In the last week of September, twenty-two monks piled into vans for a trip to the Spanish Pyrenees. We had just gotten back from the public talk in Paris, and for a lot of people this was going to be the first real break since May. Thay Phap Luu used to live in a mountain village over there, so he knew enough about the area to plan a pretty kickin trip. After five hours of driving, we unpacked our gear at the mountain refuge of Bujaruelo.
This whole chunk of Los Pireneos is a national park, some of it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and indeed if it weren’t for the roads, trails, and high-tension power lines, we could have imagined ourselves crossing these mountains in the days of yore. Well, also there were the cows. I guess when they made the area a park, they added the stipulation that ganaderos would always be able to drive their cattle up the hills to graze. Every morning we’d wake up to the cows and their cowbells “going ding-dang-dong” all over the hillside, as Dai Tue put it. We found them to be docile if not affectionate friends on the path.
We hiked for four days and the weather was mostly cooperative. A few nights it rained, which made the local people happy and charged the streams and waterfalls, making us happy in turn. The area is known for beautiful cascades, but the dry summer left most of them dusty beds until our first night in town. We got lucky.
Two of the days we spent in the low valleys, plodding up in a group that couldn’t quite keep form. Not everyone had real shoes for hiking, and some people enjoyed a more vigorous pace. Then there were all the brothers who insisted on bringing large quantities of hot water along so that we’d be able to have a tea party. My Pacific Northwest hiking background tells me this is nonsense, but I wasn’t complaining when I had a cup of oolong in the beautiful Ordesa Valley. Monks will be monks after.
The third day yawned with morning rain, and most of the brothers opted to stay in. Nine heroes set forth for to visit Thay Phap Luu’s old abode, a beautiful old village that’s been abandoned for almost one hundred years. As the clouds dissolved, we saw that the mountains had been dusted with the first snow of the season. There are a few people still living up in that village, and we broke bread with one of them. A gracious host and skilled gardener, Pepe treated us like royalty. He and Phap Luu had met briefly in the late nineties.
The fourth day was most ambitious. We’d cross over to the French side, then climb to a refuge just below the Breche de Roland, a beautiful, open door between the French and Spanish Pyrenees. Legend has it that Roland smashed it open with his sword while fending off the Moors. We were to climb the 1500 meters with mostly tennis shoes. This was tricky hiking over the ice and snow. Passers by, we noted, were equipped with poles, cleated shoes, ice picks, and Lord knows what else in their fancy backpacks. Most of the brothers were content to rest in the refuge when we arrived, but six or seven of us pressed on to the Breche, and we were rewarded with a spectacular view.
We finished up the trip with a meandering return that took us through Pamplona, San Sebastian, and included a much needed stop at some natural hot springs. Now we’re back and swinging into gear for the Autumn retreat. Leaves are falling and the wind is blowing. The big annual monastic move is coming up, which is where we all shuffle rooms. Change is happening, people!
-Troi Bieu Hien