Insane Trip in French Hillbilly Territory: The Vosges

20140510-095956.jpgI still don’t know if what happened was real or if a collective paranoia that hit both my friend and I on this trip. One thing is sure, this trip felt like a backwood horror movie. I don’t want to scare y’all but this stuff needs to be documented, because I don’t want anyone to disappear over there.

Chapter 1 – Alsace

Let me start with a quick background about the region. The Vosges are a mountain range located in Alsace, in Eastern France. Alsace is a very unique part of France. The local culture is the result of a mix of German and French traditions. They have their own language which, sounds very much like German, and a lot of people still speak it in the country. The names of the cities, towns and villages are literally unpronounceable. The architecture is atypical, with houses that look like they’re from a old tale like Hansel & Gretel. Whenever I go there, I feel like I am in another reality. Even though it’s still France, it feels very, very different. The air seems filled with mystery. I met my friend in Strasburg, which is the capital of the region, and we took a train to go to Saverne, a small Vosgian country town.

Chapter 2 – Dangerous Encounter

The trip started pretty well. We crossed Saverne, following a small river that led to the mountains. We passed by the last isolated house of Saverne and entered an obscure forest. After a five minute hike, I caught sight of the ramparts of an old, austere castle. It was the medieval castle of the Haut-Barr, built in 1100 and later abandoned in 1770. We didn’t pay much attention to it as we wanted to cover a good distance during day time. We walked for a really long time in that vast forest. There was a heavy silence. The only thing that disturbed it was our footsteps and the cracking branches of the trees. We stopped by a couple of dark caves until we reached a mountain peak called the Gessfels, from which we had an incredible view on the region. We took the opportunity to check where we were and where we had to go. I could see in the distance an old church built on top of a big rock, which I identified as being Dabo’s Rock.

We continued the journey in a valley. The sun was going down and the forest was thrown in the twilight. This probably caused my friend to trip over a root and twist his ankle. We stopped for twenty minutes because the whole thing was causing him some pain. We couldn’t stay were we were, though, and had to keep walking up to a small village which was on the other side of the mountain. In the twilight, we did our best to follow a small animal path that zigzagged between huge conifers.

All of a sudden, my friend, who was walking ahead, froze and raised his hand to tell me to stop moving. I didn’t understand what was going on because I couldn’t see much, but it seemed like he was getting nervous. He slowly told me to come closer and looked at me: “Man, there’s a huge wild boar over there.” He slowly pointed his finger ahead, but I saw nothing. There was no movement and everything was silent. My friend took hold of his knife, so did I. I didn’t know if he was serious or pranking me, but the adrenaline hit my entire body. I looked around, there was literally nowhere to hide. The tree trunks were straight and tall. Their first branches were unreachable. There were a few rocks around us and I guess the plan would have been to get under cover there and, if anything, yell at the beast to scare it off. I knew some of these animals can be pretty big and aggressive for no reason.

We remained still for maybe a minute, when we heard some movement and branches cracking in the distance. At this point, I clearly saw a pretty big form moving, followed by a second, and a third, and a fourth! My friend looked at me and whispered “Man, if anything, we should probably rush to this clearing on the right. If they have babies with them they might get really aggressive.” I just held on my knife and waited. These boars were taking their dang time, and there were a good fifteen of them by now, a whole pack! They were maybe 150 or 200 feet away. I prayed that they wouldn’t decide to head towards us.

Eventually, after two or three minutes which felt like an eternity, the pack headed up to the top of the mountain. We waited another couple of minutes once the last boar was gone, and we rushed to a clearing which was farther down the mountain. There, we checked the map. What we realized was that we had almost reached the top of the mountain, and that the village we wanted to go to was just on the other side. Unfortunately, we now knew that there was a whole army of wild boars hanging around in that area, and we had to schedule a new route. We decided to hike through the forest to get closer to a few houses that showed up on our map. There seemed to be a meadow by these houses and we would be able to camp there.

It was now pretty dark. Luckily, my eyes got accustomed and I didn’t have to use my flashlight. I usually don’t like to use my flashlight anyway, because it then becomes fairly easy for anyone to know where you are. We reached a dirt road that led us to the hamlet indicated on the map. We set our tent at the edge of the forest so that no one could spot us. The wind was getting pretty strong. Fortunately, it didn’t rain that night.

Chapter 3 – From the Valsberg to Wagenburg-Engenthal

The next day, we packed our stuff pretty early. My friend’s ankle was swollen, not a good sign. We followed a small road that was going up to a mountain top. We knew that the village we should’ve reached the day before was on the other side. When we reached the top of the mountain called the Valsberg, we saw something quite interesting. There was an old, greyish communication tower. Next to it was a strange building of black concrete that looked like a big military bunker. The whole area was fenced with barbed wires. The place was very creepy and seemed like it had not been used in a while. There were loud whistling and gusting sounds coming from the antenna, as the wind was blowing strongly over the facility. We did not waste any time and made our way to the other side of the mountain.

After a good walk, we finally arrived in the hamlet of Obersteigen. Now, I need to tell you the really strange story about Obersteigen. We need to go a couple of years in the future. I was in third year of law school on the other side of the country. A new group of students had joined our batch from a smaller city, and I met this guy who later became my friend. When I first talked to him, I asked him about his background and he told me he had grown up in Alsace. “Oh, really? Where about?” I asked. “I was living in a small village, man, you won’t know where it is,” he replied. “Just tell me, who knows, maybe I know the place,” I insisted. Well, yea, I guess you see where I am going. This guy grew up in the small village of Obersteigen, and I passed by his house! I can tell you he had a hard time to believe me until I told him the names of the neighboring villages.

From Obersteigen, we made our way to Wagenburg-Engenthal. We were pretty exhausted by then. We were lucky enough to pass by a very small grocery store that was open. We got inside hoping to buy some ham and bread and eat something fresh. Well, what a grocery store. I knew we were in France, but it was really hard to believe. They were selling all sorts of strange products I had never seen before. But the craziest thing was that the few locals that were in the grocery store were all speaking in Alsatian. To me, it just sounded like German. It really made me feel like I was in another country. I even hesitated to speak French to the owner. I was wondering if she was going to understand. Fortunately, she did.

Chapter 4 – A Night on the Schneeberg

It was maybe 4 or 5 P.M. now. We checked the map and decided to make our way to the top of a ridge that would help us reach the next valley. The ascent was horrible. It was steep and muddy. To top it all it started to rain. My dad had given me his really old military backpack which was awful. The straps were sawing my shoulders. I was actually bleeding.

After a good two hours of pure climb, we finally reached the top of the ridge and made our way to the top of the highest peak, the Schneeberg [3,153ft]. It was raining pretty bad but we didn’t care. We reached the highest point and contemplated Mother Nature in action. Then, we found shelter in a small cave that was nearby. There was just enough place to hide from the rain, but not enough to actually be comfortable. After thirty minutes, we realized it wouldn’t be convenient to camp there. I took the map out and started examining it. After a couple of minutes, I noticed a black dot that we had missed. We started to speculate about what this dot could represent. Maybe it was some sort of man-made shelter? It was worth checking the place out. It was not very far. We let our backpacks in the cave and walked down the peak. After a five minute hike along the steep buttress of the mountain, we reached a small clearing and discovered an amazing shelter. Thank God, it was opened! Exactly what I was dreaming of. The place had a fireplace, a big table, and a ladder that led to the second floor, which was pretty much a very basic dorm.

We picked up our backpacks and hiked back to the shelter. We made ourselves comfortable and tried to dry our wet clothes. We collected some wood that luckily was still dry and started a huge fire. When it stopped raining, I went outside. I could see Wagenburg down in the valley. The lights of the small village started to shine as the night was falling.

I was hanging out in the clearing when I think I heard some voices coming from the forest. I froze and listened carefully. Yes, looked like a few people were making their way in this direction. I hoped that they would be good folks because spending the night with weird people didn’t sound good.  It turned out that it was a group of five local teenagers who were coming to party for the night. The age difference was not that much, as I was only 17 at that time. They were pretty nice but had really strong accents. It was good to have more people in, because I figured the unidentified creature that was living under the roof was less likely to end up in my sleeping bag that night.

Chapter 5 – Paranormal Activities

The next morning, we took off pretty early and walked along the ridge to the next valley. It was sunny and warmer than the day before. Walking through the Haslash Forest, we soon arrived at the Nideck Castle. The last piece of the medieval building still standing was a tower overhanging the whole valley. In the valley, we followed a stream of water until a beautiful 60 feet waterfall. The rest of the journey was painful. We walked mile after mile in a very boring environment. We were at the bottom of the valley and couldn’t see anything because of the dense forest. We passed through a couple of small hamlets – Oberhaslach and Niederhaslach until we finally reached the village of Urmatt in the next valley.

We arrived in Urmatt at 4 P.M. approximately. It was still early, but for some strange reason, the village seemed empty. There was no sign of life whatsoever. We walked to the central square by the church and found a grocery store. Believe it or not, it was already closed. I had a bad feeling about this place. We walked around trying to find someone and get some information about whether or not there was another grocery store in the village. After twenty minutes looking for a living soul, we just gave up.

We hanged around until 8 P.M. during all this time, we saw no one in that village. There was a railroad that was going through Urmatt and ended in the small city of Schirmeck farther down the valley. We waited under a small train station shelter until we realized that all the trains were canceled due to construction work up the road. Not giving up on modern transportation, we moved to a bus stop along the road and waited for a bus that never came. At some point, though, I heard what I thought was the sound of a train in the distance. Could it really be a train? We were pretty sceptical and stayed where we were, not wanting to miss the bus. After a couple of minutes, though, it became obvious that a train was going through the village. We couldn’t see it, but we could hear it. We grabbed our bags and ran as fast as we could. We crossed the tracks, not even paying attention for any incoming traffic. I was literally 10 feet away from the doors of the train when they shut in my face. I knocked at the door and made signs to the driver. The guy just didn’t care, and left without us.

We were really upset at this point. We went back to the village, hoping to find a good spot to sleep. he sun was going down and everything was silent. All of a sudden, though, a strident scream rose from the mountains close to the village. We froze and looked at each other, shocked. A few seconds later, we heard another horrible scream. It sounded like someone was being tortured and was agonizing. After a couple of minutes, the series of terrifying screams stopped, and silence came back. At this point, my friend looked at me and said, “That’s it. I’m sick of this crazy village. Let’s get the heck outta here, now. I’m not spending any more minute in this damn place.”

Chapter 6 – Mind Games or Reality

We geared up and were out of the insane village of Urmatt within minutes. We walked along a mountain road the whole night. We passed through several hamlets and villages, including Lutzelhouse, Netzenbach and Hersbach. The night was very dark and the road creepy. I could see the dancing shadows of enormous trees on both sides of the road. From time to time, we would pass by dark, gloomy mountain houses that looked scarier  and scarier as we were going forward.

At some point, we were crossing a small hamlet, and as we were approaching a bench by a house, my friend asked if he could change his socks. We stopped there and rested for a couple of minutes. Suddenly, my friend turns towards me and whispers “Dude, have you heard it?” “Heard what,” I ask. “Nothing, nevermind,” he says as he ties his shoes. Everything is quiet, until I start distinguishing a strange, out of the ordinary sound in the background. It’s like some kind of song but I cannot identify it. I look at my friend and he looks at me. We don’t have to talk because we know exactly what the other is thinking. It sounds like someone is whispering a melody. We check the window of the house behind us. It’s closed. Things start to get weirder and weirder as the melody gets louder and louder, until I can clearly distinguish the words of what sounds like an incantation. And let me tell you, it wasn’t French, it wasn’t English, it wasn’t German, not even Alsatian. I don’t know what the heck that was, but it sounded like some freak was doing some satanic ritual in the basement of that house. I know it was an irrational fear, but my friend and I literally jumped off the bench and started running knives in hands.

After a couple of minutes, we slowed down and started walking again, talking about the insane thing that had just happened. We left the hamlet and started walking in the forest again, until we reached the next hamlet. We were exhausted. We came across a small chapel by the road and decided to have an hour of rest there. We laid down behind the sacred place and fell asleep. I was awoken by a light rain, to realize that I was literally covered by dozens of monstrous slimy slugs. As I jumped trying to get rid of them, I crushed a couple that were on the ground. It took us a couple of minutes to get rid of all the slugs. They had let their strange sticky snail slime all over me.

Back on the road against our will, we kept walking and walking. The night seemed endless. I was so tired that my head felt like it was about to burst. Each step was painful. I was feeling like I had walked so much that The bones of my feet were in direct contact with the ground. My backpack was still as heavy as day one and the straps were constantly sawing my shoulders. When we finally reached the town of Shirmeck, dawn was near. We had walked all day and almost all night. When we passed by the train station, we knew it was the end of the trip for us. We were short on food, and more importantly, my friend’s ankle was very painful. Nothing compared to my other friend who almost ripped a muscle in the middle of the mountains a year later, but this is another story.

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4 Responses to Insane Trip in French Hillbilly Territory: The Vosges

  1. What an adventure! Really enjoyed reading and looking at the photos

  2. Andrew says:

    Sorry you had a bum time. I’ve lived and hiked here for several years, all of them wonderful–never a paranormal experience or wild boar run in. Things do close unexpectedly, but it’s always some kind of national holiday I wasn’t aware of. And train drivers are callous, for sure. But it’s a beautiful region, overstuffed with charm and layers of history.

    • Hello Andrew! Thanks for your comment and sharing. Please, do not get me wrong, I like the region a lot, and looking back, it was a fun trip. I must admit the title of my post is not very flattering for the locals… I used a dramatic style to make the story entertaining and focus on feelings rather than mere descriptions. I went back to the Vosges with the very same friend 6 months ago for a 42 hour raid near Munster and we had a great time. I am thinking about writing that story as well (we didn’t use any maps on that latest trip, and I forgot my compass in a shelter). It was on a completely other level physically speaking.. and not paranormal experience this time!

      Where did you live in the Vosges?

  3. jeannie says:

    That was quite an adventure.

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