GR5, France – August, 2016

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.
– Paul Tillich

In Parc national Mercantour, extending the walk by five days on the GR52.

In the summer of 2016, I boned up on my schoolgirl French and set off to Geneva to walk 450 miles along the spine of the Alps.

The acronym GR5 – pronounced ZJAIR-sank – stands for Grande Randonnée and one the several long-distance footpaths of Europe. The trail actually goes from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, but I would take in the most mountainous and scenic portion beginning on the banks a Lac Léman and ending at the sea as it just touches Italy.

My story is below with each night’s sleep spot listed for context and reference.

Starting the trail straight up from St. Gingolphe.

Night number one: a field above La Planche

I had exactly four weeks to meet my return flight in Nice, so once hitting the ground, I wasted no time and snagged a train out of the airport and bought a ticket from the city center to San Gingolph. It’s the steeper and more direct start and saves two days by plunging the hiker fast and furious right up into the mountains. The train traced the lake, passing a childhood haunt of Le Château de Chillon. I used the time to disengage my gear from a throw-away duffel lined with cardboard and into the pack I’d carry the next 28 days.

Soon, a conductor explained to me that this train didn’t go to Gingolph – but she suggested a bus that would get me there from the next stop. Far from my map’s parameters, I disembarked and waited in the rain for the bus which eventually arrived, a pleasant driver bringing me back around the lake to this quaint town that straddles Switzerland and France.

View from my tent of Lake Geneva after a downpour.

Cleverly, I made my own cat-stove that weighed just an ounce, but had trouble finding an open quincaillerie, so asked a couple of men painting their house if they had an alcool à brûler. They had none, but loaded me up with gel fondue fuel. As that was all I needed to check off the list, I headed straight up the hill through forest and a kind of outward-bound camp, a beautiful village and then into farmers’ fields where I planned to sleep.

I’d taken my Nemo hornet on one trip and was relaxed setting up, until the rain came down in torrents and I dove in. Once it let up, I tested the fuel and found it useless in my closed stove, so night number one ended with a cold dinner, wild singing forest birds and the striking clock from the village below. I was in heaven.

The humidity of the Northern Alps felt tropical.

Night number two: a field above La Chapelle d’Abondance

The next morning, I found the wet bundle of my travel clothes right where I left them in a puddle outside the tent covered with slugs. These I’d carry to the next garbage. I packed up and pressed higher and higher in the forest, ready to see the craggy cliffs ahead.

The views did not disappoint, almost cliché in their green finery with rough outcropped rock reaching through the clouds. The air was heavy in its humidity as my hair and top plastered to my skin. Two passes needed to be crested and the scene was filled with day-hikers and melodious cowbells.

The stunning Col de Bise in the background, and in my walking past.

I grabbed a bite in the friendly ski-town of La Chapelle d’Abondance where I asked, “Est-ce que vous avez wifi ?” – pronounced wee-fee – “Oui…et non.” There was nothing for my personal use to let my husband know I was ok, but they allowed me to use their computer, with its confusing French keyboard. But Richard understood enough to realize I was well on my way. It was here too, that they filled my bottle with liquid alcohol for the stove from a giant canister right at the table.

Sated and with that task checked off , I set off back up the mountain to find the flattest available spot in a muddy, slanty field looking straight out toward Pas de la Bise and its foreboding peaks. The sky turned pink and my tent grew heavy with damp.

A wet, slanty campsite but with a spectacular view.

Night number three: Col de Bassachaux

The night was damp and uncomfortable. The Hornet had a nasty way of clinging to itself, so the fly would encourage condensation to build on the inside of the tent which dripped onto my face. There was nowhere dry to cook or even sit, so I packed up and slip-slided up to the top, finding a crisp sunny morning and my first view of the Mont Blanc far in the distance.

I pushed down through muddy cowpat-filled fields soaking my boots all the way through, my wool socks beginning to reek worse than the fields. But all this moisture brought out an extraordinary multitude of wildflowers.

My first view of the Mont Blanc way in the distance on a crystal clear morning.

Soon I began walking on a rocky trail that pushed me along the edge of Dents du Midi and Dent Blanche. In asking pouvez-vous prendre ma photo? I met the first in a series of women of a certain age who found middle-aged me, hiking on my own and using French, charming. The exchanges began with questions, followed by a cascade of conversation where only every other sentence registered. I was invariably invited to lunch or a drink or to share addresses, but declined as I pushed on to my next camp spot.

As I came down the pass, I thought I might find a nice wooded spot, but things were too bumpy and it felt too early. In my frustration, I dumped an entire pot of food and took it as a sign to press on. It was only a couple miles and a few thousand feet to the next pass, so I headed up, finding a flat grassy knoll just out of sight from the trail. As the sun set in pinks and oranges, cave dwelling birds created a racket nearby accompanied by distant cowbells.

The Hornet was not the best choice for high humidity as the fly stuck to the tent and dripped all night.

Night number four: the lawn next to Refuge de Moëde-Anterne

It was huge work pushing down to Samoëns, pas de fin would be fair. Rocky, rutted and eroded, stuck in the trees with no view and absolutely relentless, the reward was finding the spooky Gorges des Tines just beyond town, where a via ferrata was set for climbing over the mossy, fern-encased rock.

Bad weather was predicted and I knew coming up was one of the most spectacular views along the entire route, so I picked up my speed and pushed up and up the Torrent de Salles and it’s switch-backing ascent, opening into one of the most astounding hanging valleys I have ever walked.

Gorgeous valley near Chalets d’Anterne. The Mont Blanc is just over the pass.

Asking in French for a photo, I was greeted in heavily accented English by a smiling man about my age. He asked if I was walking the entire way. Of course, I said and his teasing answer was that he was truly walking the entire way. He was a “Flying Dutchman” walking all the way from the North Sea.

He cracked on ahead with a giggle and when I caught him at Chalets d’Anterne, he admitted he had been whittling away at sections over many years and then offered to buy me a coke.

The White Mountain – Le Mont Blanc – perpetually covered in snow and the highest point in Europe.

Gerton was lovely and generous. He understood that I wanted to push on to get my view, but explained it was already 4 pm. Signs on the GR5 don’t give mileage, but rather hours and the prediction was two more to my view, with still much descent to a good camp spot. Well, then, let’s get moving!

Another pass took me past a glorious lake flanked by peaks then up a steeper and longer rocky pass, which opened onto the view. Worth it? You bet. The snowy Mont Blanc massive sits thousands of feet above the surrounding peaks and was seemingly placed just there for me to see. Gerton ran on ahead and organized a fondue dinner and beer as I set up my tent next to the refuge in the flattest spot yet on my hike.

Fondue with my friend, the “Flying Dutchman” Gerton.

Night number five: guide’s quarters, Les Houches

Sadly, the next morning Gerton felt unwell and bid me farewell. The weather was moving in with ferocity and I felt nervous about crossing the Brévent in foul conditions. I kick myself that I kept my phone out of site in the drizzle and tried to just remember the amazing beauty of the region enclosed by these mountains and out of site of the bustling tourist towns of Chamonix and Les Houches.

Streams tumbled over perfectly placed rock gardens of flowers, and shrubs sang with riparian creatures. I had the hike all to myself as most people left far earlier to avoid being caught out in the storm. It was an environment that answers all the questions regarding why I take on these sorts of hikes.

Chamonix is far below. This is where I took a wrong turn and paid with thousands of feet of climbing.

But I made a bad mistake once coming out of this wonderland. The GR5 uses a white-over-red marking to distinguish from other trails, like the Tour du Mont Blanc. As I crested the Col de Brévent, and asked for a passerby to snap my pic, the marking continued down – so I went down.

I should have double-checked my map as this path led to the téléphérique station above Chamonix. As nice as a few relaxed days might be in this famous mountaineer town, it was out of my way. Finding myself thousands of feet down on the other side of the mountain left me teary and full of frustration, but it only fueled my stubbornness to not use any assistance in walking this trail.

Glaciers coming down from a totally clouded in Mont Blanc.

So I marched right back up the long road under the cable car, to the correct path, and the down – what the guide warns – is one of the longest, hardest descents of the entire trail. In rain and on crumbling muddy rock, the walk was totally dispiriting. I paid 3 euros for a coke at the normally crowded Refuge de Bellachat, now completely in cloud and run by a few cynical ladies, then continued down and down, getting wetter and colder.

I was a sad sack when I came into town looking for a place to stay. The bar maid at a local pub with hotel above told me there was no vacancy but she called a friend who rented out a guide’s quarters for the night, one with shower right inside the tight space. I jumped into the hot with all my clothes on, stringing things along every available spot. Needless-to-say, dinner that night was glorious. It takes only a little bot of kindness and comfort to change your entire perspective.

Plat du jour ending my long day on a high note.

Night number six: field next to Chalets du Truc

I would need better spirits as the climb out of Les Houches was steep and long. This is the part of the trail that meets with the famous Tour du Mont Blanc. It was packed with hikers, but the weather was clearing and I was happy to keep moving.

The trail crosses tracks where a train, originally intended to scale the Mont Blanc, still takes visitors for a closer look. Then up to Bionassey where climbers get intel and the glorious Glacier tumbles into the verdant valley.

Women of a certain age really took to me and spoke in rapid-fire French.

At the refuge I saw tents so decided it was enough for one day and pitched next to a group of young French men smoking and laughing. I cuddled in as a few more drops of rain threatened only to be awakened with an invitation, “Aimeriez-vous trouver des myrtilles?” “Myrtilles? Oui! Un moment, s’il vous plaît!”

These boys seemed a bit rough to me, but picking blueberries must be a universal leveler of all things macho as we happily crawled through the thickets to find the plumpest. That was the best night’s sleep even if after a warm bed, though my tent froze solid and I quietly shook it out to leave before anyone was awake.

Les myrtilles – blueberries – picked with a friendly gang of guys at Chalets du Truc.

Night number seven: lawn next to La Petite Berge

I’m not exactly sure why I took on such big hiking days. I was moving well, though not fast; enjoying the scenery, while always on the lookout for a cool campsite; and I wanted to get it all done in my four weeks allowing for any required zero days ahead.

I had to go down before going up, to the town of Les Contamines. It was only waking as I lumbered through following the gorge past the charming church, Notre Dame de la Gorge, naturally, and up a very steep slope peopled with giggling, colorfully dressed Chinese hikers and scowling, plodding English hikers.

The GR5 joins the Tour du Mont Blanc for a few days. Notice the signs don’t give distance, but hours.

It started to feel crowded here and I longed to be past the refuges and intensity, even if it was exhilarating scenery. Just beyond Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, the trails split with the GR5 cresting the narrow Crête des Gittes. With a full backpack, I always take it slow – and always take the side next to any safety. You want to go fast? You’ll have to pass me.

The path was about three feet wide at its narrowest with sloping sides tumbling thousands of feet below and surrounded by sharp, craggy cliffs erupting from green meadows. I crossed without incident, but I can’t guarantee that would happen in inclement weather.

Crossing the stunning and airy Crête des Gittes.

Notes from another hiker assured me there was camping below, but near the road was loud and packed with caravans, so I decided I’d go up yet again and take a risk finding a spot above.

And did I luck out. Directly around an abandoned chalet was a lawn protected from browsing cattle just wide enough – and flat enough – for my tent. There was even a fountain nearby with fresh water; I had it made. My view that night looked back on the Mont Blanc and all I had walked. A splendid night.

Tent on a flat spot next to a closed chalet. The string keeps out the cows.

Night number eight: next to horse path below Valezan

The next day took me up the rock-hopping ascent of the Col de Bresson. The air was becoming noticeably drier and the rock rougher and less forgiving.

But first I had to make a detour to a fromagerie for some of the finest cheese from this region of the Savoie, Beaufort. Hard, yet creamy, I picked up a huge chunk from a family who moves up to the mountains all summer and lives off the land. The cheese tasted like what I walked on, fresh clover, grass and sparkly air, and it’s unpasteurized. It was pure heaven.

Family bonded by cheese.

I took my hunk up the trail nearly catching two young boys flying up who happily took my picture. They were appalled I ate the cheese without bread and as we discussed the finer qualities of a gluten-free lifestyle I caught site of one of the boy’s hats emblazoned with a W. University of Wisconsin was my first thought, and I was right. He had spent a year living near Madison and practicing English. He found American life boring, but loved how all the girls fell for his accent. Ah, youth.

From here, I could see the snowy-capped peaks of the Vanoise ahead of me, still miles away. The descent was flower-studded heaven in the sunshine and I met the first through-hikers of the summer, two English women who offered me proper tea and milk. We ended up getting slightly lost together as we took the passage pieton through Valezan, giving up on finding a snazzy campsite and settling for what they called a ditch on the side of a horse trail. At least it was flat and the view wasn’t bad.

An unlikely meeting of a French exchange student on the Col de Bresson who lived for a year in Wisconsin.

Night number nine: lawn next to Refuge du Col Palet

The following day began with a long slog down to L’Isère Rivier and right back into the forest with a brutal up and down that seemed to get me nowhere. I would highly recommend the detour to Landry and the public campground. It saves unnecessary and wasteful hardship.

But once I arrived at the Vanoise National Park, all the recent trouble just fell away. The road opened to a wide valley of wood and stone barns with jagged snow-encrusted peaks high above. It was hard work to crack up into the mountains, but they proved irresistible under a sun-drenched sky.

Entering the snowy peaks of Le Parc national de la Vanoise.

I broke away from the GR5 for the haute route GR55, staying high above the lake heading for the Col du Palet. Here I met a throng sitting on their gear in a vibrant green meadow. By law, tents are not allowed in the park, but are tolerated after the sun begins to go down at which time a little buzzer is sounded and everyone quickly created a tent city.

The night was crisp as a man climbed up above us carrying a case with a portable alpenhorn. He played a few cascading notes, then ended the evening with Brahms 1. Sheer bliss.

Camping on the lawn right after an alpenhorn concert.

Night number ten: lawn next to Refuge de la Leisse

It was such a dreamy night; my washed clothes frozen in a ball at the side of my tent hardly disturbed my joy. I packed up shivering and pressed up over the pass only to be jolted out of my reverie by civilization. Ski slopes, chair lifts, and high rises took up the scene far below at one of the country’s most popular attractions, Val Claret. It was packed with visitors, most with mountain bikes to fly down the summer slopes. Thankfully, they kept the walking trails separate.

I found the town friendly and useful as I stocked up supplies and hunted out wifi. Sadly, I would need a local phone number to make it work, but a lovely couple allowed me their account to send Richard a quick note. He loved hearing from people he’d never met that his darling wife was safe.

Making progress.

It didn’t take long before I left the zoo for the upper reaches of the Vanoise. I didn’t see a soul thru-hiking, though many were on day hikes or walking hut-to-hut for a few days.

The views were grand and snowy and led to my favorite refuge of the hike near the Col de Leisse. Run that summer by a young family, they charged me 3 euros for a campsite, but it included a shower in a kind of cabin. I waited in line for my turn with a group of middle-aged French who chatted in the sunshine of that gorgeous view. Three people camped along with the couple in this quiet haven.

View from my tent on the haute route through the Vanoise, the GR55.

Night number eleven: the children’s gîte at Refuge du Roc de la Pêche

My night was quiet and filled with solitude so the following day came as a bit of a shock when reaching the next refuge below Pont de Croé Vie, literally thousands of day hikers swarmed atound the lake and the views, huffing and puffing up the dusty path, but filled with “Bonjour, madame!”s and “Est-ce beaucoup plus loin?!”s. I ate the most glorious berry pie at this refuge before working my way down and down until my muscles ached to Pralognan.

My English friends had caught me up by now, and preferred camping in town while I was eager to press on for another wild camp like I’d had the previous night.  But the weather had other ideas. As I approached Refuge du Roc de la Pêche, the sky turned black and I sought shelter under an umbrella and ordered a beer.

Incredible views in the Valle de la Leisse.

This refuge was on the road and a bit more upscale – and snooty. When I asked if I could pitch the tent, they pointed out into the flashing lightning and pouring rain and said to go out of site.  So I asked how much a bed was for the night. They showed me a charming little room and the price seemed reasonable, but when I agreed and they handed me a key, it was for a different room filled with hikers wet clothes and humidity. It seems the other room was just for show.

As in Les Houches, it was the bartender to the rescue who suggested instead I take the gîte. It was a long, low building a few steps below – and would cost ¼ the price. I said, without checking it, I’ll take it. Hauling my gear through the pouring rain I came upon a dorm of about 25 beds, happy fairytale characters painted on the walls and one bathroom. But I had the place all to myself that night in the crashing thunder. Someone even left a half bottle of wine.

Seeking refuge under an umbrella and with a beer as a thunderstorm rolled in.

Night number twelve: Fourneux

I was out of the kiddie gîte before dawn and pushed up all alone the Col de Chavière in the cool air. It was daunting work over the rock-strewn and snowy ascent which ended at a sheer wall of scree. Fortunately, another hiker was just cresting the top and coming down as I came closer and he showed me the trick to getting onto what appeared to be an impossible route.

It was hard going, but I sat at the top with my breakfast for a few hours just enjoying the view and my solitude. This was when I exited the Vanoise and came upon a wholly new region, studded with wispy pine trees and rockier mountains depleted of glacier.

Relaxing at the the Col de Chavière before leaving the Vanoise.

It was a long way down past stone houses with stone-tiled roofs. Once in the forest it was simply on and on before reaching a major road, one filled with trucks and commerce.

Modane was totally dead and devoid of any place to sleep, but just a few blocks away was Forneaux and an inexpensive hotel where I washed my gear and decided to treat myself to dinner. Right on the border, this town had better pasta and pizza then escargot. I ate up and slept well that night.

Edelweiss, naturellement.

Night number thirteen: on a bench above Rifugio I Re Magi 

Out of Forneaux was another huffing and puffing workout, mostly through trees and under the giant N566. Once out into the mountains again, all the carbs burned off and feeling good, I ran into a Frenchman who snapped my picture and then began criticizing my walking.

Alain was the most pompous ass I have met on any hike. He clearly walked faster than me, yet seemed to take some sort of delight staying close and pointing out how he had a far better plan for where he’d go and where he’d sleep and what he was he carrying. He was absolutely tiresome, and yet I was unable to get rid of him.

Alain took this picture at the Col de la Vallée Étroite. I could not get rid of him until I asked if he would help carry water for me.

Once we crested the the Col de la Vallée Étroite, its cross welcoming us to the Haute-Alps, he was keen to grab a snack so I saw my chance to push on and find a different lunch spot. I lingered a long time in my stunning shaded view and emerged thinking he’d be far ahead, but as I came over a small pass, there he was again, calling out my name and urging me over to him. Good grief, this guy was a persistent one!

Soon, it was clear we’d entered Italy as the greeting turned to “Bongiorno!” and entire families gathered in loud clusters with extravagant picnics. As I came nearer to the Refugio, there he was again.

The white over red marking the GR5 trail.

“Ah, Alison, the hare is faster, but the plodding tortoise always catches him!” I glared at him and went to fill my dromedary. This tortoise was going to look for a campsite above the fray, but needed to Sherpa all the water on her back.

As my pace got even slower, I saw Alain one last time, cutting him off and saying that I was carrying ten pounds of water to a campsite, and perhaps he might assist? And with that last line, he was gone for good. Praise the goddess! The site I found was hidden in graceful larch facing the rugged Three Magi.

One of my happiest wild camp sites with the tre re maggiore as my view.

Night number fourteen: on a ridge above Briançon

With Alain far ahead and his big mouth mentioning he was spending a few days in Névache, I walked more calmly up and around the rocky peaks above town towards the Crête de Peyrolle. Back in France again, I stopped for a lemon soda with a stunning view right on the edge of the mountain stealing myself for the crossing ahead.

Every hike has a bit of the unknown in it. You could look at photos, read blogs and even watch a video of the trail, but until your boots are on it, the actual feeling is hard to calculate. For some reason, I had in my mind that the hardest part of the crest would be the steep climb to the top. The day was getting away from me and most people were coming off the crest, giving me a chance to ask. One woman said there is a tricky spot but just push through.

Happiness above Lac de Cristol.

So I cracked up fast, my favorite thing to do as I am built to go uphill. Proudly on top, I could see a few backpackers wisely taking the lower path as grey clouds began to gather over the exposed ridge. But just then a glider flew close and I thought if he’s out in this, surely the weather wasn’t going to deteriorate. Though I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought the same of me.

Above I met a couple who chatted me up excited about my solo hike to the sea. When I asked how long it would take to cross, they said about two hours…two hours!?! I panicked. It was late and I was alone; I needed to get going. They offered me a handful of candy and wished me luck.

On the Crête de Peyrolle right before the picture takers told me it would take at least two hours to cross.

Their guess was spot on; it took two hours to walk the narrow trail of crumbling rock along the top of an exposed ridge. And there was one very dicey part where the trail all but disappeared and I needed my hands to carefully slide around a tight edge. It was beautiful and thrilling, but the worst was ahead in a crumbling mass of ball bearing rocks sliding down in a highly eroded path right off the edge of the cliff.

I slid and skidded down, finally reaching a wider ridge. In this region, I began to see the remains of past wars in the hulks of derelict buildings lending an air of mystery – and a flat place perfect for a tent. I had a view out of both doors, one to the setting sun and one to the rising full moon. A couple of boys arrived and were just as surprised to see me as I was them. I directed them below next to the barracks and they built a huge fire while I slumbered in my aerie lair.

Camping on a ridge above Briançon with the sunset on my right and the full moon rising on my left.

Night number fifteen: Le Planet campsite

Thrilled by the site of the setting full moon over the valley when I awoke. I instantly took a wrong turn and found myself hiking under the crest. I didn’t want to backtrack, so took another trail to the spectacular medieval walled town of Briançon, a world heritage site and the highest city in France.

I lingered with an espresso and pain au chocolat before trying to find my way out of town, which was not always obvious up twisting streets and through neighborhoods before hitting a small shop for a coke and cracking up and over the Col des Ayes and entered the Queyras Regional Natural Park.

Backpacking in France has its perks.

Rockier and drier, this region is loaded with climbing routes including a multitude of via ferrata, the fixed metal ladders that only require clipping into to gain heights only dreamed of.

But none of that was on the itinerary as I walked into a campground and set up as close to the accueil as possible so as to return to cook, check wifi and buy a few beers for the climbing friends I made. This is how all camping should be – a bar on the premises, and orders taken for your morning bread.

The French do campgrounds right with bread delivery and a bar.

Night number sixteen: Chalet di Viso

The next day I took an almost zero day walking about 45 minutes as a full-on rain threatened. The proprietor of the lovely chambres d’hôte Chalet de Viso gave me my room and invited me to relax on the covered porch even though I’d arrived at about 8:30 in the morning.

It was a day of reading and writing, eating and drinking and trying out my French on the poor, unsuspecting guests. It was, in a word, perfect.

Resting and waiting out rain at Chalet Viso where I was allowed to just hang out all day.

Night number seventeen: Lac Miroir

The next day dawned bright and sunny. Breakfast was laid out for me so I could leave early and work my way towards Fort Queyras through a lovely wood and a few road crossings.

The air was fresh and the views stunning as paragliders in resplendent colors floated above Ceillac and I walked the gentle trail to a gelato.

Above Ceillac. I could have spent the entire day right here.

Unsure I’d have water above, I carried it like a mule up and up out of town through forest that opened onto outstanding views. I staked my claim near Lac Miroir observing the posted rules that were roundly broken by the gathering campers around me who had dogs, set up tents before sunset and built fires. But non of it disturbed my chill experience.

I took a late night stroll around the lake wondering if anyone found a better site and was surprised to discover that it was only me who could see the mirror image in the lake of the surrounding mountains. Somehow I had scored.

View from my tent at Lac Miroir.

Night number eighteen: in field near stream below Col du Vallonnet

I love hiking in early morning. It’s not hot yet and fewer people are up and about. So it was much to my chagrin that as I worked my way up to the Col Girardin, I saw a man gaining on me below. We were both still in shade but as I came into the sun, I stopped to take off my jacket.

As I began walking again – and he was getting closer – I rounded a blind bend directly into the path of a pastous, one of the notoriously protective Alpine sheep dogs. He looked a bit like an overgrown lab with a black muzzle and rippling muscles. His flock was working its way across the trail to a valley below. I stopped as he proceeded on the trail coming close, and bringing into view the impressive studded collar of long, sharp objects, likely there to keep wolves from even considering going on the attack.

The magnificent and fierce Great Pyrenees Sheepdog or pastous claiming his territory right on the trail.

He stopped in front of me and sat down getting to work watching his herd. I talked nicely and his tail wagged a little even if he looked away from me. As I moved on I called back to the man below me in warning, as it’s best not to surprise these dogs. I was answered in English with a rather sarcastic retort. So I pushed on cursing this unknown jerk for his disrespect.

A few minutes later, he caught me up. A young, tall, lanky thing with a deep baritone. “I say, thank you for the warning. That was ever so kind to let me know what was up ahead.” I was floored. This guy was a nice person and our friendship started that moment.

My young Welsh friend Serge. We hiked six days together before he needed to leave for college.

Serge John was his name, from Wales hiking alone and camping every night. I felt sort of sheepish I’d slept in comfy beds a few nights already, but soon let that go when I realized I was exactly the same age as his mother. No one asked and we just started walking together, sharing the next episode of long road walking before passing a few villages and picking up items in Foulliouse.

We found a stunning site in the trees near a rushing stream and Serge built us a fire. A red fox visited and try to run off with the garbage bag, but we scared him into dropping it, though he sat and watched us, one paw curled over the other.

Making dinner together. Serge taught me that you don’t have to eat backpacker food on a backpacking trip.

Night number nineteen: Lac du Lauzanier

Serge and I would hike for six more days, enjoying rich conversation and cooking together. He taught me that you can buy and cook fresh vegetables while backpacking, which hadn’t occurred to me even though I had the opportunity. He also ensured I got more calories as I began to lose my appetite with all that walking. We made a good team.

We left camp and walked up an old military road to the Barquements de Viraysse and then down to the town of Larche for a hearty lunch. Ahead was Mercantour National Park where we talked about food and what we missed eating while hiking. I wanted something impossible like sushi, his was more pedestrian with chips, or French fries, but served with a condiment not always used but craved on a walk: mayonnaise.

I was exactly Serge’s Mom’s age, but we got along perfectly while hiking.

High up was another gorgeous lake, views all around and dry brown grass – the humidity of the first weeks was long gone. We waited til sunset then popped up our tents and used both stoves to make a feast. No fires here, but loads of stars.

Night number twenty: Col d’Anelle

After leaving the lovely lake it was a trudge up to the rocky and fractured Pas de la Cavale, the boundary of Alpes-Maritimes. The rugged path took us down onto gentle velvety humps, back up again and then down through the steep switchbacks of a road below the summer hamlet of Bousieyas.

As long as you wait until sunset to set up and leave a clean campsite, wild camping – or bivouacking – is allowed in the national parks.

The idyllic mountain town of St. Dalmas-le-Selvage was our destination for shops before finding camping above. The town was charming but felt deserted except for a small store doing brisk business selling artisan cheese and meats.

When Serge asked if there was an épicerie in town, the snippy woman behind the counter said “Je suis l’épicerie!” He backed down but I had a go with my less proficient French and she warmed to me as we talked about hiking alone and life back in the United States.

Clear skies at Pas de la Cavale.

All the while, Serge spied a deep fryer and asked if it might be possible to order some pommes frittes. It would take a few minutes, but sure, she said. And what do you know, there was also some mayonnaise for Serge’s chips. Glory hallelujah!

The gal gave us some beta too and sent us up the col where we’d find a fountain with running water and an abandoned chalet with flat ground and a nice porch to linger on. It turned out to be a perfect site, the wood deck ideal for cutting vegetables we picked up in a local’s basement shop.

Quiet St. Dalmas-le-Selvage where we got fries with mayo.

Night number twenty-one: in a field below Col du Blainon

The next day became a half day with a long stop in the ski-town of Auron for Serge to organize his bus trip back to Wales and school. It was a steep and hot climb to Auron, far past the helpful traffic signs suggesting the distance was only a few miles, while the path took a far more circuitous route directly over the mountain.

I was bushed once arriving, but the town lacked the bustle of Val Claret, and possessed far more charm. We shopped then hogged the computer at the Tourist Office before setting out once again up and up and over the Col du Blainon.

Campsite in a hanging meadow high above a valley so deep, you couldn’t see the bottom.

Along this hanging valley above one of the deepest valleys, it was remote and splendidly beautiful. But we were in trouble. It hadn’t occurred to us to bring water up, and being further further south, fewer springs existed It would be a long drop to Roya before finding any fountains.

Serge was determined to camp here so we looked hard for any water source. I spied a shepherd’s hut and we worked our way towards it only to find no sign of anyone there or running water. What we did find was a full rain barrel. Thank goodness we both brought iodine pills as we filled our dromedaries for as relaxed evening.

Over that pass is the first sighting of the Mediterranean Sea.

It was a spectacular night on the edge of the cliff, hidden by old stone walls, while the heavens put on a star show and we stayed up late to take it all in.

Night number twenty-two: near river just below Refuge de Longon

Down and down we went into the valley, finally working our way into Roya where a church listed names of those lost in World War One, five from one family in this tiny village. My heart grieved.

We went back up into the boulder-strewn wilderness and into an amphitheater closed in by a black fortress of a mountain, then up and over the Col de Crousette, a sort of false pass below a high point, La Stèle Valette, and our first views of the Mediterranean.

The end of the trail was still over a week away, but from La Stèle Valette, it was within sight.

That was quite a moment, when the end is in sight, if still days and days away. We took pictures standing on the oddly truncated monument, ate some walnut paste on apples and then pushed down onto the massive open plateau.

I was overeager and somehow assumed we were getting close to our destination, But it was still a long and hot haul over another pass of whimsically shaped rock spires and into a lush hanging canyon of grazing cattle.

Once in the Alpes-Martitimes province, I began to lose steam due to the heat.

At the refuge, we met two older white-haired ladies from Switzerland on their first day of their final stage after four years walking the GR5. They drank a kind of weak beer/lemon soda mix and smiled when I told them I’d walked it all at once. Later they would ask me if I get bored walking that much. But that was a few days on.

Serge and I camped just below the refuge on a bench above the stream.

Night number twenty-two: St. Dalmas Campsite

The Vallée de la Tinée seemed “sin fin,” and then we had to come all the way back out again.

The next morning was a long walk deep down into the Vallée de la Tinée. The houses of Roure cling right to the side of the mountain, but if you don’t have a booking, there’s nowhere to eat.

St. Sauveur sur Tinée had all the amenities and it was here that we saw friends from the Refuge who couldn’t be bothered with all the boring parts and looked incredibly fresh dressed in white – yes, white on a backpacking trip – they looked so good because they’d hired a taxi. Cheaters!

Stone farmhouses, Roya.

Loading up on all the wrong foods I craved we needed to march up and out again but this time into the full sun of Southern France. By the time we reached the village of Rimplas, I was suffering from the heat and needed to lie down. We still had three hours to go that day to the plave where Serge would cut off for Nice, while I would add five more days and end up further east in Menton.

I drank water and walked slowly, pleased that the path headed into the woods before pushing up some more towards La Bolline, La Roche and finally St. Dalmas. Camping was on a farm with a cooking area, seating area, wifi and a way to wash clothes too. I felt clean and happy here and recovered fast.

Chillaxing at the farm camping in San Dalmas.

I also met Christian who, like the Swiss, was walking for just a week and only beginning his trek. Also two Dutch proudly carrying a giant colorful steepled tent. Serge and I stayed up late laughing and comparing notes before sleeping comfortably on the thick grass.

Night number twenty-three: Le Torrent le Boréon bridge

This morning was a sad one as Serge and I walked towards the fork of trails, with me taking the GR52 and him continuing on the GR5. I tried all I could to convince him to come with me, but he really needed to get back and I suddenly felt unsure I could do this on my own.

In town we met two more walkers starting their last week after a four-year project, English girls. I was told later that out of earshot Serge asked that they look after me. A sweet gesture, but I had no idea he too believed I didn’t have what it takes to finish the trail.

Re-entering Parc national du Mercantour. You have to go north first before going south if you take the GR52.

The trail pushed hard up to Plan de la Gourra where the views open up and immediately answers the question of why bother heading north this far into the trail: because it is so beautiful. Rocky and rugged, the trail winds down again by trees and streams and wild far-reaching views.

Passing a vacherie and free range milking cows, the trail finally begins another descent towards Le Boréon and the Refuge de Saladin where the Frank Zappa lookalike, Christian greeted me and invited me for a beer.

A refreshment before heading higher for a campsite.

After a second one, I thanked him and said I wanted to camp further along.  We agreed to try and catch each other on the higher route the next day as I continued on up along the rushing river desperately looking for a flat spot. I even tried some dinner on a possible spot that just turned out not to work.

Finally – full of gratitude – I found just the beauty near the footbridge and out of sight, the burbling water rocking me to sleep.

Night number twenty-four: meadow above Refuge de Nice

Frank Zappa lookalike, Christian, treating me to a picnic feast in an impossibly beautiful meadow.

My day began peaceful next to a brook. When I broke camp it was up and up to a turquoise, glacier-fed lake and a crystal clear day ahead. Christian and I had agreed to meet at the Col de Fenestre which looked down into Italy’s Parco Naturale Alpi Maritime. It required a massive, boulder climb, but was well worth it with such quiet views all to myself.

As if on cue, Christian rounded the corner, kissed me on both cheeks, took a picture and flew back down the mountain towards La Madone. I could barely keep up, but I moved faster thinking to myself what could one day of moving like this hurt?

Christian kept a brisk pace, but was willing to take a few pictures. At Lac de Trécolpas.

We checked out the church, then pushed ahead communicating in short declarative sentences as neither of us had much proficiency in the other’s language. The exception being the language of food as Christian searched out a shady meadow to make lunch. I offered some cheese and meat, but he got to work quickly making pasta, even shaving fresh parmesan into our individual servings. When he brought out a little chocolate, I began to cry; what generosity and in such a lovely spot.

To that he laughed, packed up fast and scurried us aup a steep and very rocky Pas du Mont Columb. Using hands for some of the steeper sections, it was the fastest I had moved the entire month. This was no Serge, languid, relaxed, and protecting his knees. I was now in the presence of a jackrabbit!

Easter Island meets the South of France.

Going down that pass was equally challenging; straight on through a slippery rock pile and across a boulder field. But the most lovely site in the Mercantour was still to come as Refuge de Nice came into view tucked deep into a bowl of rock and grassy slopes.

I camped high above the refuge after taking dinner with my new friends. As they slept snugly in their dorm, I got strobelight lightning most of the night and echoing thunder scaring me half to death. I ran down to the refuge only to find Christian still awake and wondering what was the problem. The storm passed just as I entered, so I skulked back a little embarrassed to my cozy tent.

What goes up must come down.

Night number twenty-five: Refuge des Merveilles

Christian came around to my tent just as I was finishing breakfast. He wanted to get me running back up another huge pass, Baisse de Bosto, that once reached looked down thousands of feet to my camp spot below.

This area was in the heart of the Mercantour, possessing an almost ancient feel, the rising mist adding an exclamation point. As I came closer to the wondrous Bronze Age petroglyphs in the Vallée des Merveilles, I forgot all about my walking sticks and got yelled at for having them out. I quickly tucked them into my pack as I butt in on a tour describing the artwork in French.

The Mamies! The Swiss! It took these intrepid ladies four years, a week at a time, to complete the GR5, but they walked every step I walked.

It was here that Christian waved goodbye and sped onwards toward the end of the trail. I got a good scare the night before, so I found myself leaning towards a night in the dorm. I had no idea how things were done, but a bed was available in this, the busiest season, so I nabbed it and then signed up for my own tour as no one was allowed into the refuge until 6 pm.

An animated young black man with dreadlocks explained these marvels with language I could follow. It was more being in that group of people and sharing the experience that stuck out until it began pouring rain and we all ran down to the refuge.  Finally we were allowed in and it was a slight shock; two long rows of beds right next to each other in a crowded room with only the smallest amount of light and air from a single window. It was a rough night of snoring, snuffling and trying not to touch the person inches away. I looked on with envy the people who decided to risk camping.

Having a tour of the Bronze age petroglyphs in the Vallée des Merveilles. I understood most of what he said.

Night number twenty-five: flat spot in forest, Camp d’Argent

I will begin this section by suggesting that a hiker skip Canp d’Argent altogether and walk a longer day straight to Sospel. The town is filled with a negative spirit and the people are unkind. It was the only time on the trip I felt unsafe.

The walk out of the Refuge is gentle, up the Pas du Diable as you exit the national park. Things felt wrong immediately as I approached the visitor center for this tiny ski town and was greeted by a sour young lady, unhelpful and rude.

On the way to Camp d”Argent. I suggest hikers skip this sad little town and take the direct route to Sospel.

Once in town I found a bustling restaurant and my two English friends arrived. We asked for a table, but when we explained we’d just like a small bite to eat, the hostess slammed around, resetting the table and ensuring we knew how she felt being inconvenienced.

Later we came upon the only gîte d’étape ansd planned to arrange for a stay and dinner. The owner arrived three hours after his sign indicated and was an angry prune of a man, ungracious and filled with some sort of bile of which I had no explanation. His porch had the best view in town of the mountains and the place seemed well-appointed. I told him I was camping, but asked if I might use the shower and he said no. But it made little difference to me as the day had been short and cool, I had no need for a shower. I only wanted dinner with my friends.

Dried flowers above Camp d’Argent. Everyone in town was unpleasant even though living in paradise.

We eventually drifted up to another café and met our Dutch friends. I was able to sign onto the wifi and write home as we all had a drink and chatted. We then worked our way back to the gîte.

The Dutch woman – who had been cranky nearly all of her walk – came out of the hotel, flushed, happy, giddy, talking a mile a minute. It seems her husband had sprung for a private room and it was absolutely lovely. She felt restored and wanted to share. Since the room had a bath, she asked would I want one. I thought sure, why not even if it wasn’t needed. So her husband took me in and found me a towel and some soap. It was a deep tub and so luxurious, I felt like a princess. It was such a generous act.

The English girls at the gîte where the owner threw me off the premises. I never quite forgave them for not launching a protest.

But when I came out on the patio, the owner came at me with venom screaming that I was not to eat at his establishment, I was not welcome, to get out of his site and off the premises. I don’t think in my life anyone has screamed at me that way. I could hardly believe it. His guests invited me into their room and he was ejecting me?

They did come to my rescue somewhat and tried to reason with him, but the man wouldn’t be budged. His wife told me, “We don’t like your kind here.” I wondered what my kind is exactly. American? A woman? A solo hiker? I slinked off the property humiliated and hungry, even if very clean, and went to my tent.

The following day was seven hours walking in hot sunshine and I had only about a liter of water for the entire day and little food.

What I didn’t realize is that every other place was closed and there was no public fountain, so no water and no food for that night. I had a few bites left, but it was a full day in the hot sun the next day and I would have nothing for the day. This impulsive and angry man put me in danger.

Fortunately I had wifi still from the now closed café, so contacted Richard and he calmed me down and helped me focus. It was a long, scary night wondering if this man might come out and cause trouble for me.

Night number twenty-six: Auberge du Pont Vieux, Sospel

When I arrived in Sospel, I drank about two liters of water from a public fountain, but was still parched and dispirited.

I rose early with all sorts of revenge thoughts, but just walked past the gîte, head held high and off towards the trail. I came upon a vacherie and started crying telling the bewildered farmer that there’s a bad man in town. He handed me a big hunk of cheese and wished me well.

The walk was long and hot with only one high point before working down and down for miles along a zigzagging descent to beautiful Sospel.

The long, hot descent into Sospel.

I lucked into a little room in an Auberge right on the old bridge. Right away the proprietress discerned I was an American and began speaking to me in English. She showed me the room and asked if I needed anything. I had drunk at least two liters of water from the first fountain I came to in town, but I was still parched and emotionally drained. I asked for water and then again, broke down in tears.

This is my problem, being surprised that bad people exist. I think I was more shocked by how he treated me than the fact that he was angry fat somehow being lied to or ripped off of his water, even though we all offered to pay for it. It was being picked on and then put into a potentially dangerous situation that left me feeling defenseless. The unreasonableness of the entire episode caught me off-guard.

The proprietress at the Auberge said, “This man must be stopped!” and ask that I write out what happened so she could notify the tourist board.

I blurted out my story and this lovely woman said immediately, “This man needs to be stopped.” She asked that I clean up, eat, start feeling better and then write out my story and she would take it to the tourist board. Feeling such a huge amount of validation immediately calmed me down. I agreed that I wouldn’t want someone else to be harmed by this man and would want the board to be notified.

I don’t know what came of it, in the end but I was gratified that she jumped in and did what needed to be done. I never saw the Dutch people again. The English girls and the Swiss never said a word to me and I suffered thinking they had so little regard for the damage this little man inflicted. You can see now why I don’t recall any of their names even if I feel some affection for them.

Night number twenty-seven: Menton

Col de Berceau, the last pass before the sea.

But I did see them again, at least the English. As I walked into the beautiful historic seaside town of Menton, sweaty and dirty and looking for my hotel, they called for me across the square wanting to make a date for dinner. I wonder if they felt a wee bit guilty for not checking on me in my dark campsite, just to see if I was ok. I think it’s something I would have done, but I did seem pretty self-sufficient.

The last day was another series of passes rising up and up until one final spectacular view straight down to the deep turquoise of the Mediterranean Sea. The French don’t use the term “Riviera,” that’s an American invention. It’s mostly referred to as the Côte d’Azur. I yelled loudly from the top there, happy to have arrived and trying to shake off the ugliness of the previous days.

Being pampered at Event, La Boutique des Plages.

It’s a long way down to the sea and I promptly got lost, not entering on the proper street, but it made no difference, the sea awaited me and I walked towards it, stuck my boots in and snapped a picture.

As I walked along the Promenade de la Mer, I came upon a shop catering to woman of a certain age. Hey, I am a woman of a certain age, so I walked in and interrupted the three ladies relaxing on the little sofa out front, smoking and gossiping. They were overjoyed to see me, my sweaty, skinny, dirty self only just drying tears of frustration and feeling lonely in my success.

A clean backpacker dips in the sea wearing her new dress.

These lovelies invited me in and began dressing me in every possible oufit in the shop. I know that in my whole life, I have never had such fun shopping. We finally settled on a one-of-a-kind Italian number made of linen with big, loud flowers. I bought it, bid farewell and took my sassy little yellow bag tied up with a bow, along with my backpack and walking sticks and made my way to my hotel, a hot shower and eventually dinner with the girls.

The End.

À Votre Santé

 

Reader Comments

  1. Pingback: - Ellis Road Press
  2. Coucou Alison
    J’ai été très heureux d’avoir partagé une partie de ton périple et j’espère pouvoir à nouveau le faire sur la traversée des Pyrénées. Tu as fait de belles rencontres, mais aussi quelques moins bonnes, surtout à Camp d’argent, pourtant j’y suis passé la veille et tout c’est bien passé. Je te souhaite une belle rando en Nouvelle Zélande et j’espère pouvoir lire ton périple.
    Bisous.
    Christian

  3. Colorful, exciting and inspiring hiking diary–I binge-read the whole hike. (Makes my idea of a few days hiking in the Dordogne seem like a walk in the park now.) Bonne chance randonnée Nouvelle-Zélande!

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