Long ago I learned that a trip on the horizon keeps me happy. If there are no definite travel plans, no future dates inked on my calendar, I’m blue, untethered, uneasy. Buying guidebooks, planning an itinerary, and mapping out details give me a high of the healthiest kind. The prospect of getting away, the break from routine, the novel—it all keeps me connected and curiously, sane.
So while most people celebrate their sixtieth birthday with a dinner, cruise or weekend at a spa, the prospect of turning sixty, within eleven days of each other, made my husband Joe and me restless and hungry for adventure. We wanted to challenge what it means to be sixty years old and so we opted for a trip to Corsica, to hike what is considered Europe’s toughest long distance footpath.
Turning sixty is an anniversary some find terrifying. For us, it meant retirement, the end of our workaday lives and the beginning of journeys curbed only by our wallets and the bounds of our bodies. It also meant celebrating a high school romance that grew into thirty-five years of marriage. We were ready to mark milestones thirty-five and sixty, eager to begin the next phase of our life.
We envisioned our journey to Corsica for almost four years. The planning started while we backpacked through Europe on an adult gap year—our Senior Year Abroad—in 2012. That particular journey was thirty years in the making and required selling the house, the car, and most of our possessions, as well as quitting our jobs. This next step in our adventure progression required fewer leaps of faith since we both retired days before we left the US, and no longer had a house to sell.
What is the appeal of these outdoor challenges? It would be simple to say nature’s beauty, but in reality, it’s so much more. It’s the brisk morning air, the solitude, the sense of freedom and timelessness; it’s how our muscles ache, in a good way, at the end of a long day. Certainly we hike for the views, but it’s also for the chance to be alone with our thoughts, for the opportunity to meet interesting, like-minded people, for the photos, and yes, for the effort. Completing a particularly difficult hike goes a long way towards gratifying our competitive sides.
But the true allure of an extended trek to places inaccessible by vehicles and technology is what it does for our minds. It’s a detox during which we leave contemporary clutter behind. We think clearly, without distraction, about what’s most important, with no alarms, no deadlines, no beeps, no bells. We put one foot in front of the other and stress and anxiety wither as we share the same wild wonders together.
While we’re dedicated day walkers and have done multi-day stretches of hiking and camping in the Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks, a two-week trek across difficult terrain will be a daunting physical challenge that sets a new, much higher, bar for us.
Friends considered tagging along, but one thing and then another got in their way, so off we’ve gone on our own. Just us, in hiking boots—two for the road, as usual—lugging brand new backpacks, a tent, sleeping bags and trekking poles, to tackle a one hundred and eighteen mile trail, the GR20, on a rugged island in the Mediterranean.
The Grande Randonnée (GR) hike number twenty bisects Corsica diagonally and follows its mountain spine, from the northwest to the southeast corner. It’s one of hundreds of GRs, meaning “big hikes,” in French. They crisscross Europe, primarily in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain. Although not well known in the US, if you ask a European hiker about challenging trails, The Twenty always comes up. In Corsican, its name is Fra li monti, “across the mountains.” Rocky terrain, scree-strewn granite slabs and steep inclines, some of which require chains to ascend, have earned the trail its reputation as arduous and relentless.
Trails are blazed with the distinctive mark of a white stripe above a red one and are maintained in France by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée. We’d hiked pieces of other GR footpaths, including rambles around the Hexagon and seventy-five miles of the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) through France, Italy and Switzerland, to circle the highest peak in Europe. The TMB was a difficult, sometimes grueling hike. But at the end of each day, bruised and battered, we had a hot restaurant meal, soft mattress and warm blanket waiting for us in a hotel. Granted, some of our overnight accommodations were simple, rustic hiker inns with showers and toilets down the hall, but there was a certain level of comfort we knew to expect. Not so with our Mediterranean adventure; we will be roughing it for two weeks.
We signed with British company, KE Adventure Travel, in large part because we couldn’t find a US-based outfitter that does the Twenty. Yes, we are hikers—but we’re not well-schooled in camping—so we’re going into the wilderness under the direction of a seasoned team that secures permits, reserves campsites and shelters and will be responsible for feeding us. And most important of all, we’ll be part of a group with a guide who ensures we don’t get lost.
Joe and I accumulate hikes like others collect fine wine. Thus, our trip planning always includes researching the best walks in the area. We hate to pass up a good trail, and just like our decision to go to Corsica, we often build an entire trip around a particular track.
Friends and family often ask, “Why Corsica?”
The birthplace of Napoleon is an island in the Mediterranean, one of the thirteen regions of France. It boasts delicious food, garrulous people, white sandy beaches and several top-notch boutique hotels. The island has been on our travel list for years and discovering the existence of the GR20 quickly bumped it to the top. The derring-do hiking tales of a retired British Army General we met on our European sabbatical sealed the deal. He raved about The Twenty and at the end of our conversation commanded, “You absolutely must do it.” The General was not a man to be ignored. Corsica was definitely in our future.
Over the course of a fortnight, we’ll camp, bunk in coed, dorm-style rustic réfuges on platforms in our sleeping bags, and on a few lucky, luxurious nights, stay in gîtes d’étape—small, private hostels with actual beds. Yes, the physical and mental challenges of the GR20 will be significantly greater than those of anything we’ve undertaken before. This outdoor escapade will test our 60 year-old hiking mettle, not to mention our thighs, and stretch the limits of our “senior” resolve.
Come along for the journey. Join us for The Twenty.
(More to follow…)