Floors lay piled with boxes crammed with a life not lived for months. Rooms are now still and awkward like un-winnable life sized games of Tetris placed on pause. Having no stuff was quite nice in a way, fewer barriers to a new life when the clutter’s been left behind. It’s arrival heralds an end to the age of ignorance and ushers in a new work ethic. Build. A Home. In here somewhere, amongst lamps and chairs and black and white negatives is a treasured possession truly missed. An object that has waited for a retirement from the mud and the rain, a bike that was designed for a harsh life but deep down yearned to be ridden on warm dusty gravel.
Located. Serviced. Ready. The first outing in a long time. The first in a new and permanent home one thousand miles south. The first in a dry climate. A place of dust not mud.
32mm treads the way. Old tyres seeing the light of day for the first time in an age have a handful more rides in them yet. Natural ageing has made them a semi-slick in a knobbly world. They may have come here to die but their fading grip is to be a swan song perfect for these trails.
Facing south the 10k tarmac climb away from home turns right as it offers an off road dog leg left, down, off the road and into the garrigue. Dropping out and tuning in, snippets of paths are visible as far as the eye can see. Corner, climb, and drop. Forest track turns into fire road, turns into single track. Rumbling along a false flat, silence out there incubating the chain clatter at our feet. Hit pockets of warm sweet pine aroma. Fig and almond trees vie for the foragers preference. “Salut” is offered and returned with a warm wave. Baskets and tummies filling slowly with small and ripe fruits of red and green. Offspring sit and devour. Cyclists pass, little affects.
Paths get rockier as they get steeper. Climbing over unmarked cols reveals late afternoon light slicing the horizon into ridges. The Pyrenees appear faint but proud as the last grey line before the sky inks blue the remaining space. Corners taken at speed, remembering once more dry trails make fast smiles. Passed Alban’s bees, dotted over these hills, their hard work that so sweetens my mornings. Stop occasionally to fill jersey pockets with rosemary and thyme for a shopping list remembered.
Descending for an age on the path less gravelled to eat some distance before the last climb back into my valley. Jean Baptiste’s goats graze the fresh stuff on the rise opposite. Their gentleman’s agreement broken, they are off piste out here. Wood smoke slips into the sky from the only rooftop on this hillside. The locals know. When there’s smoke in the evening, the wood fired bakery in the hills will be selling bread tomorrow. No science involved, no opening hours or much any kind of plan. Just observe, anticipate, make sure there’s butter. Wonderful bread this way comes, occasionally.
Wind down along the edge of the vines. Careful not to upset the balance, careful not to hit the electric fences keeping the sanglier from eating this lifeblood. Sections too rocky walked tentatively. Opportunities for views taken. Pictures taken. Stop at the sundials for a last glance at the mountains before spinning back on the smooth dusty ring roads surrounding these small woodland cities in the hills. Look in any direction and there are vines, not so much dotted about as patchwork sewn into the landscape.
Overhead the red aeroplanes drone across the open sky fire spotting, relaying back to yellow Land Rovers crawling along the edges of the vineyards. The Sapeurs Pompiers sit at a makeshift picnic table under the shade of an olive grove on a ridge slightly above them, dappled afternoon light and olive leaves camouflaging this unofficial afternoon break. Their giant Unimog fire truck such a contrast to the delicate gingham tablecloth and cheese and bread being broken. “Bon App” called their way. “Bon courage” smiled back. There is paradox in this place, nothing really happens here and yet it is an environment alive with so much. There is wilderness, rock faces untouched, undeveloped, unspoiled. Nature goes about it’s business unknowing of anything different. Switch on at that frequency and there is a life rich in activity on this landscape.
Climbing for the last time, strong wafts of sulphur gulped unintentionally fill hungry lungs. Fresh, distinctive and not unpleasant a smell it scent’s the marking of vine territory last night under cover of night.
Last stretch back. Beckoned by the orange beacon of home. Every tarmac corner grows it slightly before disappearing it behind dusked hills. Stars emerging as blue fades into black. A nod from Thierry as he goes about his evening ritual of closing the car doors left open to air every day for years. Turn into the village to a wall of lavender aroma filling the streets. Miscias is distilling tonight. Bundles of flowers represent hundreds of hours of hard work on confident hands that will work further into the night until the oil is just a droplet.
Home is here. Unfurl three pocket’s bounty straight into the potatoes as the fire turns up. Smiles as bikes are stored, a layer of dust on everything as proof that there is more to these machines than mud and hardship.
30 in the shade, 75 on the pedals. Straying from the beaten path revitalising a familiar landscape, rebooting a yearning, reforming memory strands broken by years of cold and wet and grime. Dry smiles and cold beers all round. Lights on charge. Garlic wisps under noses en route to a laid table. No need for words. Eat. Smile. Repeat.