Not many people admit to experiencing a midlife crisis, but what do you call it when you feel compelled to break out of the comfort zone that is home ownership, an established career and grown-up children, to do something totally different with your life? In this two-part story, experienced journalist and writer Claire McCall sets off to put one foot in front of the other in pursuit of what sounded like freedom.
The Hexatrek, a newly minted 3000km journey traversing the mountains of France, pops up in my Instagram feed just as we are coming up to two years locked in Godzone. The trail takes its name from the hexagon-shaped outline of the country, and connects 14 national parks. It starts (or ends) at the border with Germany and traverses the Vosges, Jura, the Alps and the Pyrenees to the Atlantic.
When we see it, the excitement awakens butterflies in our stomachs. We are both avid hikers, having completed most of New Zealand’s Great Walks and, in 2018, we climbed Kilimanjaro, pacing pole-pole (slowly-slowly) up its snowy flanks to the summit. Now in our mid-50s, we are determined to take on another significant challenge before our get up and go, well, gets up and disappears! We invest in the app that is to be our on-ground guide and start to dream.
Gathering the gear to get two almost over-the-hill hikers over a fair few more becomes our priority. Multi-day hiking requires a true less-is-more mindset. To our tried-and-trusted packing list, we add two significant pieces of equipment. Since the Hexatrek is set up primarily as a bivouac route (although there are also mountain refuges and village accommodation), we need a tent and sleeping mats. After some research we decide on one that is light, strong and long enough to lay down in, with the backpack at our feet. Before we leave, we test it out in the back garden. Lying prone on the corrugated foam sleeping mat, I look up at the fine stretch of canvas that will protect us from the elements. The brand NEMO is highlighted against the light. . . only backwards. Reading it from inside, it says in big, bold letters. . . OMEN. Is the universe trying to tell us something?
Stepping out into the wild world
We begin our SOBO adventure in the charming town of Wissembourg in early May. We have given ourselves four months off work (we’re both self-employed) and our goal is to make it to Perpignan at the start of the Pyrenees. We have saved up during the lockdown, plus we’ve rented out our house in Auckland to bring in more funds. It allows us to budget 75 Euros per day, but some Hexatrekkers who are wild camping (bivouac) for free are banking on 20 Euros per day.
It feels good to take our first steps along the path. The day’s aim is a 23km stretch to the Fleckenstein campground. The trail leads out of town along the river, past the ramparts of Chateau de St Paul then meanders up beside formidable castles built on outcrops of red sandstone. Arriving at camp, I get my first opportunity to practice my French with Pascal, the proprietor, his long grey hair swept back in a ponytail. A beer and a tarte flambée at the on-site restaurant (Europe is so civilised!) is a fitting end to the day.
The national park that is the Massif de Vosges is beautiful, not in a breathtaking Alps-ish sort of way, but in the gentle light that dapples through the statuesque trees.
Strangely though, we don’t come across many fellow hikers and even the villages seem deserted. Climbach is a good example. Although the homes and gardens are immaculate, we see nary a soul and wander down the main street speaking in hushed tones.
Day Two and we are heading for the spa town of Niederbronn-les-Bains but, about 15km in, it starts to feel like an invisible Medieval warrior is taking to my left shoulder with an axe. I adjust the straps on my backpack. No change. We decide to veer off the route to walk along the country road that shortens the path by around 5km. Do we feel like cheats? A little. That night, in the tent, I am worried. I am suddenly under no illusion. This journey we have committed to will test us in many ways .
Come Day Five I have bigger concerns. James has been feeling steadily worse with a headache, cough, and runny nose. We are reluctant for him to take the RAT we have brought along, since getting Covid is not part of the plan. But eventually, we capitulate and yes – two damning lines confirm it.
We have just hit the 100km milestone in the fortified town of Saverne – a minor victory. Back home, we anticipated we’d walk six days out of seven. But when you’re actually on the trail, ticking off the miles, and seeing how very far you still have to go, the thought of taking a “zero” day becomes unimaginable. When Covid stops us in our tracks, it is hard not to feel frustrated. Other Hexatrekkers are zooming ahead and seem to have an average age of 12. At 55, I don’t feel old, but I am certainly feeling my age. I start to question whether what I am doing will make me fitter and stronger or hasten me towards the grave! But yesterday, before the brakes slammed on, we walked past a moat and the ruins of a wall built by the armies of Julius Caesar.
James, a devoted Asterix comics fan in his childhood, from which he acquired most of his knowledge of ancient Roman history, was excited. His head lifted; his greyish pallor lit up. This could be the very spot where Vercingetorix, the King of the Gauls, surrendered, by placing his sword at the foot of Julius Caesar (before being carted off to Rome and summarily assassinated).
It reminds me that while perambulating in the footsteps of history, it pays to not look too far ahead.
On the road again
After a day’s downtime, we set off again and soon come across two French forestry workers on the pathway to La Hoube, enjoying lunch in the proper fashion: with a folding table, china dinnerware and du vin – health and safety requirements be damned.
They eye us somewhat suspiciously. I lead with my usual upbeat “bonjour!”, but in Alsace, I’ve already come to understand that there’s only a 50 percent chance this is the correct choice. If the forestry workers are German, they feign very little knowledge of French. If they are indeed French, historical context brings a bristling contempt towards the English – and James’s Nottingham accent is hard to disguise. As it turns out, they are conversing in Alsatian, a dialect that traces a complex pathway. Speaking it has been a form of protest since the 1870s. Once we throw in “Nous sommes Néo Zélandaise”, their demeanour instantly softens.
The forest has been changing from dappled and airy to something a tad more sombre. On Day Seven of our journey, we finally spend a night in a rudimentary refuge (the Abri de la Schleif), sleeping on mats on the rough concrete floor. The lack of a door on the little wooden hut worries me. It’s not animals or insects I’m afraid of, it’s humans. Earlier that day, in the late afternoon, a man in a red car encircled the picnic spot where the refuge is located. He drove off only to return 20 minutes later. We find an iron bar that has been wrenched from the former door and sleep, fitfully, with it alongside us. . .
On Day Eight, after an 11-hour slog over 28km and 1290 metres of elevation, we arrive at La Barraque Carre refuge on the outskirts of La Broque. Fellow hiker Alex welcomes us as if he is inviting us into his home. He gives a cheery “bienvenue” and sets about collecting dried twigs and branches for a fire.
Soon he is off on another mission, gathering leaves to make us a cup of nettle tea which, he promises, will help us to sleep well. The tea is a sweet and humble gesture – but it doesn’t work. That night in the tent, I try to calm a hacking cough that will not give me a whisper of peace. No matter how far I walk, there is no escape. Covid has caught up with me too.
Two days after resting up, the trail leads through the only concentration camp on French soil. Struthof was set up as a deportation holding point for French resistance fighters. When the trains came in, locals in the vicinity of the station were ordered to close their shutters on pain of death. Many of these fighters were forced into labour at Struthof’s pink granite mine and died through sheer exhaustion. In the shadow of an elegant white stone monument are gravestones bearing their names. For James, putting names to the dead is all too much. He dissolves into tears, and we hotfoot it out of there.
The campsite in the next village (Barr), is mercifully a stone’s throw from the town centre. Fellow camper Marielle, a retiree in her mid-60s, who is e-biking from her home in the Netherlands to visit a friend in Germany, joins us for a beer. With her grey hair tied up in a loose bun, and her red lippy, she is an inspiration.
It is in Barr that we make a big decision. Looking ahead, we realise there’s a five-day stretch with minimal opportunity to resupply. Until now, we have been living day to day, buying a pastry and a baguette from the boulangerie in the morning. Cheese – two Euros for a huge wedge of blue – and peanut butter are staples. But, for evening cooking, gas is becoming a problem. We anticipated being able to buy canisters in every village, but we were wrong. It will be safer and 40km shorter to drop down from the heights of the Hexa, onto the Camino de Santiago, still heading south before linking up with the route again in Thann.
We feel like frauds. The truth is, James would probably have flown through, but I am flagging. Physical niggles are getting me down. Fighting Covid and walking an average of 20km a day has left me with a few of those, including the painful shoulder. James is patient as I frequently stop to assume various yogic positions to find some relief.
But it’s the mental tussle that I’m really fighting. Through the endless miles, I’m starting to wonder whether I’ve made an awful mistake. In fact, there are times when I’m thinking: “I hate this; I hate this.” There. I’ve said it. This is NOT fun. James reasons it’s because I’ve hit the two-week wall. The forest is no longer novel, and the heat is excruciating. Sometimes I think, close to tears, “Actually, I can’t go on.” And yet. . . I do. My legs have not folded beneath me. My body hasn’t slumped to the floor. I cling on to moments of lightness. Like the kind camper who gives us fresh cherries; like seeing storks atop church steeples; like the hotelier who runs out with oven-warm bread rolls when the boulangerie is closed.
A brief switch to the Camino walking through vin-noble villages such as Chatenois (where we stay in a 300-year-old half-timbered hotel) takes us past the 300km mark. One more rest day and we rejoin the Hexa. . .
One minute I am taking a photograph of a doe-eyed calf resting in an alpine paddock, and the next those deep brown optical pools have, in my mind, turned demonic. His mother and her pals are standing square-hipped behind the gate our path travels through. Suddenly these bovines don’t look so beatific. I have read about the behaviour of cows and their penchant for rushing unsuspecting ramblers in the countryside. With rising panic, I refuse to budge. James, who reasons they look rather benign, pushes open the gate. I have little choice but to follow or abandon the dream, foiled by a vicious “vache”.
Over the past couple of days, forest has given way to farmland and there is a perfectly enunciated echo of “the hills are alive” in the air. One night we camp beside a ski hut, the vast valley of the Haut-Rhin spread out below, the tinkle of cowbells our night-time lullaby. We have been told that, if we get the chance, we should stay in an auberge, a country inn where the owners provide lodging and authentic home-cooked fare. And we are keen. I have visions of eating fluffy baked potatoes oozing with cancoillotte (runny French cheese). But even though it is nearing the end of May, every ferme auberge is more like auberge ferme (closed). Indeed, France is living up to its reputation in that respect. Business hours invariably defer to the two-hour lunch break and, as walkers who barely know what day it is, we frequently arrive in a village on a Sunday or Monday to find the shops are shut.
Rest days give me a chance to catch up with friends online which is when a word of advice alters my outlook. A friend pro-offers that everyone has their own reason for embarking on a thru hike. Some throw themselves into the lifestyle and freedom. Others immerse themselves in the beauty of nature. Still others do it for the challenge. The thing is, I feel guilty because I’m not loving each and every step, as if this in itself is a failure. But I’ve always been someone who needs something to get my heart and mind into, so challenge it is. If I hate it in parts, so be it. That’s okay. From now on, I’ll just grit my teeth and try not to complain too much.
The ascent to the Ballon D’Alsace is one of those times. We’ve been walking for six hours, when a fellow hiker points to the top of a mountain opposite and says: “That’s where you’re going!”
“Nope,” I reply confidently. “We’re only a couple of kilometres from the refuge.”
I should have known better. Less than 100 metres further on and the little green line on the app takes a sharp right turn. The spongy-leaf pathway disappears, and a precipitous rocky scramble takes its place. This is cruel. We dig deep, gripping onto the granite rocks, being careful with our footwork. It is a physical and mental challenge to emerge onto the balloon-shaped top where a gentle gravel pathway circumnavigates the summit. There are families enjoying the sun, and, of course, a car park and restaurant. . . what the hell?! The view, however, is worth it. James is excited to take in the panorama of Lucerne in the mid distance and the peaks of the Jungfrau and Mont Blanc further off.
We spend the night at Refuge de la Grande Goutte, a stone structure with a steep gable. Praise be to the incredible system that allows these humble huts to exist – and to the volunteers who maintain them. This refuge has a sleeping loft, a table fit for a royal banquet, chairs hewn from oak and a wood-burning stove. It feels like coming home, so we ease off our boots, lay down our sleeping mats and James makes a fire to boil water for our couscous, saving the gas that has proven so hard to come by.
Out on the balcony, a typewritten notice tells the sad tale of a father who lost his daughter in this area in 1989. She disappeared from the hut and was found a week later at the base of a cliff of White Rock, 800 metres from the Grande Goutte. He made the pilgrimage here 31 years later to thank the couple who found her and, in this quiet corner of the forest, to say his final goodbye.
Read part two of Claire’s epic story here.
Photography: James Baldwin and Claire McCall