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Some Brief Notes on Relatively in Urban Cycling

February 13, 2013 at 6:22 am

Astronauts in outer space experience time at a slower rate. When they return to earth, their watches are slightly behind because of the difference in the speed of time. Or something. I’m not sure. Look it up.

What I’m trying to say is that riding a different bicycle is like being in orbit. Time moves at a different pace. And I discovered recently that it also changes my mood and temperament as a cyclist.

Let me explain.

My buddy left his bike at my place for several weeks. Because I love bikes of all stripes (though some fiercely more than others), I rode his bike. A lot. It’s an old Trek 520 frame with riser handlebars. It looks like a beast, but it shifts and rides beautifully. On it, you sit lazily upright and survey the road like a trucker. Your feet appear to be way out in front of you. The pace is cooled, to say the least.

In any case, for the several weeks that I was riding the Feral Child (its name is another story), I was a different cyclist.  I believe that safe urban cycling necessitates a healthy dose of active defense (hard riding, aggressive decision making). But on the FC I settled into an entirely different pace. I let cyclists pass me,and I didn’t even care. My competitiveness waned.

It was an interesting experience, and one that allowed me to reflect on the act of cycling. It could be this other thing, a wide-eyed crawl through the city.

And then my buddy took his bike home. The next morning, I took out my IRO and immediately began to push. I rallied at the corners of the city, pushed my legs constantly past what was comfortable. I felt like I was tucked into a cockpit, arms forward, barreling towards the future.

It was good to be back.

Northern California Mini-Tour

November 27, 2012 at 7:42 pm

A short list of common thoughts cycled through my mind as I toured France. One of them was just how pleasant it would be to do small bike tours in northern California with good friends. The language spoken, the terrain and the people known. I’d often daydream about it.

So although some people thought I was crazy, a small bike tour is exactly what I craved when I got back from my big tour. Call it a comedown tour. My brother’s visit from Portland provided the perfect opportunity.

I had a couple of other friends who were interested in camping, but without bikes. Thus our approach was unconventional. We drove from San Francisco to Samuel P. Taylor with the bikes on the back of the car. My brother’s progress was waylaid by what is thus far the worst Apple Maps screwup that I’ve heard of. With the iPhone’s new mapping software, you can be delivered terrifically wrong directions to a place that requires literally two turns. That’s right, arriving at Samuel P. Taylor requires exiting the 101 and then eventually pulling into the parking lot.

Instead, Apple Maps directed my brother onto a dirt road that was soon not a road at all. Navigating up a steel hill with branches brushing past the car on both sides, it became clear that there wasn’t a national park campground that would be found any further up the treacherous path. After switching to Waze, my brother found the actual campground.

That night we made a fire (something not possible in French campgrounds) and rested well. In the morning we intended to ride to Bicentennial Camp in the Marin Headlands. I’m personally a fan of the views and feelings of the headlands, but it’s a place where fires aren’t allowed. Because the air was cold, we changed course and headed for China Camp–where I’d never been. The ride was easy, but because we’d winged it a bit, we probably didn’t take the most bike friendly roads. I won’t share my route here, because I’m quite certain it would be poor advice.

Near the campground, we passed a couple of teenagers walking a dog. They wore an expression of such painful ennui that it reminded us both of our teenage days. Because it was my brother, they were the same teenage days. Seeing that expression of strong existential boredom and discomfort makes you want to grab teenagers and shake them. “It gets better!” you might shout. You can just see how tough it is to enjoy much of anything.

China Camp is encircled by a network of mountain biking trails. Although our bikes were directly wrong for the application, my brother and I were excited about the idea of doing a little trail riding. Neither of us had done any mountain biking in many years. We set up our tent and took the trails for an hour while the sun set. It was the most fun I’d had on a bike in a very long time. It was also the first time I rode forest trails with clipless pedals, something I am excited to do again. The mix of power and control is astonishing.

It was my brother’s 30th birthday, so we decided to make Birthday Cake. I melted a big block of chocolate into a pot of water and added a healthy amount of whiskey. It tasted better than what you’re thinking. Or if you think it probably tasted good, it tasted like that. We shared the Birthday Cake with the three friendly chaps who were also staying at the Hiker Biker spot. We all got along wonderfully and effectively ignored the 12 dozen screaming kids and gas generator that rang throughout the valley from another campsite.

In the morning, we made the enjoyable ride back to San Francisco following Google Map’s suggested bike route. It was perfect.


Farewell: The End of the Road

November 16, 2012 at 2:59 am

A couple of weeks have passed since I finished my tour. The feeling is that it was a lifetime ago. For the last several days, I have been editing my pictures from the trip. I’ve narrowed the 4,000 I took down to about 250 that are worth viewing. The process has been a forced reminiscence. At times moving and other times dull–just like the tour.

I arrived in Paris with a few days to kill and a significantly dwindling bank account. Without friends there, I spent my days wandering the streets and buying nothing. I would tour the city for bookstores, or cheap wines. I spent a considerable amount of time on foot and on the metro. The catacombs were closed, the lines for museums were astronomical, and I kept walking. I sat by the Seine tearing off bits of bread to eat and sipping from a bottle of red wine. Probably the moment that if you wanted to romanticize the trip, would be the easiest to romanticize.

I repacked the bike into its original box, which R. had graciously kept in his apartment for 6 weeks. When he got back from a weekend away, we were able to go out for drinks in the city. I met a couple of his friends and had my first opportunity to use the VeloLib system. Cruising around Paris on borrowed bike was a blast, and convenient. I wish that San Francisco would catch up on this.

I was flying out of ORLY and got to the airport around 5am. The lines for the check-in counter were closed and I stood around anxiously with my mammoth box. Airline travel is usually not something that causes me stress, but I have a hard time relaxing when I’m hauling around something so large and hoping it will get safely on a plane.

Once I approached the counter, I got involved in a one-way conversation with the British Airways employee. That is, I would occasionally say something and he spent all of his time staring quietly at his computer and occasionally tapping on the keyboard like it’d been the first time he’d seen one. My irrational fears regarding bringing a bike onto the plane mounted. And then we had this conversation:

“How many bags are you checking?”

“One bag and the bike.”

“So one additional bag?”

“Well, the one bag and then this bike.”

“OK, so you have one bag in addition to the one free checked bag?”

“Uhm, yes.”

And that is how they accepted the bike onto the plane as a normal additional bag, and not as a gigantic heavy box with a bike and a ton of additional stuff in it. The cost was a reasonable 50€, and I was on my way.

My trip home was long and strange. On the way to France I felt like I was rowing out into a foggy lake. I didn’t have any concept of how bike touring would feel. The snags and complications, the emotions and the land itself. Now that I was headed home, I was pushing back into familiar territory. And I was wondering how much it had changed.

The most shocking thing about being home is how little has changed. Within days, I had returned to my old patterns. My breakfasts taste the same. My bed feels the same to sleep in. My friends are just the way I remember them. Work is work. The normal feels very strange.

I look at the artifacts of my voyage: the pendant from L’île d’Yeu, the bike, the torn-up atlas. It feels like I dreamt about something and woke up holding it. I spent so much time planning this tour and talking about it as if it weren’t a real thing. And now I sit and stare at the atlas and think about how strange it is that now it is all over. The Christmas presents have been unwrapped, all of them. The test is over and I’m thinking about what it was like to study for it. I’m struggling to express how it feels to invest so much time into such a fleeting thing.

Since I’ve been back, people have asked me how the trip was. Or if I had fun. Neither question is quite possible to answer succinctly or shortly. It was good, sometimes. It was fun, sometimes. It was also wet and hard and joyful and too long and too short and a learning experience and sometimes it was something that taught me nothing. I enjoyed it and I also did not. I would do it over again, but I would never do it again. At least, not the same way.

I had lunch with a friend of mine the week I got back. He immediately pointed out how similar the city of San Francisco was to how I had left it. “You expect it to be different when you get back from traveling,” he said. “But it never is.”

I think I expected more than anything that I would be different. And perhaps it’s too soon to say for certain whether or not I am, in any significant way. One of my biggest motivations was a friend who had hiked the Appalachian Trail and returned with a new confidence. A week after I got back, I declined an offer to attend a poetry reading because the weather was gray and a little bit rainy. This after pedaling through endless miles of cold rain alone. Instead I made a warm drink and played some video games with a friend. Because perhaps it was just something I longed for when I was on the road.

And so maybe that is the question: what do you find on the road? Do you discover things about yourself that you can’t find out if you stay home? Does the world change or enrichen you? I’m still not sure that I know.

Here is what I do know: That I have accomplished something significant, that I am proud of it. That there is a lot more to explore, and that I want to see it. That there are advantages to traveling alone. That next time, I will bring a friend. That good times come after bad times, and that bad times come again. That I would rather be terrifically challenged than bored.


So here’s my farewell to the roads of France. Darkened by rain, dried by the sun, smooth and beautiful roads. And all that they showed me, inside and out.

The Nightmare of Taking Your Bike on the TGV, and The Glory of Being Done

October 27, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Travelling is often a logistical snake pit. Normally the best thing you can do is relax your facial muscles, grip your bags strongly and keep your head up for the signs. Getting from Montpellier to Paris with my bike required more than the kind of traveler's grit that I'm used to. In hindsight, it didn't have to. Which, yes, is often the case.


I woke up before sunrise the day before I expected to leave for Paris. After breakfast, I headed to the train station with the intention of buying a ticket on a bike-friendly train. It didn't matter at what hour it left, or how long it took, so long as I could get my bike on it.


At the station, I was directed from the local train counter to the TGV (high speed) desk. I was told I couldn't buy tickets on the slower local trains to Paris. Approaching the TGV desk, I was stopped again. This time I was told I couldn't buy any tickets for the next day. Afraid of running into bike-related issues if I came back the same day I planned to travel, I sought out someone else for information about bike regulations. What I had read online had been a total confusing mess.


A woman in a red vest (indicating her ability to provide information) told me that I could not, under any circumstances, take my bike on a train leaving Montpellier unless it was in an housse. This is a heavy duty bike bag that can be purchased at sporting goods stores and requires near-full disassembly of the bike. I asked her where I could get one, and she directed me (rudely) to a local sporting goods store.


I should stop to mention at this point in writing that I already feel my blood churning again.


I found the sporting goods store, but it was closed. Unable to find wifi nearby to look up more information, online advice, or prices, I waited. When the store opened, I went in and looked for an housse (rhymes with “loose”). They had none, and the ones that they didn't have were 80€. I talked to the bike mechanic about riding the train with a bike. Impossible without an housse, he said. And they didn't have any and there weren't any other bike shops in town.


Because laying down on the street wasn't an option, I went back to the train station to wrangle more information out of somebody if it killed them. The TGV website clearly stated that there were trains available which allowed assembled bikes. At the ticket counter, I convinced the man who had previously shooed me away to let me talk to an agent. I insisted to her (kindly, I think), that I needed to get back to Paris with a bike. She insisted that it was impossible on any trains leaving from Montpellier. I asked her if any TGV trains accepted bikes, and she said yes. I asked her if any of those trains left Montpellier and she grunted. I said that well then even if they didn't go to Paris they must go somewhere that has another train that goes to Paris. She turned the computer monitor away from me and told me that no, that wasn't possible. I asked if I could take local trains instead of the high speed rail, since local trains ran from Montpellier all over the country and all of them accepted bikes. No, she said, not to Paris. But then to somewhere else, I said, which had trains that ran to Paris. I thought my logic was pretty airtight, but there wasn't any air in the room that she hadn't already sucked out. It was not possible, she said, to take a train to Paris with a bike. Not at all possible without packing your bike into an housse.

I did not want to spend €80 on a bike bag that I needed for one 3-hour trip. Especially when I already had a box in Paris for my bike and luggage for my return trip to San Francisco. It just didn't make sense. I walked away from the counter and found another information agent that I hassled with the same series of questions. I pushed the limits of my French in being as kind as possible while prying for options, ideas. None came.


I decided that all I could do was return to my hosts' apartment and do some serious online research. On my way back, I stopped in a pizza shop. Behind the counter was a 20-something kid wearing a deep v-neck and shaggy long blonde hair. Were it not for his perfect French accent and mannerisms, you could swear he was Californian. We immediately slipped into tutoyer-ing one another, rather than employing vous as the polite impersonal pronoun as is standard with customer-employee interactions. He asked how I was doing, and I laid it on him. My whole morning. As my pizza cooked, we looked at housses online at the nearest sporting goods store. €120. No problem, he said. When he takes the TGV to Nimes with his fixed gear, he just takes the wheels off, wraps the whole assembly in plastic or garbage bags and brings it on board with him as luggage. The news was so good that I made him repeat it a good number of times before I accepted that I was getting every nuance in translation.


Leaving with my pizza, I was more hopeful but still full of questions. Why did they demand an housse, if it wasn't actually necessary? Did his strategy only work because he had a small fixed gear instead of a huge touring bike, fenders and racks, and 5 bags? Was this only possible on trains leaving for Nimes, and was there still going to be a problem heading to Paris?


I headed back to the apartment and searched online more. What my research revealed was that every person's story was different. What it came down to was how kind the controller of the train felt toward cyclists, it seemed. L. had an housse that he was willing to sell me for €40. Fine, I thought, if that really solves my problem then to hell with the money. But it didn't fit.


Many of the things that people told me that day were factually untrue. One such thing was that there were no other bike shops nearby in the city. L. walked me to one only a block from his apartment. Once inside, I talked to the mechanic about my issue. He spoke too fast for me to fully understand. But he gave me a cardboard box that a bike shipped in. With it, I figured I could make my own housse. The only problem was that it was massive, far bigger than the box that my bike was shipped in.


I left the box outside of L.'s apartment and walked to the local supermarket. There I bought the biggest garbage bags I could find–the ones made for hauling yard debris. I also bought a rolling of packing tape. Between the cardboard and the packing tape, I figured I must be able to construct something capable of bringing my bike onto the train.


That night I consolidated my bags into the smallest units I could. I threw away whatever extra items I could manage. I left behind trash and extra food, but not much else. Mostly I utilized clever packing to put all of my six bags (four panniers, a handlebar bag, and the guitar case) into only four (three panniers and the guitar). All of my expensive and important stuff was in one bag, my camping stuff in another, my clothes in the third, and the guitar in the fourth.


Figuring that I would have a better experience with people under less pressure, I went to a local SNCF office instead of the train station to buy a ticket. In my best and most polite French, I explained my situation to a woman sitting behind a desk in front of me. She gave me her friendliest grimace as we both crunched on the problem. Give me a ticket to the least popular train, I said. Less people means less problems with luggage. She printed a ticket for the 6:20am train to Paris. Technically the ticket was not refundable. But, she said, if the controller does not let you on the train, I will be working tomorrow. Have him sign the ticket and I will refund you the €83. It was kind, but that still meant my worst case scenario was being stuck without a ride home.


I sat on the couch that night for a long time staring at my things. After a while, I measured a section of the cardboard box. I cut it into a long wide strip with my knife. I folded the strip up and wrapped a bicycle tube around it. Then I stuck a pen through the loop, making a handle. It was unruly, about the size of an art student's largest portfolio. But I figured it was possible to carry on my bike. Then I stared at my things some more. Almost without exception, no one was confident that I could get onto the train to Paris.


I checked the total road distance, to see if I could ride my bike there on time. It would have to be considerably more than my previous best days. Beyond grueling, I was sure that I couldn't physically pull it off in time to make my plane. I had to get on the train.


That night, I went out for drinks and burgers with L. and his friends. I'm certain that I appeared distant, hopelessly focused. I was planning for the next day. At 4am, I would wake up. I would get dressed and quickly eat. Then I would gather my things and ride to the station. Once there, I would get out my tools and disassemble my bike. I would wrap it in plastic and consolidate everything on the train platform. Then I would walk onto the platform and hope for the best.


Somewhere between the beers and the burgers it started to rain. I quipped to L. that I sure hoped it wouldn't be raining at 4am.


That night, as I lay on the couch for my four hours of sleep, I listened to the rain. It came down harder and harder. I visualized how I would cover everything with the plastic bags, how I would disassemble the bike, what I would say.


When I woke up, the rain was sliding with a determined sound from the gutters. I opened the shutters and watched it stream down from the sky in sheets. No matter, I thought. This was the trip, getting home.


After eating, I wrapped my things in plastic and made three trips down the stairs with my bike and bags. I used the bike's odometer, even though it was only a few kilometers to the station. If I was going to do this, I wanted it to count.


The wind was strong and the rain heavy and constant. The cardboard box's carrying handle worked well, but it operated like a sail in the heavy wind. I was constantly overcorrecting my steering and driving myself madly along the wet roads and sidewalks. The damned thing was heavy, too, and I occasionally had to rest my hand on the handlebars. This made the entire steering problem considerably worse. The road ahead of me was closed in the direction I was heading, but open to oncoming traffic. I was unwilling to get lost on the winding French streets and rode down the wrong lane. It was not unreasonably dangerous in the light traffic of the early morning. Two blocks from the station, the road was flooded. I watched several vans timidly proceed through the deep water, watching for the shallowest splashes. At the far end of the sidewalk, I found a route that was uninundated and proceeded to the station.


At five in the morning, train stations are not strictly the least shady places on earth. I kept a close eye on my various bags as I worked deliberately to disassemble my bike. I used the plastic bags that had protected my items in the rain to wrap up the frame and the tape to hold everything together. When it seemed a reasonably tight and sturdy package, I folded the cardboard on the ground. I placed the bike on the folded cardboard and taped it into a casket. I followed up by cutting off extra pieces and forming everything into the smallest package that I could. When I was finished, it was 8 minutes before my train was to leave (although I had worked quickly and given myself over an hour). If I had had the time, I would have taken a picture of my creation, I was very proud of it. I cut a handle into the box and carried everything onto the platform. The train was waiting.


When I reached the platform, I made a well-meaning mistake. I saw the train controller and asked him the best place for my box. There was no good place, he said. It could not go on the train. I told him that I spent the previous day talking to employees at the station and they insisted this was the best method and the best train. It didn't matter, he said, there was simply no place on the train for my box. I asked if there was a car for luggage, he said there wasn't. I asked if there was a better train I should have bought tickets for, he said it was simply impossible on the TGV, regardless of the train. I switched from logic to compassion and explained that after two months of bike touring I just wanted to go home. He was unphased, and told me to talk to the porter just down the platform.


I carried my things to the porter who told me the same thing, it was simply impossible on this or any other TGV train. He told me to talk to the controller, who I said had told me to talk to him. He walked over to the controller then walked away without looking at me. I walked to the controller and asked him what the porter had said. Nothing, he responded. It's not possible. There's no space for it on the train. It could go in front of a seat, I said. It would fit. I could stand for the the three hour ride. Impossible, he said, there's just no room on the train. As I began to feed him the human interest angle again, he began to intentionally speak French too fast for me to understand as he looked away towards something else he could do.


As speakers throughout the station announced the departure of the train, I thought about what the woman at the ticket counter had said. I wouldn't be able to get on the train, but at least I could get my money back. As I was getting out my pen to ask the controller to sign a ticket, a man ran off the train. He told me and the controller that he rode the TGV all the time with his bike and baggage. He just takes the wheels and wraps it in plastic.


I did that! I nearly shouted, in French. I tore open the box to show him that the bike was wrapped in plastic. I pulled the bike out and kicked the box away, onto the platform. The man looked at the controller, and told him, insisted to him that it would fit. The controller said that it wasn't regulation sized. Regulation is a meter, the man argued. He got down onto a knee and stretched his arm against the bike. It's not more than a meter, he said. It would fit. When I picked up the bike again by the top-tube, the man raised his voice to the controller, “hand luggage!” he said, “now it's not a box, now it's hand luggage!”


“S'il vous plaît,” I said. “S'il vous plaît.” The controller grunted and looked away in a mannerism that suggested reluctant acquiescence. The man turned to me and asked me if I needed the box. I said that I didn't and he grabbed it to go put it somewhere out of the way. I have thought numerous times about whether and how sincerely I remembered to thank him.


The train was leaving in moments and I nearly ran to my car, which was far down the platform. It was an action that took considerable effort. Once on the train, I slid my bike onto a high luggage rack. I found space for my bags on a rack below. Then I looked around and saw all of the other space on the train where my box could easily have fit. But I was no longer in a mood to be spiteful. I was on a train to Paris, and my bike was on the train with me.


As the train pulled away, almost instantly, I couldn't help but run through the morning's events in my head a few times. What had gone right and wrong, what I could have done better. Eventually my overstimulation settled to a simmer and I fell asleep against the window.


After about an hour, I awoke. The familiar French countryside streamed by at impossible speeds outside. My plan previously was to assemble my bike at the Gare de Lyon and ride the few kilometers to R.'s apartment. To return just as I had left. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to find a corner of a busy train station for bike assembly, only to disassemble it again the next day for my flight. Instead, I decided to take the metro with my bike and luggage in hand.


In Paris, I waited for everyone else to leave the train before taking my bike down from the luggage rack. I got my bags off the train and carried them down the platform to the station. That short distance was incredibly fatiguing. I stopped to arrange my things as well as possible. I wrapped the bike in more tape, securing the unit as tightly as possible. I put straps on my two heaviest bags and put them over each shoulder, crisscrossed. Then I walked towards the escalator.


I was carrying everything that I had needed with me for 41 days of bike touring, and the bike itself. My muscles fatigued quickly and I stopped often to rest. Busy Parisians bustled past me, often knocking into the bike frame or bags. I had to make one transfer, and the other platform was far. I had to take another long walk. Once I finally made it to my station, I moved towards the exit. The man in front of me watched as he let go of the door and it slammed closed on my bike. A young girl held it open for me and smiled. I smiled back.


Above ground, I had made it. Without leaving anything behind of value, I had made the full round trip of France. My hands were shaking from the physical effort of carrying the heavy bags. And writing this now, two days later, my shoulders are still sore.


I punched the door entry code to R.'s apartment and then rang his bell in the vestibule. He wasn't home. No matter. I left the bike in the vestibule and took my bags to the nearest cafe. I had only a few hours to wait for him, and the whole thing would be done.


For those interested in taking the TGV with a bike, I now know that I made two big mistakes. I tried to protect my bike too much with the cardboard and I stopped to ask the controller where to put it. I think everything would have gone smoothly if I'd simply wrapped it in plastic and walked right onto the train.

The Last Days of Riding

October 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm

And so I took the canal from Montauban to Toulouse. In fact, I was helped greatly by my host who rode with me to another canal that later met up with the Canal du Misery. Good thing, too, because I thought as we were riding there that our route was a series of ever-decreasing circles. (I've felt this way often when navigating cities and villages in France, that something circular-seeming is the straightest line). Finding it on my own would have been a lengthy process. And I didn't have time on my side.

Canal. Canal, canal, canal; canal. I arranged to meet my next host outside of a metro station at 6:30. As the hour approached, I realized that the chances of arriving there on time were disappearing. My perfect record of timeliness would be shattered. Towards 6:00 I was still well outside of the city. I managed to pull off some of the best follow-your-nose city navigating I've ever done and found my way straight to the metro station a half hour late. My host was not there.

I waited a half hour and tried to find wifi, but there was none nearby. I eventually asked a couple of English-speaking girls nearby if I could use their phone. My French is good enough for a lot of things, but politely asking if I can check my email on someone else's phone is not one of them. We talked for a while about what was going on in their lives and about my trip. The English girl asked me if I had fallen in love with a French girl yet. Because, she said, isn't that why American men come to France? I told her that I came to ride my bike and see the country. And besides, I had a pretty girl waiting for me back home.

I got in touch with my host and arrived at her apartment late, well past dark. I had no real interest in going out and seeing the city alone and tired. Instead I ate and got some sleep.

Graciously, my host in Toulouse allowed me to stay an extra night. I was able to spend the next day exploring the city by foot. I must have walked a dozen miles, because I was out from about 10am to 10pm. I stopped at various cafés. First for coffee and later for beer. At each stop I watched the people and I wrote. The better things I might have written in my journal, as they come out more freely and easily. I took few pictures in Toulouse, although I found the city to be beautiful.

Toulouse or not Toulouse.


I wandered into a power plant that was also an art museum and watched 10 minutes of a bizarre film about the history of the plant, and then I had another beer someplace, and then I went home to rest.


Sky, water, power, Toulouse.


The next day was the second day that I spent on the canal, so: canal, canal, canal. I arrived in Carcassonne in the late afternoon in a bad mood. Partially because of the canal and partially because I have a hard time staying positive when I'm hungry. I found a bakery and ate a croissant, found a tourist office which pointed me towards the nearest campground. It was my last night camping on the trip, and I just barely found two trees that were right for the hammock. The showers didn't look inviting so I changed and started dinner. While cooking, a gaggle of cats pestered me for food and fought each other as they whimpered and circled me. I scared off the bigger, meaner ones and fed the kitten. I had made up my mind to avoid the canal the next day so I got out my atlas and plotted a course for Armissan on local roads. It felt really good to be drawing up a route again. It didn't look considerably longer than the winding canal.


The sun setting over the last of many, many campgrounds.

It was raining in the morning, so I packed up my wet hammock in the dark. There is a walled medieval city on a hill just outside of Carcassonne. I had passed it the previous evening without seeing a decent place to stop for a photo. I plotted a route that circumnavigated Carcassonne with the intention of finding a better vantage point for a picture. Which I never really did. It's just one of those things that you have to go see for yourself.

The area outside of Carcassonne was a mixture of trashy and overdeveloped. I passed large grocery stores and considered stopping for road food that I was desperately low on. Instead I pressed on, not feeling right about it. Just outside of the most developed area, I had to take the highway for a short stretch in order to reach the departmental routes that I would spend the rest of the day on. As soon as I found them, the entire atmosphere changed. The world returned to the state of immense beauty that I found in the massif central. I wound through, climbed and descended rolling vineyards and farmland.

Eventually I passed through a small village with a superette. I left my bike outside, as I've come to trust villages like this. As I wandered the aisles, I filled a shopping basket with the essentials: peanuts, yogurt, avocados, apples, cereal bars and a can of beer for lunch. Near the register there were a couple of small tables and a coffee machine. It was clear that this was a neighborhood watering hole. I bought a bad tasting and utterly satisfying 0,60€ coffee and had a conversation with an English gentleman who lived in the village. We chatted politics and the lives of young people and of old people. He reassured me that my trip was a “check in the right box.” He also timidly proposed that a Romney presidency might be a bad thing, and I told him that he didn't have to worry about offending my political sensibilities.

I left packed with food and feeling good. The road remained beautiful and after noon I stopped to eat lunch and drink a beer near a tennis court. I was outside of a village schoolhouse and listened to the children as I dried my hammock and enjoyed the sun.

My hosts were in a small village outside of Narbonne. I found their house but it seemed to have only one entrance: a gunmetal gray fence at the end of an alley. I knocked and then waited and then knocked again. Then I waited. Eventually my host's son walked by with two bags of garbage. We introduced ourselves and he let me into the house.

I didn't spend much time that night with the family. Mostly I planned for the next day, which I anticipated would be grueling. It was 100km in the best case scenario. And since I had to find my way through three towns, it would certainly be more.

The most enervating thing on a long day's ride is the setting sun. I think that my total mileage per day could be considerably greater if I could take longer breaks and stop more often. The setting sun is always a threat, even as I leave at dawn.

And so, I left at dawn. The hills and vineyards outside of Armissan were draped with fog and it took my a long time to get only a few kilometers. I stopped often to take pictures of the morning bloom set behind the rich fog.


Morning blooming through fog outside of Armissan.

Viewing the Mediterranean was my last goal for the trip. I could see it from on high after I ascended through the fog to a rocky hilltop. And again, speeding quickly through winding roads down towards the shore. As I coasted at top speed along the road, tires humming, I had another moment where I felt and remembered the true joy of cycling. Getting there on your own power, and enjoying the fruits of your labor.

This was my last day of riding. Narbonne to Montpellier. This is where I planned to stay with a couple of college-aged kids for two nights before taking a train to Paris. The day's ride was often some of the prettiest and most fun that I've done on my voyage. At times I felt my heart beat in my chest. Resoundingly a reminder of the great joy that can be had on a bicycle.

There exists a narrow peninsula that reaches out to the town of Sète. A bike path runs the entire length of the peninsula along the beach. If you can manage to follow high-traffic poorly-marked roads for a good long while, you can take that bike path.

My ride on the beach was pleasant. Before and after that stretch of beach was nightmarish. This is why no one really recommends you bike tour on the southeast coast of France. It is gorgeous, but it's car-friendly and only occasionally a good place to ride a bike. Signage is poor and major highways trace their way up the coast. Sometimes the departmental routes dump you onto larger roads for an unavoidable and unenjoyable white-knuckle shoulder-hugging kilometer or ten. One of these segments had me against a jersey barrier while large trucks blew by. It would have been an appropriate time to be afraid. Perhaps the southeast coast will eventually be a gorgeous place to ride, when the planned EuroVelo route is complete.

I followed my nose into Montpellier and managed to find my hosts' apartment without a ton of trouble. My contact was L. but only his roommate was home. I sat on their couch and wrote while his roommate worked on homework. When L. arrived we talked cycling and eventually cooked dinner at a full table. We didn't go out that night because L. had class early. It was just as well, since my sleep schedule isn't appropriate for a social life.

When I awoke the next morning, I went to the train station and began the nerve-blistering process of getting back to Paris with my bike.


Bike Touring on the Canal du Midi

October 24, 2012 at 5:40 pm

People that I respected and were cool and likable and great, people that I met all over France, lots of them had mentioned riding down the Canal du Midi. And I'm aware that it's something that touring cyclists often do. It's said that you're likely to meet loads of them down there on the canal. Blissfully pedaling along, stopping only when their face hurts too much from smiling.

Man, I hate the Canal du Midi. It runs from Bordeaux all the way to the Mediterranean, and some people ride the whole thing. They do, and I haven't the foggiest clue why. I rode down the canal for two full days, about 200km. One day from Montauban to Toulouse, and another day from Toulouse to Carcassonne. I was supposed to spend a third day on it, ending up outside of Narbonne. I am extremely, extremely happy that I wizened up and took roads. Wide and friendly roads, with views and towns and people and differences.

The Canal du Midi strikes you at first for its Olmsteadian beauty but then slowly dissolves into a Levittian nightmare. Plane trees line the banks of the canal, which is typically set a man's height below the surrounding land. When you're pedaling down the canal, you see plane trees on your left, a path in front of you, and a narrow expanse of green water to your right. For an afternoon stroll it's delightful, much more than that and it is maddening. Riding through the various landscapes of France, I've fantasized about future projects, drinks with friends, burritos, music I want to make, and I've thought of stories to write and considered what times in my life really meant to me. On the Canal du Midi I thought about trees to my left, the path in front of me, and a narrow expanse of green water to my right.

Canal du Midi

I was on the Canal du Midi for two days, but I only needed to take one picture.


Here's the other thing about this godforsaken canal. When you're nearby a larger town, the path is paved nicely and runs consistently along one bank. But from time to time, and for long stretches, the canal path is not paved and instead in various states of mud. If you're lucky, it's hard-packed dirt. If you're not, thick mud is sucking your tires into the earth and getting stuck in your fenders, breaks, and drivetrain. And you never know when the canal path will get lousy, nor which side of the canal the better path will be on. So sometimes you'll be picking your bike up over a log while your feet sink into the mud, while on the other side of the canal, someone with a picnic basket on their handlebars is eating an apple and talking on their phone as they coast nonchalantly. And then you cross the canal at the next bridge but then the good side switches, and so on. The effect of the on-again off-again road maintenance is diabolical. You end up hoping that you're going to receive well-paved roads forever. Yes, you end up praying for more monotony.

You also never have any idea where you are. Bridges are rarely marked with a route, and even small villages are not clearly labeled from the canal. My only notion of how far I'd gone was my odometer. And that's something I try not to look at too frequently for obvious watching-water-boil type reasons. So I would end up after a few hours simply having no idea even relatively where I was. And then maddening thoughts would pop up like that maybe there was a Y in the canal and now I've been headed the wrong way for hours. The passage of time is important to me. Riding along roads allows you to watch meaningful progress tick off as you find the next route or village. Riding on the canal all day has the effect of being in some kind of hyper sleep chamber. It's so regular-looking and unlabelled that it might as well be a painting that someone slapped up in front of an exercise bike. And then said, “here's your ride through France, isn't it beautiful?”

The parts of France that I rode through just before taking the canal and just after mercifully quitting it were some of the prettiest places I've ever seen in my life. The parts of France that I rode through on the canal I cannot speak for, because I did not see them. The trees and banks of the canal are high enough that you can't appreciate what's around you. And since there are no signs that indicate you can take a certain side street to see a certain thing, you don't ever leave it. Doing so would be 100% guesswork without a GPS. So you end up not even channel surfing because you assume nothing else is on, and the reruns play forever. In fact, I had been so brainwashed by the green water and monotonous paths that when I finally escaped the canal, it was like watching a color TV for the first time. The world was suddenly lush.

The second day that I was on the canal was after several days of high wind. It was often covered in sticks and branches that I would ride around and occasionally over. For many kilometers, every time there was a bridge or lock, there would be an orange triangular sign on the ground that read “Route Barrée” and then a random distance between 100 and 500 meters. These are temporary signs that road crews can use when they are doing construction or, say, removing fallen trees from a canal pathway. I saw these signs every kilometer or so for hour after hour and always rode right past them without ever being stopped by either a fallen log or construction crew. Except ONCE when the route really was blocked off by a huge fallen tree and several workers. One of them took off his headphones and walked over to ask me how I could have missed the sign. Maybe they had just been extremely thorough in their signage and wanted me to know in the morning that by the mid-afternoon the route would be barred someplace.

Someone told me yesterday that the best way to take the canal is if you really know what you can find by taking different bridges and routes away from it. And I'm sure there are some medieval villages and wineries that can make for wonderful day trips from Toulouse or Bordeaux. But as a touring cyclist who doesn't know the region intimately, the canal is a bad and stupid thing that I wouldn't recommend.

The Massif Central is Ridiculously, Ridiculously Pretty and Worth Avoiding the Much Easier Midi Canal So That You Can Explore, When Bike Touring

October 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm

The wind had not abated in the morning. The plastic and canvas walls of the picnic shelter where I ate my breakfast flapped wildly. The sounds were violent. I took my time, finishing some writing and eating plenty. I made a second cup of coffee, ignoring my concern about a dwindling fuel supply.

A bit later than usual, I left the campground and headed east through the massif central. I had arranged lodging with a host only 70 kilometers away. My concern was that the day would be long, even with the modest distance. I expected more of the same severe winds, several big climbs, and a few rain showers if I somehow avoided a completely wet day.

Immediately I noticed a difference in the land around me. The landscape had been slowly transforming for days. The expansive hills were becoming wider and sometimes taller. I experienced more open farmland with distant rolling hills. The farmland was crisscrossed with low white stone walls in various states of disrepair. The walls were coated, often seemed to be dripping with red moss.

The day I'm describing became more and more beautiful, indescribably so. It would be impossible for any photographer, let alone a B-grade photographer like myself, to capture the majest of the massif central. Rolling hills dip and slope and continue endlessly, all the while resting high above the lowland valleys. To the effect that you can make several smaller climbs and descents before happening upon a long steady downhill race into a low beautiful valley. The valleys are long and flat, with tall trees and low grass. Rivers, wide and slow, run along smooth roads and peaceful villages. I know now why the word verdant exists, because the word green is truly insufficient for places like this.

Le massif central.


I took few photographs, and a more dedicated photographer would have taken more. But I felt good leaving the land to its beauty without attempting foolishly to capture it. I'm not unsettled that no picture of this land is great enough to do justice or transport the viewer. On the contrary, I'm put to ease knowing that there are parts of the world that you have to visit. That no book or photograph or film can take you to. And that no description or tale can evoke. My French-born San Franciscan friend who tricked me into believing that France had an Indian summer (two months of rain) made up for his betrayal by insisting that I visit the massif central.


More of Le massif central.

My map indicated two rivers running east-west with high cliffs on either side. My route was directly south, meaning that I would steeply descend and climb each. A murmuring and valid concern persisted that I would be hit with a strong headwind on a climb. Worst case scenario, the climb would be near impossible with a fully loaded bike. This rude combination didn't coalesce until the next day. Though on long slower climbs I was often faced with strong headwinds that persisted for up to an hour. Pedaling uphill into the wind is the kind of thing that's horrible in such a Beckettian sense that it doesn't break my spirit. I tend to smile, and periodically laugh as rounding a corner reveals another 800m of uphill road bordered with grass that's bent towards me.

I have agreed upon meeting my hosts almost universally with dubious instructions. The movie theater by the church, the church at the end of the road, the top of the hill by the train station. And the instructions for finding my host's house on this night were no different. A left turn after I had climbed a hill for 2-3 kilometers. The barn at the end of the road. And yet like every other time, the instructions panned out perfectly. I wound up at a low ranch-style home. My host carried her youngest daughter while the other two bolted around their home, filled with toys and their laughter. After I showered, we all went for a walk through the woods to visit the two local springs, neither of them running. To my surprise, the cat came along for the long walk. It came when called and stuck with the group, falling behind and running to catch up.


I agreed to some tea after dinner, but couldn't hold out and retired to the guest room. I slept like a stone and woke up to the sound of the continual wind. Outside under the purple sky, the wind was forcing the trees into wide circles. It shook them violently, throwing leaves about the yard. After coffee and breakfast, I headed out for another day of strong wind, deep valleys, and green hills.

I had agreed to meet my host for the next night outside of the town hall at a certain hour. This is somewhat risky, given the difficulties in anticipating the length of a route. Cutting diagonally across the land would have given me roughly 50 kilometers to travel. The prettier route ran due south and then due west in the longest distance possible without completely backtracking. I took it.

60 kilometers into my ride, I seemed to be about halfway to my destination. I didn't have nearly enough time to make my arrival, it seemed. My average speed was the worst it had ever been, hovering around16km/hr. Long climbs and persistent headwind had plagued my day, although again the beauty was unspeakable.

At exactly the moment that I felt I was going to be well late, I crested the top of a hill. There I discovered a monument dedicated to cyclotourists, to my kin.

Joseph Bastit memorial


What immediately followed was the fastest and longest and fastest descent I've happened upon. 10km of steep decline along smooth and empty roads, an open valley looming wide on my right. I topped out around 55km/hr, barreling down the mountain towards the flat lands below.

My luck continued as my westward turn brought with it a strong tailwind. I crossed long flat valleys at a strong clip as a storm loomed directly in front of me. Heading straight into the darkening clouds along fields of dying sunflowers was one of the most remarkable feelings I can remember, and one I won't likely forget. The kilometers ticked off easily as I approached Montauban.

Rain fell and then quickly cleared. I arrived at the town hall 9 minutes before the agreed-upon time. What could have been a 50km ride turned into 104km of beautiful effort. I sat on the steps of the building, happy and tired with my muscles feeling good and true.

Before long my host arrived and introduced himself. I followed him in his car, his daughters smiling at me from the back seat, to his house. There I had a shower and some food and a warm drink. We played a board game with his three beautiful daughters and awaited his wife for dinner. My host was welcoming and friendly, wearing a constant smile and bearing an easy laugh. He had toured the world on bicycle for two years with his brother and had pictures hanging around the house from Pakistan. He had visited Iran and Azerbaijan. My tour suddenly felt friendly and easy, if not insignificant.

In the morning we went for a walk, and then returned to pile into the car. In Montauban, we visited the local outdoor market where I bought ridiculously good goat cheese, aged cheese, bread, and fresh yogurt. After we made it home for a belly-expanding lunch, I left for what I anticipated to be an easy 60km day along a flat canal. But I had agreed again to meet my host at a certain hour…


Underground in Padirac, a Cliffside in Rocamadour, and a Long Wind

October 18, 2012 at 7:08 am

I had spent a full week off the bike, and I was afraid of what that would mean. In fact, the only ride I had done was a 20 kilometer loop with the son of my host. And that was without my bags and very fast–nothing like actual touring. Would my legs have gone soft that quickly? My best estimate for the day's ride was 100km and moderate hills. If I fallen out of shape at all, I would find out.

A bit of research turned up a campground that was open until early November. Located about 8km from the caves that I wanted to explore, it was perfect. I left early in the morning with a full stomach and a bike packed high with food. It felt good to be fully resupplied and back on tour.

In fact, everything felt quite good. The long morning stretch and warm meal. The rolling green hills spread under light fog. The cold air that bit at my fingertips and allowed me to stay bundled in a sweatshirt. The two water bottles each filled with a mixture of orange juice and water. By 11am, I had crushed nearly 50km. This included a 10km climb that reassured me of my strength. I felt good and strong through the whole thing and did not stop.

But that was just the morning. Around noon, it began to rain. I decided that I had to find a place to charge my camera since I would want it in the caves. The power adapter that I had borrowed from a friend did not work in many outlets, because most French outlets are recessed and it has a flat front. My first stop was at a bar where I planned to have a coffee and wait out the rain. Which had just started falling.

But the bar had no outlet that would work and it was the only thing in town, so I kept riding. The rain fell harder and I planned to stop in the next major town–one of only two between where I was and where I was going. But I realized when I got near that my route would skirt the town by a couple of kilometers and a steep hill. No matter, there was still the next town and it was still early.

And then I ran into a detour. I've found these to be particularly dispiriting in France. They are never well planned nor well marked. But the detour was just a few kilometers out of town, so I did not despair. Until several kilometers later when I realized I had been riding without a rest for a long time and that I was hungry and hot in my rain clothes and going directionally the wrong way. I tried for a long time to find a covered bench to sit and eat but found nothing.

Eventually I found a picnic table beneath the trees. It was not dry, but it was not soaked. The rain was still coming down, but slightly less beneath the branches. It would do. I ate a lot, and the food was good and felt good. I cut open half of a baguette and added tomato pesto, arugula, cheese, and sliced tomatoes. I read an email that I had been saving for a rest stop and then I stretched. Sometimes when things are a bit lonesome, I put on a short story podcast. Which now I did. It was a story by Raymond Carver. I love his writing, but it doesn't help to keep you from feeling lonesome.

Once I continued on and checked my map several times I realized where the detour was taking me. It was far out of the way and would later put me on a main route, full of the trucks that had been detoured. Instead I felt my way along some very small streets through one-chicken towns and back to where I needed to be. In the process, I had avoided the second larger village and with it any chance of charging my camera.

By the final 15 kilometers, I realized that my instincts were right and my feeling of enthusiasm that morning was wrong. A week off the bike had softened my legs, and I was dragging hard. I stopped and took off the hoody under my rain jacket and stretched and stopped the podcast and got ready for the final push.

I arrived at a very nice campsite and waited out the rain before hanging my hammock. I tried to charge my camera but could not and felt quite disappointed. I read for a long time before falling asleep.

At 7am the next morning I got out of the hammock and first thing went to the facilities block with the camera charger again. Stupidly. There was nothing going to be different, but sometimes you just have to go and do it anyway. Fiddling with the US to European adapter for the 25th time in five weeks, I finally realized that the prongs unscrew to extend. They can be used in any of the recessed outlets in France. I was too happy that my camera was charging to feel angry at myself for not realizing this before.

I ate well, the normal breakfast. Drank coffee and played guitar. And then I headed for the caves. The Gouffres de Padirac. Absolutely magical, the cave begins with a long staircase down a very deep chasm, open at the top.


At the bottom, the stairs descend against and under the chasm, away from the sunlight. After a long walk through a high narrow expanse of limestone, you arrive at a small dock. Three boats and their oarsmen wait to paddle you a kilometer along an underground river where the caverns open up again. At the other side are more and larger chasms with incredible stalactites and stalagmites. There are no cameras allowed after the section of cavern where you enter the boats. So you can not take any pictures like these:



It was still early in the day when I escaped the caves. I had planned to spend the next night at the same campsite and my pitch was still there. When I left, I asked if there was a place I could put my stuff so it would not be stolen. This is the second time I've asked this at a campground and the second time someone has looked at me like I'm nuts for asking. There is a place you can put it, but things are not stolen here. Is basically the idea.

And so anyway I had the rest of the afternoon. I rode 12km to Rocamadour. In terms of tourist destinations It is sort of the massif central's answer to the Mont St. Michel. It is a town built into a hillside with (surprise) a giant church at the top.



I went to the cliffside along the valley from the town with my lunch. I had a beer and wrote some postcards and ate a lot of food. It was very beautiful and the wind was coming through the valley but the wind was warm. After I had sat a good long time, I decided to head back to the campground.

On the way back I noticed the ticket office for another cave. Figuring that two caves and a town built into a hillside made for a good day, I stopped and bought a ticket. At the gift shop, I spoke to two French women for a long time about my trip and about San Francisco.

Once it was time for the tour, we descended to the grotto. It was small, and this time they were kind of serious about not taking any pictures. So I did not. There were cave paintings which looked mostly like someone had just smeared ash on the walls, but I took their word for the fact that they were ancient. The guide asked us which animal each one was and it was always impossible to tell. Except that I could tell the wolf right away. Whether ancient rust painted on a limestone wall or cyclist pushing across a nation, we can recognize others from the pack.

The tour was given entirely in French and lasted 40 minutes. In case you have now been misled into believing that my French has gotten good because I have talked so much about it, here is my transcription of the 40 minute guided tour:

Don't take pictures. Watch your head. These lights something. This is very old. Water makes this happen. Iron deposits. Over here, bath. Watch your head. Temperature doesn't change. Rain comes down, makes this. This was made my a root. Follow me. This is a horse. Legs, legs, head. That's right it's a deer. Legs, antlers. Watch your head, thank you.

The wind was coming in strong as I rode back to camp. And in fact it kept up this way all night and into the morning. The wind pushed hard in massive gusts against the rainfly of my hammock. Sometimes it was enough to swing me violently. The terrible sounds of the flapping material woke me many times. I had dreams of finding an open porch someplace and spending the rest of the night there. But they were dreams, which meant I was sleeping and that was good enough.

Wolf Does Not Ride Bike

October 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Small rituals develop quickly. It's been less than a week that I've been off the road, and I have already developed a pattern to my days. I wake at 7 and put on some coffee. With it and my guitar, I walk down to the edge of the yard. For the next hour I slowly sip the coffee and I play. I watch either the sunrise, or if there is no sunrise to watch, I attend the brightening of the blacks into purples and then grays. The edge of the yard is the top of a wide hill, so I can see far around. Serpents of fog slip into narrow valleys far off. Roosters and dogs banter to one another across the wet fields.


Around 8:30 I join my hosts for breakfast. At the table, I read about the American election. I talk to my hosts about what I can help with that day. I put on work clothes, which are just my riding clothes, and then I work for a couple of hours. I break before lunch to sit and drink a cup of NesQuik and talk about the news. This is not my ritual, but theirs that I have joined. I work again until lunch, hauling branches, trimming hedges, painting or digging holes. After lunch I do more of the same. And at some point I stop.

The work days are never long or difficult. Never at all. But it is good work that makes me happy. When I am done, I do some yoga, meditate, and shower. Afterwards I do some research always on where I should be going next and what I should be doing when I leave here. I have finally decided, but it took quite a while. I previously had only an hour to decide where I would be going, after reaching camp and unpacking and eating I would look through my maps and plot a course. Now I've had nearly a week and it has taken that long. Work is said to fill empty spaces in time. Physical or otherwise.

I am in Limeyrat. The village is small, the entire thing perched on top of the wide hill I've described. There is a town hall, a bar, and a boulangerie. A cemetery sits timidly against the road. If you follow the village's main street and do not turn off to the departmental route, you find that it reaches a dead-end at a stone church. Just beside that church is the house where I'm staying. A recovered ruins that the family has converted into a beautiful home.

The church in Limeyrat


Fall is filling the air with the smell of musty dying leaves, rotting apples and crisp breeze. I am in love with the feeling of a tangible season. Of the sensation of knowing that something has ended and something new is getting ready to begin. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but it knows nothing of seasonal change to this degree. The emotional regularity of the seasons in California is still somewhat sad to me. It's as if the moon is always half full. Like the conductor has kept the audience in their seats while across town another orchestra wails in love and sadness. There's an expression where I live, that you, “move to San Francisco, have a few drinks, and then you're 30.” We've smashed all the clocks in protest, but time hasn't slowed. Mostly emotionally perhaps, a temperate change in seasons allows a marking of the passing of time that I no longer have access to as a Californian. From my little home in Limeyrat, I am delighted to be a part of the autumn.

Home, for now.


I took to heart my intention to slow my pace to a halt, however briefly. And I do not regret that I've done it here. This small life is comfortable, suitable to me, and allows me to speak French and have a feeling for village life. If my intention was to understand what I could in a brief time what it meant to live here, I am in the right place to do it. In fact, with a little money I can see this being a way of life for a person looking to see the world. Perhaps it is even sustainable for long periods of time–to live with families, work in exchange for lodging, and then press on again.

And that's where I've arrived, nearly ready to see what is next on the read. Soon I'm headed east to the forest and then south again to Toulouse and then the Mediterranean. Hopefully towards more lodging this comfortable, more people this agreeable. If not, I have what I need on the bike with me. Tonight is my last here. I spoke in English with my hosts, which we have not done yet extensively. It felt personal and necessary. Tonight I will clean the gîte and pack my bike. I will sleep well in my warm bed. Tomorrow, home is wherever I stop pedaling.


Leaving the Atlantic and Knowing Nothing

October 11, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I awoke at 7am and walked out to the small bridge which hung over and just outside the campground. The early morning was still dark. These days it's not so much that I like to watch the sun rise. In fact, there is no sunrise. Behind the clouds, the sun brightens the day like a lamp behind a gray curtain. Just the same, I like watching the day begin.



I put on my rain pants and jacket and pulled the hood over my hair. The rain was constant but light. At a wet picnic table, I set out my pot and made my standard breakfast. Two eggs, half a baguette, cheese, coffee and a pastry. Then I dropped a dissolving vitamin tablet into my water bottle.

The night before I had looked disappointedly through my photographs of the circus vehicles. Clearly I hadn't been bold enough to take a single good picture. I resolved over breakfast to return there before catching the road out of town. It was too much a weird thing to leave undocumented.

I packed and left the campground. Again I found the wrong turn that led down the sullen road along a small green river. When I came upon the carnage, I propped my bike against one of the circus trucks and took out my camera. After several minutes, three German shepherds were barking at me from behind a fence. Finally a man's head popped out of the squat stone house across from me. It was an Indian man who spoke only a little French and no English. He was confused but not angry to see me there. I tried to apologize for making his dogs upset, but he didn't understand. We waved at each other as I left. Like most things, the whole situation was a lot less frightening than it seemed.

Though frightening it was.


My ride for the day was 87 kilometers to a meditation center located outside of Cubjac. I had only one small city to navigate. Most of the day required me just to keep hold of a single road through small towns. The ride was again like those earlier in my trip–farmland and rain. On an earlier day, I had seen a field of dead sunflowers and cursed myself for not stopping for a picture. This time I did not repeat the mistake.


I found an open bakery where I bought some fresh bread with figs. At a pizza truck on the corner I bought a can of Heinekin and asked about a place to sit for lunch. The man there gave me directions to probably the prettiest place I've stopped midday in my whole trip. A small stone patio hung over a mellow river. The patio was adorned with flowers and picnic tables.


After lunch, I slogged another 20 kilometers into Perigueux. I had anticipated a bit of a challenge in finding the right route out of town. Instead, I happened upon a cycle route that followed a river which skirted the town. The route was pretty, if a little difficult to follow. It ended abruptly at exactly the bridge I needed to cross to find the D5 and take it straight into Cubjac.

I found the town nestled into the same river about 12km upstream. Like many villages around France, it contains one of everything. Bar, bakery, city hall, pharmacy, and market. Just outside of town I found the retreat center. This is where I intended to really commit to slowing the pace of my journey. I had been in contact with the manager of the retreat center about staying and working until the 17th. In exchange, I would receive food and lodging.

I pulled down a long gravel driveway to the cluster of stone buildings. Numerous statues of the Buddha were hidden amongst thickets of bamboo. A small stream was fed near the entrance and led through the thickets to a larger river. A tall stone building stood above the river. And under it a couple of benches and a small waterfall. Throughout the area were pots of brilliantly colored flowers. Reverent, quiet patrons and attendees walked peacefully throughout the grounds. I was immediately greeted when I rode up. They had been expecting me and showed me to my room–a small building tucked behind three copses of bamboo.

My lodging.


Within minutes I was planning my escape. After a quick shower, I was already deliberating other options and routes away from Cubjac. I had realized immediately that I'd made a terrible mistake–everyone was speaking English. Pulling down that gravel path was like leaving France altogether. One of my first questions was to one of the other workers, about whether everyone spoke English there. “Oh yes,” she replied, “it's like a little bubble within France.” My face must have gone immediately neutral.

That night I ate an incredible vegetarian meal and spent some time planning other options. I fought off several of the largest spiders I'd ever seen before settling into my cabin for the night. My head was still spinning from the strange luck I'd happened upon. The opportunity to live and work and meditate at a beautiful place in the countryside and it was effectively worthless to me. I hadn't flown halfway around the world and then pedaled 2000km on my bike to practice my English.

In the morning I ate two full plates of breakfast and then met with the woman who ran the center. She asked me if I was comfortable and still willing to stay until the 17th. I explained my situation to her, and that I had really only paused my bike tour to speak more French. She admitted that this would not be a good location for such a thing. In fact, she had known of German-speaking volunteers who had improved their English while working there. “So, you want to leave?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. And it all happened a lot faster than I thought it might.

I told her that I'd feel better if I did a full day of work in exchange for their lodging. We walked out to her garden where I spent the day digging holes, cutting down four dead trees with a chainsaw, and then digging more holes. Somewhere in the middle, I ate another huge delicious two-plate vegetarian meal in the dining hall. The combination of gigantic plates of delicious food and a cycle-tourist's appetite left me feeling like I'd swallowed a basketball three times a day.

Over the course of my two-night stay I had some terrific conversations with people in residence at the center. The atmosphere, food, and the people were all wonderful. But I knew I was doing the right thing by leaving.

The next morning I washed my linens. I swept the room out well, removing the carcasses of spiders fallen in the great battles of the last two nights, and mopped the floors. After lunch, I said goodbye to my new friends and took the 200m gravel driveway back to France. In the town of Cubjac, I found a stone wall in the sun. I parked my bike and slept on the wall for an hour. When the sun slipped from behind a cloud and shone onto my face, I woke abruptly and pulled myself down.

I had much of the day to read and write. My next destination was a mere 10km from where I was sitting

An hour before dark, I packed up my things and headed towards Limeyrat. Most of the ride was a climb along quite country roads on a cooling night. The shadows lengthened. I told my host that I would arrive at 7pm. When I arrived and pulled my bike around the church to the terrace of her house, the church bells rang to indicate that exact time.

C. showed me to my room, a small gîte separate from the main house. My chamber is cozy and warm with stone walls and a private bathroom. I ate dinner with C. and her husband as we all fought off their noisy Labrador. They are not French, but they are willing to speak only French to me. I find them good humored and energetic. And quite nice.

I slept well and in the morning I awoke at 7. The house is located on the top of a large hill and looks down upon a wide valley. I took my guitar and a cup of tea to a bench in the yard and played until the day had arrived.

I worked in the yard today. Hauling brush, turning over earth, picking weeds. This is an arrangement that I will probably keep up for several days. In the meantime, I am deciding where to go next. Back to Bordeaux? South to the canal? Along the Dordogne? East to Switzerland? I stare at the map and wonder where I'll be one week from now…