When the Fog Parts on Montagne Pelée

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The skies were ominously dark, the clouds gray and heavy. The mountain hid behind thick layers of fog. Still, we were determined to persevere. We had driven all the way to Montagne Pelée and we weren’t about to turn back now.

It was the day after Thanksgiving (which I celebrated on Saturday with some of the assistants since we don’t get Thursday off) and we decided to forego the traditional Black Friday shopping spree for a day of hiking. As it turns out, a six-hour roundtrip hike the day after Thanksgiving is the perfect way to kill any guilt you were harboring about that second (or third) helping of sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top.

After a slightly longer than expected trip into Fort-de-France that involved getting very lost because a marathon had shut down many of the main roads, we finally arrived at the base of the Montagne Pelée at the late hour of 8 a.m.

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Montagne Pelée is Martinique’s volcano. It last erupted in 1902, wiping out the entire town of Saint Pierre except for the town drunkard who had been conveniently locked underground in the city jail for drunk and disorderly behavior. Until the eruption, Saint Pierre had been the capital of Martinique, but the capital has been Fort-de-France ever since. Wikipedia calls it the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, and for good reason: it killed 30,000 people. Now, the face of the inactive but still live volcano has been converted into a lovely (if tough*) hike.

The hike began with a bunch of stairs that after five minutes began to feel like a stair-stepper workout with a much better view. Of course, this view was mostly hidden behind fog, but it was still infinitesimally better than the view of sweaty middle-aged men wheezing on the treadmill.

Finally, the stairs ended—only to be replaced with large pieces of steep rock with small wedges carved into the rock for steps. When we finally finished these, the trail flattened out a bit, and I for one was wondering if we were almost there. I could not have been more wrong. In order to get to the volcano, we had to cross several mountains. At least the hike included a great deal of variety: just as you grew tired of the steep uphill, you found yourself going steep downhill.

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The weather ended up being oddly perfect for the hike. The feat forces hikers to start early, but on a six-hour hike you are pretty much bound to encounter the hot noon sun regardless of how early you start. The fog, in contrast, protected us from the sun. The other assistants and I were all shocked to find that at one point we were actually chilly. Not cold—just chilly.

When I pictured a volcano, I had envisioned the mountain opening up onto a huge pit of fire. This was not the case. We finally arrived at the top of the volcano and all we could see was rock. The rock hardened over the mountain so that you can now walk over what was once a volcano. Sometimes puffs of smoke come out of the cracks, but we did not see this. It seemed a little anticlimactic at first—until I thought about the fact that I was standing over a volcano. After that, it seemed fortunate that the volcano was not smoking around our feet.

The one downside of the fog was that it blocked the amazing view that Montagne Pelée is known for. On a sunny day, you can see all around Martinique from the top of Montagne Pelée. When the clouds split for about five seconds—to cheers from all of the hikers—I could see a little coastal town and the ocean beyond. It was beautiful, but short-lived.
We headed back towards the base. While we were walking, the clouds split, revealing hills folding the land like cloth and a valley boasting every shade of green. The coastal towns and dark blue ocean were barely visible behind the lifting cloud.

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The thing about heavy, gray clouds is that they generally lead to rain. About an hour away from the base, the clouds that had been holding back all morning suddenly let loose. In Martinique, it does not drizzle—the sky is either perfectly sunny or bawling its eyes out. The rain pelted down, soaking us to the skin. Luckily, we were traversing the mountain when this happened and the rain had stopped by the time we were climbing down rock again.

We finally arrived back at the base exhausted. But, we celebrated our climb to the top with sandwiches and sugar cane juice (with rum for those of us who were not driving). I paid sorely (pun intended) for that six-hour hike for the next three days—but it was worth it.

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*This is the kind of hike where you will be on your hands and knees a lot of the time—and your butt is the most useful part of your body. It is not for the faint of heart or weak of ankles and knees (unless you’re willing for a six hour hike to become an eight hour hike). And be prepared to ache a lot the next day.

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