Refuge

By Richard Lakin

I wish I could escape this damp, grey Monday morning in Lockdown for a place where phones are forgotten in desk drawers, emails bounce to ‘out of office’ and suits are left hanging in wardrobes.

Where our feet cool in mountain streams as we shelter from the blazing sun beneath pines.

Between Zoom meetings I close my eyes and decide I will escape.

We’re high in the French Alps, drowsy with sun and exercise and red wine. As far away from life’s troubles and office politics as we might ever be. 

It’s after supper and when darkness comes it’s sudden and a shock, a black blanket broken only by endless shimmering stars. It is impossible to make out the silhouettes of the Alps, or the winding track we climbed to get here. The light pollution of the Midlands means that at home we never quite escape the glow of streetlamps, headlights on motorways and 24-hour warehouses.

Here there is no glow beyond the mountaintops. Silence might be expected to accompany this total loss of light, but nature refuses to sleep. The white noise of crickets is relentless. We’re in a dorm on the first floor. We’ve got it to ourselves, so we leave the window ajar a fraction and listen in wonder. What is this sense of wellbeing worth? Would it take one hundred hours of hypnotherapy? What drug, mattress and feather pillow could come close to this? 

The Refuge du Tourond sits at an altitude of 1712m and can only be reached on foot. We abandon our black rental Citroen in a layby and see barely a soul as we climb, picking our way past a village with a silent chapel bell and no dog to bark as we pass; these are tiny hamlets that, save for a crumpled Citroen or written-off Renault, haven’t changed since Bonaparte passed this way.

The path steepens and it is blocked here and there by giant boulders the size of cars, that have tumbled from the mountainside. Nature has forced zigzags and tight squeezes between rocks or leaps across bubbling streams for walkers. We pause to rest on a smooth, table-shaped rock beside a steam. The water is cool and glassy, sparkling in the midday sun where it has been held up by a fallen pine trunk large enough to double as a ship’s mast. We cup our hands to splash the crystal spring on our necks and faces and the boys kick and splash, holding onto pine branches to avoid tumbling, for the stream bed is full of fist-sized pebbles.  

A man passes and waves a hand in greeting. We are not to know this yet, but the huge backpack that causes him to lean into the climb and brace his knees as he picks his way between boulders is stuffed with the cheeses, jams, hams and pasta that will be dinner. We climb further and startle a cloud of speckled, ghostly white butterflies from beside the path. A fingerpost points the way – Refuge du Tourond.

The climb flattens and we cross a rocky gully to the Refuge and sign in, dusting off schoolboy French which must sound woeful, but isn’t betrayed by a grin or smirk from our host. We get a dorm all to ourselves before joining English and French families to dine on herby soup and plates heaped with gammon, pasta, spinach, and cheese. Afterwards there is delicious smoky cheese, bread, and blackcurrant and raspberry tart. 

We sit on the balcony and stare at the stars. After the climb and the scorching sun it feels cold and we head back to the dorm goose-pimpled to lie on mattresses and doze like babies, the chatter of the crickets drawing us into sleep.

After a week of adventure where we climbed ropes and trees, kayaked the Lac Du Serre Poncon, and battled the white water of the Severaisse, we simply drift away. We still have the photos and the memories, and I try to recapture this special time more than ever in lockdown. None of us will ever forget. We long to return and don’t even mind if we get to carry the food this time.