Hi, I'm Lee. I'm currently walking from Madrid, Spain to Kiev, Ukraine on foot. Click here to learn why.
Subject: An axe to grind.
Last week I left Dax and began my walk through what I later learned is the largest forest in Western Europe. Just pine trees and pine trees. As I approached a small village, I held up my hand like a policeman to an approaching car. The driver obliged and stopped.
"Is this the village called Taller?" I asked. The driver picked up on my accent and replied in English. He told me it was, but that I'd have a hard time finding somewhere to spend the night. He told me he had a guest house on his property and I was welcome to sleep there.
The man looked genteel enough, and so I accepted. He conveyed me by car the remaining hundred feet or so to his manse. There I found out that his name was Christophe Doucet, that he was a former forest ranger and currently a sculptor. I met his wife Catherine and daughter Mayliss, and we all sat down to a good meal.
After a dessert of strawberries and sugar (which Mayliss, in her own brand of English, called "strangeberries"), Christophe told me that the next day there was an opening for an exhibition that included one of his pieces, and I was welcome to come. I accepted, and that's where I took this photo of Christophe posing with his piece, a very big axe.
That day, Christophe bought me a nice lunch, for which I'm making him a Fellow Traveler.
At the opening I met Christophe's demonstrative friend Bertrand. Bertrand opined that my film would be more appealing to mass audiences if I walked on my knees and whipped myself on the back like a thirteenth-century flagellant. I told him I'd take his advice under consideration.
He also wondered aloud why I wasn't fatter and more colorfully-dressed, as he imagined an American should be. "I am fatter than you and have brighter clothes. Maybe I am the American!" Here is a picture of Bertrand that I took as he, under the influence of the grape, sang a little opera:
As perhaps you can tell, I'm now beginning to truly enjoy the journey, rather than just surviving it. My confidence is higher and the land here is flat, flat, flat. The Spanish, simpático as they were, had a certain allergy to the camera that the French don't share, so I'm getting more and better footage for my film here, too.
And now I want to praise the French baguette. A freshly-baked baguette can be had for 75 centimes. It goes very well with morning coffee, is full of the carbohydrates I need for walking, and fills me up till lunchtime.
It hasn't been a perfect week, though. A few days ago I didn't even know what a shin splint was, and then one night they introduced themselves to me, first in the right leg, then in the left.
Hello, shin splints. Displeased to meet you. Now meet my friend ketoprofen. And please go away.
Too, the villages here before Bordeaux were few and far-between. I walked for some six- and seven-hour stretches with nobody to keep me company except the occasional dead owl or smashed porcupine.
And then there are moments of kismet, such as when I crossed paths with Ed, a vegetable-grower from Wales. Ed had given away his farm and is planning to travel for two years. He had walked from Wales to Plymouth, ferried to France, and then walked on from Tours. He made me feel like a spoiled child when he told me he was sleeping in the woods each night and living on three euros a day. Here is Ed:
Ed also told me he'd nearly been killed by a wild dog in the woods one night, so I don't think I'll be following his example.
I asked Ed if he could tell me about the route from Tours. The map I got from Jean Le Blanc the week before had proven indispensible, yet lacking in many of the details I needed. Ed could do much more than just tell me. He had an extremely-detailed guidebook about the route, only published in England. He ripped out the pages he needed to continue south and gave me the rest of the book.
To beard or not to beard is a question every man faces on a long journey like this. After two weeks of optimistic but patchy growth, you'll find my answer in above image.
My list of Fellow Travelers, however, has grown impressively since last update. My sincere thanks to Rosencrans Baldwin, César Córdova, Katie Eskra, Andrew Wilson, Joseph Katz, Keith Dunkley, Allie Ombres, Sarah Hainzinger, Jon Gardiner, Richard Colvin, Rosetta Egan, Jake Kooser, Hans Roenau, Carl Chastenay, Eva Leveton, Wilfrid Varvill, and Bridgette Reid.
Regular readers of this site will want to note the subscription form at right. If you subscribe, you will receive email updates when I update this site, courtesy of a service called FeedBlitz. Thanks to Kseniya for that link.
I'll close now with the words of a wise correspondant of mine who may prefer to remain anonymous for now. He writes, "Do not push yourself to your limits. Travelling on foot is our most natural way to cover distances, it has been so for tens of thousands of years. When you walk, you get not to your outer limits, but you become what you are, dead center."
Subject: Quick one before I'm away.
I've got less than an hour to update my site before this internet boutique closes, and I can't justify waiting around until they re-open. So today's update will neccessarily be brief. I hope I can make up for it with another update in a few days.
It's been a week of obstacles overcome. I walked from Bordeaux to the riverside town of Lamarque, only to find that the hotel-restaurant discussed in my guidebook had stopped being a hotel eight years ago. So I kept walking in the dark to the banks of the Gironde, where I found a grassy place to pitch my tent and sleep until the morning ferry.
So far, so good. Except that the temperatures dipped below freezing during the night. I awoke to find the morning dew on my tent had turned to ice. Worst of all, the frozen ground wouldn't let go of my tent pegs, and I broke four of six pegs trying to pull them out with my gloved hands. These I replaced the next day with metal garden stakes. Heavier, yes, but unlikely to suffer a similar fate.
It wasn't the first nor the last time I'd had accomodation problems in France. Back in Spain, every little village with enough people to justify a bar also had a few rooms for rent upstairs. Not so in France. In the city of Saintes, which I'm told has 30,000 inhabitants, I wandered for over an hour in search of a room for rent. When I at last found the local "youth hostel" I discovered that all the staff had left for the night. Still, the large group of French tourists (none, strangely, under forty years old) sitting in the lobby let me in and suggested I sleep on the couch. This I did.
Was hassled by cops again, too. I was walking in broad daylight along a forest road when a paddy-wagon marked Gendarmerie pulled up. Two policemen (one bald, the other goateed) dismounted. Bald matter-of-factly demanded my passport. I gave it to him and asked him what-for. "Because," replied Goateed, "there have been many fires started here recently."
Bald got back into the car and checked my name against the Computerized Database of Known International Firestarters. He found my record clean and sent me on my way.
Lesson learned: while walking, do not carry a large backpack, two bottles of water, walking stick, and maps. This is the uniform of an arsonist!
(Appropriately enough, my uncle David Harris had called my Mother the day before and, in his best imitation of a French accent, told her that her son was in police custody and about to be deported. The joke was probably spoiled by Caller ID.)
And then there was the driving rain all day Sunday. Memo to May flowers: I know you aren't born yet, but I hope you're enjoying these April showers as much as I'm not. You fellas owe me one.
I don't mean to sound whiny, because it wasn't all bad. Saturday night, for instance, I stayed in a hotel catering especially to truckers, where I passed the night in the restaurant with ten English lorry-drivers, a Belgian named Dirk and a Dutchman called Benny. There was much laughter, and even a moderate intake of the vin du pays.
Last night I was welcomed into the home of the Cody-Boutcher family. Tony, Erica and Louise are English-born but they took their carpentry business to France in search of clearer skies. My Dad is a carpenter, so I was able to converse a bit on the subject, although I politely declined Tony's offer to work a bit before I moved on.
Talking of money, my thanks to the newest Fellow Travelers: Patricia Sanders, Viktor Decyck, Chris Krohl, Brian Reid, Gabe Oppenheim of the Riverside Home for Wayward Boys, my aunt and uncle Irene and Longin Owsianik and their daughter Barbara Reynolds.
And to the many people who have e-mailed me recently: please have patience, I will write you back when I have freer access to these computing machines.
Subject: Dream of the future.
And then there were bumblebees.
I talk of one bee in particular, who last week bumbled into my undeployed rain hood and buzzed around for ten hot seconds. I panicked and swatted. He stung me. He stung the back of my head.
I panicked some more, and I yelled. I stripped off rucksack and jacket. Motorists slowed (but did not stop) at the spectacle I presented: a man slapping his own body and fanning the air as if caught with invisble fire.
This would have been a bad time to discover I'm allergic to bees. Fortunately, there was no adverse reaction. But it was perhaps the stress of this violent encounter with the tiny beast that contributed to my stomacheache later in the day, the worst I've had in years.
So I stopped my walking early that day at a horse ranch outside Melle where one could take a room. There I discovered that I am allergic to horses, or hay, or something else in the air at that ranch that caused me to sneeze and drip for the rest of the night.
The week improved from there.
This is how it goes when I walk. With no routine or companions to rely on, the days either spiral down into drains of pessimism or swirl upwards into dust-devils of serendipity. My thoughts follow suit.
It reminds me of what Ed the vegetable-grower had told me a couple of weeks ago. He told me he was walking to try and get control of his own thoughts. "The mind is supposed to be a servant to the self," he said, "but that's rarely the case."
More than ever, I now know the truth of that statement. When skies darken and my blisters flare up, I can spend hours with my head down, cursing the day I began this journey and muttering oaths and appellations unprintable on this family-friendly web journal.
But sometimes chance encounters leave me smiling for the rest of the day. Such as when I happened to meet these students on strike in the city of Poitiers.
They're striking to protest a proposed French law that would make it easier to fire young workers. Evidently, being on strike means dressing in Renassaince clothing and drinking as many alcoholic beverages as you can before night falls. As soon as I sat down with them, one of them grabbed my water bottle and took it into the cafe. A minute later he came back out and it was full of table wine. "Better," he said, as he returned it to me.
The men among them showed a certain penchant -- nay, a veritable passion -- for baring their hindquarters to my movie camera.
But the one that made me laugh the most was the professor, Manu, drinking with them in solidarity. His comedic pallette included colorful impressions of Robert De Niro and Crocodile Dundee, and he even got serious long enough to talk film with me: Herzog, Billy Wilder, Godard, Alain Resnais.
Today I did some spring cleaning. The pain in my shoulders had finally become unbearable, so I went through my rucksack and separated all the Necessities from the Nice-to-Haves. I packed the Nice-to-Haves in a box and sent them back to the States.
Why carry five camera batteries when three will suffice? Why a 14 oz. bottle of contact-lens solution when a 2 oz. would do? And why carry an alarm clock at all when I usually awake with the morning light?
All told, I cut about 12 pounds from my rucksack. I'm already more comfortable and fleeter of foot.
As I walked past Chattenuil, I saw some bizarre buildings on the horizon. The billboards explained. I was nearing the PARC DU FUTUROSCOPE.
I trust the reader will understand that one does not pass by something called the PARC DU FUTUROSCOPE without stopping.
The Parc du Futuroscope is a future-themed theme park. Tourists come from as far as Belgium to enjoy this cyber world and to fill its attendant hotels. The Parc presents a vision of the future in which zoo animals are mechanized, robots speak in high-pitched voices, and hot dogs have tripled in price.
I poke fun, but I am genuinely glad I stayed for the evening spectacle, the Forest of Dreams. This was a 45-minute narrative show played out with lights and lasers projected onto moving streams of water on a very big fountain. There were fireworks and some tasteful pyrotechnics, and I have truly never seen anything like it. I caught myself smiling with an open mouth like the kid I used to be. I wish you could have been there.
Werner Herzog once said that "All tourism is sin, and walking on foot is virtue." After six weeks of virtue, I think I had earned the right to this bit of sinning.
But I have one more crime to confess to before I go. For Easter I made the acquaintance of a little chocolate chicken. We were friends, and he did me no harm, but in the end I couldn't resist. I bit the poor thing's head off.
Newest Fellow Travelers are Richard Morasci, Melissa Mayberry, Heide Linsmayer, Anne Robertz, and Chris Ritchie. My sincere thanks to all of you.
Finally, I found this painting in a hotel I stayed at in Aulnay:
It put me in mind of Agnès Varda's film The Gleaners and I, perhaps my favorite film of all time. I suggest all of you watch this film if you want to see what kind of thing I am trying to do with my own movie, although I am unlikely to reach Varda's atmospheric heights.
I ended my last entry by mentioning Agnès Varda's Gleaners. The next day, outside the village of Les Omes, I met a real-life gleaner.
I noticed the woman looking through the grass alongside the railroad tracks. I asked her what she was doing. "Looking for asparagus," she said. I asked what she meant, unsure if I'd heard right. She rummaged through her bag and produced one withered stalk, her only find for the day so far. She held it up proudly and smiled.
I asked why she didn't just buy asparagus from the supermarket. "It's better this way," she said simply. There was a moment of silence. And then she added, "I am eighty years old today."
I wished her a happy birthday, asked what she was doing to celebrate. "Nothing at all!" she said. I asked why. "My husband is dead and buried over there," she said, gesturing to the cemetry on the other side of the tracks.
And what about her children? "I have one son." I asked why he didn't come to celebrate with her. "He lives and works far away," she said. "It's complicated."
The woman lost interest in me and continued to search the tall, wet grass.
Later that day I met Faye, pictured above. Faye is a New Zealander who's begun the pilgrimage toward Santiago from Paris. "I'd worked on a ship for three years and now I just want to stay on land," she said. She figured walking 2,000 kilometers should satisfy that.
We talked of walking practicalities, of blisters and shoulder pains. I asked to take her photograph. She assented and took mine, too. "I always feel like I'm taking something from someone when I photograph them," she said.
I thought a lot about that statement over the next few days, walking along the levee-top paths of the Loire valley, far from the drone and danger of fast-moving cars. Sometimes I felt like a thief, too, an image-thief. For all the farmers and shop-clerks whose photographs I'd taken, it was a one-sided transaction. I took their image and they took. . . nothing.
I draw the comparison between myself and this man, a friendly butterfly-hunter I met in the forest last weekend:
I am a collector like him. And perhaps I snuff out a little life, too, in the killing-jar of my camera lens.
But perhaps I'm making too much of it. After all, who doesn't like pictures of little kids looking tough on motorcycles?
I can't neglect to mention the other old woman I met last week. In Saint-Maure I took a simple breakfast: coffee, bread and butter and strawberry jam, orange juice. As I finished I realized I didn't have any money. Had forgotten to find an ATM the night before.
"Do you accept the cards?" I asked the owner, a white-haired woman with big glasses. "Non!" she said.
"I have to go to a bank machine," I said. This did not please her.
"He eats without the money to pay!" she yelled, advertising my malfeasance to the two other people in the cafe. "He eats without the money to pay!"
I couldn't help but laugh. "Give me your passport! Give me your identity card!" she yelled, voice mounting even higher. I feared for the poor woman's heart.
Calmly I offered a solution: she could take me by car to the nearest ATM and observe as I withdrew the cash. This we did, thus settling the matter without bloodshed.
That event may have contributed to my decision to take most of my meals at grocery stores instead of restaurants. It's cheaper, obviously, and generally more pleasant. One baguette, one container of fois gras, a packet of roquefort cheese and a Coca-Cola Light makes for a cheap and cheerful pique-nique.
And now for our regularly-scheduled gallery of amusing signage. First, the best name for a hotel I've ever seen:
Second, the worst name I've seen for a spaceship-themed carnival ride:
And this, a puzzling name for a hoity-toity tea salon in Amboise:
I must make note of the generosity of Gerard Edon and his wife Christiane. They gave me a room in their home to sleep in after I met them in a bar in Vouvray. Gerard is a baker by trade, forced into retirement by health problems. Now he paints. A lot. He showed me his collection, which filled a large attic.
I am about five days' walk from Paris, the first grand landmark of my voyage. There is no footpath from here to Paris, so I'll be walking alongside the railway tracks the entire way. It's far safer than the highways and impossible to get lost, but it may also be illegal. If so, I hope French prisons have internet access so I can tell you about it next week.
My thanks go out to the newest Fellow Travelers: Sheila Ogorman, Jean Marie Altman, Mia Bass, Kristi Beckwith, Vincent Vesval, and a special donation from my longtime friend Judy Fries.
Outside Tours, I met these odd folk:
It made me realize that there was at least one mode of transportation I could have selected that would have been more difficult than walking on foot.
- - -
Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
- - -
writing, photographs and video all rights reserved, etc. etc.
Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
- - -
writing, photographs and video
all rights reserved, etc. etc.