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Friday is the last day of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar, sparking talk about the possible end of the world. About two years ago, a rumor began circulating on the Internet that the French village of Bugarach, population 200, would be the only place to survive this apocalypse.
But despite many news stories of people flocking to the village, less than two weeks before "doomsday," there was no one on the streets. Houses were shuttered against the cold.
Susie Harrison, who has lived in Bugarach for nine years, says she loves the village, which sits in a verdant valley in southeastern France, dominated by a strange mesalike mountain.
"It's beautiful, remote, nature, healthy," she says, "and turning out to be quite interesting as well."
Harrison says she has no idea how the rumor about Bugarach started. She and her 12-year-old daughter wrote a poem about it:
"The end of the world is nigh, tho some say it's a lie. The mayor has gone barmy, he's threatened to call the army, to clear out all the hippies from their camper vans and tepees," Harrison recites.
Harrison, who describes herself as a free spirit, says she doesn't know anyone who really believes the Mayan theory. But she says many people believe in the magical power of the mountain, known as the Pic of Bugarach. Harrison spent the night of the summer solstice on the summit and says she'd like to do the same on the winter solstice — Friday.
But the mountain will be cordoned off.
A 'Total Security System'
Part-time resident Jean Philippe, who preferred not to give his last name, says there's apparent talk of bringing in the army.
"Of course all this feeds the conspiracy and all that," he says, "so it's quite funny, but it always works like that, you know?"
At the one-room town hall, Mayor Jean-Pierre Delord says there are multiple fantasies about Bugarach. For 40 years, he says, people have been coming here looking for UFOs and extraterrestrials or the healing power of the mountain.
"And now add this Mayan rumor and the buzz created on the Internet, and we just don't know what to expect," says Delord, who has presided over this community since 1977. "So we've put in place a total security system around Dec. 21, and even residents will have to show special passes to come and go."
Some here say strange lights and noises emanate from the mountain. Bugarach is said to have inspired 19th century French author Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. By an odd coincidence, the Pic de Bugarach looks like Steven Spielberg's Devil's Tower in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Magic And Mystery
Still, the rumor about the village seems more the result of journalistic exaggeration or a village feud. Some residents say the mayor started the talk so he could crack down on the crackpots who come here.
Whatever the reason, it seems to have gone to locals' heads. A dozen rowdy denizens sit at a table in Bugarach's only bar, looking for their names in a book that's just come out about the village and the Mayan theory. But they refuse to discuss it with an outsider journalist — as if it's a closely guarded secret.
The wind is whipping at the base of the Pic of Bugarach, where many people have parked their cars to begin the hike to the 4,000-foot summit.
Asked whether it wouldn't be better to attempt this in the summertime, the father of one family says sure — but we might not be here anymore.