Monday, February 29, 2016

Day 7: Piton de la Fournaise

With the little excursion yesterday I felt like having an adventure today and the greatest adventure one can tackle on Reunion is Piton de la fournaise which is the name of the active volcano on the island. Most people go with guides but all the websites were in French so I decided to make a go of it because, after all, how difficult could it possibly be?

Right before 8AM I got in the VW Up! and wheeled away from my hotel. Again, I’m so amazed at how fast I fall into routines and can feel as if I’ve been doing something for years. This, of course, only happens when I’m someplace I’ve never been and have no knowledge about anything in the place. Anyway, I got on the main road and finally found the right roads to hit D100 that took me back onto the RN1.

It was early in the morning and I hadn’t had an energy drink since I was in Paris so I stopped at a gas station which felt almost like a pit stop because the exit and on ramp are exclusive to this gas station, but going in I lived out a life dream.

This is going to sound odd, but for 20 years I’ve had a dream of stopping at a gas station in a European country. Yes, I’m technically in Africa but the soil is European and walking into the gas station I froze and soaked in the moment because I’ve done some incredible things in this book but this might just take the cake… Okay, in the grand scheme of things this may not be that high up on the list but my Aspie heart was elated as I went to the refrigerator and got a cranberry flavored Red Bull and then I stood in line. This was all so normal! I stood in line and no one around me knew I was from 10,000 miles away and had no idea what they were saying. I got to the counter where the clerk said, “bonjour!” and I, for the first time on this trip, responded with, “bonjour!” and he said the price which I had no idea what it was but I knew I had enough so I handed the money to him and he gave me change and said a bunch of other stuff and when he said “au revoir” I responded in kind and left with the biggest smile you could possibly imagined and I got in the VW, backed up, stalled it, caused a traffic jam, but still had the biggest smile possible.

The drive in store would be partially similar to yesterday’s drive with a trip through Saint Louis but instead of cutting off I’d be continuing to Saint-Pierre up on the RN3 where I would need to find D36. Now here’s the tricky part about D36 and that is there are two of them. Two! That would be like having two main streets in the same town in the same region but not connected. To complicate things road signs here aren’t overtly present outside of the RN1, and RN3. And if that wasn’t enough I accidentally triggered something on my phone that deleted the desired path. Thankfully, with Google maps, the phone remembers where you are and keeps a low-rez image of the region you are in as well as it knows where you are even in flight mode. However, narrowing down whether to take the first, second, third, or sometimes fourth exit at a roundabout can be tricky and on the second roundabout after getting off the RN3 I decided second exit and YES! I was on the D36.

The tricky thing about driving here is that, even though D36 is a semi-main road, there are many spurs off and at some point in time I took one of those spurs and ended up snaking through a neighborhood. Ten minutes later I was back on D36 and ten minutes later I was off on another spur where I came across a water truck and they were watering the shoulder. As to what this accomplished I’m not sure because this road was pavement and only a car width-and-a-half wide but I had to wait for the truck to move to get by. A couple corners later there was a man with a dastardly looking paddle that had the dreaded white bar with a red background and the road was closed so a U-turn was made and I had to deal with the water truck and its crew who were none too happy to see me and they talked to me and I made no indication that I understood them, because I didn’t, and this time the crew and the truck took their good time to clear the way. That would be ten sweet minutes to sit there and think about life.

The road was more fun than the day prior, not as spectacular with cliffs and one lane roads, but there were hairpins and the road was wide enough to not be scared the entire time. As I got to the point where D36 meets D36 (confused yet?) and merged into one D36 I was entering the farm land of Reunion and there were farmers working on the fields and cows with some impressive sized horns. From where I had been just an hour prior on the ocean it was odd to now be in a place that could pass for Iowa!

It was going to be tricky once more finding the right turn towards the volcano as I was looking for the road called Chemin Mathias and even if I wanted to ask someone for help there was no one about today. Really, yesterday driving up to that small mountain village the roads were filled with cars but here I was alone with just the road, daylight, and the cows watching me pass by. When I thought I was getting close I saw a sign that said, “Route du Volcan” I remembered back to knowing that Vulcan was the logical… wait no, that’s Star Trek… Vulcan was the Roman God of fire and volcanos are fire therefore that arrow was telling me the way to go.

As sunny as it was at the hotel the skies were now grey and the temperature was dropping. It was 28C at the hotel and now it was 19C and the numbers continued to drop as I entered the park where the volcano sits which is a really long name and has lots of accents marks I don’t know how to make in Microsoft Word, but I was getting close.

When I got into the park the trees all of a sudden were fir trees and I could’ve sworn I was in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The roads got twisty again and the 180 degree hairpins came back and I was not going to take these at any high rate of speed and once again I got in the habit of letting cars by. Somehow the cars I let by I got in front of them and the game went on but eventually I made it to where the pavement ends.

Mars? Am I on Mars? I knew I wasn’t but the surroundings could fool you and you’d have
thought they shot the movie The Martian right out in any given direction as the ground was red and rocks were haphazardly everywhere with some formations and others that tried but failed and were just in a pile. The road now was a gravel/rock mix with plenty of pot holes. I was stuck behind two other cars that were doing just 10kph and trying to miss every hole. A minivan stormed by doing at least 50, and I thought about joining him, but there were an alarmingly high amount of various car parts scattered about. There was a hose, then part of a muffler, then a wheel so I figured that the two cars in front of me knew something that I didn’t so I followed them slowly.

What should have been a 100 minute drive turned into 165 minutes but there I was at the end of the line. The temperature was now 14.5C, or 58.1F and the slight mist became a steady mist. “Dang! Only if I had a water proof jacket” I said only to remember that I do, at least back in my hotel room in my second suitcase which is my USAC raingear. So I was without a rain jacket, oh well, I still had shorts on. Shorts? Um, okay, this wasn’t starting out all that well but I did bring my extra warm long johns that I wore in Norway so I put those on and then put my shorts over them and I got my energy bars and water ready and I got out of my car ready for the five hour trek.

            Five hours lay ahead and if it were sunny I would be able to see the destination, but the ceiling was low and the mist was now teetering on being called a heavy drizzle. I got to the gate that had information in many languages and one was the dangers of an eruption and if the gate is closed it said, “do not pass due to extreme danger” which I thought was the most obvious statement ever because you can have signs that say, “don’t feed the bears” or, “don’t get out of your car in a nature preserve” but lava, yeah, I’ll do anything I can do to avoid a run in with lava.

            There were other bits of information such as, “don’t attempt to hike in heavy rain or heavy fog”. I looked up at the sky and it wasn’t exactly foggy and an annoying mist teetering on a heavy drizzle is not heavy rain so onward I went and found the 20 stories of stairs. That’s right, on this hike you immediately start with the steepest decent possible with what is the equivalent height of 20 stories and the stairs are spaced far apart and are uneven. One wrong step and it’ll be a nasty landing and my phobia of losing a tooth kept coming into my head.

            Zigging, then zagging, followed up by more of the same over and over as the decent continued onward into what I presumed to be a crater of some sort. I didn’t exactly know because it was now becoming a moderate rain with moderate fog. I had some trepidations on continuing but a volcano! How often does one get to do this? (Residents of places where volcanoes are common don’t answer that)

When I got to the bottom the world changed. On the decent stage there were an abundance of greens be it trees or flowers and now I was back on Mars, but instead of driving through it I would now be walking in it and the ground was not even as it obviously, at some point in time, been lava as I could see streaks where it had flowed and there were even some imprints of footsteps which puzzled me. I did have to look down a lot because the ground wasn’t even in the slightest and I had to choose my step closely all the while following the white bits of paint which is the guide. As close as the dots of paint are I became concerned because this meant when it gets foggy it gets to the point where one can’t see 15 feet in front and as I looked up for the first time in a while I could only see four dots in front of me. This now, in my book, classified as heavy fog. Oh, and the rain? It was now heavy with winds gusting well over 20 and here I am with nothing truly waterproof outside of my boots which were soaked on the inside from rain coming down and my computer bag substituting as a hiking bag and a voice of reasoning started to say, “Aaron, what the HELL are you doing? It’s one thing to travel to place you’ve never been but you know you can manage that but this? You’re no outdoorsman!” I decided that voice didn’t know what it was talking about and I continued onward.

I then heard something I hadn’t heard since the angry watering men and that was voices and through the fog came a couple and the woman frantically approached me and said, “bonjour!” and I returned in kind which led her to believe that I spoke French and I had to say, meekly and in the form of a question, “English?” and then the hand gestures and guessing games begun.

Her words went from French to partial English but I heard a word I understood as “accident” is the same, or at least spelled the same, in both languages, so I said and nodded, “accident?” and she said yes. She was visibly frustrated on trying to find the words to say. She kept pointing the way I was going and the way they came and she kept making a motion of a jacket which I presumed she was concerned about my well-being but she reiterated accident and I pointed that way and asked, “did someone fall?” and I made a falling motion and she nodded. She then said “serious, about 10 minutes from here” and that they were, “seeking cover and help”. I said I had nothing and they continued their way back to the starting point where there is a snack bar to seek that help. As they left the man, which hadn’t spoken, yelled to me, “be careful.”

I ventured forward ever the adventurer but their words now hit me. They had said, and I left this out, someone was tending to the seriously injured person, but as the rain now falling icily, and the wind blustering, and the fog denser than it had been I realized a trip onward would be asinine. There’s being an adventurer and there’s being in conditions in which one knows what they are doing and then there’s foolishly risking one’s life in the pursuit of trying to get an awesome Facebook profile picture. This wasn’t going to happen and I turned around and then climbed the stairs of doom (they weren’t as fun going up as down) and when I got to my car an hour later I turned the heat on and I thought about my day and then I thought about the various delays I had. It was an hour’s worth of delays and had I gotten there at my scheduled time it probably would’ve been sunny and I might not have brought the long johns. I’d have been hiking up the volcano which the weather is even worse there and potentially that could’ve been me needing help. Furthermore, with the conditions so poor, had I had an issue there most likely would have been no other parties making a trek that day, or even tomorrow if the weather continues to be poor, so with that thought I was content on my decision to abort the journey.

It was a long drive back, which I did see an ambulance at the entrance to the park some forty minutes in so help was on the way, but the drive back was made longer because I took the wrong D36, but made exploits in the crater got me thinking about how all this can tie into Asperger’s. This trip, at least on the island thus far, has been the least social of my trips, but it’s also been the most “out there” trip. Had this been trip #1 I wouldn’t have had the gull to get a car and venture out. Could I have done it? Possibly, but with each trip comes just a tick more of confidence and within the failure of my expedition comes the heart of this story and that is this; this book isn’t about a person on the autism spectrum exceeding their limits, but slowly increasing it. Could I someday be a hiker trained enough to take on conditions like that in earnest? With the training yes, maybe, but I’m not a hiker nor have I had any training so how could I even expect to make it with those odds against me? So too is everything else regarding the autism spectrum. The next person you may read, or know, that is on the autism spectrum may not want to travel, and doing what I’m doing in this experience may end much like my expedition to the volcano, but that’s the important thing.

Limits are an important thing to understand and when a limit is reached it’s got to be realized. I reached a crossroads in that crater; admit defeat or carry on to which would have been highly perilous. I chose right, thankfully, but what if I had tried Hammerfest on my first trip with no confidence? How would I have dealt with the drunk man without the confidence in previous life experiences? Progression is a key to life, autism spectrum or not, and one can’t simply go out and be the best or exceed their limitations simply because they want to. No, one has to work for it and work hard for what they want. It’s small steps, one at a time to get to a destination and for the next person out there, instead of a volcano, it may be getting a driver’s license, getting a job, or understanding fractions (ugh! Fractions) but whatever it is if the person isn’t prepared it could end in misfortune. Thankfully, today, I decided not to exceed my limitations. Hey, I just turned 33 yesterday, I gotta at least get a couple days past my birthday!

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