25 June 2008

A Lovely Day Ascending Beautiful Mt. Ventoux, or, Why Won't I Ever F*cking Learn?

They all told me it would be difficult. I scoffed. Mt. Ventoux? Difficult? It's not even 2000 meters! It's an armpit pimple compared to what I've already done! Take plenty of water? I'm The Steve. I don't need more than a trickle of forehead sweat running back into my mouth. If Petrarch, that lazy Pope-bitch who couldn't even read Greek, could do it, surely I could run laps around the thing. And with this hubristic attitude present in my mind, the travel gods struck me down.

I left my pay-for style accommodation in the morning, catching the first bus I could from Avignon to Carpentras. At the tourist office there, I inquired about onward transport to the village of Bedouin, 14 km away at the base of Mt. Ventoux (the highest mountain in Provence--yawn). There is a bus, apparently, but it only leaves twice a day at completely inconvenient times. This left me with only one, expensive option: taxi. So I hitchhiked. Lucky me! It only took the nice Swiss man who picked me up 15 minutes to find me. And he even brought me, out of his way, all the way to Bedouin! Wonderful! And guess what, he says to me, Monday is market day! Hurray! Not only do I get a ride to the cute, medieval farming village, but I'm treated to stall after tantalizing stall of Southern French cuisine--herbs and spices, cheeses, meats (not for me), olives, tapenades, produce, seafood, bakery goods, chocolate, soap all for sale, all beckoning deliciously (including the soap: I bought a violet). The entire Mediterranean diet and lifestyle strung out along a single, handy village lane. After the tiny bit of shopping in which I allowed myself to indulge, I pompously sauntered up to the tourist office, pizza avec quatre fromages in hand, and demanded to know the way to the mountain. The trail begins, the woman informed me in French (which I seem to understand), at an even smaller village 4 km further down the road. "How many of these f-ing villages are there?!" I yearned to ask but could not think of how to translate. I may not have mentioned this, but I can't help speaking English with a French accent when I'm in France (and much of the rest of the time, too). At the beach party, Max convinced me (it was pretty easy) to speak this way the whole time to everybody. My story was that I was French but living in America. My parents wanted me to learn English so I would fit in and didn't teach me French. Unfortunately, *they* taught me English themselves, being highly educated in it, so I ended up with their accent and no French-speaking ability. Much to my surprise, the French seemed to buy it, while those in the know were highly amused and impressed by my skill. I think I'm quite convincing, actually. The point of this aside is, I received retribution for this little stunt on the mountain.

Stomping off from the tourist office, I headed into the foothills. The trail up Mt. Ventoux is clearly marked, well-maintained, and easy to follow. Naturally, I got lost. My first indication that something was amiss came when the trail simply stopped dead. "What?" I thought. Well, I'd been told that Provence received an exceptional rainfall this winter, so perhaps the mountain paths were just a wee bit overgrown. Wee bit! I couldn't find it at all! I went back and forth, forth and back, for hours, making very slow progress and having to bushwhack my way painfully through all the goddamn beautiful scenery (ha, beautiful from a distance--try walking through all that picture-perfect, skin-lacerating foliage!). At one point, some tree or other must have unzipped the front pocket of my backpack, because my clock, pen, and sunglasses case were all gone. No problem with that, since I hated all of them (the case was handy, though). But, now I couldn't track my progress, which was increasingly seeming to me a progress toward death. I am not overreacting, people! I was in the thicket "stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
returning were as tedious as go o'er", as it were. And I was running out of water. Many cries of pain later (those brambles really hurt once all your shin-skin's been stripped away), I randomly ran into what looked like an actual path. I was wary, at first. But it was real: a real path! How had I missed it? "Who cares?" in my delirium, I asked no one in particular. Off I went! So happy was I to hit the fastlane again, I drank all the rest of my water, assuming I could reach the summit in less than 20 minutes. Hey, that was pretty stupid! Because the top was still a looooong way away. And the signs I sometimes passed were misleading. According to one, the summit was a mere five odd kilometers away. I walk at least five kilometers an hour, even uphill, so I felt I could wash my socks in my water if I wanted to (surely there'd be a fully equipped cafe at the top, hopefully Petrarch-themed, I figured). Ahem, it was not five kilometers away. I think I took another wrong turn, because the trail crossed the road the lazy tourists drive on to the top, and then I just started following that. Big mistake! The road is always a lot longer! In retrospect, I think dehydration must have affected my judgment (which was clearly functioning when I set out that morning). I walked on this empty road for at least five kilometers before it joined another, better road, that cars were just zipping past all the time on. So, I thought I could hitch to the top. But nobody would stop. Perhaps my beard makes me look like a terrorist, but, come on, grant the guy on the mountain road in the middle of nowhere some mercy! No mercy. The drivers that day were all tourists, I suppose, and tourists are sans pité. I had unkind thoughts. But I kept walking. At a certain point, I looked up: there was the top! High, high above me... my God, it was high above me, and I didn't know what time it was, I didn't have any water, it was extremely hot, I was perspiring heavily, I felt tired and dizzy, and it might have taken me at least another two hours on the tarmac to get up there. "Might have?" you ask. Yes, I did the unthinkable. I gave up.

Turning back around, I had no better luck hitching down to civilization. Deciding to go with the devil I knew, I returned on the same route I came in on, but, don't act so surprised, I got lost a third time, but not so badly since I was still on a well-defined track heading in a downhillwardly direction. Nevertheless, I had a long way to go: at least 14 kilometers in the still hot sun, and I was so, so thirsty. I couldn't think straight except to beg the travel gods for deliverance (but not like in the movie). At one point, I took a pee, and saw that it, a mere trickle, was dark and yellow and menacing. I was pretty sure of my imminent death and wondered if I'd left any mature content on my laptop when I finally saw signs of habitation: vineyards! Yes! Guarded by giant, ravenous rotweilers! Oh no! But the track turned into a road and houses started to appear, and I knew I must be saved. My savior himself was the first little old French man I saw in the near distance. "Monsieur! Monsieur! Si vous plait! Je suis un stupid tourist Americain! Eau, si vous plait! Eau!" I hoarsely cried out. And eau he gave me. I haven't decided if this man or the Swiss guy who gave me my first ride (and suggested I take lots of water) were *the* travel god incarnate, but it is likely they are both among their ranks. The man brought me back to his ridiculously cute farmhouse, where I sat down and just started panting. I couldn't take more than a sip of water at a time, and his wife found my moribund condition highly amusing (I'm sure it was). Eventually, I regained my composure. At one point, their son Guillaume came in, and he spoke English. After conferring with his parents and informing me that it was much later than I thought (no bus back to Avignon!), he asked if I'd like to have dinner with them, stay the night, and then ride with him back to Avignon early the next morning since he works there...



So I had a nice shower, a nice quiche, and slept in the nicest bed that's ever been volunteered to me. The next morning, I sat behind Guillaume on his moto and loved him and loved France and blessed my luck in spite of my idiocy.

Incidentally, Guillaume works for the world-famous Avignon Festival, which you probably haven't heard of. I thought that was pretty cool.


Anonymous said...

You're plainly crazy (as your title WWIEFL implies)! Even a 70-yr-old like me can get up and down this armpit-pimple in 5 hours: you make Mt Ventoux sound like - well, like Petrarch found it a few centuries ago, if not Everest... Still, your adventure ended fine because the locals are as generous as, say, the folk in Montana or Wyoming towards eccentric foreigners.

The Steve said...

My goodness! 70 years old and still hiking--that's fantastic. I know it's been a few days since you left this comment, so if you're still with us, I want to assure you, sir, that I am an excellent walker. I simply got lost and spent all my time and energy (does that qualify as a zeugma?) thrashing through bushes. If your next question is how could I be so stupid as to get lost on a clearly marked trail, I too seek the answer.

The Steve said...

Oh, I forgot to ask: who are you and why are you reading my blog?

Ilovethesmellofnepalinthemorning said...

my word. i am kinda glad i dropped out of this one. i am terrible at finding trails myself, and this after roughly 15 years of traipsing around the Himalayas. with me, we probably wouldn't make it back down.