Brendan and I were dehydrated, exhausted, and ready to give up. We had hiked more than eight hours, yet the steepest part of the day’s hike lay ahead of us. I had neither water nor food left in my backpack. My eyes followed the trail upwards till it reached a building with a rusted roof. “Is that it?”, I asked.
“No. That’s just halfway”, Brendan replied, getting through at least three breaths in the span of those four words.
Today was my third day on the GR5, a 650 km hike in France that I had decided to do only a week back. My body was already troubling me and calling me stupid for being here.
On the first day, I had met Brendan, a professor from the University of Edinburgh. He spoke with a powerful Scottish accent, taking command of any conversation he happened to be in. He had taken me under his wing, being worried and unimpressed with my complete lack of proper preparation. Unlike me, he knew how to find his way without a phone, which plants not to touch, how to read the tides, and how to pack your backpack so you would survive in the wild for a few days if you got lost, among other things. “If you were hiking in Scotland, you wouldn’t last a week”, he told me.
His backpack was, of course, packed optimally, with everything necessary and nothing unnecessary. He found it very amusing when I told him that everything I currently owned (except a suit that had been confiscated by a friend) was either on me or in my backpack.
We had made our way here over three days of hard hiking, and I had started today already tired. Now, looking up at what seemed like a never-ending climb (but was actually about 300 m, as I learned later) in unrelenting and cloudless heat, I plopped down by a stream to rest and started to fill my bottle in the stream.
“I wouldn’t drink from that stream.”
“Cows graze up there, and this stream has probably been contaminated with their faeces.”
I filled my bottle anyway in angry rebellion. Plus, my thirst took priority over the possibility of disease. I was washing my face in the same stream as Brendan gave me another bit of advice. “Wet your cap and put it on. That way your head will stay cool for longer.”
That’s a pretty cool idea, I thought and dipped my cap into the stream.
We started walking, and I promptly forgot about him. My legs were hurting, my breath was rapid, and my mind couldn’t focus on anything else but the pain. The last time I had felt so tired was a hike in Seattle, to the top of Mount Adams. There, I had seen a father giving advice to his son. “Count to 20, and then take a break and count to 5.”
Maybe I should try that.
I started counting. I walked, counting loudly to 100 and then stopped, and counted again to 20. With this complicated mathematical puzzle for my mind to solve, I stopped focusing on the pain and started walking faster and faster. In an hour or so, I made it to Refuge de Trebentaz. I looked back, and couldn’t see Brendan.
I hike fast very rarely, and when I do, it’s usually one of two things: I’m very excited for some reason (the food is excellent, I’ve had too much coffee, or I’ve just seen something that’s blown my mind), or I’m very tired and I know that if I don’t go fast, the hike will stretch on forever because my walking will get slower and slower like Zeno’s walk-it-half-the-way paradox.
“Where are you from?”, the gardienne asks me, as she shows me my camping spot. She has pure white, snowy hair, and her face is set with wrinkles from what I assume to be many years of hard work. Her movements are economical and precise as if she knows exactly the space her body occupies in the world.
“India”, I say.
“Wow”, she says and spreads her hands. “Welcome”.
The camping spot looks over the valley and there are clouds sprinkled over a layer of mountains blocking the horizon in the distance. Somewhere there, about a month away by walk and less than a day by car is the Mediterranean sea. There are pine trees and grass spread out evenly across the landscape. The air is cold, and the chill on my face is very pleasing. As is almost always the case while hiking in France, there is a town visible in the distance.
The weather has cooled down a bit by the time I make it back to the refuge, and Brendan has made it as well. He introduces me to Shandy, a drink made with beer and lemonade. The most lemon I’ve added is the juice from half a lime, but this is something else. Half beer (works best with pale lagers, I guess), half lemonade, fully refreshing.
We sit at the wooden tables outside the refuge, talking and admiring the view. There is another Scotsman, a truck driver who has taken a month off to do the hike. He’s come prepared for the wind, the snow, and the rain. “You’re over-prepared”, Brendan tells him as he drinks his shandy. “That’s too much weight. You can’t carry that for a month.”
Brendan turns out to be right, because the next morning, the Scotsman decides to give up and hitchhike back to the next town. “This is very different from Scotland”, he says. “I’ll be back next year”.
We’re joined soon by a french family: two kids and their parents. The boy looks like he’s the elder, and both are very curious about my presence in the refuge. We can’t speak to each other, though, since they don’t know English, and I don’t know French. The mother knows some English, though. She tells the kids I am from India and they find that fact, and the french words I know (baguette, oeuf, bon jour) very funny.
“This is their first hike,” the mother tells me. “When my husband and I grew up, we always lived close to nature. But now we are in the city, and we want our kids to know how beautiful it is out here.”
Dinner is served. On my plate are round potato slices in a light, transparent and herb-filled gravy, surrounded by thick slices of sausage placed in an elegant circle. The sausages have a slight bite to them and are deliciously spicy. A spoonful of gravy and a piece of potato rounds out each bite perfectly. All those Chicago-style hot dogs in the United States, where the sausages seemed like they were there just to fill the space between the buns seem like such a waste of meat now. I’ve never had anything like this before, where the sausage stands on its own, with its own character.
Once the sausage is done, a plate of cheese is passed around, to be enjoyed with a pleasant red wine. “This is so cool”, I tell Brendan.
There are three types of cheese on the plate: Reblock de La Frutiere, Abondance (named for the place where the cheese was made), and de la Valie. One of them is creamy, one is soft but firm, and one is hard. I like the hard one the best. It’s got an easy, pleasant flavour that seems to go really well with the red wine.
Look at me, being all fancy and thinking about the wine tasting good with the cheese.
“Everybody, stop eating and come out now”, the gardienne says.
A full moon is slowly rising outside, as big as coin held an inch away from your face. The sky is purple and the mountains are glowing in the evening light. I quickly position the glass of wine and a piece of cheese and take a picture. The mother clucks at me and laughs. “Why don’t you add a baguette to that picture, and then you can fully stereotype our country?”
For dessert, we have a delicious raspberry tart that disappears quickly.
I am happy that I had decided to skip lunch that day, even though that was why I was so exhausted when I got here. The hungrier the better for this dinner.
The next morning, the sun rises close to where the moon had risen yesterday, and I set off on Day 4 after a breakfast of bread and jam and bad coffee. I’ve slept well, the air is nice and fresh on my face, and all is well with the world.
Getting there: I got here after three days of hiking from Lake Geneva. But you can also come here from La Chapelle d’Abondance, a village close by, that’s very famous for its cheese. It’s about a two hour hike from there.
Staying: The refuge offers dorm-style accommodation for about 50 euros (as of August 2015).
Is it worth it: Yes. If not this refuge, taking some time off from the cities of France to make it into the mountains and the mountain villages is absolutely worth it.
Eating: If you’re vegetarian, you’ll get a nice omelette. If you’re vegan, I’m not sure what you’ll get, but you’ll get something. There was a vegan hiker in the refuge when I was there.