How the hike had changed. In the beginning, my main concern had been: can I do it? Will blisters or sore muscles make it obvious that this idea was simply too ambitious?

That had not happened, although I had come close to giving up after only a few days, with more blisters than I had cared to count.

There is that voice of reason which says, ‘you cannot be expected to do this under these circumstances’… I have come to recognise that voice. It poses as a friend, it has been my life-long friend. But is it?

And then, with feet and legs becoming more and more reliable, the hike had become more about managing the challenges that came with changes in landscape, climate and demographics, or in practical terms: making sure there was always enough water, food and somewhere to spend the night.

There were always challenges.

Looking back over the Col de Crousette and a central part of the Mercantour National Park from about 2600m. The mountains are lower and much drier than they were more to the north.

Like this. In the Mercantour National Park, descending a stony slope where pitching the tent would have been difficult if not impossible, I was hoping to find a level, grassy area at a lower elevation. It had already been a long day and my feet were hurting. There was, indeed, more grass further down, but there were sheep and goats on either side of the trail. Of course.

Signs along the trail had been preparing me for what to do when encountering sheep: don’t cut through a flock, they had repeatedly said, go around it. So I left the trail and began what was meant to be a wide arc.

A dog came to check me out. I did what the same signs had told me to do when this happens: stop, don’t move until the dog is satisfied that you do not pose an immediate threat and then continue without making sudden movements and without making loud noises.

The shepherd came my way. ‘There are no 36000 solutions’, he said with a thick southern accent, adding a few zeros to the original expression. He pointed at the way that lay ahead of me and the sheep on either side. ‘You will have to pick your way through them. Just push them out of the way if you have to, and if the patous bother you, talk to them’.

Patou, I learned later, is a local name for the Great Pyrenean Mountain Dog, also known in the US as Great Pyrenees. They are massive dogs, bigger than, for instance, Newfoundlands but leaner, more agile. Fierce defenders of their flock, they serve to keep wolves at a distance but have, so I read, also been known to attack hikers.

The walking-and-talking thing worked. The sheep parted, the dogs did not bother me. After passing through the flock, there was another slope to descend. Two of the dogs followed me for a while and then disappeared. I thought they had finished ‘escorting me to the exit’, when suddenly, ahead of me and below, I saw the same two dogs, quietly waiting for me to pass. It was eery, I had not seen them run down, they must have cut through the forest. They repeated this a few times, until I really had gone far enough. Apparently. The dogs did not show up again.

There were promising-looking spots to pitch a tent ahead of me, but there was also – another dog. It started barking at me as I approached and there was no other option than to cautiously walk past it, apologising for the inconvenience and promising to keep going. The flock it belonged to was also ahead of me, moving in the same direction that I was going, apparently on their way to a large enclosed area where the animals would be spending the night.

After passing that, there was no more flat terrain for a while. Climbing again, I passed eight chamois that looked at me uneasily but stayed put. Encounters like this are magical and my morale was instantly boosted. Yes, it would be all right, I would find a place to camp. The sun had dropped behind the mountains and there was not a lot of daylight left, but it was going to be OK.

I reached another, higher valley and prepared to find the perfect camping spot which would surely be there, when a familiar sound made me look a bit further ahead and up to the slopes. There was the biggest flock of sheep I had seen so far. They were everywhere. There were also more sheepdogs than I had seen, and they, too, were everywhere. Then the dogs noticed me and sprung into action.

The first ones that approached me looked a lot less willing to give me the benefit of the doubt than the dogs I had come across earlier. One particularly shaggy-looking dog came to within arm’s length and bared its teeth while emitting that throaty sound that implies a canine’s readyness to inflict grievous bodily harm. This coming from an animal that weighed almost as much as I did and had a formidable set of teeth, I did not feel at ease.

The shepherd, meanwhile, came bounding down a slope, so I waited for him to call his dogs. He didn’t and instead began to empty sacks of white stuff in different places around his cabin for the sheep that had begun to approach it from the slopes they had been grazing on. For them, too, the day was coming to an end. I slowly walked his way.

– Attaquer, patous? Nonnnnn… he said cheerfully when I had come close enough. The accent and the lack of grammar made his question sound oddly out of place. Did I detect a gleam of malice in his eye? Probably just my imagination.
– You have a lot of them, I said.
– What, dogs? I nodded. Ten, he said, grinning.

I did not push the conversation any further. I did not ask him about his origins – some mysteries are meant to be left alone. And frankly, there was something about the situation that made me want to move on.

I walked on for a while across what was now a valley floor that looked like it had been savaged by wild boar. Everywhere the eye could see, the top soil had been overturned. When I was sufficiently far away from the last shepherd’s cabin I finally put down my pack and began to prepare for the night.

But.

There was something wrong with the tent. The main pole that runs lengthwise and supports the whole structure – I could not get it to reach the point where it was supposed to hook into an eye. The pole was too long, the tent fabric not long enough, I don’t know, it would not fit. I tried ten times, going back and forth, trying to find out what was wrong. I looked at the sky – there were few clouds. Crawl into a sleeping bag and sleep under the stars? Yes, it could come to that.

Not yet, though. The instructions of the tent had said (yes, I am one of those who read the instructions, call me a nerd): if you find yourself applying force, you are probably doing something wrong. Sound advice, which is true in much more general ways than just in (tent) mechanics. But it wasn’t helping.

This is what the poor thing looks like after a night in below-freezing temperatures. As soon as the sun shines on it, it will regain its brisk, proud appearance. Note how the pole hooks into an eye above the entrance. Note also the state-of-the-art anti-toe-injury system: rocks are more visible than tent pegs.

Something began to dawn. So far, when the tent had dried in direct sunlight, it had been fully pitched. The fabric had tightened but the poles had kept that in check. The last time I had dried it, though, it had hung over two chairs on the balcony of my hotel room in Auron. What if the tent fabric had simply shrunk more than before, and all that was necessary now was to pull with all my might to make the pole and the eye meet?

‘All my might’ worked, just. Reluctantly, the tent allowed itself to be pitched. With a barely audible (or merely imagined?) ‘I thought you’d never!…’, the day shrugged off the last bit of light and allowed night to fall. It fell heavily.

I had bought a small flask of Chartreuse a few days earlier, strong stuff for when an industrial strength pick-me-upper was needed. It did its job, and I slept like something that sleeps well.

The following day also turned out longer than expected. I exited the Mercantour National Park and stopped around lunchtime at the only hotel in a small village with the intention of getting a room and a meal.

‘Do you have a reservation?’ No, I didn’t. ‘We’re full’, the heavyset owner said apologetically from behind the bar. He sighed, it was a hard day. They were expecting a group of eighteen that evening, they had booked long ago. And there had just been two fatal accidents, people were coming from all around for the funerals. He had had to turn them away, too.

So I’ll have lunch and be on my way again, I suggested as a woman who I took to be his wife emerged from the half-empty restaurant. She shook her head: ‘I am not accepting any more people’, she said, ‘we are short on all sorts of ingredients. And we don’t have any bread’. A French meal without bread is not a meal. Without bread, how would you clean your plate of leftover sauce?

No bread, fatal accidents… I was reminded of something I had heard a few days earlier in another village about a motorcycle accident. ‘Ils se tiraient la bourre’ (they were racing), someone had said. ‘The baker’, the man behind the bar nodded. ‘How am I going to get bread? I can’t go back to that schmuck of a baker in this village. He makes me order everything two days in advance. I don’t know what I need two days in advance!’

I carried on. The next village had a hotel, but the reception would not open until very late. There was also a restaurant, which was closed, a grocery store, which was closed, and a café, which supposedly sold snacks and simple meals and which was not closed but no longer had anything to sell except beer and coffee. So I carried on.

In the end, I pitched my tent at an official campsite just outside St Martin Vésubie, a pretty medieval village where thankfully, life was still going on, where I could spend a few days waiting for my friend Laurent to come and see me, and where my poor feet could get some rest before the final days of the hike.

Indeed, in four or five days, I should be able to reach Menton and the Mediterranean.

Laurent came. He had landed at the Nice airport and hired a car to drive to Barcelonette for a week of glider flying, and he took a detour to come and see me. We had not seen each other in about fifteen years and we easily filled a few hours catching up.

St Martin Vésubie

After that: time to move on. I passed several villages but slept outside them. At the Col de Turini, which can be reached by car, there were 13 Porsches, all with Stuttgart plates, in the parking lot of a restaurant. I had just climbed for several hours and was looking forward to a meal. I walked in, saw a single long table with mainly Asian faces, and was told that the entire restaurant had been reserved for this one group, really sorry, they had payed a shitload of money to have the whole place to themselves.

Sospel. Oh yes, villages in the south look very different from the north.

In St Martin Vésubie, looking out the window of a restaurant, something interesting had caught my eye. I had asked the waiter if that was really a grapevine that I saw winding its way up a tree, all the way to the top. The leaves look like that, he had said, and yes! there, I see grapes! He had been working in that restaurant for nine years and never noticed the grapevine in the tree just outside.

I was reminded of that when I found myself developing an interest, somewhat belatedly, in the trees and shrubs I saw during the last few days. Most trees by now were deciduous. At first there had been many chestnuts, then whole forests of oak, and finally a rich mixture of common and less common trees that, as far as I knew, were… trees.

I downloaded a tree identification app made by the French forestry department and slowly learned to distinguish the many aspects of leaves, bark and general build of trees, everything one needs to look at to identify a tree or plant. What had begun as a means to give names to the trees I saw around me evolved into greater awareness of the forest itself, and I marvelled at everything I had not seen before. Or rather: seen, but not noticed. The names no longer mattered much, I was seeing with new eyes what had always been there.

Had it not been for that, those last few days might have been hard. The constant physical effort of climbing and the constant need to be careful when descending, rather than becoming routine, were beginning to weigh on me. Of course, the end was near and it is always the end that is the hardest.

And then there was the last day, the very last one. The day on which my destination was suddenly there, 1100 meters below me. It was not so much the Mediterranean that moved me. After all, in all its beauty, it is a sight I know well. I sailed on it for five months. What moved me was the realisation that I had actually done this. For six weeks, it had been a matter of ‘one day at a time’, and ‘just keep going’, and now, suddenly, this was it, the end. I sat and watched the sea for a long time, while memories came flooding in: memories of places I had seen, people I had met, difficulties overcome, moments of unbridled happiness. Then those memories receded and what remained was this, here and now: sitting in the grass, looking out over this beautiful blue sea, enjoying a beautiful sunny day with bread, sausage and cheese. I finally picked up my backpack and started the last descent.

The one day I spent in Menton was overshadowed by something that I shouldn’t have eaten and that kept me occupied for most of the afternoon. Was it the large amount of fresh fruits I had bought and eaten in the morning? The swordfish I had for lunch?

It couldn’t have been the tiramisù which had followed the swordfish, that had been pure poetry and after many bad approximations of the real thing, it had the power to single-handedly restore my faith in mankind.

Back now in Châtel, in the northern Alps. I had wanted to travel back by train, but it would have taken two days and turned out to be much more expensive than a flight from Nice to Geneva.

What next? Big plans. We have found the car we wanted (a converted Toyota Land Cruiser) for sale in Italy and are in the process of buying it and importing it into France. But don’t tell anyone, not yet. We will have to finalise all that first.

Menton