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Saturday, 29 November 2014

BREAKFAST LIKE A KING, LUNCH LIKE A PRINCE, SUPPER LIKE A PAUPER

Perhaps the greatest reward of a long walk is how it turns what is usually random in life and what we can control around. Normally in modern life things like eating,  sleeping and keeping out of bad weather are routine, whilst random events are imposed on us by others or by artificial (in the great and long term scheme of things) societal norms. (You know - jobs, parking tickets, events, taxes, emails). But walking especially in wintery weather reduces life to a simple and joyful response to an animal need for food, shelter and trotting on as if migrating to better weather. Everything else rather fades in importance. And the random things that happen whether good or bad are immediate and not deferred.
Which brings me to breakfast as pictured. Barely past dawn, a bit chilly after a night in a barn but sheltered from the rain and here's breakfast laid out in a handy village bus shelter after a few hours walking. Look at that pot of homemade mirabelle jam. Lovely. And random. But very good random.
The night before, Thurs 27, after a long slog across country through the day - beautiful, sunny, but winding and hilly - and then a busy road in the dark (bad random) I'd set off into the woods in search of a possible bridle path. I came to a dark, sprawling village. There was a flurry of barking and I was receiving the - um - attentions of a Border Terrier. 'Hiro! HIRO!' called a voice from the dark. 'Don't worry,' I called back in French 'my sister's got a Border - they're always excitable.' And so I met Catherine. Who invited me back to her house, an ancient Mill. She might have had some qualms when she saw me in the full glare of the hall lights. (It's the first house I've been in since starting from Munich three weeks ago). If so she hid it well, and produced coffee as I sat in a warm, comfortable kitchen. Her two small daughters - Julie and Marion - were enchanted, or at least fascinated, by this apparition from the dark. I felt a bit like the Gruffalo - shaggy, muddy, carrying the aura of the dark woods but on my best behaviour. It was charming. Catherine had been in Ireland when she was eight - she remembered sheep. And had an Irish tin whistle - I played a couple of quick tunes  and was then outshone but enchanted in turn by one daughter playing on a traverse-flute, and singing. We looked up the website of a previous pedestrian she'd met as he'd passed through the village, though he had a big Corsican donkey to carry his gear and finally paced out some three thousand kms on a circuit of France. This gave me a chance to do some shameless self-promoting - bringing up this blog and pages for Paddle; a long way around Ireland and other writings. The effect was rather gratifying - it confirmed me as more in the tradition of the scholar-gypsy than feckless-vagrant. As I set off into the dark on a sand track over a bare, domed hill and onto the forest beyond, Catherine gave me the jar of home-made jam whilst Julie and Marion waved and chanted goodbyes, and Hiro rushed around in circles.
And that night I spent as a feckless-vagrant, finding an open barn a little outside a tiny village. I slept on a bed of straw and was up at six to be away before discovery.
There is something wonderful about being on the road before dawn and having the light grow around one and curling mists. The smell of wild boar, muntjac deer barking, buzzards the first birds to start calling and a big dog fox that I crept up on till it was only a stick's length away and then noticed me and did a hilarious double-take.
All that and jam for breakfast.
I changed my route yesterday - skipped Neufchateau and its pleasures and temptations to cut across country and save around ten miles (and all the time I'd have spent in cafes in town). Risk was not finding a shop before the weekend and being reduced to two days living on jam.
But a supermarket appeared in an unlikely village and I stocked up. I could do with one of those Corsican donkeys - even travelling with minimal kit a few litres of water, warm layers and food enough for a few days - the 25-30 lbs/12 kilos I'm carrying is perhaps the biggest difference between Herzog walking and me. But the weight has allowed me to sleep out reasonably comfortably every night, rather than going to the extremes of either breaking into holiday homes or staying in hotels.
My next problem with dark approaching was how to keep going. The direct road west was busy and verge trotting into the lights of speeding traffic is nerve wracking. But then inspiration - crossing the railway lines into town I'd noticed that there was grass and weeds growing between the tracks. A few enquires and indeed, yes, trains stopped running a few years ago when the valleys many factories turning the local mature forest into furniture nearly all closed down. Bad news for the locals, but my salvation. I trotted off down the tracks in the dark humming train songs.
I slept in a derelict milking shed last night. An icy east wind dropped the temperature to dreading. I was up at six to get one track and warm up by walking. Wind at my back, which is always nice. And after an energetic morning I've knocked off 15 miles and found a café with up-beat pop music, warmth, coffee and wine...
...hence this.

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.

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.