The day began like any other. No, better than that. It began brimming with optimism and ended in despair.
Fortified with coffee, I walked out from the mirage hotel in Dampierre into the dark, readied with my red and white bicycle lamps to construct a wobbly-looking bike in the unlikely event of encountering traffic. Shortly thereafter, light returning, the miracle of dawn and the freshness of a new day.
The walk to Gy was 35kms in the midst of the heatwave but my guidebook recommended a shortcut that shaved a few kilometres off and I was determined to make significant progress from the outset. The rivers of France have their various personalities but they are all, almost invariably, beautiful. The Soâne was no exception.
No one at Home
At midday, I received a call from my hotel for the night. Was it me – yes. I would be welcome at the hotel – good. Unfortunately, there would be no one at the hotel – no other guests? No, no one – no one at all? Correct. Here is the code for the building. Let yourself in.
Is there anywhere to eat in the town – no. Is there anywhere to buy food – no. Is there a bar – no. Is there anything of any description open at all – no. It was Sunday, of course.
A Wall of Maize
It was early afternoon when I reached the Chateau de St Loup. From here, the shortcut was a straight track, 7 kms into the centre of Gy. Even with backpack, heat, Achilles and end of day exhaustion, not much more than two hours.
I followed the track round … straight into a wall of seven foot high maize. Puzzled, I retraced my steps, with Google Maps in hand. Yes, this was the track. And, yes, it stopped dead in the wall of maize. This wasn’t the official route so I had no idea as to the legalities of this; certainly, it was an offence against the spirit of access, if nothing else.
I consulted maps. I stood at the bottom of a fan shape. Going left became convoluted. Going right took me rapidly further and further from the track which ran straight but left of centre in the fan. My option, going right, would add at least 10 kms. I would walk throughout the afternoon of a heatwave into a town that was closed to me. I could already feel the sun drilling into the back of my neck. My head would lose all perspective. Nevertheless, I felt I had no option but to press on.
Suddenly a Gap
Walking out on the fan shape, I gauged how quickly I was already three, four kilometres wide of the track. Looking back across at the farm, I could see beyond the field to the woods that ran most of the way into Gy. And, suddenly too, a gap, between two fields. With barely a moment’s hesitation, I set off. I’d get to the woods, track across them a couple of kilometres, find the track again and walk into Gy.
Barbed wire between field and woods successfully negotiated, I crossed the first few hundred yards of wood with relative ease. What’s more, I was under trees, out of the sun. Then, very quickly, it got harder, much harder.
I don’t know the extent to which I had registered it before but the management and husbandry of the French landscape had been exceptional. Not here. Rapidly, things deteriorated into bogs, seven foot high thistles, thorns, brambles, nettles and general chaos.
Just two Streams to Cross
Consulting the map again, I saw the impact of the fan shape and how much further I had to go. I had two major obstacles: streams which dropped eight feet down vertical banks, already impenetrably overgrown. Hurling my bag over one – no going back now – I leapt for the far bank and clung on. Now, I could cross something resembling a field. Tracking back down the route of the second stream, I found a disused bridge, a rotting plank. Hugging my bag, ready any moment for the drop, I got across.
I hacked twenty metres further into an undergrowth, that nevertheless went over my head, but increasingly it became also mangrove-like trees. I just couldn’t move forward. I tracked back to the stream but the bridge was gone. The seven foot high thistles thronging the bank made it impossible to see more than a foot or two in either direction. I had to track back and round to try again but north or south, I had no idea.
Eventually, I found the plank and recrossed it. The track into Gy crossed the second stream further back; there had to be a bridge there. I was forced to re-cross the original stream and made at least one more push from which I had to retrace my steps. Then, suddenly, there was the track and the bridge, thoroughly fortified once more with barbed wire. But that wasn’t going to stop me now. I was over and the track stretched out clear ahead of me for as far as I could see.
I always wondered what walking alone for days on end might do to my sanity. If there was ever a moment when I sensed it crumble, it was now. I let out a loud laugh. It was bitter, sardonic and resonant with the madness of hollow triumph. Somewhere, in cool shade, with an iced drink in his hand, and his extended family around him, a farmer was oblivious.
I don’t know if there were actual tears of rage and frustration but their warm, salty, antiseptic flow would have left tracks through the stickiness of my skin. I no longer cared if the bits stuck all over my body were vegetable debris or whether in the stickiness they still moved and sucked. The entire length of both arms and legs were smudged with blood and singing with exhilarating pain.
Nursing the last sips of my last bottle of water, in the late afternoon, I walked relentlessly towards the town I knew would be closed to me. I could get water; I could manage without food. As I crossed the town boundary, it was predictably deserted. My hotel would be fifty metres from the town square.
I rounded the corner of the square and there before me was the entire population of the town, engrossed in a travelling fair. The attractions consisted of a dodgems around which the teenagers clustered, a merry-go-round around which children, parents and grandparents gathered and a shooting gallery. The merry-go-round boasted all the dream transport of fifty years before: space ships, sports cars and fire engines. It was all delightfully innocent.
If Pinocchio was Old and still Wooden
Surrounded by the fair, it suddenly seemed appropriate that I was to stay at the Hotel Pinocchio. Presented to children as a morality tale about not telling lies, it fosters wider ranging values of middle class deferred gratification and unquestioning obedience. My own children’s sense of just behaviour caused them always to reject its obsessive cruelties (to the extent they always refused to go on the Pinocchio ride at Euro Disney!). I too should have given way obediently and deferred the pleasure of my arrival in the town until properly fried by the sun.
I sat in the midst of the town population feasting on hot dogs and crêpes and returning six, seven, eight times for bottled water and cans of Oasis. If Pinocchio had never learned his lesson but had grown old and stayed wooden, he would have been sat there like me, hollow-eyed and not unbroken. But, far from hurrying around me, people at the fair smiled and spoke to me. I was pitiable, not monstrous. Eventually, I let myself into the hotel. Wandering around, I discovered fruit juices in the breakfast area. But I had learned my lesson. They could wait till the morning.
The Rest of the Time, You can go back Home
The next day, I tackled the short walk into Cussey-sur-l’Ognon. The accommodation there was shut because it was a Monday. Yeh, of course, shut on a Monday. And, of course, things are also shut on a Wednesday. And, well, Saturday, things’ll shut early because we all know everything’s feckin’ well shut on a Sunday. Basically, if you’re a tourist in high season in rural France, you’re welcome half the week and the rest of the time you can go back home.
I wandered on. Should I wild camp? But I had to acknowledge morale was at an all time low. There, ahead of me, was the industrial and suburban hinterland of Besançon. It was so, so easy. I phoned for a taxi. He picked me up, carried my bag, put it in the boot. Whilst being driven into town, I booked into the biggest, freakin’, most soulless, multi-national chain of hotels I could find. To hell with it!