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 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.


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…