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The Heat Wave

This July, 2015, France is a furnace. The country is a sauna right now–the more you move, the hotter your skin tingles. When you stand still to gulp great choking mouthfuls of cotton, the sweat pools, your very mind oozing from your temples. It’s a feverish temperature, surrounded by the claustrophobic drone of insects, you’re constantly sticky and itchy. Even lying down to sleep, an unfulfilled promise of relief, the sweat runs, you’ll toss and turn and scratch for restless hours.

Our bikes snooze in the nighttime heat in Lyon on board the Lady H.

Our bikes snooze in the nighttime heat in Lyon on board the Lady H.

This is the story of our four day journey from Lyon to Montpellier. Madison and I have traversed almost the entire length of France, and the last week has been a relentless swelter. Hot air blooms up from northern Africa, the sun beats down all day, an unforgiving orb cooking the air into an afternoon crescendo of irritability. Not only is it over 35°C, but we’ve labored against a 20kph headwind as refreshing as an open oven.

We left Lyon on the 4th of July, Independence Day in the United States. Photos on Facebook revealed our friends in Colorado dressed in sweatshirts and beanies, snow-capped peaks in the background. Meanwhile, cycling along the Rhône, we paused under every shady bridge to hang dripping fingers over our front bike racks, sides heaving, dry-mouthed. We sucked down a liter of water every hour and never had to pee. Our heads throbbed with heat, black spots swarming our vision. We cycled 110km that first day, a mammoth effort that left us feeling drained and flattened. In Valence, we found a campground and arrived after the office had closed. We snuck in and showered, rinsing off a layer of sweat and grit, as cleansing as a baptism. We dined on stale bread, melted cheese, and cheap, warm champagne. As darkness advanced, the temperature mellowed, but mosquitoes emerged, and we escaped into the moldy humidity of Madison’s small hiker/biker tent, to lie awake on our camping mats, chests heaving, sweat collecting against every surface.

Lyon at night.

Lyon at night.

We left the campsite before the office opened in the morning, cycling into the sizzle already vibrating off the black macadam road. Another day of unrelenting sun soaked our backs and necks. To compound everything, it was a Sunday, and nothing was open. We struggled through the French countryside, barely able to find open cafés to replenish our water supplies. In Meysee, unable to find an open supermarket, and so hungry and desperate we could have eaten crickets, we found a restaurant. We parked our bikes and sat down to consume the kind of meal not really supported by our budget. It was necessary, however, and we have no regrets. That fried hunk of fish revitalized me and greased my knees. Slowly, slowly, we pedalled onward, propelled by the promise of the Warmshowers host we had arranged in St. Restitute.

Jordane, Alex, and their daughter Lily met us on their adapted tandem bicycle in Saint-Paul-Trois-Château with a bottle of ice water and cycled with us uphill to their lovely stone home in the secluded medieval village of St. Resitute. Warmshowers is an invaluable network for bike tourists; everyone who participates shares a passion for this mode of transport. They understood what we needed more than anything: a cold shower. Beyond that, laundry, cheering conversation, minor equipment tuning, a hearty dinner, and an indoor surface to sleep on. Jordane led us on a cool down walk of the village, the kind of isolated, elfen hideaway that you would otherwise never stumble upon.

Medieval castles dot the surrounding countryside in Provence.

Medieval castles dot the surrounding countryside in Provence.

We awoke in the morning fresh and ready to tackle the second half of the journey to Montpellier. Some of the heat had broken, and instead of 39° we only had to suffer through 35°. Tim Carrington, my sailor friend who’d motored us down the Saône to Lyon, had recommended we detour to Avignon and Arles. We reached Avignon in the early afternoon, and settled down in a restaurant to devour another protein-rich meal. We’re getting close to our final destination–so close–and financially we’ve been so frugal, eating only grocery store food and never paying for accommodation. On these murderously hot days, an expensive meal can make the difference between reaching our evening’s destination or collapsing in a ditch somewhere. YOLO, yadig. Treat yo’self.

Spotted en route to Avignon.

Spotted en route to Avignon.

We wandered Avignon with our bikes in hand. The walled, medieval city was thronged with tourists who had flocked for an art festival. Street performers showcased everything from dance to balloon artistry. We met Michael, another bike tourist from Saarland, who had just finished his tour and was waiting to take the train home. He gifted us his wine bottle opener, and we shared our rosé.

Watching the street performances in Avignon with Michael.

Watching the street performances in Avignon with Michael.

Count the clowns.

Too many clowns.

We pushed on toward Arles, but only made it to the industrial outskirts, where we halted to soak up some air conditioning and Wifi at a McDonald’s. Night fell and the mosquitoes emerged. That might have been our tour’s roughest night of camping, pitched on snail-infested sandy gravel just to the side of a major parking lot. Neither of us slept well; Mad woke up at midnight to wander around the deserted parking lot, and I lay awake in the wee hours listening to car doors slam as workers arrived to prepare the Leclerc superstore for the day.

The next morning we cycled through the ancient stone gate into Arles.

The next morning we cycled through the ancient stone gate into Arles.

With the sun risen, we crawled stiffly from the tent and brushed snails off everything. We stopped in Arles for breakfast and coffee and played tourist at the old bull-fighting arena. It wasn’t as crowded as Avignon and I enjoyed it more. Joints creaking, bottoms smarting, we settled back on our saddles for our fourth day of cycling. Montpellier lay 70km to the west, and we bid adieu to the Rhône. Jean-Philippe Civade of LABSud, the Montpellier Fab Lab, had offered to host us, and we’d heard he had a swimming pool. We cupped this promise to our hearts and pedaled hard. Away from the river, and we hit some minor hills. My chain popped off on a steep downhill, and I was forced to pause to replace it on a shoulderless smidge of road.

The bullfighting arena in Arles.

The bullfighting arena in Arles.

Grease stained and sweat-slick, we parked in front of his house. JP welcomed us with riotous laughter and a big grin. We feasted our eyes on his swimming pool, bright blue and shimmering in the sunlight. A cool breeze cleared through the shaded patio as we discussed the highlights of our journey around glasses of ice water.

Old stuff amazes us Americans.

Old stuff amazes us Americans.

We showered, humanity returning to our bitten and scraped hides. A couple hours later we climbed into JP’s Toyota Land Cruiser and cruised over to LABSud, where members met us at the door to carry our things inside. Their enthusiastic welcome was enough to banish my exhaustion for the next few hours. We spoke to several members about their diverse projects: Odile Maillard, a journalist and gardening enthusiast, Richard Danquigny, designing a geometric game of 3D printed tiles, Francois Fabre, who built the unique LABSud 3D printer, and Aurélien Bontemps, a guitarist who builds and sells his own instruments. We were even treated to a private concert. Designers, architects, engineers, musicians, journalists–the combined energy was busy and vibrant, and we collected a pile of wonderful footage. Afterward, we loaded seven people into JP’s car and drove into the city for a pizza dinner. Feeling fat and happy and sore, I almost fell asleep on the table.

That is the story of how we reached Montpellier, despite the hellish heat. As I type this out in the breezy shade next to JP’s pool, the menacing swelter feels very far away. I feel like peace incarnate. Madison caught a Blablacar to Toulouse yesterday, and I’ll meet her there today for a day trip to visit Artilect, France’s first Fab Lab. And then the next day, our butts must rejoin our saddles for the final push to Barcelona, another four day marathon. After this wonderful stopover in Montpellier, and our marvelous reception at LABSud, however, we can handle anything. Barcelona, here we come!

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