There are many “camp-sites” scattered all over France because “camping” seems to be a well-loved activity here. People have a lot of vacation time, but often don’t have much money to do anything fancy with it. However I have been a bit surprised driving past some of these “camp-sites” because they advertise things like swimming pools and soccer fields and wi-fi and even water slides. Not quite what I have in mind when I want to camp.
But when you stand on our balcony looking south beyond the spire of the cathedral and the slanted roofs of houses and apartments that make up the modest skyline of Pau, you see a more august skyline – the Pyrenees. If we get in our car and drive for half an hour, past the vineyards and cornfields and rolling hills and country houses, we suddenly are there in the mountains themselves.
The first time we tried to go on a hike in this region, we drove south for a while beyond Jurançon. We began to drive up a small mountain, trying to find a hiking path of some kind. We were about to pass through a tiny village when we saw a man standing in the middle of the cobble stone road, apparently there to direct “traffic” – the random car that might pass every 5 to 10 minutes. He was about 50, wore a beret, had a short salt and pepper beard, and yes…it sounds cheesy to say this, but he had a veritable twinkle in his eye.
We asked him where to go to find a place to hike, and he looked momentarily bemused. He grinned and made an expansive gesture with both arms and said “in every direction” and laughed.
Last weekend we decided we would like to do some camping. In the spirit of this man’s attitude towards the mountains, we decided to wing it – find a nice place to hike and then camp somewhere along the way. Our friend Herman had a book of recommended hikes in the Pyrenees and had chosen one southwest of Lourdes that led up to a lake called Lac de Miguelou.
The plan was to leave Pau in late afternoon and avoid the heat of midday. However due to various miscommunications, the three of us didn’t manage to leave Pau until almost 5 PM. And then the drive took longer than we had anticipated mainly because we went the wrong way here and there (GPS often makes things more difficult than they would be otherwise). We finally arrived at the trailhead at 7 PM. The sun was already close to setting.
We saw the last few straggling hikers making their way down the mountainside. We shrugged, took our packs from the car and started up the trail. The sun set about 20 minutes later.
This was the last we really saw of where we were and where we were going.
And then it got dark. And windy. And more windy and more windy.
We had no way of seeing much beyond us except for the trail, but it was obvious that there was nowhere to camp anywhere along the way – just a bit of rocky dirt snaking up a slanted mountain face.
While the whole hike might have taken about 2-2.5 hours during the day time, after over three hours of pushing through the wind we finally reached a kind of plateau and then we continued for another 30 minutes or so across a barren landscape of broken rock.
Eventually we found our way to a strange structure – outcroppings of cement in geometric shapes protruding from the mountainside – a dam. We could see a light in the distance and made towards it, passing by creepy deserted looking buildings made of stone and cement. (At that time of night, due to my typically fevered, over-active imagination they looked like ideal hideouts for serial killers and I kept my distance even though I knew I was being silly).
I kind of felt like we were in Lord of the Rings, fighting our way up a desolate mountain, past a swamp of dead bodies, and strange deserted dwarf housing inside the mountains, to drop a ring inside the lake above the dam. Like I said…fevered, overactive imagination.
As we neared the light we saw that it came from the windows of a little two-story house perched on a tiny hill by the lake. As we got closer, we were talking rather loudly, supposing this was one of the “refuges” found in many hiking areas. The light on the bottom floor suddenly went out, followed by those on the second floor. We felt decidedly unwelcome. Whoever was in there didn’t apparently want more company. So we turned around and made our way back to the wall of the dam, hoping that it would offer us some shelter from the intense wind.
We set up our tents as close to the cement wall as possible while still being on flat ground, and staked them down with difficulty – cold, numb fingers and a mischievous gale slowing our efforts. We made a pasta dinner, ate it happily in the relative shelter of one of our tents, and crawled into our sleeping bags a bit past midnight.
We didn’t sleep much that night. The wind was strong when we set up the tent, but it was nothing compared to the wind that followed. Imagine a horde of screaming banshees coming at you from every side all night long, and you’ll get the basic feeling in our tent. The banshees would occasionally take a little rest and give us a few minutes of peace and it seemed the whole world had become still, dead and empty. And then they would resume the attack. The tent held up remarkably well considering the force of the onslaught, but a few times the wind pummeled it so ferociously and the tent poles bent so much that an entire wall of tent was pressed flat against our faces and bodies. Exciting!
We had very strange dreams.
We woke just as the sun was beginning to rise, opened the tent flap and got our first real look at our awesome surroundings.
To call the landscape desolate would be putting it mildly. It was forlorn, eerie and grey – but in a kind of haunting, delicious way.
In the light of dawn we felt bolder about exploring and walked up the tiny hill to the refuge.
But we heard nothing and saw no one as we got closer to the little stone building.
We went up to the door. There were about six pairs of worn shoes of various sizes and descriptions on a shelf outside the door, as well as six pairs of identical grey Crocs. Now that it was light out, my imagination had taken a lighter turn as well and I was feeling in the midst of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (or in this case maybe Six Dwarves), or perhaps Goldilocks and the Six Bears.
There was also a massive bone sitting on a picnic table overlooking the lake. Some kind of message?
We tried the door but it was locked. We wandered around the sides of the house, peering in windows. It was a well-outfitted little place with a full kitchen stocked with every kind of pot and pan you could need. We could even see hooks on the wall where people’s sunglasses were hanging.
The lake itself was beautiful but melancholy.
I imagined a slumbering slithering monster with lots of tentacles lived at the bottom ready to break to the surface and drag us in if we got too close to the water’s edge.
It wasn’t really a great place to relax, so after we had taken a good look we turned around to go home.
Something inside me warmed slowly too. I almost felt like we had walked through the set of some strange ghost story and I still felt a chill from the mystery of it all. We didn’t belong to that harsh, mysterious world yet the feeling of it lingered within me, and still does.