the Lands of Roncesvalles

The fog and mists of the western Pyrenees reminded me of Roland's Ghostly Horn

For many years when i toured in eruope in the summers, I always fancied heading to the southwest of France to see one of the few mountain ranges in the world (especially now that i finished my 1st world tour) that I had not yet explored. I knew very little about the Pyrenees except what I had read in Lowell Thomas' Book of the High Mountains years before. Now that is not like me! I had read extensively and seen many photos of the Sierra Nevada; the Cascades; the rockies; the Appalachians; before my world tour I had seen may pictures of the Andes, the Karakorams, the Himalaya. But these Pyrenees always seemed to get the short shrift. Perhaps I, as the Europeans do, make them play 2nd fiddle to their mightier cousins, the Alps. Perhaps since they are viewed as 'the end of europe' they have difficulty finding their place in a world that must bookmark everything: they are not in Europe, not in Africa.

It was with great anticipation, then, that I cycled into this region, swinging over from western Spain and northern Portugal following the Camion de Santiago, with its hundreds of Pilgrims, augmented more that summer by the proximity of the millenial year. It says something about my touring that, as I cycled on those very wet and chilly days in May of 1999, little did i know that I would be at the Taj Mahal by New Years eve!

Wet they were. The coldest, rainiest stretch since the Alaska highway almost a year before. The winds brought storm after storm in off the Atlantic, and I camped many times in uniquely savage country: rolling hills and forests, fields of low bush and shrub where I sought shelter from the foggy breezes. The ground, often covered with a thick layer of moss over clay soil and boulders, seemed poorly drained and waterlogged. Even the clear days did not dry it; it was a spring we New Englanders would recognize, and I just had to get used to it. The pyrenees began with a series of big big hills, and often steep grades among quiet forests.

Soon the mightier peaks of the range begin to loom though by no means as great as those in my next subchapter of my tour. And, as any cyclist will tell ya, the upside of living and riding thru a mountainous region in the late spring is that the rivers are swollen with melting snow and ice from above. I love to climb, and I love to climb next to a river which I will follow almost to its source (see my page on the Loire River in France as an example). Since most valleys are, by definition, scoured out by the action of water, I get my wish very often. This does not cheapen my satisfaction however. I fight the mental tyranny of cynicism like no other rider and traveller I know; and looking at this photo I can still feel the sun's warmth on my shoulders, smell the air thick with mud and decay, and feel the chill Spring winds under the fair skies.

I might add that if ya keep your eyes and nose open (not very hard when ya have a honker like I do) you'll find beauty in the most unlikely places. I stopped at a small cafe and store for some food and my morning passion-- a cup of coffee. I have always been impressed with how the Europeans try and take care of every square inch of precious space they own, and this stone garden with its rose caught my attention on the way out. I have always been impressed with the joie de vivre which Gods creatures--not just his animals-- display. I often thought that my world tour was a lengthy manifestation of such joy; and I always was careful to notice it in others as I went along. Here, a large bloom; pink on the outer edges, fading to a gorgeous yellow interior.

Finally I would arrive at the highest points these sections of the mountains had to offer. My intention was to use col de Samport in any case; but the floods and high waters had closed the alternate route. One less decision I might have to have made. All the more reason to like these mountains and some day, as I surely will, return to them. For now, as Frost might have quipped, Forges D'Abel is the Road Not Taken. To which I would respond, being no poet but a rider: for though knowing how way leads on to way, there is no doubt ever that I shall be back!

For a very useful guide about walking and hiking in the Pyrenees, check out this site about the GR10 a hiking path that follows the entire range. If you wish to cycle the entire Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route across northern Spain to the gorgeous town of the same name, go to this site which describes the entire Camino Santiago by bike.