After walking up through the early morning village of Bilhères, where we were living for the week, the path levelled off and we passed by some lush pastures and entered the forest. An old forest, big trees, venerable; moss hanging low from branches in the shadow of mountains. Steep mountains, high, stooping down to the valley floor and the running steam that we could hear but not see, far below.
We’d met a sign at the entrance to the forest. A big yellow fuck off sign. ‘Route Barrée’. An adamant sign. Hmm. There were donkeys in a field. They had a little hut too. They watched us curiously as if wondering what we’d do. We looked at the sign, and being Irish we studiously ignored it, walking on and chatting to the asal beag dubh closest to us. ‘Delaney had a donkey’ Dermot quoted. John told us about the German couple he’d met on the Cathar Way a month ago, with a donkey carrying their packs. Apparently Robert Louis Stevenson’s travels with his donkey Modestine in the Cévennes is the ‘inspiration’ behind this idea and people now tramp around France with their very own Modestines. It didn’t work out well for the Germans…
A couple of kilometres along, the path had completely collapsed down into the valley far below. Hence the sign. We went up and around the chasm – carefully, in fairness, we’re not reckless, just Irish. There’s always a way.
It was early and cool as we gained ground. Then down and over a bridge onto a rocky road. This rose up in a meandering sweep, up into the high places above the valley where the stream had risen from. Our legs complained, it was a serious pull, but we’re gaining strength day-by-day and a certain familiarity with the pain helps to breed contempt. We followed the stream up until it was fordable and then we passed through it, towards (according to the map) some old mines. I imagined their shafts burrowing down, dripping wet and dark into the mountains that surrounded us on all sides now. A faint scurrying now and then amid the drips. Gollum.
We talked about Donovan. Dermot told us a story about his recent gig in Cork how his voice is a shadow of its own gentle self. John recalled his lyrics: ‘First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is’.* Padraig laid out a perfect world 200 years from now and why not? John sang ‘In the year 2525’ but we couldn’t remember who it was by – a one hit wonder (it was Zager and Evans – remember them? I thought not.**). I told a story I’d read about the Appalachian Way.
After two hours of climbing we were at 1,200 metres and we needed to eat so we had bananas and chocolate at the point where we had to leave the road and the marked route and enter the forest proper, to skirt the mountain and head back for home.
It was a truly beautiful and inspiring place. High beech and low hazel and holly all around us. A woodpecker off in the distance, drumming. Autumn leaves dry and tawny under our feet. Blue skies barely visible and a high green pasture on the plateau to the west, above sheer limestone cliffs. We could see sheep dotted like little white maggots on the lofty steep grassland.
The path deep into the forest was rough and very steep in places. Muddy in places too where water had run down from the heights. Dark in places and we noticed the footprints of cows and calves that had made their way, or been driven, upwards. When we eventually broke out of the trees into another rich pastureland, we weren’t surprised, but we didn’t go on it – we turned back into the forest skirting the mountain.
Old wood in the forest, big old beeches. Treebeards. Our feet pressed the dry leaves and fallen beech nuts. The App on John’s phone sent us down an unlikely and closely briared path. After a steep descent, climbing over or steeping under fallen trees, we knew that this wasn’t the right way. But the map told us it was – dilemma. Here’s some free advice – when the map tells you something and your eyes tell you another, trust your eyes. We looked at ways to descend to the road home but it was steep and dangerous off the paths.
Reluctantly, our muscles groaning vociferously, we climbed back the way we’d come – and everybody hates that shit, we just do. We decided to eat – better decisions are made when you’re not hungry and your blood sugar levels aren’t low. We ate tortillas, Spanish omelettes that John had made the night before. Crusty bread. Chocolate and yoghurt. And we were resting. All good. Even better when we layered up to eat, staying warm.
I went back up the rest of the way to the path and looked around for another turn off and sure enough, there it was down along. With the familiar welcome red and yellow mark on the stone, well walked. Result.
Only 7km home, almost all downhill, path and roads. Now our only thoughts were of showers and tea and a change of clothes. A bad bitch of a sharp climb at the end knocked the taispe off us – more muscle moaning, lungs whinging but the last gasp is always doable, when home’s in sight.
There’s a Leffe with my name on it in the fridge. I can stretch after a shower when my joints are less rust-creaked. A little lie-down maybe, some writing, then dinner and wine. And conversation with the three men I love most in the whole wide world. And laughter, memories, stories.
The stove is lit. The Astounding Eyes of Rita is on the iPod speaker. The wine is good. John picked it so of course it is. Anouar Brahim is singing and playing his oud. We are laughing. We walked 18km through the beautiful magisterial old forests of the Pyrenees today. We’re together. We’re alive. We’ll sleep tonight and walk again tomorrow.
Distance covered: 18km; Altitude gained: 1300m; Highest point: 1194m
* According to Wikipedia (which never lies) In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) was written by Richard (Rick) S. Evans in 1964 and the song warned of the dangers of technology, portraying a future in which the human race was destroyed by its own technological and medical innovations. Ahead of his time, or what? If only he knew what was coming with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple (or maybe he did…).
** We did not discuss its implications as the three stages of Zen. Maybe just as well. These are, as explained by the teacher Nonin:
First seeing mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers means seeing them as fixed and solid entities in and of themselves.
Later seeing them as not mountains and not rivers means we understand that neither mountains nor rivers exist in and of themselves, that they are empty of inherent existence and made up of other beings that are also empty of inherent existence. For instance, there is nothing within a mountain that we can pull out and say, “this is mountain,” or, “this is what makes a mountain a mountain.” Mountains are made up of rocks, trees, grass, snow, water, rivers, ponds, lakes, insects, birds, animals, etc., etc., etc., and all of these things are made up of other things. So, there are no mountains and no rivers.
When we continue to practice, and our wisdom eye is fully opened, we realize that mountains are indeed mountains, and rivers are indeed rivers, for there is a mountain there and a river over here. However, we deeply understand that both “mountain” and “river” are merely words that we use to describe the conditioned phenomena in front of us. Neither phenomena is a fixed nor permanent entity that exists in and of itself and possesses inherent existence as “mountain,” or “river.” In other words we experience and understand their true nature, and the true nature of all beings.