Once we got back from Paris, our 10 lazy days were supposed to begin. After retreats we usually get some time to chill out and for most of the Sangha, it’s the end of a long lineup that began in Spring and kept us busy until now. We’ve been hearing rumors of a trip to the Pyrenees for awhile now, but after getting back to Upper Hamlet and resting for a few days, there still wasn’t much in the way of concrete details. Then Thay Phap Luu emerged from the finance office, rays of divine light beaming from his brow. Hand in hand with the Buddha, he wrote the details for our trip on the white board: hiking and hot springs in the Pyrenees!
Up until this point I was entertaining the idea of staying home… foolishly. Once I saw the sign-up sheet I was one of the first on board, and true to form the Sangha lifted its majestic head last Sunday and began to fill vans with backpacks, cooking equipment, and various produce. The community is a bit like a blind elephant and the fact that anything ever gets done around here takes rank amongst the highest and most beautiful miracles of life. In this case, Thay Phap Luu gave a few skillful prods and the brothers followed spectacularly. By 9am we had all the luggage in the vans and enough food packed to keep our twenty-two brothers fed for six weeks. We’d booked a refuge so camping wasn’t a concern.
Our convoy of vans stopped only three times. First, to buy bread, fruit, and contraband (cheese and yogurt). Then we stopped for a toilet break within sight of the Pyrenees. After crossing the beautiful, winding pass and sliding down the Spanish side of the mountains, rocks and grass and cattle, we began to swing east and on progressively smaller roads, close to our destination. Our final stop was initiated when the rear guard swerved wildly in the distance and apparently abandoned the group. Phap Tai, our driver, ignored the missing van with impeccable composure. “They know what direction we’re going”. Eventually they were spotted again, but now someone was waving a neon-yellow safety vest out the window. Our three vans cluttered the shoulder, monks disembarked, and the situation was discussed. Pham Hanh’s van was running low on gas, dangerously low, he felt. The sentiment wasn’t shared by our fearless leader or our lead driver. While half of the Sangha emptied their bladders into the alpine brush, a curious ritual of Plum Village diplomacy was enacted yet again. Pham Hanh’s agitated arguments were more or less ignored, discussion on the subject trailed off, and then, as if this happy stop was just a bathroom break, we all climbed back into the vans and continued on our way.
The final stretch into the Bujaruelo valley was a well kept dirt road. Here we were stopped by a group of ganaderos bringing a group of cattle down the mountain. We pulled up to the refuge and wandered over to the stream, spanned by a beautiful stone bridge. We skipped rocks as cattle continued to slosh across the river and down the mountain. The water was clear and the stones were big and smooth, good skipping rocks.
The refuge was fantastic and I didn’t take any pictures. Most of us slept in the attic dormitory, eighteen dudes in one room for five days. It stank pretty bad up there. Also we pretty much completely seized control of the common spaces. The kitchen shelves, floor, and tables were packed with all of our food, cookware, and propane tanks. It turns out these places in the Spanish Pyrenees have beautiful traditional hearths, which allowed us to cook indoors with all of our camping gear. The center of the second story was a square room, benches on three sides and the fourth side open to the dining area. The walls and floor were black, and in the center was a raised platform for building a fire or, in our case, using propane burners. The walls of the room tapered as they rose, eventually becoming the chimney. Looking up, we could see the light of day coming through the vent above.
The following day was our first hiking day. Thay Phap Luu spent lots of time examining the molded plastic map of the mountains on the wall. It didn’t have any trail information, but at least you could get an idea of the terrain in no time flat. We were going to take a gentle hike up one of the valleys as a kind of lazy warm up. Leaving the refuge at the crack of 10:30, clad mostly in tennis shoes, we sent a message to all we passed that said, “We’re not just monks, we’re serious hikers.”
I borrowed the Online Monastery’s DSLR, so I was a big hit with a few of the brothers who liked to have their pictures taken. Winners of the vanity awards were Thay Phap Dang, Thay Phap Chinh, and Thay Phap Ton. Our path took us up, through the woods and into a meadow valley, heavily grazed by cattle. We took a break while Phap Luu charted our course, and saw a marmot. It was too far away for me to really get a picture, and size estimates varied from “dog sized” to “bear sized!”. We may never know.
Having hiked for a few hours, it was clear that there was a wide range of hiking ability and disposition, in some cases made worse by lack of proper footwear. Thay Phap Ton, ever happy to practice his fledgling English vocabulary, proclaimed that anyone who wasn’t tired within the first two hours was a “Very Robust monk!” Others preferred to meander, enjoying the view and, I would assume, a lot of solitude, the rest of the Sangha leaving them miles behind. Occasionally we’d have a head count and end up somewhere close to twenty-two.
After our break we went up the North branch of the valley, eventually settling down near a stream for lunch. Tuy Niem and I took an alternate route, which took us high above the rest of the Sangha and eventually deposited us on the opposite side of the river. While we were unpacking our food, Pham Hanh came over and in a combination of motherly care and urban naivety he warned us not to try to cross the stream. “It’s too deep, the current is too fast!” It was halfway through my meal that I actually looked at the water, crystal clear and eighteen inches deep. After lunch we splashed our way upstream to a waterfall and a beautiful pool, deep enough to jump into. Man Trung jumped in as well. The water was cold but refreshing, and I felt great afterwards. Phap Tai followed and then Pham Hanh, now convinced of the relative safety.
After sunning on the rocks, we packed it in. The walk home was a lazy stroll, punctuated by bits of Celtic herb-lore from Dai Tue and Phap Tai’s speculations on how frequent exposure to very cold water might complement the practice of celibacy. Next up is Ordesa Valley, rock climbing, and the importance of a tea party.
I also put a bunch of photos up on Google+ if anyone is interested.