My mother's coming to stay - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

My mother's coming to stay

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All good journeys have a reason. Some are to find salvation beyond the horizon. Others are of self-discovery. Still others are to escape. This was to escape. In particular, to escape my mother-in-law.

Well, that's an exaggeration. We get on well enough. But it's my wife she comes to see and if Steph has company while I'm away, so much the better. Plus in any case she said: "My mother's coming to stay... why don't you go off cycling somewhere?"

No two phrases have ever been better joined.

Now it happens that on a clear day I can see Spain from here. Or at any rate I can see the mountains that rise up and form the Spanish border. I can't actually see Spain because that's on the other slope, going downwards, on the other side of the mountain. Spain, to me, is the Dark Side of the Moon. You know it's there but you never see it.

Well, the idea was to ride to Madrid, because it was there and I'd never been. Having reached Madrid, I'd catch a train back home again. And I got as far as finding a route with the help of a Rough Guide bought second-hand on the internet and maps which Steph found the same way. In practice, things didn't turn out that way and the trip turned into a mixture of spaghetti western countryside, bull-running, mountain-top camping and a tornado.

Now, as well as a range of mountains between here and Spain, there's an area called the Gers. It is bubble-wrap country. It is the sort of place that an ant dropped on to a sheet of bubble-wrap would recognise: all hills and no valleys. It is relentless. All day you go up and down and never gain altitude. At the end you find you've climbed more than a kilometre in 100 and that is hard going under the sun with camping gear. And without being any higher at the end than you were at the start.

The woman at the restaurant at lunch looked at me trembling and sweating from the effort, then looked at my bike. Putting two and two together in a nation which has produced more than its share of philosophers, she said: "Going cycling?"

I agreed that I was.

"Going far?"

I couldn't help but agree with that too, although at that moment I had a horrible fear I wouldn't be going as far as I hoped.

"To Madrid," I explained.

She stood there with two plates of somebody else's lunch in her hands and said: "That's a long way."

I agreed that it was. After that the conversation sort of petered out.

What I did in fact was 98km, from home to Gabaret, just before Barbotan-les-Thermes. I had this idea that this was going to be a Rugged Trip of Pioneering Adventure, that I would throw up my tent in devil-may-care insouciance in any square patch of grass that caught my eye. It didn't take long to decide that devil-may-care was going to take second place to hot water to wash off the grime.

"On your bike, are you?" said my neighbour at the municipal camp site as I rolled up on my bike.

This was starting to get familiar. I agreed that I was on my bike.

"We're not," she said.

In the morning, she and her rounded, cardigan-wearing husband were asleep in their caravan. Or I assume they were asleep. If they were having wild sex, they were doing it without rocking the caravan. Anyway, I don't like the idea that anyone who sees you on your bike and asks if you're on your bike ever has wild sex. Apart from the injustice, there is too much risk of producing still further idiots.

Every morning at camp sites, I have a routine. If I am not desperate for a pee, I fill a pan and put it on the stove for coffee. Then I go off and come back feeling better about the world, notice that the water hasn't yet boiled and get on with packing my kit. In doing that, I forget that I put the water on. When I go to look, it surprises me that it has been boiling eight times longer than it needs to and that half of it has steamed away. For a moment I reflect on the unkindness of the world and then I get out a coffee filter and I place it in a natty cone of imitation leather and I pour the coffee into the filter and then the water on to the whole lot.

Being turned to superheated level, the coffee is now too hot to drink. I use condensed milk rather than real milk, because it's easier to carry although harder to get, so that does nothing to cool it down. I then go off and do more packing. By the time I remember the coffee, it has grown colder than I want but I have to drink it anyway and, as punishment, I then make more with what remains in the pan. It is a pointless, self-imposed but well-worn ritual.

I am well organised in getting going in the morning. Others are faster but many are slower. I am at my fastest putting up my tent and packing up again in the morning when I am next to people struggling with enormous tents that have taken eight people to haul out the back of their car. I have a childish satisfaction in unstrapping my tent at the moment they begin struggling with theirs and getting my tent up before they've even got theirs on to the ground.

At Gabaret that morning I had the extra satisfaction of finding that I was up so early that the site office wasn't open. I had saved four euros and the question was how to spend them in the wildest manner possible.

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