Walking from The Atlantic to the Mediterranean over the Pyrenees
If all you did was to listen to the news you would think that society was in such a divided state and so fraught with evil and violence that you couldn’t leave the house without risking peril. However, if you defy all that seems to be right in front of your nose and allow yourself to walk out the door and over the hills beyond the world of the familiar, you will be surelysurprised by the amount of kindness, compassion, and generosity that exists between common people who encounter each other in course of an average day. I have just flown from New York to France where I spent the night in Paris walking the streets until dark never feeling a moment of threat or danger. There were no terrorist attacks. There weren't people fist fighting on street corners over who is best to lead the country: LePen or Macron. It was in fact the same Paris that I visited on other occasions. Parisians have a reputation for being unfriendly, curt, petulant, and unhelpful. I have not found this to be the case in Paris any more than it is in New York, Tokyo, Istanbul, Lima, or Delhi. Urban spaces require one to maintain a certain focus to simply get through the mass of humanity and go from point A to point B. That Parisians do the same thing shouldn't come as a surprise. I have experienced the French to be accommodating, compassionate, extremely well mannered, lighthearted, and even playful. They are proud of their culture and sometimes suspicious of strangers. Even the smallest pleasantry or friendliness by a well-meaning traveler is almost certain to be reciprocated. I do not speak any decipherable kind of French. Yet in stilted conversations it is always my French counterpart who is apologetic. It was toward the end of June in 2017 that I took a train from Paris to the Hendaye on the border of France and Spain to begin a trek on the GR10: a long-distance hiking trail that goes over the rugged Pyrenees, west to east, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The “GR” stands for Grande Randonee (long path). There are many Grande Randonees in France with different number but always the same red and white striped waymarks. If there is a divisiveness, evil, and suspicion in the world at large, it simply becomes less and less present once you start hiking the GR10. Once on the GR10 I experience the same camaraderie that I would on any other long-distance trail in the world. The religious, economic and political divisions that cripple our social interactions in the "civilized" world seem to drop away on a long and arduous trail where we are all reduced to the common denominator of human beings simply conveying ourselves through the splendor of nature. I was hesitant on the first day. I lay in bed that morning at a seaside hotel in Hendaye, listening to the crashing surf, unable to budge. 7:30 came and went, then 8 o'clock and then 8:30. Finally at 9:00 I pried my creaking, jet-lagged body from the bed. What in god’s name was I trying to prove? I am 62 years old for heaven’s sake. It had been a beautiful night of sleeping to music of the seashore. With the balcony door open and the pounding surf coming across the unfettered Atlantic I was lulled into bliss. I hadn't realized that Hendaye was such a surfer town. Hundreds of athletic young people in slick wetsuits rode the spiraling waves. It took quite a bit of self-determination to gather all my things into a backpack. A backpack which was clearly too large but for good reason. Although my accoutrements were few. I only brought three shirts, three pair of underwear, two pairs of shorts, a pair of pants, assorted toiletries and some electronics. The reason I brought the big 70-liter rucksack was to have enough room to fit a nice-sounding but cheap violin. Just in case you had any doubts, I am the kind of nut that walks hundreds of miles over steep mountains carrying the unnecessary added weight of a violin out of pure passion for music and a way to break the ice with my fellow randoneers. The violin case itself was made from a soft, lightweight vinyl but I could surround it with my clothes and sleeping bag, shielding it from harm even if I needed to throw it off a cliff. Hopefully not. I started walking uphill with the ocean at my back and headed east into the Pyrenees with the intention of spending the first night in Olhette. I took a wrong turn and ended up going full circle. After three bewildering hours I reached a location just a few miles outside of Hendaye. Worn-out, I collapsed into a humble bed in the small town of Biriatou. The hotel manager was a comical man with wine and cigarettes on his breath who asked me to wait while he actually changed the sheets and made up the room. He seemed apologetic but the room only cost €50. It was small and there was a decent restaurant down the street. There was a also vigorous game of going on in the small centre ville . Peloto is a kind of handball that shirtless young men like to play in the evenings. The game consists of hitting a small rubber ball against a wall (with or without a racquet) while sweating, swearing and arguing. Like all towns in Basque country, the village was a collection of stucco houses, all painted white. The shutters are red, and the roofs are of terra-cotta tile. The front door, exposed to the east if possible, traditionally displays the date of construction and the name of the owner above the entrance. The extraordinary conformity of the architecture is a hard to imagine in the current world full of ego and fierce individualism. The Basque people have a long and interesting history. They managed to stay under the radar when the Phoenicians and Romans came sniffing around. Napoleon scarcely bothered with them. Their language is one of the hardest in the world to learn. In the mid 20th century Generalissimo Franco came after them with aggressive force. He tried to outlaw the teaching of their language (Euskera) in school. This led to the formation of a separatist movement called the ETA which used many of same terrorist devices as the IRA. On the morning of the second day I started uphill again, this time taking the correct turn, and after a hike of at least 8 1/2 hours I plonked myself down in a chair at a café in the center of Ohlette. I asked the woman there for a tall cold carafe of water and a Coca-Cola. She had no food but that was okay with me there were plenty of à prix réduit restaurants in town. I was so exhausted and covered with sweat from the day, which had been cloudless and 90°, that the idea of setting up camp was simply too much work. I had brought a small lightweight tent and an inflatable mattress with me although it would be several days before I actually used them. The next two days were arduous and long. The average walk was about 15 miles and took between 8 and 9 hours of going up and down steep hills. Throughout the course of these first few days I became acquainted with three other hikers all engaged in the same task as me. We all intended to hike the entire GR10 as best as we could in terms of ability, money, time, and fortitude. One was an Englishman, about my age, from Bristol. He was semi-retired and intended to hike all summer. He had walked several of the caminos in Northern Spain and this was his first hike through the GR10. He had the intention of hiking all the way to the Mediterranean and then back to the Atlantic over the high route. I met a determined young woman from Tasmania. She had been trapped in an office job in Paris for the last two years and it had been become her sustaining dream during that time to hike the GR10 before she left France. She was pleasant, purposeful, sensible and fit. Perhaps she would be the most likely to succeed. Another younger woman, about my daughter’s age, from Ireland was also in about the same rhythm as myself and the others. She was an ICU nurse from Dublin who got pissed off and quit her job. She injured her leg, causeing her to limp as far as Bidarry before hanging up her rucksack. The pass that one climbs before descending into Bidarry is significant in many ways. First of all, it is the last time you'll see the Atlantic. For three days when I looked to the west, I could still see the broadening horizon of the Atlantic. At first I could only see the cities of Hendaye and Irun across the Spainish border . After a while I could also see Saint-Jean du Luz, San Sebastian and more and more of the other coastal cities. When I reached the Col des Veaux, I could take one last look west at the at the Atlantic and also to the east get a first look at the high Pyrenees which were jagged and foreboding. The descent from the Col des Veaux into Bidarry was described in my guidebook as the most harrowing dissent on the GR10. I was glad to know there's nothing harder. There were many places where metal cables provided an opportunity to hold on for dear life so that you don’t slip and fall a thousand feet into a gorge below. All along this trepidatious section there were vertigo-inducing, narrow passages that traversed along a sheer, precipitous hillside. The path itself was never more than 2 feet wide. Someone who honestly suffered from vertigo would never be able to successfully make thier way through this endless long traverse without passing out. As a bonus, there were also large sections of rock talus to negotiate. At the bottom of this dissent I met up with the other three people that I've gotten to know all sitting in the shade. I yelled ahead to them "fucks sake!" "and they roared with laughter. The perils of mountaineering can bring a quick camaraderie. In Bidarry I stayed at a hotel next to the train tracks. It was cheap but there were profuse flies. I had noticed so far, during the last five days in Basque country, that there were an inordinate number of flies everywhere. One simply had to forgive them for crawling all over one's food or strolling up and down one's skin like shoppers at a mall. There were too many of them to even begin swatting. I was told later that the fly problem was unusual and peculiar to this particular year. The next big destination was the major tourist town Sainte-Jean-Pied-du-port; where the Gr10 intersects with the Camino Santiago de Compestella. The Camino de Santiago is a less arduous than the GR10 and it attracts people of all ages, shapes and speeds. The kind of folks you might meet on a cruise ship. They love to shop and eat. They stop along The Way in places like Saint John Pied du Port to do that. A significant number of businesses have cropped up in Saint John Pied du Port selling French berets and Basque country T-shirts. Also, you can get yourself a handy wooden walking stick: even some with bells if you really want to annoy other people on the trail. Saint John Pied du Port is also a great place to eat pizza and do your laundry. It has a supermarket in the town. This was my first experience with a mega supermarket in France. Carrefour is a modeled after ShopRite or Tops in the US. The difference is that instead of having everything together in one coherent section, stuff is spread out along the various aisles in the way that is difficult for a disoriented consumer with a language handicap to understand. Simply trying to find a suitable small bottle of shampoo turned into a scavenger hunt. I didn't know the French words used to describe the maintenance of one's coiffure. I ended up with a bottle of some amber colored substance that seemed to make my hair greasier that it was to begin with. For this I paid seven euros. It must be a style. The journey took an interesting turn after I left Sainte-Jean-Pied-du-port. I walked all day and finally, after eight hours of trekking, mostly uphill, reached the Gite Kaskoleta placed obscurely on a hilltop. The gite is a kind of trailside lodging that one encounters all over France in places where people hike. It is usually a place that offers tent sites and also a dormitory style sleeping facility. Also, as a part of the deal they will feed you a basic dinner as well as a very basic breakfast. It’s certainly not four-star lodging but usually it only costs between 40 and 50 euros per night for two meals and a bed: affordable for the lean-pocketed randoneer. As I approached the gite I heard the uproar of joyous laughter. I took this as a warm greeting at the end of a long day. As I entered the fenced-in area I saw two women from Germany who were lying side-by-side on the picnic table and gazing at the sky. We greeted each other in French and then they began to speak English to me. I asked if there was anyone inside to talk to about a room and a meal. They said they weren't sure but the woman who ran the gite said she might come by at about 6 o'clock. Inside the gite was a garrulous group of people laughing and joking in French. I greeted them in French. D'ou etes- vous ? they asked. “New York” I said. I asked them about the femme who ran the gite. They had the same answer as the German women outside. It was 5 o'clock; I was knackered as shit from the days trek and stretched out upstairs on the floor to take a nap. At around six I woke up and heard increased activity accompanied by the sound of a new animated voice. It turned out to be the mystérieuse femme who ran the gite. I approached her. Everyone was silent as I asked her in French if could I eat and sleep there. “Bien sûr” she responded. I sat down with the jovial Europeans and had an enjoyable meal where we had a lighthearted witty conversation that switched back and forth from French to German to English. Many Europeans do that with admirable aplomb. They asked me why my backpack was so big. It must be very heavy they thought. I said that most of the space was taken up by my violin. Immediately they were interested that I carried a violin in my backpack. Could I play it for them? I did. They were delighted. I played them some Gypsy music and then some Irish music and then I improvised a song called the “Gite Blues”. In the text of the song I described the pros and cons of staying at a gite. The pros being the friendly company. The cons were the fact that people in the dormitories (dortoir in French) snored at night. I changed the name to “snoretoir”. They laughed with the total delight at my rendition of the “Gite Blues”. For the next five nights, I traveled from one gite to another with the same group. We all followed the itinerary of the same guidebook. Each night we spent together laughing, music making, wine drinking, and in general feeling the highest of spirits. If only life could be this way always. The days were arduous: hiking up and down the steep hills but as soon as we stopped at night it took me only 10 minutes to recover and I felt a glow from the day that lasted into the evening with the great company of my hiking companions. The two women from Germany had done NGO work both in Africa and in South America. Two men who were teachers worked in the vicinity of Lyon. There was also an outgoing couple from Paris who were both microbiologists. They were all young, athletic, healthy and hiked quite a bit faster than me. I also got lost and took naps more often. It went on like this for six days until we got to Refuge Jeandel. The next day I trekked my nebulous way through a ski area that did not seem to support the Gr10. There were no longer waymarks (little red and white blazes painted on trees and rocks). I got lost. Really lost. I ended up skidding down a ski slope that was 100% rock scree and almost as steep as a cliff. I got to the bottom of the slope and still there were no trail markers. I was hot, tired, pissed-off, and decided that I would simply hitchhike to the nearest big town.
In Orlon Saint Marie. I settled into a comfortable hotel, bought groceries, did my laundry, catching up on sleep and email correspondence. It took two showers to get six days of hiker grit off of my body. Almost no one I had met so far had the initial impression that I was American. Most people thought I was English. Part of this was because Americans almost never hike the GR 10. Most people were surprised to learn that I was from New York. They asked me about Donald Trump. I told them that like 90% of all French people I did not support his policies. The next day: July 14 would be Bastille Day. I wondered if Trump's arrival in Paris for a state visit with Macron might incite the masses. After a 24-hour escape from the GR10, I rejoined my comrades in the small town of Etsaut for one last night of revelry. They were a gift. Before embarking on this adventure, I thought that I would spend six weeks talking to almost no one. I had expected to be in the wilderness in a country where I barely speak the language. I thought for sure, after I had left my friends in Etsaut, that things would get quieter. After drinking schnapps in a bar until midnight I slept the “dead sleep of a mountaineer”, as John Muir used to say. A drunken mountaineer. I commenced the next morning, climbing nearly 5000 feet to the top of the col D'Ayous . This took 7 hours of huffing, puffing, and cursing under my breath. About three quarters through the climb I came upon a cabin inhabited by sheepherders. They were often visited by hikers on this popular route. This particular day, they were visited by family members who had brought them beer and an anise flavored liquor called Ricard. I took my rest beside them and drink water from their spigot. Like many before them, they asked me why I carry such a big rucksack. I told him that I carried a violin. They wanted to see and hear it. I showed it to them and then played it. They responded favorably and took lots of pictures and videos. There must be alot pictures and videos of my eccentric, violin-playing image in people’s homes all over the world. A strange and remarkable extension of my life. After the sheepherders, I spent another three hours climbing up to the top of the col. When I finally reached the top, all was forgiven. The view was perhaps one of the most breathtaking in Europe. A photograph or postcard must exist on many a refridgerator in France. From the pass you could behold grand view of the iconic Pic Midi D'ossau. Just a few hundred feet below the col was a refuge and two lakes. The refuge itself was crowded as it's a very popular spot to hike to and spend the night. During the time I passed the refuge there had been the added excitement of the helicopter rescue. I was not close enough to the building to know exactly what had happened. But the helicopter added to the mountaineering thrill of it all. I set up my tent at the second smaller lake. I was hoping to get a quiet night’s sleep there beside a stream. All went well until about 9 o'clock when five teenage men showed up with their soccer ball, loud rock 'n' roll, and cheap booze. It seemed pointless to go over and tell them to quiet down. They would have told me to f--- off just like I would've done in a similar situation when I was a teenager. I plugged my ears and tried, with limited success, to sleep. Fortunately, I had only a short downhill hike the next day to get to the next town Gabas. Walking down the mountain, I passed at least 500 people on their way up. I had arrived at the most popular area of the high Pyrenees. I felt as if I were at the Grand Canyon or Machu Picchu or a Manchester United match. It was all people in clean well-pressed casual clothing. They looked odd as if they had come from a place that I was unfamiliar with. When I reached Gabas I was given pause. I knew that I didn't have enough time to actually complete the entire 500+ miles of the GR10. At best, I had perhaps enough time to hike another 200 miles. I had to map out a plan to start 200 miles west of the Mediterranean and hike my way east. I was put off by the crowds in the High Pyrenees and I knew the next section, the Areige, would be remote, filled with deep valleys and sparse settlements with very few places to get supplies. I thought, at some later date, I'd like to do that section with someone else and not by myself. And so, I decided to take a bus north so that I might get to a train east. I sat by the road at a bus stop in Gabas. The schedule posted at the bus stop was too confusing for me to understand. Luckily, the bus driver from the same line stopped across the street from me and rolled down his window, helpfully advising me that it would be five hours before he would return to pick me up. This was disappointing news and the previous night's lack of sleep was making my eyes heavy. I decided to try hitchhiking for the next 15 minutes and if that didn't work out, I would just get a hotel room right there in the town of Gabas and catch the bus in the morning. About 10 cars went by before an old Toyota with two women in their 60s pulled over and offered me a ride to a town about 30 km north. By the time they got to the town it was decided that I should stay at their home in the beautiful town of Arudy. They had an extra room with a soft bed. They also had a refrigerator full of exquisite food and wine. I played the violin and they listened raptly. Simultaneously, they were visited by a woman from Britany and her two daughters. The youngest of whom, about 11 years old, had just taken up the violin a year and 1/2 before. I played along with her as she went through her repertoire of tunes in her school music book. We had a delicious multi-course meal, and a leisurely stroll along the Gave d’Ossau river. My hosts were, witty, thoughtful, and erudite. They were a gift from god. My head grew hazy with French wine and I slept like a baby. These two women, angels that they were, drove me out of pure kindness to the city of Pau where I caught a train north to Toulouse, then east to Foix, and then south to the famous mineral baths of Ax-les-thermes I experienced my second Pyrenees thunderstorm in the town of Ax-les-thermes. As I walked from the train station into town in search of a hotel a biblical deluge came down. A Frenchman had taught me the expression Il pleut comme cache qui pisse “rain like pissing cows” just a few weeks before in Logibar after I spent the night sleeping in my tent during a violent thunderstorm. In Ax-les-thermes there were golf ball hailstones falling from the sky. My rain gear and pack cover were put through their paces. They became necessary within the time span of about 30 seconds. For 10 minutes, I huddled under a tree and prayed to that vague entity I call god for the torrent to stop. Soaked to the point of misery, the pisse let up just enough so that I could start looking for a hotel. This little town was crowded during ski season you could tell, but in the middle of July it seemed like a ghost town. Crowds of people did crawl out of the woodwork shortly after Il pleut comme cache qui pisse had stopped. Nevertheless, finding a hotel was harder than I thought. This may be because I took a few wrong turns in my haste to get out of the storm and didn’t go to the center of the village. I did find a gite which pleased me and decided to stay two nights so that I could enjoy the pleasure le bains. I am used to hot, hot springs that turn my skin pink and leave me feeling like a marshmallow. The waters of the main bath house in town were mostly tepid although I did find one small pool that was just a few degrees over 100 F. I hadn’t brought a bathing suit but, no worries, they had a sexy, black, French one on the premises that I was able to purchase for a mere 20 euros. Mirren les Vals is a 20 minute train ride from Ax les Thermes. My guidebook said that it was an easy 12 km walk from the trailhead to the refuge Besines. It was more like a 15k walk and the trail was full of rocks. Gone were the grassy tracks and smooth roads (and sadly the Gateau Basque) of Basque Country. I was now traveling in another section of the GR 10: one in which the path is strewn with hefty rocks of granite. It felt more and more like the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There is no mountain range I have hiked in the whole world that has kicked my ass more than the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My cul was getting kicked French style. I arrived exhausted to the refuge at Besines. To my delight, I discovered that there was a number of musicians at the refuge (a refuge is really just another kind of gite) along with a recording and film crew. These four musicians were part of the band that was doing a tour of 42 different refuges in the Pyrenees. They were skilled musicians and played variations on Django Reinhardt influenced gypsy jazz. I told them I had a violin with me. They were happy to hear this, and I ended up playing with them both in their concert at the refuge and also in a very enjoyable jam session afterward. There was a good size crowd at the refuge who were attentive listeners. There was never a second of rudeness from the audience who, after all, got to attend this concert for free. I enjoyed myself immensely and I believe the others who performed with enjoyed playing with me too.
The next day, glowing from the night before, I continued the trek. It turned out to be the most difficult day of the entire GR 10 adventure so far. Again, this was described in the guidebook as an “easy” day that featured two "easy" passes. Nothing to it. The first pass was nearly 8000 feet high and to get to the top of it there was some perilous rock scrambling which was made harder by the weight of my pack. A heavy pack will make it harder to find your balance on unstable ground. I was relieved to reach the top uninjured. Ironically after all of that difficult rock scrambling I managed to fall once I got to an easy path on my way down the other side. I simply fell because my foot got caught in an unseen little hole. My weight went forward and I fell to the ground bracing my fall with my hands. Rolling is not an option when you carry a big pack. The middle finger of my left hand became dislocated for only 1/2 a second. I could feel it pop out and then pop back in quickly. I knew from experience that this meant I was going to have limited flexibility in that finger for at least a few weeks to come. Hopefully this amounted to just a small sprain in the finger and not a complete break. A few years earlier I had broken the forefinger next to it and it had taken almost 6 months to really regain the motion and flexibility necessary to play a stringed instrument at a professional level. I was hoping to avoid going through the same kind of rehabilitation process with this finger. I spent the rest of the journey worrying about my finger: hoping for the best but dreading the worst. The next pass was just as high but did not require the same arduous rock scrambling as the first. The relief was short-lived because the dissent to the next refuge at La Bouillouses was much, much longer than had been described in my guide. It went on for what seemed like a century. And then it started to rain. My rain luck was running out. Excepting the walk from the train station in Ax-les-therme, all of the rain I encountered so far had been at night when I was tucked away in a tent or an indoor shelter of some kind. Hiking in the rain is a miserable thing to have to do. When I am at home and have a choice, I will always back away from hiking in the rain. It's cold, it's wet, and it on this particular day added to the misery of a long trip. Moreover, I was grousing to myself about my finger. Finally, I reached a lovely hotel on the edge of the lake. This idyllic place had not been in my guidebook. They had a single room that I could spend the night in. This was welcome to me because the previous two nights I had spent in bunkrooms where people snore, grunt, talk in their sleep, and do other annoying things during the night. I needed to catch up on some sleep and heal my wounds. The hotel chef prepared some stir-fried vegetables with rice for me. It tasted like the King’s feast compared to the omelets and stale bread I had been eating at the gites and refuges. The next day was also advertised in my guide as an "easy" day of about four hours walking mostly downhill. This turned out to be not true at all. Within an hour of my departure from the hotel it started to rain. Once again it was Il pleut comme cache qui pisse. My finger was swelling up and turning purple. And now I was going to have to hike perhaps all day in the Il pleut comme cache qui pisse. Adding to the list of woes, the heel of my left foot was starting to swell with pain and every step was uncomfortable. I pulled out my iPhone and called my wife. I told her of my misery while standing under a tree in the forest in the Il pleut comme cache qui pisse. I got to share my troubles for only a minute before the cellular magic ended and we were cut off. My heart sank. I reached the destination eight hours later. Thankfully the sun had come out for the last four hours the trek and I arrived in the beautiful little town of Bolquere. The hotel Lassus was run by a super friendly couple who spoke spot-on English. They we're filled with positive energy and eager to please. They had a restaurant that serves the whole village and the first night they prepared me some unbelievably delicious calamari. I was so impressed by the place that I decided to spend another night. I needed more time rest my foot. My finger looked like sausage, and now my iPhone would not charge when I plugged it in the wall. On the next day, I took the phone to little fix-it shop. The lady there said that my charging port was damaged and that she could replace it but that it would take three or four days for the part to reach her. She, using some kind of magic, managed to plug my depleted phone in her charger and got the phone to charge slowly for couple of hours so that I was up to 50%. Now I had and aching middle finger on my left hand, an expensive kind of pain in my left heel with each step that I walked, and a phone that had only 50% power and no capability charge. Putain!!! There was only one choice. Barcelona. The little town of Bolquere was about a four-hour train ride from the great city of Barcelona in Catalonia (they’ve never been comfortable with Spain). It was the nearest major city and it had the kind of things I needed. I could rest in a comfortable hotel for a few days, get my phone fixed at the Apple store, and get a splint for my finger as well as some anti-inflammatory pills and creams. I boarded a train at a station that was just over the border in Spain. I purchased a ticket at the window. I walked out to the platform and began to wait. The man who had been in the ticket line behind me was speaking in an angry voice to a woman on the platform. I was confused at first when she came over to me and began speaking in English. The guy behind me in the ticket line didn’t speak any English but he wanted the woman the explain to me that the clerk in the ticket booth had shortchanged me by 5 euros. She led me back up to the counter and gave the clerk a piece of her mind. The clerk sheepishly took out 5 euros and returned it to me. I thanked the woman profusely. She told me that they often take advantage of foreigners who are not familiar with the currency. These were my first moments on Spanish/Catalonian soil and already I was impressed by the dogged pursuit of decency. It turned out that the hotel at that I had booked through Expedia was full. Rather than just turn me out on the street they had transferred my booking to a hotel in the center of the city that belonged to the same company. It was a four-star hotel that had a sauna, steam room, and Jacuzzi that I could utilize to help my bones heal from the rocky road I had traveled. Things were starting to look up again. During this time, I stayed in contact with my wife despite the dwindling battery power of my phone. She gave me useful medical advice. I went out and bought heel inserts for my shoes. I got a splint for my finger, and I replaced my phone at the Apple store around the corner from the hotel. Barcelona itself is overrun with tourists. They seem like the same tourists I encounter in Times Square New York City. People of the middle classes and upper middle classes of Asia, Europe, and US were all there in full force: on the beaches, at the tapas bars, and shopping on the Ramblas. They all wear brightly colored, sensible clothes and love to shop and eat. Their obsession with taking photographs of themselves was fully evident at all places of interest. "Selfie sticks" that lengthen the distance between camera and subject, are an extension of this rampant self-love. There are some people who simply make iPhone videos of their every movement as they travel through the world so as to document an experience that they aren't really having. I was healing: my phone worked again, my foot was getting better and even my finger wasn't too bad. I decided to go back to the GR 10 and try to make my way to the end. If my foot starts to hurt too much than I will have to pack it in, but I don’t want to go out like that. I took a train from Barcelona to Vernet les Bains and continued my progress from there. My intention had been to only hike four or five hours each day. I wanted to take it easy on my heel and not rush through Paradise like it’s the Long Island Expressway. I plotted out an 11-day course that would lead me in the terminal city of Banyuls sur Mer on the Mediterranean. But, surprisingly, four or five hours passed and I still felt good enough to carry-on. The first night I spent in an eco-gite. The family who ran the place made all the meals they served from local organic vegetables and natural materials in general. They even made their own organic wine which was damn good. That night I became friendly with a tall blonde Dutch couple who had actually been living in Norway for the past 20 years. They were immediate admirers of my music and we struck up an easy rapport. Concurrently, the three of us became friends with a French woman who worked for the European Union in Brussels. These were just plain old good folks to sit down and talk with and have a laugh. I had embarked upon this journey not expecting to interface with much of anyone. The remoteness of the region and my lack of facility with the language made me think that conversation was not going to be my main activity. That was OK. I have been a teacher for many years, and the job requires intense social interaction every day. It’s not so bad to spend some time alone with my thoughts. In retrospect, it might’ve been awfully depressing if there had been no one to talk to. It is it those quiet moments when I am not active that my heart aches for my family the most. Thankfully, in this day and age, we have social media so that I can post pictures and they can comment on them. This ability to keep in touch was interrupted once again after a few days back on the trail by the malfunction of the phone I had just acquired in Barcelona. The iPhone 6s plus, is known to have trouble the touchscreen. I was attempting to call home from atop a high col when the touchscreen simply stopped working. This brought on a frantic state of frustration: tapping away hopelessly, trying can’t get any kind of response from the lifeless phone. My biggest concern was that I maintain contact with my wife who, if she doesn’t hear from me after a few days, starts to worry. I ended up borrowing other people’s phones just so that I could either have a short conversation with my wife or leave a reassuring message. Another sad thing about the malfunction of my phone was that I could no longer take pictures. My Facebook followers had been enjoying the GR10 photos and I hoped to give them a visual representation of what the final days of the trip was like. The final days were indeed worth photographing. With the silhouette of Canigo to the west; the sun setting behind it, and the Mediterranean getting closer and closer to the east: like cobalt blue glass from the high points along the path. The terrain was semi-arid like Colorado. There was the same kind of slippery sand and rock scree. There is also plenty of lovely coniferous forests like you see along the Colorado Trail. I felt at one with the trail. My foot pain magically disappeared. I glowed with the peace and satisfaction having made it this far. I’d skipped some parts of the GR 10 but still, had walked most of it. Over 300 miles of it for sure. I met lots of great folks and played the fiddle at night in the gites for them. I’ve gone through several different geographic and temperate zones to get to this final stage. It was a great feeling of satisfaction. My skin had turned tawny from the summer sun. Along the way I had eaten all kinds of different food: some good, some of it bad but it all made a safe trip though my digestive tract. I never got sick to my stomach. I usually slept well at night even in the dormitories. There were people who snored but many nights I was so tired I couldn’t even pay attention. Walking up and down steep hills for 15 or 20 miles each day will bring on the heavy Z’s. The last days felt bittersweet. I’ve grown accustomed to the long walk each day. There was a routine to it all. I would assemble my gear in the afoe-mentioned oversized 70 L Dueter backpack. After a, typically unspectacular, breakfast of bread jam, butter, and coffee. I secured enough water and I slowly set out walking no more than 2 mph at first to get my body in motion. If I started out to fast, I would feel sore in my legs and short of breath. It took an hour of warming up before I could get the engine running at full capacity. There were many young, athletic people in their 20s who would race past me like Lamborghinis on the Autobahn. One day a young German man fell into step with me and we talked a lot about our hiking experiences. He was impressed at all the places I’ve gone and all the hiking I had done, but he still had one question in his mind. He asked me why, with all my experience, that I carry such a big and heavy rucksack. I told him about the violin inside and that it was more cumbersome and big than it was heavy. Although I did in fact carry somewhere between 15 and 20 kg in my bag depending on how much water and food I had had on board. He had told me that his goal for the day was to get another 25 miles down the trail. I wondered why he needed to rush through paradise. He said he felt bored if he didn’t keep moving. I wondered if he was just afraid of himself. If you slow down, you will start to hear your own mind working; you’ll start to get in touch with your own inner dialogue. To many people, this is a difficult thing. One of the most meaningful experiences for me when I am hiking down the trail is to stop and simply observe my surroundings: to see it, smell it, and feel the wind against my face. This is what life is. Life is what happens when you stop in a natural setting where there’s nothing man-made to look at and you simply take in the truth and beauty. We spend most of our lives either producing or consuming. We’re used to life being a construction: some virtual reality created by digital media. Everything in that world is designed to entertain and enthrall. To fill the canvas completely so that there is no empty space: no place where the imagination can cut loose. I come to the woods to let my mind off the leash. I feel privileged to take in these rare moments when nothing man-made can interfere with my experience of the world. It could easily have been 100°F the day I walked the final 22k to the seaside town Banyuls sur Mer on the Mediterranean coast. There was no place to get water during the last 15k of the walk. By the time I reached the beautiful coastal city I was in a potentially dangerous state of dehydration. I found a supermarket and immediately bought a cold, one-and-a-half-liter bottle of water. Triumphantly I walked down the street towards the Mediterranean to claim my victorious completion of the GR 10. Conveniently, the terminal point is across the street from the tourist office. Thanks to the people who worked there, I managed to reserve a room at the same hotel where two of my Dutch/Norwegian trail buddies were also staying. I took them out for a fancy dinner by the shore where we drank delicious local wine and ate delicious local seafood. I knew I would have to say goodbye to the trail, and I would have to find some other purpose to life. For the past month or so the only purpose in my life was to get up walk, reach a destination, unpack, shower wash my clothes, eat, play some fiddle, go to sleep and repeat the next day. After a tearful goodbye to Banyuls, my first destination was Paris. In the City of Lights, I could replace the broken phone that I got in Barcelona with a new one for free. I could get my laundry done insofar as washing my clothes in the sink each night was not adequate to keep them from smelling like a sock that has been in your gym locker for a year. I could also organize next phase of my trip. With the few days I had leftover until my August 10 departure from Charles de Gaulle airport I planned to visit the Brittany coast and do a little hiking on the GR 34. The Hotel I stayed in Paris was one that I simply stumbled upon. I had made no reservation. It was called the Drawing Hotel. It had a drawing museum and bookstore in the hotel and a very friendly staff who appointed me with a nice room. They had an abundant breakfast buffet which they gave to me complementary because I told them I completed the GR 10. It was a nice change of pace from the stale baguette and jam that I had reconciled myself to in the gites. The hotel was and about a one hour walk from Gare Montparnasse where I would catch series of trains up to the Brittany coast. Since I was no stranger to walking for an hour with my heavy pack, I took on the task with eagerness and excitement. Montparnasse is a posh section of Paris and I got to see the high-end designer stores and all the fashionable people while I was walking to the train station. I proudly strutted past these lightweight city slickers in my worn hiking clothes, never for a minute envious of their high-priced threads. The Brittany coast has wide impressive beaches, but it's also quite rocky in other places and reminds me of the Maine coast. The temperature was a good 20° cooler then the part of southern France where I was on the Mediterranean. The town of Sainte Malo is a crowded one. The beaches are vast and beautiful, the old city is medieval surrounded by ancient stone walls. It’s not the kind of place where I like to hang out for more than a day or so. There were “cruise ship” people everywhere - lots of families with small children. The kids made me miss my grandkids and I enjoyed just watching them run around joyously. It did not surprise me to observe the amount of bickering families do during their vacations. I have witnessed this in many resort communities during the summer. Every member of the family has their own set of expectations. Sooner or later someone becomes a hindrance by keeping other family members from the things that make them happy. Still it is when I’m in communities that are full of lovely families and I am by myself that I feel the loneliest. There are very few people here that are on their own. On the trails of the GR10 was not at all unusual to see someone hiking by themselves however, in Saint Malo, there were very few people who walked alone as I did.