The first night I camp since weathering that storm on the beach in Portugal and it rains all night. This in itself is no problem, but I am loath to pack up a wet tent. The flip-side of this daylight savings is that it is dark until 7:30 a.m. and cold for a few hours after that, so there is no sense in waiting for anything to dry. I pack up and resume my descent, for a long while yet. I must remark that the French side of the Col du Pourtalet looks like a much more challenging climb. For me, it s a long, pleasurable descent. It is beautiful here, of course- the walls are closing in, getting steeper. Streams and rivulets tumble a thousand feet down the exposed rock faces and the river wends with quiet grace alongside the road. There is mist in the air, but the sun begins to pierce the drowsy blankets of fog as they drift around the peaks. It is all very dramatic and beautiful… and also very cold. I shift into my big ring for the first time this trip just to move my legs on the descent. At last I pop out into the valley, and it warms up. I ride through a lovely village surrounded by farmland. There is a very dramatic World War Memorial statue in the village center, but my camera dies, so no picture. It is one of many, I will discover, from both wars.
France o far is an expanse of rolling farmland and forest, dotted with charming villages. It is very distinct from that of Spain; wetter, more deciduous, and it feels familiar to me. I enjoy a pleasant, uneventful ride into Lourdes, though my legs protest at the slightest incline. I am uneasy though- I no longer feel like a traveler, I have regressed back into a foreigner, for I do not know the language and I am as of yet unfamiliar with the tone of these people’s lives. My eyes are shifty, I am feeling and acting uncouth.
I stop at a little park just outside of town and have myself some lunch before heading into town. The first thing I see is a small though ornate cathedral across the river, and am surprised at how rural the place seems. This sentiment is dispelled immediately as I round the corner. It is small, as cities go, but what is here is a convoluted maze of tall skinny buildings that form continuous lines along tortuous, narrow streets, all below the ever-present castle-on-the-hill, of course. I am feeling a bit overwhelmed, out of my element.
Olaf had mentioned that France was expensive, and here is the test, for I need lodging. How to pick a hotel though? Remember, this is a town of miracles, and people searching for the miraculous need places to stay. I think it would be an understatement to say that 2 out of every 3 buildings was a hotel. One would think that a few would be relegated to apartment housing, but from the looks of it you could likely hire a room in any building. I do not think I am conveying the sheer density of the place: if one were to review all the hotels in this small city, you would have a year’s worth of work in a city center probably no larger than a square mile.
I wander around, looking for a café with some wifi. I settle on a kebap shop that has a wifi signal, walk in, grab an orange juice, and step up to the counter. Thankfully, the man speaks English. “Do you have wifi?” “Yes.” “Perfect.” I slide the drink forward. He looks at it, then at me, and says, “Only that? You really should be eating…”
I was wondering if we were going to do this little dance. I had just eaten two sandwiches, and the cheapest thing on the menu is 5 euro… I search the menu with a hopeless look on my face. He reads it, relaxes, and says that I can use the wifi. I thank him, and, as it was the right thing to do, I promised I would return for dinner.
I look up some places on a hostelry website, and it seems that there are two hotels right around the corner for 13 euros, which sounds great to me! I find the first one and inquire about a room (The lady at the front desk speaks English, thank goodness). She says there are rooms available… for 28 euro. Ooh. I mention the 13 euro price I saw online and she laughs indignantly. “Thirteen euro? ….no. Nowhere here will have a room for that, maybe 25, but not 13!” She laughs to herself. Well shoot. She looks at me, pauses, and says she can do 25. I quickly agree. I’m skewered, any discount is better than nothing.
It is a nice little room, with two beds, a private bath, and a view of the castle. Alright! First off, I pull out my soggy tent and drape it unceremoniously across half the room. I shower, and then see about getting some writing done. The internet is spotty, and it takes some time, but I get caught up!
View from the room
Having at last gotten my last edit to go through, I go out for some groceries. After my interaction with the cashier I decide that I desperately need to learn some French. I cannot stand not being able to speak, it drives me crazy! After reading signs all day and plugging some words through my translator, I am surprised by how many French words there are in the English language- for which we have William the Conqueror to thank- and half the others are similar to Spanish, as is the structure as a whole. What’s more, French is so iconic that I know a lot of phrases- “ju nu parlais pas francais,” “je ne sei pas,” “ju nu compre pas,” “merci beaucoup,” “bonjour,” “bonsoir,” “bon appetite,” etc. etc. You would be surprised how many of the basic phrases you are familiar with. So I actually have a pretty substantial headstart in this language, but there is a problem: though there is a little already in my head, and a lot of potential, I have none in my tongue and none in my ears. I have no idea whatsoever what people are saying and I can’t even tell them so; I freeze up, for I have never tried to speak French. So begins my frantic attempt at language acquisition, one of many more to come.
But first, I have dinner, which I don’t want to spend the money for, but a kebap sounds delicious and I am a man of my word. I return, and exchange smiles with the man. “I told you I would come back.” “Yes, finally.” he says, a little churlish. He recommends a certain dish and asks if I want it hot. Of course I do. Am I sure? If I want it hot, he will make it hot. Yes, I am sure. Europeans don’t understand spicy food. I get my sandwich and it is delicious, and there is so much of whatever spice is supposed to be the active element that my throat tickles a little, but as far as heat goes, it hardly registers. Ah well, it is very tasty. I thank the man and return to my room to study some French.
I downloaded Duolingo at the restaurant while I had the strong internet, but after a few minutes struggling with the spotty signal at the hotel, I give up and start reading. I have been reading some heavy hitting metaphysical literature, and something I read about the concept of time triggered something in me, and I had the distinct impression that I have been here before. This set me thinking about eternal recurrence, and for a while I sat suspended in this trance, feeling that I had been coming full circle my whole life- that, up to this point, everything had played out as it has before.
Regardless of your opinions concerning the theory, the feeling was there and I felt very, very close to something. I could not help thinking of the energy of the place here in Lourdes, but this being my first night staying in a French town, where I can sense the atmosphere of people’s lives, I cannot tell whether it was the environment of Lourdes in particular. Eventually this feeling passed, when I bumped a knot in my thigh and began to massage my mutilated legs. From then on it was a quiet, restful night.
Morning comes, and I wake early. The town is stirring, slowly, and I take my time, savoring the quickening energy of day. I wander to the window and look out. I catch a woman in a special ritual- she is sitting outside of her apartment ina little dormer that opens on three sides. She is looking down into the street, a warm cup of coffee in her hands. There is light in her eyes, the glow of fading slumber, the greeting of a new day with a certain “jeur de vivre.” She is smoking her morning cigarette with her coffee, her sun salutation. I feel as if I am intruding, but the moment is so tenuous, so vulnerable, and I feed into it, my sympathy and wonder awakened… a tender, secret window into a private moment, and it is beautiful.
I vacate the room and head down to the lobby. I have three hours until checkout, so I stash my bags and pop across the street for a morning coffee. The hotel is catty-corner from a few cafés. I order a café americano with a croissant, which is so good I order another one, with another coffee of course.
It is raining gently. People are constantly passing the patio I am sitting under, and I am suffused with a calmness. I am thinking of nothing, but I am contemplative. I like the openness of the intersection, it is like a little square, filled with colorful signs and people, the quiet conversations of early morning, all below a muted sky. I want nothing more than to sit in a corner café such as this one and write all day, but this is a costly pastime…
The rain stops, the sky brightens. The laconic day, now roused, begins to speak, and I stir my limbs. I must see this holy grotto and these sacred baths. My tendons were throbbing again last night, which means I need another rest day, but it will not be in Lourdes. At 25 euro for a place to sleep, I only have a 2 euro daily buedget if I am to remain fiscally responsible… So I head down to the baths, which are not far. There is a gate and a security man, and I ask him if there is a charge to get in. “No charge,” he says (in English, thank goodness), “but you cannot take your bike.” Alright, I’ll lock it to this gate here. I have to see this place, and he will watch the bike for me. It seems a good time to mention that I think there is hardly anything on my bike of any interest to anyone- aside from my 100 dollar camera and my 200 dollar tablet, all my possessions are worn, dirty, and smelly. Certainly not resellable, nor particularly desirable to someone who does not share my love of hard travel, and those people I am not so worried about. As I pull out my lock, the security man asks if I am going in, and I affirm. He tells me to bring the bike over nearer the little station and says he needs to look in my bags. That is fine with me, he can rummage through my stinky things if he likes. I open my bags and he simply peeks in, gives me the “all-clear,” and says something about having a small security force or something. Unfortunately, it is probably protocol to ensure that I am not carrying explosives, which is a testament to the insanity and tragedy that has become the status quo in this world. I lock my bike to a fence and head in. There are beautiful modern mosaics below a dramatic, though small, cathedral.
Part of the reason for this is that the thing is built above the grotto where a woman saw the image of the Virgin Mary and was told that the waters were holy.
As I arrive, there is a large group photo being taken, of what looks to be a Catholic hospital staff in their white linens, and a large group of “invalids” of all kinds. A sharp word, I know, but it comes to mind, for they are here to be healed, and there seem to be a range of disabilities: paralysis, muscular degeneration, mental disability, cancer. They are in a fleet of gurneys and wheelchairs, many of which look more like pedicabs, with blankets and tarps are draped over them. I hope they find something in those waters.
I walk around to the grotto, and on my way notice drinking fountains issuing from the spring. Yes, I think I shall drink some of this water. I must go back for my bottle. I pass these spigots and see the grotto. It is tiny, unremarkable, aside from the statue of the goddess built there. I take no picture, though others are. There is also a small line to enter this mild concavity, but I am content. I walk to the baths, which are private, and look at the rows of people queued up to enter. I wonder if they are warm, for it is very cold this morning. There are wheelchairs and gurneys lined up along a wall, and I squeeze inbetween them to contemplate the scene, but soon retire. There was an attractive young man there in particular, fashionably dressed for his age, in a wheelchair. The look on his face said it all: there was the bitterness, the skepticism, the expression one makes when one is bitten by hope, that cruel temptress. Will it work for him? Well, there have been 69 miracles acknowledged by the church, the last a cure of high blood pressure in a young woman that was certainly unexplainable, for she had many surgeries in attempts to remedy her affliction beforehand. That was in 1987. To hope, to debase yourself and try the dark horse of a cure-all, is perhaps more painful, more harmful, than acceptance. That is the look on this young man’s face. I walk back to the bike and think about this.
The concept of a saviour is a strange thing. It is the notion of being rescued, of being uplifted by an outside source, that is remarkable. We all need something to stand on, something to give us strength, that we may bear the burdens of the world. But sometimes I think that we can lose sight of how strong we really are, that by using a crutch we come to rely on it, that we must not lose sight of the work we must put in ourselves, the empowerment we must realize for ourselves. If you are drowning, and someone comes to your aid, you must keep fighting, you must help them help you. If you cling to them and relax, you will surely drown the both of you. I know I am stepping well outside my qualification with that reflection, but it is what I thought about. Faith is a powerful thing, and tapping into this can unleash effects unheard of in the modern world; the myths and stories we are raised on have a modicum of truth to them, there is certainly lost knowledge, realms of wisdom in which we are inferior to our progenitors. The concept of a cure-all is a strange and dangerous thing.
Then what am I doing here? Why am I walking back to get a water bottle? Why am I drinking this water, consciously? I am the worst type, a “just in case” prescriber. There are all types of people here: the faithful, the afflicted, the faithful-afflicted, the doubters, the tourists and vacationers, the cycle tourist. I am not a Catholic, nor am I keeper of blind faith. I am here to see, to feel, for myself.
In spite of all this, I cannot help thinking of my cousin. She has cystic fibrosis, and she is actually lined up for a double lung and liver transplant this year. The wonders of medical science ought to get her taken care of- I went to an appointment with her, and you wouldn’t believe how run-of-the-mill they are about it, just another day at the office! We all worry about her though, for she has a lot more work to realize in this plane of existence. I must take the time to say a bit about her, for she is very near and dear to me. We are related, which is fortunate for me, to be able to claim a blood relation to such an amazing woman. There are people in this world who are delving deep, getting dirty, and doing the work. She is one of them. She is a talented thinker, writer, and painter- though she may not admit it- and has, in part due to her circumstances and in part due to her nature and upbringing accomplished much inner work in her life thus far. Family of choice, and I cannot say it enough.
I hatch a plan to save some of this water, to carry it with me across the world, to bring this “just in case” to her. She has confronted precisely these concepts out of necessity, and has a lot to say about the concept of illness and also life in general. In fact, you should check out her wordpress, “Orthiswayblog.wordpress” if you like; she has much to say about hope, prayer, the miraculous, and “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
One can pass on assets, possessions, even status, but one cannot pass down wisdom. Any of that you have to forge in your own fire. I think it is the same with miracles- you can’t bring them to others. I must admit, this water is delicious and refreshing, it tastes pure and clean. I filled my favorite water bottle, a giant Nalgene that has been everywhere I have in the last 3 years- mountains, deserts, canyons, forests, scores of roofs, three seasons on farms. I love this bottle, irrationally. It has been on many adventures, and is the right vessel for this water. I must admit, however, that the water from the bathroom sink in my 1 star hotel room is equally delicious on this cold morning. Another example of my inability to discern the distinction between France in general from Lourdes.
I take off into the beautiful countryside. I ride for a while, up some hills, and happen to turn around and see the Pyrenees in all their glory. This was to continue to happen all day, and from the looks of it, I picked one of the tallest points to cross…
I have to say though, these mountains seem small to me. They are exquisitely beautiful, but cannot compare in girth or wildness to the Northern Cascades. This is probably the way Chileans, Tibetans and Indians feel about the rest of the world’s peaks…
I climb too many hills, acutely aware of my tired legs. I stop in a nice town with a nice café not 12 miles from Lourdes, and sit down, intent on taking a zero day. The internet is spotty though, and I move on to look for a hotel. The first large pne is closed. The second, too expensive. The next two, too dingy, though they were probably perfect, pricewise, the fifth, nobody at the desk, door locked. Screw it, the day is young and I ride on. I skirt closer to the mountains, heading towards some trees. I find a nice spot, but the ground is all soft, and it is going to rain tonight. It is getting late now, about 4:30. I am picky, but sometimes one simply has to allow necessity to whittle away at your preferences. I try two more hotels in small towns, both closed. I have had to speak French about five times, by the way, and I am terrible at it. The pronunciation, the pronunciation! My translator, when offline, only gives me the spelling, which, with this language, is not enough! Nevertheless, I get by. It is easy to try to speak when you have to, of course. It is getting late and I am tired. I hit a bigger road, which bumps me into a bigger town. I inspect a 1 star hotel off a side street outside of town- 48 euro. No, no, no. I come into town and see a dingy 2 star hotel: 50 euro. No! I should have stayed in Lourdes! France is indeed very expensive, and I will be camping the whole time I am here, by necessity.
I wander out of this town, and it is about 5:30. I see a grove of big trees and angle towards it. It turns out to be a sort of park. Not ideal, a lot of traffic, but there is a farm above it. I find a somewhat acceptable spot, given the circumstances, and pull my bike up. I have a lot of daylight though, and in this case I won’t set my tent up until later. I may as well explore a little then. I wander around searching for a better spot, which I am particularly skilled at, for I grew up on a big chunk of wild forest, and spent my entire childhood exploring the nooks and crannies of my property, my uncles’, and my grandparent’s, along with my cousins and siblings. I find a dead space inaccessible from the park and the farm, except for a little trail that some children certainly discovered. One has to duck the fence, skirt the farm, and duck back under, into this abandoned square. Perfect. It is pretty, and I feel safe from intrusion. Well, look at that, another free night of lodging! I have found some tallboys here in France boasting a 7.5% alcohol content, which is perfect, for I get the calming effects without having to carry a lot of liquid. I settle down after setting up the tent, and write for a good while.
Not bad, eh? I write until near dark, when all of a sudden I hear what sounds somewhat like a large dog coughing something up, but whatever it is, it is running down the trail below me. I think perhaps it is a boar, but whatever it is I have that feeling of “I don’t know what that is and I don’t care to find out,” and take it as a que to bed down, at last.