I can understand if you think that all I do is go on vacation.
But let me assure you: it doesn’t feel that way. After only a week of statistics class, I feel about as far from a vacation as someone can get. Greek letters for sums and products, derivatives and coefficients, dance before my eyes; my waking hours are spent thinking about residuals, deviances, normality, likelihoods. I can assure you, it is no picnic.
And so last weekend, despite the strong protestations of our professor, I took off on Friday to spend the weekend in the Pyrenees. After all, they’re only a couple of hours away. Oh, happy, happy day.
I left Sjusjøen, Norway, a month ago, thinking that I’d had my last ski of the year. I tried to hard to make myself be satisfied with that concept. It had been a really great ski – shouldn’t that be sufficient? Now it would be back to work, I’d have a whole new city to explore on foot, even if there wasn’t any snow.
But while Montpellier is great for many things, I don’t even like running here. There’s no green space, no anything – just narrow sidewalks carpeted in dog shit, cars that drive too fast and don’t like to stop for pedestrians, and too many intersections to have to stop at. It’s a lovely place to be a person, and a terrible place to want to exercise. I needed the mountain air (even if it wasn’t for exercise). I escaped.
I woke up on Saturday morning to bright, bright sunlight streaming through the window of my little hotel room in Font Romeu, and immediately set about procuring breakfast: pastry, of course, and some fresh yogurt. Then, up the gondola to the ski area. Yes, that’s right. If you don’t have a car, you can take the gondola from the center of town and it’s a ten-minute ride to the base lodge. Even with your cross country skis. As the valley falls away behind you, there are some quite nice views.
The cross country trails don’t actually start at the base, but above it. So I corked in some VR50 kickwax – it was warm, but the snow was still cold – and started making my way up a wide trail groomed with corduroy but meant for walking on. Strangely, walking is something you do at resorts here – trails lead to refuges and vistas up on the ridges, and are groomed every night. I took one of these to the La Calme lodge, where I got my first look at some classic tracks. They were beauties.
I spent most of Saturday skiing around on the right side of the mountain. A trail named after Martin Fourcade climbed up to the ridge of the Col Rouge, crossing a major downhill-skier thoroughfare on the way; after that I dropped into the woods and wound back and forth, but mostly up, through the trees until I popped out near the top. I climbed a gradual grade separated off by snowfence from the alpine trails and was soon at the very highest point in the whole resort. One lift dropped off one side of the peak, another of the other. Skiers were unloading from both and I felt very out of place on my skinny skis.
I had to check my map to be sure what to do, but just as I thought, I skied though the melee and in between the two lift lines, before dropping down out of site on a trail made just for me. Ha! It was quiet, beautiful, and all those people probably didn’t even know that there was a mirror trail system, a sort of alternate universe, to explore just beside their own.
I skied another big loop, with glimpses of tall ridges peeking through the trees. It was a glorious day, incredibly sunny and with a gentle breeze to cool you off. My skis started slipping and I had to put on some warmer hardwax, which then of course started sticking in the shady sections. No matter: I really didn’t care. The skiing was lovely and I managed to go for three hours despite the fact that, as I said, I haven’t been getting any exercise. My hip flexors were protesting loudly by the time I was done.
And – to decide you are going home is definitely a treat. Think about it: you’re at the height of the resort, and you just get to go downhill, on trails that are built for cross country skis. All of my training on the S-Turns at Oak Hill came in handy as I flew down the mountain. I think I was having as much fun, and probably going as fast, as the tourists on their alpine skis. When I got back to La Calme I was so exhilirated that I (slowly) climbed back up the Martin Fourcade trail a few more times, just so I could have the rush of zipping around the corners again.
Although I had to spend the afternoon working on school and other things, I did get to relax and explore the town a little bit. It’s a fairly old place for people to come to enjoy the mountains, and gave me an idea of what a traditional European winter getaway is. The streets were windy as the town is perched on the side of the hill, and they were also decorated. I found a nice spot to get a coffee and enjoy the sunset.
Can you tell? So much sun. I’m peeling now, and for two days after I got back to school I still had a serious sunburn. My friends made fun of me, but to me, it’s worth it: why the horror at a sunburn? Okay, so I’m going to get cancer, but it means I was outside, enjoying life. If you live in fear of sunburn, if you find it incomprehensible that someone would come back from the weekend with a sunburn, then… you’re missing out.
On Sunday I explored the other side of the trail system. I’d seen on the map a long 11-k loop, and wanted to check it out. That required going to the other side of the La Calme base and checking into a separate set of trails (they connected high on the ridge). To my surprise and delight, this set of trails was completely different than what I had skied before. It was like someone had built two separate resorts. Instead of climbing through the trees, I sailed through huge open vistas with incredible views of the mountains on all sides.
Just a few kilometers into my ski, in short sleeves and skate skis, I raised my arms above my head as I flew through the fields and laughed out loud. This was life. I was free.
That sounds corny, but seriously, that was what was passing through my head. I felt alive. I felt like there was nothing better, in the whole world, than being here on this snow in this sun. If the world could stop and I could relive this day over and over, I would not have complained.
I skied a couple of laps of this big loop, adding on some smaller ones that I had to check out at the top and at the base. But the feeling was the same. Even when my legs got tired, when it felt like the muscles in my calves were disintegrating and cannibalizing themselves as I pushed up the hills, even when the wind coming across the top of a ridge made it feel like, in my feeble state, I wasn’t going anywhere – I kept skiing. There was always the next spot of sunny snow around the corner, the next downhill to rest on, the next incredible view that I knew was coming up.
At one point there was a small sign that pointed to “Pic de Mauroux, 0.4 k”. Curious, I skied about 200 meters up a hill before dirt began to intrude into the trail. I took my skis off and kept walking, and soon found myself on top of a “pic”: it wasn’t anything incredible, except that, at the edge of the plateau, the valley dropped off and the views were, once again, beyond pretty. It was strange to be on a snowless hill after skiing all day, but I sat in the sun for a moment and took it all in.
Another place to recover was a small “refuge”, a stone building with a fireplace inside and a deck and picnic tables outside. Every morning the man who ran the place would head up the mountain on his snowmobile, carrying some supplies for the day. You’d be skiing and come around a corner, in the woods feeling like you were far from everything, and there it would be, tourers sitting at picnic tables and laughing over their soup or omelette. For me, I just got a cup of tea, and sat out in the sun. People come and go, with kids or dogs, wives or parents, and it turns an afternoon in the mountains into a social experience to be shared only by explorers under their own self-transport.
As I skied down the hill to the gondola for the last time, I was pretty sad. Why did I have to go home, when all this was here? But, it must be said, vacation can’t be every weekend. For one thing, Font Romeu is priced exactly like what it is – a resort. But for another, I have to actually be a good student and do my work.
Still, these trails, this snow, that sun, it’s so amazing. To think that it’s right there, a train ride away – it’s taunting me. Maybe my monthlong absence of winter made me appreciate the trip more than I normally would have, but I think it was easily the best place I’ve ever skied in my life. If you have the chance, go! Maybe I will, too.