“NO ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND!!!”–Hiking in Normandy and Brittany

What I would like to do is begin this story similar to the way that Tim O’Brien might begin his stories, or perhaps the way Hemingway might try and capture some horrific war scene that he would rather not talk about but knows that he must anyways. Here goes:

It was cold, damn cold, so cold that it is necessary to swear to express how cold it was. A long sleeve, a polar, and a hard shell–North Face’s unbeatable 3-layered approach to guarding oneself from even the most inhumane conditions, yet I was still… cold. Having to traverse the frigid nothingness that is the bay of Mt. Saint-Michel, we went barefoot and had to wear swimming trunks. What we didn’t have on bottom we attempted to make up for on top. A hat, gloves, those three unbeatable layers, and a scarf fashioned from a quick-dry REI towel.

We trudged–for three hours, we shuffled our feet so heavy with mud that saying we were barefoot would be to dance on the edge of fib territory. We slid–in the harsh clay-water that refused to give us any form of reliable support. We sank–in the clay-water that bore with pride the half-sunken remnants of sacrificed flip flops like the leftover chunks of carnage left in the teeth of a lion who has just made his kill. We bled. O yes. I cut my heel on a rock, and I bled everywhere, and when I say everywhere, I mean if we wanted to find our way back to that rock at the end of the day, we could have.

And on it went. Sliding, sinking, and bleeding in a chilly light sprinkle that mixed on our faces with all the sweat and tears that the expedition could squeeze from our glands. Time didn’t exist, and yet it did. We never knew when we were going to reach our destination, like a mirage in the desert that keeps running away from you, or that spry kid you’re babysitting who would rather not go to bed and knows the layout of the house very well. At the same time, we felt with painstaking alertness every time an impression was made in the sand by the unconditioned, infantile pads of our feet, every twist of our bellies signaling that it had been too long since we had last eaten, every dry, miserable gust of wind that managed to continuously penetrated the three layers of defense and send our tired eyes into a moistureless tizzy.

As the sun had fallen, all we could see was the far-off light of the lighthouse back on shore. It was not so much a sailor’s beacon of hope as it was the light at the end of the tunnel. We were trapped, souls marching on in-limbo between heaven and hell, never knowing when our numbed feet would finally hit sand, when we could finally rid ourselves of the sensation of dampness. And there was a constant fear hanging over our heads of the sea remounting to a depth that we could not handle. Would we make it back to land in time, or would we get swallowed up with desiccated jellyfish that we had seen throughout the day strewn across the sand?

As we sauntered on in silence, I couldn’t help but imagine the misery that plagued the lonely lighthouse keepers of the past. How many ships had they seen, so close to safety, yet tossed and pushed till obliteration, the cracking of the hull splitting the night air with more force, more resonance than the storm itself. How many had  they witnessed helplessly flailing about in the clutches of the sea until fatigue and hopelessly had overtaken them? Nothing to turn to in their towers for comfort from the traumatic scenes they’re forced to witness, all that is left to do is to hug oneself in the folds of a blanket with traces of sentimental value still in-tact.

…and here is where the tone shifts.

Day 1

“No one gets left behind!” my friend Rasmus would often say jokingly. It was a bit difficult at times, but nothing more than getting a bit cold and tired perhaps, nothing that no one has never experienced before. Heroic war cries served the purpose of adding a bit of humor to the situation. It also made sprinting to catch up with the group a bit more fun as well. In actuality, we ate well, we slept well, we saw some pretty sweet things. The worst that happened was the onslaught of mosquitoes that managed to bit quite a number of the group who had decided to venture to the top of one of the islands.

The first night that we were there, we got settled in the hostel. After a couple hours of UNO, which gets pretty interesting playing with 16 people from 5 different countries who all have their own set of universal rules,  we went to bed.

I woke up the next morning at 7:50 to go for a quick run. I headed into the center of town, past a bunch of cool shops and wove my way around some cobble-stoned streets (not the most forgiving on one’s knees), I ended the run at the edge of a river. It was foggy and the sun had not yet risen. The city was still quiet, and all that I could see was the soft contour of the city, and all I could hear was the sound of the river.

As I said, these SUAPS trips our quite the deal, and we tend to eat pretty well.

Breakfast:

-warm milk, various types of teas, hot chocolate, various flavors of juice

-cereal (with chocolate morsels or Special K)

-baguette (with your choice of Nutella, butter, or a variety of jams)

-fruit: oranges

After that, we made our lunches and piled into the vans for the trip to Mont Saint-Michel. After arriving on the edge of the bay, we met with our guide, reluctantly took off our shoes, and set off for the island.

The depressing story above was not entirely fabricated. There was a lot of clay and a lot of sand, puddles, little streams, but it was pretty fun to traverse. We ran and slid in the clay, we sank deep into the mud, and I did manage to cut my heel on a rock, but it was pretty small and bled a lot more than one would expect.

After 3 hours or so of walking, we finally made it to the island’s edge, and it was there where we were introduced to the quicksand (hence the guide who carried rope with him in case someone should sink too far in.) My impression of quicksand was that it was dangerous, and indeed, it is, but apparently the quicksand around Mont Saint-Michel is not as deadly as the way it is portrayed in the 1994 version of The Jungle Book, or pretty much any film-portrayed version of quicksand. I have never seen anyone play in quicksand the way that we did.

Like squashing grapes for wine, you can sink faster. Also, one must find a good spot to sink in. After you sink down to about your kneecaps, you can lean any way that you like without falling completely. Our guide informed us it was impossible, and after watching an exchange student named Lipu bend back until his head touched the sand, I believed it.

Extricating Yourself From Quicksand

1) Don’t panic, a rather obvious one.

2) Remove one of your legs by pulling up and moving your leg back and forth.

3) Rest your leg on top of the quicksand, either the bottom of your foot or your shin, and slowly do the same with the other leg.

4) After you have gotten both legs out, shuffle off the sand on your shins, or walk off if the quicksand isn’t that treacherous.

We walked around the island for 45 minutes or so, and I was surprised to find an entire city upon it. There are lots of shops and restaurants, and although it was rather touristy, it was still really cool nonetheless. We figured out later on from all of the dry, comfortably-clothed individuals walking about that one can drive there if they want to. We got quite a few odd looks for our bare feet. One guy who kept talking to us in Chinese even took a photo of myself and the German girl whom I was with, and she later informed me that that was the second time that that had happened to her.

After leaving the island, we made the walk back, and it did feel as if time had stopped. It was so dark out, all you could make out were the outlines of the group and the light from the lighthouse. As the sea remounted, we had to traverse some streams that were pretty high, up to my waist, and that was not so fun. However, after three hours, we finally made it back to the cars, and an hour later, we found ourselves showered, seated, and enjoying a delicious dinner.

Dinner:

-Raclette

-Beer/wine/juice/hot tea

-Bread

-Yogurt for dessert

Day 2

We headed farther west the next day into Brittany for a full 20km day of hiking. Dry feet really made a difference, and we were, if anything, grateful for the conditions of day 2.

François treated us to some huitres, or oysters, and a delicious regional white wine. There was a sizable market in Cancale where we had the oysters, and it was there where I purchased a ring with Celtic symbols on it. I found out later that it supposedly changes colors due to one’s mood, and because my hands were so cold, the ring was black for most of the day, meaning that I was en colère, or mad.

The hike itself was nice. It was very similar to the last hike in Bretagne around l’Île de Morbihan, but what made it interesting was talking to  Sergio and Armida, a story that I’ll save for another post. Essentially, they’re modern day nomads who occupy their days now finishing up their Masters degrees and rock climbing, and it was really interesting to talk to them about all the places they have lived, all the jobs they have occupied, what they have done to get to where they are now.

At the end of the day, we loaded up the vans and drove the three hours back. We had a dinner of sandwiches, pouches of apple sauce, brioche, and said our goodbyes. Furthermore, we all survived the trip.

“NO ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND!!!”

 

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