Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chaumont, France

Friends: I was camped in a thin strip of a not very thick forest between a quiet country lane and a field of wheat twenty miles into the Limoges-Issourdan stage of The Tour a few nights ago. Even so close to the starting point of the stage a few Tour followers had parked their campers along the road for the night, but none in my vicinity.

When I turned into the forest less than an hour before dark I feared I might have some mosquitoes to contend with, as there were a few puddles of standing water. But none materialized, so I could leisurely set up my tent and forgo its rain fly until just before I went to sleep. If there had been mosquitoes on the attack, I would have immediately added that extra layer to keep them at bay so when I went out for my final ablutions they wouldn't be ready to pounce. With the upper third of my tent a see-through mesh, I could gaze out upon the tranquil, idyllic, setting as I chowed down.

It was mostly a pine forest, so I had a thick bed of fallen needles to sleep upon, promising a good night's sleep. I hope I didn't sleep too soundly and late, what with the sun, my usual alarm clock, blocked by the trees. There didn't promise to be much early traffic on this secondary road that didn't even have a line down its middle. It was a classic Tour road, winding through tiny, sleepy villages that might not have more than a dozen vehicles pass through on a typical day. I had already given The Tour route makers an A plus for this route, first leaving Limoges along the la Vienne River and then climbing up into almost Appalachia country. It was not a road that I would have ever discovered on my own, as it was a faint doodle upon my map.

I was soundly asleep when I was suddenly jarred awake by an all out stampede through the forest of a frantic animal or two. I knew I wasn't dreaming, as I have occasionally experienced such a sound, but usually in the distance, and never so close to my tent. I had no time to wonder how close this sound could come as an instant later an object crashed into my tent at full speed smashing into my shoulder and knocking me over.

I had no idea what had just happened, but I screamed at the top of my lungs out of instant terror and to frighten off my attacker. I thrashed wildly about, not sure if I was being clawed or bitten. After a couple of seconds I realized I was not engaged in hand-to-hand combat with some creature and all was still. I dug out my headlamp to assess the damage. I expected to see a gaping hole in my tent and perhaps a buckled pole, but there was no immediate discernible damage. The worst casualty was my silk sleeping bag liner. My kicking had torn it to shreds.

It seemed so unimaginable that an animal could have plowed into my tent, I thought that maybe a tree bough had fallen on me, but no, that was only wishful thinking. I pondered whether I need be concerned about this assault--had it been a fluke accident or a premeditated attack? My first impression was that a deer had been fleeing for its life, chased by a cougar or some predator and had lept over my tent and his chaser hadn't had time to react and simply collided with my tent.

When I went out to examine the rain fly, I noticed a small six inch rip and a twelve inch diameter wet spot where the animal's head had made contact. There were also two six inch slashes to the inside of my tent. I could detect no odor from the stain. A cougar ought to have been able to make a leap and not hit the tent so low. I wondered if a rogue wild boar had taken issue with my presence and charged me.

I was so jacked up by the assault I couldn't go back to sleep, so I ate some couscous and ravioli left over from dinner that was to be my breakfast. Half an hour later, as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard the prowl of a nearby animal, snorting as if preparing for another charge. My heart froze. I shouted out a few times then dug out my Swiss Army knife as well as my bread and butter knife for spreading peanut butter, one knife for each hand, though I wondered if either could penetrate the thick hide of a boar. I turned on my headlamp and pointed it towards the top of my tent, hoping light might deter this creature. I didn't know whether I should curl in the fetal position to protect myself from the initial charge, or if I should sit upright. As I lay waiting I wondered what other defensive measures I could take. Then I remembered the Kryptonite lock attached to my bike. That would make a good weapon.

The creature ventured off. It was now nearly two a.m. I'd gotten about three hours of sleep when I was initially wakened. If I'd had four or five hours of sleep, or if it had been closer to dawn, I would have simply packed up and started my day early. As it was, it still might be the best idea to clear out of this place and let this animal have his domain to himself. I managed to fall back asleep before long and that was that.

Its been quite a year--attacked along the road in South Africa by a couple of knife-wielding thugs who threatened to kill me and now this. I didn't encounter anyone the next day who could offer any hypothesis as to what animal might have taken issue with me. It was such an out of the ordinary happenstance in terrain much more isolated than I usually find myself, it won't give me much pause in my selection of camp sites, unlike my attack in South Africa that still haunts me. I had a momentary panic attack in Italy when I came around a forested bend in the road and there stood two Africans.

Its easily the most terrifying night I've spent in my tent, though I have had my tent ransacked by a bear in British Columbia and attracted the attention of a wildly barking dog in Chile that brought his owner wielding an ax concerned about what his dog had found. I had a cow butt my tent in the brush in Baja, not knowing what to make of it, then walking around me. I was in quite a sweat on that one, but didn't want to holler and spook a stampede.

My sleep shortened night didn't prevent me from maintaining the 110-mile daily average I've needed the past three days to make it to Vittel in time to meet up with Jesse the Texan. I'm less than 60 miles away. Then will start a new adventure trying to coordinate the riding styles of a couple of others. Our first day together includes two category one climbs.

For three days now I've been riding stages ten through twelve a full day ahead of the peloton. All along the way I've passed villagers on ladders hanging decorations and banners and bikes, often with one person on the ground or off to the side doing the supervising, pointing and saying, "No, not there, over a little bit." I've passed farmers on tractors stacking rolls of hay to form a bike or to be decorated in some manner. There is a great sense of anticipation for the enormity of the next day when their village will be on center stage around the world for a few moments.

I've been surprised to see a few campers already parked along the road, forgoing that day's stage to find a prime spot for themselves. I thought I might have to resort to asking one of them if I could watch the Bastille Day stage on their television, but I miraculously came upon an open bar/restaurant as the stage neared its conclusion. It was an hour away, much earlier than I would normally stop for a flat stage, but I couldn't pass this up. It was more of a restaurant than a bar and had no discernible television. As I gazed about in search of a television and then had to ask, a woman behind a small bar said she would go get one. She put it on a table in the corner of the dining room for my private pleasure.

It was another supremely delightful way to experience The Tour. When it comes to The Tour, the locals are eager to accommodate. This was one of the more memorable of the many places I have viewed a Tour finish these past six years, distinguished not only by its unexpectedness, but also by its novelty. Though my preference would be to reach the stage finish to watch it on the jumbo screen with hundreds of others right there alongside the finishing straight the racers would be flying past on, such unique, out-of-the-way, unexpected viewing spots are especially gratifying. Ah, to be in France, experiencing and participating in The Tour. It doesn't get much better than that.

Though there was no suspense for an hour as the peloton chased down a breakaway of three Frenchman and an Italian, I didn't mind at all gazing upon the riders and the French countryside. Whether on a small or over-sized screen, the French countryside is stunningly beautiful and ever captivating. The aerial views of the lush fields and small villages and forests and historic sites that I have just biked or soon will are a special treat. There is a continued, magnificent variety to the terrain. France has no monotonous plains or deserts. The entire country could be declared a World Heritage site.

Later, George

1 comment:

T.C. O'Rourke said...

Whew, I thought you'd gotten jumped again.

Once, when I was 19 sleeping on a mountainside in Teluride, I awoke to an animal mouthing my foot.

I'd received several warnings that bears were between food source seasons and wandering into town, so I thought I was a goner.

It was just a damn dog.