Saturday, August 25, 2012

Day 2: French Quirks

Dscn8448bAugust 13: I woke up with the sun, as I usually do when I camp outdoors, and ate an unappetizing breakfast of cheese, M&Ms, and granola bars for breakfast. I generally prefer granola cereal for breakfast on the trail—something that will take my stomach a few hours to munch on while I’m starting the day. I never did find any cereal at all in Le Puy. I’m sure it’s there, but I never found the shop that carried it, so I was forced into eating my snack lunch for breakfast.

The first small town I hit in the morning, just a kilometer or two from where I camped, was a cute little place called St. Privat-d’Allier built onto the top of a precarious ridge. It’s kind of astounding to me that they can build these places in some of the locations that they do. The town had a small shop that was open, so I dropped my pack and checked it out. The pickings were slim—if these were to be what shops usually carried, my diet would need some serious adjusting. Ultimately, I settled on an orange drink (for immediate consumption) and some sort of bread with fruit in it (for later).

Compared to the dearth of hikers leaving Le Puy, I caught a cornucopia of hikers leaving St. Privat-d’Allier. (That’s what you call a group of a hikers—cornucopia. Really. Don’t look it up on Google. Trust me!) I mostly just waved and said “Bonjour!” and they saved back and “Bonjour”ed me back. Like we were really communicating or something. It was awesome. =)

About three kilometers later, I arrived at a tiny chapel dedicated to Saint James (go, James!), “perched on top of rocky belvedere, the only surviving remains, apart from the tower, of a 13th-century castle complex.” It was very picturesque, so I stood around taking pictures. I was getting a serious case of photo frenzy. Everything seemed so different, so French, and there was so much stuff to see! Every few kilometers, bam! There was something else new and exciting! Inside the chapel, I set my pack down and tried to read through the logbook on a table, but everyone wrote in French and I didn’t have a clue what they wrote. Prayers? Hopes? Dreams? Notes to fellow hikers? I really had absolutely no idea. Wanting to leave my mark, I wrote, “I was here.” I signed it with my name, Ryan, and my residence: Seattle, WA, USA. Then I stamped my Green Tortuga stamp onto it because, by golly, people are going to notice me!

Dscn8454bI picked up my pack and went to clip the hose of my Platypus to my shoulder strap when the clip cracked.

“Son of a…..” I paused, thinking it probably wasn’t a good idea to cuss in a chapel. “Rock. Son of a rock!” Yeah, that would fool God.

I put the clip in my trash bag and threaded the hose through my shoulder strap instead.

The hike continued…. The next four kilometers, I found myself plunging down a hillside at a rapid rate. Very steep and it required very careful footing. I called it “A.T. steep,” and that’s saying something. It finally dumped me out into yet another amazingly scenic and attractive town named Monistrol-d’Allior nestled down in a valley with a sweeping river going past. The bridge over the river into town was designed by none other than Mr. Eiffel himself, of Eiffel Tower fame. I have to say, however, this was not some of his best work. Functional, yes, but dramatic or scenic, definitely missed the mark.

In town, I found a party of hikers who brought two mules along to haul their gear. They seemed a little annoyed at their mules, and I’m not sure why, but I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons for it. I was just excited to actually see mules being used on the trail. It’s not often I see people using mules to haul their gear.

The town also had a shop, and I poked my head in, but found nothing of interest and left without buying anything.

I also stopped at the post office to get some postage, but alas, they were closed. On a Monday. Strangely enough, they were actually open on Sundays. I thought I was starting to get the whole French store hours figured out, and they throw this curveball at me. *shaking head*

On my way out of town, a man wearing priestly robes, neat and trim, stopped and asked me something of which I understood not a word.

“English?” I asked.

Dscn8462b“Ah yes, English. Did you happen to see a group with… what do you call them? Big… animals….” His hands gestured wildly.

“Mules?” I asked.

“Yes! That’s it! Have you seen any groups with mules?”

“Well, yes, I told him, they were down by the post office when I left.”

He thanked me and chased after the folks with the mules.

The climb out of Monistrol-d’Allier was as long and steep coming out as it was going in, and I stopped part way up to take a rest and eat some of my fruit-filled bread when a couple of hikers started to pass me but stopped to chat. They spoke a little English, little being the operative word, and seemed astounded when I told them that I was planning to hike all the way to Santiago. A lot of people on this trail hike to Santiago, either in sections or in one fell swoop. I wondered if they even knew what trail they were on.

They asked where I was from and I answered in the French I learned the day before for “United States”—and they understood me! I’m sure I butchered the pronunciation, but I guess I got close enough that they still managed to understand me. “United States!?” they exclaimed. I nodded yes.

“Where in the United States?”



I said it again, emphasizing the last syllable like the guy in the hostel told me the day before. “See-ah-TALL!”

Dscn8474b“Seattle!” they nodded agreeably. “Near Canada, right?”

“Yes, that’s the one.”

It’s kind of exhausting talking like this, but the woman asked if my hand was injured because of the little glovelet I wore to keep the backs of my hands from getting a sunburn—a tactic I used on the PCT and liked. I tried to explain its purpose, but I’m not sure if she understood my explanation for its purpose.

On the climb out, I saw my first snake. I think it was a snake, at least. It certainly looked snake-like, but it was unlike any other snake I’d ever seen. Slow-moving, and it looked a little slimy. I tried to get photos, but they all turned out blurry. Another hiker caught up while I was trying to get photos and I wanted to ask what it was, but I knew it was useless.

Then the trail went into Saugues, a town surrounded with large, impressive wood carvings. This town was one of the larger ones boasting of about 2,000 people. The post office here was closed too, but it was only closed for lunch and would open again in a half hour. In the meantime, I followed a sign off trail to a Carrefour which was like a REAL grocery store! With lots of aisles! They even had cereal! I bought lots of food, including cereal, and headed back to the post office, except when I tried the door, it was still locked.

Hmm… That was odd…. Then I heard a buzzer sound and tried the door again. Popped right open! I guess you need to get buzzed into the local post office, which was such a foreign concept to me. Why? Were they afraid that a customer would go postal and had to keep the bulk of them out while working with a small handful at a time? The woman at the counter didn’t know any English at all, but being in a post office, I pointed to pictures of stamps all of the place and said “United States” in French a couple of times and she got the message. I asked for ten—which, really, was my limit anyhow since that was the maximum number of fingers I had available to display numbers. =) She pointed at the numbers of the register, 8.90 euros. Yep, that sounded about right. I gave her the money and she gave me ten Olympic-themed stamps. Of course, the Olympics. They’d have to have Olympic stamps. (Keep in mind, when this happened, the Summer Olympics were still going.)

While I was in town, I figured I’d do one last chore and headed to a W.C. I know W.C. is short for Water Closet (i.e. bathroom), but I was a little surprised to learn that the acronym apparently works in French too. *shrug*

Dscn8489bThis bathroom puzzled me as much as everything else in France has been doing. Fortunately, the outside had directions in English to tell me that users only had 15 minutes before the doors automatically unlocked and that the bathroom would be automatically sanitized. That didn’t sound good, so I definitely figured I should try rushing things along….

When I got inside, however, it was perplexing. It looked like a toilet—but without a seat. What were people supposed to do? Hover? And I couldn’t find any toilet paper anywhere in the place. Bah! I don’t need no stinking toilet paper! I had my own! (When you plan to camp in the woods at night, it never hurts to carry your own.) But surely they don’t expect locals to go carrying around toilet paper every time they want to do their thing?

I heard someone trying to get in, but of course, they couldn’t since the door was locked. But now I was really worried about getting done in 15 minutes. As soon as that door unlocked, I knew they were going to come in, ready or not! Faster! Faster!

After all that was taken care of, the place had a little hand-washing station. I knew this because I they diagramed the process with pictures that translate into any language. =) Except when I put my hands in it, no water came out. I was starting to grow frustrated at France. Finally, I just applied Purell that I also carried in my pack.

There was just one thing left…. how to flush the toilet? I never did find any button or lever that would suggest a toilet flush, and finally I popped open the door and that did the trick. FLUSH! Good riddance. =) I think I would have been better off in the backcountry. At least I know how everything works out there.

Outside were two women, an older woman and a younger one who was supporting her.

“Bonjour!” I said.

“Bonjour!” they replied.

“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” I said in English.

They looked at me, clearly not understanding a word I said, and went in.

Fools…. *shaking head*

I started following the trail back out of town, until I passed a store and I could see hardware through the window. A hardware store, perhaps? Perhaps something with denatured alcohol?

Dscn8504bI poked my head in and by golly, it was definitely a hardware store! Whether it had denatured alcohol or not was an entirely different question, however. And it’s not one the clerk minding the store could answer because she didn’t speak a word of English. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for—all the labels were in French—but I hoped I’d recognize it when I saw it.

I was looking over the shelves when a couple of other customers came in and the clerk talked to them, and they came up and asked me, “You speak English?”

“Well, yes I do!”

Then they proceeded to help me find denatured alcohol. They didn’t know what denatured alcohol was, so I explained what it was for, and they found a white bottle that had a label of stoves on the front. I looked at the back, which was all in French, but I saw words that looked suspiciously close to denatured and alcohol, so I figured it wasn’t white gas that would explode if I tried to use it in a soda can stove.

Late in the day, I cameled up with water in Le Falzet at a water source that my guidebook didn’t seem to know about. Water can’t be readily found in every town, but a lot of them have water faucets somewhere near the church or city hall where you can help yourself to all the potable water you want. You know it’s potable because it even says “Eau potable.” (Eau is French for water, and sounds like a short o—which is more of a sound than a word, if you want my opinion. Go around saying, “Ooo! Ooo!” They’ll think you’re crazy, even though all you’re saying is, “Water! Water!”)

Then I started looking for a good place to camp. I hiked through Villeret-d’Apcher, then finally found a nice meadow a little out of town. It wasn’t a perfect location—anyone walking or driving by on the dirt road alongside of it would easily be able to see me, but at least it was out of the way of anyone walking or driving by. Most of the fields were closed off with barbwire, and this meadow was no exception but the barbwire fence had fallen down at some point so I just stepped over it. Technically, I have absolutely no idea if my camping in these kinds of places is illegal or not, but I figured I’m not doing any harm and even if it were illegal, nothing much would ever come of it.

I just laid out my groundsheet and was laying on the ground, resting, when I heard a stampede. Dozens of cows, charging down the road, and I saw two younger guys sprint into the meadow where I was. Holy cow! My nice little meadow was about to be overrun with cattle! I started throwing things back into my pack in a haphazard manner—neatly organized did not count at the moment—then I saw the cows continue down the road and stay out of my meadow. Oh… whew…. false alarm. The two youths ran ahead of the cattle, jumped the barbwire fence, and ran ahead of the stampede, keeping them all in line. That had to be exhausting work….

It also occurred to me, it’s a good thing I camped in the meadow and not directly on the road which I had been thinking about. Sure, I’d have been screwed if the cows had my meadow as a destination, but camped along the road, I’d have been in trouble regardless of where the cows were headed. I made a mental note to make sure to camp far enough off the trail that cattle (hopefully) won’t be a problem for me.

I laid back on my groundsheet and pulled my stuff out of the pack again, writing postcards in the setting sunlight. Which is when I first noticed that I needed to lick the stamps for the postcards. Sheesh! That was so last century. Now I have to start licking my stamps again?

It’s a rough life I live out here, but I’ll tell you what’s easy. Click that “Sponsor Me” link near the upper-right corner of this page and donate a little towards the Washington Trails Association by sponsoring me for their annual Hike-a-Thon. (Speaking of which, I’ve also learned that “thon” means “tuna” in French, but this is not a Hike-a-Fish event! I don’t much like tuna, and I learned very quick that a “thon sandwich” was not a good choice for me!)

Burros! Burros on the trail!

It wiggles! It moves! It has no legs! But I’ll be darned if I can
tell you what kind of snake this is…. It almost looks like an overgrown
slug. (It moves much too fast to be a slug, though!)

The bluffs around Monistrol-d’Allier were
quite impressive!

Looking back on Monistrol-d’Allier when climbing back up out
of the valley.

I took the opportunity of this particularly reflective
glass door to get a self-portrait. And look, WTA—I’m
wearing your Hike-a-Thon (not Fish) shirt! =)

Yeah, they look friendly now, but just wait until your camped
on nice, fluffy grass like this and you think a whole herd of
them is about to evict you! =)

A statue along the trail. I’m not sure why,
but I think this fellow is gay. At least as gay as
a statue can be. =)

These wooden carvings are actually quite
intricate and incredibly large. The rocks piled up on
it are the highest part of the carving where people can
reasonably reach.

By golly, I may not be able to read French signs, but I recognize
a hardware store when I see one!

It even looks like it’s meant for cooking! But the important
thing is to make sure it’s not white gas—which is also a
liquid fuel, but one that would explode if I tried to use it
on a soda can stove. =)

More wooden carvings on the way out of town. That
little door at the bottom really does open, and
there was a small garden gnome in it. =)

Another wooden carving on the way out of Saugues…

And another….

My home for the night. Sorry, but I did not get a photo of the cows
I thought were invading. There’s a dirt road just below that fence,
though, and you could see them quite clearly as they approached the
entrance to the meadow (at the left end of the fence).


Dizzy said...

The "snake" almost looks like a legless salamander or legless lizard. They do exist but I couldn't figure out which ones are in France.

Anonymous said...

One of those stamps arrived in Indiana today. What a thrill to read about their provenance. Thanks and continued safe travels.

Anonymous said...

Two of those stamps arrived in Indiana today! Thanks so much. Bon Voyage/Gute Fahrt/Buen Viaje/Happy Trails to you. ~speedsquare

Fluffy Cow said...

Cows are fluffy, not grass. But it's close to a shout out to me so I'll take it!

Suzi - On the Go! said...

I think Salamander...

Anonymous said...

Slow Worm, Anguis fragilis

a legless lizard. neat!

Anonymous said...

type in blind-worm (or hazelworm in Dutch) in google images to see more of these
Gunnar W. -