We found ourselves trekking uphill for five straight hours from Basse Vallé where it all began to the flattest spot we could find as the sun fell from view. Over a thousand feet up, surrounded by winding moss-covered trees with vines hanging from them and clouds seemingly close enough to touch, we stripped pine branches from the nearby shrubbery, laying them down to lessen the impact of unforgiving stones on our tired backs.
Sleep came fitfully. The large amounts of quick-burning sugars throughout the day – spoonfuls of nutella and bites of tortillas, handfuls of peanuts, granola bars, and gulps of letchi juice – that kept my unconditioned legs from collapsing beneath the ten-day home on my back successively strung my eyes wide open to the point of vacating my tent for need of a different view. Fetching my headlamp from a bottomless bag, the same one that lit every sundowned moment during the motorcycle trip a year and a half prior, I walked to a nearby rock, opened my journal, and scribbled down the words that follow:
“Incredibly tiring but amazing first day. Five hours of ascending. Felt so tired I was beginning to stumble. Had trouble staying upright. Had to recall worse, more painful experiences to keep going on. . . . can barely remember the last time I went camping. Feels amazing to be back out in nature.”
Leaning against that rock and looking upwards, I thought about how different the stars look beyond the reach of the City’s light and that first full view you get when you’re seeing them again as if for the first time.
For me, I was with my best friends from high school in Arches and Canyonlands National Park. I remember climbing to the rim of one of the canyons at night, a stone’s throw from our campsite, and feeling weightless, shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends, completely pulled in by the night sky like floating in a body of water. That’s how I felt at the end of Day 1, 1,000 feet up, 6 years, and 10,000 miles from that first experience of the stars.
Taking one last look at the summit before climbing into my tent, we still had a ways till the top. My head hit the inflatable pillow, and as my eyelids began to droop, there was nothing but the soft snores of Alex and the thought of how incredibly small, at 6’2”, he could make himself.
The terrain changed dramatically from the steep muddy incline and rainforest-like surroundings we experienced the day before as we came closer to Piton de la Fournaise. Trees disappeared and gray volcanic rock replaced a lot of the greenery from the first day.
We had only room to pack three to four liters of water each, if that, an amount that can be comfortably drank at home let alone walking up a mountainside with weight for hours on end. Around five hours into the next day, I was rationing a liter of water. We crossed a stream, and I dipped an empty bottle in, taking a large gulp. I was fairly sure that it would be alright, no large animals to contaminate the water, but I wasn’t certain. Eva, a German assistant whose dad runs an outdoor shop, told me that I’d know within the first 30 minutes whether the water was good to drink or not. Thankfully it was.
We’d finally reached the top where everything was flat as we made our way to the Gîte du Volcan. The signs that would pop up at trail junctions few and far between directed us with an arrow, nothing more. It’s the not knowing that made it the most difficult. As the rain continued coming down and the wind ran unchecked across the flat terrain, the knowledge that we had no idea when we would arrive at the gîte sunk in with the cold, compounding the soreness in my legs and feet, the emptiness in my stomach. Retreating as far into my rain jacket and wet shirt as possible, I fantasized of thick wool hats.
After another hour, we came to a sign that read .4km to the gîte. It was the 400m dash from high school, and with that, I took off, wet boots squelching, oversized backpack flopping around awkwardly, a manic, desperate look in my eyes like a crazed kindergartner racing for the bus on his first day of school. I most likely set a personal record.
Upon arriving, I stripped off everything wet, and fell overjoyed in a heap on top of the couch next to Marta, Will, and Jasmine. I ordered two coffees, sipping them carefully and touching the warm ceramic cups to my cheeks. Nothing beats a warm drink after coming in from the cold.
We stayed for over an hour before pulling our wet clothes back on, filling up our bottles, and heading back out into the rain towards our final destination for the day.
My watch read 10 hours by the time we had arrived at our campsite. A vacationing couple from Massif Central, France invited us over to their fire where we warmed up cans of ravioli and cassoulet in metal camp bowls and coffee cups. We strung up our boots to dry and roasted steaming wool socks over the fire. Afterwards, five or six of us crammed into a single tent for shoulder rubs and a small amount of Haribo candy gifted to Alex for his birthday.
Thinking only of Maslow’s first tier of needs, and grateful for every one of them, I fell into a deep sleep until the sun rose.