Mei turned down the volume when we almost reached the Arcachon Bay. I was going to make a right turn to head towards the town of Arcachon, when I suddenly spotted the road sign “Dune du Pilat”. I hit the break. A dune? What could that be? Mei quickly unfolded the paper map on her lap. Her index finger moved feverishly across the map. Dune, Dune, Dune… I can’t find a Dune on this frigging map!
Mei was getting impatient… and so was I, as I kept checking in the rear-view mirror whether a car was approaching or not. Suddenly, she looked at me. You know what? Let’s just check it out! She turned up the volume, I hit the gas, and off we drove towards the mysterious dune.
A couple of kilometers further, another road sign led us to an outdoor parking hidden in the pine forest. A few remote cars seemed stranded on the deserted parking lot.
Should we bring a bottle of water? I knew that Mei usually gets thirsty out of the blue, at the most unexpected place and time. So, I always carry a bottle of water wherever we go. Nah! We probably won’t stay long… Our tiny purses slung across the shoulders, we walked down a narrow cobblestone path through the forest.
From afar, a tetchy metallic sound filled the air. The dissonant jingle reminded me of my childhood and yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… The further we trekked, the louder the clapper. When we caught sight of a row of wooden cabins, I finally recognized the sound. Mei looked at me and said: those are wind chimes, right?
Set at the brink of the pine forest, the wooden cabins were actually souvenir shops lining up like solitary sentinels. Most of them were closed. Bonjour! A lady, dressed like a gypsy, came out of nowhere and invited us to take a look at her store. We suddenly felt transported to an eerie parallel world. Or maybe it was the clatter of the dozens of wind chimes hanging outside her storefront. On vend aussi des boissons si vous voulez. Parce que là-haut vous ne trouverez pas grand-chose à boire.
I looked at Mei. Oops! Now that she knew there was no water “up there” (wherever that was?), I was sure she was going to say that she suddenly got very thirsty! In fact, I didn’t even wait until she uttered the desire to hand the lady 1€ for the bottle of water. Mei shot me a huge smile, followed by a shy kiss on my cheek…
We continued our trek, which now pointed uphill. All of a sudden, we both came to a standstill. My jaw dropped as we stood in front of a giant dune. Imagine a wall made of sand reaching for the sky… 50m, 80m, perhaps even 100m high? Oh my goodness, what is that? I turned over to Mei and saw that she was as startled as I was. Well, I guess that’s the Dune du Pilat. And just like that, we both burst out laughing. Out of surprise and out of joy to have followed our guts…
We needed a few minutes to grasp the reality and size of what we were marveling at. We finally advanced to a wooden staircase embedded in the dune. A couple with a toddler also reached the stairs. The husband soon started to breathe heavily and cursed about how steep and strenuous the climb was. Do you think they serve beer up there? His wife didn’t seem happy about the question: How would I know! I told you to bring that stupid cooling box! And did you get the diapers for Marie? Mei and I exchanged meaningful glances but kept our mouths shut.
Next thing we knew, we arrived at the top of the dune and… stopped dead in our tracks. WOW! Someone led out a cry. It took me a moment to realize that it came from me. We were both so caught off balance that we dropped on the sand.
Sitting on top of the tallest sand dune in Europe, a gigantic yellow bosom nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and an enormous pine forest, I felt like I had reached a milestone in my life.
I had just turned 19 and Mei 20. Adult life had just started for us. We were in love with each other. As I breathed in the salty Atlantic air, I felt a liberating sensation, like a rock falling off my chest. The weight I had been lugging around as a teenager. My own ball and chain filled with guilt, shame and regret. I was the serpent that bursts out of its old skin…
I took Mei’s hand. We went rolling down the sandy slope of the Dune du Pilat towards the ocean. Sky and earth were upside down. Sand was embracing every inch of our skin. I remember us laughing, screaming, maybe trying to sing…
When we reached the beach, I ripped off my shirt and raced to the ocean. I felt the crunching wet sand between my toes, a new energy flowing upward through my legs. Still I ran, throwing myself into the water, into the new blue freedom of being a woman.
As I write these lines looking back at what freedom felt like 17 years ago, I see how corny our story sounds. Like a soap opera from the 1990s. But our discovery of the Dune du Pilat was one of the truthful moments that defined us. This truth set us free.