Mon 3rd June.
Getting lost, Mourenx, needing strangers.
I packed up from my idyllic spot by the river and continued east. I knew that Mourenx would be the aim for the day.
Although the river was beautiful, if I got back onto the roads where I could use the GPS to get where I needed to be. The roads took me through some quiet back streets, with few cars and across cobblestone bridges and over rivers. The bushes either side of the road were about 8 feet tall and there were no pavements, just like the country lanes of England.
The country roads soon smoothed out and turned into plain valleys and the occasional tree to block the sun. You could see for miles ahead, unlike on the bush lined roads. I sauntered on through a few small French villages. I stopped off at one to pick up a baguette, and carried on.
I got to another small town and discovered on the map, that it connected with the river. If I could follow the river, it would take me were I needed to go and the views would be much nicer, along with some shade from the sun.
I made my way down the back-alley of the town towards the river, rather proud with my choice to not stick to roads and constantly explore and seek more daring routes.
I descended a steep hill and came to a dirt road that joined a car park and a small footpath to the river. All looked good.
Once I left the car park, the track had become muddy but bearable. The mud grew thicker and deeper soaked from the rain, so with great effort, I pushed the bike through the mud, in the direction I needed to go. After ten minutes of struggling, hoping the track would clear up and turn into a solid path, I realised it was all mud and I had made a big mistake in leaving the road. I swallowed my pride, and headed back the way I came.
Shortly after, I was at the car park where I came in 40 minutes earlier, the bike and I covered in mud, time and energy wasted and the hill I’d descended on the way in to climb on the way out. Luckily, it wasn’t as severe as I thought, I when I rejoined the road, I took a break and accepted that these things happen on a trip like this.
I’d lost an hour, I gamble that would’ve paid off if I was right, but didn’t in this instance.
After this mighty blunder, I thought I should play it safe and stick to the roads and get past Mourenx, that was all I needed to do.
The route to Mourenx provided more taxing then I thought and with spring shedding its skin, I used up my water sooner than I anticipated and been running dry for an hour or two before I arrived at Mournex.
As soon as I got there, I was greeted with modern McDonald’s to my right. The devils work, but I needed it, for internet, food and more importantly, water.
I splashed out on chips, a bottle of Evian and a milkshake.
The Evian helped, but it wasn’t enough. I would’ve had another but it was more than €2 and I was paying on credit card in a foreign country, so weary of secret super charges that could ruin my trip. Since I’d lost my wallet in Barcelona and had little cash left.
I topped a cycling bottle in the loo, then got comfortable and did some internet chores for a bit.
I lost track of time and by the time I finished it was about 7:30pm. I now had to find a shop to buy water and find a place to get down for the night out of town.
I found about four supermarkets but they were all shut. How I’d underestimated France’s stubbornness, and missed our convenience stores we have peppered all over the streets and cities of England.
I now had a problem, I needed water to cook, to prevent dehydration and to start me off in the morning. I knew nothing drastic would happen if I had to go without, but, in a built up urban area like this, I figured it was worth trying my luck with the locals.
I looked around and decided to knock on a door and ask for water. I figured with a loaded bike and cycling attire, I’d make a good case for a person in need.
I saw an old lady ordering her curtains in one house and figured I’d try there, as someone was in. I rang the doorbell twice, but no answer. I was very frustrated that paranoia or perhaps deafness had prevented this lady from helping me, but I didn’t get sour and looked for the next best helping hand.
I cycled around looking for friendly signs, when I found a house with the patio doors open and a guy getting ready barbecue some meat. I popped my head over the wall and said:
“Pardon monsieur, avais vous, uh, une aqua?”
I forgot the French for water.
A confused look.
“Water” The barbecue man said.
He came over and took my bottles from me and ran inside, he saw the bike and realised I wasn’t some wingnut. He invited me in. I brought the bike into the garden area to be safe. It was about 8 o’clock and there was still about an hour of daytime left.
When I got inside, I was met by three other men sat down, smoking, drinking whiskey, pouring from a huge novelty size whiskey bottle, playing cards and watching the news.
“Have a seat. English?!?”
“Oui, uh, yes, English”
I knowing look of satisfaction that his guess had been correct came over his face.
This man was the older in the group, with a grey beard. He seemed to take the most interest in me. The other two had bloodshot eyes and didn’t seem too bothered. We traded stories, I told them what I was up to, where I had been and where I was going. As per usual, they were astonished I was flying solo and told me I was crazy. I used to this by now.
They all worked freelance for a gas company and travelled together and came from different parts of France. Two from Brittany, one from Montpellier and one from Marseille. They joked that the one from Montpellier was rich, which he didn’t seem to bother him too much. He shrugged the generalisation off.
“Whiskey?” They offered.
“Uh yeah, thanks”
And just like that, I had gone from being without water, to having water and sharing whiskies with these men in the kind of villa/den they occupied. They seemed to be from outside of France, perhaps Algiers, but were born here I thought, or moved her a long time ago.
I didn’t want to rock the boat, I realised that if a door shut and locked, my situation could chance very quickly.
I laughed and joked with them were I could, using the few French expressions I’d picked up when shocking things came on the news. “Putain” (which translates as hooker, but is used for ‘damn!’) which they enjoyed immensely.
They offered me a smoke on their joint that was going round. ‘Rude not to’ I thought, I took a puff with my whiskey (that was bought in Andorra). “Tax-free” they said, pointing to it, happy with their prize.
I stayed for about another fifteen minutes slowly becoming more comfortable, accepting a top-up. Of all the things I’ve on the trip so far, this is probably one of the strangest, yet it felt very relaxed and normal.
I noticed it was getting darker and took that as my cue to leave, before they might offer me to stay the night, which would’ve been nice, but not an option. I thanked them all for their hospitality and the water and left promptly, perplexed once again by the kindness of strangers.
Just east of the town was a like a national park. A few streams, trees, public footpaths etc. A place you take the kids on the weekend. I snuck in there on the bike, sure not to be seen, and as no gates had been locked, I went in and with some effort found a suitable location for the night.
The high of the booze and the joint were enhanced by camping in the sticks and I treated it like a survival excursion, or, in short, like I was James Bond, trying my best not to be seen by the enemy, and to set up base as stealthily as possible. This was nothing new for me, among the solitude of camping, but the buzz certainly made it more interesting.
I hadn’t realised how drunk I was and I began muttering to myself and staggering about. Once in the tent, I ate a whole 100g chocolate bar I was saving for the next day.
As I got out for a wee that night, I looked up at the night sky and the stars and took in the absurdity of what had happened, what I was doing out here on this trip, how much more there was to go of it and how much I was looking forward to it all.