The Pyrenean Traverse, Day 22: The liberty trail

During breakfast the manager of the hotel explains how we best get to the village of Oust. The excess of asphalt yesterday brought me down, so a second day like that I would rather avoid. And apparently that is possible, thanks to the “chemin de la liberté” (the liberty trail). It is the path that nearly a thousand refugees took to get to Spain during the Second World War, when France was occupied by the Germans. Although most of them were able to cross the border successfully, unfortunately not everyone managed to reach Spain safely. When someone ventured into the crossing, betrayers sometimes notified the Germans, who then would set up an ambush. In the best case, you were captured as a refugee, but not everyone was that “lucky”.

Before us, a farmer leads his cows to a pasture. Just when we want to pass him and his mooing family, our liberty trail turns to the right. We start climbing, which is quickly noticed by our muscles. Our fleece jackets end up in the backpack again, so our pores can be opened widely. We get beautiful views of the valley and the opposite mountains. The beautiful panoramas make the climb a lot less difficult.

All kinds of nerve-racking and heartbreaking war stories are playing in our heads. We have so many unanswered questions. Who were the people behind the refugees, who walked this trail? What was in their backpacks? If they even had one … Were they armed? Were there children too? Have they felt fear? And above all, did they make it …? Countless questions are racing through our minds. In every stone and every tree you feel that this path has an unbearably rough past. Writhing from an almost indelible pain, the path turns into hundreds of curves.

At a barbed wire the path has gone cold. There is no gate, and the lack of a trail mark makes us suspect that we took a wrong turn. We turn back and at a fork we try to take the other direction. But that path also has a dead end. Because the GPS indicates that higher up should be a path we go straight up through some ferns and thorn bushes.

A lot of fresh scratches on arms and legs later, we do find that other path. Only it has not been walked on in years. The path is completely overgrown and no longer passable. So we have to go all the way back again.

I wonder how we would have pulled it off during the war on this liberty trail. Because even today – with a trail marking and in peacetime – we are already losing our way. The Germans would probably have caught us behind the very first oak …

We return to the barbed wire and decide to climb over it. On the other side of the wire seems to be something that looks a lot like a path. We follow it for lack of better. We climb over another two barbed wires and then suddenly find a trail marking of our route. We climb further uphill. It is hard work, but it goes smoothly. The track is beautiful. Something they probably noticed a bit less, about seventy years ago …

When we arrive in Seix, we first resupply at a local supermarket. Then we go look for a bar. We try out the terrace, but are quickly rushed inside because of the cold weather.

Wim maps out the route for tomorrow, which looks very promising: 7,200 feet (2,200m) eleveation gain! We are no longer used to that with our little moonshine trails to avoid the snow and floods. I swallow the news with a second “Pelforth Brune”. By the time I finish that beer, I am mentally as good as ready for what awaits us tomorrow.

Our backpacks go on our backs again to walk to the campsite of Oust, about half a mile (1km) away. We set up the tent in record time, because we can not wait to heat the can of chili con carne, which we bought in the local grocery shop. Together with an instant leek soup and some dry baguette, it is quite a delicious meal. The overdose of kidney beans will undoubtedly be heard tomorrow. But to climb those 7,200 feet (2,200m) we will need to hit the gas …!

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