We decide to sleep in this morning. The route is taking us directly through a farmer’s courtyard and we feel like it would be weird to walk through before the sun is at least up.
Also, it feels sort of pointless to start hiking before daybreak since the sun doesn’t set here until 10 p.m. It’s not like we’re pressed for time. (Fun fact: the Pyrenees are on the same latitude as northern Maine. It’s throwing me off; I always feel like they’re much farther south.)
We start the day walking through a lovely old farm with overgrown buildings and stone walls and horses grazing in the fields. When we enter the courtyard, a geriatric dog emerges from beneath a truck to bark at us in a half-hearted manner, like it’s just going through the motions of guarding the property.
Later in the morning while we’re taking a break, a shepherd comes jogging downhill toward us with about 200 sheep. The noisy procession gets closer and closer until soon, an endless river of white fluff is flowing by. Now and then an animal pauses to gape at us in wide-eyed curiosity, but then it gets caught up again by the current of bodies.
When he reaches the bottom, the shepherd jumps into his truck and drives off down the lane, pushing the mass of sheep ahead of him. Last of all, a small sheepdog comes limping down the hill on three legs and tears off after the truck. Poor baby.
As the morning wears on, we approach Col de Bagacheta, where we’ll need to leave the road for a narrower path. A small iron cross supposedly marks the col, but I miss it and we overshoot the junction by a kilometer. This causes me to spend several minutes swearing and waving my arms around.
It’s funny how on the trail I rarely feel anxious (even though in regular life my internal monologue is just an open-mouth scream 60 percent of the time), but every other emotion is about 20 times more intense than normal. So far this phenomenon seems even more pronounced on the HRP than on other trails I’ve hiked. What is happening to me?
Happiness, sadness, anger, fear, awe – they hit me in quick succession like I’m being run over by a freight train, and each car in the train is loaded with several metric tons of a specific feeling. Does anxiety mask other emotions, and now I’m experiencing them more strongly in its absence? I’m happy with the trade-off, but jeez. For someone who is so uncomfortable with the existence of feelings, this is a lot.
“Idiot! Gah! Wasting my own damn time,” I mutter at myself as we retrace our steps to the pass. We finally locate the tiny cross several meters off the trail and half-hidden in a clump of bracken. But as we start on the narrow path that branches off the col, my irritation gives way to utter delight. Like I said. Feelings.
The track is a bit exciting because of all the thornbushes crowding the trail, but it’s beautiful. Purple heather grows everywhere, and ahead of us lies yet another lush agricultural valley. Clusters of red terracotta roofs dot the landscape; one of them must be Arizkun, where we’re planning to have lunch.
We pass a ruined farmhouse, then a cemetery, and finally enter a charming old hamlet called Azpilicueta. We fill our water bottles from an ornate stone drinking fountain and follow the tarmac road down into Arizkun.
Despite leaving Hendaye only one day ago, we’re somehow light on supplies and need to pick up more food in Arizkun. When we arrive, the town is lovely – but quiet. The hostel where I was hoping to eat and resupply is closed and locked with heavy iron grates across the doors. It doesn’t look like it will be opening any time soon. Shewww, I think to myself.
I think a lot of other, much nastier things about myself also. There’s that anger again. Harv, meanwhile, remains steadfast. If he is experiencing any of this weird rage/euphoria thing alongside me, he doesn’t let on.
We walk into the bar down the street, which is the only establishment in town with any signs of life. The proprietor doesn’t speak English, so I whip out my middle school Spanish for the first time in about 17 years.
I learn from the bar owner that there are no open restaurants in town and that the closest grocer is a two-mile walk in the wrong direction. This is a dilemma because, as I said, we’re already pretty low on food.
But the woman does offer to sell us some vegetarian bocadillos, so we order two for here and two to go. The sandwiches are immense and will provide more than enough calories to carry us into Aldudes tomorrow morning for breakfast. Crisis averted!
Harv, of course, manages to bond with the bar owner over her Che Guevara poster without speaking a single word of Spanish.
Getting out of town is a long, hot, steep ordeal on a concrete road. In my head I keep replaying various tough hikes I’ve done and comparing them to this one. I decide this concrete road is the most monumentally difficult climb I have ever undertaken, possibly that anyone on earth has ever undertaken. I am eager to stop moving as soon as humanly possible.
Harv leads the charge, and when the track abruptly dead-ends at a farmer’s field, he chooses a line that contours gently around the summit.
On the far side we enter a mature beech forest, an ecosystem characteristic of Basque country. Many days later in the high Pyrenees, I will look back at these low-elevation woodlands and think them every bit as enchanting as the tallest peaks in the range.
We finally make camp in a grassy field by a road. A cold, damp mist settles in as we set up, and we dive into the tent just as the first drops of actual rain begin to fall.
Knowing we’re just a few kilometers from Aldudes, we decide to sleep in again the next morning. No sense in hitting town before the shops open. It’s still half-misting / half-raining when we wake up, so neither of us is that eager to get out of bed.
A brief aside: the iPhone weather app is so ridiculous I can’t stand it. It’s like it’s just completely making stuff up! If you want the TRUTH about the weather in the Pyrenees, use another app, like Meteoblue. Alternatively, just default to the assumption that it will be cool and wet 80 percent of the time in Basque country.
But I digress. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
It’s very cozy lying in bed listening to raindrops patter against the tent, but the sky shows no sign of clearing and we have to get going eventually. But before we brave the weather, I give us the gift of hope: a hotel booking at Roncesvalles monastery for tonight.
Two days in and we’re already platinum-blazing the HRP. Meh.
With the prospect of a night indoors to spur us forward, we drag ourselves out of bed reluctantly. The descent to Aldudes is short but aggressively steep on a concrete road. In town, we buy cod salad and paella from a pair of female traveling fishmongers, who are incredibly kind.
After breakfast we climb. The fog thickens and the cold grows more intense by the moment, and by mid-afternoon it’s full-on raining. The route mostly follows paved roads, and we get above 1000 meters for the first time.
Spotting a cluster of griffon vultures on a bluff below the trail is the highlight of my day. I’m stricken by the birds’ impressive stature. There’s a horse grazing in their midst, and I swear the vultures look big enough to eat it. At the very least, I’m sure they could easily rescue some dwarves and a hobbit from a pack of hungry wargs if the need arose. I later learn that griffons can grow up to four feet long with a wingspan of over nine feet. Incredible.
In the end we descend to the Col de Ronceveaux, which was the site of Charlemagne’s only military defeat at the hands of the Basque forces in the 8th century. Alas for Charlemagne, but honestly, I can only feel so bad for him. I mean, he started the whole thing by sacking Pamplona and knocking down their city walls and stealing all their gold.
A busy road runs straight through the pass, and we pick up a trail alongside it. Soon we spot the high stone walls of the monastery. We find our hotel after much confusion and post up in the warm dry interior. Despite the weather, today was a good day.