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…


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…