Scotland, but there are 282 of them, called “Munros,” over 3,000 feet above sea level, which is just about where you have got to start from to climb most of them, and that without use of a cable car. Lots of Scots have climbed them all, including the fellow who roped me into helping out with that helicopter rescue, and that is probably a far sight harder than climbing Mont Blanc once from the Aiguille du Midi, although probably equally pointless, especially considering that half the time you can’t see two feet from the top of one of those Munros, what with the weather coming in off the North Atlantic all the time.
I went to Chamonix because I had a friend there who is a hot shot mountain guide and speaks French a hell of a lot better than me. We walked the Tour de Mont Blanc, circling the mountain, stopping at gites, auberges, and refugios – places with a roof and a bunkroom and afternoon wine or beer and family-style dinners and something that the Continentals call breakfast but the Scots surely scoff at, and in the course of that week-long jaunt we passed through corners of Italy and Switzerland. I left my good wool shirt at the refugio in Italy where I thought I had become part of the caretaker’s family, but they never did respond to my email about the shirt, although they did thank me for the picture I sent them. Those Italians.
So I bought a new shirt and rode trains across southern France, stopping to look at castles and play petanque and drink aperitifs at outdoor cafes and watch girls in dresses riding bicycles with baguettes and bouquets tucked in their baskets, and got to the small town of Hendaye on the Atlantic coast.
I had it in my head to go on one more ridiculous long walk, this time along the spine of the Pyrenees, to end at the Costa Brava with its hillsides terraced with Roman vineyards and its beaches facing Asia across the Mediterranean Sea. I walked down to the beach, skinny dipped in the Atlantic Ocean because the locals were, and started walking up into the Basque Country. This was no remote wilderness venture, because western Europe basically has no wilderness, although there is some rugged country to be sure. There were trail runners in tight and gaudy spandex and Spanish families with men wearing white-framed sunglasses and smelling of cologne, and cows and horses and sheep, also smelling and every single one of them wearing a bell, so I sometimes had to wear earplugs in my tent. And there were gites or refugios just about every day, but I chose to sleep in my tent, and only stopped at those mountain huts for a little bit of conversation and to eat omelettes served with bare naked pieces of good French bread.
That summer turned out to be the coldest, wettest summer in the Pyrenees since 1934. My tent was punctured by a hailstone the size of a golf ball. A good Scot would probably say, “Och, it’s just a wee thing,” and would pick up that hailstone and play nine holes right then and there. But I’m no Scot, and sometimes all that kept me going was the prospect of seeing Homer’s sun, “leaving the waters of the splendid East, leap up into the firmament to bring light to the immortals and to men who plough the earth and perish.”
Which I did – see the sun leap up, that is, over the warm waters of the Mediterranean – from the summit of Canigou, where I met a band of grubby itinerant grape pickers, four men and a woman, who had a few days off on account of the unusually wet and cold weather, and on account of increasing automation, which you cannot blame on climate change. They climbed the mountain in sandals and ragged sneakers, and carried a puppy and not enough clothes. The woman, a blue-eyed Lithuanian, pulled out a cow’s horn and blew three long loud notes that echoed off the Crete de Barbet, jagged and dark in shadow. She sang songs and sounded a tuning fork in the sunrise.
Later, we lunched together on the patio outside the gite below, where the puppy chewed on my shoeless feet and Matias, bare-chested, missing teeth, with hair on its way to dreads, carved a wedge of Camembert with a giant wooden-handled Choix Opinel folding knife. While we talked politics, he waved the knife around to make a point, and I said, in my best French, “Jamais disputez avec un homme avec un grande couteau.” Never argue with a man with a big knife.
Seven weeks after skinny dipping in the Atlantic, I walked into the Mediterranean Sea wearing shorts, because the locals were. Except you don’t necessarily always want to do what the locals do. While our group of kids was waiting in some whitewashed, sundrenched coastal town for our leaking cruise ship crawling with horny Greek sailors, a couple of us boys jumped off a 50 or 100 foot cliff into the Mediterranean Sea because we’d seen the local boys doing it. Only after we jumped, the local boys upped the ante by climbing onto the flat roof of a blockhouse that sat back about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff. They would run off the roof, clear the edge of the cliff, and arc into the sea. I could recognize a home court advantage when I saw it, so I folded my hand and lived to jump into the Mediterranean another day.
I walked down the coast into Spain, from one little tourist town to the next, until I got on a bus and then a train and, after a few detours, ended up in Barcelona, where I stood in line with the throngs to walk inside the Sagrada Familia, a ridiculous perpetually unfinished tribute to Spanish architectural monumentalism, masquerading as a tribute to God, complete with piped-in Holy Music. Walking back to my apartment past cafes with people drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking endless chains of cigarettes, I stumbled on a merely large cathedral. It seemed like a country cottage. I stepped into the dark and cool interior, which took me back to Venice in 1973, where, walking back to our hotel very late one night, the streets dark, the canals quiet and lapping, our small group of teenagers from the land of purple mountain majesties and amber fields of grain saw a little church. We snuck inside the darkened temple, and listened in silence to the sound of one old man playing Vivaldi on his violin.
* * * * *
Six years after that first trip to Europe, while living in Portland, Oregon, I learned that my girlfriend’s coworker’s wife had once dated Jim Conroy. Four years ago, in my dining room, I watched Becs meet a Wallowa County friend and discover that, 50 years ago in Scotland, his dad and her mom had dated. This spring, I took in a housemate who, it turns out, had once worked at a ski area with my friend in Chamonix. I guess it really is a small world, which makes me get half a notion to go back to Europe, and not let 41 years go by this time. Who knows who I might meet.
Well, I don’t have room to tell you how that fellow in the Highlands knew who I was, or what happened at the pub with the six-and-a-half foot tall Belgian, or about other well-meaning but ill-considered favors I have gotten mixed up in, like borrowing a chainsaw, without asking, from a hunting camp festooned with bottles of Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey, in order to help out a hapless Portland (aka foreign) fellow who’d gotten his truck high-centered on some lodgepole pine saplings, and who also did not offer to pay me for my trouble, which was considerable especially when I went to return the chainsaw, and which offer I would not have refused. These stories will have to wait until I have time to get around to them, which, according to the same logic that assures me I have money in my bank account as long as I have checks in the checkbook, should make me immortal.
Only I know I’m not, now that some of the hairs on my chest are starting to turn white, and neither is Moses, or was Moses, because that was in 1973, remember, and Moses was in fighting trim, and I sometimes wonder whether he got called up later that summer when yet another war between the factions in the Holy Land broke out. And we’re all still fighting, so I call it a win when I remember to be kind to the person sitting next to me.
Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth
I first met Richard “Amtrak” Alexander somewhere in Vermont, I think, at one of those three-sided shelters that those of us hiking from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail thought of as home – for one night, anyway. Then it was on, ever northward. He wore then, as always while I knew him, a slight and impish grin as he prepared to deliver his next wickedly funny and devastatingly accurate critique of life’s absurdities. He had no lack of material.
In the easy-come, easy-go way of thru-hikers, Amtrak (along with his sidekick, Hayden, a duck tolling retriever) and I crossed paths casually a few times through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, until we found ourselves finishing the trail together after what some called the worst early-season Maine snowstorm in 60 years.
I consider myself fortunate that our friendship continued after the Appalachian Trail. Amtrak came to visit me in eastern Oregon, where we went backpacking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. And I visited him in Boise, where he lived for a time.
Then there was the time he and Dave and I drove up to the Enchantments in Washington, and were stopped by two young and over-zealous policemen on the outskirts of Ellensburg. Eleven at night, a VW bus, three scruffy looking men … what could be surer cause to issue a citation? But, partly because of Richard’s typical coolness under fire and disarming-but-somehow-sneakily-insubordinate charm, the two coppers soon almost bowed to us as they waved us on our way to what was to be a fine autumn hike through alpine granite and golden Western larches.
His keenness of observation and appreciation for irony always delighted me. I am sorry to see him go. Here’s to Amtrak, long-distance hiker and fine friend.
(Below are excerpts from my journal account of the last few days of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2000, including a few snippets of moments shared with Amtrak, and evidence that he deserved his trail name.)
October 9: 28 degrees. We stop for lunch at White House Landing. The proprietor says, “I hope you have a good campfire tonight, because you’re going to need it, heh heh.”
October 10: Wadleigh Stream leanto. It’s cold. It’s wet. Snug in my bag, very glad I wore earplugs last night, as the din of rain on the metal roof of the shelter is very loud. Not yet dawn, but light enough that I can see some snow on the ground. White stuff, the start of winter, death by hypothermia.
As we climb Nesuntabunt Mountain, the snow gets deeper. At the summit, I catch Gilligan and Flipper, who have lost the trail. The woods are lovely, with golden leaves and pine needles falling on top of the snow. We hear and see trees falling or shedding limbs under the weight of the snow. It’s ironic that the leaves, which bring such beauty to the autumn woods, also spell doom for some trees by catching the heavy snow.
I end up somewhat dehydrated, for water to drink is somewhat scarce. My feet, however, are soaked. At 3:30 I arrive at the shelter, which is full. There’s a Welshman, two days into the woods, with a broken leg. He tried crossing the stream on a pair of skinny, ice-covered logs and fell into the stream. Amtrak and Walkabout have already got him stabilized. The Welshman’s buddy has walked out for help.
A discussion starts about “stop or go”–I choose to stop and waste no time about it, for my body is cooling off. I go up the hill and kick the wet, heavy snow aside, down to hemlock needles. In these dark woods, I’m getting cold very fast. As I pitch my tent, I keep the fly draped loosely over it so that the big drops of rain and snow dropping off the trees don’t soak the tent before I even get it up. I immediately get into my bag.
I hear chainsaws or snowmobiles, or both. I venture out, although this requires putting the wet socks back on. Yech. I go down to the shelter, which is all a-bustle with a dozen search and rescue men getting ready to carry the Welshman out on a board. Yoda and Amtrak have splinted the man’s leg so well with pieces of Z-Rest that the doctor leaves it be. The moon shines briefly through the dripping hemlocks.
October 11: It requires an act of will to get started in the morning, but I’m up against it. I don’t have the food to hang out; the season has gone too far. I’ll be walking in snow and slush and mud all day.
I feel concentrated, serious. I’m tossing about in my mind what it will be like to go up Katahdin, if at all. If the weather doesn’t improve, it won’t happen. I will not go up in whiteout, cold conditions. If the weather clears, it might still be impossible. Two dayhikers tell us the mountain is “closed for the season.” Or I could keep going, up the mountain, park rangers be damned, one step at a time until I can’t go anymore, until I must stop.
At Hurd Brook leanto. Gilligan and Yak start a fire, and we all hang wet stuff out to dry. We’re going to stay in the leanto tonight. It’s dark, and we’re packed in – Gilligan, Sideways, Yak, Yetti, Flipper, Godfather, Snowblazer, me, Hayden, and Amtrak.
Before we go to sleep, Flipper sings a Dylan song, and Godfather regales us with story after story, putting us in stitches. Gradually, conversation drops off. Hayden does the push-against-you thing to me most of the night. Amtrak snores.
During the night I feel bent and squeezed. I sleepily kick Hayden at one point; later, he’s gone. He’s down on the ground and I feel guilty. Amtrak and I urge him back up.
October 12: I set out before anyone else and walk through the still cool woods, though it is sure to be a fine day–the sky is blue. I walk fast and purposefully–I don’t know if I’m excited to get to the end of the trail, anxious to find out exactly what the story is at Baxter State Park, or running away from an emotion I cannot name.
At Abol Bridge, my last maildrop, friends have sent me wine, cheese, sausage, crackers, chocolate, and, by special request, six little bottles of rum. Hikers gather and talk, talk, talk about whether the mountain is “open.” Finally, we get out onto the trail at noon – Yak, Yetti, Gilligan, Amtrak, Hayden, and me. The day is warm, the aspen are naked, I walk without a shirt for a long while beside the Penobscot River shining in the sun. We see beaver dams and fresh-chewed white birch.
Then we turn up the cascading Nesowadnehunk, with polished humps of rounded granite, winding through the forest, rising toward the mountain. I am quiet, focused, gathering my energy. We meet Soul Man, walking south, but I’m not interested in talking to him–I’m almost in a trance, I don’t want to hear any more stories or cautions. I just want to get to Katahdin.
Briefly separated from the others, Amtrak, Flipper and I walk the trail toward Katahdin Stream. A park ranger in a truck stops and questions Amtrak about Hayden. He doesn’t tell her that Hayden has walked the entire way from Georgia.
At the campground, I burn my last dinner. In the early evening I walk out into the clearing to regard Katahdin’s moonlit snow-shining slopes and the moon itself, a sliver shy of full, a sliver shy of seven full moons from the trip’s beginning.
October 13: Up at the usual 5 or 6. The Aussies with their day packs bid us adieu. Riddler and Amtrak leave next, while I eat split pea soup for breakfast. The ladies are last up; we finally get our unnecessaries stashed just as we see a figure approaching wearing a hunter safety orange vest. We race up the trail into the woods. I don’t know who or what we saw, but we don’t want to stick around for a confrontation.
Heading for the summit of Katahdin, we are: the Aussies, Riddler, Yak and Yetti, Gilligan, Peanut Butter, Flipper, Datto, Bear, Frogger, Ziggy, Dog (who isn’t a dog), Mossy Old Troll, Amtrak, and – everybody’s favorite – Hayden, who is a dog.
At treeline, we all put on wind gear and begin the bouldering phase of the climb. There are massive stones, some with ironwork of ingenious design embedded in them. There’s a brisk wind, and chilly, to justify our clothing. A lenticular cap can be seen over the highest part of the mountain, and there’s a band of cloud to the southwest that makes me feel like we are none too soon in climbing the mountain. The clambering is slow but enjoyable, with only occasional pockets of snow. The rock itself is almost entirely dry. It’s a delightful walk up to and along the ridge proper which leads us to the edge of “the Tableland.”
We walk along the flat ground, drifts of snow littering the landscape, making our way with little conversation, each mostly alone with our thoughts, towards the tiny figures already at the final summit just above us.
At the top, every single person hugs every other. It’s a joyful and prolonged process. Yak and Yetti cry into each others’ arms. Using the tiny bottles I picked up at Abol Bridge, we do a little rum ceremony honoring Pamola. There’s a brief round of Angeline the Baker, then we share crackers and cheese and sausage and champagne and chocolate all around.
We give the celebration full measure–but finally it is time to descend. I lag behind, sauntering in the afternoon sun, letting the “doing of the thing” sink in. It is enormous and puny all at the same time. I take a final gaze at the colored hillsides in light and shadow as the cumulus get pushed across the sky. I fill up on Katahdin Stream water, call out toward the dark hills to the west, and finally, “it is done.” I am ready to rejoin the other world.
In the summer of 2012, my brother and I hiked the length of California’s High Sierra, from Mineral King to Twin Lakes. About one half of the 300 miles was off trail — cross country travel through alpine terrain. We followed Steve Roper’s “Sierra High Route” most of the way, with some additions and changes, including an extra 60 mile stretch from Mineral King to Kings Canyon.