The Grottes de Bethharram

These are the Grottes de Bethharam. Some caves. First we took a little tour, so what we did was we listened to some automated voice that went into three different languages:
  • FrenchSmall French Flag

  • Dutch

  • Englishenglish
Unfortunately, English was last. There was a boat ride to so that was cool. And a train ride to! I liked the little bumps in the ceiling, and the little path that went between them, though it was not really a path. It was fun. We saw french caverns, and not just a boat ride through an underwater lake.

July 23: Everyone Wants to Go to Carcassone

Sunshine! When we woke up this morning we saw bright sky, little puffy clouds, and sun! I put every stitch of clothing on the line. That felt great!

After a furious round of emailing with the universe and staring at little pictures of Paris apartments on the Netbook, we decided to just go out into the world and hope that an apartment would somehow magically happen as we were driving. As it happened, one did, which meant that Dan got the email on his phone and had to drive to Wifi in order to log on and pay for it and get everything organized. All this fadoodling meant that we got on the road much later than we had hoped, but having a place to go to in Paris was pretty much worth it.

The plan for the day was to go to a cave in the morning and Carcassone in the afternoon. Carcassone was one of the places I most wanted to go to while in France, and I was really looking forward to it. I’d done my research; I was ready. But first, the cave. There are lots of caves to explore in the Pyrennees, but we let the kids sit with the brochures and pick out the one they wanted the most. Of course, they chose the one with the boat ride and the train ride involved, which happened to be not the one on the way to Carcassone, but they’d been so patient with all the Tour watching and waiting that we let them have their pick, and we headed to the Grottes de Battharam. I’ll write all about the Grottes de Batharram in another post, but for now I will just say that there was a LOT of climbing down, and the train ride was breathtakingly fast and the walls were breathtakingly close. Everything in France is more dangerous, less monitored, steeper, lower, and this cave was no exception. Whoever laid out the tour through the cave, 200 years ago or whatever, was insane. The end.

By the time we had gone to the cave on the secret shuttle, gone through the cave, and made it back to the car, many hours had passed, and by the time we got back on the road, it was later than I had envisioned it would be upon setting out for Carcassone. However, instead of spending the afternoon there, I thought we could maybe spend the evening there, eat dinner, meander around the Cite, and still see it. The GPS put us on the autoroute, which was perfectly fine until it was a complete standstill, at which point it became horrifyingly unfine. We waited, waited, and inched forward, until we saw that we were actually being shunted off the autoroute: it was completely closed for an accident.

Between the apartment emailing, the endless cave, and now the closed autoroute, it appeared to me that the universe was telling me I was not supposed to go to Carcassone. So we went to Auch instead.

We saw the statue of D’Artagnan, wandered around the cathedral which was under renovations, and ate dinner at a place on the square.

I ordered randomly (again) and ended up with a salad covered in sardines, or some other inedibly hairy fish. The second part of my food was steak tartar which was terribly unground, tasted strange, and had all kinds of weird little bits in it that I rejected. Dan greatly enjoyed his food, the kids were kind of meh about theirs, but in its favor, the restaurant had an enormous Great Dane puppy who was very personable and entertained the children warmly. So, that was dinner. I would not go back there again. In fact, I’m pretty sure I now hate all fish.

We drove home in the dark, packed up as much of our stuff as we possibly could, and prepared to head north in the morning.


le Tour de France

One of the many reasons we went to France is to watch le Tour de France. Le Tour de France is a cycling race that is really long, so they have to do it in stages, like one day they begin racing in Switzerland, believe it or not, and then they go again in another Swiss city, and then they actually start racing in France, and then on the last day, they end up in Paris! The one in Paris
involves going down the Champs-Elysees, like below. You can see the arc de triumph, or whatever it's called, and you can see the Eiffel Tower from where I was standing!

July 22: Asson and Croc Ball

Still raining. Everything that can be described as laundry was damp. I woke up to the realization that I had left our towels from the spa out on the line all night, and they’d been rained on and were now even more damp than they had been before. I felt so completely stymied by the laundry situation that I decided to just wash everything anyway, regardless of the weather, and hope for the best. So I did a couple of loads in the washer in the laundry room, and then draped it all over the house – the stair railing, the bathroom door, the actual drying rack that we found upstairs, etc. When the house looked like a laundry basket had exploded in it, I felt like I’d done what I could. I hung the towels indoors too.

For breakfast the children ate a cereal called Croc Ball. I don’t normally buy cereal that is made out of high fructose corn syrup and chemicals, back in the USA. I mean, that’s not to say I’ve never done it, because I certainly have, but I don’t make it a practice. However, the food in France, even the processed crap food, is so much better than the processed crap food in America that I thought I’d give their chocolately crap breakfast cereal a try. There was no HFCS. In fact, there were surprisingly few awful ingredients and it claimed to be made from whole grain. So, whatever. The other thing that was awesome about Croc Ball was that it’s called CROC BALL, that it had a picture of a retro Mickey Mouse on the front for no discernable reason, and that the children huffed it down by the heaping bowlful. I’ll even confess that at one point during the week we ran out of white milk (this was actually after I determined that what we thought was milk was actually the French equivalent of half-and-half) and I let Sadie eat her Croc Ball floating in the French equivalent of chocolate milk, which has the charming name Candy Up.

Croc Ball and Candy Up. Rawr! And those children were worried they’d have to eat snails! Yet another reason to love staying in Maubourguet: there’s a pool, a bunch of awesome dogs, and Croc Ball!

Today’s plan was to drive to the small town of Asson, where the Tour de France would be having a feeding station. We thought we’d get there mega-early and get a rock star parking spot, and the kids and I would hang out in the town while Dan went out to climb Col du Aubisque, which was one he somehow missed during L’Etape and all the rest of his climbage this week. We arrived in the town and it was pretty deserted, but we knew we were in the right spot because of the yellow official Tour de France “turn here” arrow signs. We parked right off the street, right next to a 90 degree turn, and Dan started getting ready for his ride and putting his bike together.

I had brought a big bag of snacks for the kids, and their video games, prepared for a possibly long and boring wait. However, we almost immediately met another American family, and while Dan went on his ride, the kids and I hung out with Yvette and Tim, and their daughter Tate. They were camped out under a small overhang across the street, waiting for the Tour in all their Livestrong gear, and the kids hit it off right away. Yvette and I chatted about all kinds of stuff, and the time flew by. Being in a foreign country for several weeks, you find yourself very relieved and excited to find someone who speaks your language, gets your references, and can give you some news of the “world” back home.

The kids and I took one trip down the road to get hot chocolate and coffee at a little neighborhood bar/sandwich shop/candy store that looked like it might have also sold fishing bait and knives.

They seemed unaware of the Tour de France and unimpressed by the fact that they’d be getting a lot of business that day. Later I went down to use the bathroom and heard a British girl give an order for thirty sandwiches. What kind? “Mixed.” Rrrr-kay. That particular sandwich counter has probably not had a more lucrative day before or since.

Pretty soon Dan came back, having been able to climb Col du Soleur but not the other one. By this time traffic was closed and the street was starting to fill up. Across the street from us, a gang of rowdy German kids were dressed up like Mexican banditos, and the usual festive atmosphere that precedes the Tour’s arrival took over the town. Yes, it was raining and chilly and kind of miserable, but everyone was cheerful. Here's a picture of some goofy fans that kept singing boisterously:

Tate played so graciously and patiently with Sadie, so Sadie wanted to stay with her, but Benny and I went up the road a little bit to try and scoop up the maximum amount of swag from the caravan. He brought his American flag, and by the time the official vehicles were coming through, we were sort of between two heavy concentrations of spectators, in a great spot for hats, candy, etc.

The Etap float was passing out rain ponchos. We scored some mini sausages for the Chihuahuas at home. Benny alternated jumping up and down like a lunatic and then running for stuff, sharing nicely with another little boy who was there with his grandpa to see the Tour. No English, but you don’t need language to say “I got the last one, you take this one.” I’ve been talking a lot to Benny about how he’s representing not only himself and his family, but also his country. I hope a little of that is sinking in.

After the caravan, we went back to check in with Dan, and then headed back up the road to wait for the cyclists. We were hoping we’d see them with their food bags and getting water bottles from the cars, etc. Benny and I climbed up on a stone wall beside the road so that he could wave his flag without murdering anyone accidentally.

He gets very enthusiastic with that flag, and I could just see him clotheslining someone in the race and making international coverage for all the wrong reasons. With Benny high on the wall and me up there to keep him from falling off, I had little hope of us catching a bottle, since they usually land in the ditch. However, one of the Garmin guys threw a bottle straight at Benny, which was very exciting – maybe he saw the American flag. Unfortunately the ground up behind that wall was knee deep in brambles and thick undergrowth, so while we were hunting around for the bottle an Australian dude jumped up and started hunting too, and he found it first. All’s fair in collecting Tour de France refuse, but I do know that the Garmin rider sent that bottle straight at Benny, and I guess that’s pretty cool in itself.

After the race, we said goodbye to our new friends, and then we had to wait until the barricades came down so we could get the car out. After that we sat in a bizarre traffic jam in a nearby town, the result of rerouted trucks trying to get through tiny alleys because of Tour-related road closings.

Dan had been seeing these posters around the little towns advertising the Tour’s 100th year in the Pyrennees. It was a retro style poster showing a woman on a bicycle ascending Col du Tourmalet in front of a bunch of angsty men. The woman in the poster was supposed to be some woman that went up the mountain on a geared bike as a demonstration of the effectiveness of gears, while all the men were riding fixies. Anyway, Dan had decided he could not leave the area without this poster, so we took advantage of our stuck-ness to investigate some local bookstores and presse stores, but no luck. Even the tourism office had nothing for us. Eventually we went to the main tourism office in Tarbes and they gave Dan two copies of it, which was awesome! Very satisfying.

After extracting ourselves from the Tour traffic, we flew homeward to catch the rest of the Tour on TV. We got to see Contador and Schleck battle it up Tourmalet in the mist with incomprehensible French commentary, and while I wish Schleck had been able to get away from Contador on that climb, I do enjoy the Specialized commercial that came out of their rivalry. Speaking of French commentary, there’s this really whispery, throaty guy who always sounds like he’s right beside a golf green trying not to disturb a putt. Having listened to him on the radio for many stages, Dan finally saw him live and reported that the reason he sounds like that is because he’s completely ancient.

For dinner, we intended to try a restaurant in Maubourguet that our hosts had recommended, but when we arrived they were not open yet. I scooted into the Petit Casino grocery store and picked up a few supplies and made dinner at home. More St. Marcellin cheese and ravioli in the grocery store, but instead I finally decided to try some of the strange, irregular saucisson that we’ve been seeing all over France. It looks like it’s wrapped in paper and covered in flour, and I’ve been curious about it since we arrived. I bought one and Dan and I ate some of it; turned out a lot like summer sausage but maybe a little spicier and a little stranger. I’ve seen people at stages sitting there with a knife and a sausage just eating away at it – I guess I can see doing that, but it’s a little too wild for my taste. Tastes like it might be partially made out of wildebeest or something. Definitely more gamey than your average Pepperidge Farm.

The laundry was still damp at the end of the day. I put the towels back through the washing machine and washed everything else. Now most of our clothes were wet and we had no guarantee that there would be sun in the morning. I saw visions of us rolling into Paris with a suitcase full of wet clothes. Oh, but wait. We still had no place to stay in Paris, thanks to Michael Padnos and his double booking. In spite of trying earnestly to book something with some agent who was in Hawaii, and various other efforts, we had no luck. Wet clothes, no home for next week, Schleck owned on Tourmalet, and all kinds of bad news coming in from home. Dark days in Gascony.


The Alps

These are the alps. We did all sorts of things here, like cycling, going to the bakery, stuff like that.
Dad did a lot of cycling. He climbed a huge mountain, that reached CLOUDS! And guess what, he got from bottom, to top. I even filled my pockets with euros and went to the bakery all by myself. I said "Bonjour madame. Je veux drey deux baguettes sil vous plait." (Hello miss. I would like two baguettes please). I got two baguettes for €2.00 (€=euro) did you know one euro is worth like a buck sixty? It's true. In France, instead of having the currency symbol at the beginning, it's at the end. (e.g. 1.00$, 1.00€, 1.00£, 1.00¥ [¥=Japanese Yen, and £=British Pound.]). Oops, I was so busy talking about money, looks like we are at the end of this post.

July 21: Aquensis Spa, La Mongie in Clouds, and the Children Acquire Berets

I had decided to do laundry on this day. However, we woke up to find it was cold and cloudy. Since it had been so sunny all the while we’d been in France, I hadn’t had to deal with the issue of line drying clothes in the rain. I decided to just wait and hope for better weather. Our host later told me that she had a dryer in the house I could use if I needed it – but at the time I was pretty stymied by the whole laundry situation. I will never again take for granted my giant washing machine and giant dryer, and the way they plunge along ruthlessly through the laundry without regard for the weather at all.

Our trip plan said “Sight Seeing” on this day, but we’ve discovered that Dan, in the presence of epic mountains, isn’t really happy unless he’s either climbing or just climbed a mountain. Since I had a sight-seeing objective that coincided with a giant mountain, we decided to split up. Bagneres-di-Bigorre and other places around the Pyrenees have pushing up thermal springs and baths for thousands of years, to the appreciation of everyone on back to the Romans. So, not being the sort to shun any kind of Roman experience, I decided to take the kids to a spa for the day. We chose “Aquensis” which I will talk about in another post. Suffice to say after a bit of eye-popping with some co-ed showers and changing situations, we spent an incredible two hours.

As we were changing, Dan called to say he had reached the summit of Tourmalet and there was no way he was coming all the way back down because he was freezing! I let him know we were on our way, and we rushed out to the car, mounted up, and headed up the mountain. As much terror as I experienced on Sunday driving up that mountain, I definitely experienced at least ten times more this time. First of all, the Tour de France had just come through the day before and was about to come through again the following day. This means there were people parked everywhere, shoved into every nook and cranny on and off the road. Secondly, there was a fine mist in the air that turned into fog as we ascended, and finally turned into an actual cloud toward the top. I looked at Dan’s pictures later from the very summit, and he was *above* the cloud, in the sunshine, up at the top. I was driving up through the cloud, along with fifty thousand cyclists and a lot of other people.

On a bright sunny day with maximum visibility, I have a hard time passing cyclists on these mountain roads. They’re climbing, so they’re going very slowly, some VERY slowly, but there is hardly any shoulder, and anyway they shouldn’t have to get off the road. However, in order to pass them, you really have to get pretty far into the other lane, and with the twists and turns and especially in the deep fog, it’s pretty hard. I did pass some, but some I admit I crawled along behind for a while, until I could be positive I was okay to pass. I got a parade of cars behind me, but I’ve stopped caring about that. Dan has more of a sense of obligation to the guy behind him than I do. I only have an obligation to myself not to kill anyone, and enraging people doesn’t cause them to die.

Finally, finally, we made it to the top. What a different scene La Mongie was from on Sunday when it was so hot and bright! The city was literally in a cloud, and people were marching around in parkas and long pants, peering through the fog, walking at a leisurely pace down the center of the road. I passed Dan in the fog without knowing it, finally gave up on a parking place and pulled over in front of some campers (becoming a habit for me in La Mongie apparently). We finally met up with Dan, who had some wild story to tell about meeting Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin from VS. channel’s Tour de France coverage. Dan was BLUE. But happy.

We came down off the mountain, and headed home, first stopping in Campan. Campan is a town famous for its lifesize puppets that decorate the balconies, porches, and various other locations around town. They were in the process of having some kind of a festival, so we stopped to try and find something to eat.

Of course, all the restaurants were closed. However, I did investigate a local market where I found the children BERETS. Now they are real Gascons. We ended up eating dinner at home after poking into the market for a few provisions. Violin practice, bed, and more Victor Hugo for me.


July 20: Garmin Girl on Col du Aspin and Bad News from Michael Padnos

The plan this morning was to meet in Arreau, climb up Col du Aspin, and watch the Tour de France come by. Dan was to leave on his bicycle, ride around this or that way, and meet us on the side of the mountain. I’ll leave it to him to blog about how that turned out for him, but for us it went this way:

Our first order of business was to get gas. This is something I had not done on my own without Dan before, and due to the unpredictability of “carte refusee” and the unlikelihood of someone being around to accept your cash, I was very stressed. We pulled into the gas station, I popped the lever that opened the gas tank (I thought) and then was bemused when I still had to open the tank with the key. Oh well, whatever, I had other things to think about, like whether the guy was going to accept my card or take all my cash. I pumped the “gazole” into the Peugeot, and paid the dude (in cash, the card did not work). Then I punched Arreau into the GPS and she began to navigate me there. I was someplace on the Autoroute when I realized the hood was flapping. Oh, I see. That was not the gas tank release lever I flipped, it was the hood release! Woops. Stopped on one of the many emergency pull-off places and fixed it. Carried on.

There was no problem in finding the town, but the problem came in that over a kilometer from the town, there was already a solid line of cars parked on both sides of the road. We pushed on a bit until we could see that there was no hope, then we turned around and parked half off the road in a long line of other cars parked half off the road. We unloaded our flag, our umbrella, our bottles of water, our snacks, and started to hoof it toward town. Up the mountain, we could see one of the switchbacks, and we saw the very beginning of the Tour caravan passing up there, tantalizingly just out of reach. This motivated us strongly to continue, as we knew that the slap bracelets, the madeleines, the Skoda hats were flying. Sadie and I clasped hands and ran for the turn, then started making our way up – we coincided with the caravan just as the tires were passing, so the kids were able to jump for lots of swag, and were happy.

We carried on up the hill until we found a nice shady spot on a steep stretch of road, and decided to stay there.

Sadie and Benny were marching around – Benny climbing the hill on the other side of the road, Sadie puttering around on the side with the drop. I knew she was okay, but I experienced one of the numerous times in France that I would be told by an older person to mind my child. They do it with kind sternness, as if to say, I don’t mean to yell at you, but… The first time it happened, I was in a rest stop and Sadie was standing right inside the door, where if it opened quickly, she could get bumped. An older lady tapped my arm and said, “Attention,” and then rattled off a bunch of French with enough gestures that I understood what she meant. I can’t remember all the episodes of this behavior but I know it’s not done in nastiness. For people with very few safety controls and a surprising amount of freedom around physical dangers, they are very vigilant of children, and have no problem telling you to watch yours. I didn’t mind it at all – the tone was maybe what you’d expect of your grandmother if she was telling you the same thing. Anyway, this old guy came over and explained to me that Sadie could fall down the hill if I didn’t watch her, and I thanked him and made her sit down until he finally went on up the road.

The now familiar vehicles came rolling by, and Sadie had something cool happen. She was wearing orange and bright blue, and whether it was the color or just a nice gesture, one of the Garmin support vehicles slowed down and tossed her some slapping tubes which matched her outfit. That was awesome!

Benny ran with the riders, and Sadie and I stood and yelled.

I am developing my technique of holding the camera away from my face in order to take pictures; that way I can see what’s happening and still take pictures. We stayed until the last, last guy rolled past, including one guy that looked like he’d been attacked by wolves, with his kit hanging around him in tatters. When the fin route guy had gone by, we began trudging back down the hill. By the time we made it all the long way back to the car, we’d heard from Dan several times. He got stuck on the other side of Col d’Aspin, and was waiting to finish ascending so he could descend. In the mean time, I had to move the car, because it wasn’t technically in an actual parking spot, or even off the road, and the roads were going to open. So I moved it, drove around a bit, drove back and parked in a more reasonable position, and we waited for Dan.

After Dan got packed up and we got on our way, we realized it was 3pm, and none of us had eaten anything since an early breakfast. We made several attempts to NOT eat at McDonald’s, but the restaurants were closed and the cafes were only serving drinks. If you’re hungry at 3pm in France, there are few options for hot food besides cooking it yourself. I think if I lived here, I would get used to this rhythm, and be able to plan our days better. However, in the USA, there are very few restaurants that close between lunch and dinner service. In France, there are almost none that stay open. If I wanted to open a business in France, I’d open a restaurant that serves a variety of choices for children (apart from ground beef patty or baked salmon) and is open from 1pm to 7:30pm. The truth is that kids just can’t always wait until 7:30 to eat. At least mine can’t.

Back at home, the kids swam again, practiced their violins again, and rolled into bed. Dan and I, on the other hand, had a shocking bit of news to comprehend: we got an email from the guy who had done our booking for the apartment in Paris. He took our money, accepted the booking, but never confirmed it. Well, turns out he double booked it, and we received an email saying “I’m sorry, I can’t honor your booking.” As in, you’re arriving in Paris in four days, and you have nowhere to stay. Sorry! Michael Padnos, you are on my list. Michael Padnos, you gave us a bucketful of stress. Michael Padnos, by losing track of us while letting us think we were all set, you delivered three days of awful maneuvering – chasing Wifi through the countryside while trying to climb mountains and see the Tour, fussing over pictures of this and that apartment, and in general tearing our hair out. Thanks. Sitting on the terrace, bent over the Netbook, staring at little pictures of two bedrooms, one bedrooms, filling out email forms to this and that rental agent… not the most romantic evening that I have ever spent. Merci!


July 19: Recovery Day and the Strange Little Gutters of Maubourguet

Morning came too soon. We were all in a daze. Fortunately we had not planned anything for this day, because we were unprepared physically and mentally to do anything but wander around bumping into things. The kids were finally able to explore the grounds of La Camellia, meet the dogs, splash in the pool.

I began reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I also took a walk by myself, taking pictures of the town, finally able to see it in the daylight. There are palm trees! Here are some photos from around Maubourguet:

After lunch, Dan went on a bike ride, and the kids and I went on a walk in search of a playground that our host had described to us. We were unable to find it but we did find a lot more of the town, including some massive, interesting pine cones that the children just had to pick up (maybe they were cedar cones?).

We also noted that some water from L’Adour was diverted into canal gutters throughout the village. Each driveway or sidewalk crossing was a little bridge over these tiny canals, and we found they were full of the most interesting life forms – little snake/worms, snails, fish, and all kinds of stuff.

When we got back to the house, the kids went into the pool again, and I got in with them, until it was time to go to dinner. We showered, got dressed, felt a little peppier, and headed into town to the brasserie on the main street, where we ate under a canopy of trees. The food was perfectly respectable, if mildly unexciting, but the children were completely enchanted with the fact that they had something resembling a cheeseburger and something resembling chicken nuggets. At this point, two and a half weeks into our trip, I am unwilling to even silently begrudge my kids any level of comfort food they can find. And I’m just happy when they can eat something. I like to adventure a bit with my food, and they don’t. Both of them have been unexpectedly brave with regard to food on this trip, at different times. And I’m not going to push it. Simple.

When we got done eating, we went home and the children practiced their violins for the dogs, outside their kennel. I don’t know whether the dogs appreciated it or not, but I certainly enjoy hearing the children play their instruments in all these different settings. And that was it – a day of recovery for all of us.


July 18: L'Etape, Col du Tourmalet, and Inappropriate Footwear

At 4am, every alarm clock in the universe went off. My phone, Dan’s phone, the kids DSi alarms, all commenced chirping and tweeting and caroling and blaring. Having slept for about two hours, I found myself standing in the middle of the room, gaping like a skewered cod, in my underwear. I flew into action prepping Dan’s breakfast and he flew into action eating it, getting his bike together, and getting dressed. Without internet, we had no way to research the packet he’d picked up from the L’Etape registration. The packet was in French, naturally, and had maps and info that would have made a lot more sense in the context of the wise and wonderful internet. Since we had no such thing, we had to fall back on our rugged sense of adventure. Which doesn’t come with a map of Pau.

In the car with sleeping children at about 4:40, we set off for Pau. We still had not seen Maubourguet in the daylight, at this point. Boinging and rocketing along these lumpy foothills, we found a couple more cars with bikes strapped to the back, also making their way down to L’Etape – exciting! In downtown Pau, we parked near the Hippodrome, where we’d been last night, and figured out with the GPS that the start was about 1km away. Dan put his bike together, got ready, and set out, leaving me with the car and a vague idea that I’d head up to the top of Tourmalet (yikes) and see the finish.

I decided to brave our way down to the start, because the idea of 10,000 bicycles in one place just had me too curious to resist. I knew they were lining up around Beaumont Parc, though I didn’t realize they’d also be snaking around all the way down around the riverside, which was where Dan was. I put Beamont Parc into the GPS and got as close as I could before I ran into the road blocks and gendarmes.
Pau was completely mystical, dawn just coming up grey and chilly, and these silent herds of cyclists floating around the city streets. In the roundabouts, the boulevards, gathering under irrelevant traffic lights, in their brightly colored jerseys and dark arm warmers, they went skimming toward the start. All the faces were a little bit tense. All the jaws a little bit clenched. There was no way I could have picked out Dan in that sea of nerves and translucent jackets. Consider: 10,000 bicycles. I’m not kidding.

After we parked on the sidewalk we walked down to the park, shivering a bit in the cold. Now it was light. We stood on the railing, immediately after the starting gate. French TV was interviewing someone right under the starting gate, and there was an announcer walking around with a microphone, announcing things in French. We could see the lined up riders stretching around the park, and that was it. I had no idea, at that point, exactly how many bikes there were.

As we stood there freezing, Benny mushroomed down on the grass under his hoodie, and a British lady standing there was tickled by how he looked and took his picture. Then she apologized to me for taking my child’s picture, and showed it to me. Of course, I didn’t mind. We chatted about the ride – she is an owner of a B&B near Pau and had some riders staying with her, so she gave them a ride down to the start. As we were chatting, a young woman approached us asking if we were from VIP tours or some other sport tour group. Her boyfriend was in the ride, and she had been planning to get a ride up to La Mongie with these tour-related people and was trying to find them. I immediately offered to give her a lift myself, as it was just her and her backpack, and I knew the next eight hours were going to be long and deadly, and I could use the company.

With a flurry of French announcing, the ride began. I thought I would video the riders going by, maybe catch Dan on camera, and give everyone a sense of how many there were. But after a few thousand riders, I felt like everyone would have stopped watching the YouTube video. It just went on and on. I sent Benny over to the actual starting gate to spot Dan, but his number was 5981, which meant approximately five thousand cyclists went past me before he did, and I missed him. Benny said he saw him though, so that made me feel better, as if he was safely off. We waited until the bitter, bitter end of the starting riders, including a couple of poachers that tagged themselves onto the end.

At that point, I turned to my new little friend the stranded British girlfriend, and we made our plans. Our first objective was to get to La Mongie, find a big TV on which to watch L’Etape, and then to climb up to the summit and see the riders coming over. We knew it would take at least five hours for the fastest guys to make it through, but we decided to go ahead and start right away. Learning what I have about parking on mountaintops, it never hurts to be early, even ridiculously so.
Ruth turned out to be a charming companion. She hit it off immediately with the children, and had such a lovely, lilting voice – she should be doing aromatherapy commercials. Turns out she is a grad student in psychology back in England, and lives in Cambridge, so we had lots to talk about on the way up the mountain. This took my mind off the agony of driving up little rickety mountain roads until we got close to La Mongie, where people were already parked for the Tour de France to come through this road in two days. That was a little sketchy. Had I been by myself with the kids, I probably would have been hyperventilating. However, with Ruth announcing merrily that we were fine, just fine, I managed to keep my heart rate within survivable parameters. I am sure she will make a great shrink, if that’s the direction she wants to go.

Arriving in La Mongie, we found absolute madness. Madness. We drove up through this ski resort town / cycling mecca without finding a single place to park – it was all clotted up with campers, cars, and people walking around with no regard for the traffic. We located some people in red shirts that said “Organisation” and they, unfortunately, were deeply committed to us hurtling over a cliff. And fast. They perceived that we wanted to park, and I guess they were doing their best to create parking spaces where none existed, but when I say to you that they were trying to park us on the side of a mountain in the middle of a cow pasture, after first passing through a deep ravine, I am not creating a fiction.

I tried to resist but the man shouted at me in French, and most of the words were “Allez!” which means “Get your ass down in that ravine, lady!” When we reached the bottom of the ravine and figured out that the plan was to scale the other side of the gully on grass and then park on a 45 degree angle in a slick of cow poop and loose shale, we rebelled. We left the van in front of a couple of campers and hoped no one would mind. We haven’t yet run into anyone who minds in the least when you park in some bizarre location.

We climbed up onto the main street, found a grocery store and bought some food, and then located the giant TV screen on which we expected to watch L’Etape. Turns out they were only prepared to televise the finishers, and all we kept seeing on the TV was Tour de France footage. Fortunately we had food, coffee, an available bathroom, a nice sunny table, and the kids had a beautiful little stream to play in and actual loose donkeys to avoid. When I say the donkeys were loose I mean they were completely uncontained donkeys just roaming around through the cafes and open areas, munching on people’s stuff, food or otherwise. Sadie came bouncing up to me asking for some baguette – which I gave her. She ran off to feed the donkeys! I thought they looked pretty shrewd and opportunistic, and potentially dangerous, but the kids reassured me that it was only one of the donkeys that was trying to bite them. Well WHAT a relief. While waiting, we also bought a marmot for Sadie and a Pyreneean bell for Benny to ring.

We let Benny run up this nearby slope -- can you find him?

At about 12:30 we decided that they were never going to show us the actual race on TV, even though we’d been told by several people that it was a very big deal and would definitely be televised. We thought we’d better head up the mountain and get in a good spot to see the riders start finishing. We marched back up as far as the car, and retrieved our shade umbrella, American flag, and also our jackets, just in case. I also had the food I’d bought, two Coca Lights, a huge bottle of water, and Benny’s iron bell, and of course Sadie’s marmot which she managed to carry on her own. Ruth was also toting food, water, orange juice, and a change of clothes. We had this concept that once we got up on the mountain, it was going to be a frozen, barren wasteland, and we’d be sitting there for approximately six hours. So we loaded up and set off up the hill.

If you put your two index fingers together to make a mountain, then La Mongie is located at the smallest knuckle of your left finger, and the cyclists are climbing up your right finger. All we had to do was climb up that last little bit to the summit, and we’d see the riders coming over from the other side. Unfortunately to make that finger demonstration accurate, you’d have to create a bazillion switchbacks in both your fingers, so that the actual distance from your smallest knuckle to the tip of your finger was several yards. Straight up. We soon figured out that our brisk hike up the mountain was going to be a long drag up the mountain. And hot. Did I mention I was carrying everything on earth, including an iron bell? Ruth offered to carry some of my crap, but I felt like if I was fool enough to bring it all along, I better be fool enough to carry it. Here's Ruth having an orange juice -- can you see how steep the terrain is?

Soon I realized that if I made the children eat the food I had brought, the bag would be lighter, so I began pushing fruit urgently. Sadie ate two bites of an apple and decided it wasn’t to her liking. Lo and behold, what should be wandering across the road but a herd of cattle? Fierce, agile mountain cattle, I might add. One of them was sporting a massive bell around her neck, and the rest were packing horns. Nevertheless, I allowed Sadie to feed the remainder of her apple to one of the cows that had a baby at her side. Anything for a nursing mother, right?

At some point after the cattle, we realized that it was taking a really bloody long time to climb that hill, and that four kilometers was really a very long way to go. I think it was about the time the first finisher came through on his descent, and it hit us that the racers could potentially beat us to the top. Well, they did. A lot of them. We found a little road that would lead us down through the ravine and then directly up on the other side, bypassing a few of the switchbacks and taking us straight up the mountain.

This seemed like a great idea, until we got done with the “down through the ravine” part of it and to the “straight up the mountain part.” Did I mention I was wearing black leather sandals? And carrying everything I could find? My footwear were so inappropriate, even the footwear of the other hikers on the mountain paused to chuckle at me. We took a lot of stops, pausing by this or that clump of goat poop and thistle to breathe heavily and gasp at how far we had come and how far we still had to go.

At some point Ruth took up the chorus, “We’re so close! We’re nearly there!” and that somehow deeply inspired the children, who climbed the mountain like regular goats, especially Sadie. Benny did spend a bit too much time pining to be able to climb a nearby slope with snow at the top, but as it was completely composed of loose rocks and certain death, especially to a boy in sandals and shorts, I said no. Again and again. No matter how the question was posed to me, I still said no, and yet Benny had time on that mountain to pose the question in at least forty-eleven thousand different ways. Here's a picture of me. Behind me is the brown mountain that Benny wanted to climb:

I’ve found that Benny, when faced with something very enormous and overwhelming, like for example this mountain, he will fixate on some one very tangible issue, and worry it to death. I saw him do it during our week in the Alps too – he was so fixated on how he was going to make a diorama of Paris that I nearly had to stuff him into a well. I would repeat, very clearly, looking straight at him, “We are not going to make a diorama of Paris while we are in France. We would not be able to pack it in the suitcase. It would get smashed. We will make it when we get home.” And then he would say “Right, right, I get it. You’re right.” And then in five minutes he would be talking about something he is about to put into his diorama, as soon as he starts it, and when can he start it? Maddening, and yet, I understood that it was the way he dealt with the enormity of what he was experiencing.

No words or pictures can express how steep and long that climb was up that lousy mountain. We had to stop and reward ourselves with diet Coke twice – by this time we were past any modesty or niceties and were passing around the diet Coke can indiscriminately, while begging Benny to drink the water so we didn’t have to carry it. The children were both in love with Ruth and I was so thankful for her assistance. She and Sadie were skipping from rock to rock, holding hands, chirping pleasantly to each other – if it had not been for her, I am fairly sure Sadie would have been demanding to be carried by that point. Ruth is great with kids – she’ll be a great mom. Meanwhile we kept spotting riders descending the hill, and we were motivated upward by the idea that Dan or her boyfriend might crest the hill and we might miss it.

Finally, after many soul-searching moments and much water consumption and a few reapplications of sunscreen, we arrived at the road.

Then it was a brief trudge up the last stretch to the summit. When we got there, it was a madhouse! Huge clumps of cyclists, lots of spectators swarming the rocky peaks, and a restaurant with ice cream, water, and diet coke! And it was hot as blazes up there. So, I felt like a regular ass for dragging all that stuff up the hill, but there we were. Ruth got Sadie an ice cream, I got us diet Cokes, and we felt like we’d really done something. We toasted to “We’re so close!”

Benny almost immediately disappeared into the crowd, and later resurfaced waving his flag on the tallest peak, completely unsafe, giving me a heart attack, and absolutely happy.

Dan had said that eight hours was the longest he thought it would take him to get up the hill, and we arrived at the top just before the eight hour mark. Of course on the way up, I had spotted a few people coming down that looked like Dan, but they were so far away that I couldn’t be sure. So, I got the camera ready and prepared to take his picture coming over the line.

The spectators were rowdy and awesome. They cheered politely for everyone, but foamed and raged uproariously for any of the following groups:

Old people
People who were barely making it and looked about to die.
People who were sprinting and hurtling majestically over the line.

But the biggest crowd pleasers were the guys (women did not do this) who fist-pumped and tried to work up the crowd and get a response. People went nuts for them. “Allez! Allez! Allez!” all the live long day.

I stood there waiting, camera in hand, as the eight hour mark went by, then with every passing minute I got more and more convinced that Dan had been dashed on the rocks. I was hoping, waiting, hoping, waiting, and then the phone rang. My heart sank – I would hear some French emergency room worker garbling at me about how his head was only partially severed, did I want them to try and save it?

But it was DAN. And he was fine, and on the other side of the summit, wondering where I was. Yes, in point of fact, he did come over in eight hours, and I had missed him crossing the line somehow! On the one hand, it was a big “You have got to be kidding me” moment, but on the other hand, I was kind of proud of myself for dragging my ass up that mountain. We made our way down. It had taken us 2.5 hours to ascend, but took us only one hour to descend.

Back at La Mongie, we met up with a very tired, very happy Dan, and packed back into the van.

After a heinous traffic jam around the little towns on D918, we made it back to 817, which took us back to Pau, avoiding some awful traffic on the Autoroute. We said goodbye to our friend Ruth and dropped her back downtown Pau, then dragged ourselves back to Maubourguet where I fed us, watched some French news for news of L’Etape, and we fell into bed. Wary of the feather duvet and pillows on the big bed, I slept with Sadie, which did not lead to an extremity of comfort, but as we were so tired, nothing mattered except closing our eyes.