Friday, March 02, 2012

Tramping in the Ardennes

Vielsalm, Belgium, March 2, 2012—
WALKING, STROLLING, RAMBLING: those are all very nice. But it occurs to me today that what we're doing here is none of those: it's tramping.

We had a couple of pleasant rambles in Zuid-Limburg with Hans and Anneke, walks of no more than five miles, in a loop beginning and ending in the same place, carrying nothing but our cameras. That's a ramble: an outing whose only purpose is to enjoy the day, the company, the out of doors, the views; the sounds of birds and the brooks; villages; a cup of tea; maybe an unexpected poem out in a pasture.

But yesterday and today we walked with a purpose: to move ourselves and our possessions from one resting-point to another. These trajects are linear. They have purpose. The only thing that redeems that, in my view, is that the purpose is utterly stupid. Today, for example, we walked ten miles, in three hours and forty-three minutes, climbing from 276 to 525 meters and back, much of the time on muddy trails and roads, to get from Stavelot to Vielsalm, when the bus would have got us there in about twenty minutes, for about ten dollars. And my back-pack weighs, I think, about forty pounds!

(I know the walking statistics in detail thanks to a wonderful iPhone app, MotionX-GPS, which records distance, speed, and elevation, and plots the results on a map. You can see the result, for today's trek, at this webpage, at least for the next few months.)

This kind of trekking has become one of my consuming passions. It began, as so many things do, with a chance encounter with a book: Walking Europe Top to Bottom, by Susanna Margolis with Ginger Harmon (Sierra Club Books, 1984).

This book challenged me instantly, and I determined to make the trip, retracing these steps on Europe's Grand Randonée 5 from Hoek van Holland to Nice. I quickly decided to modify the walk, though, substituting a walk on the Pieterpad, through the whole of The Netherlands, Pieterburen in the north to St. Pietersburg near Maastricht in the south, about four hundred miles in all, for the first part of GR5, across Flanders to Maastricht.

We began that walk in 1995, I think it was, Lindsey and I and did the first half that year, returning for the second half a few years later. With Lindsey, and occasionally with friends, or daughters, or both, we've taken other walks in that delightful country, point-to-point walks, carrying only one change of clothing for the evenings, eating picnic lunches, dinners in restaurants, and sleeping in provincial hotels or B&Bs.

All the time I kept thinking of the GR5. Finally I invited a grandson and a friend to join me on its final third, about four hundred miles from Geneva to Nice, an unforgettable four-week walk we took in 2008. (I blogged about it at, and later published a book about the walk, Walking the French Alps)

I felt a little remorse, though, at having skipped the dues you pay, so to speak, for this splendid conclusion to a long-distance trek, and that's why we've been slogging througih mud here in Belgium. Though even here I cheated quite a bit, beginning not at Maastricht but several stages (and kilometers) later, in Spa. The area around Liège just didn't look promising.

Yesterday we walked from Spa to Stavelot. The day began and ended badly: we got lost almost immediately, adding a kilometer and a half — and, worse, a fair amount of elevation lost and regained. The problem was lack of balissage, trail-marking, at a crucial point, where the trail crossed a quick-flowing stream: instead of crossing it, which I now see was the correct maneuver, we walked downhill alongside. By the time I realized the problem it was too late to retrace our path; better to take a parallel path and hope for a cut-across. It worked out, up on top of the hill south of Spa, a hill improbably crowned by an extensive marsh which is in fact the roof of the huge Spa water table.

Things worked out well enough the rest of the day, barring a fall apiece into the mud, thanks to treacherously slippery footing. At day's end, though, we discovered the hotel I'd booked was miles away from the day's endpoint. Fortunately, there was a bus. Unfortunately, the driver forgot to let us off, took us miles too far, then dropped us off to wait for a bus coming back…

Oh well, these things happen. Next morning — this morning —the woman working the hotel gave us a lift into town (Stavelot) and we set out on today's walk, arriving here in good time.

Logistics, logistics. Where to sleep next, and how to be sure the day's walk isn't too long. Tomorrow we'll take a taxi to bypass the first 8 or 9 kilometers; otherwise the day-stages get completely out of sync with the possible sleep-villages. There aren't that many, and much is closed for Lenten holiday.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...


Such energy! Such ambition! Such obsession!

I must be a hedonist not to want such exertions.

I'd rather indulge my senses in less strenuous ways, than in the drudgery of tramping, as you call it.

Word verification: noverbal