Sept. 18th, 2022
Grottes de Bellevue to Gavarnie
11 miles +800 ft / -3,500 ft
My alarm chimes at 6:00am. What was I thinking setting an alarm? I quickly shut it off and roll over. It’s not that I really meant to go back to sleep, it just happened. An hour later it is vaguely light out and I feel like I overslept. I get the stove going to make coffee and check the temp, it’s 40F this morning, and the condensation is not as bad as yesterday so that is great.
As I sip my coffee I peek outside several times to see if the sunrise light is hitting the peaks like they did at Refuge Larribet. I should have pitched the door facing West so I have a better view. I tuck back inside after snapping a photo. I am not feeling particularly motivated for some reason again today yet I push myself to get ready and am walking by 8:30am. Not as early as I’d hoped but not terribble. And hey, guess what? Today is “town day”. If I were with the Wander Women we would be getting our “town faces” on.
I have around five hours of walking to get to Gavarnie according to my guidebook and of course I wonder if I can make it faster? I am not particularly craving town, yet I am craving some real food, real coffee and God knows I need to wash my clothes and take a shower that involves soap. I think I can do most of these things in town and at the campground.
My mind has been swirling with thoughts about what to do next here. I have to be honest and share that I am feeling a very strange combination of grumpiness and maybe even lonliness, both of which are unusual for me. I’m trying to dive more into these feelings to see if I can put my finger on what it is exactly. I came here craving a wilderness experience in a foreign land. And while the landscape itself is quite remarkable and unique, often times there have just been so many people and things of civilization. Alas, I have to remind myself what comfort the refuges gave me in times when I needed them. They were so critical to my experience being enjoyable in the poor weather, yet I had hoped I wouldn’t need them quite so much and now here I am heading into full on civilization again.
The walk today follows the GR10 all the way to Gavarnie and is basically an “easy” walk meaning there are no route finding challenges, and the tread of the trail is not quite as difficult as other places I’ve just been. Still there are sections that are rocky, wet, slippery and you know what, there is so much fricking cow shit everywhere it is starting to get to me. I just needed to say that. I am so over all the animal shit.
As if to make up for it, however, these sweet purple flowers do seem to appear everywhere. It’s like they are the official flower of the Pyrenees. So that helps.
At 11:00 I walk by a cabane where some folks are sitting, taking a break. I walk over thinking I might sit next to them and be social but then I smell cigarettes. French people smoke, like a a lot, even up high in the mountains. I can’t stand the smell, even if it is real tobacco, it makes me feel like gagging, so I press on. Instead, I find a lovely rock to sit upon next to a stream. I needed water anyway, so I filter a liter and eat a protein bar. I need for this snack to last me until I can get some real food in Gavarnie.
Down, down, down the trail goes. It’s a long way and seems to go on forever. The views don’t change much even though I progress further into the long valley, yet the topographic relief is still impressive. At times I am reminded what it feels like walking on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon with the steep walls surrounding me and the feeling of vast space ahead of me.
There are also huge gorges tucked along side this vast valley which I have to walk around the margins of as the trail takes me deep into it’s recesses. There is no light and the cold air still hangs around back there. Then I make my way back toward the valley as it spits me out again into the light like the day has only just begun.
Later, I plod my way through a very muddy section that has been trampled by cows, trying to keep my feet dry to no avail. I carefully pick my way through the long wet grass, then turn a corner along a ridge which pops me onto a dry grassy flat spot. This feels like a good spot to take off my pack for a moment and have a pee. I drop my pack on the dry grass and duck behind a large boulder where I am face to face with a dead cow carcass. It is amazingly deflated and creepy.
I don’t know what is going on for me today. I feel so mentally off. Is my soul thirsting for something I’m not getting? Maybe I just need a really good cup of coffee. But seriously, I’ve been thinking on it all morning and just realized what’s missing. Wildlife. Birds. Trees. Solitude. All of these elements are very important aspects of a well rounded, healthy ecosystem and I realize as I contemplate that they are the missing elements. It doesn’t feel like an ecosystem so much here without the sights and sounds of wildlife. It feels like steep beautiful mountains made up of rocks and grasses that are dotted with cows, sheep, people and the occasional stand of trees. So it’s interesting that while the landscape is indeed dramatic and quite pleasing to the eye, it leaves me wanting something more, something deeper, something to quench my soul’s thirst.
I’m struggling too with the dichotomy of wanting a solo experience and simultaneously craving human connection. Being alone in a true and vast wilderness is a very special and unique experience that doesn’t come around all that often, yet I’ve tasted it and thus am constantly seeking to experince it again. That feeling, that sense of universal connectedness while in a vast wild place is definitely a spiritual experience for me. Or what some call a peak experience. That’s tough to come down from and honestly tough to plan. Part of that magic is in the spontaneity. Yet it seems that’s not what this trail has to offer me. I’m trying to embrace what it is offering me instead and still stay present with each new breath.
You know they say “the trail provides” and I have always believed that whatever trail you follow, it holds the space for you to heal what is in need of healing. Perhaps this is my lesson here. And you know, lessons are never easy. It’s not that I expected this trail to be easy, but the challenges I’ve faced and what I’m feeling inside are not what I anticipated. No surprise though, isn’t it always that way? I know it’s the journey through the land that helps us go within and discover parts of ourselves we need to discover and that element of surprise is what it’s all about right?
It feels good to allow myself to dive into these thoughts and questions. Lost deep in thought, the time flies by and shortly I see a sign indicating I am a mere 30 minutes from Gavarnie. Whoo hoo! This stirs some excitement and hope from within that I need right now. I am definitely looking forward to a good cup of coffee since every other time this week I had hoped for one, I was disappointed. Yes, town is going to be a re-set and I’m going to eat some fresh vegetables too. I am really hoping to get my re-supply box too. To think that all my food traveled from Arizona, to California, to Switzerland and now to this little Village in the French Pyrenees is pretty amazing.
The trail spits me out onto a paved road, where I cross and drop further toward the Village which I can now see the margins of. Shortly, I come across a camping area and a building with a cafe which looks really tempting, but it’s not the campground described in my guidebook so I press on. I am eager to see Gavarnie and get my bearings around town. It’s always a little confusing near towns when there are several social paths and side trails so I accidentally make two wrong turns along the way and have to backtrack. When I finally make it down to the main drag at the entrance to Gavarnie Village it’s 1:45pm and I am famished!
The Office de Tourism is right smack in front of me and it seems there is one main drag where all the shops and cafes are situated. There are a few horses walking up the paved street and the sidewalks are built of cobblestone. There are people buzzing about yet it does not feel overwhelmingly crowded. I have my priorties straight and immediately start looking for a place to eat.
The first two places I find are already closed which reminds me that things typically shut down for the afternoon. I could be without a meal until dinner if I don’t find something quick. Although I’m sure I could find a sandwich somewhere, the thought of a sandwich is not appetizing, I’ve really got my heart set on an omelette with fresh vegetables. I am definitely on a mission now. I walk just a little further, passing several trinket shops and the Mairie building (the equivalent of a Civic office or Town Hall) which is closed, then I round a bend and to my great relief I find an establishment that looks busy and still open. The Brasserie. There is a large chalkboard style menu placed on the sidewalk which I glance over for a brief moment. I see a few words that look familiar enough and I see the word omelette. Sweet! I ask for a table for one and get seated within a few minutes. I made it!
I order a cafe creme (an espresso with steamed half & half or cream), and an omelette aux cepes. Even though I don’t know what cepes means, I just figure I’ll take a gamble in hopes it might be some kind of vegetables. When it arrives I am a little surprised, it looks like meat of some kind, it’s a bunch of brown mushy stuff overflowing from the edges of the browned egg. Not what I wanted at all, but yet, I need to eat and there are eggs involved, so honestly no compalints there, I just don’t know what I’m eating.
I take my first bite and find it is quite rich, my idea of typically French cuisine. It is savory too, and I get the impression it’s maybe a bunch of mushrooms? Or could it be liver? It does not taste gamey the way liver would though. I won’t know for sure until I can look it up. The omelette also comes with fries and a little salad, which is amazing. I could eat an entire plate of this salad, I think that’s what I will seek out for dinner tonight. The coffee is the best I’ve had in weeks and really hits the spot. I could easily consume another one, but decide I better not. Instead, I drink a bunch of water too which is clean tasting and very refreshing. Soon, everything starts to settle in and I feel my nervous system relaxing and my blood sugar equalizing.
The cafe is busy the entire time I’m there so it’s really entertaining to watch all the folks. It seems some are regular customers as the wait staff chats with them as if they know one another. There are people who wear biking attire, famillies with kids and babies and people dressed to the nines. I see many folks walking along the sidewalk which my table is perched right up against, many have backpacks. I know this place is famous for the Cirque de Gavarnie and now that I’m here I have a better understanding of how much visitation it gets. It must be crazy in the Summer months.
I pack up and start walking down the quaint streets of the village toward the Camping La Bergerie. Along the way I pass by shops that sell all manner of touristy trinkets and post cards. I make a mental note that a couple shops seem to also sell camping and hiking gear, as I need to replenish my cooking fuel. I hope to God they have the fuel I need, I can’t carry that second stove any longer.
I had seen some folks eating ice cream as they walked by my dining table earlier and that planted a little seed inside my brain so when I pass by the third place selling ice cream, I can’t resist. Ice cream sounds amazing. I scrounge just enough cash from my pocket and order a scoop of coffee gelato, heck yeah!
The camping is at the far end of town and across the Gave de Gavarnie (the River) which has an old stone bridge. There is also a cheese stand on the corner, perfectly situated to sell cheese to tourists as they begin their trek up to the Cirque. I make a mental note of this, as I am going to need more cheese before I head out tomorrow. The views of the Cirque from the middle of the bridge are impressive and I begin to think again about hiking up into the Cirque, knowing that my trail doesn’t exactly take me in that direction, I wonder what I will miss?
The Camping Bergerie is everything I could ever ask for. There are places to pitch your tent on little terraces that are covered in short grass. The tent spots face the River in one direction and the Cirque in the other. There are people camping below me with their vehicles and a few guys camping next to their motorcycles. Looking toward the Cirque, there are horses grazing on the slopes just up the way and a huge Birch tree casting it’s shade over a few picnic benches. There is a bath house too, and it has a laundry machine AND a dryer, whoo hoo! The woman in charge of the Camping is super friendly and helpful and her English is decent, though I really try my best to speak French. In this scenario I am able to get by with just a few odd looks, but then her shifting into English eventually helps a lot. She even takes my electronics into her office to charge.
Once I get settled into my tent site I meander around the property to check everything out and it just so happens that at the picnic benches I find exactly what I had been dreaming of, a hiker box! Oh my goodness, you never would think that a hiker box would make me so happy. Now I can get rid of my stupid extra stove! And you know what, it’s hilarious too because as I dig through the box, guess what I find? Another stupid stove, just like mine, hahaha, someone else had the same dilemma as me!
I really need to go down to the Tourist Office to see about my re-supply package but it is at the complete opposite end of town from the camping, about a 15 minute walk. I decide to let my phone charge and get my other town chores done in the meantime, then hit up the Tourist Office later this afternoon. I get my laundry going and take a wonderful shower, although I still don’t have soap, but it’s okay, it feels so refreshing and so needed. I feel like a million bucks when I get out. I have to dress in my rain pants and puffy jacket as my clothes are drying and since that is going to take some time I decide to walk over to the Tourist Office just as I am, dressed in true hiker trash attire. I really look the part too because my down puffy has certainly seen some miles, like 10,000 of them. It is so stained, patched up and filthy looking, but I just can’t seem to give this jacket up.
When I go back to the camping office and ask for my phone back my heart sinks when I see it has not charged at all. It’s down to 50%. Dang it. What’s wrong I wonder? I try to plug it into my power banks to no avail. This is not good. I need my phone at the Tourist Office, as they also have wifi there and I need to get on the wifi to check the weather and communicate with my family. I reluctantly take my phone and head over to the Tourist Office, now I’m worried about this. What if I can’t get it to charge? That honestly changes everything. I am annoyed too that so much is dependant on a phone. Isn’t that crazy? I am sure it will all work out, but it feels like a problem right now.
At the Office de Tourisme there are two very friendly and helpful women, one of them speaks perfect English. It seems they do have my box (yay), but it is at the “post office” which is the other counter inside that same room, and has different operating hours. The Postmaster instructed them not to give it to me on a Sunday and apparently she was upset that I addressed the return address as “office de poste” for reasons I do not understand. I had sent it from another PO in Chamonix and I live in the US so I had simply followed the instructions in my guidebook. I showed them my receipt and said I would be happy to come back tomorrow morning to retrieve my box. They were so helpful, they said they would bend the rules and give me my box. It seems the Postmaster is a bit of a stickler for the rules, and they were saving me from getting scolded by her had I picked it up Monday morning. Well, thanks!
I am so relieved to have my box!! Oh my goodness, all the things of home that I love to eat on the trail. My home made dinners, my snacks, my healthy greens bars, my grain free granola, it is very comforting to have all this and I am so stoked it worked! I am eager to get back to camp now and go through my re-supply so I know what I need to buy to supplement the week ahead. I have no plans to dine in any more refuges and it’s a seven day food carry, so it’s gonna be hefty. I am going to carefully calculate on the food for week #2. I threw out the mayo-mustard stuff already at the campground as it’s probably spoiled by now and way too heavy. I don’t know what I was thinking. This week I will just eat dry bread with cheese and chips for lunch, no salami, no mayo. I know. Hard core.
The weather forecast looks okay for a few days and then it’s showing precipitation for about five days in the direction I’m headed, which is what I’d loathed to find out. Five days of some storm system is on it’s way and I’ll be heading right toward it. I am going to need a better rain jacket. My brain is spinning with what to do. The section of the HRP ahead of me, the one I’ve been most looking forward to, is too dangerous to attempt in stormy weather and/or poor visibility. My heart sinks with the realization that I won’t get to do that part.
The weather forecasts here are interesting because they give you a predictability percentage for how accurate they think they are. The predictability percentage is higher the closer the date, lower the further out it is. I’ve never seen this before, it’s kind of cool. It’s showing a 60% predictability percent that the rain will start by Friday, so that only gives me four days to boogie down the trail in good conditions, and as you know, the rain can always show up sooner. Also, I need to be back in Geneva by Monday the 26th of Sept, so there’s that.
On the walk back to the camping I stop in a couple shops that sell gear and peek at the rain jacket selection. There are a few options, they’re not cheap, but hey, YOLO right? I don’t want to make a big purcahse tonight however, as my hands are full with my box and I want to get my food and route plan in order first. I don’t even know what town I’m going to finish in anymore. I next stop into a small Epicerie (grocery shop) as well, finding they have a pretty great selection for re-supply stuff had I been in need. So future HRP hikers, you could definitely re-supply here. They have it all.
I am nearly out of toothpaste, so I purcahse a tube that is way too large, figuring I will squeeze out what I need and leave the rest in the hiker box. I am so thankful for that hiker box, let me just tell you! I go ahead and purchase a baguette, a bag of Lays “Nature” potato chips and a few post cards to send out tomorrow. My final stop on the way back is a hunk of cheese from the Fromagier on the corner by the River. The man is funny, I ask for about five days worth of cheese and he is trying to sell me a piece that is way too big. Good thing I didn’t say seven days. How much cheese can a person eat? I have to negotiate with him on this and finally aquiesce to a piece that is much bigger than I want to carry, but he was insistent. Stubborn old Frenchman!
I am eager to get changed out of my rain pants and down puffy and put on clean clothes, so I take care of that right away at the campground, then start sorting through my box. I efficiently organize my re-supply as I’ve done so many times before, and go through my entire pack selecting items to leave in the hiker box to save me some weight. I am very pleased with this process and dump off a good bit of stuff.
The sun is beginning to set now and the views into the Cirque are looking so inviting. I am disappointed that I won’t have time to hike up into the Cirque proper, nor summit Le Taillon, as if I did that, I would not have time to make it to the next town that has bus services. So, I will continue on either the HRP or the GR11, most likely the GR11 now that I’ve seen the weather forecast.
I am not sure at all where I will finish, but I don’t think I will make it all the way to Salardu if it starts to rain again as we all know how much progress I made in that last storm! I am considering finishing in Vielha, about a day’s walk before Salardu. It’s not a bad compromise, but missing the High Country of the HRP section ahead is definitely a disappointment I’m needing to wrap my head around. I need to figure all these logistics tomorrow once I get my phone to charge.
If I can do that, then I need to purchase a plane ticket to get back to Geneva. It’s an interesting conundrum as the trail is so close to the borders of France and Spain, depending on which country I finish in, a bus would take me to a major city either in France or Spain, but the busses don’t typically cross the borders so it’s not like I can decide at the last minute. At this point it’s really hard to say and I really want to maximize my time on the trail this week. This is what we call first world hiker problems back home.
When I am done with all my chores and am sick of churning logistics around in my head, I start to feel really excited for some town food and my stomach is grumbling. I have visions and cravings that I hope I can satisfy such as a large salad and whatever else I can eat with some vegetables in it. When I ask the woman at the camping office for suggestions on where to eat, she seems to hesitate as she is not sure what will be open on a Sunday night. Maybe I should have thought about that earlier right? Anyway, I walk down the street knowing I may not have many options once again.
I try the first place I see that is open, it is full of people and when I enter the building the smells of delicious food envelope me. I ask for a table for one and the waiter snips at me, shaking his head saying they have no more seats and walks away. A I leave, I walk by all the people dining with warm smiles of satisfaction and half- full glasses of wine. I leave like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs. Maybe it’s my puffy jacket?
The next place is a really uber fancy hotel restaurant. It looks expensive but they have a nice menu and I want to eat, so I walk inside to inquire about a table for one. The woman there also shooshes me away like I’m a fly and I figure out afterward that the dining there is only for hotel guests. It has a definite aire of snobbery, so hey, why would a hiker trash like me want to dine there anyway, right?
I walk clear to the end of town back at the Office de Tourism and find nothing is open at that end of town either. I am now feeling defeated and start the retreat in the direction from which I just came. I feel foolish for thinking I could just pop into an open restaurant and get a meal at 7pm on a Sunday night. I start to envision going back to my tent and eating a camp dinner in the dark while staring at my tent walls. I never mind that so much when I’m on the trail but tonight in a town, I’d obviously set my hopes on a real meal.
Finally, I see there is one restaurant, a pizzeria that I’d walked by earlier and thought it was closed. Now, it appears to be open. There are some folks sitting outside on the terrace that weren’t there before and while I hadn’t wanted pizza originally, it sounds pretty damn good right about now. When I inquire about eating, the waiter again says they have no seats. What is going on here? I glance around me, clearly people are sitting outside and dining. He must have noticed the look of disappointment on my face or something as he then asks me if I would like to sit outside. Yes! I have no qualms with that, it’s chilly out but I’m dressed for it. Down puffy to the rescue! As I take my seat, I peer through the window and notice the crowds inside. I suppose most folks want to dine indoors, that must be why he said there were no seats. I am so thankful this outside seating is an option for me tonight. Yay!
As I get situated at my table, the waiter brings me my place settings and a menu. I glance over it very efficiently and order a vegetarian pizza with a salad and a glass of Bordeaux that only costs 3,50 Euros. I pour over my guidebook as I wait, learning about the upcoming section of the HRP from Gavarnie to Vielha. I am also still trying to charge my phone and have it plugged into my power bank in my pocket, but it won’t take the charge. I think it must have gotten wet out on the trail in the last few days. It’s now down to 13% and I’m concerned. I have to trust that it will charge tomorrow. It has to. Before long, a giant pizza covered with fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers with a lovely leafy salad arrives in front of me. I stop everything I am doing, stop all my worries and dive in. Oh my goodness does this ever hit the spot! It is amazing, seriouslly, amazing.