HRP Chapter 19: Party in Dogtown
Awareness comes gradually. It’s morning. The sun is already up, but the campsite remains still and quiet. Everyone is caught up in a magic bubble of tranquility.
Gah! I’m too cozy to get up.
The sun is well into the sky by the time we hike out with Tristan and Tania. Scenery-wise, there’s not much to report from our morning hike. Now that Canigou is in the rearview mirror, the route really is petering out.
Still, we enjoy the opportunity to get to know Tania and Tristan better. While Tristan tells Harv about his childhood skiing in Chamonix, I hike ahead with Tania, who tends to gradually pick up speed when she gets excited about something, which happens frequently.
We zoom ahead of the men, chattering about careers and life and things, and all the while, we’re hiking faster and faster and faster. When the conversation turns to books, a subject dear to Tania’s heart, the pace becomes so furious that the forest streaks past us in a green blur as we travel through space and time at mind-bending velocities.
Next stop: bustling Arles-sur-Tech, where palm trees line the winding streets and dozens of restaurants call our names.
Tristan reserves a table for the four of us at a restaurant called La Fontaine des Buis. We sit on the patio under the big shady maples by the river and share little plates of prawns and steak and salty pimientos de Padrón.
By the time we leave town, the afternoon has grown warm. We spend hours climbing from the river to the Coll de Paracolls. We meander up and up through a beautiful chestnut forest, and for the first time since the hike began, I feel as though I’m on the Appalachian Trail again.
On Tania and Tristan’s recommendation, we push past the gîte at the stage end and stay instead at Maison la Fargassa, a gîte/farm that also allows camping.
This place is off-the-charts groovy. It reminds me powerfully of Standing Bear Farm on the Appalachian Trail but with more organic compost and less expired junk food.
We sign up for dinner and set up our tents in the grassy bivouac area by the stream. Arne is already here, and we also end up sharing La Fargassa with a French hiker named Emilie, a pair of German physicists named Gerhard and Maike, and a young French couple named Milan and Carmie.
Arne has discovered a slackline up the hill from the camping area and is wobbling back and forth on it, pinwheeling his arms like a crazy person. I join him, secretly thinking I’ll probably be great at this because of my excellent balance, but it’s much harder than I expected. I can barely string two steps together before I fall off.
Emilie comes up next, then Maike and Gerhard, then Tristan, and pretty soon a big crowd of hikers is milling about drinking beer and taking turns falling off the slackline.
Tristan, Milan, and Maike are the best slackliners by a significant margin. When she’s not traipsing across the narrow line as though it’s solid ground, Maike wows everyone by performing billions of pull-ups. Who is this person?
When I get back to the bivouac area, Milan and Carmie are trying to cook dinner over a DIY woodburning stove without much success, giving me flashbacks of our alcohol stove shitshow. Everyone else is having La Fargassa’s menu tonight. Dinner is a vast pot of noodles, vegetables, and a spicy Thai peanut sauce.
As the evening winds down, I settle into what has become my default emotional state on the HRP: half euphoria and half panic. The HRP is almost over, and I don’t know what comes next. I like myself so much better out here on the trail. I’m so much happier. Will it all go away when we reach the Mediterranean?
As the evening gloom settles in, a decision begins to crystallize in my mind. It’s been rattling around my brain half-acknowledged for weeks. I can’t go back. Whatever happens next, it can’t be the same as what came before. I close my eyes, but sleep doesn’t come.
In the morning, everyone gathers in a big circle on the grass for breakfast. Harv and I hike out with Tristan, Tania, and Arne again this morning.
The trail takes us through a forest of mature Spanish chestnuts. Did the eastern US look like this hundreds of years ago before the blight, when American chestnuts still dominated the forests? Or would those trees have been even grander? It’s hard to picture.
A little while later, we happen upon Emilie, Maike, and Gerhard. For some reason, they have a bloodhound with them.
The dog has a radio collar around its neck and big wobbly ears. It’s currently looking up at Maike with pure love in its eyes, but every time it catches sight of the large and elegant grey horse grazing on the nearby hillside, it starts absolutely losing its mind and trying to attack it.
Apparently this dog gave its owner the slip and has been following our friends down the trail for the last hour. Now Gerhard is worried it’s going to follow them forever and possibly antagonize the local livestock to the point of getting the three of them trampled.
We all stand around debating what to do about this pesky creature. In the end, we dig out some cord and tie the dog up with access to drinking water. With the tracking collar, the dog’s owner should be able to find it easily enough.
Except the freaking dog slips the rope within minutes and keeps following us! We keep going and our new companion trots alongside us, ears flopping in time with its furious tail-wagging. This poor guy may have been born into the life of a hunting animal, but clearly he’s a people person at heart.
The dog follows us all the way to Roc de Frausa, the viewpoint at the top of the climb. When we break for lunch, it trots from person to person, begging for love. As we eat we hear the sound of a man’s voice shouting in the woods, calling for the lost dog.
The dog perks up its ears, looks downhill toward the sound of the voice … and then goes back to ignoring it completely. I’m pretty sure it would love nothing more than for one of us to adopt it and take it away from this life forever.
Eventually, the hunter finds us and takes the pup away with an apology and a tight, frustrated smile. I hope it works out OK for the dog.
The seven of us hike out together after lunch. It’s hot, but Tristan motivates everyone by promising us ice cream when we get to Ermita de las Salinas. “Yes, there will definitely be ice cream there,” he assures us with all the confidence in the world.
There is no ice cream at Ermita de las Salinas. The building is shut tight and there’s no one around. Tristan! What the heck!
Dreams shattered, we wander downhill, chattering about this and that. Toward the end of the day, we pass a cluster of boars on the far side of a metal fence. They’re busy uprooting the entire forest and tearing the soil apart.
Soon we wander into the hamlet of Las Ilas, where we will spend the night in the free municipal camping area. Arne is already here, as are Milan and Carmie.
Everyone comes to dinner except Maike and Gerhard, who have an Airbnb on the far side of town. Arne says he bumped into them while the rest of us were milling about looking for the bivouac area. Apparently, they had trouble reaching their rental because of an aggressive dog in the street. What is it with the dogs today?
After dinner, we all go back to camp except Emilie, who is staying in the hostel. No one sleeps much tonight because the Las Ilas Philharmonic Chorus of Barking Dogs is staging an all-night concert. I can’t overstate the number of four-legged friends here, nor their commitment to being as noisy as possible.
First, a group of dogs on one side of the valley kicks up a ruckus. Then the dogs on the other side of the valley respond in kind. Then we enjoy 45 seconds of tense silence. Finally, every canine within a three-mile radius starts howling simultaneously and the world descends into chaos and hellfire. Repeat ad infinitum. All. Night. Long.
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