Hiking the Hexa: Footsteps through France

This is an extract from Hiking the Hexa – a tale of ups and downs, of rising to a new challenge in middle age, and of going the distance… in one way or another.

Words and Images: Claire McCall

In May 2022, Claire McCall and her partner James set off to attempt four stages of the Hexatrek, a long-distance hike through the mountains of France, in its pioneer year.

Can you drown whilst forest bathing? The Japanese don’t seem to think so. As Zen masters, they have embraced the benefits of mindfulness among the trees for yonks. Chances are, they weren’t walking moon miles carrying the world on their shoulders at the time. It feels a bit that way in the early days when you’re trying to find your hiking legs, working against a backpack with the gravitational pull of a small planet.

It was nice to have plenty to distract us from the effort. The national park that is the Massif de Vosges is historic and beautiful. Not in a gasp-at-the-grandeur Alps-ish sort of way, but in the gentle light that shafts through the slender, statuesque trees and creates a tapestry of lime and emerald greens at every turn. James, who hails from Nottingham – Robin Hood country – declared these European oaks a revelation. They truly are mighty, unlike the oaks of Sherwood which feel downtrodden and oppressed by comparison.

This is a place that has inspired poetry and fomented legends for centuries. Many of these, though, were dark, fearful tales involving witches, the devil and monsters. In the throes of preparing for my adventure, I had plunged into a French TV series set around a fictional town in the Vosges. I felt it might give me a visual introduction as to what to expect and cement a few more words in my small-but-growing vocabulary. Big mistake. The clue was in the name I suppose. Zone Blanche or, to use its English title, Black Spot, means somewhere so isolated there’s no cellphone coverage. A dead zone in other words. This turned out to be the perfect scenario for a thriller. In the series, supernatural beings inhabited an ever-misty forest where groups of innocent young folk tended to, maddeningly, hang out at night. Mysterious animals rustled in the shadows and followed the main protagonist on her investigations. There were graphic shots of macabre corpses found hanging from trees. It all had the effect of working me up into a state of queasiness at the prospect of sleeping in a thin-walled tent in such a place.

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The reality – sun-dappled, leafy pathways beneath towering alders – was a relief. And the only elusive entities that we felt could be lurking were les sangliers (wild boar) which are prolific throughout France and hunted in their thousands. While we saw dug-up roots as proof of their existence, we didn’t see one in the flesh. I was pleased. I wasn’t particularly afraid, but I was wary of ‘le chasse’ lest, while grunting up a stiff climb, I be mistaken for one.

Strangely, too, we didn’t come across many fellow hikers. We kept in virtual communication with two or three HexaTrekkers up ahead of us, so we knew we were not alone on the trail, but there were hours when we walked and walked without seeing another soul.

Arriving in the village of Obersteinbach, a town of about 250, around lunch time, it felt as though the rapture had occurred. It was as if some higher entity had whisked every resident up to the promised land. There was no-one in the streets, no one in the immaculate gardens and, in the pretty houses, shutters were pulled down firmly against the midday heat. It was, quite frankly, weird, but also highly disappointing. We’d been counting on a shop to buy a frugal lunch and our stomachs were shouting at us. We wandered down the main drag speaking in hushed tones so as not to break the silence. With the boulangerie or pâtisserie we had imagined on every corner not materialising, the only hotel in town appeared to be our best bet. It was a pink-painted, half-timbered farmhouse and looked very much in business. Maybe they’d have a baguette we could chew on.

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Clutching one euro (which would normally buy us a baguette) I walked into reception, leaving James to take care of my backpack abandoned unceremoniously at the front gate. Again, no one around. It started to feel like the scene from a low-budget horror flick. A bowl of apples displayed on a hall table caught my eye. Could I take two and leave the coin as payment? Just then a rather stern-looking proprietor appeared from the back room. He regarded me impassively as I told our sorry tale in basic language, using an animated tone to emphasise the seriousness of the situation and hoping I wasn’t too whiffy in the salubrious surrounds.

Then, grabbing two apples and my proffered euro, with an apparent air of annoyance, he indicated that I should follow him through the door to the dining room. The still-warm bread rolls he bestowed on us were a gift from the Gallic gods. We sat, alone, on the front stone wall as we devoured them and the crunchy apples, uplifted by the somewhat gruff kindness of strangers.

Hiking the Hexa: Up, Down & (almost) Over the Hill on France’s Newest Long-Distance Walk is available from Amazon or wherever you buy your ebooks, and in paperback at The Women’s Bookshop, Ponsonby, or directly from the author at clairemccall.net

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