It is amazing how quickly somewhere can feel like home. It depends how you define home. For some people, it means bricks and mortar, belongings, memories, and a period of elapsed time. To others, it is a geographical location, sense of community, history or belonging. Home is not a noun, it is a feeling. As I walked down the Canal du Midi tow path this evening, back to a wild camp spot we first stayed in 9 days ago with my Dad, I felt like I was walking home. Home, now, apparently, is a clearing in a wooded area on a tow path where the French people tolerate wild camping. There is even a bin, and the refuse collection people politely asked me if my solar charger lying in the woods was rubbish or should they leave it. Other people camp here too, and it feels safe and comfortable. There are trees for shade; birds, snakes and rabbits for company.
The green nylon shell of our tent, also feels like home to me. It doesn’t matter where it is pitched, it looks the same inside. The comforting ritual of threading the poles through the outer sheet, watching home bounce alive as you peg out the material. Perfecting the finish tightening the guys. Attaching the bedroom, the groundsheet goes down, and then finally the unfurling of the roll matts and sleeping bags. I have created home and can create it anywhere I can pitch a tent.
Conversely, I don’t feel at home when I bivvy (sleep outside in a waterproof bag) in a wooded clearing next to a main road. The random odd cars whizzing by at 3am startle me awake. And worse, the shrill cries of an unknown animal punctuate the dark night with fear. My dreams are full of terror, and being awake is worse. In the morning youtube confirms my fears, wild boar were nearby! And I also discover the Pyrenees has bear and wolves! Sleeping outside in the Pyrenees does not feel like home!
And then there was the bivvy in a bush next to a road, very close to a cow field and a hunting dog kennels and miscellaneous industrial aqua feature. When you weren’t being woken up by the hungry cries of dogs with a scent, the sound of machines pumping water was always there to keep you company.
There is always of course, the perfect bivvy. In the middle of a gigantic coastal wetland, tucked away on the edge of a canal and along a bank of inland coastal lake. Perfect sunset and sunrise, 360 panoramic views and only the odd friendly cyclist or runner to wave hello to. No boar, cars, dogs or aquatic industry. We won’t talk about the mosquito problem, I don’t want to ruin the illusion!
We’ve now cycled 400miles on our fully loaded touring bikes, and are currently having a rest day at the end of our great circuit! Unintentionally, we have ended up cycling in a great big loop from Sete in the South of France, up the Canal Du Midi, into the Pyrenees and Ariege, back down to the Meditteranean sea and back into to the Canal du Midi! Hence, we are staying at a wild camp spot we first slept in 9 days ago. From tomorrow we begin the great trek to Switzerland!
Our longest day so far has been 80km, but most of our days are between 40km-60km. We’ve surprised ourselves with how many miles we can cover when we push it, but also learnt the speed limiting power of hills and general progress halting demoralising misery of the headwind. The first hill we approached in the Pyrenees we both charged full of hope and self belief… only to fall off side ways, the gradient pissing on our bonfire, and we end up pushing. Fortunately, we got better, 2000m of climbing later! Hills go, and downhills are glorious. Despite it all, the wild, the hills, the rain, the sun, the gradient, the ache in your legs, the body objecting to the latent suffering… you just have to keep pedalling. Just like anything in life, if you keep pedalling, you get there, in the end.
We both thought the South of France would mean sunshine and more sunshine. Oh how wrong we were. Eight days into our cycling, we’d had more cloud than sun, and a series of wet nights had propelled us into misery. Everything. Was. Wet. I had a feeling of being cold that I could not shake. 9am, and I was wearing five coats including a Down Jacket. I looked longingly into the windows of cottages and houses, wondering what warmth felt like. Whats worse is that I knew I had done this to myself. I only had myself to blame for the suffering. I could easily just pay for a warm bed. But, I won’t, because that is not what this adventure is about. So, I pull on more layers and frantically check weather apps and skies for signs of change.
And change it does. Suddenly its 33 degrees Celsius and its burning hot, the tarmac is melting on the roads and there is no shade. Just miles of straight road stretching out like an optical illusion. The heat wraps you in a cocoon of fatigue, your body is screaming for rest and shade. But, you just have to keep pedalling.
We were very lucky to stay with some of Liam’s friends he met through Helpx a few years ago, John and Debs and their lovely children. Even though we had to cycle up a gigantic hill to get there, their home provided laughs, familiarity, amazing food and company. Oh, and a washing machine, shower, and a cosy tent already erected in the garden! We stayed with them half way through our circular cycle and will try to return on our way home.
We’ve also met various characters who stop and ask us what we are doing. One lady in particular, approached us when we were sat on the edge of a hot road after a hard day, when we were asking ourselves just that question. What are we doing?! “I used to love travelling!!” Sparkled Janine. “I went to South America on my own back in the 70s!”. And suddenly, her smile and infectious enthusiasm remind us again of how lucky we are. The hot road will end. This is what we signed up for.
My final reflection is of our trusty comrade the lay-by. It provides us sanctuary and shelter from cars, rain, and road, at all times. In the lay by we can make tea, have chats, cook meals, dry tents, dry pants and fix bikes. All hail the lay by.
Post Script: the resting.
This is something Liam and I are both guilty of forgetting to do when we get mission orientated. The other day, we admitted to each other that we need to do some of it, and not embark on a cycle tour of suffering. So today we chilled all day, at home, slacklining, cooking, reading, drawing, talking, napping and drinking lemon tea. We concluded that cycle touring, especially on a budget, is really really hard. But. We love it. So, here is to the next part of our emotional rollercoaster cycle tour adventure.