3 days ago (April 1st)
Marie had an excellent spread waiting for us when we woke up. I slept very well. Last night I found a series of knots in my right IT band that I didn’t know were possible- as they writhed and loosened, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed them, for it seemed they had taken up a good two inches of length, judging by the bunching I unravelled. That it didn’t pulled my knee cap out of place is a wonder… As you might imagine, this massage smarted pretty good, and I dug until the whole area was tender. I was a little surprised not to find a giant bruise the next morning, though it was sore all that day. What is somewhat disconcerting is that there was not a corresponding knot on my left leg; it had some strain on a different set of muscles. Everyone tends to favor one or the other, but it’s not good to be swinging them differently.
Back to the breakfast: about eight types of honey, a croissant and two baguettes each with butter and jam, tangerines, kiwis from the neighbors, organic yogurt and all the coffee I could drink. I shared this breakfast with a charming French couple- the wife spoke pretty good English, and they helped me with my French pronunciation, which is still horrid. They took a road trip through the West side of the States in ‘97, so we talked a good deal about the places they saw, but language, of course, was the predominant topic.
After breakfast I talked with Marie, a dear, kind woman. I asked her how old the house was, and how many rooms there were. The house is 200 years old, young for these parts, but she has lived there most of her life- this was her father’s house. It had 40 hectares of farm around it, but she sold it, unable, to manage it. She lives here alone with a few cats, and rents two of the four rooms out, a manageable workload and a steady little stream of interesting people. I hope to see her again. That said, I am a lucky duck that she had one of two rooms available on a weekend! Whew! She even asked, as we were parting, if the price was too much for me, I think she would have cut me a deal, but it was worth every penny.
The morning was warm and sunny, and the Pyrenees were out, as ever, in full pomp.
The riding was very flat, to my good fortune, for I was still recovering from my little summit. I ended up riding a very casual 80 kilometers through beautiful farmland, passing castles and charming villages, as usual, with the Pyrenees stretching on and on beside me. Having spent a good 2.5 days’ budget yesterday, I bought a heap of groceries for 10 euro and blew through all the towns and their tantalising patisseries. As usual right about when I am ready to camp I roll into a big town, Saint-Girons. I cruise out of there quick, for the day is getting “long in the teeth,” and find myself winding through a peaceful valley along a river. While pretty, this is far from ideal for camping, because there is hardly any flat ground. I keep my eye out though, and find a small road ascending up into the hills to nowhere, as far as I can tell. I follow it for a couple switchbacks and- voila! A disused road shoots off of one of the turns. Classic. It is also on a South-southwest facing slope, so I get the last of the daylight. A lovely campsite! I love nothing better than a natural place with good feng shui to be in, it makes me feel fuzzy.
I even pump out a short story here, my pensivity flows freely in this peaceful environ! Oddly enough, I am not so tired. It takes a second strong beer to knock me down, and then I snap wide awake at two in the morning. Sheesh. If it had been five or so I would have just gotten up. Instead (after reinflating my sleeping pad), I lay there thinking about all sorts of odd memories, muddying the waters and recalling very strange, specific moments. This goes on for a good hour, hour and a half before slumber wins over again. I wake up, after strange dreams, sluggish, tired, and on a half deflated sleeping pad. I really have to fix that.
Day 2 (April 2nd)
I head down the hill, feeling very fine. The weather is dry, the valley is beautiful, I am content! The valley opens up and I pass through a village and start heading up. I see some signs for “Col du Port” with some elevation numbers, and suspect I am getting into a pretty good climb here… well, the nice, flat riverside run had to be paid for at some point. I start climbing, and keep climbing, through beautiful fields dotted with mountain homes. I stop, eat lunch, and rest my legs. I feel very, very strong, except for these darned Achilles tendons! I do not think that they are getting worse, but I do think that they are not getting any better. I passed the point of no return, and will have to take a few rest days in a row somewhere… but not in France! By strength of will, I passed a delicious looking patisserie halfway up the mountain, climbed further up the hill and by chance happened to look behind me. BOOM, the Pyrenees, once again strutting their stuff, but this time more rugged, jagged, severe, and poppin’. I can’t get enough.
This day’s highlights are one very absurd occurrence and one very unfortunate coincidence.
The first occurred as I was continuing, as I did all morning, to climb up to this “Col.” I was having a pleasant go of it, and it was hot out, which was a welcome change. I had not seen anywhere to refill my bottles and they were empty. I knew I was near the top, but I decided to stop, because why not? No good getting dehydrated. I suspected that these fresh alpine streams were probably fine to drink from, but maybe there were some cattle grazing up there somewhere… better safe than sorry. I’m a cycle tourist, I don’t know the meaning of the word “hurry,” so I pull out my handy-dandy water filter, first time of the trip.
Now, this is one of a few things that have never happened to me on any of my many excursions, that are happening now. Granted, this is the furthest I have gone and the longest I have been out (yes, already), so it is better sooner than later, before I find myself in a desert somewhere, but this is just absurd. I had a Katadyn water filter for almost ten years before replacing it with this, nicer, newer version, and had a good long run with it. This one, the “Backpacker Plus” edition or whatever, has been used on a handful of short trips, actually having pumped water maybe ten times. I am sitting there, happily swinging my legs above the stream, getting all my hoses set. I fix my water bottle between my legs, thinking very consciously that I don’t want to lose it. Meanwhile, the handle of the pump, which I am holding, simply pops off, and the filter and hoses plop into the stream and disappear immediately into a culvert. I am filled with only wonder and amusement, the sheer absurdity, the clownish, ridiculous chance of it!
Snapping out of my shock, I begin to feel remorse and jump across the road to see if maybe I can catch it. I get to the other side and look, but nothing. Oh no, there it is!
I try not to get my hopes up, for there is another yawning tunnel it is headed for, but it catches! I crash down into the stream and grab it. Oh man! That could have been bad, huh? I take a look at it… where is the handle?
Ah man, really!? I am just starting to feel sorry for myself when I discover that the handle is still on the bank where I was sitting! Thank goodness! I put it back in, but I think I lost a piece- it keeps pulling out. It does work, though. Never in ten years does anything like this happen, but when I am alone and thirsty at the top of a mountain in a foreign country, something like this would happen.
An Unfortunate Coincidence, or, Happy Easter:
Now, it has been Easter all week. I was sitting in Spain watching Antonio Banderas sing hymns on the news wearing a white gown what seems like ten days ago. I roll down out of the mountains after climbing all morning, looking to hit a grocery store.
This whole trip, I have been very well stocked with food. I realized though, that I pass multiple grocery stores every day and there is no need to stock up so much. I went shopping the day before, and simply picked up my daily items. It just so happens that, today, I run out of a few things I have had the whole time- I kill my peanutbutter, my nutella, my bread, my tortillas, my granola bars, my chorizo. Cleaning house, needed to be done. I have been carrying some of these items a while. I roll into a town after the descent- possibly the most entertaining downhill of the trip thus far- and find a supermarket right off the highway. It is closed. Hm… maybe it is out of business. I continue down the road, and get to a turn I need to make. There is a McDonald’s on the corner, which I notice is booming. I see a “Lidl” catty corner to it, a chain supermarket. Closed. What the heck, does all of France take a siesta too, even their grocery stores? I hit an “Intermarche” right down the street, another chain store. Closed. There is another, “E LeClerc.” Closed. What in the Sam Hell? What does a guy have to do to get some food around here?
I ride past a pizza shop that is closed until 5:30. I ride past a few dormant or shutdown restaurants. Nary a café to be seen. I start riding out of town. I know there are grocery stores in Lavelanet, 20 kilometers down the road. I am passing the little town of St. Paul, and realize I am pooped. All the climbing took it out of me a bit. I sit there on the side of the road, thinking. It is about 3:30, that pizza shop will be open in a couple of hours. After some deliberation, I make the prudent decision not to ride 12 more miles on empty, and turn around.
I ride about 4 kilometers back to the McDonalds, which I will admit, I have been curious to compare to their American fathers. This one is hopping, the only thing open, and it is big. There is a ton of seating, and a café inside. You order on one of five big touch screens, pay, decide whether you want table service or pickup at the counter. I am paying cash, so I pay upfront, and struggle through yet another uncouth linguistic interaction, before realizing by inference and a little etymology that she is asking where I am sitting. I point to a place, and proceed to log on to the free wifi. It is a little slow, too slow to load a post, unfortunately, but I check the map for grocery stores and realize that it is Easter Monday. Well son of a gun.
I ordered a little quarter pounder and an orange juice, because I am feeling dehydrated, and realize that I am very sunburned. The burger was 1.90 euro, and just as bad as they are in America. The 16 ounce Minute Maid- the largest size- put me back 3 euro, no refills! Geez. I have been trying to spend about 10 euros a day to get back in budget, and I just spent half of that on a crappy little burger and a watery orange juice. Now I understand why everybody is with their families, playing games, making music, relaxing. I feel a little homesick thinking about my relatives all spending time together. Me, I am scorched and fatigued in a McDonald’s, alone and alienated from all the good food, somewhere halfway across the world.
I sit around a while until I start getting antsy about my bike and head a couple kilometers up the street to the pizza place. I see them prepping there, and say a silent prayer. At least I get to eat something tonight, that isn’t McDonalds… I wait about fifteen minutes before walking in and asking if they are open, which of course they are. I struggle, with a translator, through another interaction, which goes horribly. I had been practicing two sentences: Je suis heureux de vous sont ouvert, “I am glad you are open,” and parce que je l’ai pas d’alimentation, “because I have no food.” I can pronounce neither of these, and it took me a while to string them together on the spot. (I wanted to say “Happy Easter,” but could not fathom attempting “Joeuses Pâques”) One lady thinks she knows what I’m saying and tries to explain it to me in rapid-fire French. Now why don’t people speak slowly and concisely in these situations? I do, I simplify and clarify English for those who are struggling. Not most people. After futilely trying simply to make conversation, I order a pizza. Meanwhile, they pull this old man out of the back who speaks very poor English, and everyone is a little frustrated by the language barrier, I think. Eventually he figures out that I want groceries and says I am out of luck. Wait, no, there is one open! He struggles to give me directions and then assumes I won’t be buying a pizza. No no, I want the pizza! I would not be so rude. Plus, pizza is delicious. And expensive, for me, at 11 euros, but I don’t care anymore. It is safe to say at this point that I am not learning much French. You need to see it spelled to know how to conjugate it, and you need to know how the spellings sound, one sound usually encompassing a lot of different words and forms… without steady internet this isn’t happening. I’ll keep trying though.
They cook my pizza and hand it off, somewhat relieved, I think, to be rid of my ignorant ass, and I expeditiously strap it to my front rack and zip down to this, the fifth, grocery store in this small area, which is a couple kilometers down the hill from McDonalds. Closed, of course. I ride back up to McDonalds. I pop in, buy two large cookies and a mini-baguette with jam for 5 euros- at least you can get baguettes and espressos here, they’d be out of business without em- and ride, swiftly, back up the road. So, after three hours and almost 12 kilometers of riding up and down the same stretch of road, I am back where I started. I spent twice as much money on half the food, but I am very thankful for what I have. The sun is almost set behind a hill and I need to find a spot to camp. I ride out of town and it looks promising: I pass the tiny town of Celles, essentially a row of small buildings along the road, and pop down into a little field by a creek- I am not interested in the field, but there is what looks to be an old road on the other side of the creek… I pull out a piece of pizza and munch while I see if I can get across. I smash through some blackberries to clear a path down to the bank, all the while eating pizza. I am working on my second piece when I make it to the creek and realize it is too wide to jump, too deep to try making any stepping stones. Shoot… I walk the creek and look at the road. It looks like it comes out of that town… I push my bike back up onto the road and ride back into town, past the row of street-front buildings, and swing around them. There are some old cars and some cords of wood stacked along a little back-road, and it looks sort of private, but I don’t care. I zip over a little bridge and am across the field onto the old road in a flash.
It is muddy, like most of the ground in France so far. Well, I am not particularly happy with this spot, but it could be worse. You can see me from the road if you look, but most people are keeping their eyes on the road, looking out for stray cyclists, I hope. I find a dry-ish spot and set up camp, glad to be fed and housed. I don’t take any pictures though, not idyllic enough.
I have dreams of the gendarmerie finding me and confiscating my bike, demanding 100 euros for its release. I yell “No!” and take off, running from the cops and trying to collect my scattered gear. I wake up to a peaceful morning, a little dewy, but alright. I leisurely make some coffee, attempt pointlessly to dry out my tent, and pack up. I have to ride back out the way I came, and someone had thoughtfully put some tape across the bridge. It seems I had been spotted, but nothing came of it, so oh well. I may be watched from one of the houses, but in these cases, you don’t check- don’t make eye contact. I deftly duck the tape and put some distance between me and that little town before they get their pitchforks and torches collected.
Day 3 (April 3rd)
Camping again. Trying to get that budget right! Today was not too eventful, ultimately. A little more downhill, a small climb. I rode through a section of forest composed of pine and fir (not true fir), and felt a pronounced nostalgia. I thought of my childhood, hiking and camping with friends growing up. I spent a lot of days growing up walking up logging roads and wandering trails in the woods. I camped a lot with my best friend growing up, Bryan. I pounded a lot of miles of trail with another great friend, coincidentally, named Ryan. Good times. This is also great camping, of course. There is always great camping in the morning or the middle of the day. I drop into a valley that splits open wide, and ride through lush, verdant farmland for most of the afternoon. I stop and dry out my tent too. It is hot, and I am getting sunburned again.
I found a cool little book-nook with 6 or 7 books in English available, and I almost swapped my book out for “The Grapes of Wrath” by Steinbeck, but I am not in a place in my life for his books, he is such a downer! I read a couple of his, and their impressions are fresh in my mind. He will come around again, but this is the wrong place and time. In fact, I decide to keep my book, preferring to read it again rather than any of this other stuff, which is just diversion. My reading has a theme, a purpose on this trip and I am sticking to it. No distractions, no escapism. Cool little book-nook though!
I am really trying with these photos- bad internet.
I realize I lost my sunglasses somewhere. I decide that, with the improving weather, I need sunblock and a new pair of shades to protect the baby blues (lighter eyes are more sensitive to light, fun fact). I am also considering picking up one of those cute, hip little hats that are all the rage these days. My contrarianism (which became anti-contrarianism, and perhaps has come back full circle, though technically is anti-anti-contrarianism), has not allowed my ego to be stroked, for I have always liked these hats. But they are too popular, too mainstream, so I developed a bit of defensive disdain for them. Now, however, I realize their functionality, and can accept them; I feel the same way about cleats too. If anyone needs a brim over their face, it is me. I am so tan of face that I am a little worried- I’ll look like an effigy carved out of driftwood by the end of this, I am sure. No, some shade and sunscreen are in order, and a pair of sunglasses to really switch up the tanlines. Speaking of hipsterdom, check out this really artsy selfie I took today:
I have to get some photos of myself now and then to prove that it is not just my bike that is traveling these places- proof that I am here, in one piece! I decide to pop up towards Carcassonne, as the road happens to be running along a river. Nice and flat. I smash down this, happy to gain some distance. I have been out here over a month, but I have barely travelled over a thousand miles. I am ready to cover some ground again; I have put my climbing in, I am nearing the coast, and the Pyrenees are behind me.
Of course, right when I’m ready to camp, I roll into the little town of Limoux, which is really a massive sprawling expanse of civilization- farms, houses, suburbs, city center, more houses, more farms. This is supposed to be a preserve-area! I get a little anxious and decide to bail onto a smaller road towards a little town called Pieusse. This turns me uphill into a headwind. What’s more, the clouds are gathering, particularly dark in the direction I am heading. Damn! I start angling towards the distant trees. It is not long, however, before the homes dwindle. Right around the corner from the last one, in fact, is one of those “disused roads” I am so fond of. Yes, it is looking good! I push in deep- I try to get out of”dog walking” distance if possible. I pass a creepy little derelict shack that has some old furniture in it and a little trash outside. I certainly want to get past that! A little further down the trail, and a little field with some trees in it opens out, and I duck off the old road into it. I find that there is a nice spot behind the trees, so now I am completely out of view! This piece of land is really just a dead zone. I can hear children playing off in the distance, and I have a nice view of some farm, but I am well hidden from all sides. Well, a bit of a park vibe, but better than the park outside of Lannemezan, and better than the spot last night!
I make some dinner and eat some cookies. I drink a few beers. All the camping is getting to me. It is hard to spend so much time alone, the days are long! For one, I always kind of burn out on the cycling midday. There are a good 13 hours of daylight right now. So, I usually break camp late, between ten and eleven, cycle for three or four hours, take a break, cycle a couple more hours, set up camp, and lounge around camp for another couple hours. That is a lot of time to be with your own thoughts, my friends. The mornings are always wonderful now that the sun is out. I am exhilarated, happy to be here, happy to be riding, happy to be alive! I sing a lot, when I have the breath. I remember a lot of old songs, and I have a few regulars I am getting pretty tuned in. Certain songs remind me of specifics parts of my life thus far, of my Mom, my Dad, my brother, my sister (I have quite a few sisters now, and another brother, but grew up with just one of each). As the day grows darker, I get a little anxious trying to find suitable camping, always chasing an ideal, always trying to make sure no one sees me veer off the road, stressing a little about the need to hide, the possibility of intrusion, all the usual aspects of guerilla camping.
The evenings though, the evenings are my own. The exercise and activity of cycling keep me focused, but in camp there is time for reflection. I read and write a great deal, of course. That and eat too much food, if there is such a thing for me right now. Writing is a good dispensation of my latent energy, and I am reading constructive, thought-provoking material. Inevitably, though, one begins to think about life. I am pretty good at this, not getting too sentimental, not slipping back into the reverie of glory days (I am smack dab in the middle of creating them, and have no plans to quit!), but in emptiness, you must face yourself, and study what you see. This is a profound and circuitous process.
After three days of camping, I am beginning to unravel a bit, honestly.
Outside, I always sleep light. Without fail, I wake up in the middle of the night for one or two hours, this time aided by the spotlight of the moon, and the shuddering slams of the door to that -hopefully- abandoned shack in the intermittent wind, which are creepy as all get-out (I definitely camped too close to that place). Here thoughts really flow of their own accord, for the line between sleep and consciousness is blurred, and one’s mind bobs along aimlessly in a current of experience. I spend a good while trying to remember some lyrics to a Green Day song, of all things. The dreams one has in the night though, are always strange, for you are half conscious. Frequently they take place where you actually are, or for me, a distorted version of it. The other night I dreamt that I am checking my watch over and over again, but never do. I realize it is early, and someone asks, “Where is April, is she really up at this hour?” I look into the woods, and see her running along the rooftops of houses that are not there, her headlamp shining (She is an ultra-runner, and I would not put it past her to wake up at 3 in the morning and decide to go for a run). “Yep, there she is.” I say. Then I grab two prybars and go out there and start fixing the tile roofs. Next thing I know, it is daytime and I wake up groggy and tired. The dream I had last night was something else entirely.
I had a dream about lucid dreaming. It was kinda freaky. I found myself back in the states, in California, back up on the mountain. This worried me, because I didn’t want to be back yet, and I was wondering how much it would cost to get back to Europe, and whether the flow of my trip was irretrievably lost. At the same time, I knew my body was back in a tent in France, and I was really wondering how to get back to it. I was well aware that I was in two places at once, and somewhat relieved that part of me was still abroad, but I knew I wasn’t actually in California as well only because the building I was in does not exist. Frequently my dreams are a melding of various real places with fictional works of architecture created by my brain, which are always very labyrinthine and phenomenological, I am always finding secret rooms and the buildings grow as I am in them. I was visiting the people I used to work with, and wondered if I was actually contacting them. I then dreamed that one of them called me and asked me how I had gotten back to California and what happened with my trip, and my mind was all over the place after that… I woke up in the sunshine, realized that all of me was back in France, and was very grateful. I get homesick sometimes, but there is nothing that would crush me more than returning early from this trip. There are people and activities waiting for me at home, but home is on the other side of Singapore; I will not go backwards, cannot. Life unfolds in strange ways and I try to keep it that way.
Day 4, today, (April 4)
I wake up invigorated. My strange dream caused me to remember that there is nowhere I’d rather be. I am stinky though. It has been three days without a shower, and while the baby wipes do a pretty good job, it is time for the real thing. I did about 80 kilometers yesterday, and bought some more groceries. I was doing pretty well budget-wise, sitting at 13 euros on the day, until I bought a 9 euro bottle of sunscreen. Darn. The riding is pretty flat, though with a bit of a headwind. For the first time this trip, my legs feel normal this morning, no stiffness, no nothing! For most of the day my achilles’ even feel good- I stopped taking ibuprofen a few days ago, figuring they need to swell at some point if they are going to heal- but towards the end of the day, with all the pushing, they do get a little tender. I rolled through Carcassonne, rounded a corner, and BAM! The biggest castle I have ever seen! I sat there, awestruck, expletives of varying hue falling out of my dirty Anglican mouth.
The rest of the day was pretty vanilla though, just a long, straight push towards the coast. I did see an interesting ruin on the way into Narbonne, which looks almost staged:
This is about five kilometers outside of Narbonne. I had pulled in backwards to a pull-off to get this picture, and I look up and see a lady sitting on a chair by the side of the road… I am a little slow on the uptake sometimes, and also very innocent-minded, but there was no doubt that this woman was a prostitute. How is that for a roadside attraction! Drive a little ways outside of town and there, instead of a rest stop, is this woman sitting there waiting for you… woah. I ride quickly past her, thinking about the oddity of this spectacle, wondering about the regulations in Narbonne, trying to find some other explanation for her being there in a chair…. Well would you believe it if there isn’t another woman about forty feet down on the other side of the road in an even comfier chair! This is an “I am planning to sit here all day” sort of chair, on a farm road, far away from anything, just minding my business. Yes, that’s just what it looks like, like you are minding a business; in a field, dressed like you’re downtown…
I had a little trouble finding a hotel, but eventually found the cheapest place in town. I went out and bought some more chain lube, chain cleaner, and a pair of sunglasses. I went across the street to the grocery store and loaded up on groceries, of which I now have at least two days’ worth. You know how much I spent today? 110 euros. Yep. That is four days of budget, but I don’t care. France is expensive, there is no getting around it. Three more days of camping will help, but I am looking to Central Asia to balance the budget at this point. 55 euros on the hotel, so much for those 5-20 euro hostels huh? Lourdes was the best deal I’ll find in France, and I booked it out of there thinking it was too expensive! What’s nice is that it was supposed to rain last night and it didn’t. Right now, it is pouring rain, with lightning flashing across the sky, and I am inside! Que cera, cera.
I can’t believe I got these pictures uploaded, the wifi in France spottyy, where I stay at least (except for in Marie’s kitchen, that was excellent). I had more pictures to post, and the book-nook is sideways, but this will have to do for now! Sorry for the long post, can’t help myself. Maybe I’ll be able post something in the next five days, but I wouldn’t necessarily count on it! Back to the woods for me. Tomorrow I will get my first glimpse of the Mediterranean, I might even swim in it this week! One more off the bucket list, and the wheels keep a-rollin’.