Mountain Air, Fall Colors & Joy
We went on a road trip, or rather a drive
Into the mountains, and through the clouds
To search for colors, and calm the mind
(Nina Fussing, Oct 2020)
It seems so long ago since we lived and traveled freely throughout the land in our RV, and I can’t deny that I miss it terribly. This part of the year I feel it most keenly, perhaps because fall was always my most favorite travel time. It’s after the summer madness so crowds disperse, and travel is easier and more relaxed. Plus it’s a time of particular beauty and change, with a freshness in the air that both invigorates and clears the mind. There’s something quite magical about autumn.
But we live in a different time & place now…
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Every part of life has a season much like nature, with changes that occur both naturally and beyond our control. Sometimes those changes are welcome and planned, and even work out exactly or better than we expected. Those are some of the best moments in life, where we coast along on a wave of seemingly perfect harmony with the world. You need to seize and savor those times.
Often however, our changes take us down paths we could not imagine before we embarked on them. These are not necessarily bad moments, just unexpected ones with changes that may challenge us mentally or physically, and perhaps even oppose our very nature. The latter can lead through very hard times, but also create great growth in our lives. They are the basis upon which we become stronger, if we can weather them. And the rest is up to us.
For in the end, most of joy in life is really just a mental game….
As you can see I’ve been thinking a lot about the mental aspect of life this past week. Your comments on my previous blog post were a big part of this, and of course 2020 in general. I know that we are extremely lucky in so many ways, all of us that are safe, and have food and shelter and the ability to live as we do. But I also know that the mental game can be a precarious one, regardless of circumstance. The best thing we can do for ourselves is find those moments that bring us joy, and joy to those around us.
This week, that joy for me was a trip into the mountains, up above the clouds where the air is thin and the trees have changed. And that one trip changed my perspective made me think ” What a glorious time to be alive….”
The topic of today’s post, and perhaps something for you too…
We are very lucky in that we live close to an incredible chain of mountains called the Pyrénées . I’ve talked about them before on the blog, but I’ll touch a bit more on them here.
The Pyrénées are a ~491 km (~305 mi) long mountain chain that separates France & Spain. They run approximately West to East, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean, and were created as a result of the collision between the Iberian plate and the southwestern promontory of the European Plate during the Paleogene (Eocene/Oligocene) era roughly 55 to 25 million years ago.
In other words, they’ve got some good bones….
The are not the highest mountains in Europe (the Alps are higher, and the highest of all is actually Mount Elbrus on the border with Russia), but they are nonetheless quite majestic rising up to 3,404 metres (11,168 ft) at peak of Aneto, on the Spanish side. They are crisscrossed by endless hiking trails, dozens of ski resorts and several natural parks.
The modern border between France and Spain, established ~1659 is marked by 602 stone cairns that are placed roughly along the ridge of the mountain chain. It has a few notable breaks, including a teeny little Spanish enclave (Llívia) that lies entirely in French territory, and the high-mountain nation of Andorra which incidentally is not part of the EU. The latter is a prosperous little place that relies mostly on tourism from folks in Spain & France who go there for recreation and duty-free shopping (cheap gin, anyone?).
For us of course, it’s the wildest part the mountains that attracts us most. And for that we are spoiled for choice.
The Pyrénées boast over 2,500 mountain lakes and thousands of miles of hiking trails, linked together by hundreds of refuges and cabanes (which are basically free or low-cost shelters to stop and rest). In our younger days, or rather in Polly’s younger days, we’d be hiking many of these trails. But now our dear doggie is a smidgen too old for more than a few miles at a time, and since we rarely go anywhere without her we tend to focus on driving & shorter walks closer to the road instead.
It’s just the phase of life we’re in at the moment.
Either way, we’re very lucky to be living so close to such a gorgeous mountain chain.
Fall, Or Rather Autumn Is Starting
Now is an especially wonderful time. The switch from summer to fall is always a dramatic one, in France as well as everywhere else.
Leaves shed their green chlorophyll and reveal their true colors, brilliant hues of yellow and orange (carotenoids), or even red (anthocyanins), depending on the species. It’s nature’s ultimate strip-tease and if you’re a leaf-chaser it’s a fabulous time, although catching the exact peak of color can be hard to achieve. In the US there are websites that track the leaf change, but in France, at least to my knowledge, there is no such thing. Plus the leaf change here is often more subtle, simply because of the types of forests (older growth) that we have. So there’s some guess-work involved and rather a bit of luck too.
Nonetheless, the basics of the process remain the same, with leaves changing at higher altitudes first, followed by a cascade that descends down the mountain flanks to the valleys several weeks later. In other words, once we start to see the change at our house, we can kinda guess that it’s gonna be much more dramatic up high.
So We Went For A Drive
This week we saw our first change, a touch of yellow on the tree in front of the house, and a whisper of red down below. So we plotted and planned, perusing Google maps & a few French hiking websites.
In the end I settled on a lake up above Foix, a lovely town guarded by a dramatic hilltop chateaux (we went hiking there with Polly a few years ago) just ~1/2 hour south of us, and the gateway to the Pyrénées. For biking enthusiasts, especially those of you that follow Tour de France, this is where the juicy stuff starts. Veer off the main highway and you’re immediately on small backcountry roads that wind dramatically into the mountains. Many of the cols (passes) around here are legendary, and high enough that they have to close when it snows in winter. On clear days they are adventures in nature where you can see for miles around.
In our case we followed D8/D18 past some interesting-looking prehistoric caves (Grottes de Niaux), some very enthusiastic para-gliders (apparently quite a popular activity around here), and high above the clouds to Étang de Lers at ~1,264m (4,147 ft).
The drive was gorgeous, and the scenery changed at every turn. As the road wound its way upwards, our horizon expanded and the trees switched from green to light shades of yellow, onto a full-blown explosion of vibrant fall colors. We stopped at the lake and stepped out to reflections of color and absolute….high-mountain….silence.
How utterly glorious!
We whiled away a few hours thereafter just hanging out, walking around the lake, taking pics, eating lunch and soaking in the atmosphere. It was soul-enriching stuff.
I was in the mountains, lost in the wilderness, soaring above the earth like an eagle and blending into the colors before me like the canvas of an oil painter. My mind stretched and sprung back again, breathing deeply in synch with the clouds passing by and the spring of marshy earth beneath my shoes. It was calming, centering and utterly soothing. I realize those are dramatic thoughts for someone just walking around a lake, but this is how I feel when I travel in nature.
I need to remind myself of this often….especially in 2020.
By the time we got back home I felt cleansed, my mind released of cloud much like the trees themselves releasing their green of summer. Perhaps this phase of life, as unexpected as it is and different as it has become, is not so bad after all.
My dear blog readers, you gave me food for thought last week so this week here is something for you. I challenge you to go somewhere new this week, even if it’s just a few miles away. Get into nature if you can, find that place that brings you peace, and then come back here and tell me about it. If you already have that spot, tell me about that too. Let’s share those moments of joy, together.SPONSORED LINK:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Diana and Jim says
So beautiful, Nina! The autumn colors draped like a shawl over the mountains are wonderful.
Our excursion this week was not far…less than 100 yards. But what a discovery we made! Our property is mostly maples and Eastern White Pine, and it is adjacent to woods on two sides. We walked the property behind ours which features a deep glacial ravine. In it we found giant stumps from the old growth forest that once covered Michigan, along with some 80 to 100 foot tall Eastern Hemlock trees. We had no idea they were there. They are stunning!
How wonderful! Sometimes the best discoveries are just around the corner. Thanks for sharing.
DC Stultz says
I love your pictures and prose! And, I love the Pyrenees and especially Andorra. I laughed at your Andorra low cost booze costs comment. Back in 1967-68 when I was working at Sud Aviation in Toulouse, I used to make booze runs to Andorra. A fifth of Cutty Sark scotch was all of $2 then. I suspect the prices are a bit higher now.
Folks still make liquor runs to Andorra. Can’t quite get $2 scotch anymore, but I hear the prices are still very good. One day I’ll give it a go, even if just for the scenic drive to get up there.
Kris Sullivan says
Great post! Thinking of nature, even if our going to it was in the past, is a way to find solace. Next Friday, we plan to go to our condo in Mammoth Lakes where the Fall color should be at its peak.
Fall is my favorite season, too! I said “plan to go” since there are still fires to the west and some days are too hazy to hike or do anything outside. We’re hoping it’ll clear up by the end of the week.
Mammoth Lakes has the BEST fall colors I’ve ever seen. We were so lucky that a friend of ours (Lauren) invited us to see them one year. If you’re interested this is the post I did on that:
Terri A Reed says
That picnic table and lake and mountain of colorful trees is gorgeous!! I’ll go to sleep with that image in my mind, thank you 🙂
Happy that I could give you a soothing image for the day 🙂 Sweet dreams.
Eva Towner says
Nina. your Sunday blogs are a real treat for us, especially now, as my father retired to Montesquieu, near Perpignan from Denmark and we visited often. You stories make me wish we could just hop on a plane!
Greetings from a very wet southern Vancouver Island.
Marquita Graves says
I think the flowers are autumn crocuses; if so, they are a source of saffron.
Polly pics. Like, like, LIKE!
Kim R says
Love your mountain adventures, Nina and Paul! I live in southern Minnesota so we don’t have mountains, but the fall colors are spectacular this year!
We live near Minneopa State Park where there is a beautiful waterfall (kind of dry now so not much water), bison roaming area (fenced off from the rest of the park), old windmill from the 1800’s and lots of trees/nature to enjoy here in the heartland/farm country. It’s nice to have a place like this so close to home instead of traveling to the North Shore/Lake Superior/Duluth area for such beauty – which we do quite often 🙂
We also purchased a cabin on a lake in northern Minnesota this fall and the solitude and clear lakes in that area are something we absolutely love and are looking forward to experiencing for many years to come.
Suzanne in Maine says
Yesterday was a sunny day in Maine with temps in the mid-70s — probably the last one this year — so we jumped in the truck and took a ride down to Boothbay Harbor to see and smell the ocean. It was a lovely change of scenery. Next weekend we’re heading off for a week at a condo in Vermont, again just for a change of scenery and some new experiences. Vermont and Maine are #1 – #2 for low covid case counts, so I feel we can do this safely. Plus, with two vacations canceled in the spring, we’re getting itchy feet! The Vermont foliage will probably be a bit past peak, but, as my dad used to say, “we’ll find a keg of nails to open up somewhere.” (Meaning, we’ll find some fun.).
Beautiful shots of the Pyrenees. One of my bucket list trips is to visit all the tiny nations and principalities in Europe, like Andorra, Liechtenstein, etc. Planning such a trip will be a good winter activity!
Best to you and Paul, and Polly, and your dad.
Joanna T says
What beautiful pictures on your little getaway, Nina! I moved to Arizona in early 1980s, but having grown up in the New England state of Connecticut, I still miss the autumn foliage and all the glorious colors. Last fall we got to experience the very early stages of color change during our Canada/New England cruise. Next week my husband and I plan to drive to the eastern part of AZ in the White Mountains mainly just to getaway, a change of scenery and hopefully the aspens may still have a few leaves left, and cooler temperatures! In the Phoenix valley area we’ve broken so many hot temp records this summer and just this week finally below 100, but barely. At least the mornings are nice and cool in 60s, but up in Pinetop next week will probably be in the 40s and looking forward to walking by the lake and the Mogollom Rim area; so tired of being cooped up during the hot summer. Of course like many other areas in the US we certainly need rain. They are forecasting El Nina for this winter, meaning warmer and drier than normal conditions, which will really hurt us since we also didn’t get much rain from the summer monsoon season. Take care. Enjoy reading your blogs!
I enjoy your post so much. Love your photos and your stories. Hugs to Polly!
I’m so glad you three got out for a ride. It’s always so rejuvenating for me, especially with that spectacular and serene scenery. I’m also glad you found your “joy” again. We’re very lucky, we know it, but sometimes it’s hard to feel it.
I love that you have one of the beautiful Autumn Crocus there. When I first saw them, I was astonished. They were on a piece of property we bought. We never noticed any flowers under a particular tree, just the normal grass and weeds. Then, in the fall, those beautiful spring-like flowers appeared with no notice! No foliage coming up to herald the coming blooms, they just appeared – alone. What a sweet gift!
Pamela Wright says
Oh, my, Nina! Your photos are so gorgeous. What a great adventurel Lots of fall colors. The mountains are so spectacular. Glad you three are doing well. You are so right about getting out for a new adventure just to clear your head and leave the troubles behind.