HRP Chapter 1: What Am I Even Doing Here?
Howdy friends! You may have noticed that I haven’t been very active on The Trek lately — I took a leave of absence to do some hiking in Europe. But I’ve missed y’all too much, so I wanted to share some stories from my time on the Pyrenean Haute Route (HRP), a 460-mile trek from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the frontier range of the Pyrenees.
If you are my mom or dad, hi guys! Thanks for supporting me always <3 If you are NOT my mom or dad, wow. It never gets old having you here. I’m still blown away that there are people out there who like listening to me ramble about trees and things.
The hike took six weeks, but I will try to cover the whole thing in about 20 posts, publishing one per day. I already published the first three today because 20 days is too long to wait! Hope you enjoy the read. Smooch.
“You’re from America?” Christian frowns at us in confusion. “Why would you come over here to hike?”
The morning sun is just peeking over the ridge, gilding the slate roofs of the sleepy French village we’ve just left. Our new friend, a GR10 hiker from Switzerland, cannot wrap his mind around the concept of two Americans flying halfway across the world to hike in the Pyrenees, of all places, when there are loads of perfectly nice trails in the US.
Why are we here? Our current glorious surroundings seem like an answer in and of themselves, but I have to admit it’s a fair question. Heck, I even asked it myself a few months ago. Why am I crossing an ocean to go hiking when some of the best trails in the world are in my back yard?
But now that I’m here, I can’t imagine spending the summer anywhere else. The HRP has proven far more magical than I could have ever imagined, and I’m saying this as someone who has done a fair bit of long-distance hiking.
The 460-mile trek starts from the Atlantic in the lush rolling hills of Basque country, traverses the high, glaciated peaks of the central Pyrenees, and ends on the shores of the Mediterranean. The route’s diversity is incredible. I love everything about it, from the challenging terrain to the phenomenal hiking culture.
But I’m ahead of my story already. Let me back up to the bright July afternoon when my partner and I first set foot in Hendaye, the French seaside town where the HRP begins.
Getting here from Philadelphia was surprisingly easy. We’ve been in transit for less than 18 hours and everything has gone perfectly so far. Regardless, I’ve spent the entire journey in a state of intense distress because of who I am as a person. I can’t relax until the moment we drop our packs on the floor of our tiny downtown rental. Phew. We made it.
My newfound tranquility is perhaps misguided. All I’ve achieved so far is to get through customs without being arrested, and now I’m a stranger in a foreign land with 750km of very pointy-looking mountains ahead of me.
But whatever. I’m calm. I have no idea what to expect from the HRP, but the trail is where I’m in my element. Apparently, that’s still the case in Europe.
All that’s left is to buy a few days’ worth of food and kick off our journey in the traditional way: with a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. When we reach the Mediterranean in six weeks, we’ll end the hike in the same manner.
On Tuesday morning there’s a market in the town square. We wander the stalls and buy some fruit and nuts from an olive vendor. He smiles at us and asks me something in French.
“Pardon, je ne parle pas français,” I stammer, horrified to have my limitations exposed so early in the trip. But for some reason, this only seems to delight him more – perhaps because I pronounce the words in a stupid-sounding way. Yes, that’s definitely why. In any case, he beams and gifts me a large bag of olives, so I chalk it up as a positive interaction.
Between jetlag, prehike excitement, and the all-night rager going on in the park below our window, we barely sleep on Tuesday night. In the morning, we rise before dawn and have a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs before beginning our hike.
Getting out of Hendaye is a nightmare; the route twists and turns through an elaborate network of winding city streets. Pretty soon we’re just following the GPS with our noses in our smartphones, lest we miss a crucial turn.
But the town is small, and urban sprawl isn’t a thing around here. Soon we find ourselves climbing an overgrown country lane with farms all around. It’s a relief to be out of the city. When the sun comes up, we get a glorious view back to Hendaye’s whitewashed buildings and red terracotta roofs. Beyond it all lies the Atlantic.
Suddenly, it hits me. That we’re here. That this is really happening. Even though I’ve done plenty of long-distance hiking, I still have impostor syndrome about it. Self-doubt nags at me. What if I can’t do this?
I put the thought out of my mind for now and replace it with something more positive: today will be a good day. The sun is shining and I don’t have to do anything all day except put one foot in front of the other. Ahead loom the rolling green hills so typical of Basque country. I’m charmed by the idyllic scenery and exhilarated by the thought of the bigger, wilder peaks beyond.
I’ll grant that the Basque hills are not very wild. We spend most of the day on dirt roads between verdant farm fields, and at one point our route passes through a bewildering discount shopping enclave on the French-Spanish border, complete with liquor stores, a three-story glass-fronted shopping mall, and an inexplicable herd of donkeys.
Despite this, I fall in love with the countryside instantly. Everything is so green and perfect, and every few hundred meters there’s some beautiful villa or stone farmhouse that looks like it’s been standing for hundreds of years, and it probably has. I feel like I’m in the Shire. There’s nothing like it in the US.
We climb over 4500 feet in Stage 1, but it’s gently graded and we make excellent time. We finish the stage so early that we decide to stop at Restaurant Lizuniaga for a celebratory lunch.
Harv gets prawns and I have tender salty cod and roasted bell peppers. I don’t know it yet, but this will end up being one of the best meals of my entire HRP.
It’s still early, so we press well into Stage 2 after lunch. We should know better than to pull such big miles right away; starting a thru-hike is tough on the body.
But oh well, it’s Day One and we’re very excited, so we walk about six more miles to a quiet, shady tent site alongside a stream. I worry about mosquitos, but miraculously, there are none. We sit out by the water and enjoy a leisurely dinner of baguettes and cheese and dried fruit.
I sleep like a baby after the sun goes down, but Harv is up all night listening first to a farmer running heavy equipment in the neighboring field and later to the alarming sound of mares – plural – giving birth nearby.
I can’t believe the diversity of sights, sounds, and experiences that have already come our way on this trail. If I had doubts about doing the HRP, day one has already banished them.
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