"Daffos," read the tombstone. That was bad news for two exhausted Americans standing by a lonely mountaintop graveyard in the French Pyrenees looking for a man named Daffos. But there was no turning back; we had just spent all night on a train and the better part of a day hitchhiking and walking in search of him. And we had, of course, been warned.
Six weeks earlier my girlfriend, Lindsey, and I were fresh out of college and only days from leaving on an eight-month journey around the world, when a friend surprised us with the news that he owned a shepherd's hut in the French Pyrenees. "An old man named Daffos has the key," he said. "But he might be dead."
He had bought the hut for a pittance 25 years before, while traveling through Europe with two friends. The three college buddies had gone their separate ways and he hadn't seen the hut since 1971. He didn't know what kind of shape it was in, or even how to get there anymore. He promised to write us in Paris with as much information as possible.
Six weeks later his letter arrived in Paris, but it only reiterated what we already knew: The hut was in or near a place called Couledoux, and Daffos had the key. What was a "shepherd's hut" anyway? We didn't know. Did it have walls? A roof? A floor?
We decided to find out.
An overnight train ride from Paris brought us to St.-Gaudens, the closest town with a train station. Did the man at the ticket window know where Couledoux was? After a long discussion with his colleagues he returned with a crudely drawn map. How far was it?
"About 37 kilometers," he said.
Could we take a bus?
"No bus," he said, laughing and holding out up his thumb.
A car stopped. The driver wasn't going to Couledoux, but beckoned us in anyway. Ten minutes later, at a crossroads, we got out.
For 30 minutes we waited for a car, any car, to pass. Finally one stopped. That driver wasn't going to Couledoux either. When the car turned into the trees, it was like suddenly being hooked into the first hill of a hidden roller coaster; up, up, up the road wound, twisting and turning, climbing all the time. And that's how it went for hours.
The rides took no time at all, but we might wait for an hour for any car at all to pass. And always it was up, like climbing a long, winding set of stairs, with the next flight being invisible from the previous one. Around every corner loomed another mountain. Each car grew more rustic and old, reflecting their drivers.
As the road climbed it grew narrower, squeezing between steep hills and isolated hollows that reminded me of the Appalachian coal country of southwest Virginia. Our exhilaration and fear grew with every new rise. Wherever we were going was isolated.
Our last ride was in a battered old Renault station wagon whose driver had no teeth. He wasn't going to Couledoux either, but he knew the name Daffos. "He lives up there," he said, pointing up into the mountains.
At the crest of a hill, the road forked. Ahead, on the other side of a gorge that paralleled the road, were a cluster of rocky houses and a church. The other road became a single, narrow lane curving upward. The driver headed toward the town; we started trudging up, our packs heavy on our backs.
Up, up, up we walked, turning on 180-degree switchbacks, overlooking steep hills covered with yellow, red and orange foliage. There was absolute silence. An hour later -- it was now early afternoon -- we came upon a church and graveyard built out over a cliff. There stood the tombstone.
On we walked.
By this time the road was snaking around the north side of the mountain and shaded by thick pine trees. In places lay an inch of snow. A deer bolted out of the trees, crossed the road and disappeared again. The air was crisp and cool, with the pungent scent of fallen leaves, wildflowers and, occasionally, cow dung. But we were exhausted and breathless from the altitude. In spite of the beauty, our doubts grew harder to stifle. "What if Daffos is alive and lives here," Lindsey said, "but the hut is somewhere on the other side of the valley?"
"What if we're completely in the wrong place?" I said.
"Yeah, what if nobody's ever heard of some hut owned by a bunch of Americans ... "
Then, slowly, dog barks and the sounds of a chain saw wafted faintly through the trees. Several miles later the road emerged into the sun again. Along a road several hundred yards up three steep switchbacks was a clump of houses. The first was a two-story, stucco farmhouse, its windows tightly shuttered and its yard cluttered with barking dogs, chickens, a small garden and a cage of rabbits. I knocked on the door. Slowly the sound of shuffling feet grew louder and the door opened just wide enough for a large head to poke through. "I am looking for a Monsieur Daffos," I said.
She opened the door and stepped out. As tall as a 10-year-old, with long arms and a heavy gray beard, she looked like one of Tolkien's dwarves. She pointed down the road, nodded her head and disappeared inside.
At the next house, 300 yards further along, a man with long hair was splitting wood next to a rustic log cabin built into the side of the mountain. I asked him my question. "Further," he said.
Two hundred yards later, at another fork in the road, we encountered a woman riding a bicycle. Following her were a dog and a flock of sheep. On one side of the road the mountain dropped steeply away and overlooked the now tiny church and village that we had seen at the end of our last ride; on the other the fern-covered hill climbed almost vertically to snow-covered treeless expanses. "Excuse me," I said, "I'm looking for a Monsieur Daffos."
And there, perched on what seemed like the top of France, she said, "I'm Madame Daffos!"
"I'm from America!" I yelled, somewhat foolishly.
"You are here for the house?" she said, the dog barking, the sheep surrounding us.
"Is it nearby?" I said.
"Of course, it's just there," she said, pointing to a sturdy-looking slate roof sticking out from a clump of trees 200 yards down the side of the mountain. (The dead Daffos, it turned out, was a relative.)
I asked if she had a key. She didn't, but said I should follow her. She took us back to the bearded lady's house. Who were we, the bearded lady demanded to know. Where were we from? Who did we know? How did we know him? How old was he? What were our names? Finally satisfied, she produced a brown envelope containing a key and a notebook.
Down the steep hill, an overgrown trail passed through thorny raspberry bushes, cow pies, waist-high grass and over an old stone wall to the house. Hut was a misnomer. Before us stood a two-story, stone house topped by a steeply pitched slate roof. Sturdy gray metal shutters protected its five windows. It was perched on the edge of a hill so steep that you could nearly step onto the roof from the back. The front door opened onto a 155-by-30-foot cement and grass veranda overlooking the valley.
Inside we found that the house had been renovated two years before by one of the owners, according to the journal that came with the key. A six-foot-wide stone fireplace dominated the open first floor. Piled next to it was a neat stack of wood. Sleeping bags, pillows and blankets were neatly stuffed in plastic trash cans. Silverware, cups, plates, bowls, a gas camping stove and a lantern filled a cupboard. A table, chairs and cots were in a corner. Magical is the only way to describe the way the house stood ready and waiting for us.
For four days we reveled in paradise. Although snow lay at higher elevations and on north-facing slopes, it was warm on our south-facing veranda. At dusk, as the sun withdrew from one end of the valley, low clouds rolled in from the other, enveloping the house in a thick mist. We would retreat to a roaring fire, read by candlelight and drink hearty local table wine. Our water came from a spring behind the house; we bathed on the veranda, overlooking miles of valley.
We felt elated and victorious over our discovery of Couledoux and the house. We had broken away from the beaten path. Couledoux, it seemed, was ours. And no less important, we had forged ahead when the going got tough. That early victory became important in the months to follow, a symbol of what we could do, of what was possible in independent travel if one set out in search of the unexpected.
Over the next 6 1/2 months we traveled halfway around the world and back. We walked the coasts of Crete, sailed up the Nile in an open boat, ate borscht in Siberia. Yet throughout the journey, and in the years and other exotic destinations since, our delight over Couledoux and the house we'd "discovered" refused to fade.
Six years later, Lindsey and I were married and the owners of a big, old house; we had careers, friends, health insurance and credit-card debts. Wanting to escape one day, we thought of Couledoux. This time we would rent a car and stay a month. The owner told us that as far as he knew, Alice Loubet, the dwarf-like keeper of the key, was still on the job, although no one had been to the house in three years.
Eagerly we flew to Paris, picked up the car and drove all day to Toulouse. The next morning we drove to St.-Gaudens, bought food and supplies and headed into the mountains.
Everything about the road was just as we'd remembered it. It twisted and turned between almost vertical hills and past the ageless villages of Sengouagnet, Aspet and Henne-Morte. Up, up, up we went, until the road turned into one lane barely wide enough for our tiny Renault.
At the cemetery where we'd first seen the Daffos tombstone was a fresh grave heaped with flowers. "Alice Loubet," the tombstone read. We dropped by the Daffoses', but they didn't remember us and knew nothing about the key.
We tramped down the path -- only its faintest traces still visible -- in the hot sun to the house. It was locked tight, the veranda covered with piles of dirt and rotting branches. Keyless, we pried open a metal window shutter, smashed a pane of glass and let ourselves in.
Absent this time was the appearance of order. The house was musty. Dead mice lay on the dusty floor, a few old pieces of wood were next to the fireplace. Thick cobwebs clung to the windows, cupboards and chairs. The spring behind the house was dry, the view of the valley obscured by weed trees.
By the second day we'd cleaned and aired the house, cleared the veranda, cut down the offending trees and restored the vista. We drank wine in the sun, sat by the fire in the evening.
But by the second night we were sullen. We felt lonely, isolated. Silly, minor things annoyed us. Small, furry, nocturnal creatures scampered along the eaves as we tried to sleep. The spring, the Daffoses insisted without further explanation, was simply "no more." I spent an hour digging furiously to find the plugged-up spring, then resigned myself to carrying buckets from the Daffoses' house 400 yards up the mountain.
The thought of spending a month there seemed awful. And yet there was no rational explanation for our dissatisfaction. The house and Couledoux were essentially unchanged since our last visit. It had been dusty and overgrown before; we just hadn't noticed.
On the evening of the fifth day we decided to flee.
And then the strangest thing happened. Bags packed, floor swept, chairs and sleeping bags neatly stowed away in their animal-proof plastic trash cans, I felt reluctant to leave.
It was only then that I understood that places, whether tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower or mountaintop hideaways in the Pyrenees, are merely the repositories and reflections of what we bring to them. And what we bring to them has much to do with how we get there.
The house had been so wonderful the first time not because of Couledoux's beauty or the hut's amenities, but because of all that was involved in getting to it. Backpacking amid hordes, we'd yearned for solitude off the beaten track and had discovered our own mountain. Expecting a shack or worse, we found a well-situated, two-story stone house. The long and uncertain journey there made what we found rewarding, and taught us rookies at foreign travel the delight and astonishment of perseverance.
When we returned to Couledoux six years later, it appeared beautiful still. But beauty alone wasn't enough. Physically, our journey to Couledoux was the opposite of what it had been before: We experienced no hardship driving to a familiar destination. Psychologically, too, it was different: The only mystery was whether it was as we had remembered it, our expectations having more to do with the past than the future. Alone on our mountain, it proved too quiet, too isolated to be enjoyed. In reality, our return to Couledoux was little more than a pilgrimage to a time and place that was gone, but whose effect (our love of traveling) was lasting.
And it was for that reason that Couledoux remained, even as I felt unsatisfied, in a special place in my heart. And because it was special, I was sad to leave. But lingering over the steep mountains and silence I understood that Couledoux's proper place was as a monument to a special moment in our lives, a milestone, a place to visit every few years, just for a day or two, to see how far I've come since age 23. For inspiration and discovery, I will find new places.
Carl Hoffman is a Washington writer.