Thursday, 27 November 2014

THE ELUSIVE HERZOG

The weather has changed - as it had to. Yesterday evening I was walking along in the dark wearing nothing more than a light long-sleeved wool t-shirt (yes, yes...and trousers, boots, socks etc for the pedants amongst you). I stopped to have a chat with a builder - affronted I thought he was a farmer - and he mentioned it was going to rain today.
Well, at times it's almost like I know what I'm doing - though I thought that the other morning and then kicked over my mug of coffee made with the last of my water. But anyway, I nipped across a field a few kms on, bustled around with tarp and bungees and pegs and was soon in my bag, under shelter and brewing up soup and eating good cheese. It rained in the night, and here's the professional bit - and then stopped just before dawn. Tempting as it was to lie abed warm and dry, I kicked myself out and broke camp in the brief period of dry bertie it rained again. Putting up and taking down shelter is my most vulnerable time as my tarp is also my via poncho and can't be both at the same time.
And the rewards of a long day yesterday and an early start? I'm sitting in a café in Mirecourt, with a bucket of coffee, reasonably dry and watching flotillas of umbrellas floating past the window.
I've just bought two large scale maps that will take me almost to Paris. An expense and extra weight/bulk (though I'll be cutting them down to the relevant narrow strips) but being able to take tiny roads and tracks and avoid roads with traffic has been key to enjoyment - I've been forced to verge crawl many unavoidable miles into the face of speeding traffic and it's hell.
Yesterday's low was cutting across country on a web of small roads and at one point passing a car in the gate of a field as I trotted south, and half an hour later seeing the same car in the same gateway but now from across the field as trotted north on another lane. The high came soon after when an ambiguous line on the map reached by some canny navigation turned out - as I hoped - to be a  dead straight five km track through tranquil beech forest, moving me well forward on the day's 35 kms mileage. (I'm promiscuous when it comes to metric and imperial - do your own 8:5 calculations). It's like playing snakes and ladders, out here in rural France.
Choosing smaller roads has carried me far away from Herzog's route since entering France. But we meet again, if only briefly, here in Mirecourt. He spent the night in a show caravan - as in a demonstration model for a sales agency - on the edge of town. The next morning as he was walking in the rain a driver stopped and offered him a lift. He took it and sped forward 25 miles, as far as my longest day walking so far. I've lost him again. But I'll be trotting in his wake, closer to or actually on his original route.
Today's picture illustrates the French capacity for responding to disaster. In one village I passed the Boulangerie had burnt down. A rapid response force had got a baguette vending machine into place - in a field - before the populace expired. The elderly woman buying her daily bread before me thought it a wonderful sign of modernity, and was thrilled with this convenience. (Perhaps she'd particularly disliked the village baker? Perhaps she was a secret arsonist?).
In another irony, the same village had a monument to the fallen of WWI, that was pocked and chipped by the bullets of WWII.
Rain or no rain - and currently it's rain - sitting around in cafes won't bring Paris any nearer.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

HIGH, LOW, NOW FLAT

Always hard to avoid looking just a bit wooden in selfies.
I've just crossed the Moselle at Thaon, so am across and out of the mountains that rise high on both sides of the Rhine valley, and with neither the snow nor storms that Herzog battled.

The land being flatter brings it's own challenges. Long slogs, little shelter, busy agriculture and so less hidden woods or derelict barns to sleep in, and speeding traffic on narrow twisting roads. And rural France is a struggle for many locals too - unemployment; so gambling, drinking, suicide. Symptomatic is the small number of village bars and cafes still open. I found just three still trading in over a hundred kms of walking and passing through tens of small villages.
Now, in Thaon, I've found a joy. Bar Le Cosy. Good coffee. Wifi - hence another post. An armchair and friendly hostess and clients. It's rather smart and chic and I may look a tad out of place - that facial hair? Vilely unshaven or Serge Gainsbourg chic? - but the French egalitarianism (as well as liberty and fraternity) manifests itself in a polite respect for all; a lovely country to be a hobo in.
And also how civilised to be in a society where - as one might - ordering a glass of wine or a cognac before ten in the morning is seen not as moral turpitude but merely what a working man needs before hefting a chainsaw, driving a tractor or gunning down wild boar for the rest of the day. A hand steadier, as it where.
And on that note, on to Mirecourt. Due west. I'm about to walk off the first of the two and a half 1:200 000 scale maps that will get me to Paris. I'm up to my optimum 20 miles a day speed, so barring accidents or stupidity or...

Monday, 24 November 2014

MORE WALKING LESS BLOGGING

Arriving in France has changed everything. Better cheese, more wine, less internet and more daily mileage.
Daily postings here have suffered as my phone has lost roaming and I'm dependent on free wifi in cafes. And that presupposes cafes! In past days have looped and wound and zigzagged and climbed and descended my way - nearly - across the Vosges mountains. And the few cafes in the few villages were all closed - either because of the weekend or out of season. I'm hardy so marched on for a day and a half creating my own cafes in bus shelters. Came as close as I've done so far to creating a Herzog night too; foggy, cold night and I broke, well climbed into, a loft above an abandoned garage.
Yesterday - see pic - arrived in paradise. The Café Taniere wasn't actually open but hostess Isabelle was sitting outside in warm sun and produced coffee and wine, and then a plate of cheeses, saucisson and bread on the house. The joy. And the joy of being able to talk and joke with people - it shortens the road.
Last night spent in a forest glade on a bed of moss amongst pines and toadstools. It was supernaturally warm. I sat there brewing soup as the stars twinkled through the trees like a summer's evening. And no dew. Odd but pleasant.
Now it's over the next pass - a mere 600 mts - and down into what is flattish land the rest of the way to Paris.
French wine and cheeses and warm summer breezes (a line from He Went To Paris by Jimmy Buffet - appropriately) none withstanding I'm having to up my daily mileage otherwise I'll never finish. I'm not racing Herzog, who started on the 23rd Nov forty years ago yesterday, but I am trying to get as far as possible before the weather - as it must - gets wintery.
A slight frustration in having arrived in a big town, Saint-Die, and found all shops closed because it's Monday. Well, didn't need much anyway. And anything not bought is not carried...and I have over a kilo of oats and dates to see me through the coming 40 kms of mountains and forest.
And on that note - back to the high ground.

Friday, 21 November 2014

NO, SURELY NOT ALREADY...

Just about to walk the few miles to the ferry across the Rhine. Then it's France for a couple of weeks footing. Herzog gives a bleak impression of the next 300 miles - sousing rain, icy winds, open country, no shelter. His writings become more and more hallucinatory (the seed images of several of his future films amongst them). But he was  ill-equipped in vile weather and pushing extreme mileage. I've got my hammock and tarp-poncho, the weather is currently mild for time of year and I'm allowing myself anything up to a week more for the same distance. I'm setting out on the next leg with some excitement.
I spent my first night indoors since leaving Munich two weeks ago. The lovely Lamm (Lamb) gasthof in the small-town- Baroque centre of Ettenheim. The huge breakfast alone was worth it (you mean I wasn't meant to eat everything in the buffet?). Plus I'm clean, rested and camera batteries charged. Yesterday evening I decided to mess with my cultural topography and ended up in a Spanish bar, drinking tempranillo, listening to flamenco and chatting in Spanish - so changing from Germany to France in an hour or so will seem logical.
They're putting up a christmas tree in the town square. I'm prepared to walk a long way to avoid that kind of nonsense. So I will.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A WALK OF TWO HALVES

Last night's long dark walk into the forest high in the mountains led me to an old hunters cabin. A miracle of navigation that I found it - seen only as an enigmatic sign on walker's map board in a village miles away. A miracle it was open. I was prepared to overlook the broken furniture, the graffito and the dark loft above the two simple rooms. A bit Blair Witch Project-y but real shelter. With the door closed and stove cooking soup and some cushions as mattress I had a comfortable and - the first since beginning the walk - warm night. Up at six and had done a day's march by lunchtime. Incidentally passing a far nicer, clean, open cabin - unmarked on map - with a log stove just a few miles further on.
Descending down, down, down to the Rhine Valley. I left warm sun on the heights for grey, cold fog. (see pic). Signs of rooting boar and deer slots everywhere. A distant lumberjack felled a huge tree - the sound of its fall echoing in the fog.
Now in Ettenheim and preparing to regroup before starting off into France and next 250 miles to Paris. Shower (and several more), clothes wash, charge camera batteries, sort gear, prepare mind and feet for as much walking and sleeping out as I've already done to here - maybe even a bit more.
Paris is calling.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE ROAD

There's schadenfreude - pleasure in the misfortunes of another - and there's 'strassen- schaden,' the humourous misfortunes of the road brought on by hubris....
....because there is rarely a short-cut through mountain country (if there was you can bet the Germans would have turned it into a road), and good advice that isn't good is just opinion and stupidity pretending to be advice.
So, it was probably a bit daft of me to think I could shave some distance off Herzog's route by straight lining across the mountains (topping a thousand meters in places - not impressive if you're reading this in Switzerland or Nepal, but higher than Ireland's highest peak). Off I set last night into dark and drizzle. I'd been given some advice at the ruined castle (another one) above Hornburg by a chap in tweeds walking a Labrador - obviously trustworthy. Follow the red diamond route he said. I did and added several kms to the steep climb to reach a sort silvian cross roads. There by luck there was a rare shelter hut. Rain proof roof, three walls, veranda and table and bench. Paradise especially as temperature was dropping. I made my stand for a night of luxury.
The sun flooded into the cabin this morning. As I was packing a jolly man of the mountains came trotting along. We conversed, in German. Klaus Kinski was mad, we agreed, whilst Herzog was admirably obsessive. The climate was odd - pleasant for November but odd. Oh, and rather than descending and climbing and upping and downing I'd be much better off following a longer, smaller track straight to Elzach that followed contour lines. Yes, I agreed, but not if it's going to get me lost. Nein, nein, it was straight forward - only a few cross tracks but it would be 'logical' which way to go.
I set off keenly. An hour later I'd arrived at one of those useful map boards - this clearly showed no obvious straight route to Elzach as there were two big streams in deep valleys, as well as the region's highest peak in the way. In fact I should have followed my original idea and headed downhill from the cabin and got to the Elz river and trotted along beside it and been in town for an early lunch.
As it was, realising I'd have to double back I went back to compass and intuition and followed a deer track, then a wander weg and finally a logging road that got me to the river. And here I am in Elzach for a late tea and ten miles behind schedule and footsore.
I'd be less gruntled but I've spent a glorious day walking the heights of the best of the Schwarzwald in spring-quality sunshine.
I'll walk on over the last of the Black Forest mountains tonight - boringly following the road, because wind as it does it will still be the easiest way.
A brisk day tomorrow should get me to Ettenheim, ready to cross the Rhine into France. But first - tomorrow night - I plan a cheap room and a massive clothes wash. France deserves that much at least.
As I walked last night there were moths still flying. In mid-November. So far, thankfully  I'm not getting the full Herzog snow 'n' rain experience. On the other hand he was driven to taking a room most nights to be able to sleep. Swings and roundabouts.
I'm still enthralled by the Schwarzwalders gaeity after the - I'm sorry but - stolid seriousness of the Schwabs. The five elderly women have just broken into five-part harmony in a song to serenade their - seriously - cake. Rather a fine gateaux as befits the location, admittedly but still bonkers and charming.
It's rather a smart café and invaded favoured by matriarchs of a certain stern bearing. I look like a meth's drinker spending the proceeds of a day's pan-handling. Yet as they pass each greets me with a cheery 'gruss gott' or similar. And smiles. I do indeed feel like a pilgrim, both bestowing and garnering blessings as I walk. Perhaps I won't stop when I reach Paris.
Or perhaps I won't reach Paris. There's still 250 miles/400 kms to go, and I'm a day behind my notional schedule and four behind Herzog. It's not a race but one has to keep going.
And on that note.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A ROOM WITH A VIEW

The upshot of walking out of the dark, smokey bar in Schramberg last night was a steep three kms climb up a rocky path between dark pines in rain. Perhaps I should have stayed in the bar; I'd become a very minor, and very local celebrity, and the barman Marcus promised a bed for me when I next came back - I thought of leaving, standing in the rain twenty minutes and heading back in with a cheery 'hallo again, I'm back.'
Instead I slogged up to the craggy peak with the ruins of Hohegschramberg (the name is a clue to its place in local topography). Poked around by torchlight - quietly, lamp shaded as there was a house with lights amongst the sprawling ruins of towers, walls, courtyards, ramparts, balconies and walkways. On the edge of a drop I found what must have been a sentry's cell. Damp, dank, spidery - but out of the rain. Stripped off wet clothes, on with dryish ones. Poncho across door to keep out rain. Mat down. Stove lit. It was almost snug. And I slept well after a twenty mile plus day. The rain eased to wet mist by seven. The view down on Schramberg from on 'hoheg' was worth the climb.
Now I'm on the road - hard climbing to a small town and I'm in the Bakerie for a while. It's six miles of steep climbs and descents to the next village and then I have to see if a five mile mountain track to save three miles is viable. These mountains are so steep and route finding so hard that 'short cuts' are a risk. Herzog got lost on this very stretch and had to fight his way over fallen logs on skiddy muddy slopes in thick forest.
I am the Black Forest - everything is different now I've crossed the valley. The architecture - wooden houses, shutters, barns etc - are prettier and there's less/no kitch. My drinking buddies in the bar last night gave me the full form of a saying, I part rememberd from years ago, that describes the Schwabs. Schaffe, schaffe Hansle baue...under nicht mach de Madle schaue. Work, work build a house...and don't get distracted by maidens. Well, it's not so dour here in the Schwarzwald. This café rings with jolly greetings, laughter and chatter. Locals wish me well and the baker woman is joyous that I'm sitting at a table and charging my phone and spreading out papers and maps.
I stopped at a small garage earlier to ask if I was on the right road. No gruff grunt and silent pointing - the chap told me in detail which road to take in the village, then got out some aerial photos to show me where the - this - bakery was; he looked at me and realised that the smart hotel café just up the road was not for me, and vice versa. Then jolly words of encouragement. It's like being in Italy.
I'm revelling in comfort here because villages/towns/cafes are few and far between until I reach the Rhine in a couple of day's from now. Hopefully there'll be a Grimms tales hut in the forest for tonight.
Two minor shopping successes yesterday after days of searching wherever I've passed shops. A reflective arm-band. With darkness by five and walking on until past nine some evenings, and despite - obviously - trying to avoid rambling along in the midst of speeding night time traffic in poor visibility it happens. I flash my torch but you can't beat a bit of hi-viz.
And I found a rubber tip/cap to put on the end of my beautiful - poached from a coppice - ash pole. It was wearing away at a quarter of an inch a day. Turning from staff to walking stick as I strode and threatening to be match stick length by Paris. Apart from any other purpose it marks me as a pilgrim, and here that still has a real status - enough to trump two weeks of not shaving, muddy boots and trouser cuffs and the faint (I hope faint) aroma of the sleeper in forests and ruined castles.
With all that I feel I'm ready to trot over the Black Forest heights. The drizzly fog has lifted and there are damp smudges of blue amongst the greys and silvers.

About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.