Tuesday, April 21, 2015

So You Want To Hike With Donkeys

We went hiking with donkeys, Romeo and Gaspard to be precise, last year. It was fun. We climbed up hills. Daniel rode on the donkey a lot. We stayed on a farm that was previously a secret base for the French resistance in World War II. It was awesome.

So, we decided to do it again. But this year? We're older. We're wiser. We're experienced donkey hikers, so we thought we'd do a 5-day trip and we'd do a few more miles each day. Kein Problem.

So, we emailed the same guy (Pascal) and said we want the same donkeys and could he arrange another trip for us? Of course, he could.

So, we packed up our bags.

Isn't our luggage fancy? Seriously. We do own suitcases, but when we spend every night in a different location, we've discovered the best way to pack is to pack by day. Each bag contains the clothes for the entire family for one day, excluding pajamas. Pajamas go in the "every day" bag, along with extra socks and underwear because even though I was never a Boy Scout, my motto is be prepared. (I did not develop this motto until one day, in Turkey, we discovered that no one in the family had clean socks or underwear for the last day because someone--not saying who--miscounted.)

And we hopped on an EasyJet flight and headed to Montpellier France. My husband said, "you get the bags while I go start on the rental car." Now, this may sound like he's shirking his bag getting duties, but we've been to this airport before and the process of picking up a rental car involves selling organs or something. I don't know what. In fact, I had collected all the bags and come out to the rental car place and he was still talking to the woman at the counter. (He speaks French, so it wasn't a language issue.) We waited 15 additional minutes.

When he was finally done, I said, "Was there a long line?"

"No," he said. "No line."

Apparently, renting a car in France is more difficult than in the rest of the world. 

We had two days before we needed to be with our donkeys, so we did the only rational thing we could do--visit Andorra. Why? Because we could. Except, it was probably a bad idea because you know where Andorra is? In the mountains, that's where. And you know what it takes to get up into the mountains? Miles and miles (or in our case, kilometers and kilometers) of windy roads where we all felt like we would hurl.

We didn't, though, and Andorra was really awesome. Except for our hotel room. 

Daniel is demonstrating his dislike of cheap hotel rooms. And by cheap I mean terribly expensive but cheaper than everyplace else. Note those pillows across the top--this is just one pillow per bed. Bizarre. The Wifi didn't work either. Seriously people, let's talk about the needs of civilized people like me: Wifi is at the base of the Maslow hierarchy of needs.

We did some Geocaching
(technically, this picture may be in Spain, I don't remember. Sue me.)

And we saw these really weird statues. There were probably 5 of these weird plastic men in various poses on platforms. There is also a geocache very close to where this picture was taken, but we didn't actually find it. Frustrating and maybe we'll have to go back to Andorra, but only in a helicopter, because those roads were so windy.

We left Andorra and headed back to France, through Spain. We stopped in this cool little town called Saga, which had a wonderful church and cemetery and a geo cache. 
Sarah refused to get out of the car to come see this church.

This is a monument on the side of the road. Super cool, although my picture isn't. Let's just say selfies aren't my forte.

We were headed to Gruissan France, which we chose because it was only about 90 minutes from the donkeys and was near the ocean.

The castle ruins were a surprise, but awesome.

We stayed in a very cool house we found on Airbnb, but I forgot to take pictures of it. Sometimes I'm not that fabulous. The house was very cool and had 3 bedrooms, so each kid got their own room. Yay! No "Mom, he's touching me!" or "She's snoring on purpose!" Also, it had wi-fi. See, civilized. It was really the last time on our trip that I had real, honest, speedy internet service. Sob. 

We got up Monday  morning bright and early and headed to the donkeys. Pascal and his wife were happy to see us. The donkeys, however, were not. We had requested the same donkeys as last year, but Romeo was in a bad mood. This bad mood persisted all week. 

Note: When they say, "your donkey is being a real ass this morning," you should request a new donkey.

We are not that bright, so we did not. Also, they did not say that directly because they were speaking French and there isn't a funny word for Donkey in French that makes us giggle because we're, like 12. But they did note that Romeo was in a bad mood.

This is what Romeo looks like in a bad mood. Incidentally, this is also what Romeo looks like in a good mood. Donkeys don't really change their appearance much when they are cranky. They just kick and walk away.

We packed up our big German army surplus bags, loaded our donkeys and headed off. So far, so good. 

It was awesome. The donkeys were a bit stubborn, but the path was great and Gaspard wasn't sticking his nose in my behind like he did last year. (We requested the same donkeys, why?) We did run into a small problem about 5 kilometers in--a downed tree. Through our great donkey skills, we were able to get the donkeys over the tree and continue on our way.

On our path, Pascal had informed us that we would pass through the yard of a Dutchman who was living in an old train station. Pascal had emailed him the night before to let him know we would be passing through. He and his friend met us and invited us to sit down and drink wine. We turned down the wine in favor of bubble water.

We stayed talking with them for an hour. Fascinating conversation--especially the part where he told us that he had been kidnaped as a reporter in Libya. "I wasn't worried," he said, "they treated me very well." I don't think I'd ever describe an experience being kidnaped along with the words "not" and "worried" in the same paragraph. I guess is why I write stories about how to make your boss happy and not about dictators.

Then we headed on the rest of our way to our first stop, Camplong. Day number 1 was a piece of cake--9 kilometers on very easy trail. We were all like, "dude, we got this!" 

We were the only guests in the Camplong Gite, although it had beds for 16. This is awesome, as we're really not friendly. 

Dinner was at the restaurant across the street, which had an awesome vending machine.
Yes, you could buy canned goods from a vending machine. 1 Euro each. It looked like people actually bought them. Which kind of makes sense, since shopping options were somewhat limited in Camplong.

Day two, we headed out and up. Our hike for day 2 was 16.5 kilometers, 3/4 of which was up hill. This was not steep uphill and the path was wide and relatively smooth. The weather was great. It was lovely. Again, we thought, "Aren't we glad we went donkey  hiking?"
It was our 15th wedding anniversary, so I convinced Jason to take this high-class picture to celebrate. "Don't put that on Facebook," he said. "No problem," I said.

Our second night was in a Gite in Servies. Servies was even smaller than Camplong. It had no stores, but the woman who ran the Gite and made our dinner (which was fabulous traditional Servies chicken) brought along a friend who spoke German to translate for me. Wasn't that nice? We had a conversation in bad German translated into French. The "translator" really only knew one preposition in German--gegen--which he used for just about everything. Messages got across though. All was well.

This was our Gite. Isn't it awesome? We loved it, and by we I mean everyone but Jason who, it turns out, was allergic to something in the Gite. But the rest of us loved it.

Day 3, we headed out to what turned out to be a very unpleasant day.

Okay, that's a bit of a lie. The day itself was mostly pleasant. We ran into a group of old French people who were repainting the trail signs. They were delightful and we thought, "what a fun thing to volunteer to do! Go out with your friends and refresh all the arrows on trees and rocks!" 

Then we went up a really steep hill which about killed my knee, but we  made it, and to our joy, at the top I remembered I had chocolate in my bag, so we ate the chocolate and were refreshed enough to go on. At 10k, we stopped for lunch. 

The donkeys like people food. When you're eating, they come up like this: 
It's kind of disconcerting.

The rest of the trail was mild up and down, but not too tough, which was good because our journey was 19 kilometers. This, in case you don't know, is a long, long way. My feet really hurt. But no bother, we were the DONKEY MASTERS! Who cared that Romeo was crabby and Gaspard was rebellious? We were doing great! 

We arrived in Fargairolles and the wonderful woman there had made the best food, ever. Now, granted, when you've just hiked 19 kilometers, anything tastes good, but her food was the best. Pork chops, potatoes with cheese and rosemary, salad, bread, and apple cake for dessert. It was a great meal.

But, after dinner we needed to go brush the donkeys. Jason was extra tired because he'd gone geo caching after we arrived in Fargairolles, so I said I'd take the kids to brush the donkeys. Now, ideally, you'd brush them right after you took off their saddles, but we hadn't because they were cranky and wouldn't stand still.

Cranky donkeys, in my humble opinion, don't deserve to be brushed. (This is why I am not an animal person--I know they  need to be brushed, regardless of their attitude.)  Because they were in their pen, they didn't have their little face harnesses or ropes on. No problem, right?

Wrong. When I opened the gate, they pushed past us and escaped. 

Not a big deal. They are untethered all the time. Sarah said, "Let's put on Romeo's face thingy and Gaspard will just follow back to the pen." This was sound logic. Gaspard always follows Romeo. So, I put a rope on Romeo and led him back to his pen. The problem was, Gaspard didn't follow. 

So, I handed Romeo's rope to Sarah and went to get Gaspard, who did not have a rope. Gaspard is brighter than he looks and knew I had no power over him. Romeo, seeing his chance, ran and Sarah isn't strong enough to hold a donkey who doesn't wish to be held. (No one is, really.) 

And thus began our adventurous evening. At first, we figured, "Oh, let them have their fun," but then it stopped being funny. Any time I would get close, they would run. Sarah went to go get Jason and he came out, without a jacket. This was a bad idea.

We tried to corner them from two separate sides, but we were outsmarted by a couple of asses. By now it was almost dark. I ran back to get my phone and call Pascal to ask for advice. Pascal, fortunately, speaks German, so I was able to communicate. He said, "It's dark, so just let them go. They'll come back in the morning and if not, I'll send my friend to get them."

But, by this time, Jason had chased them a good kilometer away and had caught them. And by them, I mean Romeo because Gaspard had  no face mask thingy or rope. 

He was able to lead them back, but not until an unhappy French person wanted to know why Jason had his donkeys in the middle of his field in the middle of the night. This is not a conversation we ever expected to have. 

This is what two naughty donkeys look like after they've been captured. Dumb asses.

You'll notice that Gaspard still doesn't have his face thing and that is because in all the excitement, Daniel dropped it and his rope in the middle of a field. In the dark. A large field. In France. Did I mention we were in France?

Fortunately, we found the rope and the next day could begin.

It would be nice if day 4 had been awesome, but if I had been able to walk faster I might have caught up to Jason and murdered him for making me come on this stupid hike. I'd walked 39,000 steps the day before (32,000 for the 19-kilometer hike and an additional 7000 steps trying to capture the donkeys) so by 8 kilometers in on day 4, my feet were on fire.

Our path was rocky and narrow and not well marked and climbed and climbed and we kept getting lost, which required turning around, except there wasn't a lot of room, which mean that Gaspard had to go first and HE DID NOT WANT TO GO FIRST. Gah.

This is the a good part of the trail.

Note how smooth and clear the path is.

All this to get to a town called Douche. 

And yes, we were amused by that, or rather I would have been if the trail hadn't have been so awful. Daniel and Sarah wanted to know why that was so funny to us, and someone (read: not me) ended up telling them about that horrible Summer's Eve commercial. 

We arrived in Douche and I was so exhausted that I couldn't be angry. Especially when we met Drunk Uncle Tony (shortened to Drunkle Tony). Okay, he was not drunk, our uncle, nor named Tony, but he looked like Uncle Tony would look if he were French. He was not drunk when we met him, but since wine was part of our food package and we don't drink, we told him to feel free. So, he did.

Drunkle Tony had been hired by Pascal to make our food and he was fabulous. The food was amazing. Then Drunkle Tony discovered a 5 liter box of wine, in addition to the bottle that had been procured for us. He was very happy. He sang. He told stories (in French, of course), and was very happy. Several other couples were staying in the Gite, but they were making their own food. They were jealous of us, because Drunkle Tony's food was so awesome, but the entertainment was for all.

We went to bed around 9:00 and at 11:00 we were awakened by the fire alarm. Drunkle Tony had made good use of the box of wine and spilled oil on the stove, waking everyone.

Except Daniel. He didn't even move. Like, I went to check if he was still breathing because the fire alarm was blaring and Daniel was sleeping like the dead.

Drunkle Tony was back for breakfast. He still had a sparkling personality, but a bit of a hangover. Understandable.

While I finished packing up, Jason went to go get the donkeys. Turns out, Romeo and Gaspard had jumped--yes jumped--over the fence and escaped. Now, they hadn't gone far, just right on the other side of the fence as if to say, "we can do whatever we want and you can't stop us." Jason was able to lure them back with crinkly paper (they like candy), but their point was made. We were powerless against the donkeys.

Then Jason informed me that our path today involved going back on the last three kilometers of rocky, steep hell that we had done yesterday--except this time we would be going downhill.

You know, at this point, donkey hiking was feeling somewhat like childbirth. You know how when you decide to have a baby you think, "this is such a great idea!" But you're not thinking, "this baby has to come out, one way or another, and none of the options are pleasant." Donkey hiking was like that. It's a great idea! It's good exercise! It's family bonding time! And then the path turns into a rocky steep; mess and the donkeys are stubborn and the people are turning cranky and you just have to keep going. And, unlike childbirth, you can't even call an anesthesiologist to dull the pain. No, you just have to keep going.

I was a bit crabby by this point.

But, off we went! Down the wrong path--but, fortunately, Drunkle Tony spotted us on the wrong path and redirected us, so we only lost about 5 minutes.

Things were going well. Our feet hurt, but the sun was shining. The weather was pleasant. And, importantly, we were on the home stretch. 

The trail remained rocky and narrow, and you would think it couldn't get worse--there was a sheer dropoff on one side and mountain on the other. Falling would have been deadly. Then we came to another downed tree.

Do you think a donkey could climb over that? Well, if you do, you're not an experienced donkey hiker like we are. The donkeys were never getting over that. 

Which means we had to go around. Except there was a steep drop-off on one side and mountain on the other, remember? Gah. 

Jason, here, should earn his donkey hiker expert certificate. He guided Romeo up and around the tree and then to a point where Romeo needed to jump off a 4-foot ledge and land on a 3-foot wide path. With Jason yanking on Romeo's rope and me pushing on Romeo's behind, we got him down.

That is what they had to jump down. After Romeo went, we thought Gaspard would go with no problems, because he always follows Romeo except when he's being rebellious and running away.

Well, Gaspard took one look at that and said, "No way on earth am I doing that."

He was serious as well. We couldn't get Romeo back up that 4 foot jump. We couldn't get Gaspard down it. We were starting to think that our only option was to decide just to set up a home right there, because weren't going forward and there was no way I was going to back up that hill to Douche. 

So, with a lot of pushing, pulling, begging and praying, we pushed Gaspard off the edge. This did not improve Gaspard's mood, but we survived it. 

Sarah and Daniel just easily scrambled up over the tree. Proof that kids are better than donkeys.

A short while later, Sarah announced she needed to fix the bandages on her feet. I didn't mention (but I should have) that while all of us had blisters on our feet, Sarah's feet were a total mess.

This is partly bad luck and partly because she didn't listen to her mother and pack two pairs of shoes. On the journey to Douche Daniel had fallen into a hidden stream (it was covered by leaves) and gotten soaked. Because I had the emergency backup socks and shoes and extra undies for him, we were able to change his clothing and he continued to hike in dry shoes. Sarah didn't learn from her brother and stepped in the same stream. But, she had no extra shoes. Extra dry socks don't help much with wet shoes. So, she had had to hike the last 5 kilometers in wet shoes, shredding her feet.

Her shoes had dried out overnight, but the damage was done.\

We had an awesome first aid kit, so we were able to bandage her feet pretty well, but because we forgot to pack the anesthesiologist, we couldn't completely do away with the pain.

This was the view I had while working on Sarah's feet. Pretty, right?

The foot doctoring took about 40 minutes, in which Jason fed an entire pound of sugar cubes to the donkeys to get them to stay still. They didn't want to be on that trail any more than we did, and Gaspard still wasn't speaking to us after we pushed him down that cliff.

We finally made it off the rocky, narrow path and onto a beautiful paved road. 

Beautiful, right? It was. Gorgeous. And the trail was easy and there were all these happy French families doing their lovely day hiking, and we should have gone slowly and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings and the ease of the trail. But, we didn't. No. We were spent. We were tired. We wanted to get to the end. So, we walked very quickly--we managed to do one kilometer in a record-setting 9 minutes 52 seconds (during the steep, rocky parts, we were doing 30 minute kilometers, and on reasonable trail we were between 15 and 20 minutes per kilometer). 

This is the type of trail you can just fly down.

As we got into the village where we were to meet Pascal, who popped out of a local restaurant, but Drunkle Tony! We were happy to see him again. We were even happier to see Pascal.

And then a strange thing happened. We were like,  "This was awesome! We were amazing! We hiked 72 kilometers on really difficult trails and we survived. Let's do this again next year!"

Because, like child birth, when you finish you've got an adrenalin rush and you forget that it was totally painful. Except when you stand up and your feet scream at you.

We told Pascal about the downed tree on the last day's path and the harrowing time getting his donkeys down, thinking he would want to tell his next group of hikers not to take that path. Instead he said, "Oh someone from the government will fix that eventually." Clearly, far more relaxed about it than we were. 

So, we're going to go donkey hiking next spring, but with different donkeys and on a path that's not quite so difficult. We're thinking Portugal. We'll miss you, Romeo and Gaspard.