Thursday, September 27, 2012

1100 Miles ... 130,000 Feet

Riding up to the Col du Galibier in the French Alps earlier in the month

Wednesday was the end of our two-week Corsican tour and the end of the cycling portion of our European odyssey. Since arriving in France almost a month ago, we have cycled 1100 miles and climbed 130,000 feet in the Black Forest, Switzerland, the French Alps, Provence and Corsica. I frankly couldn't believe it when Mark told me the numbers, based on daily downloads from his Garmin watch.

But the miles and the climbing and the resulting increase in strength and tone (and, I suspect, weight loss) are only part of the story of this trip, which has truly been life-changing for me. Of course, it has been wonderful to see all that we have seen, to be immersed in a foreign culture, and to sample new and different foods. But all of this pales to what this experience has come to mean to me.

Mark's bike outside a shop in Propriano

I think it will take some time to truly recognize and articulate what I learned and how I changed while on this trip,  but a lot of it can be summed up by saying that I have become more comfortable in my own skin as I have continued to shed other skins that I have worn for most of my life. As Mark said the other day while we were sitting on the beach in Propriano, I had forgotten what it feels like to be comfortable in my own skin after nearly 30 years of Mormonism - if in fact I had ever experienced that feeling due to circumstances in my childhood and youth and after spending most of my life in the closet.

Propriano - Mark and I ate lunch at a cafe in the middle of the picture

It was being in the tour group and interacting with people my own age that facilitated this process of feeling more authentic, of feeling more comfortable in my own skin. It was immensely gratifying, for example, to be told by a number of people that they were amazed that I had been cycling for only four months prior to commencing the tour. Mark has told me before that I am a natural athlete, but I had difficulty believing him because I have never perceived myself as an athlete of any sort. Hearing it from other people has helped me to change how I perceive myself.

Another example: I also grew more comfortable in confiding a bit of my own story. Gradually of the course of two weeks, word got out that I have 10 children and was Mormon, etc., etc. I had hesitated sharing this because I was concerned about people's reactions, causing me to feel that I wasn't being authentic (sort of in reverse) and was in another type of closet. But people were not at all judgmental; in fact, those whom I became closer to throughout the course of the trip were very supportive. I was immensely grateful for that.

One of these people was Tom, pictured above - a gay man from Philadelphia who was been with his partner for 25 years. I remember particularly a conversation I had with him while climbing on the day we rode to Solenzara (until I had to drop to the back of the pack because I couldn't keep up with his pace), and he expressed genuine interest in my story, even though it was very different from his own life experience.

As I write this, it has occurred to me that perhaps I became so accustomed to judgment in the Mormon church and community that I unconsciously assumed everyone would be like that. And I also had allowed myself to be defined and judged - by myself as well as other people. In fact, for much of my life, I've needed precious little judgment from others in order to feel condemned; I was quite capable of doing a very good job on my own.

Which gets back to the subject of changing how I perceive myself. That is one of the great gifts of this trip, and it hasn't come from seeing fabulous scenery, passing through quaint villages, hearing church bells or watching sunsets - although I have enjoyed all of those experiences. It has come from the people with whom I have associated these past two weeks and the experiences we have shared together.

Mark's picture:  The view from where we stopped for lunch yesterday

Another one of Mark's pictures, taken during yesterday morning's ride

A lot of these experiences culminated in the time we spent in Propriano, where we enjoyed swimming in the ocean, sitting on the beach, chatting in the evening before, during and after dinner, and imbibing generous amounts of alcohol in the process.

And the person I have to thank for facilitating all of this, for loving me, for revealing me to myself, is my best friend, my partner, my Mark. From the very beginning of my cycling journey which began last spring, he has been patient, steadfast and loving as I turned myself into a cyclist. Along the way, we shared many enjoyable, memorable moments, none more so than on this trip. The following pictures capture a few of those moments:

In the Black Forest

Crepes in the French Alps

Atop Mont Ventoux

Outside Gordes in the Luberon, Provence

Between Porto and Calvi, Corsica

St. Florent, Corsica

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do - Solenzara, Corsica

Between Solenzara and Propriano, Corsica

Propriano, Corsica. What a memorable night that was, involving copious amounts of Limoncello and a group of us skinny dipping in the Mediterranean

"And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time."

~ T. S. Eliot

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Solenzara and on to Propriano

I have fallen behind on my blogging because I've simply been enjoying the trip.  I reached a point last weekend when I just didn't feel like writing about it anymore; I just wanted to focus on living it.  But we had our farewell dinner last night (Wednesday), and as I sit and write this, almost everyone on the tour has left to go to the airport to return to their various homes, and now it's time to catch up.

We left Corte on Sunday morning - which seems an eternity ago now - and headed toward Solenzara in the southeastern part of the island.  The following map shows the location of the town, as well as other cities and areas through which we have cycled.

By way of a brief review, we started out in Porticcio, below Ajaccio.  We then cycled inland to the southern portion of the "Parc Naturel Regional" (in green) before heading north to Corte.  Then it was west to Porto, then north to Calvi, then east to St-Florent, where we cycled around the Cap Corse.  Then south through the Castagniccia, back to Corte, then southeast to Solenzara.

It was another beautiful sunny morning as we headed out of Corte.  We hadn't gone more than six or seven miles, however, when we again ran into a road rally and had to backtrack.  Otherwise, the ride was fairly uneventful, and we pulled into Solenzara around 2:30 - just in time for most of the eating establishments to have closed for the afternoon.  We did find one place that was open, however, and had a hearty plate of carbonara pasta.  

The owner of this restaurant, unlike most of the other places where we had eaten lunch on the trip, actually acted like he appreciated our business.  We, as well as others on the tour, have grumbled about how long it takes to eat a lunch.  First, you sit down.  Then you wait 10-15 minutes for the server to acknowledge your presence and bring you a menu.  Then you wait another 10-15 minutes for the server to come back and take your order.  Then you wait for the food.  But the most annoying part was waiting for the check.  We usually had to finally ask the server to bring the "addition."  Then you had to wait for it, then wait for the waiter to come back and take the money, then bring the change, etc., etc.

The guy in Solenzara, however, was very attentive and he even offered to find some cycling race coverage on his big screen TV for us to watch.  Because he was so friendly and accommodating, I asked him if there was someplace in the village where we might be able to purchase a bottle of gin.  (It being Sunday, everything was closed.)  He replied that all of the stores were closed, but he would be happy to sell us a bottle from his stock (at a slight premium).  

Thus fortified, we cycled the block to our hotel, the bottle of Gordon's gin safely tucked in Mark's cycling shorts:

Upon checking in at the hotel - which was a conglomeration of several small buildings - the receptionist said she would show us our room.  She then walked out the door, across a small parking lot towards a two-story building.  We approached a set of stairs leading up to a door on the second floor.  "Your room is up there."  She seemed to me to smile a little bid oddly, and I wondered why she hadn't given us a key.

We went up the stairs, and I could see that the door was slightly ajar.  I pushed it open and looked around the corner and saw what appeared to be an apartment.  I then saw through an open doorway, a pair of legs lying on a bed.  WTF?  I thought there must be some mistake and turned to say as much to Mark.  Then I heard the voice of one of the other cyclists on the trip.  He came out and explained that the two gay couples had been assigned to a "suite."  They had one part, and Mark and I had the other part.  

As we got over the initial shock, we thought it wouldn't be too bad.  At least our "half" had a door onto it so that we could have some privacy.   We also discovered that there were two bedrooms in our part of the suite - a large one with a king bed and a window that opened onto the parking lot, and a smaller one with a double bed and a window that opened onto a field with the sea not far away.  We opted for the smaller room, enabling us to sleep with the window open all night, the sound of the surf in the distance.

After washing our cycling gear in the sink - the first chore every afternoon of the tour - we got into our swim suits and headed down to the beach, which wasn't particularly great but it felt refreshing just to get in for a few minutes.

Dinner that night for the group was at a local restaurant and was distinctly unmemorable - except for the crepes we had afterward at the place across the street.

I took the lead photo of this post the following morning (Monday) when I went down early for breakfast (so as to be able to take advantage of the wifi hotspot).  All of us were a bit apprehensive as we ate and prepared to head out because we knew we would have the biggest climb of the trip that day - over the Col of Bavella:  4100 feet in approximately 18.5 miles.  As it turned out, there was reason to be apprehensive. It was a challenging climb, but it was beautiful.

On our way across southern Corsica

We arrived at our hotel outside Propriano in time to go for a dip before cocktail hour and dinner.  Unlike Solenzara, there were was a nice sandy beach here, and the water was clean and inviting.

That evening, our group watched a spectacular sunset as we prepared to go in for dinner.  It had been quite cloudy most of the afternoon, and Mark and I had thought while in the mountains before our descent that we would get rained on - a first for the trip.  But it didn't rain, and as sunset approached, the skies had cleared, allowing us to experience this:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Piedicroce and An End Run

Friday marked a turning point for me on our cycling tour of Corsica.  We had had a long, tiring ride the day before (Thursday) around Cap Corse, and my rear end was becoming seriously chafed.  On Friday, we set out for another long ride – 78 miles.  Things were going reasonably well until around mid-day.  Mark and I met up with three women in our group, and we rode with them throughout the early afternoon as we searched out a place to eat lunch.  Malcolm, the husband of one of them (Michelle) was a few miles ahead, riding with another guy in our group (Tom), and they started texting back and forth as Malcolm and Tom scouted out the next villages on the route for a place to eat.  

We pulled in to one village, and the women were able to get some water from a very nice woman who filled up our water bottles.  But as to restaurants – even a boulangerie – we were out of luck.  So we pressed on.  We were riding up and down in little valleys that came up from Corsica’s eastern coast, several miles inland.  I was starting to get cranky.  The only thing that kept my spirits up was the joking of the women, especially Michelle, as she related that her husband had started referring to us as the “Donner Party.”

Finally, a little after 2:00, Michelle received a text from Malcolm, saying that they had found a place that served pizzas, but we had to get our order in, as they were about to close.  With this dose of hope, we cycled a few more miles to where they were waiting for us.  We had a bit of a wait because they had already shut the pizza oven down and had to fire it up again.  But, finally, out they came:  seven pizzas for seven hungry cyclists.

Around 3:30, we set off again for our destination:  Piedicroce, a small village in the heart of a region of Corsica called the Castagniccia.  This is when I really started to bonk – emotionally, physically, mentally, every way possible.  On the long, gradual ascent to Piedicroce, I crashed.  The grade was not that bad, but it was long.  It just kept going.  Up.  Up. Up.  Then they were working on the road and it was nothing but dust and gravel.  Then, when we finally got through those sections, we turned a corner and ran into a herd of goats meandering their way up the road.  I was SO grateful that a car – from Germany – was forging a path ahead of us because, if possible, at that point I would have liked a huge cow catcher that would have moved those GD goats out of my way.  

As I rode, I thought about how most people on the tour didn’t know that I had just started cycling only four months ago.  What was I doing there?  What was I doing on that road in the heart of Corsica, heading toward a remote village in the middle of BF nowhere?  As I rode, remorselessly onward, I thought about how it had felt to live in the closet all those years in a Mormon world where I had to keep up appearances, never daring to reveal how I really felt …

Mark talked me through the ascent, as the rest of our group of cyclists traveled further and further beyond us.   It was on those slopes, as the shadows of late afternoon lengthened, that I reached a catharsis.  I bonked.  And I passed through to the other side.  

Enfin … at around 5:30, we reached a point where the ascent stopped and we then coasted down to Piedicroce.  We encountered pigs on the road.  Cows on the road.  Shit on the road.  But we were going down.  And that made all the difference.  Down, down, down to Piedicroce.  Then, we were there.  And our hotel was appropriately named, “Le Refuge.”

Main Street in Piedicroce
As I got off my bike, I thought, “I don’t want to ever get on that damned bike again!”  But, of course, I did.  Yesterday morning.  After a somewhat meager breakfast of instant coffee, processed orange juice and the ubiquitous “pain au chocolat” and “pain,” we mounted once again.  On our way out of town, we passed the baroque church, then, more interestingly, the ruins of the Couvent d’Orezza, the ruins of a Franciscan monastery that was bombed by the Germans during WWII because the resistance (the “Maquis) used it as a hiding place.  (We didn’t know that until that evening, after I had consulted my Lonely Planet guidebook.)

We descended along the road that was shaded by the ubiquitous chesnut trees (which made it difficult to see the cow sh*t that was on the road).  Along the way, we passed cows grazing or nursing, which was cute, alongside the road.  Then, we approached the town at which we were supposed to make a sharp left in order to continue our descent toward Corte.  The only problem, which Mark and I experienced on behalf of the entire group (because we were the first out this morning), was that there was a barrier where we were supposed to turn left.

The reason?  After some discussion with the self-satisfied locals who were manning the “barriere,” we learned that there was going to be a “rally” that day on the two roads which intersected in that village, and neither could be descended “toute la journee” (all day).  Smiles.  Self-satisfaction.  (Translation:  You fu&*ing Americans are screwed.)  They informed Mark and me, with wicked grins on their faces, that we would have to ascend back to our point of beginning.  (Did I mention that we had ascended a col for miles before descending into that village?)  

Conferring, consulting maps, Garmins and iPhones
Finally, not knowing what else to do, we turned around and headed back up the way we had come, whereupon we shortly ran into the rest of the group who were barreling down into the village, anticipating the sharp left that would lead toward our goal:  Corte.  We weren’t long in waiting.  They arrived, and we told them what was going on.  Then, shortly thereafter, our tour leader, Glenn, arrived with the support van.  After being informed of the situation, he consulted the map, and … Voila!! … an alternate route was found that would, unfortunately, take us far to the north, then back to Corte.  But we would make it without circumnavigating the entire island.

It was at this point that an elderly woman across the road who was watering her meager plants in her front yard said to me, “Yes, there is a road rally today, but I don’t think many people know about it.”  Understatement of the month.  Then Mark came up to me and asked if I could ask her if it was possible to use her bathroom because he had a bit of what he later characterized as a “colon emergency.” In other words, he had to go to the bathroom in the worst way, and if those people didn’t let him use their bathroom, it would mean a messy trip to the woods somewhere along the route.

The house that Mark visited
I hesitated because, after all, this would mean invading the most sacred space of one’s French home.  But, I asked, and she unhesitatingly replied, “bah, oui.”  Mark then disappeared into the bowels (no pun intended) of the house, and did not emerge from the darkened shadows of her entry hall for quite some time, with a big smile on his face.

We then set off with the rest of the group, on the circuitous route to Corte, which would mean riding north, then west, then south.  The neat thing about the ride is that everyone took it in stride, and I enjoyed riding with the rest of the group.  Mark and I were primarily with the same group with whom we had ridden the day before.  More mountain villages, more pretty villages, more cows on the road.  It was fun.

We had anticipated a 42-mile ride to Corte which would put us at our hotel in early afternoon, and I was envisioning myself lying by the pool, reading, writing, snoozing.  Instead, our ride ended up being 53 miles, and we didn’t arrive until mid-afternoon.  But, again, it was fun.  Today, we are off to Solenzara on the southeast coast.

Lunch yesterday on the route:  a sandwich and patisseries from the boulangerie across the street

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cap Corse

We rode 83 miles yesterday (Thursday) around Cap Corse - the "finger" of Corsica that sticks out in the sea on the northeastern corner of the island.  We had ridden only 20 miles the day before, as it was a "rest day."  It was rainy that day (Wednesday), which was just as well, because we did some exciting things, like doing our laundry.  We also were able to do a little bit of souvenir shopping in Saint-Florent before heading up to Murato late in the afternoon.

The Church of San Michele of Murato
The view from Murato looking down toward the bay of Saint-Florent
Saint-Florent, as seen from the beach outside our hotel

Our hotel just outside Saint-Florent
The weather was somewhat threatening yesterday morning when we set out toward Bastia, but we were counting on a weather forecast that predicted lots of sunshine.  We rode up to about 1750 feet, then down to sea level again, all in the space of about 20 miles.

On the way, we passed through Patrimonio, a big (little) wine producing region.

Looking back toward Patrimonio and, over the mountains, Saint-Florent
I had located a cycling shop in Bastia which was right on our way out of the city, so we stopped there and purchased a souvenir cycling jersey for my birthday. :)  Then in was on up the road on the eastern side of the Cap.

By the time we exited Bastia, the weather was beautiful, and it would remain so for the rest of the day.  The ride up the peninsula was absolutely stunning as we rode just above the sea level for most of the way.  In the distance, we could see the island of Elba, to which Napoleon was exiled, and at one point in the northern part of the peninsula, we could even see mainland Italy on the distant horizon.

At Macinaggio, we turned inland to cross the peninsula, then stopped for lunch on the other side.  From there, it was down the coast to our point of beginning, along roads that hugged the cliffs above the water.


So, a new mileage record set for me again yesterday.  Today, we head inland.  It will be another long ride, and we will likely not have internet access tonight, so I will likely next be reporting from Corte - the town in the center of the island that we passed through last weekend.  From there, we go to the southeast, then up and over the island to the southwest for a couple of days.  The countdown has begun ...