Via Tolosana Day 44: The Dweller on the Threshold

Borce to Col du Somport – 17kms

I didn’t want to get up this morning, it was 6:23 before I left the bed. I don’t want to climb the mountain, and I don’t want this thing to end.

I gathered my belongings and went downstairs. Packs and shoes stayed downstairs at this gite. It was an OK place to stay, but it just felt a little grotty and uncared for, a little cold, albeit a big place, quite deserted of humans, maybe that was it.  I helped myself to muesli from the vast store of things that had been left by other pilgrims, and a coffee while writing my pages.

This way becomes a way of life.  It is easy in its knowns and unknowns. It is a fascinating thing. Every day you wake up and you don’t know the terrain you will cover or what it will look like. Who would’ve thought that yesterday Bedous, Accous and Borce were going to be so beautiful, or that the mountains would unfailingly take my breath away.  The reassuring constancy of the river in all it’s hues and characters. Walking far above it and then right down, up close and personal with it.  It has been a magical last few days of countryside. New situations, new terrain, new views. Many angels and many demons.  And yet it is known, in that you wake up each morning, write, eat, walk, eat, walk, arrive, shower, wash your clothes, explore your town, eat, write and sleep. It is so simple and predictable.

My knees feel good today, they are pretending that they didn’t walk 24kms straight uphill yesterday. They are being very noble. What a great idea – noble knees. I don’t know what I feel about today, it will be the final ascent to the summit, the pass, the frontier, the threshold.  All I know is that I will sleep in tomorrow. This trek upwards would be different for me if it was merely the gateway to Spain and on to Santiago, but it is the end, all over. Col du Somport then Canfranc, then Oloron. Oloron – Pau – Paris – London.  As soon as I’m finished I will whisk myself away from this place, this journey, and I think this is the hardest thing for me, contemplating this last stage, the end.  It reminded me that Virginie had said, toutes les bonnes choses ont une fin (all good things come to an end).

I feel melancholic that this is the last time I will be packing up for a big walk up an even bigger mountain. This is it. But I also kind of like it.  I’m walking on – it will complete my journey, but this last day walks me on into the rest of my trip and the rest of my life.  The trip will end, but I don’t think I’ve really come to any conclusions, only that I have a new trust in myself, my body, my ability to persist at things, to get through days that are very difficult.  My socks are not dry again. I try to decide whether I should walk with my SLR camera out today, and decide not.

The church bells, very close, strike the hour twice, as many along my walk have. I’ve never worked out why. That’s a question for a French person.  The clocktower at Sarrance rose above the little chapel behind the main one.  The mechanism was behind a door I think, so you could clearly hear the click of the timepiece while sitting in the tiny chapel that the monks used.

I saw Benjamin before I left but he wasn’t quite ready to set out. He’d catch me up in no time.

It was really overcast and foggy but not raining when I left.  The GR markers disappeared for the morning. Marion thought it was because they didn’t want to be associated with dangerous passages on the roads.  The walk along the road leaving Borce was really narrow and in the Miam Miam Dodo it even recommends taking the bus from the town across the river (Etsaut) for about 10kms up the valley, but I wasn’t too fond of that idea. It was fortunate, that because I walked early and got to Urdos by 9am, I think most of the heavy trucks were coming down the hill.  I made an exception to the walk towards oncoming traffic rule today. I figured the trucks coming up the hill and on the right side of the road would be travelling much slower next to me.  There actually weren’t that many trucks that passed me.  But the guide book was right, there was only 3 foot road shoulder and cliff, very precarious walking.  Maybe I was foolhardy, but regardless, I got to see some great sights.

Fort du Portalet was an absolutely amazing thing to behold, and had me thinking about the setting of The Name of the Rose.  I had lots of time to observe it, and I even snuck quite a few pictures despite the traffic.  There were corridors and windows cut into solid rock. Apparently it had been a prison during the war, and I had thought it was millennia old, but apparently it had its origins in the 1800s.

Coming into Urdos, I wasn’t convinced that taking the bus was any more safe than walking along the stretch I’d just taken as I heard behind me part of a bus collide with a truck. It would be too much to ask for anyone to slow down of course. The trucks pelt along the roads like there is no tomorrow, stopping for no-one. It was spitting as I stopped to ask a mower man about the huge abandoned building he was next to which turned out to be an old electricity plant, and I found some signs giving information about the geology of the area, and the incredible rock formations that I’d just witnessed. I was amused by a place called St Pee. I also passed a beautiful train station. It was not hard to imagine the train line being further extended up to this point.

There was a gite in Urdos, upstairs from the little epicerie. I spoke to the woman who ran it in the little supermarket.  She was lovely, and very interested in my journey. We had quite a long conversation while I was selecting my lunch and snacks for the day.  Then a customer asked about my bag, a petite, dark-haired woman who said ‘bonjour madam‘ to me.  The epicerie woman told her I was a pilgrim and when I was paying for my groceries, she gave me 5 Euro.  I was flabbergasted.  The other woman said she does it for pilgrims all the time!

I felt like I was back at the beginning of my journey walking through the Camargue as bullrushes once again graced the side of the road. I walked up and out of the town and marvelled at a house who’s corner was right on the road.  As I looked back, a guy who was up a ladder shouted something about the frontier.  It was certainly the frontier I was pushing, and probably the envelope at the same time.

Leaving Urdos, there was a ‘deviation’ announced for the GR (the way markers had re-appeared just before the town). The route should usually bypass Urdos just beforehand, cross the river and travel along the other side of the valley.  This deviation though left me again walking on the right side of the road for even longer than I think the Miam Miam Dodo knows about.  You wonder about these deviations, but then you have to accept they are probably for very good reasons – 3 of which I would find out later in the morning.  I had just been walking along the road, thinking the fall down would be long if a car went over the edge, and that these edges and walls must need constant checking and maintenance, when I see a car turn in ahead, park and two men get out and start inspecting the fairly new stone wall.  I tried to explain to them that I had just been wondering who inspected these walls, but I don’t think it quite worked – the complication of French tenses is completely lost on me, and what I was trying to say completely lost on them. They were friendly regardless.  I walked on.

Just as I got used to being on the road, the familiar right hand balisage appeared directing me downwards along a small bitumen track towards the river.  From that sign to the bottom, there were no other balisages, and I doubled back because I didn’t trust I was going the right way – it said it was a chemin privé, (a private road) – I hadn’t been directed along any of those before. I tried to raise someone in a house near the road to no avail.  I’d just have to keep walking.  In the end it continued, crossed the river and switched back up the hill again.  I stopped at a junction for a standup rest, having nowhere to sit as everything was wet from the rain the night before.    I had a pear that I’d bought from the kind woman in Urdos, had a pee (very exposed, but what can you do?) and I was back on my way.  I spied what I thought might be my last blackberries for the walk and feasted on them.  I wondered how I could somehow indicate to Benjamin that they were there.  I thought he’d just have to find them himself.  I rounded the next bend up the hill and what do I hear?  Hola!  He’d caught me.  Yesterday he’d said he’d taken a 2 hour pitstop in Bedous and hadn’t seen him all day and so I was surprised when he got to the gite in Borce after me.  I teased him about a similar stop today. I walked back around to show him the blackberries.  I don’t think he’s as into them as I am.  They have a really aromatic flavour in the mountains – they are gorgeous.

Yesterday and today my left ear kept blocking, probably with the ‘altitude’.  Despite this, I could still hear cowbells across the valley. We continued together, I explained I walked slowly and he should feel free to go ahead.  Not much further along and we came across the most beautiful collection of things – a brightly painted bin, two seats, and a bin full of tea-making things, a tampon (stamp for our credentials) and a full thermos. A petite pause. We stopped for a cuppa!  It was tre mignon (very cute) and offered to us anonymously by two pilgrims outside their home.  What a lovely act of devotion to leave a full thermos outside every morning for pilgrims.  We were very impressed.

There were lots of mushrooms on the track now, because of all the rain, pushing up layers and layers of leaf litter – the extraordinary energy of survival. Leaving here, Benjamin and I walked together and quickly came across an avalanche site, but after scaling that like mountain goats, I fell behind because we climbed steeply and I needed frequent breaks.  It was wet, really wet under foot today. There were so many little creeks crossing the path, or just really wet paths, and at some points channelled rock gutters that had been built in.  Thankfully, my knees and feet were really going well. I saw 12:00pm. I saw two more huge piles of rocks, avalanches.  I was alone again with my thoughts, my constant stops for breath, water and photos or to just listen when I came across a beautiful waterfall.

Today I opened and closed numerous gates again including two really heavy barbed wire ones.  Thinking about reaching a summit, you realise all the times you have written Col du Somport in a book, every time you have thought about it, you have been building a picture. When you finally come to do it, you start to realise that picture. It becomes real.  Today I was also getting an inkling that everything will be different afterwards. But at the same time, this is just another day of not knowing what the road will bring – just like every other of the 43 days.

I left the waterfall behind, but the path continued to be waterlogged. The mushrooms bloomed and the hum of intermittent cars sounded in the distance. 5 gates.  I have neglected to mention stinging nettle – it has been present for many days now in the mountains, and I’ve been stung a few times on my legs and hands.  The path had travelled at a constant level for a little while, but now it took a plunge through rocky patches where I was especially careful with my steps.  I turned a corner, came to a fountain and then walked down a grassy route towards a farm settlement. The route indicated to go around the perimeter of the stone wall, then I turned the corner and there was Benjamin eating lunch.  It felt a little like the hare and the tortoise.  He at first offered to walk and eat, but I said I wanted to stop – I had a pain au chocolat to enjoy.  We sat for probably an hour just chatting.  It was a little windy, and cloudy but it was actually sunny with blue skies overhead.  We sat overlooking the valley where the river was and where the road carried all the trucks and cars towards the  Tunnel du Somport.

I asked him what is ‘dry-stone wall’ in French, mur en pierre seche.  There were a few of them around. Even through the clouds the sun was warm on our faces as we continued to survey the distant main road and the path we would take to go up once we’d crossed it.  We wouldn’t stop going up from that point we decided.  Leaving, I was trying to explain Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, by Elton John. I didn’t quite realise just how relevant the lyrics were to my journey.  He likes the Beatles, so in the morning he was humming what he said was Blue Sky, what he says was Paul McCartney but I’ve found is actually the best McCartney song that he never wrote, ELO did.  So I sang Willie Nelson, Blue Skies, again.  His singing and whistling continues. It is a very endearing trait, and he is a real sweetie.

After descending to the river, crossing with a bridge, and reaching the road again, we joined it on the right hand side. At one point we took a big sweeping bend – it had no rail, no wall, nothing, just a sheer stone wall dropping down to the river. I wondered what happened with this non-existent shoulder! Scary! Imagine driving up it!  One mis-judgement and you’d be over the edge easily.  Crossing the road to follow the GR signs, we walked under a really low telephone line (he assured me it wasn’t electricity), up a stepped path and we started our final ascent of the mountain.

It was perfect weather. Cool, humid, a little sun and guess what?  My favourite forest, Benjamin identified it as birch, but I find out later it is beech. I love beech forests.  And I had discarded my other uncomfortable stick for just continuing with the beautiful one I’d found – much more comfy.  I mused that from mundane cornfields, I’d ascended to sublime beech forests.  We crossed stream after stream trickling across the path.  My socks were already wet inside my shoes, and I remembered my socks in my pack were not dry either and I’d had to pack them wet inside my pack.  3rd avalanche in the beech forest – a huge slip.

As we climb higher, I stop more and Benjamin moves further ahead.  He stops to look at things also, but not as much as me.  I don’t mind going slow here. I savour this walk along the softest of paths, beneath wise old beech queens. It is not surprising when I researched after I’d got to London, that these trees were long considered the queens of the forest, and the gnarly old oak, the king.  Beech trees impart wisdom and knowledge and were the wood that made the first paper for books.  It is little wonder I feel so at home here. As I have said before, the peace and serenity of these forests is palpable, not to be confused with pulpable!

As I get really high, I came across two guys out surveying, have two openings in the forest where I can see the pines on the other side of the valley, and realise with the fog crossing the path, that I won’t see the full glory of the Pass of Somport.  Many huge, hairy old beech trees. I haven’t found anything more reassuring in my whole trip. The moss which seems to cover them, holds a lot of water, I tested it.

Even higher up, I’m walking through fog drifting over my path now.  I see 1:11 and 2:22pm on my phone.  For a time I could also see the road below through the trees, the major road route had already been lost in the tunnel, so this was a small alternate/old road.  Even high in the mountains I can hear cow bells/sheep bells.

My iPhone carked it.  I came to a bit of a saddle of sorts – an ancient ruin which stretched over the whole site and a vista that I recognised from the picture I’d had at my desk since January, and which was now stuck in my journal.  It looked like a very ancient settlement, however I’ve looked to try to find what it might have been, but cannot find a reference to it on the internet.  The stones directed the path all the way up to a rock wall at the main road.  I thought I was only a couple of hundred metres from the Col, but something didn’t look quite right.  It was very, very foggy, visability was only several metres, but I could hear people at a big building down the road, 3 minutes away.  I decided to try to confirm where I was, because I didn’t want to get more lost in this fog, and if I lost the markers, I’d then understand where I was.  This was a new experience.  A helpful man was retrieved by the workers from inside the building, and confirmed my position – still 2 kilometres from the summit.  The sign said I still had 45minutes to go.  It must still be straight up then!

I followed the signs along the road, then turned left, and then past a few farm houses and beyond them into what would’ve been a beautiful meadow cut through by a creek in the sun, but in the fog it was just a challenge to see the squat little track markers, set low for optimal walker visibility.  The path was pocked with cow pats, so fresh that I fully expected to bump into a cow on the way up. I was also blessed with what I think were edelweiss flowers – they did look happy to see me. I was certainly happy to see them for the first time in my life. I stopped at a point on the creek where I could fill my water bottle – elixir of the gods from 1500m.  It took a while, but I came across yet another valley of ancient stone structures.  Maybe the two were connected – maybe they were part of the Candachu Hospitalet.

I then emerged at a giant carpark and the balisage said walk straight through the middle, next two motor homes parked there.  Up ahead on the hill a shepherd (yes there are still shepherds) accompanied by his dog, is herding balls of wool on legs, their bells chiming like an orchestra.  I had no iPhone to capture the moment, so I stopped just past the camper to get my camera out.  A man opened the door and asked if I wanted a coffee – the third time complete strangers have asked if I’ve wanted a coffee. A lovely moment.

We chatted for 20 minutes or so, my summit-reaching delayed even further, and the balls of wool on legs fast disappearing, not to be digitally captured.  It was a retired couple who were having a little sojourn from 30 kilometres outside of La Rochelle. They have a vege garden back at home, so can only venture for a week at a time and they were travelling with his brother in the other camper.  He went to the other camper, so I continued talking about gardening to his wife while having my coffee (impressing myself that I was communicating totally in French).  When her husband returned, it was obvious they were going to be off. And they left just like that! Another fast French goodbye. I was left there alone in the carpark to repack my backpack, by which time, every last of the several hundred sheep had disappeared.  It was funny but as I mounted the grassy hill, feet soaked, they appeared again, so I recorded (or thought I did) with my camera.  I lost it though.  I walked past the France/Spain checkpoint, deserted, saw the sign Somport – 1640 metres and went across the road to the Albergue Aysa, my introduction to Spain.

It is a classic ski location and it felt decidedly off-season. I could see Benjamin already inside.  We greeted each other like long-lost relatives, such is the impact and relief of a very steep climb!  I tried to communicate at first in French, then just gave over to English.  Checked in for 14 Euros bed with 6 Euro breakfast.  I took my stuff down to the group room, then went out to catch the sheep and St Jacques who was standing sentinel looking across to the mountains, albeit not able to see too far because the fog had well and truly set in.  It was cold, only 8 degrees outside. I had a shower and washed my clothes – and hung them on the exposed hot water pipes in the passageway. Hopefully they’d be dry by morning.  (It worked for everything except my socks). I went back upstairs.

Journalling with a moscato and a packet of chips is always a civilised idea.  The journalling didn’t last long.  I had dinner with Benjamin and another guy who came in late – a pilgrim from Valencia, Jose.  Later we found another French walker (Lille) who took the bunk above mine.  He was doing a circuit somewhere else.

Today I’d climbed from 637m to 1640m – I make that over 1000 metres in a single day.  I reflected on the amazing diversity of the walk. There were so many different mushrooms, mosses and lichens.  I trod over rocks of all colours, purple, yellow, grey and white and I passed through beaucoup gates. Lunch had been at 1000m so from there I walked up 600 metres, the last 6 kms being the slowest. It was one of the only days my socks and shoes were wet through.

I had done it.  I couldn’t quite believe I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I had walked some 800 kilometres in 44 days.  I sat atop the mountain, encircled with a very subtle feeling of pride, satisfaction and contentment.
Our hostess, Nieves at Aysa is lovely. She is Spanish, however speaks fluent French, and believe it or not, travels quite a few kilometres each week especially to go to English classes, so she didn’t mind at all that I didn’t speak Spanish, or struggled in French. She told me that she had homework, and I said I’d be happy to help with it.  She and her husband have owned the albergue for many years, and they have two resident dogs – Lola and I forget the other one’s name.
It wasn’t until I came home, that I realised how relevant the words of that famous Van Morrison song was to this journey and to this day in particular.  Standing on the top of a mountain, having walked near the water, having climbed higher and higher and with a fog closing in could not have been more apt. At the threshold of a new life, with all that the path had illuminated to me, I was the Dweller on the Threshold.

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