I am in France. I am in France! So much has happened in the last three days, I am not sure where to start! I have had no wifi, which is fine, but the posts start piling up…
I packed up and tore out of the empty hostel, excited to get on the road again. It has been very warm the last couple days, with some additional sweat being generated due to that vaguely familiar yellow orb up there… So, my days are bright and cheery, for it is not raining. I pull off by the fountain, fill my bottles, and clean my drive train- I ran into some really gooey mud coming into Pamplona, and actually laid my bike down crossing some pavement coated with runoff from a hill as I left town, and there were some granules grinding away in my gears.
I clean the bike and head off, but my bike feels strangely bouncy… Ah, my back tire is half empty! I pump it up, hoping that maybe the valve miraculously got unscrewed and pressed, but after I pulled the pump off, I could hear air hissing. No problem, I unload, flip ‘er upside down, disconnect the chain and swap the tube. Yes, the old tube had a hole right around the valve. I am relieved, for this means my tire is uncompromised. One could say this was simply normal wear and tear- I have never had a flat on this bike at all until now, and this particular tube has seen three sets of tires. It was time- three years is a good run (I have only used it for three trips in the last three years, totalling about 1000 miles, added to the 1300 kilometers or so on this trip… which is a good amount, but thw bike has had a lot of down time too).
I start riding into Jaca (loogie) on an unusually busy morning, judging by the traffic. I also have to keep stopping to photograph these picturesque mountains:
Ah, the Pyrenees. If you like those, there are some close-ups coming in the near future…
I hit Jaca and load up on groceries. I am not sure what I am getting into, but I want to be prepared, although I am none-too-excited about the extra seven-or-so pounds I just lumped on the bike. I am not even sure which route to take. I am torn, because Analiese told me about Calfranc Estación, a very large, ornate train station in the mountains that effectively went bust and is now a curiosity, an unusual attraction. This would take me through Somport, which is still on the Camino, and will kick me out in Pau, which is fine, but she also told me about a town called Lourdes, which is one of the places acknowledged by the Catholic Church as a place of miracles; there is some water issuing from a cave with purported healing properties there, and people from all over come to be healed. This, I am very intrigued by, and it would be out of my way to travel there from Pau. It sounds like something one might see in India, and my curiosity is piqued. Well, I look them both up. The Somport pass has about 1000 meters of climbing. The Col du Pourtalet, my original route, with a direct line to Lourdes, has about 1500. The choice is obvious, no? Well, the latter is a smaller road, seemingly less travelled… Let’s allow a word from old Frosty Bob:
The Road Not Taken
Some pictures as I get closer- that big picture is actually of a ridge to the West. I start riding up the valley, and the grade is not bad. It continues, gradually, and I am doing just fine!
It is not long before I get into them. They are impressive, gorgeous escarpments, and one can tell by the severe tilt of ancient sedimentary layers that this range was formed very violently. I can never get over the incomprehensible forces that reform the bones of the Earth so drastically… There is something canyonesque about these mountains, unique and arresting.
I take rest breaks as needed and keep myself crammed with calories. This climb is not very long, only 40 kilometers or so to Formigal, a town near the border. Of course, it is 40k up to the top of a mountain range, so my expectations are reasonable. I stop for lunch in a town, and consider stopping, or at least checking out the prices of the hostels, but I know they will be pricy. I am getting an Aspen-y vibe from this place- the little towns are all built of stone and wood, nice-looking, alpine, yuppy structures. You’ll notice that I took a picture of a lake. I passed three of these, but none of them are lakes, they are all reservoirs, which all call to mind a tub full of dirty bathwater. It is pretty disappointing, the natural rivers are far better. There is a waterfront stage with amphitheatre seating in one place. This is where wealthy people buy condos and timeshares or little apartments for the ski season, but they are not called condos, they are called “chateaus.” “My house in the Pyrenees..” What a waste of money for these tacky apartments on ugly artificial lakes! Way to go, Spain. The mountains, however, are timelessly beautiful.
I am nearing the top, and the grade is steeper. My legs are very tired, and I rest more often. I reflect on how joyous this day has been; aside from the lakes, there have been beautiful rivers in deep canyons, alpine forests, crisp looming peaks all around, and the sun is shining. I am having a wonderful time, it is so good to be in the mountains again! I had expected to be shivering in a blizzard, riding through snow, sending home pictures of me camping in a snow-cave or some such. Instead, I am churning up the mountain in the sunshine! I crest, and a ski area comes into view. Maybe better travelled than I thought, eh? Ah well, I am exultant, and I can’t keep a grin off my face. Cars honk and people yell encouragement. I did it! I dragged this heavy-ass bike up a mountain!
I stop in at a restaurant at the top. I want to get the post from yesterday sent off, and they have wifi, so I order a beer and give it a try. The internet is spotty though, and after a half hour I give it up. It is almost 5 o’clock, and I want to camp tonight, so I’d best be on my way. I would be worried about daylight, but I gained an hour from Portugal to Spain, and another with daylight savings, so it is effectively the same sunlight as there was at 3 o’clock a few weeks ago.
I set off and realize two things: I am not at the top, and my legs are shot. Ah, here is what I have been waiting for! It is time for what Gunnar calls the “torture-fest,” which entails thrashing the legs, which feels like mashing ground beef with a meat tenderizer, while pretending not to worry about how late in the day it is. The sun is obscured by a thin layer of cloud, so it is darker and colder. I am an old hand with this psychological anxiety, however, and I know I have a few hours of solid daylight left. But my legs! The top, the bottom, the insides, the outsides, they are shredded. I imagine the microtears as I demand a super-effort of them. They had a half-hour rest and they thought they were done, eh? “No,” they reply, “we thought we were done because we are, we have put in a heavy day! Why couldn’t you have gotten an office job?” I ignore their melodrama, but it seems like I am breathing harder from the exertion- possibly because my legs are in open mutiny- as if breathing harder will help. Here are the views I have to reflect on as I grind upwards on top of a mountain at 5 in the evening:
I chip away at these brutalizing hills for what feels like a long time, but was probably only 3 or 4 kilometers, thankfully, for there is nowhere to even pay to stay up here… I get a few accolades at the real peak, to which I simply smile and stick out my tongue. Thank his Endlessness, there is the descent! I don jacket, hat, and gloves and take off. I pass a couple cars, which are taking pictures on the way down, to my annoyance, for they are in my way! It is a beautiful, exhilerating descent, with hairpin curves. I scream as loud as I can, triumphant as I cruise back below the snowline.
There is nothing like it. I take no pictures of this descent, it is mine alone. Who in their right mind would stop their mad flight down a mountain for photographs anyways? The valley is gigantic, steep, and gorgeous, with an idyllic river running through it. I realize I am in France, because I can’t be sure of what the signs say. Now to find a place to camp… there are a lot of little villages. I am a picky camper, a carryover from backpacking. Not only does the site have to be peaceful and secure, safe from walk-ups and intrusions of any kind, but it also must have good energy, the lighting, the feng shui must be right. Bad time to be picky at 6:30 in the evening… I keep a sharp eye out though, and after one rejection, I find the perfect spot.
Ideally, for a stealth camper, a disused road is the best, for it is flat, with good lighting. I have a great little home for the night, and it actually stayed light until 8:30, so I had plenty of time to cook dinner, read, and relax.
With one fell swoop, I am over the mighty Pyrenees and on into France. I feel as if I passed some threshold. I changed my first flat, mixed a little more bicycle grease in with my blood, which is not a novel experience, but fitting. I also climbed through the Pyrenees mountain range and am into central Europe. I was eager to be here, and of course now everything is unfamiliar and I am frantically studying French. Chasing my own tail again- eager to leave the comfort of Spain, a little overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of France. Bah, in two weeks I will know their way and speak some café French.
The known world, for me, gets a little bigger, and a little stranger.