Summer in France 2014 – Digging Deep
Life is filled with challenging and difficult situations. How we react to, assess, and move past these situation is pretty much up to us as individuals. There is a saying which goes something like this; life is 10% what happens, and 90% how we handle it. There was a time when I was pretty much ruled by the 90%, and I still have those moments now and again. But I’ve mellowed with time, age, experience, and (mostly) by the influences of my calming husband, Joe.
He’s a rock. He’s unflappable. He’s cool and contemplative and has this uncanny ability to remove himself from a situation…look at it from many angles…weigh possible options and remedies…and choose a solution. Only when really, Really, REALLY provoked does he get angry, and even then he’s still in control, albeit loud and scary.
Why do I share this with you? Well, over these summer adventures in Southern France we have done quite a few mountain and wilderness hikes, and I am not very, well, sure footed shall we say. I get wobbly legged when fatigued. I sometimes choose the wrong next step and slip, tumble, fall…some have been pretty horrific falls. In fact, there have been numerous near-death, lights out, that’s all folks kind of falls. *note: Joe has actually caught me and arrested these falls – which is why I continue to write these little stories today. Thanks Honey* Yet despite my less than chamois-like sure-footedness, we still go into the wild and climb things. See! I said he’s patient.
This summer I got all zesty and declared I would climb Mt. Canigou for my 50th birthday. That’s quite a gauntlet to throw down, but Joe prepared me with a series of climbs and hikes, all new to me, which gave me the strength and stamina to climb Canigou on June 23rd just 1 day before my 50th. (see my blog post ‘Hail, Hail the Birthday Girl’) Since that climb I kinda rested on my laurels for a couple weeks, went wine tasting in the Pauillac, Margaux, and St-Emilion regions near Bordeaux, and enjoyed some local festivities including Bastille Day.
But the mountains called to me again, and the other day I asked Joe “Do you think I could make it up Pic de St. Bartélémy?” This rather surprised him, as last summer when he went up this iconic peak I sat in the parking lot and worked on some bobbin lace project I felt needed finishing. So we left the house early, knowing it would be really hot by afternoon, and drove up to the eerily quiet ski station at Mont d’Olmes, in the Sabarthés Mountains, to begin the ascent to the Col de Girabal and then swing left up to the Pic. The path meandered along a mountain stream, crossing it about 33 times and making the terrain rather muddy and schmucky at times, but it was a cloudless day and we knew there wouldn’t be a chance of storms to make us hurry. So I moved along at a pace I could handle without being too pokey, pausing now and again to get my breathing under control, managing my supplies of water and shot bloks. As we crested a hill, the path led downward….like really downward…and we lost a whole lot of the elevation we’d just acquired. That was a pretty big bummer, but I soldiered on without complaint as we re-climbed the elevation on the other side of the valley through shin deep rhododendrons and over the stream a few hundred more times.
Oftentimes these mountain paths are old and weathered, the rocks and boulders are well above the usual step height of city living, and I’m no leggy Rockette. So it’s pretty exhausting pushing up steps well past natural flexibility and strength, but I kept going without complaint – after all, this was my idea. I knew I was looking worn out. Sweat has flattened my hair against my scalp and I’d donned a ‘do rag’ to keep it out of my eyes and off my neck. As we neared the Col de Girabal my hips began to stiffen and my steps become less sturdy. I popped another shot blok for energy up the final push to the Col as Joe encouraged me upward like a father mountain goat. I saw the dip of the Col just a few more meters ahead of me. Joe called out “A minute and twelve seconds and you’ll be there” I took a few more steps as the silliness of the proclaimed time hit me, and I laughed out loud at the idea of a minute twelve seconds. But in just a few moments I made the Col and saw the expansive view of the snow covered Pyrenees on the other side of the range in the distance. WOW! This is why people sweat and toil and push themselves past their limits. This beauty of nature is only for those willing to take the hard way to witness. Wow, just wow.
I slumped onto a flat rock and dug into my pack for a nubbin of sausage – ravenous from the climb up 2000 feet. Joe allowed me a bit of time to eat and to recover my strength before telling me that we’ve got another 1000 feet to climb to the Pic, and that the day was kind of moving along…so should we.
Remember when I said that life is 10% what happens and 90% how we react to it? Well, right here at the Col, having just exhausted myself climbing up 2000 feet in the hot summer sun, this was the moment where many people would have gone for the 90% and said ‘F^#k It! That’s good enough.’ But I gathered my things, put my pack back on, and continued the climb to the top where the views were even more majestic. I envisioned a gigantic box being marked with a bold check mark as my feet took the final steps to the summit. Success! And yeah, there was a young French couple who cheerfully bounded up the mountain like gazelles just moments after I trudged those final steps all sweaty and worn, huffing and puffing, my heart ready to jump out of my chest – sure, they looked fit as a fiddle and ready to continue on all the way to Andorra – and yes, they kinda pissed me off with their youth and fitness – but so what. I. Made. It.
We ate lunch looking out over the landscape below and beyond us, marking out points of interest we knew well. Montségur. Tarascon. Roquefixade. The high valley near Tarbesou. Places we’ve hiked, climbed, explored along the Cathar Trail and in the High Pyrenees. So many places we’ve touched the old way – on foot. Walking in the footfalls of countless others throughout history; many of whom were escaping war, persecution, poverty. This is a rugged and unforgiving frontier. Blistering heat in summer and biting cold in winter. But it holds secrets, mysteries, stories, and legends.
So why would I want to push myself so hard to climb this mountain? Why, when at the point of utter exhaustion, would I continue on to the top? It really comes down to just two reasons. 1) because this summer I’ve been reading ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse. It was recommended to me by a Danish friend and neighbor here he Axat, Lone, and it is a thrilling mystery intertwining a modern day archeological dig and the stories of people living during the early 1200s in the lands of the Pays d’Oc – the Cathars and those who were free-thinkers during a time of religious intolerance, invasion, and eradication. It takes place in our region of Southern France; from Carcassonne, to Toulouse, to Foix, to the mountain of the Sabarthés, and the summit just next over from St. Bartélémy, Pic du Soularac. Enjoying the novel and the characters within the story, I wanted to see this landscape for myself. To feel the earth under my own feet and the heat of the sun upon my face. I recommend this book for those who like a good historic thriller, medieval battles, potions, charms, and incantations. And reason 2) because I no longer want to be the one who sits at the sidelines watching other people accomplish great things. Last year, while I sat in the parking lot, countless people made their way up the trail to these mountains. Lots of them looked fit and intimidating, but some were just ordinary people giving it their best shot. I didn’t put one foot on that path until now – and I wasn’t going to quit 1000 feet from the top because I was tired – I wanted to see it from the summit.
At the beginning of our climb, as we started up the trail from the parking lot, Joe asked me “Well, how do you feel? Do you think you’ll make it to the top?” And I answered that I didn’t know, but I’d try my best. To which he let out a little laugh and brightly chirped “There is no try. Do or do not do.” Yep. He pulled the Yoda card – so I put aside Try, and I picked up Did.