Well, well, here I am again, re-emerged from the wilderness of my solitude. This is the sixth day since I left Narbonne, and the interim has not been without its excitements and suspense. Let’s begin where we left off…
April 5th, Narbonne to Sète
Having failed once more to find any spare parts for my broken pannier, I set off with the sun shining. I was excited to see the Mediterranean for the first time, and eagerly navigated the confusion of roads that slither along the coast, in and out of hillocks and lagoons. It was some time before I saw the ocean, as I was kept inland, constantly having to check the map as I worried Eastward. Eventually I just began to hop from one bike path to another, for they are numerous, assuming that they would take me past scenic routes and eventually spit me out on the coast. The bike paths follow the canals, which are in some places lined with numerous sea-going vessels, in various conditions of seaworthiness, ranging from “might sink tomorrow” to “just sailed in from Cuba.” Some actually had little lawns in front of where they were docked, others, permanently moored, had additional aluminum windows cut in, and almost all of them had bicycles on board or parked out front. I was quite charmed by the impression of this lifestyle- wouldn’t it be something to sail around in your house and pop in wherever? A romantic notion.
Along and across from the canal were a series of theme parks, shut down until summer. I started getting a real funky vibe here, a gypsy, vagabond, carney, trailer park feel, and I liked it. I wondered how many of these folks in the boats and trailers worked the amusement parks…
This was all well and good until, as inevitably seems to happen, the bike path sort of peters out, going from pavement to gravel, gravel to dirt, dirt road to dirtbike trail, and, after crossing below a couple seedy underpasses, devolving into a muddy horse trail. I stop at an intersection near an underpass, think better of it and move a little out of site. As I sit there, in the fuzzy warmth of a field beneath a highway, I start getting more of an “Alabama backwoods,” or “rural Florida,” swampy feel. I am checking my map and waiting, almost expectantly, for an inbred man or group of men dressed as clowns to close in from the brush. Nothing happens though, and I find my route again without too much effort. Soon after, I get my first glimpse of the Mediterranean!
From here I hugged the coastline tight the rest of the day. I had sited a potential camping spot before I left the hotel, a plot that seemed to be unpopulated, though right on the beach. After a long day pushing into the wind a bit on long, straight, beachside stretches, and having gotten stuck in yet another bustling, convoluted town, I was feeling pretty spent as the afternoon sun sank lower, growing hotter.
A canal in Sète- where BOAT JOUSTING is a thing! If they still do it, which they should- I want to see it.
Just as I was wearing down, I hit the very patch I had selected, nice and early, about four o’clock. A bunch of gravel roads wind through this big forested hill, and I looked around for a while. The whole hill is just a mess of rocks and trees and brush, and there aren’t many flat spots out of site of the road. Probably in part why it is undeveloped, I thought. At one point I stop and even unload my bike, stashing everything in the bushes, for I am sure I have found the spot. No, it is all rocks.
As I am wandering through the brush, I also notice that there is a thriving population of large, vicious mosquitoes here. Well, it was only a matter of time, I was actually wondering where they were this whole trip. They take some getting used to though, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I also spied a tick on my shorts, and decided to boogie on out of there. I went back down the hill a ways, after dragging all my gear back up onto the road, and hit a side road I had seen on the way up. Almost immediately I hit a good spot. Here it is, and with a view of the ocean!
It is somewhat visible from the road, to mountainbikers, for there are no cars or trucks to be seen, and it is the only flat spot that doesn’t look terribly rocky. The mosquitos though. I am thinking about bug spray, particularly the fact that I have none, when I realize that I am surrounded by wild rosemary. I bet they don’t like that. I rubbed myself all over the place and it worked like a charm! It took some reapplication, but it works! I smell much better too…
I set up my tent, having tried to clear some rocks with my boot and realizing that, despite the ubiquitously rocky terrain, there is soft dirt just underneath. I scrape myself a nice space. I have since repeated this process many times. You know when you are backpacking and you find those nice, flat, smooth spots others have cleared before you? Well, if you find one in France, I can just about guarantee it was me, I’m a trailblazer over here.
I had noticed that there was a water storage tank that fed out into a little trough hidden in a clump of bushes near my site, and observed that this was a watering hole, heavily trafficked by the local wildlife. I made little of it though, by habit strategically spreading my scent, and leaving it at that. Well, I had just crawled into my tent when I heard a startled growl from about ten feet away. I had surprised some thirsty creature, a coyote or a dog from the sounds of it. But the darn thing didn’t stop growling for a while. This got me a little hopped up, for the thing sounded unsure of what it wanted to do, which tends to make one wonder… I assumed it wouldn’t attack a tent though, and went to sleep. That was not the end of it though. I woke up in the middle of the night and began to open the tent to do my business, and the growling started up again… this time though I heard the creature skulk off. Geez, the thing must live here. I grabbed my knife before I left the tent, but all was well. Overall, this was a great campsite, I felt at home there.
Along with the fragrant rosemary, there were also some little wild irises. They are my grandma’s favorite flower, and I always think of her when I see them:
Here I’d like to take the opportunity to put in a short bit on sandwiches:
Where do you put a two-foot long baguette?
Right in front baby, for all the world to see. What do you do with these baguettes?
Something like that (A cute little mini baguette). Every day.
April 6th- Sète to Arles
This was another day spent wandering along the coast. It was more overcast, which I was grateful for, it was a little warm the afternoon before! There are a lot of flamingos out here. Maybe they are drawn to the trailer parks…
Flamingos, in turn, make me think of my mother…
The wind has not been in my favor the last few days, blowing strong in every direction so long as it is the “wrong one.” Nonetheless, with this flat, straight terrain, I cover some ground, and honestly get bored doing it- no hills, no descents, no curves, no curiosity about what waits around the next corner, nothing to drive you on, just pushing, pedalling, able to see far ahead to where you will eventually be, one step up from a treadmill… Drab. (There is an allegory for life in there) So drab, in fact, that I start to head inland. I am getting tired of this wind too, but it follows me, blowing in strong from the Southeast, costing me energy. The wind aside, I am on a nice bike path winding through farmland now. Once more the shadows lengthen, and I am about ready to camp… but I don’t have enough water.
How sweet were the days in Spain, where every little town had a plashing fountain of potable water! Here I am riding through farms, and if their practice is even remotely like that of the farming in the States, I don’t want to be pumping out of these nasty canals (I did see a beaver in one, though, which surprised me). Anyhow, I am riding along, passing nice campsites, pushing on. There are farmhouses, but I am too meek to ask for water. Most of them have closed gates, and the need is not there yet- I have a bottle and a half- but I need both of these and my big bottle filled to camp. I felt silly asking them to top off one and fill the other, obviously feeling a little sheepish about the outside possibility that this might implicate me, revealing my intent to camp somewhere nearby. Silly. No, my meekness pushes me on. I pass a gas station being remodeled. They still have coca-cola and an espresso machine, of course, but no water. I am starting to get a little pissed off.
I end up pushing almost into Arles, a good sized town, before I find a gas station and load up. Finally prepared, I take the first road out of town, I am ready to relax! I ride a good ways without seeing anything. I start to think I should have gone back the way I came- here there are a bunch of houses and farms without much cover. Eventually I hit a farm road that takes me out into a big open series of some sort of grain or grass, with almost no cover. There is a row of trees planted in between two plots, but the only spot to pitch a tent is right off the road, and I feel pretty exposed. I decide to ride a little deeper in, and spot a little area with a bunch of mounds of dirt, almost the color of my tent… I laugh about it, but then decide to check it out. It is perfect!
Better than nothing, at least
I am right off a little canal too. I like this spot. I drink a beer and set up my tent. I am working on my second, when I notice a truck driving up the road to my left. I duck down a little, confident they can’t see me. Whew, I almost camped right off that road, and I just tucked my bime away! I am watching them though, a little nervous. They hit the T in the road, and turn right, which I was hoping they wouldn’t do. They drive past the little road I’m on, and I am thinking I’m in the clear, but they are rolling real slow, and my heart sinks when they turn up and start driving towards me. Shit.
If I was in the States, I would be less likely to camp in a field, because I don’t want to get shot. If they didn’t shoot first, I would get my ass chewed for sure, potentially even reported to “the authorities.” If that’s not bad enough, what if this guy doesn’t speak English? I hide my beer, pull off my hood, and stare at a spot on the ground as the truck rolls up. I am skewered, and I know it, so I’m not even nervous. As the truck pulls level, I look up. The farmer is on the other side of the canal, and without rolling down his window, he smiles, waves, and keeps on driving.
I can’t believe it. I laugh to myself. I laugh again. I can’t believe it! My mood pulls a 180 and I am filled with mirth. I peacefully pass the rest of the night, more at ease than before the farmer rolled up. The canal is alive with large creatures plopping and jumping in the water, birds are calling, and bats dip through the air. A little human kindness goes a long way.
April 7- Arles to Puget
I wake up real tired today. I woke up in the middle of the night and just couldn’t get back to sleep. I have averaged 85 kilometers a day for the last three days, with heavy winds, and I am feeling it. I decide to give this website Warmshowers.org a try. It is a community of cycle tourists around the world who will host each other, for free! I ride into town, find some wifi and send two messages, one for the day after tomorrow and another for two days from now. I tried to schedule these for towns fairly close by, for short cycling days and two nights in a row with a bed and a shower, so I feel well rested.
After that I head for the green section on the map, the “Regional Naturel du Alpilles” or something like that. It is a long day and I feel heavy, not keen on making much distance today. I stop in at a town and check my email, but no one has replied. I’ll check tomorrow. I ride up into the hills outside of town, and find a wide open, natural space that looks like you could throw a rock and hit a good campsite:
It is Saturday, and I can’t believe I have the place to myself. Just like in Sête, I arrived early and take my time picking out my spot; oh, there is great camping everywhere, but where is the best?
I just wander around a while without my bike, which is nice. I find my way to the top of the hill and find what I am after: views in multiple directions, good lighting, perfect wind blockage, completely hidden from view, but kind of in plain sight. Could not ask for anything better, this is the ideal! (I do see what looks like a lot of pig rutting, but the night is quiet).
April 8- Puget to Mirabeau
I wake up and take my time packing up, make a cup of coffee, enjoy the beautiful day. It is warm and dry, not even any dew to dampen my rainfly, and I am loving it. I pack up, bounce down the rocky dirt road, and hang a right into town. I roll up on two cars coming down the hill, and another one comes up behind me! Well, maybe I wasn’t the only camper afterall, eh? I feel a sense of confraternity as we all cruise down the hill. I peek behind me and notice that the car behind is a blue van… that seems to ring a bell, but I don’t much care. We hit the pavement and I keep pace with the cars in front, which sure are taking their sweet time at the stop sign, which annoys me. I sort of California roll the intersection, as is my wont, then decide to be nice and let the car behind me pass. Oh it’s the cops! Haha, maybe those two cars in front were being flushed out, eh? And some crazy guy on a loaded bike swoops in from the hills and joins the caravan! I wonder if the gendarmerie are going to do anything, but they don’t. I like that.
Time to check the email again, if I can battle this monster headwind into a town… With an effort, I eventually find some wifi and check in. The first host is gone for the weekend. No matter, hopefully the second one comes through. The challenge with Warmshowers is that, when someone asks to stay at your house, who will need a shower, maybe some laundry, who is also a stranger and thus requires the ritualistic formalities of introduction and general background, talking shop, etcetera, it is nice to have a head’s up. You might have a trip planne, are feeling sick, get called away suddenly, whatever- you are living your own life, which also entails working and/or raising a family.
I was wondering whether weekends were better for this sort of thing or not. If I were hosting, my patience might be flagging a little after a long day of work. These are also cycle tourists, generally adventurous people. They are saving up, and likely planning their next trip. In their free time, it is not surprising that they may be hiking, cycling, exploring, or adventuring in some form on the weekends. That’s just on their end though- the problem is further compounded on my end, for, as may the the case in many adventureres, I am naturally averse to limitations, deadlines, planning, scheduling, or structure of any kind beyond what is absolutely necessary. It takes an effort, in other words, for me to live any way other than “organically.” Then you throw in hills, weather, wind, injuries, vagrant moods, unexpected distractions, and now it seems a miracle that the paths of hosts and tourists cross harmoniously with any regularity. I don’t even know what my route is, for goodness’sakes. I follow my inclination entirely, only ensuring that I am heading generally East! If these hosts are anything like me, then God help us, we “children of chance and misery.”
Needless to say, I was not surprised. I am a little dismayed, I will admit, by how much effort it may take for me to line up this free lodging. In fact, I probably spent almost 20 euros in accumulated obligatory coffees at the cafés where I use the wifi to line up and check on these things. Yeah, yeah, I should have bought some data, but I am largely enjoying flying by the seat of my pants, even at the cost of a sticky situation here and there. Heaven forbid I have to ask another human for help or directions like they did in the old days…
It is Sunday, by the way, and all the grocery stores are closed, so I sit down for a pizza. I am in a small outdoor patio area with a few people who steal curious glances at me as I try to pronounce French (the immediate, alert curiosity on their faces is priceless). I order a pizza and get the wifi, when an elderly Italian man two tables over is suddenly overcome with nausea and is gripping the table. He is like a little boy, he does not know what is happening, and neither do we… someone puts ice on the back of his neck and forehead, and the waitress calls an ambulance. This is getting heavy… I don’t think he is having a heart attack, maybe a stroke? The two young men in between me and the sick man are served pizzas and are moved across the way. The waitress folds up the table and puts it against mine, forming some sort of ritualistic barrier. The man’s wife is concerned, we are all concerned… I can’t talk, so I don’t do anything. Long story short, my pizza arrives as the paramedics are preparing to cart this poor man off. I have lost my appetite, and wait patiently as they transfer him to a rolling chair and into the back of the ambulance. That was a strange and very intimate situation! Sometimes one is sort of protected by a language barrier, in a way. These things happens, but that is the first time I have witnessed it. Oh, and right after this, fortunately for me, I found a grocery store that was open. I am going to keep an eye out for Sundays…
*Speaking of language, I have been saved on multiple occasions so far from local crazies due to my ignorance of French. You pop into these little cafés and there is some overly talkative, annoying old man, an attractive but positively insane woman who is already drunk at noon, or some boisterous local hero or something. Me, I don’t even have to act. They try and derive some entertainment from me, but I don’t get their jokes, can’t answer their questions, and don’t care if they are poking fun, so they soon lose interest. A silver lining, I suppose. Even so, sometimes a café looks perfect, has wifi, but is teeming with curious locals who gape as I pull up, and I usually just keep on riding. I get tired of being the most interesting thing that happened this week in some little place. It is killing me not knowing French though. I am studying like a fiend: the woman whose room I am renting speaks only French, and we talked a little, she asked me where I was from, which I inferred from the questioning tone of the word “England,” and said that English and French share enough words that we can get by, which I got the gist of, obviously, but not easily. She then had to repeat twice what was for breakfast in the morning, but we got it done! Too much work. I am learning French, for I will use it someday.
To get back on track, it didn’t matter that my host cancelled, because I was riding into 30 mph headwinds all day, certainly stronger than that on the top of a few hills. This is weather I shouldn’t even be in. I am waiting for a tree branch to hit me, or a sign to rip off a post, or a powerline to snap and shock me to death. I have seen probably twenty broken, shortened, or missing posts in the countryside by the way, with lines hanging a few feet off the ground, usually tied to something. There were two set of dangling lines I rode past that I hope were dead, but I do not want to die this way. I am struggling to pedal down hills and wondering what to do. At least it is not raining. It was supposed to yesterday. It is supposed to today. Scheduled for tomorrow. So far so good. I angled back into the hills, trying to escape the wind, but now I am just climbing into it, and it is windier on top of the hills. I am determined to get close to my original destination though, in case my second host is available. I don’t want to be 90 kilometers away tomorrow. So I push until 5:30 or so and start looking around. I do find a dead spot, sheltered from the wind, but the camping is no good. No matter, there is bound to be another one. I push into the town of Mirabeau, and immediately veer down a road heading away back into the hills. After one no-go and a fair amount of climbing, I find an acceptable spot, with hardly any wind. Not ideal, but not bad at all! I set up and relax, another day down.
April 9- Mirabeau to Les Salles-sur-Verdon
I did not sleep well. My sleeping pad at this point only stays inflated for an hour or so, and I do not know when I will have a chance to fix it. So, if it is cold, or the ground is hard, I am very uncomfortable. I was also on a slant, and kept sliding down towards the foot of the tent. After almost no sleep, dawn breaks. I tell it to bugger off and finally drift to sleep for a few hours. I get up a little before eleven. I think I heard a man running by a few hours ago, but I didn’t care to look, though I couldn’t tell you why anyone would be here. Oh well. I get up, and to my surprise, it is dry! Oh, there are some threatening clouds, but nothing is soaked. One of these days, that rain is going to hit…
I leisurely rouse myself. I am dead on my feet. I make what one might describe as “a crack-addict’s cup of coffee” and pack up. I get down to the hill, heading back into Maribeaux, and it just starts dumping. Of course, just waiting for me to pack up, that was kind. At first I am a little annoyed, but today I channelled my spirit animal, the donkey. His ears perked, his tail straight, I charged through the cold rain in shorts all day. Oh yeah, it rained all day, and there was a lot of climbing through rolling hills. I am really smashing again today, actually. That coffee got me going, and I feel well rested after sleeping half the day away. My tires gobble up some road, aided by the fact that as long as I am moving I keep warm. I don’t even bother checking the other WarmShowers host, I won’t make it. I had a feeling he wouldn’t respond too, which turned out to be correct, and I didn’t feel drawn to any cafés along the way, I am a man on the move. The scenery is beautiful, which helps me keep churning… it turns out I am riding into a UNESCO world heritage site, in fact- the Gorges du Verdon- and they are lovely.
There is a sign that says, in 3 languages, “Unauthorized Camping Forbidden.” Okay, this is like a National Park. Okay, no problem. It is pretty late at this point. I have been riding for almost 5 hours straight, but when one leaves at noon, the day is short. The hotels here are bound to be expensive, but there are campsites everywhere. They are all closed. Well, seeing as there are no authorized campsites, the sign is void to me. I try to get as far as possible from the park though. I am skirting a gorgeous, turquoise lake, a real one! Breathtaking.
This is just an arm of the lake- couldn’t get a good shot of the “big picture.”
Also breathtaking is the heavy, cold rain that just hit. I am feeling a little self pity here. I stop at a gas station for a few extra provisions and there is a hotel behind it. I roll over and look at the prices. 75 euros is the minimum. The donkey rears its head and shouts a big “F U” at the sky and I ride on. Soon the rain abates, however, and I find a camping spot. This is the fifth night in a row, and I perform my ritual. The rain holds off all evening, in fact, and the sun comes out. This is good, because I am camping on an exposed piece of bedrock, really the only spot. One cannot drive stakes into bedrock. But there are plenty of rocks around, and I soon engineer the necessary weights for the tent and fly. My tablet is still alive, even, 13 percent! I run it down to 8 reading before the cold drives me in.
That’s a lot of pictures of tents already, huh? Imagine the portfolio I’ll have a year from now… This spot was conspicuously picturesque.
A close-up of my “stakeless engineering” (I still implemented the stakes themselves).
April 10- Les Salles-sur-Verdon to Salernes
Turns out I did 90 kilometers yesterday. Wooie! I am very strong by now though. There is no tenderness in my IT bands, my achilles tendons are, at last, in good shape, my knees are good. Yeah, I get a little tight, but I feel fit. My hands hurt though. I have four positions I usually rotate through on the handlebars, but the heels of my hands are tight and my fingers are stiff. I basically hold the bars all day. Not something you would really think about.
I did not sleep well at all last night either. The stone was cold, and hard, and my sleeping pad is pretty useless. At about 3:30 a.m. the storm hit- shrieking wind blasting heavy, machine-gun pellets of rain nonstop for the next four hours. Nevertheless, I stayed dry, all my “stakes” held, and none of my guy-lines frayed. I am ready to get up, whenever the rain stops. It does, around 7:30. I get up and make another strong brew, but it hardly phases my accumulated fatigue. I notice some snow fell last night, up in the hills. It is cold, and the wind is coming from the East. Where is this cold air coming from? The Alps, of course. Geez. Reluctantly, I pull on the stinky tights I haven’t worn for almost a week. My sunglasses sit in disuse on the front of my handlebar bag, my sunblock forgotten, buried in the bottom of a pannier. Day 6 since Narbonne- today is a rest day. The first town I come to, I am booking a room!
Well, there is a lot of climbing in the morning, nothing serious, just enough to get the blood flowing. I always feel strong in the mornings anyways, the bike is lighter, less food and water, and my muscles are rested. Soon, however, it starts dumping buckets of icy rain. Come on out donkey! Ah, but we are tired. I get to the top of a hill and it starts hailing heavy. Lightning crackles above my head and the thunder immediately booms, its echoes rippling on and on… This is some serious hail. In two minutes there are two inches of it blanketing the road like snow. I am in the midst of a hairpin-turn descent and I can barely see. I am desperately trying to keep from sliding out, hoping the cars can see better than I can. I make it into town, and cars are sliding through the stuff. The thunder is booming, lightning flashing. My feet are soaked through, water is pouring down my legs, ice-cold. I hear deranged cackling and realize it is coming from me: I think of Lieutenant Dan lashed to the mast of the shrimping boat screaming at the storm. This is insane! The last few days have been insane, weatherwise. I see a couple of cycle tourists parked at a café and pull over, but I don’t fancy the geometry of their bikes, and I want to keep my blood pumping, so I set off into the hail again. The hail tapers, turns to rain. I climb a few hails. The hail sets in again, heavy this time, and painful- I am glad I’m wearing a helmet! I start cackling again and wonder if I am not becoming a bit reclusive. I see a sign for an Intermarche. It is pointed to the right, down a hill, and I am supposed to go up the hill to the left. Right it is! Let’s get out of these mountains. I have 2 percent battery left on my tablet, so I go into the center of tourism for the little town of Salernes. The lady is super cool. I ask her if there are hotels here, she says no, only bed and breakfasts. I say I don’t care, whatever is the cheapest. She asks me how much I want to spend. No fool, I say 50 euros. Fifteen? She asks. No, fifty. I think fondly back to the days in Spain, where it was so cheap to get a hostel you had to coax yourself into camping…
She phones a place, tries to butter them up, but 60 euros is the lowest price. Sure, whatever. They’ll have to help me amputate a few toes when I get there. She draws me a map and then we chat about my crazy adventure. This woman is middle-aged, and she is well travelled. She talks about the U.S. and her travels in South America. She talks with me quite a bit about cycle touring too, and tells me how cool it is that I am doing this. She asks if I will be bankrupt when I get home, or if I write books or something. I wish! Someday. She even walks outside and takes a look at my bike, asks me how much it weighs! I am surprised at her enthusiasm and her insider’s perspective on the nature of this experience. I would have talked to her longer, but I was wearing an ice-bath, and somewhat reluctantly edged out the door and chased down a hot shower.
Man. Some weather. I need to do laundry, desperately, but there is nowhere here to do it. Maybe I can line up a WarmShowers host, that would be ideal! We’ll see. For now it is nice to be in a bed, clean, and also warm and dry. I need to patch my sleeping pad. There is a bathtub here, but I feel a little odd drawing a bath and plunging my greasy sleeping pad in there… might just find a good stream somewhere. I am almost to Italy, and I have been 41 days on the road. What a trip, already! Looking forward to some sunshine, and to whatever awaits around the corner…