The wind is definitely up. The Renault shakes and lurches all over the road as we approach our destination, and for a moment I question the whole journey, and the wisdom of attempting to climb a mountain during a mistral that is producing 100-mph gales. But then we come around a corner and there it is in front of us, and my doubts blow away as if I had tossed them out the window.
Quéribus has that effect on some people. I clearly remember the moment I first saw it in this life. My good friend Sophie and I were planning a trip to Europe. That is, she was planning the trip, and I was reluctantly allowing her to, because at that time I had not yet discovered the Tao of the Road Trip. I was resisting like mad, and she was trying to inspire me by showing me photos of France. We had originally planned to only visit Paris and Provence, but as we sat looking through the guide books, I kept stopping at photos of ruined 13th-century castles further south, nearer the Pyrenees. Something about them felt very familiar. And then I turned the page and saw my first photo of Quéribus and I was lost.
Seeing it through the windshield of the Renault, six years later, I am lost again in its beauty. The castle sits perched on the top of a good-sized mountain, so I actually have to lean forward in my seat to see it. And there it is in the distance, the early afternoon light reflected from its multifaceted walls, turning the structure into a blazing jewel in a setting of desert stone. The car lurches again in the wind and I lean back in my seat to control it, but there is no longer any question of calling off the visit because of the mistral.
We drive up the narrow, steep road and park. As Sophie and Claire and I get out and put on our coats and prepare for the climb up to the castle itself, we notice that there are only a couple of other cars and one tour bus in the tiny lot. The driver is trying to herd about twenty Dutch tourists back inside, telling them about the café down the road where they can sit in front of the fire and get over the disappointment of not being able to visit the castle itself. I think to myself, “Wimps!” and then step out from behind the shelter of the bus and the wind almost blows me over. And this is down here at the foot of the mountain. I gaze up at the castle and wonder what the wind is like up there, several hundred feet higher. And my doubts return.
The attendant at the ticket booth does little to eliminate them. She tells us that they have not officially closed the site, but that the winds at the top are dangerous, and that if we go up, we should keep a firm grip on the walls and remove anything that might blow away. Like eyeglasses, hats, cameras, small children and anvils. Suffice it to say she is not exactly encouraging us to proceed. But then for some reason I remember my horoscope for the month, which had described me as “a cosmic fool, stumbling heedless of danger into ecstasy,” so I put on my Nike mindset and decide to Just Do It.
The three of us bundle up and tuck our cameras inside our coats and head up the steep trail. As we climb, the winds get stronger. Sophie stops to take some video footage, and has to fight with all her strength just to remain standing. At least fifty pounds heavier, I do too. I remind myself to compliment the attendant on our way out for her mastery of understatement. My Just Do It mindset starts to crumble.
But then I flash back to my first hike up this trail, and what I found at the top. A wave of light surges through me and like magic I no longer have any problem handling the winds.
You see, since that first visit six years ago, Quéribus has occupied the top slot on my personal Top Ten list of Power Places I Have Known. I had myself a Class A epiphany there, and remembering it just now has somehow enabled me to draw on the power of that moment and bring it into this one. All of my doubts blow away on the wind, and what is left is an all-consuming fire, an irresistible desire to stand with my face in the wind on the ramparts of the castle itself. I start back up the trail, discovering that my fatigue has blown away along with my doubts. Even though I am far from in good shape, I suddenly feel so energetic that I start to believe I could actually run the rest of the way. I give it a try. I can.
Arriving at the foot of the final staircase up to the castle, I turn around and realize that I have left Claire and Sophie far behind. They, being quite a bit lighter than I am, are having a hard time with the winds. So I sit and wait for them, gaze up at the castle, and find myself flashing back again to my first visit.
Quéribus was a Cathar stronghold. The Cathars were a religious sect that flourished in southern France and other parts of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. But their beliefs and practices conflicted with the dominant Catholics, and when the Cathars began attracting too many converts, the Church declared a crusade and invented the Inquisition to deal with them and, between the two, killed a hundred thousand fellow Christians. The crusades and the inquisitions went on for decades, so the survivors built castles on the tops of the highest mountains they could find and retreated into them. Quéribus was the highest and most secure of the Cathar strongholds, and in fact was the last one to fall to the crusaders. I can understand why — any enemies would have had to traverse the same steep, treacherous trail we were climbing, to reach only the base of a heavily-fortified castle.
On that first hike up the trail, it was only Sophie and me. There was very little wind. The climb was a snap, and Quéribus itself was a marvel. The castle was still remarkably intact, and there were many ornate windows and vaulted stone ceilings in the main rooms to gawk at. We wandered through them together for a while, soaking up the energy, which was kickin’. The power in this place — the clarity, the level of light, the silence — was pretty apparent to both of us, because we had in common a gentleman named Rama, and had been with him to other places of power. And we could feel that this place was right up there with the best of them.
Some timelessness later, as was our habit, Sophie and I split up and spent some time wandering around the ruins on our own. I went back to the main hall, and sat meditating for a time on the graceful dance of its arches. But after a few minutes I found myself drawn back to one of the first rooms we had seen on the way in.
I entered a low doorway on the north side of the castle and found myself in a small stone room. There was nothing particularly interesting about the room except for the window, which was a vertical slit in the stone about 1 foot wide and three feet high. Other than the doorway, it provided the only light in the room. Through the window, I could see mountains in the distance. As my eyes focused, I realized that I could see Peyrepertuse, another Cathar stronghold about twenty miles away. I stood there, gazing out at the distant castle, and suddenly the entire room changed.
Instead of a sunny Fall day, suddenly it was dusk on a gray March day. The room was already dark and was lit by firelight. The mountains I saw through the slit window were covered with a light fall of snow. Inside the room, it was bitterly cold.
I looked down and found that I was dressed in a kind of tunic made of coarse cloth. I was also wearing some kind of cloak made of felt, obviously intended to keep me warm and failing miserably at its task. I was shivering. My boots appeared hand-sewn, and the single layer of felt was no more use than the cloak. I could feel the cold seeping up from the stone floor as if I were barefoot.
I was not alone in the room. There were several other people, men and women, most of them huddled around an open fire near the doorway. In the corner, dogs were fighting over scraps of food. A child was holding on to my leg, looking out the window with me. We were waiting for something.
It took me a few seconds to remember what I was waiting for. The signal fire from Peyrepertuse! If the other stronghold were still secure, if the people there were safe, they would light a fire on the ramparts at sunset to let us know. We had already lit our fire, but as the sun neared the horizon and disappeared below it, there was still no sign of a signal from Peyrepertuse.
Everyone in the room was silent. There was a somber tone to our vigil because today a messenger had arrived with news of the fall of Montségur. After months of siege, a traitor had shown the crusaders the secret trail and the castle had fallen. The two hundred survivors were offered a choice — either recant their faith or be burned at the stake. All two hundred chose the fire.
Finally, a light flickered on the horizon. Several people shouted for joy and began dancing around. The child who had been holding on to my leg ran to tell the rest of the castle. I just stood there, a huge smile on my face, happy to know that our brothers and sisters were alive and that our spiritual beliefs had survived yet another day.
And then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the firelight on the walls flickered one last time, morphed into sunlight streaming in from the doorway, and I was back in the present. It was a sunny Fall day again. Through the slit window, I could still see Peyrepertuse in the distance. But on my face, I could feel an enormous smile.
Sitting at the base of the stairway, waiting for Sophie and Claire, I can feel the same smile. The two of them are taking their time, shooting photos and video like cameras are going out of style, so I decide to explore and start up the staircase. It’s tough going. The wind is a bitch. And just as the attendant said it would, it’s getting stronger with every step. My body, all 175 pounds of it, is being slammed around like a hockey player who has foolishly suggested to the pre-game press that the opposing players are all pussies and that their heterosexuality is in question. The third or fourth time I am body-slammed into the low wall separating me from a several-hundred-foot drop, I look over the edge. It’s a long way down.
But it’s also a long way up, and I remember what it was like up there the first time, so I keep climbing. Everything goes fine until I reach a particularly exposed curving section of stairway. I stand and ponder it and look over the edge to check on my two friends’ progress. I can’t see them on the trail below, so I yell to them. I can’t hear my own shout. The wind is that loud.
Giving up on shouting, I try to make it up the exposed section of stairway. I finally do, but only by crawling on all fours to keep low, hanging on to the rope affixed to the wall for dear life. I make it through the treacherous section and around the corner, just to glimpse an even more exposed area ahead. At this point my sense of chivalry remarkably returns, and I realize I should go back and check on my companions.
I crawl back down the stairs, and have just reached an area of relative calm in the shelter of a high wall when Sophie struggles up from below and joins me. We sit and pant for a while, catching our breath, and then I tell her what I had discovered on my scouting expedition. She is not exactly thrilled with the information; the climb this far has obviously taken its toll. But, warrior that she is, she decides to give it a try anyway, and tries valiantly to make it further up the stairs, but to no avail. Her lighter frame is just no match for gale-force winds. She comes back and sits with me in the calm spot, and we Think About It.
After a few moments, Sophie says that she is going to wait for Claire and see if the wind dies down enough to try again. I look at her and look up at the castle and my sense of chivalry goes back into lurk mode. I say, “I really have to try.” Sophie looks at me like I am crazy. I’ve known her for years, and she is usually right about these things, so I try to do my best impression of sanity. I smile and do the macho bit and say, “I won’t stay long,” hoping to convince her I know what I am doing. It doesn’t work.
But warrior that she is, she doesn’t try to stop me. She hands me her video camera and wishes me well. I turn and try to make a graceful exit, which lemme tell you is not easy when you’re down on all fours on a staircase, clinging to a frayed rope to keep from being blown over the wall to your death. I make it past the first treacherous section and then the next, and look up and think I’m home free. The staircase in front of me climbs through a narrow doorway set into the stone walls of the cliff. I figure once I make it through that doorway, the winds will be partially blocked and the going will be easier.
Wrong. I had forgotten about the wind-tunnel effect that can occur when 100-mph winds are forced to blow through a narrow opening. I step through the doorway and lift my foot to take a step and find that it comes down two steps further up the stairway than I had intended. The wind picks me up as effortlessly as it would a leaf and just flies me up the stairs. I land and crouch down and cling to the low wall and reluctantly look over it once again. It’s still a long way down. But it’s still a long way up, too.
So I crouch there for a moment and consider the situation. I think to myself, “Self, that last blast of wind could easily have killed you. It could have blown you over the edge just as effortlessly as it helped you up the stairs. But it didn’t. It helped you up the stairs. Cool.” Standing up again, I think that Sophie may have been onto something back there in the calm spot. But I grin and keep climbing anyway. The climb becomes a veritable pas de deux as I dance up the staircase two or three steps at a time, literally flying through the air with the help of my partner, the wind. Occasionally lifted to the height of the wall separating me from oblivion, I look down and realize that I should be afraid. But I’m not. There is only clarity and exhilaration and energy and this enormous smile on my face.
I reach the final stairway to the castle and go inside. There must be a Blue Light Special on sanity going on in French stores, because I am the only person here. Go figure. Taking out Sophie’s video camera, I turn it on and let it run as I explore. My first stop, of course, is the room in which I had my flashback. I’m hoping for another one. No dice. So I keep exploring, climbing up into the main hall, videotaping the vaulted ceilings in case Sophie and Claire don’t make it up this far. I wander through the castle for a while at random, checking out the arched windows and stonework. I climb spiral staircases to reach the upper rooms, stopping to gaze out of each of the windows, hoping for a reprise of my earlier vision. Again, no dice. So I spiral up one last stairway to the ramparts, and emerge again into the wind.
I move to the edge and stand there leaning into the wind, bracing myself against the wall taking in the view, which is one of the most spectacular on the planet. I look down and can see Sophie and Claire on the trail below, walking back to the car. Realizing that the keys are in my pocket, I feel a momentary twinge of chivalry, but then I look up and see Peyrepertuse in the distance and they are no longer in my mind. Nothing is in my mind. I stand with my face in the wind and I gaze out at Peyrepertuse and try to keep from being blown away by the winds and suddenly there is no wind, there is no Peyrepertuse, there is no thought, there is no me.
There is only light. The mountains are no longer mountains. The castle in the distance is no longer a castle. They’re like three-dimensional holograms of mountains and castles. I can see light shining through them, dancing in pinpoints of color like a Seurat painting. And I can directly perceive that they have no real existence. They are only the intersections of light, difference tones like the ones that create the illusion of shapes in holograms. Then the wind starts turning into light. I can definitely see it flowing, as clearly as if it had been currents in a raging river. Then I start turning into light. I look down at my own body and it is composed of the same pinpoints of light as the mountains and Peyrepertuse in the distance.
I stand like this for a few moments. Finally, intruding into the timelessness of no thought, something resembling a thought begins to appear. It’s not in words. It’s more of an image, a pre-thought, someone doing an impression of a thought. It’s the image of myself, a being of light, standing on the ramparts of Quéribus, which is also composed of light. Currents of lightwind surge and flow around me and through me, connecting me to endless other images of myself, also beings of light, stretching out behind me into infinity and before me into the distance, where the images dissolve into Peyrepertuse, which has now lost all form and is nothing but a shimmering mass of golden light. It’s a nice image. I wish the video camera had been on and had been able to capture it. I would like to see the smile on my face.