Me and Michel Chapter Seven

‘Hope is a waking dream.’


I was well aware that camping was likely to be challenging after so long sleeping in a double bed with many pillows and a generous duvet. I had thought the ten days with my daughters might act as a kind of boot camp, even allowing for the fact that our tent was roomy and well equipped where my new sleeping arrangements are rather more basic. But it’s taking a while to adjust.

In planning this trip, I’d spent many a happy hour looking online at equipment that might mitigate the worst impacts of sleeping out at night and especially sleeping on the ground. I’d found a self-inflating mattress, bright orange and ghoulishly shaped like a coffin, but immensely practical, requiring no air pump, nor the terrifying head rush I might suffer from blowing the thing up myself, and packing down to almost nothing when deflated.

The excitement at finding the mattress led me naturally to a tent billed as self-erecting. Now you’re talking, I thought, and if I could hear Kenneth Williams from the Carry On films guffawing in delight at the notion of anything ‘self-erecting’, I didn’t hesitate. I would be moving often on this trip, and the image I had of myself making camp in minutes and packing up just as quickly in the mornings was worth every penny I paid to make that come true. These items were not luxuries, just damn good planning.

Once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. I need scarcely say that a self-inflating pillow was next to arrive in the post. Then there was the solar light that would hang from the apex of the tent at night and permit me to read as long as I wished, then charge itself during the day, strapped to the trailer with its starfish arms to the sun. There would be no need to worry about charging my phone either. That would plug in to a folding panel that would also adorn the bike as I chewed up the kilometres, carefree and with very little to do other than pedal, admire the scenery, and think great thoughts.

And yet, despite these innovations, camping remains, well, camping. The last two nights, I’ve arrived just as the welcome cool of the evening is coming on and the sweat of the ride brings a slight chill to my body. The weather has been hot, and the sun a constant, so it’s a relief. The paths are only partially shaded and I slow noticeably when I hit a patch that gives me a break from direct sun on my back. Then, Ill stop to drink water from the bottle strapped to the rear rack with a bungee and always within reach. I’d read that in these sort of temperatures, two litres a day was a minimum, and I’ve made an effort to keep hydrated, though the water is lukewarm and a little unpalatable. I wear a bandana around my neck as sun protection, as a sweatband, and partly because I have the absurd feeling it fits the ideal in my mind of the seasoned long distance traveller.

I’m only averaging thirty kilometres a day. Despite my sedentary life at home, I could do more. My muscles are not complaining as much as they might, the route is flat as a pancake and there are sufficient hours in the day. But this is not a race and I like to take my time. I stop for coffee whenever I stumble upon an inviting café, and yesterday, I took a first swim in the ocean, which was marvellous. Just knowing this is the Atlantic Ocean stretching west to the Americas inspires awe. The heaving breakers underline the vastness that lies beyond and gives the ocean a mighty quality that is thrilling for a man used to the south coast of Britain and La Manche, the English channel as we call it, where you’re aware the landfall on the other side is only tens of miles distant.

There’s paperwork to do when you arrive at a campsite. And there are chores to do. I have to clear the ground of pine cones and rocks, hang a washing line from tree to bike to dry your sweat-soaked clothes, unload the bike and stow my gear in the tent, all of which takes time. Only then do I stand by bemused as the mattress coyly takes on its mummy-like shape. I test it out inside the tent to be sure my head is at the highest point of any slope in the ground, and then gather up wash kit and microfiber towel – that was a big mistake, it feels like it repels water and gives me the creeps to use – slip on flip flops, hide valuables somewhere out of sight, just in case, zip up the tent, and make my way to the nearest wash block.

I did pack a rudimentary gas cooker attachment, but I’ve yet to find the energy to screw in the gas canister and use it to prepare an evening meal. Instead, I head for the campsite restaurant or a nearby café and order something cheap with half a carafe of white wine to ease my aching muscles. In terms of economy, this is wrong and weedy. In terms of sleep, it’s the nearest I can get to a sedative.

The day is different in the open air, and the evenings, after I’ve showered and eaten, allow time for contemplation, though I miss having a chair to sit on. I suppose I could have brought one, but the extra weight made it seem like a luxury. So I tend to make myself comfortable in the tent as best I can by snuggling into my sleeping bag and propping my head up on clothes or the saddlebags, if I’ve taken them off the bike for the night. Then, if I’m not too tired and I haven’t overdone the wine, I read. Then, it’s just me and Michel and whatever wildlife decides to bed down with us.


Ten years after he retired from public life to write his Essais, Montaigne set out on a long journey of his own, partly to escape the cares and woes of his estate, partly for the sheer joy of experiencing other cultures but also          in the hope that he might some cure, or at least some relief, from the symptoms of ‘the stone’. With age, the disease that had killed Montaigne’s father was now causing him immense pain and distress when it struck, as it did with increasing ferocity now he was older.

With his first two books of essays already published, he travelled through France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, taking the waters looking for cures wherever he went but avoiding doctors completely. When he finally arrived in Rome, he picked over the bones of the ancient city, home to so many of the writers and philosophers he read avidly in his study, with an underwhelmed air. Not much of the ancient ruins had been excavated in his day, and so he had little to go on bar the capitals of columns and the rubble of a long-gone age. But he clearly adored meeting people wherever he went. He kept notebooks and wrote about his experiences when he returned to the chateau, fascinated by local customs and the marked differences between his own experience and the sheer variety of human expression he found on his travels. He commented on the many various dishes he tried, and on people who used knives to eat and ‘hardly ever put their hands into the dish.’ He remarked on the style of bonnets women wore, ceramic stoves that appealed to him, a man who had been born a woman, and was assiduous in recording the size of the stones he passed in his urine and the pain he suffered when he could not void the ‘gravel’. In the end, he was away from home for seventeen months and eight days, a journey of some 2500 kilometres in total.

He used the metaphor of travel to set his stall for the Essais:

‘Who does not see that I have taken a road, in which, incessantly and without labour, I shall proceed so long as there shall be ink and paper in the world?’

 Riding on horseback was Montaigne’s preferred mode of travel, though I feel sure my bicycle and trailer would have piqued his interest, if only because he was curious about the ways of others. Carriages and litters in those days were uncomfortable affairs, and for a man prone to seasickness all but impossible to bear. As he tells us in his essay called On Coaches: ‘ I cannot now long endure (and when I was young could much less) either coach, litter, or boat.’ And in Chapter 48 of Book One, On Warhorses, he says this:

 ‘I do not willingly alight when I am once on horseback, for it is the place where, whether well or sick, I find myself most at ease. Plato recommends it for health, as also Pliny says it is good for the stomach and the joints.’

 As long as he was riding, he also felt himself better able to cope with the pain caused by attacks of ‘the stone’. And it was whilst Montaigne was on horseback that the scene was set for one of the famous, and often quoted stories in the Essais, when he says he overcame his debilitating fear of dying quite by chance, through a riding accident.

One day, he was hunting in the forest with servants and retainers for company when he was unintentionally knocked from his horse and thrown to the ground. In his sixth essay, Of Practice, he tells us the story:

 ‘…there lay the horse overthrown and stunned with the fall, and I ten or twelve paces from him stretched out at length, with my face all battered and broken, my sword which I had had in my hand, above ten paces beyond that, and my belt broken all to pieces, without motion or sense any more than a stock.’

 He goes on to describe how he was carried back to his chateau, close to death, apparently writhing in agony, and yet all the while feeling wholly calm:

‘Notwithstanding, my condition was, in truth, very easy and quiet; I had no affliction upon me, either for others or myself; it was an extreme languor and weakness, without any manner of pain.’

Until the accident that cured his dread, Montaigne had followed the teachings of the Stoics he admired who taught that in order to live well one should keep the notion of death ever present in one’s thoughts. For Montaigne, their sage advice produced only an incapacitating terror, exacerbated by his personal experience of death. In search of answers, Montaigne shifted away from the Stoics and instead sought solace in Epicureanism. Epicurus, who had died in great pain but with a peaceful heart and calm acceptance, became a new guiding light. Amongst his wise words, Epicurus had this to say about dying:

 ‘Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain.’

It’s hard to argue with a logic so unfussy and matter of fact, but Epicurus was clearly a rare individual with an extraordinarily high pain threshold, a man who led by example, writing to an old friend on the day of his death to say how much he’d enjoyed their many conversations. By coincidence, Epicurus too was most likely killed by ‘the stone’, as Montaigne called it, the same agonisingly painful condition that would eighteen hundred years later see off Montaigne’s father and Montaigne himself.

There may be some insight for me on this trip, much like Montaigne’s accidental fall from his horse, one that will help me to recover some hope and my sense of humour and jolt me into seeing the world, and myself, afresh. Though with no faithful retainers to pick me up, only a rudimentary first aid kit, no chateau and just a humble tent, I’d rather not risk a tumble from the bike, even with the promise of an epiphany.


Today, as I cycled along the path, I was paying close attention to the trees roots that have caused ridges in the tarmac because the trailer is prone to tipping sideways. But I was also musing on the irony of naturist beaches in what had once been a ‘sickly district’, and is now a place dedicated to recreation and healthy living.

My first thought was how relieved and happy I am that the times have changed in terms of all things medical. For instance, we have antibiotics – at least for the next ten or twenty years, until overuse makes them redundant – and another big one for me, we have the great good fortune to live in an age where pain control is possible. Neither Montaigne nor his father had that luxury, and nor for that matter, did Epicurus. And as he says in Chapter 14 of Book One: ‘…what we fear most about death is actually pain, its customary forerunner.’

Whatever the true cause of my…what should I call it? Angst? Vertigo? Who knows, but whatever it is, I have a feeling it is not about pain, nor as I had first thought, apprehensions about mortality, or not solely those things. No, it’s much worse. I’m beginning to realise I might fear the pain of living every bit as much as dying. Not that I for a moment imagine I’m alone or special in any way. There’s a very famous line in Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden, an account of the two years and two months he spent living ‘in nature’, in a hut he built himself – ten feet wide and fifteen feet long – on a stretch of land owned by his friend and fellow writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, yes, he who felt he could have penned the Essais himself in a former life:

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.’

Thoreau is talking about all of us who count ourselves amongst common humanity. Though I’m not convinced many of us could console ourselves as he suggests, not on the this side of the Atlantic anyway. And lest we forget, he coined the phrase, ‘quiet desperation’, in the middle of the nineteenth century, 1854 to be precise, long before the current age of anxiety, long before most of us had completely lost touch with the natural world or anything approaching ‘the simple life’, whatever that might be. It reminds me that I’m not alone in finding existence hard to handle.

Where’s a mink or a muskrat when you need one?