After breakfast I walk over to our friendly Dutch neighbors and offer them our three leftover eggs. The sun is beating down and by the end of the day they will likely be rotten or at least inedible. They take them happily and bid me good luck. As we cycle out of the campsite many of our fellow campers wave or give us an enthusiastic "bonne route!". Today we will cycle the final leg in our route to reach Ingrid and Yves, our kind hosts from Warm Showers.
Thankfully we are not under direct sun for long. The first half of our day is spent on a flat road following a winding river valley between mountains that often provide some much appreciated shade. Listening to music, we enjoy the morning and our good fortune in choosing such a perfect road.
About 16 kilometers into our ride, we find a bridge which crosses the river. I stop, leaning my bike against the railing, waiting for Tyler who is behind me taking pictures. There are mountains all around me and a sparkling river a few meters below. It is now starting to get hot. Still bearable, but hot. When Tyler arrives, we notice a path that runs down from the bridge to the river bank and I heartily agree with his suggestion to leave our bikes resting against the railing to go clambering in for a swim!
I step from the muddy shore onto smooth brown stones in the bubbling water, and instantly the contrast between the hazy, hot air and the ice cold liquid shocks my body and takes my breath away with a gasp. Slowly acclimating to the stark change in temperature, I take a few more steps, then ease my way to a seated position. I sit like this for a few minutes, feeling the exquisite pleasure of cold running water while watching iridescence blue-green dragonflies flit from leaf to leaf. Perfect moments like this are what make the difficult parts of our trip easier to bear. Tyler joins me and we take turns dunking our heads in the water. Now completely soaked and refreshed, we are ready to re-join the road.
It is amazing how quickly the water evaporates. Soon we are bone-dry and miserably hot once again. The road we are riding doesn't look like it is rising, and at first I think I am crazy to feel tired but Tyler assures me that we have indeed been slowly climbing for many kilometers. The next twenty continue like this with an occasional, blissful downhill. My morale is low though and I start to distrust the downhills, thinking only that it means we will have an even longer climb out of the valley.
As I slowly ascend the shadeless road winding up a seemingly endless mountain, every pedal stroke takes huge amounts of discipline to execute. Wrestling with my thoughts I force them to turn to other things, ignoring the pain in my muscles and the overwhelming heat. I will think about my first year of college. I start with day one, remembering my arrival in the Greensboro airport, and begin piecing the day together moment by moment. I try to add as many vivid details as possible, thinking about carrying boxes up the steps of my dormitory, and then moving from one blue plastic seat to the next in the style of musical chairs to get a picture taken for my new student ID. I think there was a picnic on the lawn for students and their parents. Everything felt so new and exciting.
I am still reminiscing when the scorching heat breaks my concentration. Far ahead on the road in front of me, I see a small, precious dark splotch of shadow on the pavement. Saying a desperate "thank you" to the universe, I count pedal strokes until I arrive and stop for a break. Finding a bit of relief in the slightly cooler area I drink a sip of my now hot water. It is not even remotely refreshing, but at least I have water. Somewhat relieved, I must continue on. When I lift my feet to ease them back into the pedals, the soles of my shoes feel sticky and I look down noticing the glistening, oozing blisters of molasses-like tar that cover the pavement. It looks like a second-degree burn.
I continue on slowly, now occupying my mind with visions of igloos and penguins and jumping like a polar bear into a sea of ice. By the time I catch up with Tyler (who has stopped to wait for me in a bit of shade of his own) I have created my ideal imaginary situation. Listless and wilting in the heat, we commiserate about the day and I tell him in great detail my ultimate fantasy: in my wildest dreams, Yves and Ingrid are waiting for us outside their home holding a comically large fire-hose. They are cheering us on, encouraging us up the last little hill before reaching their house. Then they turn on the water. A strong blast (four inches in diameter) of icey cold water knocks me off of my bike. If I perish during the onslaught, at least I die happy. We survive the spray, though, so we can continue on to the next portion of the quasi- obstacle course they have created for us in my fantasy. First cooled by fire hose, we now take a running start on their wet, green lawn and leap onto our bellies for a long, cool ride on Slip n' Slide, which dumps us with a great splash into a pool of clear blue water. We have to swim across the pool to reach the final prize on the other side—a giant tub of ice cream, the size of a large cooler, into which we dive face-first and proceed to consume voraciously…
Tyler's peals of laughter break my train of thought and we both enjoy some much needed humor to make it through the day. His fantasy is less involved but equally refreshing; it begins with getting a cooler of ice water dumped on us (a là football coaches who win the Superbowl) and ends of course, in ice cream. Most of our fantasies these days end with ice cream.
Each time we take breaks now, we laugh and pretend to hose each other off, even pantomiming the kick-back of the powerful spray like the firing of a gun. Our breaks become more frequent, though, and soon there isn't even a patch of shade in which to find some relief so we must to stop and rest while still being assaulted by the sun. Our water is running low, and what little we have is not warm or tepid, but actually hot. We take turns feeling hopeless and then I force us to stop and eat something. Food always helps the situation and snacks are often necessary just to maintain sanity. Quickly losing our physical strength and mental capacity, we eat apples and some unappetizing impromptu snacks washed down with a little bit of hot water.
Slightly refreshed we continue on, slowly uphill. All of the sudden, we reach the summit! Instantly our moods change dramatically for the better as we coast down happily with the wind in our faces. At the bottom, there is a small cafe, and at Tyler's genius suggestion I head inside to ask for some water.
People move slowly here, listlessly expending as little energy as possible in the oppressive heat. The bar is empty and the bartender is engrossed watching the small television in the corner of the cafe, and eyes me distrustfully when I say hello and ask if he could fill up our water-bottles. He is not a particularly friendly man, and seems to resent my request even though there are clearly no customers and no tasks to be completed. Nevertheless, he takes the bottles from me, fills them up halfway, then to my delight and surprise, opens the freezer and begins scooping ice into them. "Not too much, though," he says with a frown, speaking in a thick Provencale accent; "too much ice, it's not good for the stomach."
I am overwhelmed with gratitude and treat the grumpy but helpful man to many warm smiles and thanks for his kindness. He only grumbles, and I leave, shaking the bottles and shouting to Tyler "Do you hear that noise?!?! ICE! We have ICE!" He is ecstatic. Armed with ice water, somehow we have the strength to carry on, pedaling up the the valley we just coasted into.
After a short hill, we come to a wonderfully dark tunnel that literally has a blinding light at the end of it. It turns out to be fitting as the descent continues on the other end!
Finally we are faced with what we hope is our last climb of the day, up into the town of Arrigas high on the side of the mountain. We follow the GPS on the road we believe Ingrid and Yves live on, but they are nowhere to be found when the screen says "arriving at destination."
We are lost. We are tired, deliriously hot, ridiculously grumpy, and don't know where our new friends live. We misunderstood the map and now as we try to amend the situation, the GPS tells us we have another 13 kilometers to go to reach Estelle, a neighboring village. It seems an impossibly far distance, as I can hardly pedal another 3 kilometers, much less 13. Finally, we find the little hamlet where they live but we don't know which house it is. We can't call because we don't have cell service. I am about to go ask someone in the tiny village, when Yves comes to rescue us with huge welcoming smiles and hearty handshakes.
Suddenly everything is right with the world. Yves helps push our bikes up one last hill, and Ingrid comes out to greet us bearing ice water and snacks! Soon we are talking and laughing while munching away on Yves's crusty homemade bread spread with the regional specialty of Brandade de Morue. Yves brings cold beer for all of us, and Ingrid asks the question that is music to my ears—would we like a pre-dinner snack of Haagen-Dazs ice cream?
With spirits now soaring, Ingrid takes us on a tour of the house and shows us the real bed we will sleep in and the sparkling clean bathroom that will be ours during our stay. Tucked in a little niche in our bedroom is a welcoming note left just for us.
Meanwhile Yves fires up the handmade stone grill outside, and begins cooking a feast. When we are called to the table, each place setting is decorated with a sprig of fresh lavender which we move to the side in order to fill our plates with his delicious creations. We piled on carefully marinated and perfectly grilled lamb, spoonfuls from a huge bowl of pasta salad, and hearty helpings of colorful mixed-bean salad. Each dish was colorful, thoughtfully concocted with herbs cut from their terraced garden only minutes before. Could life be any better? Washed down with pastis, endless glasses of wine, and finally shots of Williams with lavender-infused ice-cubes, we laugh and talk for hours on the patio by the light of flickering candles.
Thoroughly satisfied and happy to feel so at home in the company of such sweet, like-minded folk, we teeter off to bed. On the way I look out at the mountains in the moonlight, finally able to fully appreciate their beauty without analyzing their steep ascents.
Thank you so much, Ingrid and Yves. We are so glad to have such wonderful new friends!