or On the trail in Provence in the week before 9/11
My feet are still not entirely healed. They look like dancer’s feet-the right big toe finally lost the scab from the wound I got running for a train in Paris, all the way through the station with 45 lbs of bag behind me and 15 more on my shoulder, the toe bleeding a bright crimson stream through the crowded halls; my heels have the shiny yellow skin of not-quite healed blisters — one stubborn monster still cracks open nearly every day and bleeds all over everything. The other blisters, seven on one foot and three more on another, are nearly gone, new pink skin showing in circles of renewal.
I admire them every day, my feet. They are my proof that it was not a figment of my imagination, those days of innocence in the hot sun of Provence, those days that seem all the more magical for all that happened after, those days spent in one test after another, one joy after another, long stretches of silence because we were all too out of breath to talk to each other, those terrifying stretches across granite slopes that led to certain death in the turquoise waters of the Verdon River below if we slipped (or so it seemed at the time). Those evenings spent laughing and drinking the finest light red wine I’ve ever tasted, those nights spent sleeping like a teenager with wind blowing through an open window.
For several years, I’d been wanting to try a walking tour in Europe–and I’d been looking around for a reward trip for myself for quite a while. Life had been changing a lot, and I needed a way to take a look at what it had become. When a description of the tour showed up in my email box in January, I immediately knew I would do it. Price was excellent (less than $600 for a week of lodging and meals in Provence) and it was highly recommended by a travel site I respect — Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. I also knew exactly who I wanted as a companion, a fellow writer and walking enthusiast who travels intrepidly — and speaks French, which I do not.
The tour would be fairly strenuous by the description — hiking nearly every day, all day. To prepare, I kicked up my exercise routine, adding a kickboxing class once a week, and getting serious about the ellipse machine to build the muscles necessary for climbing hills. I began a program of weight lifting to strengthen my back and arms. A couple of times a week, I walked four to five miles to break in the new boots. By the time we left Colorado at the end of August, I felt pretty strong and healthy and eager to test myself on those hills. Sonia and I spent a few days walking Paris before meeting our tour group at the Nice airport on a Sunday morning — cheerful, ready, excited. We were trained. Ready. We’re strong and athletic, and hey, we’re from Colorado — we know about altitude. Those petty ascents were nothing, baby. We LIVE at higher altitudes than that.
The first morning, we set out from St. Andres de Alpes and went straight up for what seemed like 40 years. On scree, loose and gray beneath our hiking boots, at sometimes very steep inclines. They were, admittedly, narrow winding paths beneath beautiful forest, but who noticed the scenery? We hiked upward and upward and upward the entire morning, and both of us (privately) thought this might end up being the most miserable week of our lives. By our midmorning break, we were sure we were idiots with no brains whatsoever, and we ought to just cancel out now.
But as it happened, we stopped for chocolate biscuits in an open grove nearby an old farmhouse with a history. High in those Alps, far from any road, the Marais — the French Resistance named for the growth in the mountains around us — had once had a headquarters here. (And everywhere we saw the evidence of them, plaques in the churches, plaques where a brave Resistance worker had been gunned down in a square by the Germans, plaques of thanks, plaques….the French are very big on plaques, and I’m grateful.)
And I don’t know about Sonia, but sitting on an ancient wall, looking at those isolated farmhouses, I thought it might end up being worth it. My feet were already hurting at 10 am — and they would never get better all week long, only worse and worse and worse because my hiking boots were not right for my feet. I’d tried on dozens and dozens of pairs, and these had been the only ones that felt right, and I’d dutifully broken them in over the summer, wearing them until they were comfortable, but my high arches and hard-to-fit feet are going to need special boots. That morning, I applied Band-Aids to a couple of the worst places, and set out with a lighter heart.
For another long, miserable climb. I kept worrying that I sounded like I was out of shape, and wanted to keep the gasping to a minimum. There was really no breath left for talking, so we each found our own pace within the group. And that was how it began — my week of contemplation.
I walked alone often, somewhere in the middle of the group. No headphones. No companion. Just me and my thoughts and Spirit coming along to see if I’d notice the gifts spread out around me. Like the glimpses of that magnificent river below us, the color so extraordinary I’ll never see another like it. Like the light glistening on the pine needles and the lavender, growing wild on the rocky hillside. My favorite plant.
We paused at lunch for a picnic. Our leader, named Pip, a Brit with nut-brown skin and beautiful legs and a most impressive scar over her belly from a recent parasailing run-in with a road sign, spread out a table cloth and gave us all jobs. We sliced goat cheeses and cucumbers and tomatoes, and feasted on French bread sandwiches. Drank water in great gulps–it was a three-liter day, but there would be a place to fill our bottles in an hour or two–and took off our boots to let the sun and dry air cool them.
And finally, after lunch, we went downhill. As hard in its way as going up, but at least I didn’t breathe hard. By the time we reached Castellane, 12 or 15 hard miles later, our water bottles filled at a village spring, every muscle in my body hurt. Every centimeter of my feet throbbed. I was drenched in the sweat that would be my constant companion over the next week. My hair was limp, my skin itching, my backpack straps drenched with it. My heels throbbed and one of the other members of the group, a British ER nurse, gave me zinc oxide tape to put on the nasty blisters.
But I’ll tell you — it was worth it. Standing there in that square, my heart sang. Every molecule hummed with the exercise, with sunlight and challenge; every organ rejoiced at the challenge met. My legs knew why they’d spent those hours at the gym, my shoulders thanked me for doing those reps with the weight machines because they didn’t ache from the pack. An Irish woman and I sailed off to a cafe for big beers, and I sat there in unbrushed, sweat-soaked hair, a green tank top and black sports bra and feet in hiking boots, feeling as glorious as I ever had in my life.
Every single day we hiked between 12-15 miles. The final day was even tougher than the first in terms of ascents and descents, but we were all much more comfortable with each other by then, having survived the terrors of the Verdon Gorge together (including backward descents down steep ladders and scary, dark tunnels, and crossings requiring ropes we had to hold onto), and we set our own pace through the trials. I walked alone much of the day, somewhere in the middle, listening to the sound of birds and insects, sometimes lagging to find a companion — often Sonia, who turned out to be an even better travel companion than I had imagined; sometimes Glen, a big Aussie with a booming voice and big heart who loved American movies; sometimes Richard, a young Brit with a droll, witty sense of humor that had kept six women (including me) pinned to him the night before at dinner. He reminds me very much of my eldest son.
On those long, hard uphill climbs the final day, my five liters of water did not weigh me down. I carried them easily. On the hard, long uphill climbs that last day, I forgot to be concerned with my hair or the sound of my breath. I had forgotten to be concerned with externals, so I didn’t care any more if I was breathing raggedly or if anyone heard me.
Now, let me tell you — my feet hurt. By then, I had twenty blisters (that is not hyperbole), three of them quite serious, one that was so disgusting and bloody that three people gathered to watch the trimming and doctoring of it at the end of the day. It was a day without water stops, so we had to carry what we needed, and I’d learned I needed about half again as much as the leader recommended, so I carried six liters. I was proud to note that my shoulders hadn’t ached with it.
The challenge that day was not uphill. It was downhill. Down and down and down and down, on a slippery, scree-covered mountainside. Down so far and so long that we started calling it Purgatory Hill — down for hours and hours and hours.
By the time we reached the bottom, my feet felt like bloody stumps, and when we reached a stream outside the village, I waded gleefully into it, standing for minutes in the cold, praising all the saints that had ever lived for the glory of it, and gladly walked the rest of the way — all of it uphill–to our last stop.
And sitting there, in a sidewalk cafe in a tiny village in Provence, my feet bare, my heart sang. The sun poured down on us, and the river rushed by in noisy splendor, and high in the canyon, a golden star winked in the afternoon light.
I was whole. I was free. I DID it. I survived. And not only survived – I loved it. Just me, the me who is me, who is in tune with whatever is Good. No children, no husband, no writing, no anything — just me, walking along minute by minute, doing it. Doing it.
I arrived home in Pueblo at 2:30 am on Tuesday September 11th. I awakened at 8:30, jet lagged beyond belief (it doesn’t get me on the way east, but I die going west). A few minutes later, my grandmother called to make sure I was home and safe and said someone had bombed the Pentagon. I thought she must be mistaken. Of course, she wasn’t. I spent the morning glued to the television along with the rest of the nation, knowing my friend Sonia was going to be stranded in Paris.
Provence gave me back myself, a self who had been lost to me for a time, lost in the changing nature of my life — children growing up, career changing direction, marriage changing, even my neighborhood was changing. Suddenly everything about my life was different, and I had no idea what it would look like when the transition was through. And I didn’t LIKE it! I wanted things to go back to the way they were. I was uncomfortable. I had no script. I even thought at times that I was just crazy.
That morning of the 11th, all of our lives changed forever. And I, standing there with my aching feet, thinking of my trip through Dulles the night before, realized that I was a different person than I had been the day I left. By walking those hills, meeting those challenges, and by bringing back the quiet, simple joy of those mountains in a land I fell in love with, where I couldn’t even speak well with the locals, I had become someone more able to meet the personal changes in my life — but also the enormous, incredible challenge of trying to still believe in a world that could be whole.
Everyone keeps asking me if I’ll continue to be an avid traveler, if I am afraid. And the answer is, no, I’m not. I don’t believe there are any more risks involved in travel than there ever were–perhaps a few more delays, a few inconveniences–but I don’t mind them. The chance to step away from my life, see it from a distance, check out our relationship to ourselves and others in a new way, without all the props of daily life is worth it. The chance to see who I am in connection to new places, new people, new ideas and ways of doing things is worth it. To see the moon rise, full and pink, over the Seine on a cold summer night with a rich wine in my belly and the rooftops of Paris rising in the night…it’s so worth it.
I also can’t wait to do it again. I need to see Havana for some inexplicable reason and I know we aren’t supposed to go there, but it’s calling me in a visceral way. I don’t know what it will tell me. I don’t know if I’ll actually do it. Maybe instead, I’ll choose Spain, or Peru, or go to Scotland to look for the Loch Ness monster with my son. But I’ll go. Somewhere, sometime. Soon, I hope.
And then I’ll come back and share it with you. Or perhaps you’ll go and share it with me. Write me an email or post your stories of travel and change on the bulletin board. I’d love to hear of your best adventure.
Till next time,
Check out Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel Site