There was a sign accompanying the breakfast spread at our refuge: made locally. Milk, yogurt, cheese, even the butter. I marveled at our good luck. But I began to wonder—marooned in the French countryside and miles from the nearest service road—where did all this food come from?
There’s nothing like a fifteen-mile day of hiking to make you question everything. Not least of which, the poor choices you made when packing for a backpacking trip. Laptop, digital camera, portable speaker, pajamas, (multiple) books for leisure reading. I estimated that my pack – though I never had the good sense to weigh it in Seattle – was close to fifty pounds. Did we really need the baguette we bought that morning? How much water could I, in good conscience, ditch by the side of the road?
We notched over 5,000 feet of elevation gain for the day when all was said and done, traipsing through hillocks and valleys, and eventually passing over the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc—at 8,700 feet. On the way, I felt like my senses were in overdrive, alert to every sound and smell – if only to keep my mind off the pain. The distant chime of cowbells, the tough chew of summer sausage, the thrum of buzzing through my veins as we neared one of the gigantic electric pylons.
But nothing was more common an apparition than the cow pies that blanketed the landscape. At one point, nearing the night’s refuge, there were so many that we thought they might be clues – like the breadcrumbs that Hansel and Gretel left to find their way back home.
Sure enough, they led straight to the wellspring. A pasture of cows, perhaps a hundred of them, lining a mountain grotto – and directly blocking our path. They were all brown dairy cows—presumably responsible for our breakfast that morning—waiting to be weighed in a large truck. The truck was like a machine out of Dr. Seuss. Only, instead of it turning the cows into burgers or adding a star to their bellies, the cows simply trudged up, at a devastating crawl, one end of the ramp and came back down looking exactly as they’d entered.
We were knotted at an impasse, with no way of moving forward. A sheepdog, wise to our intentions, yelped at the cows’ heels every few seconds, sending them trundling along; one wrong step could have left us bucked over the guard fence and into a ravine.
So, instead, we climbed over the protected fence—much to the ire of the cows’ French owner, looking over from his perch high atop a tractor. As we zigzagged our way through the disinterested herd, I kept muttering under my breath “How Now Brown Cow?” – the teaching elocution phrase I’d learned in grade school to practice vowel sounds – like a shaman reciting a mantra meant to guarantee safe passage.
We made it past, safely, but as tired and hungry as ever. Much as I wanted to stay to hear the farmer’s reaction, I was much more eager to see what was on the evening’s menu. And the cows—contributions aside—were standing between us and dinner.