Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Day 7: The Hottest Day of the Year

Dscn9350bAugust 18: I woke up later than I had planned. In the trees, the light didn’t filter down to me as quickly as it would have had I camped in the open so my internal alarm clock let me sleep in longer than I should have for a day that was supposed to break 100 degrees and was expected to have a “feels like” temperature of 108 degrees.

Early into the day’s hike, I passed couple of young girls who were sitting on the side of the trail. I said, “Bonjour!” and continued on, not sure if they were actually hikers or not. They seemed like hikers in a lot of ways, but it was so incredibly early in the morning, I couldn’t imagine why they would have had to stop for such an extended break yet.

Perhaps a half hour later, I crossed paths with them again after I missed a blaze that pointed me into some trees off the road and when I reached an intersection without any blazes at all, I knew I must have missed a turn. I backtracked for about five minutes until I caught my missed turn, and that’s how the two girls caught up with me.

They knew some English, and I asked where they were from—Lyon, a town that I stopped in only long enough to walk across the platform of the trail station to change trains. They asked me why I chose Santiago for my pilgrimage and not Rome or Jerusalem.

The question threw me a bit. It was the first time anyone even hinted to me that they were on a religious pilgrimage. Most people, even if their hike had religious implications, still seemed to enjoy it for the journey. It was more than just a religious pilgrimage, but that question made me think that the only reason they were out here was for religious reasons, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t want to say anything to offend them.

So I said something about knowing a little Spanish and always wanting to see France, and this seemed as good excuse to do so as any.

They seemed baffled by my answer, asking what denomination I was. I had the distinct impression that there was a right and wrong answer to this question, but I didn’t want to answer it. That was my business. So I finally threw caution to the wind and told them I was out here more for fun than for religious purposes. The look of the first one’s eyes seemed to say, “You do this for fun?” The look in the other girl’s eyes seemed to say, “Oh my God! It’s the devil himself!”

They made me distinctly uncomfortable, so I didn’t linger around them very long. I could out hike either of them and left them in the proverbial dust.

Dscn9357bI arrived in Conques shortly after noon, a major trail town as far as trail towns go. Nearly everyone I met who on the trail was section hiking it, and invariably, the first section was Le Puy-en-Valey to Conques. The three cute girls I met the day before would be stopping in Conques. The perpetually lost French girl would be stopping here. The Americans I met would quit here. They were all behind me at the moment, but it seemed like everyone was getting off the trail here and, presumably, a whole new cast of characters would be getting on the trail—a cast of tender-footed individuals who did the Le Puy-en-Valey to Conques section the year before.

Conques was incredibly scenic, set on the side of a steep hillside with one of the more impressive cathedrals of the trail, but it’s also a major tourist destination in itself and I had the unfortunate luck to walk in on a Saturday afternoon. The tourists were tripping over each other into seething piles of twitching arms and legs. My head almost exploded with sensory overload. I also lost the blazes running through town. I walked to the cathedral, figuring the trail had to go by it, and a large group of tourists were listening to a tour guide explain the history of the cathedral and its architectural insights—at least that’s what I assume the guide was talking about since it was all spoken in French. I do know that the tourists were spellbound, however, cameras clicking and heads were nodding.

Then I saw it out of the corner of my eye—a red and white blaze. I followed it down an alley, down a hillside, then back up a steep trail. A kilometer or two later, I arrived at a large cross on a prominent point, glad to be rid of the crowds in Conques. I so wanted to get away from them, I didn’t stop to buy a single drink, or eat lunch, or anything. They’d probably never seen a hiker go into and out of town so quickly.

From the cross, I followed the road out to a bigger road, but saw no more blazes. None. Hmm…

I sat down in the shade and pulled out my guidebooks and maps. What went wrong? Where did the trail go?

My one guidebook said that the entire town of Conques is a historic monument and that “balises” weren’t allowed, so they had used hand-carved wooden blocks or something. I had read that before, but until now, it didn’t occur me to me that “balises” were the blazes. Why would my English-language guidebook tell me the French word for waymarks? Stupid guidebooks. But I did follow the red and white blazes out of town, so clearly I must have left town in the right direction, even if I missed every last marker in the town.

But my maps weren’t making any sense to me. Nothing seemed to match up. A couple with a child was at the cross, and I asked them if they knew English. (Yes, they did—they were visiting from Italy.) And I asked them if they knew where I was on the map. The man looked at it a bit and finally pointed to a spot. “Here,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that’s where we are.”

And he wasn’t pointing at the trail. It was pointing to another trail, an offshoot, but another GR trail. (The Camino essentially follows GR 65 from Le Puy-en-Valey, and GR’s are a series of trails spanning all over Europe.) Apparently, I followed GR 62 out of Conques. Apparently, all of the GR’s are blazed with the same red and white stripes, so hikers have to be careful when they’re in areas where the trails intersect or they could end up going in the wrong direction. Like I just did. Argh!

Dscn9361bBacktracking was the logical option, but looking at my maps, I figured it would be faster to walk down the road back to Conques and pick up the trail again when it left town, so that’s what I did, and that worked out well enough. I passed the “you are entering Conques” sign and almost immediately found the correct trail winding out of town over an ancient pilgrim bridge.

The trail climbed steeply again, coming out of Conques, and the heat was merciless. The one thing going in my favor was that the slope was heavily forested so I stayed largely in the shade in the steep climb. But I only made it a few kilometers to the Chapelle Sainte-Foy before I pooped out. I needed to stop, and the small, stone chapel was rather pleasant inside—like walking into a cave on a hot day. I stopped for a few hours, reading, writing in my journals, and looking back over the views down into Conques, but finally, it was time to start hiking again.

Shortly past the chapel, the trail divides into the main GR 65 and a variant route. The variant route is blazed just like the main route and it’s up to the individual to decided which route best serves their purposes. For me, I chose the variant. It was slightly shorter, and my guidebook said it had fantastic views on clear days and less up and downs—and the views and fewer ups and downs really sold it for me. Not to mention that the variant passed through the town of Noailhac, and I wanted to get lunch there. Or at least an early dinner.

Noailhac isn’t a very big town, but I was stunned at the sheer number of cars parked everywhere. I was more than a little surprised they they all had flowers attached to them as well, but those questions were answered when I saw what was clearly a bride in her wedding dress and the dressed-up bridesmaids. I walked into a wedding that took over the whole town.

I walked into the small restaurant there and ordered a Coke and asked for a menu. He didn’t seem to have a menu, though, and asked what I wanted. “Well what do you have?” I asked back. In my head, I was thinking, This is why you need menus!

“I can make you a sandwich,” he told me. “Ham and cheese?”

What’s up with the French and their ham and cheese sandwiches? I swear that’s their national food, and I was pretty sick of them by now, but I said, “Then I’ll have a ham and cheese sandwich.”

Dscn9368bI plugged my laptop in and, no surprise, I didn’t get any wi-fi signals, but I was able to type up a blog entry that I could post just as soon as I did get a connection. While typing, the wedding music started blaring, and by wedding music, I mean country music. I’d watch a group of a dozen performers dancing to the country music, then more music would play, and another dozen performers would do their thing. I don’t think these were paid performers—I think they were just folks who attended the wedding, and I wondered how much practice went into their routines before they did their dance. I couldn’t help but think this was as surreal as listening to bluegrass music in a Mexican restaurant. (That’s one of my Appalachian Trail references, for those of you who weren’t following my blog back then.)

Eventually, I finished typing my blog, finished off my sandwich, asked to be loaded up with cold water, paid my tab, and continued hiking.

Originally, I planned to hike late into the sunset, camping somewhere just passed a TV mast described in my guidebook, except I think my guidebook had the distances wrong because I reached it in about 20 minutes—far faster than I should have if the distances in my guidebook were accurate. In theory, I could keep hiking for another hour or two, and I kept hiking planning to do just that.

Until I reached a point, overlooking a valley, and it was simply beautiful out. The light was perfect, the road—although paved—had almost no cars. There were no trees to block any views. I could see for what seemed like a hundred miles in every direction, and I decided I wanted to camp there. With this view. Yeah, it was too early in the day to quit, but by golly, I was going to quit.

I walked into an open meadow, over the curve of the ridge and out of view of the road, threw out my groundsheet and set up camp and watched the sun set. A soft breeze blew through, and I felt immensely happy at my decision.

The sun finally set, and as lights in the valley below started twinkling on, a caravan of cars swept through along the road—led by the bridge and groom’s car (I could tell because it had life-sized people with photos of their heads for the figures on the top of the car) and someone had a horn blaring Mexican music from it. Everyone else just blew their horns randomly. Although that certainly disturbed my peace and tranquility, I found myself okay with it. Life was good, and I wished the happy couple a good life.

The church in Senergues


The daily self-photo. This time, I took it
while I was hiking!


French graffiti—it cracks me up sometimes. =)


The details on the front of the cathedral in Conques are quite amazing!


Inside the cathedral in Conques.


The view of Conques coming out of town (on the wrong trail).


My second arrival into Conques….


I took refuge in this small chapel to beat the heat of the day.
(With Conques in view in the background.)


I knew something was up walking into Noailhac when I saw all those
parked cars on the side of the road. The town was overflowing with cars!
(Also, note the white and red blaze on the entrance sign.)


Dinner: A Coke and a ham and cheese sandwich.
(I already drank the Coke.)


And here’s wishing good cheer for Elodie and Guylain! =)


Stained-glass window in chapel just outside of


My view from camp!


I was in such a good mood, I took a rare second self-photo of
myself in camp. The road (and the trail) follows along that
line of trees in the background, but there’s a slight curve
to the hill which hides the traffic from me (and me from them!)


Sunset approaches…


Kristin aka Trekkie Gal said...

Now, when you said 'ham and cheese sandwich', I was thinking two pieces of white bread with some ham & cheese between them. I forgot for a second that you were in France. Of course the sandwich would be served on a baguette! Which makes it so much more than just a sandwich. :)

Soup-a-Woman said...

Nice shirt. I have a matching one. :)