To Carcassonne: A short essay on recovery - Bilbao to Sete - CycleBlaze

October 8, 2017

To Carcassonne: A short essay on recovery

Dreaming my way to recovery
I was up late last night, maybe until two thirty or three, in a Crazyguy multitasking frenzy. Finally getting back to writing up the the day over Pailheres when my system crashed; finally getting around to reading Iain's great new journal; dialoguing on the forum with Neil about ebikes and the website. Finally I willed myself to shut it off and go to sleep.

I awoke with a vivid, bizarre technicolor dream (I've been having them the past few days while recovering; maybe it's the strong antibiotic). I can't quite get it back, but it's something like this: I'm featured in a dual role somehow - I'm both a newspaper editor in a small southwestern desert town, and blogging while on cycle tour. A second character, British or possibly Scottish, is a foreign correspondent posted with me. Actually, I think he looked a bit like Peter, the Welshman we met here in Foix. There's a busload of renowned bike touring legends in town on tour, of all things (a bus tour for bike touring legends?). Rachael also has a bit part - one of the legends is chatting with her, looking at her Bike Friday and discussing some technical point. Some sort of important political event has just occurred, and the Brit states 'the Sovereign's gone under', whatever that means - it sort of resonates though with something Peter had been chatting with us about, talking about Brexit. He bundles up his belongings, balances them on his head, gives a salute, and walks out the door. He's leaving his land and expatriating to America. I grab my camera and hurry to take his picture as he climbs out of our arid desert valley, the bike tourists surrounding and applauding him. I awake trying to decide on the caption for the photo, settling on 'Brexit West: Famed journalist expatriates to America'.

I'd love to post that photo for you here, but it was a dream. Here's a surrogate for its setting though that you could visualize from:

Koosharem, Utah
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Leaving our hotel

Time to get out of Foix.

Today is a transition day, still with no biking - under doctor's orders.  My health is back, and we're leaving Foix and its proximity to my hospital.  We're taking the train out this morning and will stay in Carcassonne for the next two nights.  Tomorrow we'll hop back on the bikes for a loop west along the Canal-du-Midi, and then the day after that we'll start working our way east across Langueduc.  We've essentially lost five days from the tour, so we've remapped the rest of the route and will stay nearer the coast.  It still looks like a beautiful way to spend about two weeks; just different than we'd expected before we hacked five days from the middle of it.

Transition day begins with breakfast.  We began late waiting for me - I woke late because I stayed up late, and was so struck by the dream that I awoke to that I wrote it down here immediately, before it slipped away.  For breakfast, we head back to the great bakery we ate at yesterday and that Rachael also had on her own while I was still mostly sleeping through the day.  They open at seven, which had been our plan for this morning until I slept in so late.  Instead, we arrive just as the closest church bells strike 8.

Today is Sunday.  As it happens (they don't post their hours, so we didn't know), the bakery doesn't open until 8 on Sundays; so we're not late after all.  As they arrive they're just opening the door and putting their board out on the sidewalk.  They remember us are glad to see us, friendly.  It's a small place, and it feels like if we were here for a more prolonged period of time we'd develop some sort of personal relationship with them even though they appear to know as little English as we do French.  I imagine it as a way we might work into the language problem if we ever stayed somewhere overseas as a base - we'd make a connection, and in the evening we'd try to come up with a few different things we might say when we show up other than the few very simple exchanges we use now.  An avenue to ease into a new language and a possible friendship.

Being in Foix for four days has caused me to think of other ways we might approach travel over here, maybe by establishing a base for a month or a few and take day rides as well as leveraging the train system for short tours in the region.  In fact, Foix itself might be such a place - we could base ourselves here , even head back over Pailheres again on a good day in good health this time, and use it for an exploration of southern France.

It's a nice feeling to leave town on.  It gives me a different feeling about having been forced to stay here, and is even some compensation for the interruption and the days and rides elsewhere we've missed.  That's true also of yesterday afternoon, and our trip up to the chateau (that I'll write up in its own undeveloped subfolder some day).  The interruption of our plan hasn't been a complete loss - there are a few things of value in it beyond my miraculous return to health that I'll take back from here and remember.

We head back to the hotel, pack up and then hang out until about 10:30, when it's time to check out and head downhill to the train station, a whole quarter mile away.  We check out, try to remember where the bikes are stashed - Rachael doesn't remember because it's not the type of thing she remembers.  I don't either - I think I do and they're in a closet by the front desk - but there's no closet.  That was back in Ax-les-Thermes.  Rachael says she thinks they're somewhere outside the hotel but that doesn't sound right to me.  As it happens, I don't remember because I wasn't even I nvolved.  We had checked in after lunch, and as soon as we did Rachael sent me to the room because I was such a wreck.  Rachael did it all.

The lady that checks us out knows though, and walks us there.  They're in the hotel's laundry, across the street and a few doors up.  We walk there together carrying our gear, get our bikes, give our thanks, and head toward the train station.

A cat story

On the way past the hotel, I'm reminded of something I'd forgotten until now, and so I insist on us stopping even though Rachael doesn't care for it because she's worried about time and is afraid of missing the train.  She's not as spatially aware as I am, and she doesn't have a good feel for how much time is left, how much we'll need to get there, and how long it will take when we arrive.

I've got a great internal clock and sense of time, space, and how much time taking this photo will take.  She's still anxious but humors me because she's still sympathetic to my condition, loves me, and generally trusts my judgment at times like this because it's more in my skill base than hers.

The task is to pose our loaded bikes net to the hotel and take a photo when we leave, mostly as a candidate entry in this silly journal.  I'd been thinking of it as one of the few photos for the day, which likely won't have much of interest to show until we get to Carcassonne.  We park the bikes by the wall of the hotel under its front window, I walk back into the square for the right distance for the shot, turn around, and see that Rachael has moved into the frame while my back was turned.  I start to say something, ask her to move back because it's not the picture I have in mind - it's just the bikes leaving Foix.  Then I look up and see why she's there.

It's the cat.  I'd forgotten about it, and it's a detail of when we checked in that I was taken by at the time but that didn't seem worth noting in the blog then.  I'd forgotten all about it in the meantime, but it's a personally interesting little vignette I took comfort from at the moment - gone forever, since I don't tent to remember things if I don't write them down or take a photo.  Nice to have the memory back.

So, here's the lost vignette: when we checked out of the B&B the day after I was at the hospital, we walked down to this square with Rachael's bike.  If you read that day's entry you may recall that at this point my bike is still locked up at the train station; I'm a compete wreck; and Rachael's in charge and our hero of the hour/day/interlude.  We come to this square, see that it has some nice benches, lean her bike against the wall, and she leaves to retrieve my bike.  I pick the nearest bench, the only one in the sun.  It's a stone bench - it's cool, the sun is warm, it feels wonderful.  It reminds me of leaning against the post office wall in Querigut, a few hours before my health collapsed on the climb of Pailheres.  I lie down, close my eyes, and relax.

Ten minutes later some yowling occurs - a cat drama is unfolding maybe ten feet from my head.  I roll over to look.  It's by a small recess at the base of the wall, right net to Rachael's bike.  The recess is nearly completely filled by a white Angora, puffed up, looking very fierce, and yowling in opposition with an assailant.  Let's call this cat Whitey in the drama.

The assailant is a skinny, sleek jet black cat of some type (Blacky) yowling back, tentatively stepping forward, back, to the side, as cat face-offs tend to go.  This continues for about five minutes.  Finally Blacky steps back another step and then moves to the side a few feet.  Whitey sees its moment.  It hadn't occurred to me until now that it was trapped there.  I thought it was dominant, protecting its ownership of the square.  Blacky's the aggressor though, and of course the bad guy in this drama.

As soon as Whitey sees the opportunity it splits, beelining straight across the square and through the front door of Hotel Mons, where we plan to check in this afternoon for our reservation at a different hotel up the street.  Whitey appears to be the hotel cat, trapped by Blacky - the mean, tough outdoor cat who perhaps rules the small square.

In fact, this seems to be the case.  To our surprise, Hotel Mons will later check us into their hotel rather than the one we had booked.  We've passed through this square several times since then our in comings and goings from the hotel; and several times we've seen Blacky, as the only cate there.  I noticed him, but Rachael didn't - she's into cats, but only cute, affectionate ones.  Blacky doesn't seem to be her type - he's more the tough loner type.

I haven't seen Whitey since, until right now; and had forgotten it and the incident completely.  Whitey's now on the window sill of the hotel, sitting directly above Rachael's blue Bike Friday.  The bikes and photo are in the frame because it's my vision for the photo.  Rachael's now unexpectedly there in the frame because now Whitey's unexpectedly there too, and he's one of her type of cats.

But Whitey wasn't there when we leaned the bikes against the hotel wall.  He must have hopped up from somewhere while my back was turned (maybe he entered the square while my back was turned, or had been following us all to the laundry?  A mystery).  And who but Whitey knows why he's been in the square only two times in the three days that we've been here, both times appearing only after the only two times Rachael's blue bike Friday has been in it?  What type of cat is Whitey, anyway - what is it attracted to - the color blue, bicycles, blue bicycles, or blue Bike Friday's specifically?  All reasonable possibilities, and more experimentation is needed.   But not now though, because we're getting out of Foix.  Maybe in a few years, if we ever decide on a village-based tour of France, and this helps tip the scales toward coming back to Foix?  To be determined, maybe, in some different year.

This is turning into one damn interesting day.  It's nearly 11, and we haven't even gotten out of town yet.  And I've  unexpectedly got two really good photos for the journal - Ian's from the southwest, as a stand-in for my dream photo; and now this.  And a way more interesting day than I expected to have.  Yesterday I'd been anticipating what I might say about the day or even whether to just omit it, but this is really turning into something unusual.  Now what? 

Leaving Hotel Mons, leaving Foix, leaving Whitey
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An interlude

Reflections at the end of the day
As it happened, this overall has been quite the day, and what I assume will be my best day of this whole tour, or maybe of any tour I've ever been on. Right now, it feels like a candidate for one of the best days of my whole adult life.

This all came together in my head thinking back on the day over dinner tonight. My plan was to stay up late and write it up tonight, and go to bed. Now it's midnight, and I'm finally closing in on getting to the Foix train station. This isn't going to wrap tonight, folks. I'll keep coming back to it where I can fit the time over the next few weeks. Maybe I'll get done before long, or maybe even after we're done with the tour and have returned home. I'll eventually get ther though.

It's been an interesting day: for the day itself, for the tour as a whole, for me personally, and maybe to readers who weren't interested in this journal specifically.

In any case, we're stopping here for now. It's a new day, time to get back to the tour.

Two weeks later:
So I'm finally getting back to this. A lot has happened in the intervening two weeks: we've completed the tour and are back home; the passage of time has worked it's way with my memory; and I'm a bit less hyperaware and exposed than I was at the time. For better or worse, the rest of the narrative for this day won't have the same manic edge as what's written above. Perhaps just as well.

The ride to Toulouse
Two weeks later, my memory of the ride to Toulouse is a bit spotty. Here's what I do recall though. After leaving Foix and the surreal encounter with Whitey, we coasted down to the train station. It felt wonderful to be on the bike again, if a bit wobbly. We arrived at the train station with about twenty minutes to spare, so as usual I used up part of it with the camera. So did Rachael, who was taking photos of me taking photos.

Rachael taking interest in photography is a totally new phenomenon. It's been enabled by her new phone - it has a excellent quality camera that she finds easy to use, so there's no technical barrier to get in her way. Because she's suddenly interested, there is plenty to talk about. I look over what she's got, talk with her a bit about light and perspective, and she reshoots from a different angle and gets a much better result. On the train, we talk about photography almost all the way to Toulouse. It's exciting - something new to share.

In the Foix station, waiting for the departure to Toulouse
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Going the extra mile for the right perspective
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Modeling the new bike shirt I picked up yesterday. I feel wonderful this morning - can there be many greater feelings than regaining your health?
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The Toulouse statiion
We arrived in Toulouse about forty-five minutes before our next train departs. I stand watch over the bikes and Rachael goes off on a search mission to find sandwiches for lunch, returning triumphantly about ten minutes later. There's nothing else for us to do for the moment because we don't even know where our train will depart from - it hasn't been posted on the departure board yet.

With time on my hands, what else - I take off with the camera to take a few photos of the train station. I find much of interest to look at and capture: the impressive, elegant station itself; the crowds milling around the station, waiting for arrivals or departures; and the Canal du Midi, which passes directly in front of the station. I lose track of time, and by the time I get back to Rachael she's anxiously watching the clock, waiting for me.

We're in time, but without a lot to spare. As is the usual case with large train stations, underground passage is required to get to our departure gate. And also as usual, there are stairs involved, and no elevators. Not ideal, when you're in a hurry and hauling loaded bikes. There's a lateral ramp to roll them down, but it's quite steep and a bit of a challenge to keep the bike under control. I manage it OK and turn back to help Rachael, but someone has beaten me to it.

The central Toulouse station
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Rachael gets a needed helping hand crossing under the tracks to our departure gate
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The train to Carcassonne
The landing beside the tracks is crowded, but we have the only bikes in sight. The train rolls in, and we're happy to see that the car with bike capacity stops nearly in front of us. We roll the bikes on and muscle them up onto the hangers. There is room for six, and ours are the only occupants. We then look around for a spot to sit and find none. The car is packed already, and folks are still coming on.

With bikes. Six or seven more bikes, with only four more hangers. They are quickly filled up, and the others are leaned against a window, taking up much of the free aisle space in the crowded train. Bikers sit wherever they can, including on small fold down seats between the suspended bikes. A more than full house. It looks like we'll be standing all the way to Carcassonne.

It's an entertaining, social ride. One of the bikers speaks fairly decent English, somwe chat about our rides. They're on a long weekend outing, taking the train to Agde on the coast. Agde is the Mediterranean terminus of the Canal du Midi, and I think they're planning to bike back to Toulouse along the Canal. We also get into a nice conversation with a young mother from Amsterdam, staring out the window across the bikes with her charming toddler daughter.

We don't mind standing for the hour's ride to Carcassonne, but we are concerned about detraining. There's not much maneuvering space in the crowded car, and the train doesn't stop long. We decide that we need to get the bikes down from the hangers in advance of the stop so we're prepared. Not the easiest task in a crowded, moving train. As I'm bracing to lift them down, a helpful young man appears at my side, giving assistance.

The train arrives at the station, and many folks detrain because Carcassonne is such an important stop. We wait for most of them to leave, and then get off ourselves, thinking we're the only bikes getting off. We wheel ourselves to the stairwell (again, we have to drop down to the subterranean passage to reach the exit), start remove our bags and start down. And again, Rachael gets an unexpected assist from behind. It's the same guy from the train - he got off here as well, and is also a biker. It turns out that he and his friend are the owners of the two bikes in the aisle we were hovering over for the last hour.

We stop at the bottom of the stairs and get acquainted. They're a completely delightful, refreshing young couple, and happily they both speak English fluently so we can communicate freely. They're Argentinians, professionals in some discipline that I can't recall now, and on their first real bicycle tour. And it's a long one - they've been on the road for I think a half year now, and are still going strong. And they're obviously having the time of their lives, excited to be doing what they're doing, and looking forward to many years of the same. We exchange emails, and I tell them about Crazy Guy, and the value they could get from it as a source for research and ideas. It's a very inspirational encounter,

We decide it's time to go, so we reload our bikes, forgetting somehow that we still have to haul them back up a different set of stairs to get back to street level. Rather than unload again, we take turns helping each other lift our bikes up the stairs. This is when we discover something else about Tomas and Carolina - they must be as strong as oxen, because their loads weigh a ton.

At the top, we separate to go our own ways to visit the old city - they're following their instincts, and we're following our GPS track to the hotel I've booked us into.

Full house on the train to Carcassonne
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These folks are really wedged in, but at least they have a place to sit.
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In the underpassage of Carcassonne's station, with Tomas and Carolina, our new friends from Argentina.
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In Carcassonne
Leaving the station, we quickly come to the Canal du Midi again and stop to admire the scene. We'll see more of it in the coming days - tomorrow we'll take in a loop ride along the canal back west toward Toulouse; and the following day we'll follow it here and there as we travel east toward the Mediterranean.

A few blocks further on, we come to the Aude River and Le Pont Vieux, the old bridge. The Aude is the same river we followed briefly high in the mountains on our ill-fated ride to Axe-les-Thermes. The bridge is really splendid - a twelve arched structure dating back to the early 1300's. It's totally given over to foot traffic, and is broad enough to function almost like a park - people sit on the walls staring at the amazing profile of the old city, or even just lie around basking in the sun. It is a very romantic spot.

Then, a short gradual climb brings us to the Narbonne Gate, the primary entrance to the old city. And, shockingly, right behind us come Tomas and Carolina. They're just arriving themselves, presumably over the new bridge. We love getting to see them and share in their excitement one more,time for a few minutes. We wait around to watch them stand in awe of the spectacle before cycling through the gate so I can take some photos of them to mail their way.

And then, we're off to our hotel. We're staying in a Best Western, of all places. It's the only hotel within the city walls, and was available for a surprisingly reasonable price. I was feeling sorry for myself when I made the booking, and felt that I'd earned a splurge. I can really recommend it - it's quite bike friendly, and it was pretty amazing to be able to step out your door into this unique ancient city at the end or beginning of the day.

The Canal du Midi, Carcassonne
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On the pedestrianized old bridge across the Aude - by far the preferred way to approach the old city, blanketed across the rise on the far side of the river.
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Oh, my gosh - it's our new friends Tomas and Carolina again! They've arrived at the gate to the old city almost exactly when we have. I'd say this is a fairly photogenic couple, wouldn't you? They look like they belong in a bike touring advertisement.
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Tomas and Carolina prepare to ride through the Narbonne Gate, the main entry to the Cite de Carcassonne.
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We take a break for awhile after checking into our room. It's still early in the day, the old city is jammed with tourists, and I need a rest because I'm still recovering a bit. We go out again at about five, leaving us a couple of hours before dinner to find a snack, shop around for a restaurant, and explore the site late in the day when the crowds have disappeared and the walls have an unearthly glow under the late day sun.

It's all almost indescribable, it's so great. Everything we see strikes me as remarkable, and worth pulling out the camera to help me remember the experience and what this day felt like. Our timing was perfect - at about sundown we came to the end of the western wall - the face exposed to the setting sun - rounded the corner into the shadows, and my camera died. I managed to take 400 photos today, amazingly enough. I've cloistered most of them into a separate folder, because this entry is way over-long already: The Cite de Carcassonne.

A few blocks later, and we're sitting down to a dinner - the first really full meal, complete with a glass of wine, that I've had since the onset of my illness. This, too is indescribably wonderful - I'll pay a bit for my exuberance in my meal choices, because my innards are still easing their way back to normal - but for tonight, it's worth the price.

Filet of rouget with tapenade, and a local vin blanc. A meal like this I've been imagining for five days now.
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Our server for the evening. Other than for the obvious reasons, I'm not sure why I snapped this photo. I think I just wanted to capture as much of this day as I could.
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Afterwards we returned to to our room; and while Rachael nods off I work on the journal, typing as fast as I can on my iPad, trying to capture what I can of this remarkable day. My plan is to work through until about midnight, but now it's 2 AM and I'm still back in Foix, marveling at the cat. We haven't even gotten out of Foix yet.

In Carcassonne, with my best friend. There's plenty here to bring a smile to your face.
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Reflections: looking back on the best day of the tour
So, that's the day: two miles of biking, two hours on the train, some memorable chance encounters; and of course the most stereotypically great part of the day, a visit to the incomparable Cite de Carcassonne. Why, exactly, does this stand out as my best day of the tour, and maybe one of the best days of my life?

A good question, obviously. Like I said earlier, it's personal - and it was my best day, not Rachael's. Two weeks later, and it's a bit hard for me to answer that question - especially given the string of perfectly wonderful days of the tour that came afterwards - Narbonne, The Cirque de Navacelles, the Camargue - all awesome experiences that I hope to remember for the rest of my days. Why this one?

The passage of time and the dimming of memory has brushed off of some of the glow, so I have to project backwards and use my imagination a bit to invoke the feeling of awe and wonder I felt at the time. Among other things, this speaks to the importance (for me at least) of writing it all down at the time rather than trying to retrieve it weeks later. It's not just the details that fade and escape, lost for ever - it's the feeling itself.

I stand by my original opinion though. This still does feel like the best day. I don't think there's been another I can recall when I have felt so alive, so open and exposed, so blessed to be here and experiencing this day and sharing it with Rachael. This of course says more about me and my state of mind at the time than about the actual events. I would say that it was a day of regeneration for me, of rebirth. I'm not and never have been a religious man - I'm an atheist - but it felt to me like what I imagine a religious experience might be for others with different beliefs. Something happened to me, something different than I recall experiencing before, and it just felt like a day of magic and mystery, full of remarkable encounters, coincidences, and serendipity. Best day of the tour? Absolutely.

Go to Carcassonne: it could change your life.
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