Me and Michel Chapter Six

‘The journey of life is like a man riding a bicycle…if he stops moving…he will fall off.’

William Golding

Day Three and my somewhat saddle sore life –despite the padded shorts – is concerned solely with questions of comfort and survival.

This is a good thing, I guess. This is why I chose to make this journey, to quiet the monkey chatter the better to hear myself think, to become a traveller and so an outsider, able to see myself objectively from the distance of the road. I try to think nothing, though I’m worried about Lilly, of course I am. I couldn’t get her on the phone, but I spoke to Megs and she tells me things are okay though she’s been so busy with work they’ve hardly seen each other. I got through to my heroic sister, who is the reason I’m able to make this trip, and she promised me she was coping well with the care of our mother and said I shouldn’t worry. But I do, about them all and about Phil who is right now going through chemo. His next session is in a couple of days, and I’ll call him then. Not that there’s much I can achieve by worrying. Besides, I’m here to break with that mind set, the yellow alert status that means I’m constantly wired to act or intervene, or just listen, and my quest is only helped by the fact that each day is turning out to be very like the day before.

Since I left l’environs de Bayonne, I have been surrounded by nothing but pristine pine forest, monotonous and uniform with no sign of fire, and with endless sand dunes bordering the sea. The Atlantic is seldom more than a kilometre away from the route of la Velodysée, and often just a few hundred metres away. I am usually riding a tarmac path wide enough for two bicycles to pass each other in comfort with no cars in sight and surprisingly few fellow travellers. Occasionally, the path becomes part of a road, but the route is still clearly marked with reassuring signs to keep you on track.

I am not complaining. The unchanging nature of the landscape brings with it a certain calm, a capitulation to the automatic action of my legs going around and around, the path stretches out before and behind, so much the same in each direction that when I do stop, I have to think twice about which way I should be going. There is a sense of refuge in the liminal, in being neither here nor there, but somewhere in between.


I have yet to reach the areas of Landes most affected by the recent fires. They are inland and to the northeast of where I am. But whether in my imagination or not, I get the sense that the shock waves of the devastation have been felt here too. I know there are vast tracts of land affected – I’ve seen reports of 20,000 hectares, around two hundred square kilometres – and I wonder if I can’t smell smoke from time to time. Though it’s more the psychological impact that is palpable in a certain subdued atmosphere and fewer tourists than I expected for August, traditionally the height of the French holiday season.

Which is not to say that as I make my pilgrim’s progress at a stately seven or eight kilometres an hour – the pace of a walking horse, as it happens – along the unchanging paths, I am feeling subdued myself. Rather, I feel much lighter than I did at home, more alert and with less clutter in my mind and with a simple task to accomplish each day, getting from A to B, and a host of chores necessary to keep me going. Buying and packing sufficient drinking water is a constant when the air temperature is thirty plus. It is not hard to imagine how the forest fires took hold in these temperatures, where twenty-eight degrees is a relief and clouds in the sky are longed for mirages, harbingers of rain that never quite fulfil their promise. The heat is one more justification for taking things slowly and keeping the daily mileage, or kilométrage, low.

The Landes – a French word that means marsh or heathland – is the second biggest département in France stretching from just north of Bayonne to just south of Arcachon, almost two hundred kilometres north of where I am today.

Montaigne’s brother had wine estates near the coast of the Landes, and it’s clear from his description in his essai, On Solitude, that this region had a fearsome reputation in the sixteenth century:

‘In Medoc, by the seashore, the Sieur d’Arsac, my brother, sees an estate he had there, buried under the sands which the sea vomits before it: where the tops of some houses are yet to be seen, and where his rents and domains are converted into pitiful barren pasturage.’

Until the middle of the eighteen hundreds, this region was considered one of the harshest in France, even in Europe. Here’s a description of the Landes, courtesy of South West Surf House, a surf camp and school I passed at Hossegor on the way here today, the words lifted from their online site because this description is so evocative of the past:

‘Stagnant water, eerie bogs, and strange hot springs created a sickly district that doomed its inhabitants to poor health and early deaths. Crossing the moor was dreaded by pilgrims who struggled to find food or water, let alone a path to walk along. The moors became known as the “bad lands” or French Sahara, with its sea-like immensity and devastating treachery.’

Shepherds herding sheep on stilts, covering up to twenty kilometres a day on the boggy land, desperately trying to keep their feet dry and a watchful eye on the flock.

Devastating treachery is very damning, but I’m hoping times have changed. The planting of 10,000 square kilometres of pine trees, together with the digging of drainage channels made the empty wasteland more habitable, more productive and so more lucrative, with forestry becoming a leading industry until tourism took over in the last century. Now, the campsites and naturist colonies that nestle in the woods and by the beaches are the region’s main employers.

Yesterday, I passed signs to what looked like a vast and very plush resort called Arnaoutchot, judging by the pictures on my phone. They showed luxurious wooden chalets and vast swimming pools, indoor and out, with it’s own stretch of beach. I read that naturism was ‘invented’ in this part of France, specifically with the opening of CHM Montalivet, (where CHM stands for Centro Hélio-Marin), a resort to the north, in 1950.

I stopped for a lunchtime drink and a baguette at Plage d’Ondres, unaware that the beach there was naturist until I made my way down with my packed lunch and suddenly felt rather prudish.

Mark Twain, in his chronicle of a voyage aboard the steamship, USS Quaker City, says travel should always be fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ Not many people read The Innocents Abroad these days, but it was a mammoth success in his own lifetime, catapulting him to international fame and far outselling Huckleberry Finn. I agree wholeheartedly, and if I were to be honest with myself, sitting with my baguette and a coffee with a fine view of the beach and the Atlantic ocean, I rather envied the idea that a return to the carefree innocence of a Rousseau-like state of nature might be achieved by simply by taking off your pants.

No, that’s unfair. And horribly British. I should be more like my companion, Michel. He was fascinated by the habits and customs of other cultures, and without the benefit of foresight, wrote this in the Readers Preface to the Essais:

‘If I had lived among those nations, which (they say) yet dwell under the sweet liberty of nature’s primitive laws, I assure thee I would most willingly have painted myself quite fully and quite naked…’

Predictably enough, I re-read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before this trip. I feel kinship with a man who decides to take to the open road and look at his life in the course of a meandering journey, riding five thousand miles on a 305cc Honda CB77 with his young son as pillion passenger.

I’d read the book when I was a teenager and not understood it then either. Back in the day, ploughing through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a right of passage, like listening to Dark Side of the Moon or watching Easy Rider; an initiation into the mysteries of the alternative, the perspective of the outsider and the search for meaning. If my own trip is laughingly imbued with the spirit of Odysseus’ homeward bound sea voyage, Pirsig’s ride across the badlands of America in the late nineteen-sixties has some more direct parallels; dry land and wheels, among them, though I have only a fraction of his horsepower. Where he had an engine, I have legs. Where he came up with what has turned out to be one of the most memorable book titles of all time, (with a little help from Eugen Herrigel’s 1948 classic, Zen and the Art of Archery), I can only peddle in his tyre tracks.

His attitude to mechanics is admirable, not unlike my grandfather, and he gets upset with his travelling companions for being so poor at the basics. He also employs acres and acres of words to investigate the notion of ‘quality’, a philosophical concept that even on second reading is beyond my grasp. There is some consolation in Pirsig’s acknowledgement that ‘quality’ cannot be defined. He equates it with the Tao, a fundamental force of the universe that both motivates and unifies everything that is, but remains ineffable and beyond the reach of our rational minds.

I read that Zen… has been published in twenty-seven languages and is often referred to as the best-selling philosophical book of all time at five million copies and counting. Which set me to wondering why so many people on the planet feel fuzzy about Pirsig’s book, despite the fact that it was published fifty years ago, and given I’m pretty sure that many, like me, have struggled to truly grasp the deeper elements.

One explanation is that Pirsig’s narrator reveals himself in what is a thinly diguised autobiography, not unlike Montaigne’s Essais, and so treats us, the readers, as companions in a personal odyssey. We’re hearing the ‘voice’ of someone who one suspects is not a million miles from Pirsig the man, and someone who has been battling mental health issues before the trip and is still fighting his demons. He has an alter ego along for the ride in the shape of ‘Phaedrus’, a kind of incarnation of his former self, who becomes a darker presence as the story unfolds. He rubs along with his fellow travellers, John and Sylvia riding their own bike, and he and his son have a scratchy relationship. It’s a very human and intimate story that creates a bond with its readers, or browsers.

But what really connects Pirsig and Montaigne is that both writers are in dialogue with themselves, or a version of themselves, often one they would rather leave behind. Montaigne freely admits that is not just the hunger for new experiences that encourages him to travel, but the welcome relief from the burdens of everyday life. He makes this abundantly clear in his essay, On Vanity, a great place to start reading Montaigne because it has so little to do with vanity and so much to do with who he is as a man. He says the worry of running his estate, ‘tears him to pieces’:

I have a thousand things to desire and to fear. To give them quite over, is very easy for me to do: but to look after them without trouble, is very hard. ’Tis a miserable thing to be in a place where everything you see employs and concerns you.’ 

And he goes on to cite what he calls ‘his inaptitude for the present manners of our state,’ in other words the civil war still raging, as an important motive for getting away.

‘Therefore, it is not enough to get remote from the public; ’tis not enough to shift the soil only; a man must flee from the popular conditions that have taken possession of his soul, he must sequester and come again to himself.’

It’s odd to think of Montaigne attempting to escape the political turmoil of his own times with a long, leisurely ride on his horse, contentedly alone rather than in poor company by choice, but ideally with someone who can share ideas and impressions with him:

‘Tis a rare fortune, but of inestimable solace; to have a worthy man, one of a sound judgment and of manners conformable to your own, who takes a delight to bear you company. I have been at an infinite loss for such upon my travels.’

 Big shoes I can’t possibly fill, but I delight in his company and it comforts me to know that despite the five hundred years between us, we have many of the same motives for hitting the road.