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First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake
Second part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink
The tour bus zoomed up to the grassy verge of the mountain road and deposited me and a young woman with a huge pack sprouting camping paraphernalia that flailed about her as she swung on the pack. I grabbed my pack from the storage bay at the side of the bus and watched as the door hissed closed, a heavy sigh issued from the engine, and then the bus heaved off, heading for Spain on the other side of the Pyrenees just up the road. A quiet filled the wake of its absence, very quickly filled with the zithering of grasshoppers in the grass on the verge of the road.
A single road sign stood beside a smaller road that led up into the hills. The sign said, “Pont de Lescun”, with an arrow pointing the way. The young woman spoke up in French, “Hey! Help me with this pack!” Not even a by-your-leave, just an outright command. I thought of just walking ahead and leaving her to her own devices, but since this was the first person I had come across in the Pyrenees I thought it was bad luck to start off with sour feelings.
“What do you need?” I said in as wry a manner as I could muster.
“Tie the pup tent to the top of the pack.” The Quechua folding tent in the form of a disk, that was so popular among European travelers, hung from the back of her pack like a dead spider. I obliged, hoisting it on top and securing the cords to some lashing points.
“There you go.”
No reply. She took off without looking at me and started huffing up the road.
I followed, a little surprised that I had to start walking toward the little village of Lescun, that many had described as the most beautiful village in all of the Pyrenees, so late in the day. The road was steep and the air quite humid and hot. Within a few minutes I was breathing hard and sweating.
I could see the young woman up ahead, plodding along. When a car approached from below and passed me, it stopped for her and the driver asked if she wanted a lift. She accepted and threw her pack inside. She never considered me walking further down, and the car took off without further ado. I continued climbing in the late afternoon quiet, looking out across the river valley below at every switchback in the road, and the road climbed higher and higher into the mountains.
I must have been walking for about an hour when another car appeared from below and stopped for me (this never happens in Japan). I bent over to look in the window and came face to face with a beautiful blonde woman and two children, a boy, about 9 or 10, and an infant girl. The woman gave me a huge smile, and in a thoroughly relaxed and cheerful way, asked, “You headed up to Lescun? (she pronounced it “LesCewn”, so, completely different from the “Lehkun” that I had thought it was) Need a ride?” Her accent was thoroughly British, with not a hint of French in it.
“I’d love that,” I replied.
She smiled, leaned over to unlatch and throw open the door, and raked aside some toys from the seat. “Hop in! Sorry about the mess.”
I opened the hatch in the rear, tossed in my pack, and then took the front passenger seat. I waved hello to the kids.
“Out for a walk?” the woman asked.
We started cheerfully talking about ourselves, me about my trip and where I was from, and she about herself, her family, and the annual summer vacation in Lescun and surrounding areas. Her energy was infectious and reminded me of the friends my parents had as I was growing up. Her name was Anuika, and she was here with her biologist husband who was researching mountain frogs that spawned in mountain water holes at this time of year. Her father-in-law was here, too, and the whole family was having a reunion. She loved Lescun and looked forward to coming every year.
She asked if I had a place to stay, and when I said I didn’t she recommended the gîte d’etápes (B & B) where her father-in-law was staying at.
The car droned up the mountainside, until soon we were driving in cloud. Occasionally the clouds parted, to reveal green rounded valleys far below, and brilliant breaks of sun-limned blue sky above. Lescun popped into view almost like an afterthought, one moment nothing but the road and thick clouds, the next, a tiny, rock-walled village center, with a gurgling stone fountain, a circle of crooked stone houses, and bands of sweaty, hardy-looking, but exhausted walkers in heavy, muddied boots, sunglasses, and sun-copper skin. Narrow, bumpy roads branched out up and down the village slope, just barely wide enough for one car.
“Here it is!”, announced Anuika. “The center of the village. To the left there is the town general store and post office. Up ahead to the left is the refuge, Maison de la Montagne, where you can have dinner. I’d go there first and reserve a spot. Down the road behind is the village restaurant, and around the corner the village church. The gîte d’etápe I told you about is off to the right, at the edge of the village. Just look for “Etápe de Belvedere”.
I stepped out of the car and said good-bye. Anuika gunned the engine and started to drive off before I frantically waved after the car. She stopped some way up ahead and asked what I needed. “My pack,” I said, laughing.
She rolled her eyes. “Oops! Thought you were just being very enthusiastic with your good-bye!”
I opened the hatch and pulled out my pack. I waved as the car took off toward the other edge of town. When it disappeared behind the stone wall lining the road, the closeness and tininess of the village, perched on a valley hillside, with clouds hanging huge and low right above the rooftops, and dark mountain walls rising unseen into the mists, suddenly seemed to close around me, and the copper, windswept visages of the walkers who were setting down their heavy packs, stomping the mud out of their boots, or bending to drink from the fountain, seemed like heroes descending out of legend. I put my own pack down, to join them, and for the first time on this trip, felt like I was among my own, ready to head into the clouds.
I reserved a spot for dinner at the refuge, then headed up the road to look for the gîte d’etápe “Belvedere” that Anuika had recommended to me. The road wound through the western section of the village, twisting and turning at the corners of lopsided farm houses, bowing under stone arches, sidestepping the watering trough, and skirting around along long, rose-festooned rubble stone walls. Sheep dogs slept in the courtyards, and old men wearing the traditional Pyrenean berets, black vests, and indigo farm pants, stood beside gate posts puffing on pipes, while watching the world walk by. The further I walked the more enamored I became with this place. Flowers everywhere. A distinct silence and, though cars passed by occasionally, a lack automotive sounds that called attention to the flurry of the wind or of birds calling in the distance.
I was walking along a wire fence, looking out across a billowing field of grass in which a simple old stone church stood, when I recognized the gîte d’étape. It was a small house with a terrace and a well-manicured garden in front. Behind rose the half-obscured base of the mountains rising into the clouds. At the gate a small plaque said, “Etape du Belvedere”.
I hardly dared to believe that they might have a space free, and that I’d be able to stay at such a wonderful place at the height of tourist season. Releasing the iron latch, I stepped into the garden and called up to the family sitting under a big parasol on an elevated terrace, eating an early dinner. A Great Dane came bounding out and welcomed me with a big wet muzzle and paws on my chest, almost knocking me over. Laughter spilled down from the terrace, calling to the Great Dane to leave me alone. A woman wearing a straw sun hat and back rimmed glasses stood at the railing, smiling.
“May I help you?”
It being still early in the trip speaking French, my own words got stuck in my mouth, or else there were no words at all. “I look for a room for sleep?” I ventured.
“Ah, yes! A room? For how many nights?”
“One or two. I’m not sure.”
“OK. I have one room. The other, bigger one is already taken. Would you like to see it?” She sounded like I might not like it, but I nodded. “Yes, please.”
She called the dog to her side and asked one of the other family members to hold him as she brought me inside. She led the way up a narrow flight of wooden stairs, passed what she called “private chambers” and the internet desk, and up to the third floor, where she opened a heavy wooden door to a small bedroom with a mansard window overlooking the church in the field I had passed earlier. A big double bed took up most of the space, along with a small desk with a chair, a tiny sink, and a closet for my clothes.
“Is this all right?” the woman asked.
I couldn’t have been happier. One look at the ancient stone village laid out beyond the rooftops, the misty mountains beyond, the geraniums growing on the window sill, and listening to the creaky wooden floor, and I had been transported to the core of my mountain dreams. I gave a sigh of relief. My first night in this village would be quiet and without worries, I had a meal waiting, and the trip was starting off well. I smiled at the woman, “It’s wonderful.”
“Well, then, why don’t you settle in? We can talk about payment in the morning. I’ll bring up a blanket later. It gets cold here at night.”
And so she left me to my evening and unpacking. Not that there was very much. My camping equipment and clothes. That’s it. I sat by the window for a while, just gazing outside at the clouds drifting past and swallows whirling about in the evening air. The days of traveling from Japan finally caught up with me and, with about four hours until dinner was ready at the refuge, I lay down, set my alarm, and fell asleep to the sound of nothing but the occasional twitter of a bird. It was one of the quietest places I’d ever visited.
Dusk had long since settled once I woke. Mist had moved in and the church stood barely visible as a shadow in the gathering gloom. A few minutes after my alarm went off the church bells broke the silence and sent sharp peals of ringing through the air. The mist dampened the sound and it seemed to come from quite far off. The evening chill had crept into the room, so I changed from my shorts into long pants and a light jacket. I took some insulin and then headed off to the refuge for dinner. A crowd stood waiting and conversing outside the door as the cook prepared the evening meal. Most of the people were walkers, all dressed in nylon pants, fleece jackets, and big hiking boots. Listening in on the conversations, I heard mostly French, some Spanish (Spain being right across the border nearby), a little German and English. The conversations were hushed, maybe partly because of the great silence poised just out of arms reach at the edge of the village, or how close everything around leaned, making it impossible to speak without feeling someone was eavesdropping. I stood in one corner of the garden, gazing up at the darkening crags above, imagining what it was like up there, imagining the clouds muffling the sounds from the village below, and a cold damp sifting by the nose with the tang of iron. I imagined the tufts of grasses huddled under boulders, collecting dew, and the isolated, furtive rustling of shrews testing the coming night for anything out of the ordinary.
A bell clanged and everyone’s attention turned toward the front door of the refuge. The wiry armed refuge proprietor, deeply tanned from time climbing the mountains, stood in the warm glow of the doorway, a big smile on his face. “Dinner’s ready!” he called out. “Everyone come take your places!”
The crowd filed inside, into a big common room with a low ceiling, wooden beams, long wooden tables, and framed, faded photographs of past climbers and mountain scenery. Big bowls of freshly tossed salad, celery soup, mashed potatoes, steaming ravioli, and whole loaf of slow-cooked corned beef stood covering the tables. Groups divided themselves among the tables, with booming laughter and delight at the dinner fare. I was seated with an elderly Australian couple, a beautiful French woman in her 40’s, and two Dutch women who were hiking for the first time. All of them were walking the GR10 from west to east, except the French woman who was hiking solo to the east. The mutual activities and love of the mountains, and just the relaxed way that hikers tend to see and do things, had us babbling with one another within minutes. After introductions, we spent the rest of the night regaling one another with our adventures and our walking plans and route information. I could say that people traveling and sitting around a meal telling stories is the most human of activities, and perhaps something that we all miss in our daily lives.
While refilling one another’s wine glasses and piling cuts of corned beef and mashed potatoes on each other’s plates, I listened to the Australian couple tell of their hikes around Mont Blanc and in Britain, to the French woman voicing worry about the waterless and chained cliff crossing she was facing tomorrow, to the Dutch couple telling how the walk from the west till this point had proved too much at first and they had taken a break before coming back to continue the walk now. But the best part was hearing the hilarious accounts of getting lost and encountering funny walkers along the way. With our heads full of wine and the glow of the incandescent lights shining in our tipsy eyes, we laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks and it seemed the night would never end. But it did, of course, when the proprietor announced that the kitchen was closing, and that it would soon be time for lights out for the refuge guests.
Most of the crowd was staying at the refuge, so I said goodnight to everyone and stepped out into the night. The village stood quiet under the great darkness, halos of lanterns glowing on house walls and under buttresses spanning the narrow alleys. I unsteadily made my way toward the gîte d’etápe, still fuzzy with wine, softly humming to myself as I walked. A cow lowed off in the distance, and the village church stood like a silent sentinel, its deeper shadow sharp against the misty shadows of the surrounding fields. No one was awake at the d’etápe when I creaked the door open, so I carefully stumbled up the steep wooden stairs, and tiptoed into my room. The window was open in my room, with the night chill spilling in. I lay down and gazed out at the dim rooftop outside, and soon dozed off into a deep sleep.
Nothing quite wakes you up like a church bell ringing right outside your open window at dawn. And so it was that the clanging shocked me from dreams to wide-eyed wakefulness. I didn’t know where I was at first, until I saw a swift dart past the window and associated childhood memories of swifts flying around a church steeple and rooftops brought back images of Germany, and “Europe” was plastered across my thoughts. Morning mist wafted in through the open window, and deep silence infiltrated the room like a silent prayer. I held myself still, letting it wash over me until I felt still myself, my eyes taking in the ribbed wooden ceiling, the soundless gyration of passing swifts, the unmoving rooftops, the distant, dark, gaseous walls of the high mountains. And for the first time in a long time, after the onslaught of fear and worry following the Great Tohoku Earthquake last year, the words stilled in my head and I felt myself putting aside the iPhone and Kindle, and just waiting, not for anything in particular, and no move to act on plans, just waiting and sitting still. I fell asleep again, unconscious of time, the heaviness of fatigue that had seeped deep into my muscles and bones releasing, my breath pooling in my veins, the clench of anticipation relaxing, and long, slow inhalations drawing in the world… this ringing old world that seemed to have everything right, that took its time to remember itself for its own sake.
I woke again at 7:00, and groggily made my way down to the ground floor, where the gîte’s one other guest, an elderly man with thinning, white hair, sat at the big dining table, eating breakfast. He greeted me with a warm smile while buttering a slice of baguette. The woman who owned the place and I’d met the day before, bustled at the kitchen counter, preparing some juice and paté. She indicated a seat for me across from the other boarder and set a wooden bread board in front of me.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked.
I managed an awkward, yes, but couldn’t follow up with more information. Sensing my discomfort the other boarder spoke up, “Do you speak English?” he asked with a distinct British accent.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“My name is Stewart Freeman. I’m also a guest here.”
“Miguel Arboleda. Nice to meet you. I take by your accent that you’re British?”
“Yes, I’m here with my son, who is researching mountain frogs here in the Pyrenees. Doing a bit of my own research, too.”
“Mr. Freeman? You must be the father-in-law of Anuika, who actually recommended this gîte to me yesterday, when she gave me a lift on the road coming up to the village.”
“Why yes, that would be my son’s wife.”
“It was really nice of her to pick me up. Saved walking all the way up from the valley.”
“It’s definitely a bit of a slog. So, what brings you to Lescun? Not exactly the hub of the tourist trail.” His smile was friendly, with a twinkle in his eye.
“It’s the starting point of my three-week walk of the ridge going south, following the GR10. Quite a few people told me Lescun was one of the most beautiful villages in the Pyrenees, and so far I really have to heartily agree.”
“Oh, Lescun is a special place. We’ve been coming here every year for the past 20 years. Magical little place.”
“Partly. But mostly for a family vacation with the kids. My son sort of half grew up here.”
“He’s a lucky man. The idea of doing wildlife research is a long-held dream of mine. I almost chose to study wildlife biology when I was still at university. Became an architect instead, mainly to work with green design. Are you a wildlife biologist, too?”
He looked at me with more interest this time, biting into his baguette. “Yes, I did research in Africa. Only recently retired. I’ve got a condition and a bad leg, so can’t get out much into the field anymore, but it’s nice to accompany my son into the mountains here to help him record frog mating songs. Keeps me on top of things.” He chuckled.
We got to talking about the kinds of wildlife common to this area. When I proved my familiarity with insect characteristics and species, the discussion got more passionate, and soon we were talking about mountain butterfly gliding, grasshopper leg rubbing, praying mantis wind movement, and differences in dragonfly wing patterns. It was rare for me to meet someone who could talk about insects at this level, and he was far more versed, directly, from the field, than I was, plus he had done research in the field in AFRICA! For someone whose dream it was to work like the rangers in the television show Dactari, or whose heroes were Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, this was like a dream come true.
After breakfast offered to take me out for a stroll on the local hill paths, and show me a path up to the ridge overlooking the village that made for a good half-round of the village. His leg gave him trouble, so we couldn’t walk far, but we managed to get out past the village boundary and along a path that led to a overlook sitting on a steep slope below which the village lay, like a tiny hamlet in an old fairytale. The grass and wild strawberries glinted with dew in the morning chill, and mist huddled in the valley below. Still sluggish from the cold, we peered at grasshoppers and butterflies and hoverflies, remarking on their coloring and special attributes. I felt like a child again, sharing something that I love with another person who knew exactly how I felt.
Mr. Freeman began to feel the chill in his hip, so we decided to head back to the village. He had some “algebraic calculations” to work out, so he headed back to his room, while I headed into the village center to get my provisions for the first part of my walk tomorrow.
Preparations done, and my room scattered with my gear and food on the bed and window sill, I filled a lightweight daysack with snacks, water bottle, rain jacket, and camera, and set off for the trail Mr. had pointed out to me. I walked up past the point he and I had walked to, and past it, up, up along the steep slope, up to the ridgeline woods, far above the valley. Beech dominated the woods here, with many of them blackened from a recent forest fire. Heather covered much of the open grassy areas, with whizzing doilies of tiny white bees circling the flowers. Clouds moved lazily below, through the rounded valleys, and breaking along the ragged peaks, often in slow-motion snapshots of nebulous passion. I paused under wind-carved trees to let the reaity of the place sink in, often accompanied by the far-off keen of a hawk riding the wind on the higher ridges, or the lone buzz of a bee dipping among the clovers. I followed the path up, concentrating on the weave of rocks and foliage underfoot, the way my weight balanced above an outcropping, the rough dryness of lichen under my palm, the trickle of sweat and the burn of my breath from my exertion… all here, immediate, and yet far, far away in another land not my own. It was a disconnected feeling, one of entering a travel book one has read, and coming against the hardness of a land landing.
The trail wound around the spine of the ridge, taking me up where the wind blew constantly, and the undergrowth lived in a world of endless shaking, and the light varied between passages of clouds and swaths of sunlight. In the wooded patches, shafts of sunlight beamed down through the canopy and burned through the shadows of the forest floor. I climbed through this gloom and finally reached the open crown of the ridge, where I stood for a long while, unencumbered, breathing alone, and happy, and knee-high grass whipped about all around me. More than reaching the summit of some peak, this is what walking was for me, an infusion with a place with no name, just a pair of eyes, of ear, of legs, and of lungs. I didn’t want to walk to capture anything, but rather to be captured myself, and included. The wind expressed everything I wanted to say.
Back down in the narrow alleyways of the village, I passed the refuge where I had had dinner the night before. I reserved another spot for tonight, then headed on back to the gîte. Along the way I passed a hand-drawn sign announcing a free movie showing “Cinéma Sous les Etoiles” (Movie Under the Stars) right next to the old medieval church, and I resolved to go see it after dinner. I returned to the gîte, packed my backpack for the start of the walk tomorrow, and lay down to write people back home and wait for dinner. The evening fell upon the village again, and I listened for the pealing of the church bell as the hours passed. The gabled roof outside my window gradated from brick red, to orange, to purple, before turning black in the night. Stars winked on above, and the sky again dwarfed the village, the silence and closeness of the stars humbling the name of the town, so that in looking up, I dropped my eyes in wonder. Lescun was a place that was daily reminded of its place in the universe, and happily so. It didn’t aspire to replace the stars.
I sat at the same table at the refuge as the night before. This time only two others joined me… the other tables were all occupied by two big groups of Spaniards, all loudly engrossed in their own conversations. The two at my table, Michel and Lise were from Quebec, Canada, and were the only non-native people at the tables. They turned out to be a lot of fun, a couple who both loved photography, but had never hiked before, just up here to take strolls in the hills. We hit it off immediately and ended up getting drunk and howling with laughter at one another’s jokes. Dinner was rotisserie spring chicken with lentil soup and rolled-cabbage. We were all stuffed by the time we were ready to go. They also were planning to see the free movie this evening, so we agreed to meet at the church later when it started.
I drunkenly shuffled back across the village, and in the dark walked beyond the village boundary up to the point Mr. Stewart had taken me earlier in the morning, and sat on the outcropping, gazing at the village lights below and feeling the chill breeze muscle up from the dark of the valley. No one was there, so I sang quietly to myself, “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor: “Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again.”
Though we’d separated 6 years before, thoughts of my former wife welled up. She’d have loved this place. I would have loved to have shown it to her. I didn’t know how my present partner would take this place. I couldn’t understand her; did such places move her? Did she fall in love with wild peaks, a vast bowl of stars, and untethered wind? Could she fathom why such places draw me? What did it mean that I always end up on such walks alone, and she never offered to join me?
The joy dropped out of the reverie, and I sat upon that lone outcropping, up there in dark, beyond the village bounds, weeping. Joy and sorrow mixed like a fine wine. And the dark drop beneath my dangling feet swirled with regrets and hopes.
Back in the village I strolled to the churchyard and found a free folding chair amidst the gathering crowd. Parents and children; grizzled hikers and women in sun dresses; teenagers stalking the edges of the space, conscious of one another, but uneasy; elderly people deep into a book; and my two friends, Michel and Lise, lazily joking among themselves until I sat across from them, when we continued our earlier banter and laughter.
The movie was supposed to start at 8:00, but as time went on and the crowd got restless, it never got started. The projectionist stuck his head out of the church window and announced that there were problems with the projector and they were working on it. I slouched back and tilted my head back to search the stars. A satellite raked across the star-peppered velvet and plunged into the horizon. Roving shooting stars, traveling with the Perseid pack, darted through the field of unmoving stars, and lost themselves in the darkness. Back here on earth, the periphery of my vision was lit up by candles flickering inside paper bags placed on top of walls, at the base of trees, on window sills, and along the periphery of houses, yellow stars dancing in the evening breezes. For a while I conversed with the beautiful woman sitting next to me, but my French was not good enough, and her English only basic, so we lapsed back into silence. Michel reached out to touch my shoulder, telling me they were retiring for the night. Soon only about half the audience was left.
The movie never made it to the screen, and the projectionist announced that the problem couldn’t get worked out, and apologized for making everyone wait. In typical French style people laughed and shrugged their shoulders, everyone taking it in a stride and joking about it. One by one the last of the moviegoers filed out. I strolled back along the alleyway, back to the gîte. Time to go to sleep anyway. I had an early start.