This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to hike parts of Le Chemin de la Liberté, also known as the Freedom Trail. Before I get into my own experience, I’d like to pause and share the history of this journey.
The History of the Freedom Trail
The Freedom Trail has its roots in World War II as the pathway to freedom for those escaping persecution from the Nazi army. The trail leads from France to Spain through the Pyrenees mountain, and is a treacherous journey at times. Those who used this trail to escape were those facing discrimination of many kinds, including Jewish people, resistors, and foreigners. The need for this journey came following a deeper Nazi presence in southern France, meaning people needed to reach Spain to find safety.
Many people lost their lives on this trail seeking freedom, and others face great hardship. I carried this history in my mind as I walked some of the same paths as those in history.
Left to right: Jim, Carl, me, John, Mike
Hiking the Freedom Trail
I was pleased to be joined by a wonderful group of friends, both old and new. Allow me to introduce the team:
- My long-time good friend Carl, a heart surgeon from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He and I share multiple hiking trip experiences in Europe, the US, and even one in New Zealand. We also have a shared passion for college football in common and have attended numerous games together, particularly at Louisiana State University (his alma mater) and University of Washington (my alma mater). We’ve also spent lots of time travelling around Italy together, including attending this year’s Ryder Cup in Rome.
- My new friend Paul, the English sculptor I met in France earlier this summer to work on creating a tasteful recognition of my good friend Jim. He has art all over the world, including London, Paris, and Burgundy. You can visit one of his incredible creations at the Saint Pancras international RR Station in London. Paul and his wife (who’s also an artist) have lived in the french wine region in a village called Sainte Sabine for 30 years. Paul and I really hit it off this summer when I visited his home and studio, so I was pleased when he decided to join us on this trip! He was an excellent hiker and such a joyful presence to have in the group.
- Mike, a recently retired U.S. Air Force four-star general. Mike served in the Air Force for 40 years, having held many roles including preparing Air Force forces for overseas deployments, planning and building the Air Force budget, coordinating Air Force global operations, and helping direct Mid-East Policy. He graduated from the US Naval War College National Security Strategy program with the highest honors, and accumulated thousands of hours of fighter pilot experience over his career, including combat tours over Iraq and Afghanistan. Mike’s military career was incredible to hear about on the trip, and clearly contributed to his immense hiking skills. He also joined Carl and I as a big football fan. He graduated from the University of Tennessee and likes to keep up with the Vols, so we had lots to chat about.
- John, Mike’s brother-in-law and the recently-retired Senior Marketing Manager of a division of a major US company. He holds two Master’s degrees, one in Business and one in Chemistry, and has done business in Asia, North America, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. He’s been extremely involved in nonprofits and his community, and was awarded the Smart Business Pillar Award for Non-profit Board Executive of the Year in 2013. John lives in Westlake, Ohio with his wife of 30 years. He was an incredible hiker, and a wonderful addition to our little group!
- Jim, my best friend and a major US multi-family housing developer. Jim couldn’t make the hiking portion, but the entire trip was his idea. He’s always having big ideas like this, and I’m grateful for the time we did get to spend with him.
- Now I suppose I should introduce myself. I have been in the venture capital industry for over 25 years and am the Managing General Partner at Bay Partners. I enjoy the opportunity to invest in entrepreneurs who are wholly passionate about their vision and completely tenacious about making it happen. I have my share of ups and downs in VC investing, but was proudly included in the Forbes magazine Midas List as one of the top 100 VCs in the world. In addition, I am an adjunct professor at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, consistently given the highest student ratings for my class, CEO and Board Governance. Now, I am focused on angel investing and mentoring founders and students. I have sailed around the world, climbed some of the world’s highest mountains, and run dozens of marathons. My good pal Jim and I also drove the thousand mile Mille Miglia race, starting in Brescia and finishing in Cervia-Milano Marittima.
The group chose a variety of trails, each challenging and dangerous with lots of vertical climbing and extremely rocky terrain. There were two routes and each individual decided which trail they’d take.
The first day was a celebratory merging of experiences and lives as we settled into our group. We enjoyed a meal filled with each other’s best stories as we broke the ice. We were all feeling very optimistic about the next few days ahead of us.
This was the first day on the trail, and we were fortunate to have the assistance of three incredible guides—Anne, John, and Dave—and we all got to know them almost like family. Each guide was an accomplished, award-winning climber, having participated in and winning many competitions. The input and guidance of these individuals was completely invaluable as we navigated extreme and unfamiliar terrain.
We broke up into two groups to start the day: one made up of myself and two guides—Anne and John, and the other including John, Paul, Carl, Mike and Dave, the third guide. I was the eldest hiker in the group, so I opted for the slightly less challenging trail. We had to drive a short distance to get into the Pyrenees Mountains to make our start.
Neal and John, the guide
This first taste of the trail was strenuous for both groups. We gained hundreds of feet in elevation and hiked for almost six hours. Our spartan lodgings for the night were called ‘the refuge,’ a simple structure equipped only with small rooms with bunk beds (4-6 to a room), hot water, and a roof to keep the weather out. After a long day of hiking we enjoyed a simple but hearty meal, a shower (though I missed out on the hot water), and a solid sleep in our bunks.
This wasn’t the most luxurious night of our trip, but it was all part of the experience. And it was certainly more comfortable than a tent on the ground.
Left to right: Mike, Anne, Paul, John, Dave behind the camera
This day of trail included a mix of both downhill and uphill climbs. The downhill was as treacherous as uphill, but with the added danger of the potential to fall. Unfortunately, at the bottom of the first major downhill climb I started to experience shortness of breath. Luckily, I had my Cardiologist friend, Carl, with me. He was able to use John’s handy Smartwatch to take my pulse and obtain a somewhat accurate EKG, gauging the seriousness of the situation.
The results were irregular, so the group climbed down to a rendezvous point where Carl and I were picked up by a friend of Anne’s and taken to the nearest town. Luckily, I didn’t need to see a doctor (other than Carl), so we enjoyed a beautiful day in this alpine town while the rest of the group endured the most challenging portion of the entire trail with high winds, nasty rain, and every other bad weather you can experience in the mountains.
So, this day came with an unexpected surprise, but it all ended up just fine in the end. In fact, after hearing about the day the rest of the hikers experienced, I was almost grateful for the chance to rest—we joked that it was self-preservation! I was grateful to Carl and the guides for helping me through the scare, and I was pleased to be able to continue the next day.
Day four was a flatter day of hiking, taking us far above the ski resort where we’d spend the night. It was a beautiful and scenic day, with views we’ll never forget.
The ski town was a charming place, known as a ski destination in the winter and a challenging hiking spot in the summer. This time, we got to stay in a real hotel—a fair bit cushier than our last accommodations.
We hiked through several towns, each with a ski resort that connected to the next town and resort. Each town had its own personality, and this was such a unique way to experience them.
On this day especially, I thought a lot about the people who escaped through here so many years ago. They didn’t have the luxuries of technology, supplies, and guidance that we relied upon to make this journey.
This day’s journey ended with us hiking down into the Capital City of Andorra, Andorra la Vella. We arrived at around noon, following a steep downhill climb into the city.
That night we enjoyed a dinner that was the perfect bookend to our trip. We had a delicious meal and recapped our hike. We spent more time getting to know one another, shared our trip highlights, and marvelled at the history of the trail again.
Map of the area of Andorra la Vella
There was something about this trip that transformed five essential strangers into close friends by the end. As the night wore on, we started sharing personal stories, family tales, and even our problems. The energy stayed high and we lasted until midnight. By the end of this trip and that dinner, we were teasing each other like lifelong pals.
Andorra la Vella
Left to right: John, Dave, Carl, Paul, Anne
This was our last day, and we spent it exploring the beautiful capital city. We enjoyed our time, taking in the contrasting historic alpine architecture and modern steel and glass buildings side-by-side.
From here, we went our separate ways. Carl and I headed to Barcelona, him to fly home and myself to fly off to see my son race in the famous UTMB race (you can read all about the race here!).
The entire trip was a humbling and worthwhile experience, and I feel privileged to have had the chance to make it happen. While I didn’t experience the true nature of the trail—walking for days on end and camping near the path—I do feel as though I got a taste of the history and perseverance of humankind.
My son best described the terrain we both encountered on this trip, him while running the UTMB race and me while hiking the Freedom Trail. In his recap, he mentioned “It felt like a friendly climb…but it was downright hot, steep and slow as hell” Now, I may not have been running this extreme race, but I certainly encountered moments like this in my own experience with this terrain.
Thank you to each and every one of the friends who joined me, the guides who helped us make the journey, and everyone else we met along the way.