The Pyrenees

It’s mid-July when we find ourselves in northeastern Spain, first in the tiny coastal village of Portlligat, adjacent to the slightly less tiny town of Cadaques, due to John’s early and continued interest in Salvador Dali who spent most of his life here. I don’t know much about Dali so John fills me in, and the bit of biography I keep is the part about how his wife and lifelong muse Gala required him to obtain her written permission before visiting her in the summer home (a castle in Girona) that he bought for her. (Also, his legendary fear of female genitalia and the possibility that the sole sexual consummation he ever experienced was with himself.) We walk around the hilly streets surrounding the museum that was his home, though we don’t pay to go inside – advance reservations are required, so even if we’d been willing to fork over the 11 euro entrance fee (per person) we couldn’t have. We spend the night in the only campground we can find, large and industrial-feeling, its small crowded sites composed entirely of sand, which John thereafter refers to as “the anthill” due to the abundance of the little black creatures in and on everything we left outside the tent overnight.

The next day we make our way down the coast just far enough to find a nice beach to visit so we can swim in the Mediterranean Sea before heading inland toward the Pyrenees. The coast is hot and crowded, so I’m glad when we point the bike north and begin to climb.

We spend the bulk of the next two weeks in the Pyrenees, going back and forth between Spain and France with one afternoon in the small country of Andorra. The campgrounds in Spain are more expensive than those in France and as a result, we wild camp on several occasions. Never having done this before I’m a bit nervous on the first night, fearing we’ll be discovered and told to leave. We’re in the tent and it’s close to midnight when I hear a dog barking. “What if he comes over here and finds us?” I ask John (we’re in the mountains on the edge of a farmer’s field). “What if he barks and barks until the farmer wakes up, what if he leads the farmer to us, who demands that we get off his land immediately? What if he doesn’t give us time to pack up our stuff, what if he has a shotgun and threatens us?” At which point John sighs, shushes me and tells me to stop worrying. “You Americans,” he admonishes me. “You think everyone’s got a gun.” The dog, as it turns out, either doesn’t know we’re there or doesn’t care, and neither does the farmer, because the night passes without event, and following the leave-no-trace practice, we depart the next morning without anyone, to our knowledge, ever knowing we’d been there. After that I’m more relaxed about the idea of wild camping, and it isn’t long before I prefer it when we can find a place.

I’ve been in the Alps, though it’s been a long time, and I’ve been in many of the great parks of the US and Canada with dramatic mountain peaks and sweeping vistas, so I’m not expecting to be awed by the Pyrenees, yet I am. I am awed to the point of tears, overcome by the beauty and size of what I see, by the longevity and the variety. Places like this, no matter how often I see them and especially in the last three years, give me what I can only imagine faith gives to the religious – a sense of peace, of purpose, of security – the notion that I don’t need to look to others for my well being or for validation, and that the answers to all the important questions in life are to be found right here: in the rocks, in the layers of sediment, in the bark, the water, the flowers and the sunlight; the cry of the hawk and the chirp of the frog, the smell of wet leaves, the zigzag flutter of the moth. The closer I get, the fuller I feel, the smaller I become, the roiling, churning chaos inside of me less consuming.

For a few days we rent an Airbnb room in an old farmhouse and make day trips from there. We meet a lovely young French woman named Anne Cecille who lives in the house while getting her Masters degree in Geology and working part time. She invites us to dinner one evening when she has friends down from Normandy and we all share in the cooking, then talk about climate change, politics and immigration over salad, pasta and red wine until well after midnight. At the beginning of this trip, when I shared with John my resistance to engaging in social situations for fear of seemingly innocuous but loaded questions like “What do you do?” and “Do you have children?” he suggested that we let people assume we’re married, and say “We don’t have any children,” which, as he explains it, isn’t a lie. He and I do not have children together. A technicality perhaps, but an important one when the alternatives are to remain aloof and estranged from social interactions, to reveal painful truths to strangers again and again, or to deny Jackson’s existence, the worst proposition of all, by saying I never had a child. We do this for the first time with Anne Cecille, and it proves to be successful. I’m flooded with relief as well as gratitude to John for this idea.

We hike when we can, ride out onto dirt tracks when it seems promising, and get lost in the desert. John swims in a river one day when he can’t stand the heat any longer but I can only bring myself to dip my feet in, it’s so cold. I can bear being hot more than I can being cold.
We eat dinners at dusk on rocks beside rivers or overlooking valleys, and while we eat we talk. This is a refreshing change for me, having spent so much time either alone recently or in the company of my previous travel companion who spent every tea break, pit stop or meal engaged with his smart phone, usually commenting on or responding to comments on Facebook, chatting with Facebook “friends” and reading the latest news headlines. It isn’t until John is telling me a story about some experience he had or we’re laughing about something we saw or did earlier that day that I realize how lonely I was when I realized I’d grown to love someone who seemed to have decided in the space of our first few weeks together that he knew all there was worth knowing about me. I still love him, but I wonder now how I ever let myself believe he was on his way to loving me. Why I let myself believe it is no mystery; it’s what I needed, what I still need – someone to love me through this. But the how… that’s harder to answer, in spite of my education and life experience, but I picture a horse with blinders on when I close my eyes. We so often let what we want to be true supersede what is true..

We get gas (petrol) and pay after we fill up. We have to ask at restaurants for the check. Night after night we check in to a campground (or even a hotel) to be told the fee, then sometimes given a piece of paper to fill out, sometimes asked for a passport, then informed we can pick our own site and waved away when we pull out a wallet. “Pay tomorrow, when you’re ready to leave,” we hear again and again, though in most cases, especially in the larger campgrounds, it would be very easy to drive away in the morning without returning to the office. This trust moves me deeply, so unused to it as I am, and it guarantees I wouldn’t leave without paying. When you are given the gift of trust you want to live up to its expectations, and I wonder when this practice of believing that other people, albeit strangers, are worthy of our trust eroded in my country, where it would be unheard of to be told “pay when you leave.” It’s beyond refreshing to be treated not as suspect, not as a risk, but as responsible, mature, and accountable. These sorts of experiences help to reinstill in me the belief that most people are mostly good.

By the end of July we’re heading back up to England. I’m going to dog/house sit for my friends in Herefordshire for 3 weeks while they go on holiday, and John has personal business to attend to in Brighton, including performing in a gig with the musicians I met before we left. I’m looking forward to this short break from the road, to long walks and naps with a loving dog, to reading and writing more, to cooking again, and to the chance I’m going to get in the presence of consistent, free wifi to finally skype with the woman who is to be my grief mentor, located for me by the MISS Foundation. We board the ferry to Dover alongside 2 small motorcycles, one a Honda 125, the other a 90cc of indeterminate make, both loaded down with homemade panniers made of crates and sacs, water bottles plunged into sandals strapped onto the side. John shakes his head and says he can’t imagine riding something like that, and wonders how they manage to cover any ground at all. But I get it. I get it without any imagination at all.



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