The Grand Alps Part One

On this segment of our journey together, Johnny England and I are joined by his friend Graeme, who, recently retired, has three weeks to spare before flying off to Spain for some sort of dance (modern jive he tells me) event. We catch the ferry from Dover on Friday evening, John and I on his Suzuki V-Strom 650 and Graeme on a 1998 Honda 1100 something or other. We disembark the ferry in Dunkerque after dark and ride for about an hour and a half before pulling over to the side of the road in an agricultural area and setting up camp on a grassy strip between a field recently tilled and a grove of trees, roughly 50 yards from the road. There are no lights out here and it’s a cloudy night so we set up the tents in absolute darkness so as not to draw attention to ourselves and our “wild camp” (illegal in France but widely tolerated if you are discreet and respectful). This proves a tricky matter for John as this is only the second time he has assembled the new tent, and an impossible one for Graeme who just bought his tent on the way to the ferry. Much to my consternation he resorts to a large, brightly lit camping lantern to assist him. I ready the air mattresses and sleeping bags and tidy up the straps and cords around the panniers.

During the night John and I are both woken up by an increasingly loud whooshing sound that I interpret as a large farm implement gradually making its way across the field toward us. While snores emanate from Graeme’s tent two feet away, we whisper back and forth. I say I fear it will either knock us about or roll over us altogether, and wonder if we should move the tent(s). John, inclined toward a supernatural explanation, suggests aliens are hovering about nearby. He pokes his head out the door of the tent to see what he can see, which isn’t much as it turns out, but as no large, dark shadowy shape is either heading toward or looming above us, we lay back down and wait it out. It crescendos then fades away and eventually we fall back asleep. In the morning light we learn that we are only a very short distance from train tracks, whence large passenger trains whizz by, from which we conclude that last night’s visitor was a slow moving freight train.

We are up and packed, about to ride off, when a small white car ambles off the road and makes its way over to us. Shit, I think. It’s the farmer, come to chastise us for camping on his land without permission. Quickly, knowing I’m the only one of us who speaks French, I run through a script in my head, scrambling to translate words like ‘trespass’ and ‘we’ll leave immediately.’ A man steps out of the car holding a paper bag. He’s smiling. As he nears us I return his smile and say Bonjour, hoping he’s seen the bikes are loaded and assumes we just stopped for a brief rest. He hands over the bag, which contains half a dozen croissants and a liter of orange juice, asks us where we are headed, and shakes our hands. “Welcome to France,” he says, “enjoy your visit.” Again I think, I love this country.

We ride further southeast and wild camp again, this time in a small public park near a river in a tiny village. It is the boldest choice yet for a campsite, and I worry we are too much in the public eye, but again we are tolerated, if not welcomed. We sit on a park bench and eat our dinner, food and wine we bought at a supermarket on the way, and watch the sky turn from amber to scarlet to indigo in what feels like minutes.

The next couple of days take us around Lac Leman, from France to Switzerland and back again. The one campground we stay at in Switzerland proves a disappointment: it’s expensive, the sites are small and all run together, we have to pay extra for hot showers, and the bathrooms are a far walk from the tent sites and supply no toilet paper, soap or towels/dryers. That night we have a beer in the onsite bar where a heated argument turns into a fistfight among a couple of men who appear to be locals and quickly becomes a brawl as men on both sides join in. Out on the deck we scuttle for cover as chairs fly in all directions, then John grabs my arm and propels me off into the darkness, away from the melee. Our unpaid bill remains on the table behind us. Ten minutes later we can still hear the shouting and commotion from the safe distance of our tent by the lake. Graeme, who has already retired to his tent by this time, goes into the bar the next morning for a coffee and, unaware of the previous evening’s goings-on, is presented with our bill and unquestioningly pays it. (By contrast, the campground where we stay the following night in Les Gets France called Camping Le Frene has large green sites neatly separated and treed, free hot showers with soap, toilet paper and hand dryers, a large warm swimming pool and a hot tub. There’s free wifi and two washing machines provided for guests’ use free of charge, with laundry soap thrown in. A drying room blowing hot air dries our clothes in a mere couple of hours, even my armored jeans. From our tent in the morning we can see Mt. Blanc and we eat fresh croissants just delivered by a local bakery. This is the best campground we land in during the trip.) IMG_0046.JPG

That morning we make a late start for Thonnon les Bains, the beginning of the Route des Grandes Alpes. It is apparent by now that three travel much more slowly than two. Whereas John and I were generally on the road by around 10am at the latest when it was just the two of us before, we haven’t gotten packed, loaded and prepared for the day’s ride before 11:30 or noon as a threesome. This irritates me, and I silently blame Graeme for it; he is both a chatterbox and a know-it-all, and just four days in to our 3 week ride, I am growing both impatient and weary of his company. John, however, feels encumbered by Graeme’s presence in an altogether different way – despite this being John’s trip and John’s itinerary, Graeme has appointed himself what he refers to as “group leader”, setting both the pace and the tone of the ride and causing one altercation after another by riding off ahead of us, not stopping when John does to take a photo, failing to either pull over and wait for us or double back to find us after leaving us in the dust, and/or not checking his mobile phone when we’re separated. Before leaving the Swiss campground they have it out and soon they are going in circles, neither of them hearing the other nor budging from their stance, their tempers escalating. After a fruitless 15 minutes (Graeme: “I have advanced motorcycle driver training!” John: “This is meant to be a casual and fun adventure, not a Nazi drill!”), we call it quits and wordlessly get on the bikes and head south. Though they don’t speak to one another again until they have to, John turns to me after we’ve set off and says, “Right, if he goes off on his own again, sod him, he can bloody well take his own trip and we’ll take ours!” For the rest of that day and well into the next they verbally tiptoe around one another, and both men seem to make an effort to stick close together while riding. After that I notice that Graeme pulls over when he can if John does, and on more than one occasion he pulls over before we do, having determined the location to be an “ideal photo opportunity.” He still, however, consistently drives away first (“A natural born leader” John mutters and rolls his eyes, clearly irritated but given now to counting to ten and only losing it once when we get separated for several hours, wasting daylight, petrol and riding time in trying to find one another.) Like good Brits they don’t discuss the matter again for the duration of the trip, instead cutting themselves off after a spiteful word or two and swallowing the rest in favor of more neutral territory.

Once underway down the Route des Grandes Alpes, we all quickly become awed to the point of mesmerized by the beauty around us. While I was impressed by the Pyrenees, I am gobsmacked, to use a common English expression, by the Alps, with their dramatically high and jagged peaks, their endless range (360 degrees on some passes) and the variety of geological features they encompass (year round glaciers, for example, canyons, forests and turquoise lakes.)


We climb higher and higher on roads that twist and turn like switchbacks of a hiking trail, passing cars, even motor homes, but mostly other motorcycles. Some, like us, take our time and stop frequently to take it all in, while others appear to be there not for the scenery but for the experience of riding these roads as fast as possible. I suspect some of them will only ever see these mountains days or weeks later when they replay the footage they captured via the Go Pro attached to their helmets. IMG_0058.JPG

After several days we meet a lone rider on a BMW at a pullout when we stop for photos and a bathroom break (which entails the men turning their backs and whizzing over the side of the mountain, no toilet paper, and all of 30 seconds, and me, if I have to go badly enough and there is no toilet in the vicinity, finding a bush or tree that has sufficient greenery to shelter me while I disrobe as little of my motorcycle gear as I can manage, pee on as few of my garments as I can manage but almost invariably my boots, and takes no less than however many squares of toilet paper I can rustle up in my pockets that I’ll now have to pack out used, and ten minutes.) His name is Alan and he’s Scottish like John, though he still lives there. Graeme, the gregarious one among us who I imagine wouldn’t hesitate to talk to anyone anywhere under any circumstances, quickly begins a conversation with Alan, and upon hearing his accent, John joins in. Within the space of several words John has identified where he’s from down to the neighborhood, his social and economic class. Listening in, I can barely make out a word Alan says, so strong is his accent. I realize that had John not lived in the south of England so long, I probably wouldn’t understand him either and thus our travels together would have been significantly more problematic. After awhile Graeme makes the unilateral decision to invite Alan to ride with us for as long as he likes which Alan accepts. Fortunately he’s a likeable guy, and we all get on well for the next two days and nights, after which he heads on alone for the duration of his ride through the Alps, an annual event we learn. Though married, his wife doesn’t enjoy riding motorcycles, so for 2-3 weeks every spring and fall he journeys by himself, once to someplace new in Europe and once through the Alps.

For the next week we ride through one mountain pass, or col as they’re called here, after another, reaching such high elevations that we have to stop repeatedly en route to layer up. I regret having left the lining to my jacket back home, as the polartec pullover I’m wearing underneath is bulky and not as warm as I’d expected it to be. I discover that my cotton neck wrap provides little warmth, and when it rains, that my heavy gloves are inaccurately labeled “waterproof”, nor are they much warmer than my summer gloves once the wetness seeps inside. The nights too take a sudden turn in the direction of cold, and the cheap sleeping bags from our ride through the Pyrenees in July are no longer adequate. Though it is only early September we are soon sleeping in our clothes and using our jackets as blankets.


We’re wild camping one night when I break down in front of John (or anyone) for the first time since this second leg of our journey together began. Until now I’ve managed to remove myself from the conversation or the situation when something said or done has triggered my grief, returning, mentally anyway, only after I felt sufficiently composed. Tonight it’s late and we’re lying in our tent talking. Graeme has been snoring and periodically mumbling in his sleep since about 30 seconds after he zipped his tent closed. I tell John I’ve never met anyone who can fall asleep as quickly as Graeme, which leads to both of us in turn recounting stories of former bedfellows and their sleep habits, which digresses further still into relationship stories. I’m acutely aware of the proximity of our bodies huddled together for warmth, clothed though they may be, and by now, after so many nights, so many hours spent lying beside him, many of them sleepless, I am tuned in to the sound and the pace of his breathing and in the silence between our words I hear my own heartbeat filling the gap and wonder if it might be his. I feel intimately connected to him in a way I haven’t to anyone in a long time, but the things he hasn’t said to me combined with the time and energy he still expends on staying in touch with Linda as well as another woman named Lucy (he confided in me on a similar late night a week or so ago) he became romantically involved with in Brighton while I was house sitting last month, tell me that he almost certainly doesn’t reciprocate my feelings. I suspect I’m not physically his type, which tends to be glamorous and very thin if the photos of the two L’s which I’ve seen in the photo log on his computer as we’ve scrolled through pictures together are any indication (though he surprised me one night recently by calling me sexy). I think too about the philosophical differences we have, which have crept into our conversations frequently and invariably leave us both frustrated and shaking our heads. I think about how hard relationships are, at least how hard they’ve always been for me, and about my poor track record. I wonder what I’ve learned, if anything, about yellow lights and second chances and gut feelings. As John drifts off to sleep I think about how truly alone in the world I am and how maybe this is a necessity under the circumstances as much as it is a consequence, and I fear it will always be this way. I think about the old saying that we are all ultimately alone, that everyone dies alone, and before I know it I am in Jackson’s car with him, in a way I never was, sitting beside him and watching in helpless omniscient horror as the oncoming car crashes into him, seeing with the eyes of a ghost twisted metal and blood, my child’s blood, hearing the sound of bones breaking, my child’s bones. I try to replace this image in my mind with a happy memory of Jackson the way Claire, my first grief counselor, taught me to do but it’s too late, I am gone. I picture the man who showed up on the scene, who later came to see me, who assured me that he sat next to him and held his hand and whispered to him over and over again “You are loved. You are so loved. You’re not alone”, who wanted me to know that while Jackson never regained consciousness, he wasn’t alone when he died. I picture myself there instead of him and because these things make no sense I imagine that the sound of my voice, the urgency of my words would have brought him back from the brink of unconsciousness and he would have held on until the EMTs arrived, who would have saved him, then beyond that I know if I’d been there in the car with him like I am in these PTSD flashbacks of my imagination, I would have taken the brunt of the crash, thrown myself between his body and the steering wheel, or it would have been me driving home not him. Either way he’d be alive. By now what began as slow quiet tears has turned into wracking, heaving sobs, and John is awake and alarmed. “What’s wrong?” he asks, sitting up, but when I don’t answer, just shake my head, he knows; he quickly takes me into his arms and holds me tight, alternately rubbing my back and smoothing my hair. Eventually I quiet down and he falls back asleep, and though it’s several hours more before I am calm enough to sleep, I’m intensely grateful for his presence, for his comforting embrace, because the only thing different about this night and countless other nights since Jackson died is exactly that – the feel of someone’s arms around me and his gentle shushing sounds competing with the sounds in my head and slowly drowning them out. It is at once the bittersweet reminder and the briefest of tastes of what I want so desperately but can’t find, maybe can never have, which is someone to love me through this.

In the morning my eyelids are swollen and dark puffy circles sit below them. I continue to weep on and off as we ride. John asks me if I’m okay repeatedly until I ask him to please just let me be, to let me cry because it’s what I need to do, and because I can’t stop it anyway. Graeme looks at me with narrowed eyes once or twice but asks me nothing, prattling on in his usual fashion. I wear my sunglasses all day indoors and out, and long after the sun has set.


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