Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Are You (Th)ready, Boots? No Sign of That

Columbia Trailmeister IV walking shoes

Steady rain all day Saturday washed the snow away. No sign of anything which might justify an orange alert. Although people at our nearest coast may not agree with that, many having suffered severe damage from a storm which was described as a mini-tsunami. Boats destroyed, people homeless, having lost everything.

So, Sunday morning, snowless at 500m, we set off for the market with me togged up with the intention of walking home. The route to Espéraza, like all roads out of Puivert, climbs a high pass, and we had not risen far before the snow conditions reasserted themselves. I seem to remember something about a drop of 1 degree centigrade for every 200 feet of elevation, which would give 3 degrees for every 200 metres, enough of a difference in temperature to make a big difference to whether snow lingers. The snow was limiting the width of an already narrow road so that walking would be dangerous, so another write-off.

Monday morning I managed to fit in the 30 kms walk from Mirepoix. Steady rain for most of the way, which made life a bit uncomfortable. For a change, I saw another person on the track before I reached Chalabre. He seemed as surprised to meet me as I was to see him. No sign of M. Partout in Chalabre.

I mentioned in a previous post that I am very attached to Columbia Trailmeister IV shoes, which have a wonderful combination of lightness, comfort and durability. Indeed, I stockpiled some of these shoes during our recent trip to America, to be used for VBW.

I am currently testing a pair to destruction and on yesterday's walk they crashed through the 1000 kms barrier. There is still plenty of wear in them. The soles are obviously depleted after hitting the ground more than 1,000,000 times, but they still have some distance to go. The tops show no sign of age at all. I now know that I shall need only two pairs for the walk. More importantly, the combination of these shoes and the Decathlon socks I have previously mentioned, have resulted in not one blister and no sore patches on the feet. Well done, Gert.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Blue Christmas

Well, it has certainly been a blue Christmas, until today. Not for the same reasons (a blue Christmas without you) that Elvis was warbling about in the song of that name, but because of blazing blue skies. For the past few days we have had brilliant sunshine during the day, with temperatures even into the teens, and brilliant starshine at night, with temperatures well below zero until the day really got going.

So, after a very disappointing and restricting few weeks, I have been able to get several good walks in. Even on Christmas morning, Gay and I were out while it was still dark and by just after ten, we had completed a walk of nearly three hours. The mulled wine and mince pies were well-earned.

We were out in the dark again this morning, driving to Lavelanet so that I could walk back. Snow was forecast, but had not yet shown itself as we went to the car. On the way to Lavelanet the flakes started to fall, but only in a lazy sort of way. We went to the boulangerie, where I bought a croissant aux amandes made by my friend and fellow guitarist Jesse. Took it into the bar next door and, together with the coffee I ordered there, it was my breakfast. A smug indulgence, when one is about to walk over 21 kms.

As usual, whle eating breakfast, we perused the morning paper. I was quite surprised to find my name in there. A bit of a late report on the concert which took place two weeks ago. I, "Vic, d'origine anglais", am reported as having added an international flavour to the concert.

A quick bask in this fame, a quick trawl with Gay round a very truncated market, and I set off on my walk (Gay was driving Spot home - yes, our car is called Spot!) as the snowfall began to look more serious and the sky was looking much more threatening.

In the first picture above the snow is decidely beginning to stick and I am still 15 kms from home. By the time the second picture was taken, walking is becoming a little more difficult, and my shoes are getting rather wet, but I have only 3 or 4 kms to go.

As she drove home, Gay heard on the radio that the Ariege (where I started my walk) and the Aude (where we live) and three other departements in the Pyrenees are subject to an orange alert (that sounds dramatic, but I don't know what it means exactly) today and tomorrow, with heavy snow promised, or at least threatened. It is still snowing, 2 hours after I reached home.

But spare a thought for our friends Margaret and Jim in Alberta. Earlier this month Margaret told us that, after a November in which, unusually, the temperature had not fallen below zero, they had started December deep in snow and at a temperature of -30 Centigrade. But, she said, they and youngest daughter Helen would be going to visit elder daughter Claire in Vancouver over Christmas, and there would definitely be no snow on the Pacific coast. Yesterday, Margaret, Helen and Jim were still trapped in Edmonton because there has been so much snow in Vancouver that the airports are virtually closed. Christmas is on hold for them.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When In Rome

Just back from Italy. The weather was kind to us. In fact it was blazing sunshine every day, cold at night and first thing in the morning, but warm during the day. Don't tell anybody, but the same applies here at home in the Pyrenees today, and the forecast (one forecast - it's amazing how they vary) is for several days of the same.

We didn't get much walking in, partly because we were there to spend time with our family but also because Italy is not the best place for walking, running or cycling.

Nicola's new home is at Formello, about 20 kms to the north of Rome. I must say that, from many points of view, including exercise, this is much better than the first place she had, an apartment in the very busy suburbs. In those days, nearly 20 years ago, both Gay and I were keen, competition-oriented runners, with a burning need to run 60 kms every week.

In the city, you could take one look at the traffic and forget the whole idea. Every Roman driver is a turbo-charged charioteer. His whole attention is centred on being in charge of one of four cars abreast, three inches behind and another three inches in front of other quartets, all racing towards an arch in an ancient aqueduct, the arch being designed to take two legionnaires marching shoulder to soldier, both having just completed six months of slimming exercises against Vandals and Visigoths. There is no room for modern pedestrians, particularly those of the jogging or walking variety, in this set-up. I am full of admiration for Italian runners because I know it must be so much more difficult for them to fit in their training.

There are a number of other difficulties. The Roman authorities seem to have forgotten about pavements in most of the residential areas, probably because of one of the other problems - parking. If there were any pavements, they would be covered with cars. Roman parking has to be seen to be believed. If you ever wondered why so many Italian cars are small, it is so they can be fitted into any two foot gap you might luckily spot between two other cars. We haven't worked out how they do this, but part of the secret is to go in at right angles to the others, using the pavement if it is there. We think they also breathe in very severely and shut their eyes. They are also very skilful drivers, who ignore insurance and, it would seem, consider a car without a few dents and abrasions to be not worth a Euro.

However, this lack of pavements, or constant obstructions if there is one, forces you onto the road and back to the mercy of the charioteers. These seem to be completely incapable of seeing any other road users, be they in a vehicle, on a bicycle or on foot. All very alarming.

It is not much better out in the country. The planning, Italian driving, the lack of understanding by the population and the attitude of drivers do not help the pedestrian, or give him any confidence in his survival prospects. The roads are somewhat quieter, but although there are less drivers per square inch, they are still Italian - every one a potential Formula 1 driver. Another major problem is the lack of verges and prevalence of high hedges. There may be nowhere to go when Ben Hur and Massala come racing down the road at you, taking up both carriageways. A true Italian pedestrian would probably go between them, as he would while driving, but we are not up to that.

The main road between our bed and breakfast and Nicola's house is a canyon. Just road. No pavement. Sheer grass banks on each side. The road surface awash with speeding commuters. Death Valley. This, and family commitments, meant that our walking was restricted to an amble from the b&b into Formello for breakfast (amazingly cheap in Italy), then back down a side road (which Nicola had kindly found for us) to bypass Death Valley. Then back again at night.

There will be much more action this week, if the weather holds to its promise.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lay Down Sally

Every time I hear that song, the title translates in my head from "Lay Down Sally" to "Get Under, Sam". When the world and I were young, I was in lodgings on a farm in Staffordshire. It was a big building with many rooms, most of which were occupied by young men like myself. Mostly we were new to the area and were staying on the farm until we found some more permanent accommodation. We were all very well looked after by the spinster daughter of the family, the very amiable Eunice.

But there were one or two longer term residents. One of these was Tom, a man of a certain age, probably a friend of the family, who was what they used to call, in those days, "simple".

Tom was quiet and unagressive but obviously felt that he was pretty much the bottom of the heap. Every now and again he would rise up to demonstrate that this was not so by asserting his authority over the dog, Sam. Sam was usually doing nothing to offend, but would calmly stroll under the table, as instructed by Tom. And everybody was happy, especially Tom, but Sam as well, who probably thought he was doing a great public service by helping Tom to feel good.

In the previous posting I said the band in the picture was playing "Take Me Home Country Roads". As soon as I turned up for my guitar lesson on Tuesday, Santiago told me that he had seen the blog and that we were not playing that song at that point. He could tell by the configuration of players on stage at that time (there were 20 or more guitarists involved in the concert, in total). So I am happy to post that correction, if only to let you know I can play more than one tune.

On Monday, the day before my lesson and a couple of days after the concert, there was a knock at the door and a woman from the local authority delivered a cardboard box, addressed to me. I opened it to find that I am now officially an old codger. It was a food parcel, delivered to all people of in the commune aged 67 (the official French retirement age) or over.

So there I was, basking in the youthful afterglow of playing in a country music concert, planning and preparing for a very extensive walk which would at least tax most of the much younger people I know. Suddenly, there is a solid reminder that I am in many ways not at all a young man.

But are we downhearted? Only by the fact that the food parcel consisted almost entirely of such items as foie gras, rillettes, cassoulet and other very expensive but also very meaty items. I am sure that all the other old people of Puivert were delighted - as in some ways I was - by the gift. But they will also relish the consumption thereof, while I have to confess to being a vegetarian.

The last week has been a total wash-out, walking-wise, because of the continued awful weather. Yesterday was the first fine day for a long time, but we were in transit to Italy, where we shall now be for a few days. Better weather here? I think, if anything, they have had more rain than we have in the past few weeks. We are just outside Rome, where a few days ago, for the first time in 75 years, the River Tiber burst its banks. There has been much flooding in the area and in the rest of Italy. Much of it is still visible. The forecast is not good.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Take Me Home Country Roads

That's the tune the band is playing. A band which includes me! Far out, as John Denver, who wrote the song, would have said. It certainly amazes me that last night I played the guitar in public for the first time in my life, at the age of 68. Actually, you will probably have to take my word for it. The picture isn't brilliant, as it was mostly dark on the stage and the flash camera did not reach those at the back, which is where I am. If you have a good magnifying glass, and if you are bothered enough to look, I am the fellow near the back, in the middle, with a red Mark Knopfler Stratocaster guitar. Actually, if you click on the picture, it will enlarge.

This has not been a good week for walking. Very wet, in brief. If it wasn't snowing it was raining. Which gave me lots of time to practice for the concert. The show was due to start at 9 pm. We were playing 34 songs (I was involved in 6 of those) for a line dancing exhibition. The line dancers were also doing some of their rehearsed moves to their own CDs, so there were well over 40 tunes in all. Clearly this was going to go on into the early hours of the morning, there were forecasts of further snow, the road from Puivert to Lavelanet goes over a high pass, prone to much deeper drifting than at lower levels, there was a danger of us having difficulty getting home, so we booked into a hotel overnight. Despite the plea in the song, the country roads may not have been able to take us home.

I had to be at setup and rehearsals in the market hall from 5 pm, so we checked into the hotel and Gay stayed there to read and await concert time. At 7.30 pm rehearsal suddenly stopped and line dancers and musicians trooped upstairs for a full-blown meal which miraculously appeared. I went to the hotel for Gay so she could come to join in - we had been wondering how we would be able to feed ourselves during the busy evening. We arrived back at the market hall to find that the doors were locked. After half an hour of futile banging on the windows (downstairs windows, and everybody was upstairs), during which a drunk asked us if we were looking for Chantale''s party, we repaired to a nearby small bar/restaurant for an omelette. The only two other people eating were two more drunks, but they were all very pleasant. By the time we had eaten our meal, it was nearly 9 pm and the doors were open.

The concert went well. It was strange, when Santiago was thanking all the musicians, to hear him say, in French "Mr Vic Heaney, from Blackpool, England." It reminded me of one of our first French (running) races, which was in the same town, Lavelanet. We had won a trophy each, in fact we still have several from races in Lavelanet, but we were delighted to receive a short speech from the stage, thanking us, as foreigners, for coming to grace their race. We never understand where the people are coming from, who say the French are unwelcoming - we have rarely experienced anything but friendliness.

Coincidentally, Randy Lofficier has a posting about that very subject on her blog Possumworld today. Click on Possumworld, under "Recommended blogs" on the right hand side of this page.

We were right to be cautious about the snow. When we got up this morning it was already making the road back to Puivert interesting to drive. Down at the Puivert level (500 metres) there was not too much snow on the road so we decided to unload the musical equipment at the house and proceed to Esperaza market as we normally do on a Sunday. Again there is a climb over a high pass, where the snow was bunching up again. Down in Esperaza there was nothing. Same in Couiza, where we attended the Christmas Fair, and in Quillan, where went to our normal coffee shop. Not a sign of snow. Back up the Col du Portel towards home, and we were above the snow line again.

A day for lighting the fire, bringing in a stack of logs, and forgetting any thought of trying to walk.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In Harm's Way

There is a 2-kilometre section of road between Quillan and home, starting at the top of the big climb, at the Col du Portel. This bit of road was closed for several weeks recently while they dug to replace the foundations, improve the drainage down there, and hopefully stop the road erupting so that in some places it more resembled the surface of a rough sea than a habitat for moving vehicles.

The same bit of road has again been closed for the past few days, forcing motorists into a diversion into higher territory. I walked along the closed road on Sunday but there was no evidence of workers, equipment or new work being undertaken.

There was evidence of hunters. They and their vehicles (closed road?) were scattered at intervals along the whole two kilometres. Perhaps the public highway was blocked off for their sole benefit. On the left (as I was walking) the wooded hill rises sharply, on the right it falls into the valley containing the lovely village of Brenac. From that valley I could hear the excited barking of dogs on the trail of their quarry, probably a wild boar or a deer. The sound was quite near, and rapidly approaching.

I had already passed some of the gunmen who were standing by the roadside every fifty to a hundred metres, when they all seemed to get very excited, clutching at their guns and becoming very anticipatory. The commotion was even nearer by now and from the attitude of the hunters, they were expecting their target to come bursting up the hillside and on to the road. Just behind me, as it happens. Looking over my shoulder I could see a rifleman running towards me and obviously ready to shoot the animal when it appeared. In front of me was another man, also running in my direction and equally ready to fire. Perhaps I was the only one who noticed that I seemed to be in the field of fire. What do you do in this situation? Fortunately the hunted animal came to my rescue by changing course and the tell-tale barking of the dogs moved away somewhat.

A little further along my walk, I was on a track which runs parallel to the road and a few metres from it. On my right was an open field. On the other side of the field I could make out that something was happening but I didn't know exactly what, because as it was raining, I had taken off my specs. I hoped it was not another hunting party. Especially when I saw something running very fast across the field in front of me. It turned very sharp left onto the track I was on, and raced straight at me. It was a hare. I stopped walking, hoping it would not see me and would run close by. Unfortunately it spotted me - possibly helped by the vivid yellow Goretex jacket I wear for safety when walking the roads - and swerved off again over the field. I still don't know whether it was being hunted, but there was a lot of dog noise in the blurry distance. But boy, could it run!

A couple of days before, while Gay and I were driving into Quillan along the road diversion previously mentioned, we had to slow for a couple of deer in the road. These were smaller than the usual type we see here, which are the same as red deer. A week before, Gay had seen a very similar pair of smaller deer in the woods while we were climbing the hill. I saw nothing, having fairly recently moved into blind-as-a-bat mode.

We have yet to see the animal described to us by Frank, a Yorkshireman who has a stall at some of the markets hereabouts. He lives in Quillan and told us that, while he was driving to Esperaza market one Sunday morning he saw a creature effortlessly climbing the bank at the roadside. It was a cat, but not as we know them. He insists that it was huge and like a black panther. I hope we don't meet that in the woods one fine day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Route 70(days), not Route 66

When I was a lad, before the invention of rock'n'roll, some of the biggest names in popular records were Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Nat King Cole and Johnny Ray. Frankie Laine had a big hit with "Rain, Rain, Rain" (behold the ark is made), while Johnny Ray used to cry (literally, he was a very emotional man with a hearing aid, collapsible legs and well-supplied tearducts) "Walking In The Rain" (just a-trying to forget).

Well, Johnny, I have been doing quite a lot of walking in the rain lately. And Frankie, if we could only get hold of a joiner round here (I have tried, this very day, to get one to come to do a small job for us, but he is booked up to the eyebrows), that ark would be taking shape in our courtyard.

We just do not remember having this sort of weather here in previous years. Normally we eat our lunch outside on most days, right up to the end of the year. Not last year, as it happens, because it was just so cold in November and December - again a departure from the norm. And certainly not this year.

Yesterday we read in the local paper that this November has been the wettest here for 50 years. Before you yawn and go to put the television on, I should say that this is not another rant about the weather. It is just by way of explaining how I have had time to do a bit more forward planning on the route, and even some preliminary searching for a mobile VBW HQ.

Given a certain amount of houseboundness, occasioned by the dreaded word beginning with "w", I have more or less finalised the broad outlines of my route for the big walk.

The French leg will take me from home in Puivert, more or less in a straight line to Cahors, then Sarlat le Canada (with its famous market), bypass Poitiers to the East, bypass Tours and Le Mans, both to the West, then to Caen and Ouistreham for the ferry to Portsmouth. I shall be walking in 30 kms stages, so for example the first night's stop will be in Mirepoix.

I have been immensely pleased to find that Multimap now gives a choice of walking route between two points, so I am using this to give me directions for the whole of the French section. Until quite recently Multimap would only give walking directions for up to 20 kms, which made the usage of it for a long walk rather difficult. It does seem to give mainly D-roads and to avoid the busy roads which are suggested for vehicles, so I have high hopes. Nevertheless, when we drive to Caen in a few weeks, on our way to a short round of visiting in UK before we head to New Zealand for the customary three months, we shall be driving the suggested walking route, to ensure that it is suitable.

For the UK bit of the walk, I shall be using Multimap again, but only for part of the trip. Walking in Britain, on roadsides, is a dangerous business. Pedestrians, like cyclists, seem to be invisible to the single-minded, must-not-lose-a-second drivers. France is much more user-friendly, especially to cyclists - not perfect with walkers, but much better than UK. There are other countries as bad, but they do not concern me as I shall not be walking there. In UK, to avoid roads wherever possible, I shall be walking on canal towpaths.

So Multimap will guide me from Portsmouth to Oxford. There I shall head north on the Oxford Canal, then the Coventry Canal, then the Trent and Mersey to Middlewich, a place where I lived at one time. The Trent and Mersey will have also taken me through Stone, another previous abode. From Middlewich I shall rely on Multimap again, although there are points where I may use the Liverpool Canal and also the Lancaster, before striking out for the sea, keeping Blackpool Tower in sight until I reach the house of my birth, ideally on my 70th birthday.

I had expected the planning of the route to take much longer. If the Multimap suggestions come up trumps it will have saved me a tremendous amount of trouble and I shall recommend them unreservedly. You will find them at:


This morning we went to Lavelanet, hoping against hope that the weather would improve so that I could walk home. Instead it became worse. I did not look forward to walking for three and a half hours in that volume of rain, with a temperature just above freezing. So that plan was abandoned and we drove instead to Pamiers. Pamiers is 50 kms from home and has a number of bigger stores where we can find things not available to us locally. We needed a few such things, so off we went.

While in Pamiers we called in at our nearest battlebuse - motorcaravan - RV - dealer and examined a few vehicles. One in particular we were very taken with. We are currently pondering. We shall use it for other trips, of course, but during the walk and also of course during our return home, it will be our home for at least 3 months. This one seemed about the right size for that purpose. Gay will be doing the driving during the walk so she has to be comfortable with the size as a vehicle. Watch this space.

The dealer would keep it for us until our return in May. We shall get some use out of it next year, and also familiarise ourselves with it. Because of the walk starting in May 2010, we shall not be going to New Zealand next winter but may feel inclined, especially if the winter is anything like this one, to head down to Spain or Portugal for a few weeks, for some warmth. Then in May 2010 it will come into its own and while I am doing VBW, Gay will be doing GBD - Gay's Big Drive.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lost and Found

There is a persistent reader of my blog in New Jersey, who came to the blog by searching on my name. This is obviously somebody who knows me, possibly the long-lost Chris Kelly.

Whoever it is, if you would like to get in touch, look at the section saying "About Me" on the right hand side of the blog. Click on "My complete profile". Then click on "e-mail" and Bob will be your uncle - you can send me a message.

I look forward to it.

This also applies to the mysterious visitor in Ledbury, or, as they say on radio request shows - anybody else who knows me.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bilin' Up

A bright, brilliant day, but v.v. cold.

What to wear? The temperature was -3 C. as I set off. The sun was blazing down, not having much effect on the air temperature, but I would be climbing nearly 400 metres and the sun would be on my back, making all my molecules sing and dance, bubble and boil. Once over the top, I would be in a cold, dark, sunless canyon where the sun never shines at this time of the year and the temperature, even on my back, would be down to -3 C. again.

I knew I couldn't win. Settled for a Helly-Hansen lookalike long sleeved thermal, over that a thin fleece, then my waterproof jacket, too much for the climbing and possibly not enough for the flat, especially if the wind was coming from Mr Putin's direction. Woolly hat and gloves the ideal accessories.

I was only a hundred metres into the climb when I started getting warm. Off came the gloves, then the hat. Before I reached the top, I was, as Huckleberry Finn would say, bilin'. I removed the jacket and carried it for a while. The inside was sodden.

Through the woods and out onto the carpark at the Col du Portel. A man in a BMW drove into the carpark and asked me if I had seen a girl on the road. I told him I had not come up the road, but on the walking track. He drove off. What was that all about? Is he just looking for a girl, any old girl? Is his inamorato a runner, to be picked up after she has run for an hour or something? Was there a lovers' tiff, did she go off on her own and now remorse is making him seek her? All these questions, and I will never know the answers.

As suspected, as soon as I started walking along the sunless road, my hot body rebelled against the drop in temperature and I had to put the clammy coat back on. From there until home, it was alternating cold, hot, cold and windy, and one sheltered spot of about 5 metres which felt like summer. But I kept the coat on-if it was wet inside, at least it was warm wet, until I stopped walking.

Fortunately, doing VBW from May to July I should not need to worry too much about clothing. Not heavy clothing, anyway. Or not much of the time. I have seen the temperture fall to 11 degrees here in May (after 36 degrees the day before) and I have seen it snow in UK in July. But hopefully this will not become the norm in the next 18 months.

A couple of days ago, just after my rant about weather forecasting, we were in temperatures of minus 15 C., only 12 miles or 20 kms from this house. I mentioned this to our very lovely friends Margaret and Jim Gregson in Edmonton, Alberta - a city where winters are so cold they open the shopping mall (largest in the world) an hour before the shops open, so that people can go in for a jog or a walk. I expected them to say, in the time-honoured Monty Python fashion "You were lucky, we have had ..." But Margaret told me that so far this winter, they have not had a temperature below freezing, or even any snow on the ground.

I feel another rant about the weather coming on!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Other Big Walks 2 - John Hillaby - Journey Through Britain

It was 1968 when I first read John Hillaby’s famous account of his walk through Britain. He had made the journey the year before, at the age of 50.

The book is memorable for me in a number of ways. It the first of many volumes which I have read over the years about prolific walkers. Also, when I was searching for the book recently, to refresh my memory and to see if I could glean any useful tips from it, I had a very clear picture in my mind of the book cover (pictured above).

Another thing about the book is that it demonstrates to the user that it is not written by a superman. Hillaby frequently expresses doubts about his ability to go on. He gets miserable and hates what he is doing. He is not above admitting that the offer of a lift can be tempting. Even on the first day, a few hours after setting off from Land's End, he is overcome by weariness and has a 20 minute kip before he can carry on.

He carries a tent and gear for self-sufficiency, but is always very pleased to come across a hotel at the end of the day. Just as well – on his very first night, camping in St Ives, he is moved on by the police. It is no fun being a vagrant in Britain.

His route is of no use to me. His objective was to walk the length of the country without, if possible, setting foot on a public road. Because of the time constraints I have set myself, I will be doing the opposite, although a cunning plan is forming in my mind to avoid traffic for much of the British leg of VBW by walking on canal paths.

After a few days his calf muscles go on strike and he thinks the walk has come to an end. The hotel porter, "an ex-professional in the boxing game" is called in for a consultation. He recommends exercise. A reporter comes looking for the person walking to John o’ Groats, just as Hillaby hobbles out of a lift with a stick.

He gets going again, and re-discovers those days when the walking becomes effortless and almost sublime, somewhat like the so-called “runners’ high”.

How the world has changed since 1967. At a launderette in Stoke, he thinks it worth remarking that a young woman is washing, among other things, a man’s shirt and underwear – and yet she is not wearing a wedding ring! Oh, shame and scandal in de family!

Of course, he meets interesting people and sees fascinating places. It is a book worth reading, but with my planned activity, I am re-reading books like this on the lookout for tips. There are several here for me. One is to plan the route well, especially in the matter of avoiding traffic – British drivers are not noted for giving pedestrians a wide berth. Another is, yet again, to drink plenty. A key factor when walking long distance, one which I believe I already have covered, is to be very careful in the choice of footwear. Hillaby went to great pains to find shoes which were more flexible and supple than the army-style clompers which hikers of the period normally used, and yet he had foot problems. In fact he lost most, possibly all, of his toenails. Amazingly, one pair of shoes lasted the whole trip, but only just - the soles were falling off near the end and he had to sew them on again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Here Is The Weather

This morning as I walked home from Quillan there were two factors not experienced for a while. One was the crunch of frozen ground underfoot and the second was snowflakes in my eyes.

The rain turned to snow yesterday. I know I said recently that there was snow on the Pyrenees, but now it has come down to our level (our house is at 500 metres above sea level). We had quite a lot of it yesterday. I thought we were going to get snowed in, but the wet ground and a temperature of 3 degrees kept it away. When I drove to Lavelanet - immediately out of Puivert the road climbs to about 650 metres - the snow was quite thick by the side of the road and had obviously been snow-ploughed off it.

Today the temperature is down to zero, but fortunately not much snow falling, just enough to look pretty. The forecast in one of the local newspapers, which was correct for a change, was for some "floçons" (snowflakes, although it can also apply to cornflakes, et cetera). Floçons is a funny word. It has a cedilla under the "c". The cedilla is a diacritical mark which is supposed to soften the "c" into more of an "s" (actually into a Visigoth letter) but in this case it seems to harden it into a "k".

Despite all those floçons and cedillas, I suppose we should celebrate the fact that we found a weather forecast which turned out to be true. As with most people, it has come to my attention, almost every day in fact, that weather forecasting is one of the most inexact sciences in existence.

Our two local newspapers almost always give completely opposite forecasts. They can't both be right, and frequently neither of them is, although it may just be a cartel agreement between them to increase the chances of success.

To anyone who lives in a mountainous or even moderately hilly area, it is quite clear that the weather changes every time you pass along a road and into and out of different types of terrain. Of course the hills have an effect on microclimate, and so many other things do also. So how could a weather forecast for the broad areas favoured by weather forecasts be meaningful?

And what about the number of times you see the forecast on tv, or hear it on the radio, when it should be pretty much up to date - the forecast says blue skies - you look outside and it is raining - if they don't know what it is doing at the moment, how can they tell you what it will be doing tomorrow?

I have been involved in weather forecasting to a degree, so have a bit of inside knowledge. Even more than most people without that involvement, I am aware of the huge sums expended, and appalled by the puny, unreliable results.

When I was, I think, the youngest Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy, I was part of the team on one ship which would take, every few hours, readings of sea temperatures, wind speed, air temperatures, and the like, and transmit them post haste (using what is now an archaic item - the morse key) to the Meteorological Office. One of my few souvenirs of those days is an award from the Director General of the Meteorological Office for my "services at sea" to weather forecasting.

Strangely, in my next job, which was in an intelligence organisation of which, at the time, even the very existence was top secret and beyond revelation, one of the confused cover stories some of us (!!) were given, to be produced in answer to queries about our role, was that we worked "at the Met Office place". We didn't, although strangely enough, that same organisation now ranks, I believe, with the Met Office in terms of its expenditure on huge computers. (The existence of the organisation is now known, but I don't know whether there has been any coordination about a cover story for what they actually do).

I became aware of the enormous expenditures on Met Office computers in my next job, for a computer manufacturer. I don't have the figures at my fingertips, but the amounts, as well as the number-crunching supercomputers, are gigantic. And that is just in one small country. Almost every country has its own forecasting organisation, so the cost must be colossal.

And the results? You know that as well as I do. The gnarled peasant casting an eye at the sky or toeing the ground is just as likely to be correct as the output from these gold-gobbling goliaths.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In A Lonely Shack By A Railroad Track ...

Laroque d'Olmes Railway Station - and Disco
You will recognise that as the first line from the song "The Wayward Wind".
It goes on .. "I spent my younger days", but it is one of my older days I spent there, in fact one of my days in my 69th year, in fact today.
First, a confession. I have walked only 3 days this week, because on the other days it has been lashing down, and at the moment I have a choice. All three walks were substantial - 30 kms from Mirepoix on Monday, 16 kms from Quillan on Wednesday, and 21/22 kms from Lavelanet on Friday. It is the last of the three with which we are concerned today.
After about 5 kms of the walk, I passed the building pictured above. Having done the walk several times, I had barely noticed the building. It is one of many ex-railway stations on this route. I had not even spotted that fact, because the sign saying "Laroque d'Olmes" is whitewashed or faded.
I took a good look at it on Friday because two days before I had discovered that it was to be the scene, today, of several firsts in my life. I have mentioned before my excellent guitar tutor, Santiago Cozar. Three or four times a year he organises a concert in Lavelanet, starring 20 or more of his students. He is obviously proud of the skill he has imparted to all these people, and likes nothing better than to front up various combinations of them, usually with him playing one of the lead guitars and also acting as lead vocalist. We have attended several of these concerts and have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the musicians, many of whom are teenagers or even younger.
Now I was over 60 when I started to learn guitar and, due to the rurality of my location, could not find a tutor and was largely self-taught for most of that time. Three years ago I discovered Santiago and have been having lessons with him weekly during the time I spend at home. Being a bit of a Wayward Wind and a restless world traveller, this means I have probably had 3 lots of 6 months of weekly lessons. Nevertheless, for some time Santiago has been trying gently to persuade me to get up on stage in one of his concerts. It was never part of my plan to play in public - I just wanted to be able to quietly play a few tunes to myself. Also, each time I was asked, I genuinely felt that I was not good enough, and was puzzled that he was prepared to exhibit me amongst his youngsters.
This year he seems to have snared me and I will be playing five tunes at a line-dancing concert in a very few weeks time. I have already missed some of the rehearsals because of my absence in America and felt honour-bound to go along to today's practice.
On Wednesday Santiago told me that the concert is now a week earlier than I was previously informed, due to non-availability of the market hall because of a Christmas Fair. He also told me that some of the tunes I had been learning would not now be used and I had to learn two new ones. In addition he told me that the rehearsal would be at the disco at Laroque. I had no idea where this is. The French frequently and sensibly place their discos outside residential areas and his explanation made it clear that this disco is in the very same building I walk past once a week - the disco signs are on the other face of the building.
So today's rehearsal was the first time I have ever played guitar with any other musicians. It was also the first time I have been inside a disco. What a sheltered life I have led. There were twenty or more guitarists involved, with different combinations of five or so playing each tune.
As I drove away after the session, I thought the car sounded different. Then I realised that I had been temporarily deafened by my first visit to a disco. A sheltered life indeed.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Whose idea is this anyway?

How about this for a coincidence!

We have just received the village newsletter "Le Petit Puivertain". Normally we get this at the beginning of the month but we were away in election land, so we missed it until now.

It's not the only thing we missed. One of the news items is about a 70-day walk! It seems that while we were away, the village played host to a group of walkers who are taking 70 days to toddle 1300 kms across the Languedoc, the original Occitan-speaking land which is now part of France, from the Atlantic end of the Pyrenees to the Alps.

Unfortunately I don't know anything more about their objectives or motivation, or why they selected the magic figure of 70 days, but it would have been very interesting to have met them and to have compared notes.

Maybe if we get in the car and dash off in the general direction of Italy, we can catch up with them and see what's what.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Missed Opportunities

As promised, I walked 30 kms on Monday. Mirepoix to Puivert. Once again I saw not a single person in the first 21 kms. Strangely, the first human I encountered, in Chalabre, was the same one as last time - a man we call Monsieur Partout. Years ago, after we had encountered him in several of the locations hereabouts, he said to us, "Je suis partout!" - "I am everywhere". So he does not realise this, but he saddled himself with the soubriquet of Partout forever.

As usual, I had a rest day on Tuesday. This is because Tuesday is the day of my weekly (when I am here, which is about half the Tuesdays of the year) guitar lesson. So I spend the morning catching up on the practice I should have done, and the afternoon at the lesson in Lavelanet with my tutor, Santiago Cazar.

This morning I walked 16kms, so the average for the three walking days so far this week, getting into the swing of it again after the Presidential election hiatus in USA, is over 20 kms a day. That is fine for this stage and about two thirds of the daily rate I shall require for VBW, when I shall have to maintain 30 kms a day, 6 days a week for 10 weeks.

This morning's walk was the same as Sunday's, from Quillan, except that it was cold and raining (the people of Quillan will tell you that it always rains on Wednesday, because that is market day). The scene of Sunday's photograph was a little greyer today, but still beautiful. The normal route of this walk, unlike most of VBW, is off-road. There are only about 3 kms where I have not much option than to walk at the roadside. But today, because I knew the tracks would be muddy, and because I know I will have to get used to walking with the traffic, and because the last time I tried that on this same route it was the busy month of August, I decided to try it again. So it was up the hill by track, then 10 kms on the edge of the road.

It was indeed much quieter than August, and bearable, although I still had to keep a weather eye on the traffic behind me. I was walking on the left, against the flow of vehicles but, as I have said before, the real danger is with overtaking vehicles, which can pass very close to one, and the drivers of which do not seem to realise that a walker can slip, stumble or lurch sideways. And of course, their own judgement may not be perfect.

There were a few large trucks and once again I was struck by something which I have noticed, not only here in France, but in UK, USA, New Zealand, Australia - in fact virtually everywhere I have been. It is the waste of marketing opportunity by the vehicle owners. Some vehicles have the name of the company, maybe the telephone number, sometimes even a website. Occasionally a snappy but usually meaningless phrase. But very few tell you what the companies actually do. So you are hardly likely, when stuck in a traffic jam behind one of these uninformative missed opportunities, to make a note of the details. Even if they provide a service you desperately need, you are not going to know.

A few words are all it requires. Or one word. Gay and I were driving up the M5 in England a few years ago. We were behind a refrigerated truck which had this emblazoned across the back, and probably on the sides as well:


I can't be sure about the validity of the upper and lower cases in my version, but that sign told us everything we needed to know about the lorry's business - the vehicle was refrigerated, the business was import and export, the proprietor was called Davies and was probably Welsh, and he had a sense of humour. Being Welsh he could probably sing it. Of course there were contact details as well. If we lived in the country and had need of those services we would have made a note of the phone number and Bob would have been his uncle.

As it is, even without a need, we have never forgotten it. Clearly.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On The Road Again

A view this morning from halfway up the climb, looking down over Quillan towards the Gorge de Pierre Lys

Home from the excitement of the Obamathon. We arrived at 2 a.m. yesterday morning, having driven from Gerona in Spain. We hadn't been in bed long when the doorbell rang. Nobody there. I went back to bed, shivering because the house was very cold after being empty for 3 weeks. Just nodding off when the bell went again. Still nobody there. This is not the first time it has happened - the last time was accompanied by spontaneously snapping guitar strings (nobody was touching the guitar at the time) - and it is a little spooky. Figuring that not even spooks can ring a bell with no batteries, I removed them in order to get some sleep.

After all this, it was a little later than usual when we awoke. There were things to be done in Lavelanet, so we drove over there. It was cold and very bright. From the high points on the way we could see that the Pyrenees are now swathed in beautiful white snow which is not going to go away until the middle of next year - the dusting they had a few weeks ago soon disappeared but this lot is here to stay.
It was a super day for walking back from Lavelanet along the old railway line and I was sorely tempted, but there were jobs waiting at home after our absence. It was still beautiful weather after lunch, so Gay and I had a 6 kilometre circular walk through Campgast and another couple of villages.
Today after Esperaza market I started walking in earnest again, walking the 16 kms home from Quillan, using the second track we very recently found from Quillan to the Col du Portel, there rejoining the walk I have been doing regularly for some months. Not as sunny as yesterday and accompanied by a very strong, cold wind. It was hard work. The regular 7.5 kms morning walk on the flat in Indiana was worth doing, but my legs have obviously missed the climbing.
Tomorrow I have a 30 kms walk planned from Mirepoix, weather permitting. There is a bit of a problem with clothing for walks at this time of the year, even if it is dry. Especially if doing something social before the walk, such as going to the market, shops, or visiting someone. Normal clothes have to worn for that. Then there is the matter, especially when extensive, warm climbing is to be done, of needing less clothes for one part of the walk than for the rest. That problem was reversed this morning because the wind was only in the second half of the walk. At one stage I almost put my gloves on, which is unheard of - I am normally taking them off after a couple of miles, not putting them on after 13 kms.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Baggage, Not Us, Gone Walkies

I write this in our hotel in the Lake District. Outside the window is all that lovely scenery and of course all that spectacular walking. But not for us. No walks here. We have no kit. In fact we have only the clothes we arrived in, a guitar, a computer and a carry-on bag containing books and other in-flight necessities.

We left America on Tuesday. Jane and Lorenzo drove us to Nashville and dropped us at the airport. We thanked them for their wonderful hospitality and for letting us share their excitement as we watched history together. At Music City Airport we jumped through all the hoops as usual, including all that nonsense about taking our shoes off, made it to the boarding gate, sat there for hours because there was a storm in Chicago, boarded the aircraft, sat there for hours while the plane also sat there for hours, and eventually it was allowed to take off.

At Chicago we had to run from one terminal to another and just made it to the Manchester flight. But apparently our luggage did not. What fun it was to stand at the luggage carousel in Manchester. The man next to me was concerned, because everybody else seemed to be getting their bags, that his would be missing. It wasn't, but I had taken the opportunity to tell him, with the seasoned traveller's air of weary off-handedness, that four times in the past our luggage had gone astray. He didn't stay long enough for me to let him know that the score is now five.

Yes, we were left standing with an empty carousel. The man at the complaints counter says our stuff could arrive on the same flight today, in which case it will be delivered to the address we gave him, of our friends in Stockport. What happens if that fails I do not know, because tomorrow we leave the country for Spain and France.

What a pity we do not still have the card insurance we had with our Cyprus bank, when we lived there. With that cover, they had to pay us, after the first four hours of missing luggage, 80 dollars for every further hour until the luggage was in our hands. Unfortunately there was a limit of 1000 dollars payout. On one occasion, Gay's bag was absent for four days. Compensation , without the limit, would have added up to several thousand dollars. Still, we were quite happy to accept the thousand they paid up without question.

Of course, our bags may totally disappear, in which case we are covered. But can you remember exactly what is in your luggage, and how much it is worth? No, neither can we.

p.s. Later in the day. We have been reunited with the miscreant baggages, so we are now able to change our clothes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No Sweat ...

... Not true, especially using Lorenzo's Ropes - you get a real work out and will need a shower when you finish. The Pilates exercises are more gentle but just as effective. A combination of the two would be excellent. Together in an exrcise programme with your walk or run, the result will be a fit you.

If you want to know more about the types of exercises mentioned in the previous post on this blog, information and equipment is readily available on or via the Internet.

For instance, the "Lorenzo's Ropes" type exercise can be done using either resistance tubing or resistance bands. Search on either of those phrases will produce lots of information.

Amazon have an interesting book described if you click on this:


They also sell various types of resistance tubing or bands, such as:


A "Swiss ball, together with an instructional DVD is here:


Books about "Pilates on the Ball" are available with or without accompanying DVD here:


A free training video in one type of resistance tube training, using a bench, is here:


These are just examples. There are many more books, DVDs, suppliers of equipment and demos available using a simple search.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Learning The Ropes

Lorenzo The Magnificent and his Ropes - in action

The weather has continued to be kind so we have managed to fit in the squirrel/groundhog/bison walk each morning. But in addition, we have taken the oportunity of being here to get Lorenzo to teach us some bad weather exercise routines.

I have mentioned Lorenzo's Ropes before so I had better explain what they are. We first met Lorenzo when we were all passengers on a ship. An enormous cargo ship, designed to carry 3,000 cars, but with a few passenger cabins. I once worked on ships and during this trip I was able to confirm what I already knew, which is that to travel as a passenger on a cargo/passenger ship is an exceedingly splendid way to get around the world. Officers on a ship eat very well - part of the plan to encourage them to stay - and passengers eat with the officers.

We and our Toyota Camry were travelling from Cyprus to Italy, via an unexpected detour to Israel, on the Fides. Our disembarkation point was near Naples, but first there was a call to unload and load cars at Palermo in Sicily. A lone cyclist came aboard with his bicycle. We met him at dinner in the officer's dining room. He was Lorenzo, who had sold up his business in America and was touring Europe on his bike. He had already spent several months in Italy, and was aboard the Fides until it reached Barcelona, where he intended to disembark to cycle round Spain.

The ship spent a couple of days in Palermo, instead of a few hours, because it was a public holiday and the alternative would have been to pay the dockers enormous sums of money. So with that and the trip onwards to Naples, we probably spent 3 days with Lorenzo but we became firm friends and have stayed in touch ever since. We have visited him and his wife Jane at their previous home in Florida and also here in Evansville. They have been to stay with us in France. They are lovely warm, kind and generous people and are among our best friends in the world.

Lorenzo was not only spending several hours a day on his bike in Europe, but also had a daily exercise routine which took about an hour. I think he will not mind me telling you that he had previously been very overweight and in bad physical condition - so much so that his doctor had given him a short life forecast if he did not do something about it. Lorenzo took this seriously and turned himself into a fit man. At the time we met him he was about 57 years old. In the picture above, taken this week, he is approaching a very fit 70. Each day on the Fides we would see him going through his routine, which involved quite a lot of hauling around on rubber tubes such as those you see him exercising with in the photograph above. We dubbed these "Lorenzo's Ropes" and have known them as such ever since. They are extremely portable but are a very good substitute for a set of weights. Virtually any movement you perform with weights can be reproduced against the resistance of these ropes. I have used them extensively. They are excellent.

However, he has since moved on to a routine of Pilates exercises using what is known in some quarters as a Swiss ball, an inflatable sphere big enough to sit on (there is one in the picture, behind the Steven Spielberg lookalike) . All very gentle, not too many repetitions of each exercise, the ball is used both for resistance and support. Having spent a week doing 40-50 minute sessions, I can highly recommend it. Good stuff for when you are prevented by the weather from going out for a run or walk, but also good, supported, non-impact and non-strain exercise, especially for the more mature body.

A key objective of Pilates-on-the-ball is to strengthen the core muscles, which of course in turn leads to strength in the back and hopefully being less prone to back problems.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Walk In The Park

Up slightly later than usual this morning, after staying awake to watch the miracle of America electing an African-American to be the next President.

A sunny day, as it has been since we arrived in the USA a week ago. Cool, because it was before 7 a.m. Groundhogs still hiding in wait for a bit of warmth. Squirrels slow to get going. Buffalo still frozen in bronze horror at their fate at the hands of man. A walk no more or less invigorating than others. But it felt like a new world out there.

I was pleased to see last night that John McCain, in his gracious and generous concession speech, referred to something I mentioned in my blog a few weeks ago. He drew a comparison between the outrage about Theodore Roosevelt allowing a distinguished black man, Booker T Washington, into the White House as a guest, and the political earthquake which took Obama into the Presidency. I know that somebody from Washington was scouring my blog recently. Also somebody in Arizona. John McCain's speech writers? They have to get their information and ideas somewhere. Why not here? Glad to have been of service.

Another memory came to me as I walked. I think it was 1964 when Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed through the act which allowed African-Americans to vote. At the subsequent election, much was of course made of this in TV and radio coverage. The basic theme was - would these millions of new voters have an impact on the result? But it seemed that so many of the newly-enfranchised black people were reluctant to use their vote, either because they did not like the choice before them (which of course did not include, especially at the higher levels) any of their own people, or because they were afraid. I remember especially one old black woman who, when asked how she would vote, said "I ain't gonna vote on that day, I'm gonna pray to the good Lord, I'm gonna pray to the good Lord!" Well, I hope she is still with us, so that she can pray to her good Lord, to offer thanks for this miracle.

Yes, He Can!

America has spoken, spoken wisely and spoken well.

Non-Americans frequently sneer or express exasperation at the US political process - the seemingly perpetual election campaigns, the money spent, the razzamatazz. But tonight's result is a vindication of the democratic ideal here.

Centuries of bigotry and suspicion have been overturned. The results will be incalculable in their effect on relationships between the different ethnic groups.

And the United States has again, at last, after a very long time - and I am not just referring to the disastrous George W Bush era - a president of which it can be truly proud.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Home Where No Buffalo Roam

Bison Family

Another picture taken during our morning walk in the park. A buffalo family. Actually a bison family, buffalo being a misnomer. But these bison are made of bronze and they are the only ones we are likely to see.

The history of this animal in North America is very, very sad. Or should I say that, of their 100,000 year sojourn here, the last few hundred years have been a disaster. It is no coincidence that this period coincides with the presence of Europeans in the New World.

Before the Europeans arrived, there were an estimated 30-70 million bison in this continent. They stretched from Alaska into Mexico. Fossil remains have been found of herds from more than 100,000 years ago.

The herds were immense. They stretched beyond the horizon. You could stand in one spot, while the bison were on the move, and they would take days to go past you.

Before the arrival of Europeans bison provided native Americans with an unending supply of food and raw material for tools, clothing and other products. Also, they were considered to be spiritual beings the consumption of which would sustain the inner life.

Herds could number from 500 to more than 500,000. This huge natural resource and triumph of nature was carelessly slaughtered, within a few decades, by Europeans for greed, profit, fun and sport. The pieces taken were generally hides and tongues – the rest was wasted.

Even more shocking, bison were deliberately wiped out as part of successful government policy to destroy the native Americans.

A poignant fact is that these creatures did not originate in North America, but in Europe. Long long ago they crossed the land bridge which then existed between Asia and Alaska. They thrived and prospered. But eventually Europeans followed them and the idyll was quickly ended.

By 1889, less than 1,000 bison were left and those were saved by the combined efforts of William Hornaday (Director of the Bronx Zoo) and a small group of ranchers. In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed to save the bison and protect rangeland for the animals. Today, those efforts are carried on by the National Bison Association and the Canadian Bison Association. The bison herds of today number in excess of 350,000 and are growing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

No Groundhog Day

Evansville State Hospital Park

We finally got the walking underway yesterday. A 7.5 kilometre march to and through the nearby park pictured above. There are wonderful colours in the plentiful trees in the park and surrounding area. Apparently, due to a conspiring combination of climatic circumstances, there are many more trees still in full leaf than is usual at this time of the year. As if they waited for us to arrive before entering the full glory of their autumn/fall display. The weather is also superb, meaning that we enjoy the show in good light and comfort.

There is an amazing abundance of grey squirrels - it seems one for every tree. They scamper, hide and climb to amuse us as we tear at full tilt through their terrain. Despised in England because they have "driven out" the native red squirrels, they are still of course lovely and lively animals, wherever they are.

We repeated the same walk this morning, including a reprise of one disappointing factor of yesterday's expedition. On Saturday Gay had been for a run in the same park and had seen a groundhog, so we were hoping to catch one of these during our early morning walk. Maybe we were too early for them. They do like a little warmth before they venture forth. One of Lorenzo's friends says he has seen them emerge just to the mouth of their burrow as the sun starts to hit the ground. They wait there until the rays hit them, then absorb some heat for a while until they feel revved up enough to start their day. Maybe we should go out a little later, but we like to get the exercise out of the way early so that it does not interfere with the rest of the day for our hosts, as well as for ourselves.

Although a beautiful day, it was much cooler today than yesterday. There had been noticeable dropping of leaves during the night - usually a reliable indicator of a drop in temperature (although a lovely warm day is forecast today). But for our early foray, even the squirrels seemed to be slower to get going, so maybe it was a bit much to expect the groundhogs to put in an appearance. Or maybe they were off making another movie?

On the way to and from the park we were reminded that during our visit here, we are not only experiencing the amazing election, but we have also taken in an American Halloween. This is a much more extensive thing than it is in Europe. There are stunning displays of Halloween figures almost filling some gardens and porches - still. But another Halloween custom took us completely by surprise. It seems that on Halloween day, it is permissible to wear anything you like, to dress up not necessarily as a frightening Halloween character. For instance, we were in Barnes and Noble, the big bookseller, on that day. A woman came in, wearing a wedding dress. She married in August and wanted to wear the dress again. So she would be wearing it for the full day. A member of staff was dressed as Death.

This morning, not only are gardens and houses still decorated for Halloween, but some are already decorated for Thanksgiving, for "Happy Harvest", and we even saw a house with a wreath containing an early greeting for a Happy Christmas!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Down on 6th and Main

Another day without walking. We meant well, but instead of exercise, we spent the morning under the steely gaze of this Secret Service man and others like him. (I have only just discovered this - if you click on the picture, it will become bigger and will give you a much better impression of his intimidatory presence).

We were scheduled to start our Evansville walking this morning. Lorenzo is a baker, part-time only these days. Like most bakers he starts work in the middle of the night, so he was not able to join us this morning. Instead, having kindly mapped out a route of nearly 5 miles for us (kilometres being unknown here in the USA) he drove us round it yesterday, while Gay took notes.

The intention was that we would arise as soon as it was light today and charge round the the new walk before breakfast. But politics intervened. To remind you, we love to visit our friends here, but the reason we chose this particular time is so that we can experience the presidential election at first hand.

I thought that meant that we would be absorbing the excitement of our friends and other people as the process nears and reaches its denouement. And that is happening. We have certainly never experienced, in Britain or Europe, the ferment, the round the clock coverage on television, the fact that the people are so involved and in discussion all the time, about the decision to be made. I think that elections are always a more intense process here but probably even more so this time, with the very real possibility that history may be happening as we watch, to the greater or lesser pleasure of all those able to cast their vote.

What we did not expect is to actually see one of the candidates in full flow. Yesterday we discovered that Senator Joe Biden, the running mate of Senator Obama and of course candidate himself for Vice-President, was to appear at a rally in downtown Evansville this very morning. He was scheduled to speak at 10 am, so Jane thought we should be in position by soon after 8. This was too good an opportunity to miss, also an opportunity which snookered the planned walk. Tomorrow, without fail.

The rally was held at the road junction of 6th Street and Main Street. I suppose we were standing in the middle of the junction, which was fenced off, of course, and with a stage erected in the middle. There was a succession of speakers, most running for office themselves, further down the Democratic ticket. Then there was Jill Biden, the wife of Joe Biden, who said she really liked the fact that we were outside the Historic Victory Theatre - she was impressed by the sound of that, and clearly thought it was an omen. Then came the Senator himself, who made an excellent, rousing speech before circling the foot of the stage to press the flesh, a feat he managed even though completely surrounded by Secret Servicemen like the one pictured above.

It struck me a little too late that if we had spoken to one of the advance men before the actions started, and told him that we had come all the way from France to witness the victory of Obama/Biden, we may very well have been treated to a special handshake and a few kind words from the great man.

It was an excellent experience, more than we hoped for during our election trip to the USA. Gay, who is much less interested in politics than I am, was clearly exhilarated by it all. It was so different than anything we have seen in the various countries in which we have lived. It brought back to me the period of my own pretty intensive involvement in politics and could only have been bettered by seeing Barack Obama himself, a clearly remarkable individual and also the best orator I have seen (not in the flesh) for many a long year.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Other Big Walks 1 – Dr Barbara Moore.

I am currently in USA, having spent the last 4 or 5 days in transit. This has curtailed my walking somewhat. In fact it has cut it down by 100 per cent during that period. I hope to be getting back on the exercise trail tomorrow, although, as previously reported, for our 2 weeks in USA I expect to be doing shorter walks supplemented by other types of exercise.

In the meantime, it seems to be an opportune time to write the first of what will be an occasional series of posts about other big walks I have heard about and read about during my life, which may have played some part, conscious or otherwise, in giving me inspiration for VBW.

Recently I bumped into an acquaintance at a café in Limoux. When I told him about my planned walk and some of the matters I was having to consider, he said, “So you will be just like Dr Barbara Moore.”

In 1960, the British press carried daily reports about the progress of Dr Barbara Moore, who was walking from John o’Groats to Land’s End. For those who do not know, this is from the northern point of Scotland to the southern tip of England. She accomplished this feat in 23 days. The distance is 874 miles.

She went on in 1961 to walk across the USA from San Francisco to New York City, a distance of 3,387 miles, which she completed in 85 days.

One of the reasons the press were so interested in her was that she was a vegetarian. In those days vegetarians were even rarer than they are now, and most people believed that it would be impossible to live a normal life, never mind to undertake such a huge task as this, without a regular intake of good red meat. So the idea of this woman charging such a long distance on such a freaky diet really fuelled the public imagination, or at least that of the press. They probably spent every day waiting for her to collapse, needing a meat infusion.

But no, she walked with only nuts, honey, dried fruits and vegetable juice for her fuel. Even more startling were tales which seeped out of her actually being a breatharian. If you look up that word you will find that breatharians claim to do without food entirely and to assimilate what they need from the air.

Barbara Moore herself later claimed to have cut out food and to live only on flavoured water. More about this and other breatharians can be seen at the following website.


She said she would live to be 150. She did not, partly because she died as a result of a car accident during her travels in America.

She was not the first to walk from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, or the other way round. But the publicity which followed her turned the walk into a virtual industry. In 1960, not many months after Dr Moore’s effort, the holiday camp entrepreneur Billy Butlin organised a walking race to follow her route. There were more than 800 entrants, although rather less finishers.

There are at least two organisations catering for those wanting to make the attempt. Thousands have now walked this “classic” journey (which is now so common that it has its own acronyms – JOGLE or LEJOG, depending upon the direction), not to mention those who cycle it or use all sorts of other strange forms of locomotion, including skateboards. The walk has even been completed by a naked man.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Now, trumpeter, for thy close,

Vouchsafe a higher strain than any yet;

Sing to my soul - renew its languishing faith and hope;

Rouse up my slow belief - give me some vision of the future;

Give me, for once, its prophecy and joy.

Walt Whitman - Leaves of Grass

Saturday, October 25, 2008

How You Going To Get Your Nourishment In New York?

Another line from another song, of course, representing the anguish of mothers when offspring leave home to venture into the clutches of the outside world, where it will be impossible to get proper food.

Well, we are off to America tomorrow, via Gerona in Spain and a couple of days in UK. Rather than New York – the first city I visited in USA, more than 50 years ago, and several times since, we are heading to Evansville in Indiana, via Chicago and Nashville.

I don’t think we shall have any trouble with nourishment. Lorenzo, who together with his wife Jane, is our host, is a baker and former proprietor of an Italian-style restaurant. He loves to cook, he is good at it, and has no trouble matching our dietary requirements. Jane and Lorenzo are pictured above.

No, it’s not the availability of the nourishment, it is the quality and quantity of it. It is hard to resist good food, especially when living in the home of a food connoisseur, enthusiast and chef. If you wake up in the morning to the aroma of specially-baked muffins, bread, and other goodies, it would take a strong will and a degree of churlishness to say nay. Similar smells at lunchtime and dinner, accompanied by us having witnessed the effort going into the next meal, make it impossible to refrain.

The problem is counteracting this bounty, not to mention just keeping up some of our normal degree of fitness. In other words, how are we going to get enough exercise? It is out of the question, both because we shall be in an urban environment, and because of good manners, to disappear for 3, 4 or 5 hour walks. And we would be missing such good company!

I have asked Lorenzo to plan out a walk of 6 kilometres or so which I could do before the household is awake and functioning. Also, there are the famous “Lorenzo’s Ropes” (famous to us, anyway, and instrumental in our meeting this very good friend) to be used (more about that in a later post). We also have Masterclasses scheduled, from Lorenzo, in his dungeon, in the use of another form of exercise equipment new to us, or at least to me.

Our reason for going to America at this particular time is so that we can experience a presidential election at first hand. This is an interest of mine anyway, but this time the election will be historic, not only in seeing the end of the frightening Dubya era, but because, whoever wins, there will be either a black man as President, or a woman as Vice President.

Much as we would like to see Obama win, I have severe doubts about the willingness of Americans to put someone of his race in the White House. It is only just over a hundred years since Theodore Roosevelt lost the South, and a great deal of social and political clout, because he, the President, had invited a very distinguished black man - Booker T Washington - to dinner and discussion. Senator Benjamin R Tillman uttered this:
"The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."
Newspapers carried lurid headlines such as:
Roosevelt had to back off. He never repeated his "rash" actions.
All this happened in the year my father was born. A week may be a long time in politics, but a hundred years is a short time in history and in the changing of entrenched views. In my lifetime, lynching of black people has been a not very rare occurrence.

I am sure the US nation has moved on from there. But how far? We shall see.

Friday, October 24, 2008

M'aider, Can-U-Help?

The Voie Verte

The other day I walked again from Mirepoix to home. Not accompanied by Gay this time. Although she is now walking erect and not feeling like an old crone, her back is still very sore and she has to be cautious. She didn’t even go to her beloved yoga this week, never mind the aerobics.

I was walking on the Voie Verte again, which is the old railway line. This section of the way covers more than two thirds of the total journey of 30 kms. In 21 kms, before I stepped off the Voie Verte at Chalabre, I saw not a single person.

This morning I was again walking the VV, this time the rest of it, from Lavelanet to Chalabre, on my way home. I saw rather more people, two teenage girls jogging, and two post-teenage women walking their dogs. The temperature of 1 degree Centigrade may have had something to do with the number of people about.

I was struck by the peacefulness of walking on tracks like this as opposed to walking on the roads, although I am committed to doing the latter during VBW for reasons previously given. As you know, I would prefer to walk the whole route through France on the Grande Randonnées, but it would take too long. It would not be possible in the timescale I have set myself.

It’s not just the peacefulness, the quiet – apart from the blasts of gunfire which I would prefer to do without. But it is much better for the body, especially the joints, to walk off-road.

This Voie Verte is known to me because I live in the area. A stranger would not know it is there. And yet it is pretty much parallel to the roads and the distance for these particular walks would not be much different if I walked on the tarmac.

I am sure that on my way North there will be many instances where I could walk on a track without adding much to my distance, if only I had the local knowledge.

Now I know that there are many people in France who log on to this blog. Surprisingly, there are also very many in North America, but it’s the French viewers, or rather those living in France, or with knowledge of France, to whom I am about to appeal for assistance.

If you know of such tracks, intended for pedestrians, cyclists or horses, you can help me.

You don’t know my exact route? Neither do I yet. But if you draw a pencil line on a map from Caen to Puivert – if you can’t find Puivert on your map, draw the line from Caen to Mirepoix (Ariege), my intention is to go through my maps, planning a route on white D-roads which run as parallel as possible to that pencil line. I am hoping they will be quiet roads but I will not know until I try it. And of course it is always a good idea to get away from the danger of traffic if possible.

So you could not only give me peace or relieve my knees, you could save my life. If you know of a track which also sticks closely to the pencil line, I would like to hear about it and would be grateful to hear from you either via a comment on the blog, or as an e-mail to me at:


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Don't Go Down To The Woods Today

It was a cold walk today. I did the same one I described on October 8th, with the scrabbly and skiddy climbs. During the climb I removed my jacket, even though the temperature has markedly dropped after a few fine days, because walking vertically produces a lot of heat. But the most notable aspect of the walk was that when I came down from maximum altitude to the Col du Portel, and also came out from the woods at 600 metres, I was hit by a strong cold wind. I had to struggle to get the jacket on again, the wind being determined to take it elsewhere.

I was certainly glad of that jacket during the remaining 11 kms of the walk. I also wished that I was wearing trousers rather than shorts. But what struck me forcibly, especially after I lost it, was the amount of protection, from both wind and cold, afforded by trees.

I am talking here about forests, not the roadside man-hunting trees referred to the other day. I was also reminded just how much of this area, and of France generally, is covered in trees. This is a big logging area, one of many in France. I read a few years ago that there is now four times as much forest in France as there was at the end of the Second World War. That is very impressive. And much of it is deciduous, although there are plenty of the faster growing conifers, as elsewhere.

I don’t know whether I read that figure before or after the big storm of 1999, which felled colossal numbers of trees, as well as doing much other damage, of course.

Read this and weep, those who talk about the so-called “hurricane” of 1987 in England.

A few days before the turn of the Millennium (I acknowledge here, before I get lots of comments, that I am talking about the false Millennium which was generally celebrated worldwide on January 1, 2000, rather than the real Millennium a year later), on December 26th 1999, the hurricane Lothar hit France, Switzerland and Germany.

Lothar was the strongest hurricane for 1,000 years. It reached wind speeds of 150 kph in lower areas and 250 kph on some mountains. 92 people were killed in France and power was disrupted to 3,500,000 homes. 60% or roofs in Paris were damaged.

In France a total of 140,000,000 square metres of trees were felled by the storm. I read that the number of trees involved was 29,000,000. Or was it 290,000,000? With numbers like these, does an extra zero matter?

10 years worth of forest production was lost overnight, preventing access by foresters and hunters for months in many areas. Some resort towns did not open for business the following summer.

We experienced some of the aftermath of Lothar. Having heard nothing of it, because we had been in Mexico when it happened, a few months later we were staying at Brantôme, in the Dordogne, a favourite place. We were running in the woods, with which we were familiar, but which looked strangely different. As if a comet had landed, for instance. There were fallen trees everywhere. The interior landscape of forests known to us had changed markedly. And it was not just off the beaten track. There was much evidence of tree stumps by the sides of busy roads, giving a faint idea of the number of trees which must have fallen into and across roads. It must have been a terrifying night to be out in a car. Or anywhere over a very large area. People who had already been primed with dire predictions of what would happen a few days later, as the Millennium arrived, must have really believed that it had all come a few days early.

And their health and tempers would not have been improved much when the storm carried on the next day. Actually, it was another huge storm, name of Martin, which was continuing the work of Lothar. Two for the price of one, and no doubt even more dire tales about it being the beginning of a build-up to Millennium catastrophe.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Telegraph Road

There is a wonderful Dire Straits song of the above name in which Mark Knopfler sings about a man who walks 30 miles with a sack on his back. I am pretty committed to the 30 miles bit - or rather kilometres, but have always been wary of sacks on my back. I have a lurking lower-back problem which at times has resulted in complete paralysis. I also have damage to cervical vertebrae which means I once examined the immense Chartres cathedral only from ground level to a height of about 5 feet. Somehow, I think my back might revolt at carrying a full sized rucker.

I have made various attempts with smaller daypacks, in fact as a result, we have quite a collection of these. But I have not been comfortable with any of them, especially when cycling on hills.

However, early this year I made the acquaintance, in fact I made a purchase, of a daypack which does not continually remind me of its presence. Whether walking or cycling, I forget it is there, which is surely the ideal. It is the Deuter Speedlite 10/300. I think those numbers mean it will hold 10 litres of goods, and when empty, weighs 300 grams. I am so attached to the one I bought and used in New Zealand that I left it there for future use and bought another one when I arrived home. I have used one or other of them virtually every day since February and am convinced.

In it I normally carry a waterproof poncho (or 2 if Gay is with me) a small camera, a water bladder (not supplied), one or two water carriers in the side pockets if it is a hot day, a pack of sandwiches if I am going to be out over lunchtime, keys, identification (a legal necessity in France, as well as a sensible precaution), and a mobile telephone (similar sensible precaution for emergencies). There is still room to carry an extra layer of clothing, or to take off a layer and put it in as I heat up.

If you prefer to carry more, the range includes 15, 20 and 30 litre models

There is an excellent description and review at this website:


I bought mine on the web (web price £26) from:


Regarding the song "Telegraph Road", if you have often wondered what the masterful lyrics are about, see this for two very good explanations:


If you have never heard it, you have missed some marvellous guitar work, including a very long solo at the end (the track is about 12 minutes) and, as with most of Knopfler's song-writing, very clever and meaningful lyrics.

You can catch some of the solo (from a mature Knopfler) here:


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Les Platanes - Killer Trees

A picture taken during a recent walk. A very typical French scene, some would say a symbol of France – the long roads lined with platanes, or plane trees. But possibly not for much longer. War has been declared on the trees. This is because apparently they have the power to attack motorists, causing untold death and destruction.

An hour before taking this photograph I was sitting at a café overlooking the tiny market in Chalabre. Reading the local paper while eating my breakfast and preparing for the walk. Front page news was that almost a thousand plane trees are being removed, at the rate of 20 a day, on the admittedly dangerous, or at least accident-ridden, road from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary, the home of the Foreign Legion and Cassoulet.

Several other areas nearer to us, such as Limoux, also have planned tree-removal programmes. This is because, according to the newspaper, trees are involved in 7 out of 10 vehicle accidents.

This has been going on for some time, all over France, and many fear that it will ultimately result in the disappearance of this distinctive feature of the French countryside.

The trees were allegedly planted by Napoleon Bonaparte, or rather at his instigation, to provide shade for his troops as they marched merrily along to invade and subdue all the other countries of Europe. This is very likely a myth as the trees are known to have been prevalent before Napoleon was even a twinkle. Not to mention that, brilliant general though he undoubtedly was, it would have taken extraordinary foresight and planning to have ensured that the trees were up, mature and casting shade in time for his soldiers to benefit. Did he really plan his campaigns 30 or 40 years in advance?

I can confirm that there is a great benefit to the walker from the platanes, especially in the hot months. When I am driving along the same roads, I do not feel threatened by the trees. How can anybody in his right mind think that if a car hits a tree, the tree is to blame?

Of course there are campaigning groups trying to prevent this wholesale destruction of innocent trees. Bodies with names like “Arbres et Routes” and “Amis du Terre” (Friends of the Earth) have had some success in gaining the abandonment of some planned tree removals. Of course these groups claim that the answer should be in changing driver behaviour rather than destroying trees.

But there are other opposing groups, such as one called the Anti-Plane Tree Commando, who one night in recent years sawed down 66 trees on a minor road not too far away from here. The same group, believed to be composed of motorcyclists armed with chain saws, were already believed to be responsible for summarily executing 96 plane trees on another stretch of the same road.
So who will win this battle - the tree huggers or the tree thugs?
Well, one thing is for sure - the trees will not be among the winners. And with muddle-headed city hall - the bureaucracy - involved, the odds are definitely on the side of the thugs. In fact, I don't know why they are bothering, when the mairies are doing the job for them. And those b***ers never lose.
No, I don't know how long it will take, but it looks like the end of the road for the trees.