We were in northern France, still north of Paris. Heading towards Arras. These were the lands of endless wheat and barley.
We had felt for a while that we just weren’t getting it. We kept asking ourselves consequential, intimidating questions like – Are we the right people to do this kind of project? Can we really enjoy this lifestyle or are we just not tough enough? Why do we keep getting to the point where Haydn is screaming off into the woods and I’m sat on the curb weeping with exhaustion? Surely this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be?
We definitely felt like right moron softies most of the time. Making a fantastic mess of this cycle touring malarkey.
We were finding it very difficult and strange to cycle at all with so much weight. We suspected (and had been told by a human-scales at a bike shop) that we were each carrying between 35 and 40 kilos. The heat was like an ever-present, dangerous animal that we had to try to negotiate with everyday. We weren’t sleeping well most nights, no matter how tired we were, as our tent was so humid and sticky. It all just seemed like a lot of very hard work and not enough fun.
This was the awkward, painful time of learning. Learning how to live a new life.
We were trying our best to stay calm and persistent but everyday felt like a gigantic effort. Most poignantly in the mornings and evenings. I think it was a routine neither of us immediately cherished. To wake up at the crack of dawn, eat and drink something bleary-eyed, pack down the tent and put everything you own back on to the bikes. Then usually you realise you have forgotten something you need in the bottom of a bag, take everything out again – find the blasted, forgotten thing and then re-pack everything back in again, perhaps repeat this rigmarole a few more times. Then finally after a hell load of faffing; set off.
The setting off part was often my favourite time of day. Especially, I might add, if it was a downhill or flat road to start the day. The events of the day and night before tend to melt away as the morning breeze fills your lungs and strokes past your face and body. A golden moment. A gorgeous temperature. A perfect instant of apprehension and excitement about what this day might bring. It might be the best day yet for some presently unknown reason. A multitude of different, ripe possibilities all ahead and waiting. Hovering in the ether. The feeling of moving onwards, forwards. A deep feeling of freedom and anticipation.
But this was a very fleeting feeling. An ephemeral, precious joy.
We wanted some kind, all-knowing, all-experienced cycle touring parents to be waiting at the gates of the next campsite, or around the next bend in the road. To take us under their wings and explain how wrong we had gotten it so far and how we could make it so much easier for ourselves if only we knew these few simple rules …
But they didn’t seem to materialise around the next corner so we had to continue to make mistakes and find our own way … the hard way.
We had been having enormous ups and downs. Huge highs where we felt like we were finally getting the hang of it and then massive lows, dribbling on the side of the road when we realised that we definitely weren’t. We would both have a meltdown about every few days and then with a big cry and a chat have an epiphany about our latest plan of action.
These are the things we discovered:
We were not getting enough rest – day or night. Cycling too much with not enough breaks or rest days. We needed to learn to pace ourselves – stop rushing from place to place – and missing all the good bits!
We were not eating the right fuel to feed these cycling machines (our bodies). We had been eating lots of carbohydrates and sugars and not enough vitamins and minerals. We had to make sure we had enough energy to cook a good feast in the evening to support our bodies. We needed veg, veg, fruit, a big sprinkling of salt for all that was being sweated out and then some more veg.
Feeling the pressure to wild camp every night to save money was not doing us any good in this part of the world. We learnt that we didn’t have to wild camp all the time. There are parts of the world that make wild camping very difficult and stressful. Having a campsite for the end of the day can be a really good goal and when it is extremely hot, having a shower at the end of a very long sweaty day can be the difference between loving what you’re doing and absolutely hating it.
Positivity is the key. If you expect the Earth and its people to provide you with what you need, you will be far more receptive to finding it for yourself.
We tried our best to apply these findings to our daily lives on the road but this was far easier said than done.
However we did seem to finally be finding our cycle touring legs (and minds) very gradually. Mistake by mistake, day by day, week by week.
We had cycled a long, hot but productive day on the road and were thinking about where we might be able to set up camp for the night. It was getting towards 5pm and we were on a fairly busy road linking one small agricultural town to another. We decided to explore a densely forested area, straight off the road, just outside the town of Bouvigny-Boyeffles. We left our bikes for a moment and wondered up the steep path. The trees were thin and tightly packed and we soon realised the steep gradient of the hillside would make camping impossible.
When we came back down the path a tall, muscular, bald man was waiting for us. He had pulled over in his car, the door left ajar, and was approaching Haydn – the man said – Are you looking for somewhere to stay? Haydn looked at the man and then at me – what should he reply? What was this mans agenda? Was he the owner of the land? Haydn replied – Yes we are actually. The man replied immediately – You can stay at my house if you like – I have a nice flat bit of garden you can camp on. Come on you can follow me in my car, it’s just back down the hill and into the little town, not far at all. Haydn started to speak but the man was already walking back to his car.
I looked at Haydn, he looked at me, he said – What do you reckon? Good idea or bad idea?
I thought for a second. I looked at the man. The back of his head, his posture, his walk. Trying to analyse him. Our time in Calais had filled me with such a glowing hope for human beings. I said – I think we have to trust people until proven otherwise.
Also our other options were looking pretty dire so I was hoping this was a kind angel sent to save us from a night wild camping in a lay-by. I was just hoping that this kind of trust would have a happy ending so I could relay it as an example story to ease my dear mother and father into the idea of us staying with complete strangers we’d met on the road.
We followed his car back down the hill and into the village. When we pulled into his driveway a smiling woman, two smiling children and an excitedly wriggling dog greeted us. Dominique (we learnt was the name of this Angel man) introduced us to his family. His wife Maria; a wonderfully warm Spanish woman. His son Louis, of about 13. His daughter Celia who was perhaps 10 and the dog, Jina.
Dominique walked us down to the end of their garden and showed us where we could put our tent. He suggested we could sleep in their campervan if we preferred. We said the tent was fine but thanked him all the same and began to set up our tent with the sweet little dog playfully running around our legs.
Maria came and offered us a shower in the house, she said she was cooking tortilla and asked if we would like to eat with them. OH we had been brought to heaven! I was going to trust scary looking bald men from now on – without hesitation!
We had a gorgeous evening with many broken, interesting conversations (mainly thanks to Dominique’s very good English and google translate) trying to find out about each other, lots of laughter, delicious food and then a long session of basketball with the two kids after dinner.
We went to bed feeling so lucky to have been found by this wonderful family. Maybe this was the way of things to come? Perhaps we needed to consider approaching people and just asking outright to camp in their gardens. Surely the likelihood of people asking us was minute but somehow it had happened! What a kind man and what a gorgeous family. They had reassured us again that people could be so generous and caring to total strangers and that perhaps we should be a little less timid in reaching out ourselves and asking for help when we need it.
The question was – did we have the nerve?
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