HRP Chapter 5: Kelly Sets Things on Fire
The next morning we decide to have a rest day in Lescun, but the gite kind of sucks, so we move to the campground just outside of town. It’s very comfortable, with showers, laundry, and a full kitchen for guests.
There’s a restaurant on-site, so we sign up for dinner. Not being used to the whole fixed menu concept yet, we forget to mention that we’re vegetarians, but we still contrive to get Harv some veggie pasta instead of the curious ham/raw egg carbonara the rest of us are having.
The entree is a lovely goat cheese tart with salad, and the dessert is a rich chocolate cake. We keep surreptitiously emptying our breadbasket into a bag under the table, and the waiter keeps topping it up with a knowing smile.
The next day begins with a long climb toward Col de Pau on the French-Spanish border. We follow a dirt road above treeline, stepping aside at one point as a shepherd and his dog rumble by on a 4-wheeler.
Around midmorning we come to a shepherd’s hut. Based on other shepherd’s huts I’ve seen, I’m expecting a tumbledown shack that may or may not have a functioning door. But Cabane de Bonaris is so much more than that.
It’s a perfect little stone cottage, well-masoned and with a lush grass roof, red shutters, a sturdy chimney, and a little garden enclosed by a low stone wall. I fall in love with it instantly. It looks like a romantic place to live, at least during the warm months.
In the corral behind the building, two shepherds are processing a large number of sheep. I’m not sure what they’re doing, but I get it in my head that they’re vaccinating the animals. We eat breakfast on a bluff high above the cabin and watch the proceedings with interest.
We cut our break short when the shepherds finish whatever they’re doing below and let the sheep out of the corral. The animals immediately fan out, and a contingent starts beelining up the valley, heading straight for the trail.
Oh no! They’re flanking us! At this rate they’re going to head us off at the pass, and then what will we do? It will be just like the epic battle at Col de Ronceveaux, with us in the role of Charlemagne’s rearguard and the sheep playing the vengeful Basque forces. And we all know how that ended. But seriously, picking your way through 250 sheep is a pain in the butt, and the shepherds really prefer you to avoid disturbing them when possible.
It’s touch and go for about 15 minutes. Will we make it? We win out in the end – take that, losers! – and once we’re clear of the ovine threat, we relax our pace. It’s an honest climb the rest of the way, and we reach Col de Pau earlier than expected.
At the top of today’s ascent is Refuge d’Arlet, which sits alongside Lac d’Arlet, which reminds me of Heart Lake in Washington state.
There are sheep on the far side of the lake, and I can see a snow-white patou trotting among them. Its luxurious fur bounces up and down in time with its steps. Cutie. When we hike past, the dog ignores us completely.
It’s been a sunny day so far, but as we descend, I see a long tongue of fog invading the valley over my left shoulder. It builds and builds as the afternoon wears on, threatening to overtake us.
We reach a dirt road at the bottom of the long downhill. By now we’re very ready to stop, but we trudge a bit further and find a half-decent campsite in the woods. We set up quickly and start making dinner.
Having finally acquired denatured alcohol in Lescun, I’m going to use our DIY alcohol stove for the first time tonight. This stove was a very last-minute addition to our kit before we left the US, thrown in on impulse because I read online that it’s difficult to find screw-on gas canisters along the HRP.
Ironically, we’ve seen screw-on canisters in virtually every town we’ve visited so far, but Lescun was the first place that had denatured alcohol.
Now, in my defense, I tested the alcohol stove several times before we left home, and it always worked fine. It never did anything like what is about to happen when I fire it up tonight. So don’t judge me.
The problem isn’t the stove so much as the equally DIY foil windscreen I made for it. Also based on something I read online, I reinforced the screen with a quantity of foil tape to make it sturdier. And again, I must emphasize that when I tried it at home, it was fine, completely and utterly fine.
But tonight when I set a pot of water on the stove and crouch several feet outside the radius of pungent cancer-scented fumes coming off the burning alcohol, the windscreen – the fucking windscreen! – catches fire.
I don’t mean just a little bit of fire. I mean a large swath of the foil instantly blackens to a crisp as a 12-inch column of flame shoots out the top. The whole thing is emitting clouds of dark smoke. Panicking, I pluck it away from the stove and stamp out the flames with my boot before they can light the entire goddamn Pyrenees on fire.
Our couscous comes out perfectly despite everything, in case you were wondering. But regardless of my culinary success, Harv takes one look at the smoldering remains of my windscreen and vetoes the entire existence of the alcohol stove, which even I have to admit is fair. We’ll look for a real stove in the next town.
By now the fog has socked us in good and proper and everything’s getting wet, so we duck inside the tent with our customary prayer that the weather might burn off by morning.
The weather does not burn off by morning. The route is tricky to follow through the thick mist that still blankets everything.
We’re standing around wondering how we managed to miss a certain turn when three gigantic hogs with literal nose rings clamber onto the track in front of us. When they spot us, they immediately come trotting over. Pigs fascinate me. These three show a level of awareness that seems to indicate a deeper intellect than most animals.
Harv waves his trekking pole in the leading hog’s face to turn it back. It squeals in shock, like it could never have imagined we wouldn’t want to pet/feed/cuddle with it. I find this reaction slightly endearing. Then we start walking, and the hogs flee in abject terror. Cuties.
By the time we reach the valley floor and start climbing again, our feet are soaked. I’m grateful for the steady ascent that follows and the warmth it brings to my limbs. We start the climb among trees and end it in a wild, rocky landscape wreathed in mysterious fog.
We ascend the last few meters to the ridge on a metal ladder, and up top we meet a chatty Scotsman who is hiking the HRP westbound for the second time.
The man confirms what we already suspected: that the high passes are all snow-free, even the ones that are supposed to be permanently snowbound. Jeez, good thing climate change is a hoax because can you imagine how much worse it would be if it were real?
The fog is thick up here on top of the world. We skirt the shore of a lake, Ibón de Astanés, but we can barely see it. The trail now leads us across a featureless plateau and down the other side toward the ski resort Candanchu, where we plan to resupply for the high Pyrenees.
Harv and I spend several minutes debating the best way to get to town. We could go straight and then road walk, or we could turn right and follow the GR11. Based on the dubious advice of some passing hikers, we pick straight.
This proves to be a disastrous mistake: we descend so aggressively that by the time we reach the road, we’re actually a thousand feet lower than Candanchu, meaning we’re now facing a long, steep uphill slog on pavement to get to the resort. If we had followed the GR11, we would have dropped gently all the way to town. Gah.
Unwilling to accept defeat, we decide to hitchhike. It only takes us a few minutes to flag down a ride with the very first car that goes by. The back of the woman’s minivan is full of children, but they shuffle around so we can squeeze in.
Once in town, we go straight to the grocery store, as is our wont. There we find cheese and bread and couscous and, of all things, Superglue. I’ve been wanting some because my two-week-old shoes are already falling apart, but I never dreamed I’d find any here.
Next we go to the outfitter across the way and find another miracle: a proper camp stove! The shop only sells ludicrously gigantic fuel canisters, but that’s alright. At least we’re no longer a walking fire hazard.
We had planned to resupply quickly and hike on, but instead, we get sucked into the Town Vortex. Within an hour, we’re sitting at a restaurant and Harv is negotiating with the waitress to buy a literal gallon of peanuts from the large glass jar they keep behind the counter. Not long after, we’re booking a cheap room for two nights. So it goes.
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