Death and Despair: My Hiking Trip in the Calanques National Park in France

During the summer of 2018, a short visit to Paris converted me into an insufferable francophile. It was a magical ten days: I fake-laughed in front of the Eiffel Tower while my newfound traveler friends snapped photos. I tearfully wandered through the Louvre’s Galerie D’Appollon while the 2nd movement of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto piped through my earbuds. My undergraduate French vocabulary was constantly on full display:

Oui.

Merci!

Je ne parle pas les francais—desolee!

As a present to myself for completing my master’s, I decided to return to France during the summer of 2019. My primary reason for returning, aside from wanting to see the Cote D’Azur and eat my weight in macarons, was to go hiking at the Calanques National Park, located just outside of Marseille. Its dramatic limestone cliffs and vivid blue waters lure in thousands upon thousands of unsuspecting fools like myself each year.

Recall the sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey: beautiful, but deadly.

I’d been hiking a few times in the rural areas surrounding Baltimore, and I walked up a lot of stairs every day on my college’s campus, so I figured I was cut out for half a day in the wilderness—not to mention wilderness in one of the poshest corners of the globe. This would be easy, I thought. Just a quick jaunt around a picturesque yacht club. I’d get in a lot of steps and eat some pastries later to celebrate. No big deal.

I scoured AirBnB experiences in Marseille and found a hiking trip targeted at my exact demographic: novice hikers welcome! Anyone age eight and older may attend! I reserved a spot and counted down the days.

Wearing Adidas Sambas, giant hoop earrings, and a Nikon D3400 slung over my shoulder, I arrived at my hiking group’s meeting point. Due to spotty WiFi, it’d taken me an entire hour to call an Uber, and I was forty minutes late. Mercifully, my hiking group didn’t seem too upset that I’d kept them waiting. I was so relieved to have found them that I didn’t mind the monumental age difference between us. I’d expected twenty-somethings in photogenic athletic gear, but instead I found myself paired with three elderly French people who spoke little English. One man did not speak English at all.

The few times I’ve been abroad, I’ve tried to hide the ugly fact that I’m an American. I make an effort, however weak, to speak the local language. I don’t own a selfie stick. I’ve never called anyone “garcon.” Once, in a moment of desperation, I ate a McDonalds hamburger on the Paris metro, but otherwise, I’ve always tried to be a respectful traveler.

But I am intrinsically American. Obnoxiousness and ineptitude run in my blood. Perhaps my most American trait is that I constantly need to pee, and as we set out on the trail, it occurred to me that I had not gone to the bathroom since I’d woken up. Reluctantly, I asked if we could make a pit stop before heading out. The guide informed me that there were no bathrooms on the trail.

“If you want to go,” he said, “you have to use bushes.”

The AirBnB page had said nothing about this. Even the trails around Baltimore had bathrooms! So I waded into the tall grass next to the trailhead and assumed the position. Everything, I’m happy to report, went smoothly. I had a pack of Kleenex in my backpack and everything. Proud of my accomplishment, I pulled on my shorts and then realized I’d made a grave error: I’d set them in a puddle (yes, I took them all the way off—is that what you’re supposed to do?), so even though I successfully utilized the bushes, my geriatric comrades probably assumed otherwise.

pictured: an idiot

The first part of the hike was fine. I made small talk in broken French and took some photos (let me direct your attention to the one above—so happy! so naive!). In the mid-morning sun, my moist backside dried quickly. I was relieved that everything was going well. Then the guide looked at my shoes.

“Are these okay for you?” he asked.

Yes, they were okay for me—they were Adidas Sambas! A classic sneaker! Freddie Mercury wore a similar pair onstage at Wembley!

“Oh, these?” I asked, admiring my recent Urban Outfitters acquisition. “These are slip-resistant.” I explained to him what the word “slip” meant, and then we moved on.

Having a masters does not guarantee intelligence

If you’ve ever seen Freddie Mercury perform, you know the guy is constantly running around the stage. Those shoes hold up. Unfortunately, stages and wind-beaten limestone are not quite the same thing. Fortunately, I never actually fell down on the trail, but there were quite a few times I muttered “you are not going to die today” under my breath.

I should mention my fellow hikers had brought walking sticks. I’d always thought people used those just to look rugged and outdoorsy. Or maybe they just had bad knees. Now I know better. I also know that in a pinch, low-hanging tree branches make for decent replacements.

After carefully walking (and sometimes crab-walking) down the path for a little ways, the trail disappeared. I looked down at the side of the cliff on which we were standing and saw a rusted metal chain about three times my height. The others began their descent.

Welcome to Hell!

“I have to do that?” I asked.

I did, in fact, have to do that. Surrendering myself to fate, I grabbed the chain and found the first foothold. The guide coached me the whole way down, and somehow I made it without any fatal injuries. It was actually kind of fun. But then I looked around and noticed an older lady was missing from our group. The calanques are steep, jagged, unaccommodating and unforgiving of missteps. I feared the worst.

But then she emerged from behind a bush.

“J’ai fait pipi,” she said, grinning. This was one of the few French phrases I understood.

That wasn’t the hardest part of the hike. I had to climb a rock wall with nothing to hold onto but rocks. I braved another chain. I lowered myself down a rusty ladder while wondering what kind of posthumous success my writing might achieve, if any.

Updated tetanus vaccine recommended for interested hikers

And then, there it was—the beach, like something screenshotted from a social media influencer’s Instagram. Water so crystalline it needed no filter. I asked one of my fellow hikers to take a picture of me, then we settled on the rocks for a picnic lunch. Hiker’s hunger overwhelmed me, and I ate everything in my backpack: a ham & cheese sandwich, an apple, a banana, a family-sized bag of chips, and a pain chocolat.

Just happy to be alive 🙂

While we ate, I attempted to redeem myself with some strategic humble-bragging: that I was twenty-three, had just graduated from a creative writing MFA program, and was trying to sell my first book. Unlike all the Lyft drivers I’ve reluctantly told this information, my hiking group was very impressed. I was relieved; maybe they’d forget I was wearing hoop earrings.

For some reason, I thought the hike ended there. I thought some secret portal might magically transport us back to the bus stop and I’d be able to haul myself to the nearest patisserie.

“Now we go back up,” said the guide. He was grinning. I did not grin back.

I hadn’t felt tired or sore for the entire hike, but during our uphill ascent, something changed. My feet were leaden. My ears were ringing. I’d drunk an obscene seven bottles of water (some of which I shamelessly pilfered from the old people) and had none left.

death comes when you least expect it

This is it, I thought. This is where it all ends. Me, hiking in Adidas and a Hollister t-shirt. We weren’t even on the hiking trail anymore, but were using the swimmers’ walking path. My group disappeared around a corner, and I sat down on the ground. With my head in my hands, I considered possible future headlines:

Young Writer Leaves Behind Treasure Trove of Stories after Fatal Hiking Accident.

MFA Graduate Dies, Saves Self From Future as Barista

Millennial Succumbs to Dehydration While Vying for the Perfect Instagram Shot

I did not actually think any of that. I was thinking about how much I did not want to throw up while little French kids skipped past me in much less substantial shoes.

A few minutes later, my guide appeared. “We have to go,” he said.

“But I’m nauseated,” I said.

“What?”

I thought back to my vocabulary flashcards. “Je vais vomir.”

He begrudgingly allowed me to rest for a few minutes, and then we slowly made our way up the hill, him carrying my backpack. When I caught up with the rest of the group, everyone applauded. What the hell, I thought, and I bowed.

Was this view worth the physical and emotional turmoil? Ask me again in a few years!

Nearly two years after this traumatic incident, I am still haunted by many questions: why was this hike marketed to families with children eight and older? Why does the AirBnB description claim that parents can strap babies to their chests and bring them along? How did they get that ladder out there? I can only conclude, as I did during my first visit to France, that it’s a magical country, one full of pastel pastries and architectural marvels and third graders in possession of supernatural endurance.