Down by the river

Here I am drinking my second bottle of wine on a little hill overlooking a vineyard and in the background the sun is setting over a mountain and the lights of the wind turbines are blinking on the top of the hills. “There cannot be any better way to live,” I say to Jason.

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I suppose this would be a good time to talk about stealth camping or in French (and sounding way cooler) camping sauvage. As of now I have spent a month on bicycle in Europe without losing a euro towards lodging and I guarantee the views we have had outdo any hostel bed the world has to offer. We have slept on hills over vineyards, on beaches, in abandoned hotels, and on the bank of the Rhone river (but also unfortunately once in a bog behind a sewage treatment plant, thank god for wine!)

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A good stealth spot only requires a few features:

1st- An inconvenience, just pass a nice thorn patch is perfect. No police officer is going to walk up and over a thorny hill in the night to run you off and

2nd- A nice view.

We found a good campsite nestled on the side of a mountain in a new growth forest then made a fire and decided the next day we would take a zero in the woods. I slept most of the day, woke up, read a book, ate some ravioli, slept some more, threw rocks at trees with Jason, got the fire going again, took turns winding the radio, listened to music till it got dark then read some more and slept. Not a bad life and it only cost me three cans of ravioli, a bottle of wine and four cigarettes.

 

Tonight we camped along the Rhone, a tan field of some kind of grain is behind us with a full moon rising over it and in front a sun setting over the river has triggered a nice shade of purple and orange to appear beneath the rising moon. The station on Jason’s radio is playing a Paul Simon marathon and for some reason cold cheap ravioli tastes incredible and even after 120 km my legs feel fine.

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Overlooking Marseilles

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Canal du Midi
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The importance of wine

Like the trash I’d seen piled up on the side of the road on the outskirts of town I sleep in a bag, hidden amongst the trees in the dirt with the bugs comforted occasionally by the thin walls of my tent a cold can of food and a bottle of wine.

The importance of that bottle of wine (among other crucial items) is an essential part of one’s sanity and happiness on a long distance trip like this. It the small pleasures, as anyone that’s ever lived on barely anything and traveled some distance knows, that really keep you going. It’s the can of coke when you’ve been drinking filtered creek water for weeks, or the hot shower with actual shampoo after days and weeks of dirt and sweat. These small things can be the boost you need to get you up that mountain later on or just keep your head about you.

France has been one of those places I was started to doubt existed in Europe. Not that I was counting on it, but there wasn’t a single bit of ‘trail magic’ with the exception of Joshs friend from home who hooked it up the day we hit the northern coast of spain. However, from the day we entered france, more specifically the town of Bayonne, I was greeted by two nice looking french girls Charlotte and Capucine who spoke perfect English and invited Josh and I back to their house for a shower and some food. We quickly rode to their house on the country  enjoyed our warm shower, bread cheese and sardines, and good conversation. It was nice to talk to some fellow travelers that happened to be girls as well. Before we left we exchanged information and wished eachother well on our adventures as they were leaving in the morning to ride their horses for 3 weeks (check out hoofprints of Patagonia). We left feeling refreshed, happy and full. Three things that are hard to come by when you live in your own sweat and filth wearing the same clothes you workout in for days at a time eating cold cans of ravioli for dinner and talking to imaginary people as you ride. The mental kick we got was incredible. So far throughout france we have run across many instances of little help like this. Whether it was the lady outside the grocery that gave me a bottle of milk, the ladies from the pharmacy that came outside with a bag made specifically for me filled with hair product and shampoo (haha), or the french middle aged people on a rental boat on the canal du midi that offered to fill our water bottles, gave us coffee, and send us off with any food they could spare. Unlike anything else, this brings me from about a 4 to a 10 instantly.

Wind can be your best friend in the world on a bike or your worst enemy. In most cases the more wind there is the more it seems to say, “hey fuck you” and smash directly into your face at 20mph stopping any kind of momentum you have and forcing you to use all your energy just to go forward. Downhill. But in some instances on the right day if it’s a full moon and the stars are aligned you may get a tail wind. As if god himself were pushing you down the road you peddle with ease, flying at top speed. Going uphill is nothing, downhill you’re hugging the breaks and on the flat straight roads it’s silent because the wind is your friend going the same speed you are, right by your side. The wind direction/speed can take you from about as low as you can get to as high as you can get, busting out big miles with little effort. We had a tailwind at some point every day in france (some headwind too) from Bayonne to Toulouse. Flying down a bike path on the canal du midi from Toulouse to the meditaranian sea past giant canal boats and surprisingly a lot of British people. Even a day of tropical storm winds in our face where we were cursing the unforgiving wind that was burning thru our flesh as it ripped past us, it switched and gave us hours of easy riding where were laughing and riding the wind like a sailboat.

I carry a portable radio with my that can be charged by the power of the Sun and has a small crank on the side to get power for emergencies. What’s almost worse than having jingles stuck in your head that you understand is listening to spanish or french radio and replaying that jingle back in your head having not a clue what they’re saying. The radio however is an incredible device to listen to local radio stations and take your mind off the monotony of riding your bike all day every day. Surprisingly, American pop radio (the absolute worst shit) plays all over the radio here too.. So now I have a jingle I can’t understand in my head, my legs are burning as I go up hill and I cant lose my momentum so I leave pit bull blasting thru my headphones. There are, however those moments of greatness when you find a Paul Simon marathon, or a jazz radio station with great original french jazz singers. Those moments I’m able to drift off and zone out the monotonous riding untill the next view or break.

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies. The stories you hear are a small portion of bicycle touring around the world but in reality there’s a lot of time to think and a lot of time to get frusterated, but the small things that snap you out of it and pick you back up are important. When were on our backs, losing our cool and missing home, these few simple things bring us back. So tonight as I finish biking, unpack my bike and set up camp for the 30th time so far, I will celebrate and reward myself with another 1 Euro bottle of wine made from the grapes in the vineyard up the road.

 

Are we homies?

Jason left the table for the restroom but shortly reappeared back in the hallway. “Hey Josh, are we homies?..or…”. At first it seemed as if he just needed some reassurance before using the restroom. The girls began laughing.

“Yeah man, of course we’re homies”

“Ok, cool just checking.”

The men’s room is labeled “hombres”. But here we are in Burela, a small port town in the north of Spain. The wonderful Kaptain Kirsten is hosting us and it is hard to find much to complain about. We took showers, passed a bottle of wine back and forth on the beach, jumped in the frigid yet clear blue ocean, went out to dinner and ate a plateful of pulpo. I woke up the next morning next to an empty bottle of Dewars and a pair of numb feet. Turns out stinging nettle can cause numbness.

We stayed another night and continued, Dewars, ocean, staying up till morning, making lots of noise in this tiny apartment across the street from a nursing home. In the morning Jason had left. I figured he had a few hours on me. After a few cups of coffee and some eggs I forced myself back onto the road and out of this state that I suppose this post is about: distraction.

For a few minutes I had forgotten I was biking around the world, I had forgotten I was in Spain. I was back in Tallahassee at a house party and extremely comfortable. Now I’m back in the saddle sweating up a mountain and blowing a bug out of my nose. This balance is important, blending the suffering that comes with biking several days through cold rain with an evening chugging scotch on a ferris wheel with friends. I very easily could have stayed there in Burela, found a gig teaching English and shoved the panniers in a closet somewhere.

The moment I got back on the bike I was cruising down some of the most beautiful winding cliffside coastal road I have ever seen and within 75 km Burela became a pleasant but distant memory. I camped alone that night wondering where my homie was and read my book under a dying headlamp. In the morning I passed through Luarca, a small “Zelda” village in a valley. I rode up around the harbor which was tucked in between weathered rock and littered with fifty different brightly colored fishing boats. The silence of the town was in a way unnerving and for a moment I imagined I was the only person on the planet. I thought to myself, “maybe I will do this forever”.

I pushed hard for the rest of the afternoon not expecting to see Jason till maybe San Sebastian where we plan on changing direction towards the Mediterranean. Our two-ways were dead so there would be no way to contact each other except for over wifi. I came over a hill and saw him sliding a shopping cart across a parking lot towards his bike. The alone time was wonderful but who knows where a few more days of cycling solo would have led me.

I started the morning in the quiet foggy town of Luarca and ended my day with a panicked drunken escape from the town of Aviles riding pass flaming smokestacks and constantly scanning over my shoulder for our friend Robert or “Ro-Barret” as he pronounced it. A character which as Jason puts it we performed the Dip-Slip on. There must be something to these moments of peace and absolute chaos that I am addicted to. Pardon the cheap metaphor, but it seems as if everything is reduced to suffering on the uphills just to enjoy the cruise down the other side.

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The art of the dip-slip

Dip Slip

(dip-slip)

verb

1. The action of leaving unannounced in a way that leaves a person wondering “what happened to so and so?” From the words dip, meaning to leave, bounce or ski dattle and the word slip, as in ‘to slip away’.

The young man was uncomfortable and didn’t know how to say goodbye, so when she wasn’t looking he dip-slipped.

_______

“What’s up mother fucker!” I was surprised to hear Joshs familiar voice shouting these words from the road adjacent to the grocery store parking lot in which I had just resupplied my food for the next few days. I had dip slipped the previous morning out of Burela, Spain after he had slept in longer than I had planned on leaving. It wasn’t a big deal, but the thought of spending anymore time in this town after a day and a half already was far from what I wanted at the moment. I knew that one way or another, maybe 3-4 days down the road, we’d be reunited and not to mention a little time alone is good every once in a while. But there he was shouting obscenities my way. I couldn’t be happier. “Did you take 632a?” “Yea it was amazing!” “I know!!!” We were biking along winding forest roads in and out of coves along the most beautiful coastline i had ever seen. Lots of climbing and decending, tall superhighway bridges and quite a few camino hikers. Josh at this point had been riding since 5am and still had a great head of steam buzzing off the great road we had just come from. Knowing that the town of Avilés wasn’t more than 20 miles away, after a cold coke and some chocolate, we got going. When we arrived to town we prematurely sat down at the first café available and ordered our typical ‘café con leché’ considering it’s the only thing we really know how to order and it tastes good.

“Wi-Fi?” I asked. “Nada” she responded.

The point of the café, other than to enjoy a tiny cup of coffee, was to use the internet and update our social media and such. So at this point our visit was short lived. We decided to put back the shot of coffee we had just ordered and continue our search for a café that provided us with the desired wifi. There were a few options but we settled on the one with the etching of a hiking backpack on the window and some people sitting outside. There sat Robert. (Roll the hell out of both r’s as you say it) Robert was a 30 year old man from northern spain with dirty blond dreadlocks and a passion for life and fighting (and possibly cocaine). We looked somewhat similar in ways. He brought us in, bought us beers and some weird shot that we were first introduced to here at this small café. The shot was poured from a liter glass bottle well above your head into a glass as low as you could hold it while staring straight ahead. It tasted like Apple juice mixed with emergen-c. Not bad, whatever, it’s free. We were offered a place to stay a couple blocks away in Robert’s apartment. I imagined that his apartment was a cold wet kickboxing ring with piles of cocaine on tables, dimly lit with melted candles and the constant blasting of German metal playing through the walls.

“We’d love to stay with you” we lied.

Robert had a group of friends sitting at the table outside who seemed nice and normal and occasionly we were able to jump into conversation with them only to be abruptly interuppted by a clentched fist and something aggressive being said from our new friend.

Josh and I would then mumble as fast as possible, as if speaking in code that there’s not a chance in hell wed be staying with sir Robert. Up until this point robert had mentioned that he was in prison for fighting, loved to fight, and wanted to fight. He did this while clenching his jaw and occasionally pressing his dready head against mine while holding the back of my neck. “I AM ROBERT!” hed say in his thick Spanish accent. “LIFE…” he paused.. “..IS LIFE!!!” Life is life has become our new motto. We had 3 beers, 3 shots of whatever that stuff was and a rum and coke mixed in there while robert called us pirates.Feeling good but ready to go we planned our escape.

“When he goes inside we race out of here as fast as possible.”

“Hes gotta pee sometime…”

With a small bag of coke he apparently had for us, Robert was ready to go home. “Vamanos!” He said and pointed to his house, as he was planning on walking us over there. Where’s my knife, I thought. I could take him but it’d be a tough fight. It’s now or never, I thought as the three of us grabbed our bikes and took a step towards the road.

“now.” I softly said to Josh.

At that moment we hopped on the bikes and faster (and drunker) than we had ever biked, we peddled in the opposite direction of Roberts house, into the middle of the town with robert yelling and whistling.

Don’t look back, just go.

Once we were a mile or so away we ducked behind a big wall in a city park next to a swingset and laughed for a minute, buzzing off the adrenaline from the way we left and the booze we had just drank. We looked at the map for 3 seconds, making sure we weren’t going to somehow end up in the direction of Roberts house and continued east down the road until we camped for the night successfully pulling off a very successful dipslip.

Santiago de Compostela

I stood at the bridge wondering how long I would have to ride into Spain before I could start speaking Spanish. Ten minutes? 20?, turns out when you cross into Spain you can begin speaking Spanish instantly. Not unlike crossing from Florida into Georgia and immediately being able to purchase 40oz beers. Since Porto we began to see more Camino hikers. They seem to be a colorful bunch, never have I seen so many flourescent vests and knee braces. From what I can tell so far the Camino seems to be the retirement home of long distance trails. Nothing at all wrong with any of this, who wouldn’t want to stay in quaint Spanish hotels every night with restaurants only a few steps from your bedroom.

We made it to Santiago de Compostela today, the ending point of the Camino de Santiago and the supposed resting place of St. James. The church in Santiago is in the truest sense “epic”. It seemed all the roads in the city at some point winded their way to the stone steps of the cathedral.

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Walking into the church I slipped into this sort of forced reverence. It was nice though, it felt like an important place to be. I sat in the pews for a minute and wondered how many of the gold decorations were real gold then I made my way into a little tunnel underneath the main display. It was a small cave type room with a single red prayer bench looking towards a glass window. Six or seven feet back through this window was an exact replica of the ark of the covenant from Indiana Jones, well it looked similar.

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I was in there alone for just a moment until an older gentleman walked in, kneeled at the bench and started praying. Part of me felt as if I should leave, but he was praying aloud in Spanish and I just sort of froze. If I walked out while he was praying it may distract him, so I just hung there on the wall five feet behind him acting like I was waiting my turn. He prayed for a long time and I just stared dead at that gold box and maybe glanced a few times down at my dirty fingernails. It would be really weird if I left now. He finished, stood up and walked out of the tunnel and I took a kneel at the bench so that the man wouldn’t think I was standing behind him and staring for no reason. I closed my eyes to pray but all I could think of was that scene from Indiana Jones and The Holy Grail when he is walking through that hazy tunnel in the final scene and he keeps repeating “only the penitent man will pass, only the penitent man will pass…” I think he goes on to say, “a penitent man is humble before God, a penitent man kneels! he kneels before God!” and he drops to his knees moments before a blade nearly slices off his head. I put a 2 cent euro piece in the coin receptacle, got up and walked out to find Jason. We got on the bikes and as usual made a slow crawl out of the city and back into the countryside.

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The Hotel

A bottle of wine stuffed in our panniers and 55 miles under our belts on a chilly day of biking up and down hills Josh and I were ready to call it a night early and find camping. We had visions of sitting by a fire in the cold evening air with the sun burning it’s way through the trees of our secluded campsite hidden from the rest of the world while sipping wine until the sun went down and we’d crawl into our warm sleeping bags until we finally rested our eyes. A nice downhill while looking for a place to sleep means no peddling and we could focus on the task at hand. Popping into little openings through the trees only to find it was too overgrown or had too many thorn bushes. Lucky for us there were plenty of options. We did this for 20 minutes; exploring little nooks only to be denied because of our own specifications until we saw it.

HOTEL

In giant letters on the side of a moldy wall this caught our interest. If not to stay the night at that particular  moment, then to at least explore what we thought would be a rat infested drug den with a nice view. As we rounded the corner of the wrap around balcony overgrown with vines and weeds we could see that something was strange about this place. It continued on multiple floors with broken windows, strange graffiti in Spanish written on some of the walls and decay everywhere. With every corner we turned through this vast world of unknown and mystery a heavy creepier feeling began growing inside. Dark stair cases leading to cemented off rooms. “Why was that room cemented.. what happened here?!..” more decay and dark hallways with a cold air that no man should ever venture. The pool outside surrounded by tall evergreen trees was filled halfway to the top with rainwater which had turned green and stained the sides of the pool walls as well. Back inside, retracing our steps, we made our way into what must have at one point been the resteraunt but at this moment with all its amenities removed and giant panoramic windows destroyed and broken it became our balcony overlooking the modest town below and the misty mountains in the distance. As the sun began to die and the sky turned a sort of red hue our attention was grabbed by the old white curtain in one of the windows blowing in the wind resembling a person in a white dress. Out in the open, dark hallways behind us, strange cemented rooms to our right, and slightly to our left were red hand prints dripping on the walls we opened up our bottle of wine. 

“Yea, we’ll sleep here tonight”