m e a n d m i c h e l
a modern odyssey
Riding his bicycle – a model called the ‘Odyssey’ – along Europe’s longest cycle path called, suitably enough, ‘La Vélodyssée’, a man in late middle age sets off on a thousand kilometre ride through the dunes and pine forests of France’s Atlantic coast.
With only the ghost of the sixteenth century philosopher – Michel de Montaigne – and a battered copy of the famous Essais for company, he fights off oversized ants, passes through lands recently devastated by wildfires, skirt a nuclear missile site, and spend time in a naturist resort…all this, even as he hears the rumbling thunder of his own existential crisis.
With friends facing death, his own body showing signs of wear, with his children all grown up and gone, he must find reasons to keep peddling in a world bedeviled by climate catastrophe, war, and pandemic.
Life in his later years, far from being a comfortable Saga cruise into the sunset, is turning out to be an odyssey through dangerous and uncharted waters.
What use now is all the philosophy of the ages? And where on earth is his sense of humour?
If not Michel, who then can can save him from drowning in such cruel seas?
the opening chapter
“It is best as one grows older to strip oneself of possessions, to shed oneself downward like a tree, to be almost wholly earth before one dies.”
― Sylvia Townsend Warner
“There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.”
― Michel de Montaigne, essayist, 1533-1592
The garage floor is littered with all I will need for a long bicycle trip. At least I hope so, because if I have forgotten anything vital, it’s too late now. We leave for the airport in a couple of minutes.
My bike is encased in the special cardboard box designed to protect it in the aircraft’s baggage hold. I’ve taken off the pedals and twisted the handlebars sideways to run parallel with the frame as per the instructions on the airline’s website. There’s a whole reel of gaffer tap holding the package together and though it’s awkward to lift and manoeuvre, I’m pretty sure it’ll still be in one piece by the time we land in Biarritz.
La Velodysée is the longest cycle route in France, twelve hundred kilometres running from Hendaye on the Spanish border to Roscoff in Brittany – depending on your direction of travel – most of it on special cycle paths well away from cars and roads. My route hugs tight to the Atlantic coast virtually all the way, often only metres from the dunes and the sea, until it cuts across Brittany, tracing old canal paths and railway lines to the magical Pink Granite Coast. Most of it is as flat as a pancake, perfect for an old man who has done little in the way of exercise for years. My only concession to preparing myself has been a regular eight or ten-mile ride to a circular bench surrounding a Beech tree on a green outside a village. There I sit, as old men are wont to do, sipping milky instant coffee from a thermos, and meditating on life, the universe, and everything. I reckon that’s all the training I need. I’ll get fit enough on the ride, and I’ll amble. There will definitely be no Lycra. Figure hugging does not suit my age and stage in life.
I will make the journey on my equally old bike, bought second hand for forty pounds so many years ago it’s like an old friend. It’s a Claud Butler – a make that sounds French, but is actually British – and a model that happens to be called the ‘Odyssey’. Given the route, and the bike, the temptation to think of myself as a latter day hero on a mythic quest to reach home is tempting, though I have no intention of sharing that thought with anyone lacking a good sense of humour.
What I do have is a very fancy trailer with sporty wheels and a waterproof sack perfect for taking bulky stuff like the tent, the sleeping bag and heavier items like books and cooking equipment. It’s a Californian design, outdoorsy and showy – a little too much so for my taste – but immensely practical. It was bought for my sixtieth birthday, a joint present from my ex-wife and my two daughters. And though more birthdays have come and gone in waiting and planning, the big day has finally arrived.
I’ll be making the journey from south to north, before catching the ferry home again to the UK, but only after ten precious days camping with my grown-up daughters in Biarritz. My children are women now. Megs is thirty-two. Lilly is twenty-seven. They were eleven and six when their mother and I divorced and I became a halftime single dad, and we’ve been close ever since, really close. Naturally enough, they have their own busy lives now, and though we speak on the phone we haven’t time together like this, just the three of us, for five years or more.
They’ll be on their way to the airport right now, I can picture them on the train even as my sister asks me – with a certain edge in her voice – if it might be time to stow the remaining stuff still laid out on the garage floor.
‘I’m making a mental inventory.’
‘Alongside some physical packing, perhaps?’
‘With the ticket and the campsite booking, right here. And money and cards.’
‘Good to go then?’
‘Absolutely. Five minutes, at most.’
I don’t think my sister believes me, but she should. I’ve packed and unpacked several times to make sure everything has its place and that all this stuff will fit in the trailer and the panniers. On a bike, you have to be economical in deciding what you can carry, even with a fancy trailer. You don’t need much in the way of long distance cycling experience to know that. It’s simple physics.
I run through my list again: two pairs of shorts, one pair of padded cycling shorts, lightweight Rohan trousers, three T-shirts, short socks times five, because I’m going to get sweaty in the south-west of France with the August heat, and four pairs of pants for the same reason. Swimmers, first aid kit, lotions and potions for insects and sun, insulated water bottle – empty – pair of flip-flops for the regular trips to and from the tent to the campsite showers and loos, plastic drinking cup and plate, penknife, and a large scale map of the whole Atlantic coast so I can track my progress in the old-fashioned way, sans sat nav. Why? Because having passed officially into the foothills of old age, if Shakespeare is to be believed I shall soon be, ‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’. I want to enjoy those faculties to the full for as long as I possibly can. That means working out the weather by looking up and feeling the wind on your face, not studying fluffy graphics and cartoon suns on a screen. I am determined this trip should be ‘unplugged’, as far as is humanly possible.
As further proof – were any needed – of my old man credentials, I have a selected edition of the sixteenth century philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essais as reading material for this trip. I’m no scholar, and the collected works would weigh me down too much, so Michel’s greatest hits is perfect. Pretentious, moi? Little bit, yes. But he’s good company and his thoughts on everything from smells to facing your own mortality are short and easy to read by torchlight in a tent, and always thought provoking. Crucially for me, he’s funny, especially about his own weaknesses. I haven’t done enough laughing recently. I like the idea of my favourite Frenchman as my travelling companion, albeit he’s coming along for the ride in an English translation, because he and I have been having imaginary conversations for years. And it’s only right that he’s on this trip because we’re peddling through his part of the country. Montaigne was a Gascon first and a Frenchman second, and we are on our way to Gascony, a region that once had its own language and customs, and its own king in Henri de Navarre, later Henry IV of France. D’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers was also born…
‘All set?’ says my sister, rather pointedly as she brushes past me on the way to the car.
‘Shall we then?’
The trip to the airport is only forty miles, and on the motorway it should take us an hour, tops. Only we’re not on the motorway. Soon after we set off, the red line on the road traffic information app signalled a problem. The radio confirmed a delay of up to two hours, with cars backed up for eight miles, apparently because of a flood.
It’s true that it rained hard last night, sounding tropical at one point, but not for long. August can be changeable, but this is still the summer surely, despite the ravages of climate change. But there’s no point in railing against the gods. If I’m to make the flight, we have no choice but to opt for back roads one car wide that meander through sleepy villages that might themselves be under water. I don’t even want to think about tractors coughing from field to farm at twenty miles an hour. It’ll be touch and go.
I text my daughters to make sure they’re on their way. They are. Trains to the airport were running fine and they’ve arrived already. We arrange to meet outside the terminal where it will be easier to find each other. Then I focus on giving clear directions to my sister who is doing the driving. She is gripping the steering wheel with one hand, the other poised on the gearstick, ready to change down and keep the revs high through any water obstacles we might encounter. We’ve had to skirt some impressive bodies of water thus far and one torrent from a river that had broken its banks. My sister has a disposition that makes her one of kindest people on the planet, but she’s taking no prisoners today, accelerating hard to make the most of the open road when we get the chance. I’m impressed, and quite content to be navigator. I’m even enjoying the ride.
‘Junction ahead,’ she says, with military concision and a quick glance in my direction demanding a crisp response. Her life partner was a lovely guy called Darrel, a former Sergeant Major in the Canadian Airborne Regiment, used to barking commands at raw recruits, and his ways have left their mark on my sister. They met in Baghdad in the nineties, where he was part of a weapons inspection team for the UN and she was the field editor for a CNN news crew. They should have regarded each other with suspicion, but instead they fell in love and spent more than twenty-five years living together in Vancouver, Canada. He died five years ago, and I know she misses him still. But I must pay attention, to my sister, and to the road ahead.
‘Sorry. We take a left,’ I say. ‘It looks like a single lane road, so prepare for anything coming the other way. Long straight, then two or three miles. Should be quicker, and wider.’
She gives me a look, but can’t quite decide if I’m making fun of her or just being irritating for the sake of it. Neither can I. And despite the urgency of our mission, I have a tiny, but growing urge to laugh at our predicament, or more accurately, my predicament. Nerves maybe. It would be a tragedy to miss the plane or have my daughters left stranded at the airport. Still, I wonder if I should try to lighten things, if only to keep us from breaking the law or ending up in a hedge. It’s a risk, but then what are brothers for if not to keep their sisters earthed?
‘You know, we’re good at this. Maybe we should think about the Paris-Dakar, or Route 66?’
She keeps her eyes on the road and gives the thinnest of smiles. I should have known better.
‘Roger that, skip.’
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home