May 21, 2016

What can we say? Now that we’re here, we feel clueless. We spent years dreaming about cycle touring and getting our finances in order. We spent a year working our butts off to organize our lives so we could leave for 6+ months: quitting jobs, getting a visa, buying our gear, finding people to handle our affairs while we’re away, cleaning out the house so our friend could move in to house sit, setting up bank and credit card accounts that we can manage from abroad, and dealing with unexpected health issues and the subsequent health insurance billing hell.

But we spent virtually no time planning the trip itself. We knew it wouldn’t make sense to create an itinerary, since we’re going for so long and there are just too many variables (Julie’s pain in the a**, for starters). We know we want to be footloose and fancy free, available to enjoy whatever opportunities we stumble into.

So, beyond finding our first Warm Showers host in Paris, just south of Charles de Gaulle airport, we had no plans. Being carefree is one thing, but we should have at least looked at a French map and decided which direction we wanted to leave, no? Getting out of Paris on a bicycle is no easy feat.

And how do we find campgrounds in France? Uh, good question! Thank god for Berengere and Matthias who turned us onto a website that lists most of the campgrounds in France, who told us that the French word for camping is “camping” (whew, that’ll make it easy to remember!) and who got us headed to the nearest cheap campsite in the greater Paris area. Although she contained it really well, we’re sure Berengere was scared for us as we launched from her house into the great unknown.

Having four panniers and a handlebar bag apiece, plus a big duffle bag (called a “rack pack”), every time we need something is like popping a jack-in-the-box: Sproing! And suddenly, an explosion of gear, clothes, food, electronics, toiletries, and everything else we’ve brought with us is scattered in a vast circle around us. Poor Berengere! Despite our best efforts, we overran her family room and crept into the dining room.

Running errands in the rain in the suburbs of Paris
Running errands in the rain in the suburbs of Paris

We knew we needed fuel, but we had no idea how to translate “white gas” into French. We ended up with kerosene (not recommended!) and used that for a few days until we found an open gas station and filled our bottle with unleaded gasoline. (Many stations are closed because protesters are blocking fuel tankers from making their deliveries, but we’ve been lucky so far, finding fuel when we need it).

Pulling up to the gas station to buy fuel for our camp stove
Pulling up to an open gas station to buy fuel for our camp stove

In Paris, we bought all the groceries we can carry, enough for 1 – 2 days: We thought we purchased the ingredients for a pasta dinner and a chili dinner, only to find that we’d forgotten some of the ingredients or that we misread the French labels and ended up with not quite what we had hoped. So, we preface all our entrée names with “cowboy”: cowboy coffee, cowboy chili, cowboy pasta. I don’t think we’re quite ready to invite fellow campers over for a gourmet meal. Going Slowly (our greatest inspiration) would be proud of our efforts, if not our results.

When we arrived at our first campground, we spent an hour trying to remember how to put up the tent. While our tent, a Mountain Hardware Skyledge 3, has many capabilities, it is relatively complicated to set up and is by no means foolproof. The poles can be erected upside down. And backward. And yes, we managed to do first one and then the other. The tent, the fly, the poles and the ground cover all snap into various locations on a buckle at each corner of the tent. And we tried every permutation except the right one before we finally gave up and pulled out the instructions. When all else fails, read the instructions. Thank god it wasn’t raining! In about a month, we’ll finally be experts and be able to put the tent up in 3 minutes flat.

Do we have the tent poles right this time?
Do we have the tent poles right this time?

And navigation…Where to start with our navigation woes! Mark tested our navigation methods in and around Sacramento, but somehow, none of the problems we’re experiencing here ever surfaced back home.

We have a Garmin GPS and we’re also relying on Ride with GPS and Google Maps. The Garmin is supposed to be able to work without internet, so that was to be our main navigation tool. It’s rather cumbersome to use, but critical since it can be used offline. However, the first day, it tried to take us onto the French motorway. Uh…No!

Garmin GPS: A love/hate relationship
Garmin GPS: A love/hate relationship

So we decided that we should Ride with GPS, a bicycle routing website and app, frequently used by cycle tourists around the world. (It’s what Berengere and Matthias used, for example.) Except that it keeps trying to take us on single-track and mud roads through farmers fields! So then we tried to add Google maps to the mix, but it has barely helped. Aaargh!!! It has been very frustrating, but our navigation trials and tribulations have definitely added to the adventure, to the stories we’ll have to tell, and most definitely to our animal miles.

The learning curve is VERY steep, but we’ll persevere. Because we’re in FRANCE! On our BICYCLES!

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Cycling in the French countryside