Tuesday, June 20, 2017

St. Maurice d'Ibie, France

We had a relatively traffic-free and mostly flat final fifty miles from Nimes to Notre Dame de la Rouviere, a triumphal roll completing our sixteen-day 500-mile ride.  Janina was mostly aglow, just flummoxed from time to time by any surge of cars reminding us of the technological oppression that rules the world.  After one torrent of cars assaulted our tranquility she pulled over and spewed, "I can't think.  Every time any car goes by it shatters my mind.  I can't get any psychic rest."  It didn't make her want to give up the bike.  She only wished motorists could be more sedate behind the wheel or wizened enough to make the transition from four wheels to two (of the pedalling variety).  

She doesn't trust a single motorist. She fears each and every one is a threat to run her down. She flinches and sometimes comes to a complete halt when a car approaches us from a side road even when they have a stop sign and we don't.  She dreads roundabouts.  Even with me taking the lead and running interference for her she shouts out, "I'm terrorized, I don't know what to do."  But she bravely soldiers on despite her near disability when it comes to coping with cars.

We had one final prolonged afternoon break from the heat that is stifling the entire country.  Much of the country, including Paris, has activated its heatwave alert program.  Our heatwave response was to sit in the shade in a small plaza between the cathedral and mairie in the small village of Sauve.  We took advantage of three nearby spigots of flowing water to soak our garments to help us thwart the heat.  After a couple of hours we took a stroll down its narrow medieval streets that the sun wasn't penetrating in hopes of finding a park or stumbling upon R. Crumb, who has lived there since 1991.  

We found neither, but did notice lots of posters advertising cultural events from a dance performance to gallery openings.  It was a town of artists and hippies.  We could thank the heat for allowing us to be introduced to Sauve.  Janina was ready to move there.  I had biked past Sauve several times over the years, but had never crossed the bridge over the river separating the town from the road to explore it.  I've always been too eager to get to Craig and Onni, just twenty-seven miles away.  And I would have sped past again after soaking my head and shirt under the faucet at the cemetery outside of town if it hadn't been for Janina not wishing to try to endure the heat.  It was another worthwhile experience I could credit to her.

Her preference for campgrounds rather than wild camping has also enriched our trip.  Our final camp site was in a municipal campground half a mile south of Ganges on a river where we took a swim. Only ten of the sixty campsites in a large semi-forested meadow were occupied.  Our preference is always the municipal over private campgrounds, even though they don't have swimming pools, as they offer much more authentic camping, with no distracting frills.  The private campgrounds are dominated by small prefab cabins, making them more mobile home parks than campgrounds.  As at just about every campground we've stayed at, when I presented by US passport, I received a startled, "Americans! We hardly ever get any Americans, maybe one or two a year."  

Much as Janina likes to camp, she has become very self-conscious of us eating sitting on the ground besides our tent while all around us our fellow campers sit at portable tables they've brought.  "I feel like a barbarian," she said.  "I should have at least brought along a tablecloth to lay on the ground for us to eat on."  She likewise felt self-conscious walking around Apt a few days ago.  She observed that no other woman was wearing a hat, so she removed hers.  She also feels she's letting down her sex every time we walk through a supermarket, as all the women are dressed up in some manner or another unlike the custom back home, and she's wearing her grungy cycling garb. I think that earns her favor, but she doesn't agree. 

When we arrived at Craig and Onni's Monday morning Onni said she hoped we could stick around until at least Friday as a friend was having a soirée we were invited to.  That was the best news Janina had heard in days.  She wanted to stay put for days, unless her daughter in Beirut made a sudden decision about meeting up in Paris or Istanbul.  As much as I'd love to linger and do some biking with Craig,  I needed to be on my way to reach Düsseldorf 700 miles away in time for the start of The Tour the following weekend.  

I was hoping to take a ride up Mont Aigoual with him and Ralph, who was due to arrive later that day, the next morning and then be on my way, giving me ten days to make it.  I wasn't certain about my conditioning, not only to make it in time to Düsseldorf for the team introductions, but also to be able to keep up with The Tour for three weeks.  We'd only been riding thirty miles a day until the final four days when we'd upped it to forty.  But maybe my interval training, pushing Janina on the climbs riding at my limit for three or four minutes until my thighs were burning and heart pounding, then dropping off to recover for a couple minutes, then repeating, would have me in shape.  I'll soon find out.

Craig couldn't join us on the twenty mile climb to Aigoual, his regular training ride, as he had to go to Le Vigan to buy a pump and other supplies to insure his garden has enough water.  His battle over water rights with a contentious neighbor had escalated with the neighbor cutting the pipe that led from his cistern to Craig's garden even though Craig had legal rights to the water that goes back to Napoelonic times. The battle has been going on for months and would be worthy of a book.  Craig was also awaiting a call from his dentist for an appointment to replace a filling.  The dentists across the country were on strike to raise their rates, but Craig was hoping his small town dentist might still be taking emergency cases.

It is always a pleasure to go for a ride with Craig, whether for a several day tour as we've done three times here in Francd, or just a good ride in his mountainous backyard, so it was a disappointment that he couldn't join Ralph and I.  Ralph was wishing he could drag Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, and presently on Teresa May's cabinet, along on our ride.  Johnson was at the forefromt of the Brexit campaign.  Though Johnson is a strong bicycle advocate, Ralph thought he'd be so overmatched by the climb it would have give him a heart attack.  As a Scottish national, Ralph has a predilection against the Brits, even though he keeps an apartment in London.  When he's not berating Trump, he's ranting about British politics.  He keeps us laughing, especially when he laces into Thatcher with a profanity-filled tirade.

We got a late start on our ride.  I had hoped to reach the summit by noon so I could be back by two and then on my way to Düsseldorf by three.  When we reached a restaurant five miles from the summit at 12:30 I turned back.  I was able to keep to my schedule.  Ralph continued on and was back down in time to see me off.  With luck we'll meet up for a day or two at The Tour in two weeks as we managed to do last year.

Janina rode out of town with me, wishing in a way she could keep going, though knowing she needed to rest. She admitted her body had the urge to be biking, and her spirit too. If it doesn't work out for her to meet up with her daughter, she just might stay in Notre Dame de la Rouviere for a couple weeks and work on her book.  The sheep farm where Ralph is staying could be the perfect place to write.

It was nice to return to my routine of biking late and finding a place to camp without having to register to do it, though I had begun to appreciate the ease of finding campgrounds on my GPS device and knowing how far it was to reach them.  If I have energy left I want to keep biking, especially in the cool of the evening when the roads are nearly bereft of traffic.  I lifted a barrier down a side road that didn't look like it had been driven in a while. It led to a cluster of bee hives for my first wild camping in ten days.  Janina would have been initially nervous about camping here, but then would have loved it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Some excerpts from Janina's journal

We are sitting out the heat of the day in someone's barnyard among several varieties of chickens, geese, about 10 goslings, very hot panting rabbits in a hutch, two rather thin cats, one a very serious looking male tabby who does not seem to mind the heat. We managed to get up early and leave Digne-les-Bains even though we did not do all we wanted to do. We rode a good 25 miles before the heat and hills got to be too much. 
A very warm wind is blowing across a ripe wheat field. We were supposed to find a place to stay, recommended by a lady in a moulin where they made biscuits, into which I ducked when the heat was overwhleming, climbing a hill into the this town. A lovely town (we probably should have stayed there for the afternoon) with a church with a Romanesque core, and an ambulatory with shallow gothic arches. It had not been rehabilitated and so had more character than the churches that are all cleaned up. It looked like it was still in use, although I saw a lot of la france insumise--the far left posters around. Sorry I did not snap them. 
One tends to not want to stop too much, especially, when you know it will get really really hot. A huge duck is sitting behind me and there is some kind of ornamental chicken--very poufy and full of feathers with a headress and a very silly walk. A funky chicken indeed. Hopefully, the farmer will not object to our spending the afternoon sitting at a table under a lime tree or linden next to the fowl-yard... The Guinea hens, who make a lot of noise, are hiding under an hedge from the heat.  And each variety sets up its call from time to time. 
Did I say we saw a Renard, a fox run by the trailer that George and Ralph and I rented one night. I got a good look at him, although he was traveling fast. There are red hens and a well-attired rooster, white hens, a Bantam pair a bard-rock hen, red faced pie-bald ducks and two geese who are separated from their goslings--about 10. 
When we decided to leave around 5, a lot of the fowl--the geese, ducks and chickens including the beautiful rooster came to the shade near us: I think they wanted to be fed. A siamese cat, a Himalayan, appeared in a doorway, also watching. I hope the owners--I did not want to explain why I was there again, that we were lost and needed to get out of the heat--came soon. It was touching to see the fowl group up like that and all rather strange, as if it were some hallucination of magical fowl arising from the terrible heat of the afternoon. 
I am so glad to out of the sun. Glad George, who can take it, understands that I can't. He is happier with my performance however.  I am proving he says that I can do it. 

I will try to write about Digne now. One observation is that there were clearly Arabs and African people around, but you only saw a couple of shrouded ladies here and there walking along with shopping bags or a lanky young man walking at a good pace on his way somewhere. I also wanted to remember the color of the rivers--and I will have to look up the names of them later but the color was an incredible azure and the water rolled along through wide fields of whitish grey rocks. I was surprised to learn that the mountains there are largely limestone, sedimentary unlike the Rockies and of course, the area was covered by a sea. The limestone accounts for the color of the water, and the place is famous for its ammonite fossils. On the way from Digne: downhill from les Alpes du Haut Province until we arrived in this region where the town of Forqualguier sits, we went though a town called Mées, which sits under a very high colonnade of dark (dolomite) limestone towers called Les Penitents. The story runs that a local hero was holding 10 very lovely "Saracen" girls and the local monks were turned in to stone when they looked on them--in order to preserve their vows of chastity. 
Last night we were camped outside of a town called Maubec, near Cavaillon, which is on the Durance river which we encountered near Digne in a town called Mées. The campground was called Las Royéres  du Prieuré next to the Massif du Luberon and the forest of the Luberon. It was close to perfect: wooded, clean bathrooms, free wifi and a cat. It was quiet and secluded away from the road. And it was, I think a municipal campground, so it has that sense of generosity that comes with a sense of the social, and a love of nature. 
Tonight we are in one of these dreadful places called "Capfun,"a sort of KOA of France. It's expensive in terms of camping and there is no wifi. But it was very windy and hot on the road and the traffic, which had not been too bad, seemed to be getting worse and worse, so we are better off here than 10 miles up the road. Every car that goes by, and they are going quite fast, jars my senses; it's always more or less nerve-wracking to drive in any kind of traffic. During the earlier parts of the day we were driving through the avenues of plane trees planted by Napoleon to shade his armies, presumably on the way to Spain. The plane trees with their limbs wounded by pollarding are endlessly beautiful, they keep you cool, but they also feel dangerous, because there is not much of a shoulder and cars and trucks whiz by at speed.  They also make a beautiful sound in the wind, while the filtering light flickers and moves. 
The glare is tremendous in the Provencal sun, the rond ponts, filled with traffic are particularly brilliant with light bouncing off of the circulating vehicles. George, however, guides me through them with a certain amount of frustration. But it was a pretty good day and we did not have to spend the afternoon in the shade like we did yesterday in Abt and the day before in the barnyard outside of Forqualqier. 
In Apt we languished in a Park and then went on to a Mediatheque, which is a library with media. A nice concept. In any case we say in the literature section and I caught up on René Char--a Surrealist poet, whose name the cultural center Digné sported, and read a very strange story in a volume of Cendrars (there were several) from Guinea in Africa, about an evil baby and seeresses who lived in human blood. George has written about the American literature in translation: a lot of Ereskin Caldwell, who no one in America reads, and what looked like all of London and Steinbeck. Godard fans will remember the charming and good Franz' comment about Jack London in Bande a part.

On our way from Apt there was a wonderful bike trail, unfortunately, the wind was blowing like mad against us. As we sped along we came upon a 5,000 year old dolman, a burial chamber with rings of small upright stones and a kind of paving of flat stones over the mound. What a thing to come upon all of a sudden.

The campgrounds here in France are like small ephemeral villages, everyone says hello, a Dutchman is helping the people next to us set up a tent. People sit at dinner and look out over the scene. The economies are interesting: the municipals are subsidized, the small-business ones must be quite an undertaking. The charming woman in Digne--it was so hot, she invited us to sit in front of her fan while we signed in--was selling beer to the "Germans," to bring in a few more euros.

The towns we passed through, Tarascon and Beaucaire at the deep blue green Rhone when the bells in the old church were chiming noon, were filled with the bright blooms of oleander hedges. A huge old citadel evoked more history and the color of the river, was like the sound of the bells, filled with harmonic overtones and resonances. I want to know more about the river, it looks so lonely, nothing is ever on it? Is it no longer navigable? What must it have been like looking at the deep mysterious river, the Alpilies, the citadel and hearing the bells ring out 1,000 years ago?

So we just fly along the sunny windy roads of France. In the last two days the wind has been very very strong, and sometimes you have to bear down on the bike to keep it from being blown off course. Its the bags that make it vulnerable. But the wind is also refreshing and lessons the affects of the sun. The campground listed its coordinates: we are still 43 degrees north latitude. Chicago is 41.

I will write about the sounds of France. In the campground the first night out of Digne, in a valley near a small river (EauVive was the name) there were frogs, I think, setting up a clattering racket in the night. Here there are cicadas and the the refreshing sound of the wind. There are pigeons. What are they saying? On a very bad day I thought they were mourning for me, repeating their endless three syllable phrase. --/, --/ --/ --.  Is it anapestic? Adam Gopnik called the sound erotic, and I agree. In the woods cookoos sing, another and more elusive two syllables and then there are birds who repeat a whole sentence, there seem to be several varieties of these song birds and if you lived here you would begin to recognize their songs, although I imagine only poets know what they are saying. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Domaine de la Bastide, France

Janina was happy to learn that it is fully acceptable to help oneself to a sprig of lavender from the plants that decorate many towns in Provence, another of the great amenities of bicycling through France.  It doesn't take more than a sprig to perfume our tent.  The aroma is said to facilitate sleep, though we hardly need assistance after a day of biking, especially in the present heat wave.

Two of the past three days we took a five-hour afternoon break from the ovenish heat.  One break we spent as squatters on a farm that we thought had a room for rent.  We were misdirected to the farm by a cyclist who is a fellow member of Warmshowers. We met him and his wife in a bakery that we had fled to when the noon-day sun became too much for us.  He could see we were done in and knew no one in their right mind would want to continue cycling in such heat.  He was from out of town but was visiting a friend who lived on a farm two miles out of town and had a spare room she rented out for thirty euros a night.  They were headed there for lunch.  That sounded like just what we needed.  

They called her to verify the room was available and then pinpointed its location on my GPS device.  Unfortunately he didn't get the right location, nor did he give us her name or phone number in case there was any snafu.  We did know though that he lived in Draguignan.  I found him on the Warmshowers website.  His phone number was listed.  We called but he didn't get back to us until later in the evening when we were already settled in at a campsite.

The farm had a table with chairs under a tree where we sat, at first hoping the Warmshowers guy might show up, until it was clear we were at the wrong place.  There was a water spigot, so we kept well hydrated.  We felt as if Providence was once again looking after us for us to end up at this unlikely, but perfect, refuge.  While we read and wrote we were entertained by the ducks and chickens languishing in the shade straddling a fence beside us.  It was so hot a dog beside the barn barely gave a yelp, nor arose from his shady patch.  A Siamese cat peeked out of the barn, but didn't venture out of its shade.  When the owners showed up we hoped they'd let us pitch our tent behind their barn.  But in the meantime I did a search and discovered a campgrounds just two miles away.  By five when the heat began to abate we cycled on over.

The next day we reached the sizeable city of Apt by eleven, just as we were beginning to melt.  We sought refuge from the heat in its rather mundane public park.  We nabbed the last bench in the shade, all the others occupied by teenaged boys and a couple of stray older men.  Behind us under a tree a young couple was smooching and smoking pot.  We ate and read until two, when the library reopened after its lunch break.  It had no air conditioning and was just slightly cooler than being outside.  But we needed to recharge our devices.  We sat in a corner where there was French poetry and a lone shelf of American literature translated into French.  Janina read some of Cendras, who she had done a dissertation on,  and some of her other favorite French poets, and perused the French translations of Steinbeck and Faulkner and London, all regional novelists she noted, who would appeal to the French.

We bravely resumed cycling at four, headed to a municipal campground fifteen miles away in the village of Maubec, cosily nestled up against a high ridge. It took us over two hours to reach it as a fierce wind had blown in.  At least we were on a bike path for most of the ride, the same path that we followed for six miles into Apt.  It was on an old rail bed, so was flat and even shaded at times by trees.  When we picked up the path on the way into Apt, Janina exalted, "That removes one layer of anxiety,"  not having to be concerned about traffic.  She also didn't have to be concerned about being caught out in the beating sun as happened the day before until we staggered into the bakery.  But she was still nagged by a pain in her shoulder and side that she hoped was due to the strain she was suffering from pushing down the gear lever for her rear derailleur.  She feared though it might be the symptom of a heart attack.  Earlier she thought she might be suffering appendicitis.  That was a false alarm as was this. 

She was having so much difficulty shifting that when we came to a hill she'd get off her bike and turn it over to me.  I'd ride it a few feet and make the shift for her.  None of this though had her regretting her choice to continue cycling rather than taking the train.  She was pedaling through the fabulous French countryside and seeing sites and having encounters that gratified her soul.  The climbing was minimal as we were mostly descending on a highway known as The Road to the Alps.  The bike path took us across an old Roman bridge.

The day before we cycled past a spectacular upthrust of rocks known as "The Peninents," that might have been transplanted from Canyonlands.  

The rocks were said to have been robed monks petrified back in 800 for leering and lusting over seven beautiful women when they left the harem of a warlord who had been holding them hostage.

After two days of extreme heat we were saved by long stretches of cycling in the shade of towering plane trees. 

We weren't the only ones pausing to take photos of them.  We saw motorists doing the same and also a wedding photographer shooting a bride and groom who happened to be Chinese.

When we pulled off the road to have a closer look at a small chapel,  a woman sitting in her van having some lunch in the shade of the lone nearby tree stepped out and asked if we needed water.  We didn't but it was another opportunity for Janina to have a friendly conversation with someone interested in our undertaking.  She was driving to Antibes to visit her husband's grave.  They had traveled extensively, including a drive from Denver, where her husband had some work, to Los Angeles, where their son was going to college.  She ducked into her van and offered us a bowl of cherries.  She and Janina chattered away as if they were old college chums who hadn't seen each other in decades.  Once again we felt as if she was another who could have been a best friend if we lived nearby.  As we continued on our way we could only say Vive La France. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Forcalquier, France

Janina hasn't given up on the bike yet.  She was ready to take the train to Nimes from Digne to return the bike she had borrowed from Craig, and be done with this bike touring experiment.  But I managed to convince her it would be less stressful and more enjoyable to bike back than to endure the hassle of  having to go via Marsailles and switching trains a couple of times, lugging a loaded bike on and off.  I assured her our return route would be much flatter than the one we had come by.  There would be more traffic, something Janina doesn't take kindly to, but still within her level of tolerance.

After two-and-a-half days of minimal biking and much socializing with Ralph and fellow campers and seeing some incredible sites her spirit was greatly revived.  We had a steady stream of well-wishers at our campsite our first night in Digne, mostly others of our vintage who had an affinity for cycling who were amazed that such older folk as us were traveling by bike in such heat and such terrain.  One woman from Tours in the flats of the Loire valley couldn't imagine biking with so much climbing.  She commented to Janina that it had to be "tres dur," (very hard).  Janina could cheerfully concur, and add with more veracity than the woman might have believed, "It had me crying yesterday."  They talked like old friends for some time, then exchanged email addresses when the woman pardoned herself for having to leave to attend her session in the nearby thermal baths that had brought her here. Janina thanked her for the nice conversation.  She replied, "C'est normal."

She's drawn considerable attention for her biking efforts and has had the opportunity to flex her ever increasing French speaking skills.  "I may be struggling on the bike," she said, "But at least I'm getting good at French."  She had another one of those instantly-bonding conversations with a woman hiker we met along the road in a canyon on our way to visit one of the Goldsworthy Sentinels.  

We stopped to ask her if she knew how much further it was to the cairn.  She said she wasn't from around here and didn't know.  We had already biked ten miles up the road.  I had visited the cairn three years ago and hadn't remembered it was so far from Digne.  Ralph had already turned back, as this was supposed to be his rest day after a week of strenuous cycling in the Alps crossing the Galibier and the Madeleine.  Janina was demonstrating her legs were strengthening, handling the climb with relative ease on her unloaded bike.  Still, she wasn't sure how much further she wanted to bike up the increasingly steepening road despite the rugged beauty all around us.

I went on ahead to see how much further it was.  After a mile-and-a-half as I neared the summit I feared I was mistaken and that it wasn't on this road and turned back.  And there it was.  It was so recessed I had missed it.  It was more visible to downhill traffic, but even on the downhill one had to be looking.  I rushed back to tell Janina the good news.  As we closed in on it through a narrow gorge Janina was gushing, "This is amazing...this is spectacular...this is not to be missed."

After a few minutes communing with it and whatever spirits might have been hovering by we sped back down the canyon.  Less than a kilometer later we encountered the hike once againr, who had just pulled into a rare wide spot along the road in her car by a trail head.   We stopped to tell her where the cairn was and then had a more prolonged conversation.  She was 72 and wore her wedding ring around her neck.  She was on a two-week vacation hiking all over the area in the morning and then in the cool of the evening.  If we weren't leaving the next day, we would have gladly joined her on one of her outings.  There were two hikes off this trail to Goldsworthys that we would have loved to have done if the mid-day heat wasn't setting in. She and Janina chattered away.  She proudly told us what many beautiful places there are to visit in France, something we didn't need to be told.  She added that there must be many in America too.  When Janina commented how gladdening it was to meet so many people of such gentility as her in France, she replied, "But you Americans have such dynamism."

The length of our ride prevented me from an outing to a third Goldsworthy Sentinel twenty-seven miles away near Tartonne.  There is one in each of the three valleys around Digne, each right along a lightly traveled road.  But Janina and I had seen six others the day before in a fantastic Geo-Park full of other nature sculptures including a teapot fountain.

The network of trails through the park took us past a magnifcently designed waterfall.

There was a walk through a butterfly garden and a museum in an old house that had Janina in awe of its melding of art and science, similar to what she has been teaching.  We encountered two groups of young school children all wearing baseball caps to keep the sun off their heads and walking in pairs, hand-in-hand.  One of the young docents out on the trails recommended a wall of fossils just a mile up the road.  There were than 1500 packed into its short expanse, the most prominent were the spirally ammonites.

We dined out twice in outdoor cafes with Ralph, a welcome break from our usual dinner fare in our tent.  It was pizza one night and crepes another.  The conversation always drifted to cinema, what with that being what drew us together through the Telliride Film Festival.  As we did at Cannes, we speculated on what the directors Tom and Julie might select from there.  We have learned from over the years it is hard to predict, as they both have their prejudices.  We would both like to see again the Agnes Varda documentary made with the photographer JR traveling about France photographing people.  Janina would tto, as Varda has long been one of her most admired film makers.  She's been a guest director at Telluride and is a personal friend of Tom Luddy, even making a short film featuring him.

Digne's Cultural Center had its weekly free movie night during out stay.  It was short films made by students at the local high school.  The 250-seat theater was packed with students and parents.  We thought we might stay for one or two and then have dinner, but the films were so good we couldn't leave.  They didn't have the pretension of so many students films we've seen by Americans.  They all took place in the beautiful setting of Digne and dealt with simple issues of student life.  Their professor had done a fine job in getting them to focus on material that they knew and that meant something to them.  We felt privileged to be part of this celebration of cinema.  

The two nights Ralph was in town we shared a cabin in a campground, the first time Janina and I had slept in doors in ten days.  Janina had been craving to sleep on a sheet, but admitted the lumpy bed wasn't as comfortable as her sleeping pad on the ground.  The cabin came with a refrigerator and a stove.  When Janina and I checked in before Ralph's arrival we were concerned it might not cool off in the evening, as it had been closed up all day.  We thought we might retreat to our tent to sleep, but there were enough windows to let the breeze pass through and make for pleasant sleeping.

We were sorry Ralph had a different route planned than ours, though we all intend to meet up again at Onni and Craig's in a few days.  Janina's legs could be strong enough by then to power up the long climb to Mont Aigoual that Craig regularly tests himself on.  Her legs are definitely coming around, and her sprit too.  Every day and every mile has varying degrees of pleasure or tolerance as Janina well knows now.  Her latest verdict on this enterprise is,  "When it's good, it's very good, and when it's bad, it's horrid."


Monday, June 12, 2017


We were speeding down the seven per cent grade in the saddle between Saint-Geniez and Authon when all of a sudden in a sharp hairpin in the road we were upon one of several cairns that Andy Goldsworthy has constructed in the region.  If we hadn't known about it, we would have been dumbfounded by this unlikely "Sentinel" in this wild, largely unsettled region of France on the fringe of the Alps. Though our jaws didn't drop too dramatically, we still couldn't help but gasp in wonder upon sighting it, even though we well knew we were nearly upon it.  It and it's cousins were what had drawn us to bicycle two hundred miles to this region.

Janina had been wondering if it was worth it as we had to climb more than ten miles over the Col de Fontbelle to reach it.  The temperatures had escalated and Janina was wilting.  Not only was she largely walking the climb, on the steeper stretches I was abandoning my bike and walking back down the road to push her bike for her.  I'd bike a tenth of a mile, jog down to her and push her bike beyond where I'd left my bike, return to my bike to ride up the road a bit and repeat.  Needless to say, this was no fun, but it was becoming a survival situation.

It was day eight of our ride and rather than getting stronger, despite a couple of rest days and just a few hours a day on the bike, Janina was getting weaker.  She had adopted the Dwight strategy of training for this ride--doing none and suffering for the first week as one gained their condition.  That isn't my style. It works for Dwight, but it hadn't worked for Janina.  I had repeatedly urged her for months to get in several twenty mile rides a week the month before she left on the several wonderful bike paths through the woods in her suburb, but she didn't think that was necessary. This wasn't exactly like trying to run a marathon without any training, but nearly so.  I thought she would be done in on the initial nine-and-half mile climb that she rode so effortlessly to start the trip, but that turned out to be the pinnacle of her efforts. 

It was noon and we had only ridden ten miles from Sisteron despite getting on the road at 7:30.  After a rest at Saint-Geniez, where we might have packed it in and stayed at a gite, we pushed on knowing that the road leveled off a bit and even descended for a stretch in the remaining miles to the summit.  From the summit it would be a quick downhill to Thoard, where a campground and another Goldsworthy work awaited us. 

But the sun quickly became too much for Janina. She was saying she'd never ride her bike again.   She is prone to rash statements, so I knew this one wouldn't hold true.  She remembered suffering heat stroke in Mexico forty years ago and didn't want to repeat the experience. Though the sun was strong, we could cool down quick in the shade of the infrequent trees along the road.   With no humidity and an actual chill in the air out of the sun, we weren't dehydrating by any means.  Just after the descent past the cairn when we resumed the final two-mile climb to the summit, which could take over an hour with our relay system, we came to a thick forest with a creek running through it. The terrain had been near-lunar until then, so the forest was akin to an oasis, an irresistible gift from the cycling gods.  "Should we camp here?"I asked Janina.

"That's the best idea you've had all day, if not the entire trip," she instantly answered and was spontaneously transformed from a morose, near-cadaver to her normal chipper self. 

It didn't take us long to find a grassy patch under some trees right alongside the stream.  Lewis and Clark never had it better.  There were flies, but they didn't bite.  It was only 1:30.  I still had three-and-a-half bottles of water and Janina two-and-a-half, but I wasn't sure if that would be enough to get us through the night, so I gathered some rocks for a fire pit to boil water.

As it was, I needn't have.  When we set out in the morning we still had two bottles of water remaining, as good a gauge as any that we weren't threatened by heatstroke.  Unbeknownst to us, we were camped right outside Authon, so we were able to fill our bottles before we'd even ridden half a mile.  We had a pleasant break in Thoard, but denied ourselves the Goldsworthy there as it was in a chapel that required a strenuous, uphill hour-long hike to reach.  The sun was already feeling intense at ten a.m. and we had been discouraged from trying to make the hike by both the young woman who sold us our daily baguette and two woman in the mayor's office.  

If we had reached Thoard the afternoon before, as we had hoped, we could have set out early to reach it, but we will have to save that for another visit.  It would have been a perfect outing if Craig and Onni hadn't had to cancel out on  meeting up with us.  They were going to drive over.  With their car we could have easily made it a day trip out of  Digne that we all would have greatly enjoyed.

Our descent to Digne was interrupted by another col, just what we didn't need.  At least it was only a three-mile climb and with a gentle enough grade that I could push Janina much of the way.  The final seven-mile descent was prolonged by Janina's leeriness of gaining too much speed.  When the grade exceeds a couple per cent, she holds her speed to five miles per hour.  She takes twelve minutes to ride a mile while I'm knocking them off at a two-minute clip flying at thirty miles an hour. That added up to more than an extra hour in the sun for her on this last stretch.  

It was turning into another scorcher of a day, our second in a row.  Even the locals were complaining how hot it was.  We thought we might treat ourselves to the hostel, but it didn't open until six.  We were leery about any indoor accommodations in this heat, since air-conditioning is a rarity here, so settled on a campground a mile out of town along a river.  It was packed, leaving a not very good selection of sites.  We passed one with the shade of a couple of trees not knowing it was the best one available.  When we doubled back for it, someone else was claiming it.  That left Janina in such a heap of misery she couldn't motivate herself to go take a dip in the pool, something she'd been looking forward to all day.

At least we will have a couple days of minimal biking and on unloaded bikes here in Digne to search out more of the Goldsworhty art.  We already visited the Musée Gassendi that had a room devoted to him and a wall in another room of cracked clay with a serpent of clay winding through it.  The region abounds with fossils. The most remarkable is of a mermaid figure discovered by a Catholic priest in the 1930s.  It was accompanied by a most convincing video.  We kept looking for a disclaimer after the exhibit, explaining that it was their version of a mockumentary.  If it's true, Werner Herzog needs to know about this.  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Séderon, France

For two glorious days Janina and I have been in the presence of that magnifcent giant of Provence, Le Mont Ventoux, cycling along its northern perimeter with its bald head and weather station looking down upon us.  Three times I have cycled to its summit during the era of Armstrong, so I was feeling no strong attraction to ride its steep ascent, content to be skirting it this time, which required no small effort.  We were infected by the glee of dozens of other cyclists, many in packs, who were embarking on a dream ride up one of the three roads that would take them to the summit.  

Janina was one of the few women amongst all the MAMILS (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) on the roads flanking Ventoux, most of whom were on a mission to reach its storied summit.  That didn't necessarily make her proud, as her judgement was that there were so women to be seen on bikes here because they aren't so stupid to be engaged in such an endeavor.  She was suffering and straining as we endured two strenuous climbs of over one thousand feet and two others of around five hundred feet, though she wasn't necessarily regretting her experience as she couldn't help but revel at this spectacular setting.  

After our first descent from a long climb, we were hoping it would be all down hill for the rest of the day.  We were so convinced that we would be gliding down for miles and miles through the narrow valley we found ourselves in, we at first refused to believe the road had turned slightly upwards.  When Janina's speed fell below ten miles per hour she said, "Something must be wrong with my bike.  Is something rubbing."  I looked over at the creek we were following and noticed the water was coming towards us, not with us, confirming we were climbing.

One of our many breaks came at a grove of cherry trees where we filled our stomachs and my trusty Tupperware bowl.  We didn't finish off the cherries though when we discovered they were infested with tiny white worms, explaining why they were unpicked.  

Despite the strain that had me giving her an assist for long stretches, her spirits were buoyed by the steady flow of passing cyclists, some of whom turned to give her a closer look and give her a "Bravo" or "Bon Courage."  She also received a thumbs up from the driver of a support vehicle trailing a cluster of cyclists coming towards us.  "I feel as if I'm part of the cycling fraternity," she said.

She was happy to plop down anywhere along the road for a rest often with the company of The Ventoux in the distance.  We were fueled by a bag of pain au chocolate from a small bakery when Janina got our daily baguette and saw a pile of them on the counter.  She asked in her increasingly  fluent French if they were from "hier," (yesterday). They were, meaning they could be had for a pittance.

Another of our breaks came at the small village of St. Leger-du-Ventoux to fill our water bottles from its twin spigots spouting perhaps the best tasting water in all of France.  I well remembered it from previous rides along this route. While we were there the Green Party candidate for Sunday's election of legislators came by to mount his poster on the set of panels every town has for election posters and other announcements.  He quickly drew a crowd who engaged him in animated conversation for quite some time.

A later semi-rest stop was devoted to repairing a flat tire.  Fortunately it wasn't one of our own, but rather of a motorist who couldn't figure out how to work his jack. He had just a flimsy wrench to detach the bolts holding the tire on so flagged down a motorist, a German in a Fiat, who had a much stronger four-armed device that gave plenty of leverage.  It was a nice international collaboration.  I had put on my Garmin jersey for the first time to see if it might elicit a reaction from all the uniformed cyclists, but it drew nary a comment.

Late in the afternoon as we were an hour into another long climb with grades over six per cent that had Janina walking and walking.  She was wilting from the heat as much as the strain.  A sign advertising for a gite, a bed-and-breakfast, a kilometer up the road was too good to be true.  Janina declared, no matter the cost, that is where we would spend the night.  When we arrived at five p.m. no one was at home.  There was a phone number to call, but we had no phone, so we sat at a table out front and nibble on bread and cheese.  

The price of 65 euros seemed a little steep, but not for the misery Janina was in. She had been biking (and walking) since nine a.m. with multiple short breaks and just one of more than half an hour and had only twenty-five miles for all her efforts.  Every break revived her to a degree and after twenty minutes when no one had returned and she had had a chance to recover a bit, she elected to continue. We were only a mile from the summit and then had a four mile descent to Séderon and its campground.

It was another strenuous push to the summit, where we were rewarded by another fine descent and then the best campsite of our travels, a small municipal campground with no frills, just what we needed after our campground of the night before in Vaison la Romain that had five swimming pools and slides galore and a kitschy castle that should have been an embarrassment to any Frenchman with taste.

We were instantly greeted by one of the several campers in this small campground that had no check-in procedure or reception.  It wasn't until the next morning that the caretaker asked us for eleven euros and said ten was enough when I started fishing around for a single euro after I'd given him a ten. It was our quietest campground and the first where we could hear church bells marking the hours. We also had a conversation for the first time with a fellow camper--an older French cyclist who worked as a park ranger.  He confirmed that none of the French national parks had campgrounds, though one could camp discreetly.  He had bright red brand new Ortliebs and said this was his first tour in nearly thirty years since he spent six months biking India and Nepal.  He would have preferred to be wild camping, but he was out of practice and hadn't been able to find a suitable place.

He was a gentle sort with a permanent smile.  He wasn't even harsh when it came to Trump, only referring to his presidency as "bad casting."  We asked him about France's parliamentary election on Sunday.  He said his wife would be able to vote for him, though he knew their preferred green candidate had no chance of winning.  He was headed in the direction we had just come, so we couldn't continue on together.  He was envious of us heading to the Goldsworthy sculptures.  He was well aware of them, and even had a DVD of the Goldsworthy documentary.  We're excited to be within fifty miles of them.  Janina has been holding up marvelously.  She's recovered every day to be eager to be at it the next.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Orange, France

Janina had been adamant about not wanting to wild camp before we set out on this trip even throwing a mini-tantrum when I suggested that there might be times when we had no choice.  It wasn't that she had never wild camped before, as we had several times on short tours in the US, just that she feared getting caught doing something that might be against the law in a country not her own despite my vast experience having wild camped close to a thousand times all over France.

I didn't force the issue, but well knew that the occasion would arise when she would run out of energy well distant from a town or campground and wild camping would be an answer to her prayers. And so it happened on Day Two of these travels.  She had started the day with weary legs from her efforts the day before immediately getting off her bike and walking the first hill we came to, something she hadn't had to resort to the day before. And she walked just about every other hill when there was too much traffic for me to ride alongside her with my hand on her back goving her an assist.  

By six p.m. after thirty-two miles, the same as we had done the day before, she was nearly depleted.  When another series of climbs presented themselves with the next town with a campground ten miles away, she conceded that she'd welcome camping in the nearby forest.  I volunteered to continue pushing her, but she'd had enough time in the saddle.  I might have insisted we needed to continue on if we hadn't had a chance to fill our water bottles just a few miles before at a cemetery, Janina's introduction to that vital water source for the touring cyclist. It would have been iffy otherwise if we had enough water to prepare our couscous and other water needs for the night.  We could accept the cemetery as an affirmation that wild camping was our fate for this night.

If we hadn't squandered over two hours in Alés waiting for the tourist office to reopen after its lunch break, not realizing it was a holiday, it wouldn't have been so late when Janina felt she had had enough and we might have made it to a campground. Our prolonged lunch break may have been good for our legs, but not so good in reaching the campground before the dinner hour.

I didn't mind at all breaking the no wild camping dictum.  As happy as she was to have ended the cycling for the day, she wasn't so sure about her decision as we carved out a space for the tent in the thick forest and rocky terrain.  After we'd settled into the tent a panic of what might lurk in the woods began to possess her and she was near sobs, nothing to be alarmed about as she considers tears a good thing.  I offered to take the tent down and push on, but she didn't want that either.  The glamour of bike touring took a day-long hit.  Janina was exhausted enough to sleep solid for most of the night, though she said at one point she awoke when she thought she detected a whiff of sulphur, a sign the devil was near.  

All was well in the morning, especially when she was able to make a campfire and boil up some water for coffee.  As much as she enjoys camping, she said she doesn't take the satisfaction I do in roughing it or being independent of the constricts of sanctified camping.  She rather likes the amenities of a campground, even if she has to share them with the masses.  I have had such a prolonged indulgence with camping where no one has, I have no qualms about taking a break from it in these times with Janina as we did the next night in Orange.

The terrain flattened as we approached the Rhone River, so Janina needed only minimal assist on Day Three.  The smile of Day One was back on her face especially handling gentle rises on her own.

The only walking she did was on the narrow sidewalk over the Rhone.  The road was too narrow for her to be comfortable riding either it or the sidewalk, even though there was a handful of other cyclists demonstrating they could survive the minimal traffic on the bridge.  The Rhone is a monumental river, as wide as the Mississippi at this point, so Janina was happy to be able to gaze upon it at pedestrian pace.  There was no craft upon it, nor nuclear plants within her vantage, though there are some.

We had a late lunch beside an elementary school during its afternoon exercise break.  We were entertained by the students prancing and dancing to the music of Strauss.  "The French are so civilized," Janina commented.  "Can you imagine American grade schoolers exercising to Strauss?"  At one point the kids laid on their backs and pumped their legs in the bicyclist's whirl as if to honor us.  But for Janina the highlight of the day may have been finding a fuel canister for our stove at the Carrefour supermarket. No worries now about having coffee whenever she pleases.  Andrew, the Australian I had cycled with three years ago, bequeathed me the stove.  I hadn't used it since, as such canisters can not be found in the US and I'm not a coffee drinker.  It's s simple little apparatus one screws onto the canister, but I had to seek the assistance of Craig to figure out how to attach the four prongs that one's pot or skillet rest upon.  It took some WD-40 to loosen the burner that one must unscrew first, and then screw back on.

The lone campground in Orange was just beyond the city center, less than half a mile from the old Roman Arc de Triomphe, one of the city's two main attractions, along with its 9,000 seat Roman theater dating to the early Christian era. The theater was second to none in the Roman Empire and is just one of three still standing in the world with its back wall in tact--a full ten stories high. The others are in Turkey and Syria.

We took a rest day to do it full justice and to do a few errands, including a ride out to the Decathalon sporting goods store to acquire a better sleeping pad for Janina and upgrade her foot gear to a pair of Merrill sandals.  When we walked into the huge open air theatre Janina's first reaction was, "This is way cool."  She had written at length about our visit to the incomparable Roman ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon a year-and-a-half ago on her website merelycirculating.com and knows such antiquities well.  Within the confines of the theater were a series of dungeon-like rooms with screens showing videos of performances in the theater.  There were rock concert appearances by Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello and Dire Straits.  There were also videos of recreations of the ancient Roman plays that had graced the stage here and also snippets from a number of operas. The extraordinary exhibits also included a series of panels giving a good lesson in Roman history in the region that Janina was happy to translate with her professorial aplomb. 

Anduze, France

After four days of training rides in the Cevennes at our base in Notre Dame de la Rouviére at the home of Craig and Onni, Janina and I were ready to set out on the cycling venture we had been dreaming of for years. I have been exploring France on my bike for nearly a decade-and-a-half.  At last I was going to be able to share the experience with Janina.

Our ride began with a nine-mile climb on a barely one-lane wide road carved into mountainsides thick with trees and an occasional habitation.  We had ridden the first five miles of it two days before with Craig, so knew it was fairly gradual the first two miles before steepening a bit.  Janina handled it with valor on her unloaded bike, and equally so with weight.  She didn't once express the novice's lament of how much harder it was to ride a bike burdened with panniers.  She was so aglow from her exhilaration of biking France and the spectacular views in this isolated nook of France she gushed, "This is overwhelming.  I don't know how to describe it."

As we approached the summit we passed a menhir perched on a little knoll pointing skyward signifying this had been a place of genuine mystique.  When we paused to admire it two older bubbly French women hikers told us a statue of a shepherd awaited us at the summit. 

 When we arrived a handful of cyclists were sprawled on the grass having a picnic.  We broke into our provisions as well before beginning an eight-mile descent that took us to the Gard River, which we followed for fifteen miles as it descended through a gorge to the town of Anduze.  We were passed by a steam locomotive hauling several hundred tourists.

We stopped along the way at a Stonehenge-esque picnic area overlooking the river.

We supplemented our snacks with mulberries off a cluster of nearby trees.  Despite the Cubs' woes 
with a losing record two months into the season, my bike is still adorned with a W-flag.  I have yet to receive a notice of recognition in the thousand miles I have already ridden down from Paris to Cannes and then over to the Cevennes.

The roadside mulberries weren't as tasty as those from Craig and Onni's garden, where we also harvested even more luscious raspberries.  Our taste buds were dazzled meal after meal by Onni's vegetarian fare from their garden and the local weekly market.  It was hard not to prolong our stay to further partake of the fine dining and fine biking and fine comraderie supplemented by two other guests from Chicago--Deb, an aromatherapist and soap maker who has a shop at Racine and Grand, and her husband Sergio, the maestro of the scoreboard at the United Center for the Bulls and Black Hawks.  They were also ardent travelers and conversationalists who were likewise loving their stay with Onni and Craig.

They both commute to their jobs by bike, so were happy to join us on one of our training rides.  It was interrupted by a sudden downpour that lasted for more than half an hour.  We were spread out so sought shelter on our own.  I ended up under a plane tree.  Deb and Sergio did too, but across from a hotel that catered to German motorcyclists, who beckoned them in. Janina and Craig retreated to a car mechanic's garage.  Usually such outbursts last just a few minutes and a tree offers adequate shelter.  But as this deluge continued I began to get wet, even holding my pannier over my head.  After half an hour I was getting perilously cold. When the rain dissipated to a drizzle I resumed my riding to try to warm up.  I was shaking so much I could barely hold a straight line.

Within a minute around a bend in the road I was hailed by Craig and Janina from the garage.  They were dry.  I was soaked and shivering.  I took off my shirt and dried my torso then wrapped my self in a slightly oil-stained sheet.  When the mechanic ducked in and saw my state he went and got me a t-shirt.  After a few minutes the rain had slackened enough for all of us to set out.  We were four miles from Craig's house with a final steep mile-and-a-half climb that would warm us up.  After a couple of minutes we heard a shout from Deb and Sergio from a second-floor window of the hotel where they were ensconced.  They were seated around a table with four burly German motorcyclists drinking beer and having a jolly time.  Deb is of German heritage and speaks a bit of the language and had been welcomed as one of them.  None of us was bemoaning the disaster of being caught by a storm.  It had led to another travel experience that would stand out.

Janina was able to end the first day of her maiden French tour with a swim in the warm campground pool, just what her weary muscles needed.  The hardest part of the day had been the long descent from the summit.  Her wrists had grown so weary from braking she got off and walked for a few minutes, not only to rest her wrists but to look closer at the thick vegetation and the spectacular views of the ridges that lay in folds to the horizon.  It wasn't as dramatic as the Alps or the Rockies, but it had a grandeur of its own.

We had a cliff-side to gaze upon from our campground.  It was early in the season so only one of the three rest room and shower facilities was open, and as is the norm in France, it was unisex.  The campgrounds was popular enough with the Dutch that Dutch was one of the three languages the signs were in along with French and English.  Though camping wild is my preference, this was not an unpleasant place to be parked for the night.