Sunday, July 22, 2007

French Desert and Public Humiliation

After a hot days bike ride in the northern Italian countryside I sit with the cool evening breeze caressing my face and drink fresh squeezed apple juice while reflecting on the last two weeks। After spending a few days in Pamplona with people who embrace the culture and festivities of San Fermin I realized a couple of things। The main thing I discovered was that before coming here I had no idea what this was about। I had actually participated in a protest against something I had never previously even encountered। By doing so I was doing something I genuinely dislike and that is imposing my beliefs and my ideas on a people outside of my own culture। As much as I enjoyed running nearly naked through the streets of Pamplona I don’t think I will participate in another protest like that again। I do not want to assume that my way is the best for everyone। That is my biggest pet peeve in this world and something I constantly struggle against in my own life। Once a few days had passed I was growing restless and ready to trek northward. I discovered a trail that ran straight through Pamplona on its way to Santiago, Spain. Pilgrims have been taking this trail for a thousand years to visit the remains of St. James whose bones were miraculously transported by angels from Palestine to Eastern Spain by boat. The trail actually begins in Paris, France and travels down through France into Spain. Most people these days do not walk the entire length of the trail but some do walk from Southern France to the end taking about a month to do so. Seeing as how I didn’t want to head in the direction of Eastern Spain I decided to walk the trail backwards. As David said, it was like going to Mecca by walking away from it. I packed up my sack, said my goodbyes and headed out the door. Walking the trail backwards was considerably more challenging than I thought it would be as all the signs pointed in the direction of Santiago, not France. Every time I came to a trailhead of three or four directions I could tell where I had come from but not the direction in which I wanted to go. I ended up wasting a lot of time by backtracking on numerous occasions. The trail was also uphill the entire way since I was heading directly into the Pyrenees. I arrived the first night into the small town of Zubiri, Spain built mainly around the pilgrimage. I stayed the night in a bunk surrounded by 35 pilgrims making their way towards Santiago. I was the only one heading to France, where everyone else had come from. The next morning I got an early start and trudged along throughout the day, again backtracking to find the right trail several times. As the day was drawing its end for me and I was about to find a place to pitch my tent in the next village I came across two other guys heading in my direction. The first was shirtless with long blond dreadlocks and shoes so tattered one could look directly through them had his feet not been inside. The other guy was wearing a long skirt and carried a gnarled walking stick also with long tangled dreads. I found out that the blond bloke was a chap from England named Dave and the other was an Israeli going by the moniker, Aviram. I started talking to them along the road and discovered that they had just spent the last three months in a hippie commune in Southern Spain where they exchanged goods and services for food and other things they needed. They were on their way to France so Dave could catch a plane back to England. I asked them where they were camping for the night and they replied that they weren’t sure yet. They were going to press on into the mountains. In the valley where we were the sun had already begun to set behind the mountains so I thought they were crazy to continue on but I figured, what the hell, I’d join them. We started hiking this trail that wound its way up and up and up the side of the mountain and as the hours progressed we climbed higher and higher. I discovered that day that when my entire body goes numb I can walk about another 3 kilometers before passing out from fatigue. David and Aviram kept pushing me to continue on. Finally, after an exhaustive climb we ended up at the summit of the mountain overlooking the rest of the Pyrenees and the valleys below just in time to set up camp and watch the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. The sun cast its light among the various mountain peaks as the clouds settled in between them. Seeing this from above was awe-inspiring. We built a fire and they were kind enough to share the food they had with me. Once darkness completely descended upon us I could see more stars above me than I could have ever imagined. Having no lights of any city nor any trace of the moon we could revel in the utter blackness of the night sky filled with those innumerable stars and galaxies. In distant Pamplona we saw the fireworks spectacular they put on every night. What an amazing evening, and had I not pushed myself to climb the entire way with Dave and Aviram I would have missed it. Upon awaking the next morning we started our descent into France among gale-force winds followed by blistering heat. Through the Pyrenees we came across herds of sheep numbering in the hundreds and wild horses standing defiantly against the wind. By the afternoon we had made it to our destination of St. Jean Pieds du Port in Southern France. We celebrated by buying fresh fruit, bread, and other amenities which we promptly devoured. After a nice rest in the park, under the shade of the birch trees, we parted ways. They were hitching their way north and I was headed east. Quickly and easily I managed to hitch a ride in the right direction. Although they were not going far they explained to me the best route to head out of the region. Soon after they dropped me off I was picked up again and taken slightly further down the road. After getting out of the truck I stuck out my thumb and started walking in the right direction. Shortly thereafter a young guy picked me up and took me all the way past Toulouse to the town where he lived. That night I pitched camp by the river side listening to the water flow softly by my head and lapping against the rocks of the riverbed. The next morning I awoke at first light to hitch my way east. I was picked up by some really great people and got pretty far. By the end of the day I was nearly to Marseille. North of Marseille a guy in a windowless van pulled over and offered me a lift. I hopped in and learned that he was a comedian from Paris whose ten month old son and girlfriend live in Marseille. Driving down into the city we had a great talk and he invited me to shower at his place and sleep in his van parked outside their apartment. Not only did he and his girlfriend provide me with a shower and place to sleep but they fed me as well. How fortunate I was to meet this man. They also recommended a trail that went from Marseille to a town further down the coast, Cassis. Estimating that it was between 15 and 20 miles I figured I could easily do that in a day so in the morning I bought a little fruit, filled up my water bottle, and caught the bus to the start of the trail. At the head of the trail was a little map that showed the route along the Mediterranean to Cassis and below the map was a little table that said Cassis was between four and five hours away. I thought to myself that this would be easy. I should have realized right away that it would be considerably more difficult than I had imagined as within the first fifteen minutes I lost the trail and had to backtrack a few times to find it. The trail wound its way up and around the mountain into an elevated desert above the Med. I walked for a couple hours, eating my fruit and drinking my water, before I stopped at a little rocky beach just off the path. I relaxed for about an hour, playing in the sand and swimming in the water, and then took off again. A couple hours later I realized that I had been walking well over five hours and there was no sign of Cassis. I managed to find another person on the trail walking in the opposite direction and asked him if he had come from Cassis. He stared at me with a bewildered look on his face and told me that I was a long way from Cassis, at least eight hours walking distance. My jaw dropped. I ate the last of my fruit on the beach and was pretty much out of water by then. The man was gracious enough to fill up my water with what he had. He gave me a couple bonbons and pointed me in the right direction. I continued on as it was either walk eight hours to Cassis and complete my small quest or turn around and walk seven hours back to Marseille, so of course I chose to continue on. Climbing the great hills of a French Mediterranean desert I had no idea if I would have enough water for the rest of the journey. The day was hot and I had a long way to go. As the sun was setting I came across a bicyclist who frequented the area and knew a great path to Cassis even going so far as to recommend where to camp for the night. He told me that when I came to a fork in the road I could take a shorter path or a slightly longer, but much prettier path to Cassis. I made my way towards the fork and actually camped out at the junction determined to make the decision in the morning. Waking up refreshed after a good night’s sleep I decided on the slightly longer but prettier route. I began the ascent into the mountain climbing steep rocks in between jagged boulders. When I arrived at the top I had a gorgeous view of the sea. Continuing up another hill I reached the top and could see the city of Cassis far below. I chose a road that took off in that direction and began my descent. Coming to several forks in the road I continually chose whichever path lead in the direction of Cassis. After about an hour of walking, the path I was on came to a complete dead end, I mean cliff face dead end. So I turned around and chose another path only to find another dead end. I turned around again to choose yet a different path that only wound its way around to meet up at the same junction. This continued on for about three hours under the blistering noonday sun in the parched desert with scarcely a drop of water. For the first time in my life I felt abandoned and hopeless. I fell to the dry earth crying and desperately calling to God for help. No one as far as the eye could see. My destination so close at hand but unreachable. Running out of water and having a thirst that I cannot even describe in words. This was the absolute most difficult moment of my entire life. Still, I picked myself up and decided to create my own path to Cassis. I saw power lines heading in the direction of the city so I made my way in that direction. Cutting my way through sharp bushes and stumbling along the loose, jagged rocks, I half-walked, half-fell into a ravine. Raising my head I looked up to see a blue and yellow marking signifying a trail. Finding new strength I stumbled along the path. After about fifteen minutes I found myself in a dirt parking lot surrounded by cars. It was the entrance to a public beach and right across the parking lot was a drink stand. I practically ran to the stand and ordered the biggest bottle of water the guy had and a melon popsicle. I had never tasted water so cold and refreshing nor had I tasted a sweeter popsicle. I asked the guy how to get to Cassis and he pointed to the road next to us saying that it was a fifteen minute walk in that direction. I was overjoyed! After the popsicle and bottle of water I took off down the road to finally arrive in Cassis. I went to the nearest grocery store and bought so much food and drink I had to remove many things from my sack to make room for it all. I collapsed right outside the grocery store drinking a liter of orange juice and eating fruit left and right. I passed out right there for about an hour then decided to get the hell out of that town. I made my way to the main road and stuck my thumb out. I got a ride all the way to Toulon, France where I camped out in a small park for the night. The highway leaving Toulon was not well suited for hitchhiking so I checked out the train station. I found a train leaving for Nice and was on it as soon as possible. In Nice I walked to the beach and lay out on the rocks for a few hours. Swimming in the cool water of the Mediterranean was bliss. After spending the day in Nice I hitched my way out of the city and into western Italy. A nice family picked me up and dropped me off in the outskirts of a tiny Italian town called San Remo. I spent about 2 hours trying to catch a ride by the freeway entrance before the sun went down and I had to walk down the hill to find a camping spot. After spending the night among weeds and highway rubbish I woke up and started my way back up the hill. After about three more hours of waiting I was finally picked up by a nice Albanian guy. He took me about 20 kilometers down the road and dropped me off at a major junction. Soon thereafter I was picked up by a really cool Spanish guy who took me all the way to Pisa. Since I hadn’t really eaten much that day I decided to spend the rest of my cash on a nice hot meal of mushroom risotto. It was delicious. I was now faced with the problem of having no spending cash, however, and had to conceive a means by which to obtain some. Sitting beneath the leaning tower I decided to try my hand a public humiliation. I stood up in front of the crowd, put my bandanna on the ground with a few loose coins I still had, and started singing. After working up the courage to belt out that first note, the rest came easily. I sang for a good half hour and had a few bouts of applause from people sitting in the plaza. In that half hour I made about six Euros in spare change. I bought myself some fruit for the morning and found a place to camp. The next day I tried hitching for about three hours with a sign saying “Firenze” (Florence to us crazy Americans) when an old lady on a bike stopped and said that there was a train to Firenze every hour. At least, that is what I thought she said as she was speaking Italian and I understand no Italian whatsoever. She probably said something like, “Bats fly under the cover of darkness because they are insecure about their big noses”. I went to the train station and found a train to Florence for five euros so I hoped on. Thirty minutes later I arrived in Florence and found a little guide book for a day’s visit in the city. I walked around soaking up the sights and sounds of this magnificent city until I came to a pedestrian bridge lined with shops and all sorts of venders. I thought this was the perfect place to try my hand again and I laid down my bandanna. The first note caught the attention of those around me and I continued on for about 45 minutes until the police told me to move on. In those 45 minutes I made over sixteen Euros! I’m thinking about quitting my day job (whatever that is). On my way to camp I stopped to listen to the Stanford Jazz Orchestra play for the American ambassador. I made my way down to the river bank where I set up my tent and had a terrific night’s sleep. Seeing as how my hitchhiking exploits hadn’t been as successful in Italy as they had been in Spain and Europe I decided to bite the bullet and just take a train from Florence to Tricesimo to meet up with Scott there. I arrived yesterday to have Scott and Ruth pick me up at the train station and take me back to the apartment where I took my first shower in a week. I had no idea water could be that dirty in a bathtub. After my shower we went to someone else’s house to eat and I swear I ate more than the other five people there combined. I felt as if I hadn’t had a proper meal in weeks, when in fact I hadn’t. That night I slept on the couch under the cover of bed sheets which I had actually forgotten the feel of. Today we went for a splendid bike ride in the hills of northern Italy and just had a magnificent time. This brings me to the present moment, surrounded by the beautiful Italian countryside in the company of great friends. Of the trials and tribulations of the past couple weeks I do not think. I revel in the beauty that is right now and the perfection of this instant. I am so glad to be here and am thankful of the time I have to relax in the company of great friends with a soft couch to lay on and a full stomach. Life does not get much better than this, my friends. Thank you for sharing it with me. Until next time, arrivederci!


Keale said...

What an incredible journey you're on. I am so happy for you and it makes me smile from ear to ear as I read your stories on here. I'm glad you're letting us know how you're doing and keeping us up to date with what you come across.
Keep faith in yourself and your journey. It gives those of us reading strength to know you're succeeding on your trek. I love reading your blog. Good luck on what's to come.

P.S.: I am very close to taking your job and apartment in Paris if Noelle decides to accept me... :)

Michael said...


Keep on trekking bro! It's amazing to read all that you're doing and experiencing. Like Devon I too can't help but smile when I think of you on this voyage. My prayers and thoughts are with you always!

Best of luck!

Ian said...

Your travelogue reminds me of the NY-SF-NY hitching I did back in the 80s. Next time I encounter a lone trecker singing for a meal I'll be sure to make a contribution. For you, here is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair;
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Peter said...

What can I say but ... Wow!